Urdvadhanurāsana, Nuweiba, Sinai. Photo by Amal Ibrahim.
Today, as I lay on the treatment table for the second time with quite a special osteopath here in Sinai, I had such a powerful experience of synergy between my body receiving feedback, my mind tuning into that present moment, and my inhale allowing for that feedback to move into the body, while my exhale released tension and blockages out of my body. The good doctor seemed surprised at how quickly things were shifting. I feel, however, that ease in which my body can digest information is a product of the last 16 years of practicing yoga and of actively seeking a more holistic balance in my body, mind and heart. This human machinery, while imperfect–as evidenced by needing to see an osteopath in the first place, is actually well-oiled and working!
And I can’t help but want to share these thoughts:
Be astounded by the miracle that is the human body. It changes with quiet but consistent effort. It gets stronger, and more flexible with work and attention. It is communicative, sending signals when it needs either a push or more tenderness. It can also sound an alarm in case anything goes wrong. It can change shape while loyally holding one’s spirit. And It listens attentively, ready to absorb information (which is why we need to take care with what words and thoughts and images we feed it). It is ready to play and be a part the team.
I know that not everyone is going to feel the same, but I believe that the potential to have a vibrant connection to one’s body is always there and simply needs to be uncovered. The more we strip away at the layers (physical or not), the more the connection is enlivened. And while I do not claim to master that connection, I can say that I have felt enough of it to know that it is possible and truly amazing. The body is our vehicle for our lives and our experiences. We shouldn’t just love our body, we should adore it, take care of it, work on refining our connection with it.
I feel so grateful for the yoga practice because I didn’t have this kind of connection (or much at all) to my body when I started. I feel grateful for this practice of conscious breath, this embodying of self in different postures, and this tuning into stillness while in action. I feel grateful to meet genuine and well-learned healing professionals, who understand both the body and how to speak to the body. I feel grateful to be alive, to feel that I am still learning, still uncovering, still connecting, and that with every new adjustment there’s that little bit of extra opening for more yoga to happen.
Here in Egypt, summers can be tricky for yoga practice.Many of our students have moved for the summer to places like the North Coast or along the Red Sea, or are busily shuttling between Cairo for the working week and away to the beaches for the weekend. In our case, here in Mysore Zamalek, our program is closed for August. Summer routines can be famously routine-less in these parts. What to do when we don’t have the usual support for our self-practice? This year, I’l have been self-practicing for 15 years, most of it without a home shala or a regular teacher. I understand the challenges; it can really be tough and there will no doubt be dips and peaks to one’s practice. Here are some tried and tested tips:
Set Realistic Goals Be honest about what you can manage. Your yoga practice can also be flexible and bend with the changes and challenges in your life. If you cannot do your full practice, then do less. Adjust your expectations so that they can be realistically met.
Pair Up, Find a Yoga Partner There is truly strength in numbers. Find a friend or a family member who would like to commit to the same minimum amount of time that you would like to be practicing. Make dates, remind each other of your goals, encourage each other to simply keep on practicing.
Set Up a Regular Routine Finding the same time can help you stick to a healthy routine. If you have pockets of time in the morning, practice in the morning. If afternoons work best, then afternoons are best. If you can practice 3x a week, try to set a schedule for these days.
Make space Assign yourself a special practice space in your home, where you can lay your mat down the night before. Or simply get your things ready, clothes, mat and all for you the following practice date. Small acts like this remind us of our intention to practice.
Be Flexible Sometimes you will have to move your practice time, or maybe your practice location, other times you might have to do a shorter practice or switch a practice day. Don’t sweat it, practice teaches us different forms of flexibility and, often times, off the mat!
Practice Joyfully Have fun. Practice with a light heart. Don’t allow yourself to get stressed about practice, seek it out with a healthy outlook and you will surely want to meet it easily each time.
Take a Class, Any Class Really can’t practice on your own? Then take any class that’s available and works with your schedule. Yes, even if you’re a die-hard ashtangi. We take support wherever we can. And any yoga is better than none.
Wherever you are in your summer holiday practice, stay cool and simply do your best! And for our folks here in Mysore Zamalek: don’t worry, classes will start in a month, and the support will be there for you. Nothing is truly lost so long as you return to your mat. See you there!
Classes will resume Monday, September 5. Our regular schedule is Monday to Thursday Mysore-self practice 7:30-10:30am and Friday led class 8am and 9:30am. Mysore Zamalek is at Nūn Center, 4 Shafik Mansour, Zamalek, Cairo. Book your spot by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve gotten my fair share of emails and messages from both my own students and practitioners who don’t study with me asking for advice regarding training to be a teacher. I used to dread getting them, writing back with my honest feedback and feeling the slight awkwardness that ultimately I did not give a satisfactory answer. No, I don’t know so and so doing so and so TTC in fill-in-the-blank-idyllic-location. And, yes, I do think that if one wants to teach the traditional method of ashtanga yoga, that one should go to Mysore and study from the source.
Over the years, I have also had to reconcile my own unsettled feelings. I too, like many new teachers, took a TTC way before I was ready to teach. I’m glad I did it because it put me in the field of a great teacher and a great group of practitioners, which helped me get on track to developing a self-practice. Later, I assisted at another TTC for few years, which I don’t regret because it helped finance my early trips to Mysore and I also learned a lot from them. I have also been through my vigilantly–ironically so–anti teacher training phase citing my teacher’s ire for the commodification of yoga teaching. But I’ve also wondered, though, if it is enough to simply practice before your teacher, the way we qualify for the blessing to teach in Mysore.
Nowadays, I think there is a time and place for everything. And there are just so many roads leading towards yoga that it’s simply easier to celebrate them rather than being overly critical–emphasis on the “overly” because it is also ok to be critical. But, honestly, since I feel less dis-ease about it, I get approached a lot less on the topic and when I do I generally don’t feel bothered.
I am all for repopulating the planet with yoga teachers, however, I question the western mindset that often lead many down this path initially (myself, included). When we advance in our yoga practice, we look to the next level, and the next level for some appears to be teaching. And thus, we look for ways to become a teacher–and now there is a whole industry catering to this one desire.
What if we were simply more focused on being better students? What if we committed time, energy and attention to the daily study of yoga? What if we dove into it without expectation or desire for gain–which is kind of one of the defining factors of yoga in the first place? What if we trusted the teaching enough to lead us? Could we simply love the work without any end goal or certificate of completion? The study of yoga is endless. That’s what makes learning it so juicy, the nectar of the teaching just keeps on flowing. So long as you surrender to being a student! And, believe me, studying yoga will lead you somewhere and if you are meant to teach, if that is truly your karma, it will catch up with you.
Yoga In-Depth is my attempt to answer these questions. When I look back at the various yoga learning experiences that have enriched my life, whether it was working at a TTC or assisting in a mysore program or studying with my teacher in India, mentorship was present through all of these experiences and was a key to my yoga studies. I believe in this way of learning. I am so excited to start this new phase for our program. And it’s a real honor to go in this journey with a group of really dedicated practitioners.
If you are a dedicated ashtanga student with an established practice who is ready for more, please reach out to email@example.com and they can send you more information on the Yoga In-Depth Mentorship. We also have a ZOOOM Q&A on August 15, 12n. Message Nūn and they’ll send you the Zoom Invite. See you then!
In Ashtanga yoga, the postures are set and bundled in different series (6 in all), each progressing in difficulty. One of the great and difficult aspects about teaching ashtanga yoga is the responsibility of giving out postures, and the physical and mental gravity that this can sometimes entail.
It’s always wonderful to see a student grow and learn a new posture. In the beginning, teachers can be more liberal in the dispensing of postures, the foundational poses and the first half of primary series is much more about opening, purifying and healing the body. Perfection isn’t necessary (because it will come with more and more practice anyway), just stability and alignment enough to get through the postures safely. It’s already plenty challenging committing each new pose to memory to start with and the work of refining the poses happens daily.
For those who come to the practice with more available flexibility and steadiness or those who have no pre-existing injuries, moving forward may not be an issue. But for many, there will be a number of road blocks, “bottle-neck” postures that often slows the “progress” of practice down. There, we practice and wait for the appropriate opening or stability.
In a way, we are set up with a sort of catch-22, the practice often captures our attention by way of new postures, we feel empowered by learning new things, we feel great meeting and mastering new challenges and then it leads us to a place where we must perform a seemingly impossible task day after day. It can be frustrating or boring. I won’t lie, I’ve seen students so demotivated they never come back to class when they reach this point.
As a teacher, there is a lot to consider. Getting a pass usually means a student has performed the proper bind, as in the maricasan(s) or supta kurmasana. But sometimes getting into the posture is not aligned with really “getting” it.
And I often ask myself, can a student move onwards safely? Even then, there are different degrees of readiness. Everyone is so different, the practice is so personal, what is right for one person may not be right for another. There are lessons embedded in postures that will give students better access to postures later down the road. And the wait itself is a great austerity, or tapas, that teaches patience, humility, self-acceptance and love.
Very few students will learn the more challenging postures quickly—and that is a good thing! Good because we really learn when the lessons have taken hard work and time to get through. Likewise, understanding our own expectations is a big part of the psychological cleansing that happens when we practice and inevitably meet our ego.
There is an idea that there is a standard for each posture, and that’s part of the myth of the strictness of ashtanga yoga. Truth: there is no standard in the postures because there is no standard body, everyone is different, unique in their body and their approach. The way the method is shared largely falls in the hands of the teacher and in the community there are strict teachers and lenient teachers, there are some who are a little of both, and many who are strict with some but not others. (See what I mean by no standard!). I’m not saying there is no standard whatsoever, there’s is a standard in the philosophy, that being a thoughtful, honest and authentic person is what it takes to be a good yoga practitioner.
Personally, I want my students to move forward. But, over the years, “forward’ has changed for me. When I started teaching, thirteen years ago, I wanted students to be happy—and, of course, a new posture equates happy. The truth is the happiness of achieving a posture is temporary, especially if it comes with the risk of injury. And true happiness cannot be rushed or forced.
These days, I prefer to teach the yoga rather than the posture. Often, the pose also comes more easily when yoga, that precious equanimity of mind, body and breath, is more established. And when the posture takes it’s time or modifications become necessary the real yoga practice takes away the sting of being unable to perform one posture and we learn to move forward regardless.
Ashtanga yoga is a very efficient yoga practice, no effort is wasted, as long as the effort is correct and appropriate. The pauses when they come are a part of the flow, no stream runs straight to the sea, some moments will be more static, others like swift rapids.
Classes are ongoing in-person at Nūn Center and online over zoom. We meet Monday to Thursday 7:30-10:30 and Led Class at 8:30 on Fridays. New students must commit to the month program, this will allow us to establish the foundations of practice.
I was riffling through old photos—a past time I enjoy late at night these days when I’m so zapped from a day of parenting that all I can muster is a swipe of a finger–when I came across this one: spry little me (still in my early-ish thirties) being taken into one of these extreme and prized postures, chakra bandåsana or bound wheel posture. A rare piece of proof of what my body can do or, at least, what it could do prior to my pregnancy and the birth of my son.
We often have a long and deep history with certain postures, much like the way a relationship will have its different landmarks. I remember the first time and even the person who introduced me to it. And while I don’t know the name of the assistant, I remember her haircut and her smile and and my surprise whilst dropping back for that final one, her hands suddenly and deftly sweeping my fingers to my ankles. I had just arrived at the shala. I barely had a notion of the posture, I was still very much getting a handle on drop backs and had no idea that I could do something so crazy and exciting and exhilarating. That’s how green I was still on my first trip to Mysore, India.
Chakra bandāsana has marked different phases in my practice. At first, my innocence. Later, my rising ego. And, later LATER, my flailing ego. I remember the struggle when it was hard and the longing when it was impossible. I remember the deepest I’ve ever felt in it—with my teacher taking me up higher up my calves and encouraging me to hold it on my own—and how time seemed to just be both a split second and an eternity, everything softened, I felt so incredibly both in and out of body. I remember my disappointment when my teacher last stopped helping me in it, the last time I was in Mysore. I was on the edge of collapse, I felt so uncomfortable by the end of that trip. It was hard to reconcile the reality of my physical state and what my mind really wanted—it was one of the sharpest feelings of rejection I have ever felt.
Today, as I look at this picture, I feel like we are in a new phase, chakra bandāsana and I. Injury, pregnancy and the erratic and constant balancing act called motherhood have created a natural distance between us. We’re a little disassociated, though not unfriendly. It’s hard to say, perhaps we’ll get there again, that closeness, or perhaps not.
I do feel awe, that we “happened” together, that in our sum of experiences there were times that it felt steady, supported. I know that it taught me a lot about surrender and courage. But I also now feel how much of the drama I had about it was my own making, it was a big deal because I made it so, because I placed the importance in it, like so many of us ashtangis are prone to do.
And I still feel the possibility with this posture and with it the play between desire, acceptance and contentment. Without the luxury of having the time and the energy to put a hundred and fifty percent into practice the way I used to, yoga has taken this kind of lovely turn, that fabled detachment seems a lot less elusive, instead it’s practical and a matter of survival.
I have written in the past about the great opportunity of yoga that happens while catching. And it’s really nice if the posture is available to you as a practitioner. But for those of us for whom catching ankles is inappropriate, whether its in the short or long term, chakra bandāsana as the state of the posture is not unattainable. We can each work towards binding that precious circle of energy without being so very literal. There are innumerable ways to experience being truly in balance, truly rounded and in accord with ourselves. We can simply breathe out all the hard edges and soften into this wheel of concerted energy.
It’s funny how the yoga journey changes. I learned a lot getting into this posture, but I think I’ve learned even more unbinding myself from the physicality of it. The yoga, like my teacher often says, happens inside.
As covid19 cases rise here in Cairo and elsewhere, we are reminded of the fragility of life. While we aren’t experiencing any closures here in Egypt (and, hopefully, will continue to be open!), I thought this would be a good time to share my presentation for the Friends Of Ashtanga online conference that happened back in September about what I learned from teaching online.
For the teachers, students, and programs who have had to go back online or have stayed online this entire time, hats off to you. I know many students have decided to go at it alone or have parked their practice in the meantime. I just want to say that there are so may benefits to live instruction, even if its happening through a screen. AND If you can continue to come to class, no matter what format, do so, because your presence right now can really help keep a program alive.
When we paused live sessions here in Cairo mid-March, and moved classes online, I would never have imagined that I’d still be teaching on ZOOM in September. Six months—a crazy amount of time for life to be stalled so. The pandemic may have thrown us off our course, but it unified us also. Being globally connected has never been more apparent as we watched the news report of the spread of this novel coronavirus, first in China, and then in Europe, and then: the world. Over these months, we have connected over our worry, our suffering, our hopes, also. And we have connected by overcoming the obstacles that threaten to disconnect us.
When the WHO declared that covid19 was a pandemic, many mysore programs around the world, including my own, announced that they were migrating sessions online. In a matter of days, my Instagram feed was full of Zoom screenshots of students practicing, each in their individual 2-dimensional boxes—it was bizarre and unsettling how we all jumped online so quickly.
It seemed counter-culture, yoga online. We all love the potency of a room in flow, the steam rising off of moving bodies, that meditative hum of the collective breath. What is ashtanga if not a live, tactile, sensory experience, with students thriving from hands-on assistance?
Yoga, the Great Unifier
Now, in hindsight, I look at the movement online as a great example of yoga, we bent and adapted, we regained our balance and steadiness, we took a deep breath and just got on with it, one day at a time with as little drama as possible.
We went online because we needed the practice and we needed each other. Those early days of the pandemic were both surreal and extraordinary. I Facetime-d with my parents and sisters in the US and in Asia with uncharacteristic regularity. I took led class on Zoom with Sharathji in India through Miami Life Center. I chanted to Ganesha with Eddie Stern on Instagram Stories. I took part in a small online festival celebrating Yoga in Africa. And then, there’s today, Friends of Ashtanga—each of these are beautiful stories of connection.
The mainstay over these six months, however, was—and, is—mornings with my students. Our small community gathered to breathe through uncertainty and change, we stuck together to maintain some sort of normal. As a new mom, these mornings were a healthy anchor for life at home with a newborn.
We discovered together that the mysore format translates surprisingly well online. As individual practitioners, we are used to independently exploring asana, which we already know by heart. Our understanding of drishti and concentration, helps us move our attention inwards, thus keeping us from getting distracted, whether it’s from the glitches from the device or the disembodied voice dispensing instructions to a virtual class room.
Being online, allowed students to safely move their practices into their personal spaces, into their actual lives while continuing to feel supported by a teacher. Prior to covid19, only a few students in Cairo could manage a home practice. The tendency was that if they didn’t make it to class, they didn’t manage to practice. These online offerings, I believe, are home practices with training wheels, easing students into comfortably practicing on their own.
It’s also been a great opportunity to practice with softness, kindness, and mindfulness. There has been little rushing, little of that frenetic energy that comes with the desire to catch up with everyone else. Somehow, we all understand, no one is going anywhere, we are just here to practice.
I believe more than ever in the potency of this practice, that the experience is transcendent. Teaching online really works. Take away the expectation that practicing with a teacher comes with a good press, twist or tug, what we have online is actually closer to how practicing with Sharathji in India is really like, where adjustments are sparse, but the presence of a teacher is plenty.
Even without the assists, students have moved along beautifully. I have witnessed students become stronger during this time, more flexible, more light. Which makes sense because progress is always a side effect of consistent practice
It’s been liberating doing away with the expectation that it’s my “job” to take students physically deeper. We all know that digging deep is the responsibility of each practitioner. Studying online reinforces that our practice is a personal journey, and that there is a healthy amount of space between teacher and student.
The conversation is also different online. Take away that reliance on the language of touch, words have weight and people listen more. And while I’m not suggesting that verbal assists should replace physical adjustments, I think these days have demonstrated that we can communicate the practice in plain and clear ways. (And while there is a beauty of the to allowing the experience unfold through the body, touch and adjustments can be imprecise and inappropriate, relying a lot on inference.)
Mostly, I found as a teacher that my big contribution is simply being there, opening the space, keeping it going, observing, calling out what I see, which is easier when everyone’s practice is tidily laid out in front of you. Being seen has been so important.
In a way, none of these experiences that I am sharing are out of the ordinary, yoga has always been a great unifier, ashtanga communities have always provided practitioners an outlet to work through their tensions and anxieties, the ashtanga practice has always been a place to find softness and support, and the teaching has always been more energetic than physical. However, personally, prior to coronavirus, it was hard to see these things.
I still miss–and look forward to–in-person teaching in that breathing heaving room–among many, many, MANY other things. But I don’t necessarily want things to go back to EXACTLY how they were. I believe that these times have taught us to think outside the box (yes, inside the box too!), they have challenged us to be flexible and innovative while reminding us that essence of practice exists in whatever space it is allowed to flourish.
Our yoga retreats in Dahab (September) and White Desert (October) have been so successful that we decided to add one more to help us herald in a new year!
2020, for the most part, has come with a great deal of challenges, both personally and globally. Coming to the end of this year is an opportunity to reframe the year to come.
Our retreat offers a different perspective, amidst the most awe inspiring places in Egypt: Siwa Oasis—with its charm and culture which is unlike other parts of Egypt, it’s peaceful and stunning surrounds of lakes, lush greenery and and desert.
Keeping the pandemic in mind, all yoga and many of our daytime activities will be in the great outdoors, yoga amidst fruiting date palms, picnics in a an oasis, open air hot spring, and some of Siwa’s cultural sites like the Old Shali fortress town and Temple of the Oracle (to Ammon correlating Zeus and Jupiter). Spaces are limited and we will enjoy yoga, meditation, chanting and storytelling in an intimate setting among friends and family.
Early Bird rates are available till Saturday, Dec 19. Message for more information.
While the recent Covid 19 has pushed much of the world to shelter in place, many are managing restrictive safety measures by taking their work, study, socialising and exercise online.
We are on a partial curfew here in Cairo with under 2000 cases, so far. Many, however, are taking the advice of government officials to stay home to slow the virus from spreading.
When I paused the program in mid March, I signed up to zoom, sent the students the link and a message that they could join me to practice together. So it’s been a month of meeting to meditate and practice.
I wanted time to understand how to use the platform. See if it really made sense to me.
Within the week, it became the new normal to see zoom screens posted on Instagram. Individual boxes showing students practicing together in their own homes. Almost over night, yoga programs around the world moved their teachings online. What at first seemed exciting made me feel a little anxious. Was this the next big thing? I started to wonder whether we were squandering the opportunity to really self practice?
I debated whether to just continue the casual practice group or restart classes online. It felt good to meet with students but I wondered if the ashtanga teaching method would really translate well online.
Over the last month I’ve taught a few led classes and a Mysore class to test the waters and, actually, I was happily surprised to see how the ashtanga practice translated well online.
What I learned—or, rather, remembered—was this: ashtanga yoga is more energetic than physical. Over the last three weeks, what drew us together was the silent dialogue of practice. Yes, it is personal. But it is also shared. And, in times like this, it’s important to stay connected.
Online, teaching too gets stripped down to the essential. Just as we confuse the practice to be a physical one, we often think of ashtanga instruction as being tactile with its hands-on-adjustments. When in truth, adjustments are sparse in Mysore, India. The teacher’s role is to hold space, to nudge students to walk down a path that only they themselves can go down. At its best, transmission from teacher to student is subtle and unobtrusive. Far too often, teachers (myself included) over-assist and we take on more than we should, stealing from students the opportunity to master an āsana on their own.
As we relaunch the program online this week, I know that we will loose some students in this period. This is a time with shifting priorities. Others, the ones already happily established might choose to self practice on their own. That’s ok. For those joining me, I know things can’t exactly go back to normal, but I know we’ll do our best to move forward, to adapt to challenging times and to thrive with the new opportunities these times and this medium of learning is bringing us.
Mysore Zamalek Classes will restart on Monday, 13 April. Monday and Friday are Led Classes. Tuesday to Thursday are Mysore-style self practice. Please message us if you are interested in joining the program online.
For some time I’ve been watching how our neighbouring Beirut’s program has been growing with various teacher friends coming to hold space there. It’s been a pleasure to see Yoga Souk’s Mysore program evolve much like our own in Cairo.
So, it’s a great pleasure to be here now in Beirut teaching at Yoga Souk in Saifi Village. Should you be in Lebanon, I am teaching Mysore-style ashtanga classes Monday to Friday 6:15-10:15 and led classes (for regular practitioners) on Saturdays at 9:30am.
We’ve also started a Yoga Sutras introduction course, which is a rich of exploration of the yoga philosophy that powers our practice. We have four sessions left and there is still time to catch up.
If you are in Cairo, Mysore Zamalek classes are continuing as scheduled at Nūn Center.
We have a full schedule once again in March. We are had a retreat in Upper Egypt, more on how it went in a future post.
There’s an International Women’s Day Event at Nūn on March 8 where I will teach a led class and speak on Yoga for a Balanced Life, and we’ll be raffling off a month pass. Money from raffle ticket sales will go to Tawasol, Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run and Heya Masr, all helping to empower women/young girls.
Also, we’ll be staring our next Intro course on March 22.
Please message firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or to register for the month-long course.