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)
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
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.
In the mornings that I was teaching there, turning on the lights at Mysore Room in Kuala Lumpur was a bright reminder of what my teacher Sharath Jois calls the 4 D’s of Ashtanga Yoga. “Devotion,” “dedication,” “discipline,” and “determination” would light up the room, which was still dim before sunrise. These four attributes make a good ashtanga student, to be sure. The kind of student who gets up 6-days out of the week to meet their physical/mental/emotional edge sometimes before the crack of dawn, and then get on with the rest of their day. Truth is most students don’t come with these D’s built in.
Practice itself cultivates these characteristics over time. When I started practicing ashtanga yoga, I had no idea what it meant to be devoted to a spiritual method, I certainly didn’t know what it meant to dedicate myself to any one particular thing, nor did I have the discipline or determination to do so. My relationship with ashtanga started with one class, which eventually turned into three to four classes a week, and usually in the evenings after work. I would even take up other yoga styles, once in a while, for fun. Eventually, I was practicing in the morning daily. Over time, I was practicing more and more with devotion, dedication, discipline and determination. They came naturally with practice–sometimes with ease, sometimes with difficulty, but always quite naturally.
So if you’re feeling lacking in the 4 D’s, not to worry, everything comes with practice.
It was a pleasure to cover for my friends Yan Ong and Manuel Ferreira in their school Mysore Room in Kuala Lumpur. These two have created a very special place of learning ashtanga yoga in the heart of the city. Once traveling teachers, their move home to set up shop in Malaysia is so inspiring for me. For information on their classes, see www.mysoreroom.com.
About a month ago, I was feeling so cramped up being mostly in the small the suburb of Gokulam in Mysore, India. I felt this incredible restlessness that could only be quieted by riding my scooter out into the fast road out of town, towards the open rice fields and farmland along the Cauvery River. I was nervous at first, unsure of the way, because I rarely ventured out alone. I had gotten complacent and comfortable in my surroundings, little noticing until that moment that I craved for more than yoga practice, houses, wandering livestock and fellow yoga students.
I remember feeling great relief when the landscape opened up. It was a reminder that wide open green space, fresh air and nature was so readily available so long as I was willing to leave my comfort zones.
This is often what I feel in my own practice and body. How the body I sometimes think I have is a little different from the body I actually have. How, at times, I perceive my limitations as permanent state of being.
Our yoga practice helps us find space where we might think there is none. These spaces can be small, or big, or so subtle that they appear to hardly exist in the body. It can be the difference between comfort and dis-ease, lightness or suffering. At times these spaces are in our minds only, and when we respond to challenges better, we create space and this, too, reflects in our body.
In no way is pushing a good thing. Knowing our limitations is also a good thing too, it keeps us safe. Do not push, but rather be willing to explore, to step beyond what is comfortable and easy, because beyond that bit of uncertainty these is so much space.