When Filipa Veiga, Portuguese ashtanga teacher and writer, asked me to join the contingent of yoga teachers offering classes at the Being Gathering 2017 at Boomland in Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal, it put into motion a plan to spend the summer in Europe. I wanted to go see my teacher in mid August in London, I was suddenly committed to my first festival date in early July, what to do then with the time between?
Before I knew it, I had before me a bit of vacation, time to spend with beloved friends, a restart to a personal project that had been put on hold, and a small offering of teaching dates in Portugal, Romania and Vienna. I’m excited for this period after a 7 month stint in Cairo, where I will return to continue teaching after August.
These breaks from routine, the opportunities to connect with other teachers, especially to be a student myself, to tap into the global movement having to do with yoga and healing, allows me time to recharge and also ruminate on what exactly we are doing in our day to day, what is this practice, what is it’s purpose, why do we come to the mat day after day?
On the last day of the festival, I introduced ashtanga yoga as a tool for BEING, for being a better person, for being more focused, more attentive, more present. I alluded to the great Patanjali, to the first line of the Sutras: “Atha yoganuśasunam” Now, begins yoga. It brings us to the present moment. I ended the class with Patanjali, as well, and how he described yoga practice as “dirgha kala nairantarya asevitam,” a long time, without interruption, with whole hearted devotion.
And so begins the summer for me, starting with a most extraordinary of gathering of people, from healers to storytellers, green warriors to spiritual seekers, but also with a great sense of what it means to BE in yoga, how we have a responsibility to be as present with ourselves, our relations, our fellow creatures and planet as much as possible and how practice doesn’t end after our hour and half of sweating and grunting on the mat, it goes on into our day, in every action, in every breath.
Join me in this extraordinary experiment of being through the ashtanga yoga system. I teach in Yoga Lisboa July 11, 12, 13 (www.yoga-lisboa.com), Asociata Ashtanga/Ashtanga Yoga Romania (email@example.com) on July 17-30, then finally in Mysore Vienna from July 31 to August 8 (www.mysorevienna.com).
Photos taken by Clara Lua, Being Gathering, July 2.
Ah…to be present–easier said than done.
How often are we pulled into future projections, expectations? On the flip side, how often do we hold on to old feelings, stories? How many of us are haunted by memories?
How much do we actually live in the presentness of our lives–in all of its wonder, joy, messiness and complexities?
A couple of weeks ago, I was embroiled in a decision-making process that had me mulling over numbers and future scenarios, as well as past difficulties–all really good tools in terms of making well-informed choices. But I was distracted and confused by it all. In the end, however, it took settling into the present moment, weighing my own feelings about the things I actually know and experience to get to an answer that I could really sit with: that I am happy where I am and that I am little pressed to change that. It seemed so simple, just at that moment.
I am often baffled by my own mind, how it is pulled so easily in so many directions. Once again, practice is an amazing antidote for this. We get on that mat. We do our thing. Our focus and attention may wander here and there, but eventually they are pulled back into our center, and slowly over time we are training ourselves to experience THAT exact breath, THAT exact movement, to stop looking at others or beyond our current practice or our current posture, to trust that change will come when it’s time. When we start to live this experience of being present on our mat, we start to repair the damage of a world that cajoles us into seeking out some future happiness. That’s not to say we aren’t allowed to direct our energy, or even want things for ourselves–its about cultivating that harmony with simply being.
This, I feel, is also what Pattabhi Jois has so famously imparted on us: “Practice, practice, all is coming.” Again, easier said than done. Yet, they key is in the doing. Just practice–the strength, the flexibility, the āsana will all come, but also, perhaps most importantly, this appreciation for the present moment, whatever it looks like.
Last year, I decided to teach through the first 3 weeks of Ramadan. It was the first time any of my trips to Egypt coincided with this period. I hadn’t planned for it, but was happy to have a new teaching experience.
I had been told that it would be different, a few teacher-friends based here advised me on what worked best for them and their students during the month-long period where practicing Muslims fasted from sun-up to sundown.
I scheduled classes with a bit of trepidation, a shorter morning class as usual for non-fasters and another afternoon session before the breaking of the fast, iftar. It wasn’t my ideal to break up our already-small group and work the extra hours, but, in my gut, I felt that traditional ashtanga practice would suit Ramadan, that it could be a good compliment to the season as a meditation and as a physical support system.
In truth, the entire rhythm of Cairo changes during this time, the breaking of the fast determines the working and living hours of its 9.5 million residents, regardless of one’s faith. Energy consumption becomes a serious issue among fasters, but non-fasters too take on some of the rigorous social schedule dictated by meal times. Also, revised office hours creates time, particularly in the hours before Iftar. The clubs and bars cease to serve alcohol and everything quiets down or turns inwards.. A totally different energy and pace blankets the city.
Teaching during Ramadan last year reminded me how important it is to be flexible as a teacher; and reinforced my belief that the mysore-style self-practice is designed to be flexible itself, how it can give students the space to tune into their personal needs, and to practice in a way that is nourishing and safe.
In the end, I really fell in love with the experience. I’m happy to say that the students did as well. The afternoons were hours of exploration through which I could experience Ramadan through my students. Together, through the practice, we tuned into the body, worked with the various phases that comes with fasting, from the lightheadedness and fatigue early on to the lightness of body and bursts of energy that came later.
I saw how the initial effects of fasting effected practitioners and we were careful to respect and honor them especially during the first week of practice. We focused on a softer breath and slow steady movement, careful not to push bodies. We approached postures, like standing forward-bends, carefully to avoid dizziness. We spoke about the yamas and how important it is to practice with non-violence, with honestly, with non-attachment, in a way that we aren’t stealing from ourselves and in a way that we are using our energy wisely. I encouraged students to honestly tune into their available energy reserves, stopping early on in their practice if they felt low energy. With new students, we learned the sequence slowly, pretty much as we would do in the regular Mysore sessions.
By the second week, students were over the headaches caused by caffeine withdrawal. People were more used to breathing after a day of no water. The body was more used to fasting. Students could do more and proceeded further than the week before. By the third week, students were actually light and lithe, often more so than before Ramadan started. The practice was energetic but also stable and focused.
I saw the effects of the practice in a concentrated form with a group of people on a particular spiritual journey. How the Mysore practice, so often villainized as being a difficult-hard-as-nails sort of yoga method, could be used as a gentle tool for personal introspection as well as a means for students to condition their mind and body, developing flexibility and strength steadily over a period of time.
In a week, Ramadan will start. I’m looking forward once again to teaching those hours before iftar, on top of the morning sessions, experiencing the shifts and learnings that come with it, which inevitably make us not just better students, but hopefully better people in the process.
Mysore Ramadan Schedule (May 27-June 24)
Sunday to Thursday
Month Pass: 1600LE/ 1 Week Pass 550LE
We accept Drop-In Students who have existing practices already 150LE
(If you are a beginner to the practice, you will need roughly an hour and a month pass)
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.
Ashtanga has this gravity defying reputation. All over social media there’s a plethora of photos and videos of ashtanga practitioners displaying incredible aerodynamic feats, floating/levitating in and out of postures. All around there are workshops that focus on these technical aspects, of jumping forward and back, of engaging bandha to the point of slowing down time, of achieving this lightness of the body that mimics flight. And why not, it’s fun and looks amazing, and moreover it builds a particular awareness in the body.
I remember in my earlier years of practice, I loved it, I loved the feeling of height, and flight, that moment of suspension as I moved my body forward on the mat, before landing. I remember a fellow student once compared me to a grasshopper. And, if I remember correctly, I rather liked the comparison.
I’m not much of a “flyer” anymore. I’d probably still enjoy it, but over the years of studying with Sharath Jois in Mysore, India, that among other bits and pieces have dropped off the program.
I think for some strong practitioners this comes quite naturally. What I realized, however, for me, it did not. A lot of extra energy went into that one particular inhale, the effort was disproportionate, and practice is about an evenness of breath and effort. And extra effort in jumps, meant extra work for shoulders and arms which then resulted in tighter albeit stronger muscles.
Letting go of it, and for sure attachment was there, was just as much a part of me growing as a practitioner as it might be for someone else who chooses to develop these abilities.
Over recent years, practice has been more about streamlining, taking out the extra flourishes, those dramatic flares, which– when they are effectations–are simply distractions from the meditative flow of sadhana. It’s been about efficient use of mind and body (at 40, I am more concerned with being able to have a healthy and sustainable practice).
With a practice like ashtanga yoga, I think there is more than one way to fly. There’s the kind of flight that’s physical and really stunning to see. Then there’s another kind, and this is the one I find myself more and more impressed with, the practice that glides with such ease it barely registers. These belong to the super heroes in disguise practicing quietly beside you in the shala, so subtle until that one sliver of a moment you note with much surprise that they are doing something quite extraordinary. Likelihood is that there are even more practically invisible yogis who are totally going unnoticed, soaring above us all.
Whatever our mode of flight (I think different ways suit different people), ashtanga simply inspires us to take off to greater heights–and to greater heights we must go, no matter what that looks like.