To Sit In Yoga


One of my prayers, for a while now, which I quietly say to myself before I start my practice, is to surrender to the process that is yoga. Over the years, my relationship to my own practice has been defined by this intention, not only in the act of surrendering, but also in understanding that practice is a process, that yoga is an on-going journey of discovery, there is light and peace there, but that these moments of calm are sometimes hard fought. There will often be discomfort, sometimes pain, before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and just when you think you’ve cleared the dark patches, you often find there’s more, there’s always another tunnel, with the faint light ahead once again beckoning you. 

I often see students perturbed when they start to experience the difficulties that come up with the yoga practice. There’s the expectation that the goal of yoga, peace of mind, the balance between robustness and restfulness of body, is easily available. I wish that were true. 

Our āsana–literally, “seat” or posture–practice is designed to give us opportunities to experience life on our mats, a mere metaphor for life-at-large, as fully as possible, with more presence, more awareness. The magic of our practice is in its truthfulness and practicality. The peace is real, as are the hardships. The daily practice helps us acknowledge the relationship between them both. From there, we learn to accept that the ebb and flow go hand-in-hand, and with this life/practice gets easier. Peace is the soft side of the hard coin. 

The practice inevitably brings us to our edge, what we often perceive as our breaking point, which is really the tight space that inspires growth. We can run from it, many often do. The best thing to do,  I think, however, is to stick with it, to continue to practice. In difficulty we must also sit, and breathe, waiting for that moment to pass into lightness. 

Photo: Full house for Led Primary class this last Friday at Nūn Center. Students find their moment of calm at padmasana, one of the closing postures. 

Classes continue here at Nūn Center in Zamalek, Cairo. We start a month long program on May 1st. To check our schedule: http://www.nuncenter.com or inquiries at we@nuncenter.com 

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Women’s Day

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Last year, in conference, Sharath Jois was answering a question about something a student should do–I can’t even remember what about, but he used the masculine pronoun in his response. A female student then asked why he decided to use said pronoun and whether the practice was meant for men. He laughed, his eyes shining, the way he does when he seems to be enjoying a joke to himself, and asked her to look around as he gestured with his hands and chin to the sea of people crammed into the shala, an overwhelming number of which were women.

We have come a long way from the early days when the first westerners had contact with Pattabhi Jois and his ashtanga yoga, where the room of 12 would accommodate mostly men. And while we can count the few remaining senior female teachers, the modern day practitioner base is becoming more and more overwhelmingly female. The modern female ashtangi has come a long way. There are more female teachers now than before. There is a strong movement to champion women’s rights and dignity on and off the mat. Advanced women practitioners used to be a novelty and now it seems a norm that women continue on towards the advanced series, building strength while maintaining flexibility.

It is important to note that our yoga lineage celebrates women practitioners and teachers. Pattabhi Jois taught not just his sons and his grandson, the current director of the school, Sharath, but also his wife Amma, his daughter Saraswathi (both pictured above) and his granddaughter Sharmila. Saraswathi Jois, at 76, continues to teach in Mysore, India  alongside her daughter who assists her. Sharath’s wife Shrutti likewise teaches the afternoon classes with Indian students.

I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I am proud to be a part of a modern tradition of yoga that honors women, that encourages householdership as much as the practice, and, for those who are inclined, teaching. It respects the cycle of women, and asks us to do the same by taking our “holidays” during the first three days of our menstrual cycle.

Beyond the ideas of men and women, the practice itself is an incredible tool for empowerment. I came to this practice ten years ago pretty much still a girl. The years of practice helped me come into my own wellspring of inner strength and flexibility, I had no idea that I could be this courageous human being, let alone woman. And so with gratitude, I thank the practice. I thank my teachers and my teachers’ teachers who had the good wit and grace to teach men AND women this great method. I thank the one woman I’ve studied under, you are an inspiration. I thank all the women who came before me, who were brave enough to go to India to study yoga when India was even more foreign and wild and far away than it is today. It is good to remember that women are a part of this great lineage.

Connecting with the Ancients: Ashtanga Yoga in New Hermopolis

 

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New Hermopolis’ architecture.

One of the things I love about Egypt is how something quite magical can come together here with such remarkable speed and energy. One conversation might spark an interest and next you know…you’ve got this thing, usually a kind of big substantial THING. One such small exchange between a student and her local travel-expert husband gave birth to some of my favorite Egypt adventures. Freedom Travellers and I went to the White Desert together in 2014 with Egyptian yoga teacher Iman Elsherbiny. We followed it up with a trip to Siwa Desert Oasis later that year. I’m happy to reunite with Yasmine Rifaat and Ahmed El Leissy for yet another retreat, this time to magical Minya in Upper Egypt where New Hermopolis has made some waves as a special eco-lodge whose ethos is all about transformation and healing.

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Four kilometers from New Hermopolis, is the remains of Hermopolis, an ancient spiritual center. Here certain Egyptian creation myths have their origin: the lotus blooming from the primordial waters, the union of feminine and masculine deities that speak of higher integration. A trip to Beni Hassan tombs will evidence how the ancients practiced something like āsana. So many traditions, so very old, and yet all so very similar. Am excited to draw on the ancients from this land to relate to the tradition of yoga and New Hermopolis is the perfect setting for such an endeavor.

Going into the White Desert was about looking for stillness in the yoga practice, while taking our retreat to Siwa was about finding the oasis within. This time, going to Minya feels like an opportunity to connect with the ancients here in Egypt, with an old tradition, an old wisdom. Also, it is a full circle. Here in Cairo, I have been running classes in Nūn Center. Pronounced “noon,” it is one of the 8 key deities/energies born in Hermopolis, it is the primordial waters from which creation springs, it is where the sacred lotus emerges, and with it life.

We’re going deep in Upper Egypt, March 16-19, for our Ashtanga Yoga in New Hermopolis. The cost of the retreat is 4000LE inclusive of transportation, food, accommodation (room sharing) and yoga/cultural programs. Bring a friend and get a 10% discount.

To book your spot, contact:
Freedom Travellers +20 122 110 4464
or Nūn Center at we@nuncenter.com, +20 122 398 0898

For more information, see our Facebook event page.
https://www.facebook.com/events/257379824712503/

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Magical Minya

 

Practice of Pieces 

 

 

 

Should you come to a “mysore” self-practice class with me for the first time, I’ll most likely ask you to close your eyes and breathe. First, with your ordinary breath. And from there, we start to extend each inhale and exhale, sipping the air from our nostrils until we create a soft sound, which slowly heats the body. We’ll probably do a few sun salutations, maybe some standing postures, but the real lesson on that first day is breathing. It is the most basic unit of learning in the traditional ashtanga method.

Over time, we introduce other units: the engagement of our core muscles or energy locks called bandha. vinyasa or movement-breath, and various postures that condition and open the body differently. On a more subtle level, there are lessons in focus and awareness, effort and conservation of energy, dedication, devotion and self-love–all these units are actually inexhaustible, we return to them over and over, each time more in-depth. Slowly but surely the lessons expand over time.

When we start, it’s a little like learning something in pieces and it’s hard to see the big picture. Many get impatient or frustrated that they can’t see where it’s all going. People get bored of the pace, or angry at the level of concentration we often ask from beginners, or afraid of the level of commitment we ask from all students.

I ask new students to commit for the month, recommending them to practice the 5 teaching days, at the barest minimum 3. And here, in Egypt, I’ve actually seen people physically recoil at my suggestion as if I were some yoga sadist. Yes, I do know life is hard here, that Cairo traffic is ridiculous, that a morning practice is counterflow the nocturnal rhythms of the city. I totally understand. And yet…

I also know that people want to be healthier, they want to have better habits, they want to be more flexible and strong, they want to have peace and focus. So I ask anyway, daring aversion to such structure because I know that this is a formula for change that really works. For those who practice regularly, the pieces come together relatively quickly, and the yoga practice becomes wholesome, full and giving.

As I approach March and another month of teaching here in Cairo, the questions I want to ask from new and old students are the following: Are you willing to show up for yourself on a regular basis? Are you willing to breathe and move, everyday learning something new about the practice and maybe about yourself, everyday recognizing that you are this amazing creature that can get stronger and more flexible not just in the body but in the mind and heart too? Are you willing to stand before the difficulties so that we can piece the practice together?

 

Regular Teaching continues here at Nūn Center:
Mysore Mornings is Sunday to Thursday, 7-10:30am.
Evenings are Monday & Wednesday, 8-9:30pm.

We have some special programs at the start of this month at Nūn:
Full Led Primary
Friday, March 4, 9-10:30pm

Ashtanga Yoga: Tool For Change
Saturday, March 4, 11am-1pm

Inner Dance, Sound and Movement Meditation
Saturday, March 4, 6-8pm

 

In Mystery

 

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Headstand within the Red Pyramid in Dashour. Photo by Yasmine Abdul Aziz.


We inhale and exhale, sweeping our bodies from one direction to the next, moving from one posture to another, we are making shapes, we are moving energy, we are slowly shaving off the excess with painstaking compulsion, the way an archeologist might excavate ancient ruins with a soft bristle brush, one careful stroke at a time, determined but wary of damaging the unknowable treasures that possibility lie beneath…

At least that’s how I feel on the days that I am patient with myself and with the practice–that each breath is a soft breeze blowing on my massive pile of dirt, gently carving out the me underneath it all, the one I’d really like to get to. The other times, well…I’m actually shoveling away, pushing and prodding, making new mounds of dirt before getting bored and starting at a new spot. It’s tough work this business of personal excavation.

After years of yoga practice, I can honestly say that as much as I’ve uncovered (and the amount of discoveries have been significant!) there always seems to be more underneath the surface, more evidence, more history, and with every find, more questions. I’ve been big on digging deep, on self-inquiry and detective work. And because I can be quite heady and I like to figure things out, I’ve taken it all very seriously.

But even this noble intention of self-discovery has its pitfalls. Expectations are laced with disappointments. To look ahead towards a future destination pulls us away from the journey at hand and, ultimately, the present moment. I often wonder, if by throwing myself so doggedly into “process,” I have also pulled myself away from the spirit of practice, true sadhana.

On a recent retreat to Ardi in Dashour, Egypt, a group of us went to visit the nearby Red Pyramid. We went in and walked around, all of us in quiet awe of the 104 meter-tall (341-feet) structure built around 2600BCE, a precursor to the Giza pyramids. Archeologists, historians and Egyptologists have studied the pyramid extensively, they know its dimensions, what it’s made of, who built it and for what purpose, and yet we continue to marvel at the mystery of it, its strangeness, its un-fathomability.

What if practice were less about unlocking the mysteries and more about seeing them and acknowledging them? What if I simply accepted that I am my mound of dirt, my hidden treasures, my ancient stories, my lost city, or that there might not be much there at all, and went on to breathe into the whole lot of it anyway, enjoying the mystery of being, rather than constantly trying to figure it out? What if I looked at myself, not as a problem to be solved but a puzzle to revel in and dive into. The destination might be the same in the end, but I reckon the journey would be different.

Personally, I vacillate between the pull of my own ego and the spiritual practice. I know the lessons, not to grasp and not to reach. But I’ve also been taught to put in appropriate effort, to cultivate discipline and a healthy attachment towards my practice–a little too much effort, however, and I cross a line between willfulness and surrender, and there I struggle. And where is the joy in that?

In the end, practice is practice. We’ll shift and move even if we don’t mean to.

The ongoing excavations are unlikely to stop for me, not only have I been at it a while, I actually like digging. But I also want to cultivate more contentment being In Mystery. I want to understand that I  don’t have to understand everything about myself, that not knowing has a function, that uncertainty contains magic and possibility.  Once again, here is the recurring lesson, think less and just practice; all is still coming.

 

Resolutions Take Practice

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Utkatāsana, Led Primary last Saturday at Nūn Center, Zamalek, Cairo.

As we launch ourselves into 2017, we see a lot of the stuff that new year’s are made of: the goal makings of the well-intentioned that gets folks to the gym or to yoga classes, to eating balance meals or quitting longtime bad habits–and it’s all well and good, when we’re in week 3 of January.

As the days and weeks wear on, however, how many of our resolutions will be set aside for difficult schedules, work or life emergencies, or for the more ingrained negative patterns that are themselves fighting for their place in our lives at this point. For whatever reason, prioritizing our health and well-being is a serious challenge.

For just about my entire life, I remember starting the year strong with such intentions only to have them peter out as the days and months wore on. This changed for me, however, some years ago. Without me noticing, I started to manage to stick to new goals–not all, some have continued to be elusive–especially of the creative and administrative nature. However, I saw marked improvements the years that I really started to practice with regularity.

Learning to practice, I realize now, fueled my resolutions. Through the regular practice, I learned the difficult job of showing up for myself, for doing something for me, because it was good for me and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, either. Though I knew the benefits, I also felt the difficulties: waking up in the mornings, being without a teacher, being confronted with my lack of coordination and my own belligerent body.

Practicing taught me how to stick to things, even when it was hard. It taught me to be patient and forgiving towards myself when I felt like I failed, especially during those periods that I fell off the practice wagon. And it taught me that the important thing was my willingness to come back to the mat and to try again. And as I learned these lessons through practice, I started to know how to practice the other things that I wanted to manifest and change.

And while yoga may not be the answer to your resolutions, it might actually help because resolutions don’t simply happen when you decide it. They become realities when you practice them with regularity and gusto–and this is something we learn in the ashtanga system. Once again, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said it best: “Practice, practice, all is coming.”


I continue to teach here at Nūn Center in Zamalek, Cairo. Come if you would like me to help you power up and practice for the new year.

Morning Mysore is Sunday to Thursday 7-11am; Evening Ashtanga Monday and Wednesday 8-9:30pm. For more info on the ashtanga programs at Nūn http://www.nuncener.com. 

World of Magical Transport


It is a world of bright vermillion, emboldened by the afternoon sun, slits of light and forest green flicker through from above and from the sides like an old moving picture. Wooden torii gates of all sizes mark the paths up and down the mountain. And to walk underneath them is discovering an older Japan, a land full of holy places, gods and spirits.

After the main entrance of the shrine, the smaller wooden torii gates are thin, low and narrow, closely bundled together. To walk through them, is like being pulled gently through a tunnel; the transportation into another world begins. This is the rabbit hole in which dear Alice falls and falls and falls, dropping down into a reality in which perspective is suddenly different. The experience here, however, is much gentler, much more wonder-full, without the slightest feeling of struggle. I become small or the gates grow bigger (depending on the perspective) further up the mountain. They vary in size, but never again so small or tightly knit as that first level.
Walking up Fushimi Inari shrine, built in 711AD, in Kyoto, Japan is an experience. It feels magical and out of time. Even with throngs of tourists bustling past or falling behind, the journey up and down the mountain lends itself to quiet isolation.

It becomes more quiet the higher up the mountain–at least late in the afternoon–people are more sparse, simply dropping away, both literally and figuratively, as many turn back, feeling daunted by the seemingly unending torii. I, on the other hand, feel challenged, I want to know where it goes, I want to complete it. (This rationale gotten me to scale some pretty interesting heights).

I have been looking forward to returning here. Some places you can see once and that’s enough. We tourists are always looking for something new to titalize the senses. But Fushimi Inari, the memory of it–I knew I wanted to go up it again.

Torii gates are symbols of the passage between one reality to another, between the everyday to the spiritual world. For me, walking beneath these red-orange gates is a ritual that actualizes a spiritual journey, in a way that the ashtanga practice, aptly “sadhana,” similarly does, as well.

Breathing, moving through the postures, holding a posture those full five breaths–each posture, each breath is a gate, through which our body must move and from which the body emerges more subtle, purified by action, and more fortified too. The physical practice softens the body, and with it the mind. Slowly, these movements in space help move us up and down that deep internal mountain with its sometimes sweepingly gentle curves, other times steep ascents and descents, sharp turns, and, on occasion, fairly flat ground.

Our practice, which starts with surya namaskar, recalls rituals of old, morning prostrations that connect us to nature, the nature that is all around us, but the one within too, all of it connected to the Absolute. By getting on the mat, we engage in a ritual of sublime regularity, it is a transportation device that brings us closer to our spiritual world.

Fushimi Inari, the Ashtanga yoga practice, and other rituals of spiritual transport serve the purpose of softening the boundaries of reality, allowing us an experience of a world beyond the veil, a realm of spirit or magic or God, what have you.

Three years ago, I didn’t make it up to the very top of Mount Inari, turning back to make an appointment in the city proper. This time I was determined to make it to the highest point on the mountain. The odd thing was that I almost didn’t realize that I made it. I stopped to look at the trail map, only to notice a small sign, only slightly bigger than a post card: “Top of the Mountain.” I looked around. I was, in fact, at the top, there wasn’t any more mountain to scale, just more torii gates going down.

The top was barely noteworthy, except for the funny feeling that I nearly missed it. And then, like that, I was simply back on track, on with the trail, more torii gates as I descended the mountain.

Of course, how fitting! What better example of it’s-not-about-the-destination-rather-about-the-journey.

The magic of Fushimi Inari isn’t getting anywhere, there’s no venerable God-like figure waiting up the top of the mountain waiting to give you a certificate of completion and a pat on the back. There’s an old man selling refreshments and snacks from his shop, and, of course, more shrines, more offerings. No one even attends to them, there are no priests of facilitators between you and your Highest. Nor does the path end at the top, the torii gates go on quite a bit, though they become quite sparse towards the bottom, where there are more open spaces between them, more forest, as if the mountain is gently loosening its grasp, helping one exit from its otherworldliness. And we see out beyond the red: trees, nature, the world. Eventually the torii gates peter out completely, without ceremony or fanfare, into shrines interspersed by houses, before you know it, you’re just in the local the community, a short distance from the entrance of the shrine compound.

I realize my own mistake, there is no end, only more journeying, but one that must now be continued in real time, in real life, in the flesh, bone and blood world that we live in.

In our own yoga practice with its clear beginning and end, the spiritual communion seems clear. But those who have been practicing long enough also know that the long arms of our sadhana is not content to stay bound on our rubber mat, that the juiciest bits of transformation happen in our lives, our work, our relationships.

These tools however exist for a purpose, they remind us that there’s more, that there’s more magic, more blessings, more world to love and experience.