āsana and the yoga of cairo

It’s been a spell since leaving Cairo, but this piece inspired by the old city and its people has long been stewing. People often ask me why I keep coming back to Cairo. There are many reasons but one of the big ones is this: it inspires a level of sadhana that is well beyond the body. It’s a place that reminds me to live my yoga practice.

There’s this chair in a room. It’s a small receiving room in an old apartment in Downtown Cairo. The square room is painted red, and despite its tiny floor size, it stretches up and up with high ceilings. The chair is the only real furniture in the room. There’s a desk lamp, that sits on the ground and the three walls of the room are filled with artworks of varying sizes that reaches up the wall.

The seat, a wooden antique reclining chair with white cushions, feels lonely to me, partially lit by the lamp. Framed against the bits of modern art crawling up the red, it feels stoic, but solitary.

Later, my friend, to whom this space belongs, tells me about his life in Cairo. The struggles of ordinary life filled with victory and loss; he speaks of caring for a parent dying of cancer; of the failed revolution; of life in Tahir Square; of the many crazy things he witnessed during that crazy time; he shares the oddness and disparity between the different social stratas which he straddles, because Cairo, the world he lives in, constantly vacillates between extremes.

In yoga, “āsana” is often referred to as the postures we take while we practice. It is the “seat” of yoga.

These days, we mistake āsana as taking shapes in space. There is a proliferation of this on the internet with photos and videos of beautifully performed handstands and human pretzels… The day I started writing this article, a funny spoof on the yoga video phenomenon went viral among my yoga circles. The following day, a number of the same people who shared it online were once again liking yogāsana snap shots on social media. There’s nothing wrong with that, we can, of course, appreciate all sides. But it had me thinking, once again, what it means to be sitting in yoga.

It is truly something awesome to see a human being defy the limits and gravity with his/her body. They definitely inspire. But I wonder, are they accurate representations of āsana?

I do not offer any photos for this post, though originally I wanted to share one of the chair itself. My friend asked that I refrain from doing even that, such things are, after all, private and the delicate practice of our lives is sacred.

My friend and his chair (neither pictured here) move me in a way that I do not feel when seeing some popular representations of yoga. My friend and his chair, his seat, remind me that the essence of yoga cannot fully be captured in a polished physical posture, however amazing, however artistically articulated.

My friend, he’s no expert at Cairo life, certainly not at yoga. He’s simply doing his best to just sit in all the crazy, all the joy and all the disappointment, striving to find peace with all of it. And that feels like yoga practice to me.

When we practice, we are practicing our ability to sit in yoga, to find equanimity in the body, mind, heart. The greater practice is life itself, the challenge of which is to find equanimity in the body, mind and heart amidst the chaos of an ever changing world.

I think one of the reasons I continue to be drawn to Cairo is that the city’s version of the ebb and flow of life is on some serious kind of overdrive: it is a vortex of living, of varying energies, sweet and terrible (political, economic, cultural, social, individual) all swirling rapidly together in this thick soup of a city, layered with modern and ancient civilizations, and with them their countless innovations, numerous mistakes and unfathomable mysteries.

To sit in it, to stand, to walk, to move, to work, to be there, to be well–let alone, thrive there–takes a special kind of practice.

That’s not to say that everyone in Cairo is sitting in yoga, with every challenge there’s a good amount of avoidance or numbing–but the opportunity to practice yoga exists at every turn, every interaction, every bit of gridlock and difficulty. It is easy to see this in the lives of many of the city’s inhabitants, most of whom don’t know what the inside of a yoga studio looks like. Practice is alive in the struggle. It’s inhabitants must simply do what they can, working to find some stillness in all this whirlpool of energy; Cairo is their yoga.

The search for softness or grace or space or peace in the whirlpool of life is both challenging and sublime. I suppose it’s like this everywhere, though the extreme energies of a place like Cairo accentuates the experience. It is the same experience in a mysore room, where practice is alive and well, gritty and difficult, at the edge of some seemingly insurmountable odds, which we learn to overcome little by little.

Ultimately, the āsana of Cairo is that of everyplace, it is the practice of every man. It is about how we sit, stand, move, interact with our environment, with the people we meet, it’s how we rise up to our challenges and it’s how we live up to our victories.

 

Catching Wind, Empowering Practice


So many times I have found myself blown in certain directions. Mostly, though not exclusively, with incredible positive outcomes. Even gale force-like winds and maelstroms, which might have moored me into isolation or thrown me into some catastrophic disaster, would eventually abate and I would land wherever with the softness of a feather. I consider myself blessed to have had such good luck to be propelled so. I also know, that in many ways, I called for it, that I invited the elements myself to move me. Time and time again, I’ve taken myself to some peak, opened my arms in surrender, and like wings unfurled, I would get picked up and thus be transported.

I wondered, however, what would it be like if I participated more in this act of flight? The last year in particular has been about recognizing the difference between flowing with things and flying myself.

It’s been an amazing process, coming to a deeper understanding that all this raw energy can be transformed and directed. That I am not prey or play thing to the forces I perceived to be much greater than myself, but, instead, an active player, instigator, herder of energy.

There is so much in this; the world at large is packed with potential energy, raw, unharnessed. In the microcosm of us, we are likewise full of unrealized vitality and force. When we learn to access this, when we learn to use it skillfully, to move it in certain directions, something huge shifts. We are empowered.

This naturally happens when we practice. There’s this wealth of untapped energy in our bones, our connective tissues, our muscles, our breath, our thoughts and hearts. Our practice helps us soften the gross layers, physical and subtle, emotional and mental, that keep us from connecting with our own physical/metaphysical body.

When we practice with consistency over a long period of time, we start tapping into these energies, which then become apparent in the practice itself. We extract energy from the practice and it fuels us. Our bodies become efficient, so does our breath, we develop an economy of thought and effort and before we know it, we are no longer consuming energy but creating it, so ample that it overflows and drips into our lives causing all sorts of creative bounty /mayhem.

This is my tenth year of yoga practice. It’s not a very long time–I continue to feel like a babe in the woods–but it’s not a short time either. Whatever length it is, it is long enough to observe the effects of practice, how it’s changed, how it’s changed me, how my life has changed because of it.

These days in Cairo’s Nūn Center, there are a number of beginners and some students returning to practice after a substantial break. And naturally the struggles that come with starting an ashtanga practice begin to appear: the body gets tired, the mind wavers, the internal debate on whether to go to class starts when the alarm rings in the morning.

I remember my teacher saying that if you never leave your practice, it will never leave you. I still have those days where doing my own practice is like going to battle with myself. What he said, though, it’s true, and it gets me on my mat, it gets me through the first sticky sun salutation, and, eventually, the practice helps me catch wind.

Mysore Classes here at Nūn continue. Sunday to Thursday, 7:30-10am. This week, we are adding Ashtanga Basic classes Monday and Wednesday at 7pm. These classes can be used as an introduction to the morning Mysore program. Drop ins and all levels are welcome! 

Mysore Sunday, Final Session

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So much of my most precious interactions happen on a rubber mat with students while teaching in a Mysore space. Where else do you get to meet someone in this way, slowly over time, whilst they quietly cook in the juices of their own humanity, turning over with each deliberate breath and movement the fluctuations of the mind and heart.

It’s like getting to know someone without any context other than what plays out in the half-hour, hour, hour and forty-five minutes that one practices. Story-telling is minimized, so is the drama. The body is so intelligent. The practice is so precise. I love meeting in this way. It is so raw and real… and honest.

As a mysore teacher, the challenge is to meet as honestly as well. To cut out the superfluous, the desire to people please, the need to teach, so that the practice can do it’s thing. I often have to remind myself that the best thing that I can do is to get out of the way. The opposite is also true, when it arrises; it’s important to recognize when it’s a good time to get involved, when support is necessary.

Meeting in this way, in mysore-style classes, it is looking into a mirror and seeing who you are at that one moment. Sometimes, what I see is glorious. Other times, I see that I am one hot mess. All of it is ok and also, none of it matters. By meeting, we submit to an alchemical process, a world of change.

It has been incredibly special to lead the Mysore Sunday classes here in Mysore SF twice a month. Please come to class, I love to meet with you. I will also continue to assist Magnolia Zuniga in Mysore SF until December 10, 2015 before heading back to Asia to prepare to study with my own teacher in Mysore, India.

Into the Horizon

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We do not always know where we are going and we certainly don’t know where we’ll end up, but we look out anyway into the horizon, our eyes trying to make out that fine line between the knowable world and that which is totally uncertain. The meeting of the two can inspire so many feelings: anxiety, sorrow, trepidation, joy, excitement…

We want to know if swimming into the ocean of life, hitting against its backwater, navigating its swells, we want to know that it’s worth it, that there’s going to be something on the other side.

In our practice and with life, we are told not to reach so much, that our task is to simply be in the present moment. And, still, we can’t help but to look out beyond the now, often wanting to quantify the great unknown. We want to know that practice, that doing our thing, that living our lives will be worth it–in the end. So fixated at the big what next, we often fail to see what is before us: a whole ocean of life, teeming with possibility, and that there is actually enough mystery here to keep us busy. There is just so much, so much to explore, to learn, so much depth to dive into, to experience.

I often pray these days that I simply enjoy all that is in front of me, that I enjoy practice for what it is, not what it can be, that I savor living life for the sake of simply living it, to recognize its vast greatness, rather than overlooking it.

PHOTO: Mural in Mission District, San Francisco. Teaching at Mysore SF throughout November. http://www.mysoresf.com

One with World and Practice

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Sunset at Fort Bragg’s coastline in Mendocino, California.

How many times have we looked out into the great big world, taking in one of those breathtaking views, and are awed by all that we are not? We are inspired, our imagination stirred, we are humbled, but these feelings also put us in different places–us and the world.

What would it be like to look out at the greatness that is and see a reflection of ourselves? What would it be like if we saw sameness instead of separation? If we looked out and instead of noting difference, we say: “wow, I’m a part of that,” or “that’s me, too!”

What if we looked at everything, big and small, every person we meet, no matter what the circumstance, every interaction we have in the same manner? Imagine how different life might be.

In the microcosm, this is a challenge we meet in daily practice–at least, I know I do. There’s me and then there’s the room and the people in the room. There’s my practice, and then the practice of others and my idea of an ideal practice. How many times does our drishti (point of focus) slide and we take in through our periphery some excellent (or sometimes, less than excellent) posturing and we compare ourselves to another?

There was a time when I looked upon these thoughts with a great deal of shame; I wanted  to be above it all, thinking that would make me a good yoga practitioner.

When these thoughts come up nowadays, I find more humor in them and more gratefulness for them. For the function of practice is to tease these reflections of the ego up to the surface where they can be seen in the full light of day–that they come up is not a problem but a part of a solution. As we observe them, they come up less and less and they subtly loose their power.

More and more, I have different kinds of moments when I’m teaching  or when I am practicing. Sometimes, I perceive someone who may be dissimilar in practice, body type, everything, and still I think: yup, that’s me! Maybe the current me, or 7-years-ago me, or the me I might be in a few years, but that’s me, that’s my experience also, that’s my challenge, that’s my strongpoint too, that’s my fear–and in these incredibly precious moments, I see sameness, I feel compassion.

There are other times when I see someone doing just the most impossible, gravity-defying, beautiful thing, which I cannot even imagine getting close to, and I feel beyond envy this great sense of incalculable possibility. I am inspired by our shared potentiality, though it will, no doubt, express itself differently for me.

And then, there’s the practice, which is so very personal. Yet, over time, it starts to feel quite impersonal also. Especially in a mysore space, there’s the practice that I feel is mine, (my mat, my body, my motions) and then there’s the practice that is ours, that is shared in the room, and beyond that, a practice that is shared by a global community that is still connected from teacher to student, teacher to student, all the way back to Mysore, India, the way it has been since the beginning. Then there’s the practice that is shared by everyone, which is life…

I know this looking at unity instead of difference is hard to sustain, so conditioned are we to compare or to see our own smallness.

But the photo above had me thinking about this man looking at the sunset. I imagine his awe at the scene before him, the sun setting into the Pacific coloring the Northern Californian coastline. I wonder, is he thinking: “wow, that’s a sight” or “aren’t we just amazing!” From where I’m sitting, I am also in awe and he is as much a part of the magnificent landscape, his presence completes the scene–and I am also a part of it, even though, from where I’m sitting, I might not see it.

Trust Your Struggle

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“Trust Your Struggle.” Street Art. Temascal, Oakland.

I love the Mysore room. It’s one of my favorite places to be, whether it’s practicing or teaching, I can’t help but feel alive in such a space. I love the victories after some long-fought challenge, but I also have a great respect and appreciation for the power of practice when I see a student near tears. It’s very real, this hot house of human action, people moving within a small portion of rubber mat. It’s steamy and there is a palpable thickness in the air. There’s a lot of love here–but it’s not the love of fluffy bunnies or candy-colored unicorns–it is often a love forged from gritty, sweaty, face-all-twisted struggle.

Struggle? That seems like a paradox, right! Ashtanga is a yoga practice, after all, so shouldn’t it promote a deep sense of peace and calm, physical ease and mental equilibrium?

Ashtanga is a very honest practice, reflecting back at its practitioners their life in concentrated form. When life is hard, practice takes on that hardness. When life is easy, sometimes (when we’re lucky) it’s easy, but often practice will dig a little deeper to find a soft spot. It’s a tradition designed to make you strong and also flexible–and a component of that is to whittle away at what’s unnecessary: shame, fear, pride, all forms of ego–these are not easy things to be grappling with, thus, the struggle. The struggles are there for a reason: for us to understand ourselves better.

I think it’s important to note that I’m not speaking of binding in maricasana D, suptakurmasana, learning to drop back or getting the leg behind the head but rather the human struggle that comes with the challenges that are presented by certain postures, sometimes by practice as a whole. The struggle isn’t actually getting past the pose but getting past the challenge/turmoil that the pose creates. It’s not about moving forward in any particular series, it’s about moving beyond it.

As practitioners, we are responsible for the struggles that present themselves on the mat. We must meet them, rather than run from them. And with practice, meeting them means getting up close and personal with them through our bodies pretty much everyday with as much equanimity as we can muster until they loose their power. We might relax into them, melting into some mythical grace, or we might fight them tooth and nail in some epic shit fight, there’s no blue print for how exactly we are meant to face these moments. But I think we must trust that the struggle is there for a reason, that it serves some greater purpose other than to annoy or frustrate us, it isn’t getting in the way of our ease and happiness–rather, it is the way.


Continuing to grow here in Mysore SF. It is such a pleasure to be working in such a space where the practice and the teaching is so very alive, so very real–real in the struggle as much as the joy of practice. There’s an alchemical force in the room. The potential for transformation is there. Very grateful to be taking part in it. Mysore is Mon-Thur, 6-9am. Led Class is Fridays 6am and 7:30am. Sunday Mysore is 2nd and 4th Sundays (no class September 27, it is moon day). 

The Offering

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Honoring Guruji, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, on his 100th birthday. Of course, Hanuman too.

Today a student brought flowers for Hanuman and Guruji–a beautiful offering. The real offering, however, is the simple and, yet, at times, difficult task of coming to class. The sacred act of showing up, no matter what that looks like, no matter what it feels like, no matter whether we are completing first, second, third, part of standing, turning up on our mats each morning is the offering we make to our teacher, to ourselves, to our deepest purpose. To practice is to bow respectfully as you lay freshly picked flowers before your teacher. It is a kind of work/prayer that is continuous, that doesn’t ask for anything other than to be allowed to be in existence, in gratitude and in love.

PHOTO: Hanuman and Guruji, honored with flowers in Mysore SF. It has been a beautiful and challenging opportunity teaching on my own here these few weeks. I am grateful to all the students who did the simple and yet sometimes so difficult task of showing up. (Guruji would have been 100 years-old this week).

Feet on Ground

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The great art of grounding. It seems like the most simple and natural thing in the world, right? After all, don’t we all stand on two feet? Yet, how many of us find it challenging to be truly steady?

I must admit, having lived the last few years on the road, this is not strong point. But as I ground here in San Francisco, I am rediscovering my land legs and reassessing what it means to be grounded. My relationship with the ground is changing because it is no longer constantly shifting underneath me. For years I sought strength from my center in order to be spry and flexible and to find steadiness in a world of movement. Presently, without all that whirling, I am surprised to find that my relationship with the ground is not what it should be. In this relative stillness, I am finding my feet, the whole feet, the weight, how it engages the legs and feeds into the center–all of which existed before, but now, with solid ground beneath me, I feel both the support and, well, the challenge of it. The ground does not give. Push on it and it pushes back–and that’s even more supporting.

As a result I’ve been on the watch for it, not only in my own practice but in the practices of those who are in my care at present–which I suspect makes me kind of a pain sometimes. I know what it’s like to be standing on two feet and not really interacting with the ground and I’m starting to understand what it’s like when that relationship is strong and active and how it makes a huge impact in the integrity of every pose, of every vinyasa, of walking, of standing.

These days, each time I get on the mat, I ask myself, am I fully grounded, am I fully interacting with the ground beneath me, or am I just going through the motions, my feet and the floor beneath me, just barely touching.

PHOTO: Finding my feet in San Francisco. Mural Room, De Young Museum.

Moon Day Practice

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Today, as I sat having tea with some beautiful devi-friends at the Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, which was preceded by a lovely morning walk around the grounds, which was preceded by a much appreciated lie-in (anything past 4:15am is a luxurious sleep in for me during the week), I could not be more grateful for Moon Days–full moon and new moon are rest days in terms of practice, thus, I also do not teach on these days.

This New Moon felt both restful and nourishing. The opportunity to engage with the morning differently, to seek out community outside the practice space, to be outdoors and enjoy the summer sunshine–a scarcity here in San Francisco until recently. To observe moon days are a practice in themselves, and an extension of our yogasana practice. It is the practice of rest, of honoring the needs of the body to rejuvenate itself, of honoring the needs of our subtle bodies–the nervous system, the mind, the emotional body–to integrate the information that is gleaned during yogasana practice.

It is a practice to calibrate ourselves with the cyclical nature of the moon–and, thus, with nature itself. This happens naturally when we observe the moon days. We allow for the depth of practice to move beyond the rubber mat into the greater world we live in.

Particularly with this moon falling on a Wednesday, it feels like a holiday midweek. We often return from holidays with more energy, greater clarity, deeper resolve. This is an important part of practice; we ought to observe it, enjoy it, embrace it.

PHOTO: Buddha bathing in sunlight at the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park. It seems inseparable these days, yoga practice and life. Even during my break from practice, the trajectory was all to familiar: the balance of the Japanese garden, the use of elements to draw one into meditation, the discourse the ongoing journey to find the self in equanimity. Makes me smile. There is no real break from real practice.