Happy Chinese New Year: Unleash the Horse Within

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This Chinese New Year, Unleash the Horse Within

Photo: Untether the horse within. Sweet surrender to the wind, Aswan, Upper Egypt.
All Rights Reserved Karina Al Piaro Ⓒ

I wrote last night, at the eve of the Chinese New Year:

“I enter the year of the horse
hair loose, heart singing,
wild imagination running
free with possibility…”

en Español (un traducción simple):

“Yo entro el año del caballo
pelo flojo, corazon cantando
imaginación salvage corre
libre con la posibilidad…”

I was going to start this post with Kung Hei Fat Choi, which loosely translates to “well wishes, may good fortune come your way,” which is the standard greeting during the Chinese New Year festivities. All well and good, but not actually what I want to say.

Whether you put any credence in Chinese Astrology or not, the horse is a rich archetype that has a deep resonance in many cultures around the world.

We think of the horse as strong, willful, loyal, courageous and fast. It can be gentle and it can also be dangerous.

Carl Jung identifies the horse archetype as our unconscious, animal side. This great beast symbolizing passion unbridled, the powerful forces buried deep within our psyche.

So, in this, the start of the Wood Horse Year, let’s celebrate the wild Earth spirit within us that wants to run free. Let us face this great beast of our own passions, of our hidden desires, of our hopes and our dreams with the same courageous spirit. Let us bridle it with great love, attention and tenderness; and ride! Ride with speed–finding the joyful “yoga,” or balance, between control and surrender.

Yoga, Egyptian-style…

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Since I started traveling last year, Pazzifica Ashtanga Yoga is the third mysore program I’ve subbed for. It’s been a full season for me: Osaka, Cairo & Barcelona. It’s fascinating to see how, although the essence is the same everywhere, the yoga practice adapts to to the different needs and cultures of the people in each place. The character of practice changes according to the personality of the people and the flavor of the place.

My time in Japan, confirmed what many teachers shared with me. My students in Osaka were incredibly keen, present, disciplined and attentive, especially to their teachers. They worked hard to deepen their practice and got the results to prove it. I miss them still, it was a real joy to work with them.

And Egypt…well…how to explain…

Needless to say, Egyptian students are not the same as Japanese students. This was apparent in the first workshop, which I co-tought with Iman Elsherbiny. Some students had interrupted the flow of the class to negotiate their way out of doing a certain posture. Iman and I locked eyes. She smiled and shared with the class that she had just briefed me on how Egyptian students were unique and here we were in negotiations, right in the middle of class. Everyone laughed, the students especially, they seemed to agree that they would sort of be a handful and, in their way, were consoling me about it.

Fast-forward to the end of my trip as I led the Aswan retreat, half peopled by regular students, some I met on that very first day. Already, my first morning of silence was thwarted. Everyone agreed to it, sure. But no one seemed to remember come morning. For this group of 17, I could sense that their combined energy didn’t make for silence, so I just rolled with it.

And then, on the final evening, just as the bonfire was being stoked into existence, I’d just barely turned around to fetch a cup of tea when a giant speaker was brought out. Before I knew it, students were taking turns playing smartphone DJ–attention deficient ones at that, we’d make it through halfway or maybe two-thirds of a song before someone changed the track. Still, everyone was up and dancing! Really joyfully dancing!

On one hand, I wondered: how had I so completely lost control of the group, how would I maneuver them into the thoughtful sharing at the closing circle and soulful kirtan that I had planned?!

On the other hand, it’s pretty freaking hard to get people’s energy up in this manner! And here they were just clapping and singing and laughing and dancing because that’s what Egyptians do at a party. And our retreat had become a party, a celebration, a gathering of new and old friends, who had seriously bonded over three days of yoga classes, meditations, great food and amazing sightseeing. We genuinely loved each other and reveled in each others’ company. I had to admit, I could not have done better.

There’s more to that evening: a yoga retreat theme song that was improvised at the spot and a special Egyptian style warrior pose that I can’t even begin to explain…so totally fun and awesome, yet so totally wrong and outrageous at the same time—a feeling that replicates for me when I think of Egypt, so totally indescribably strange and also very eerily perfect.

Yoga, Egyptian-style…It is what it is, so much like the people there and Egypt itself, it’s got its quirks but it’s got a lot of heart! I look forward to returning!

Today, just finished my second week here in Barcelona. Starting to get to know the students, a mixture of the global community that make up this very unique city. I look forward to getting to know this magical place through this group of students. So far: Me Encantada!

Photo: Wall art carved into Philae Temple walls in Aswan, Upper Egypt.

Playful Spaces

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Playing Outdoors

Yes, there are such things as ideal conditions for practice: a windless place, even floors. If you’re going to get all picky about it, you can go for wood floors and a temperature-controlled environment that duplicates the degrees produced by 65 bodies practicing in the shala in Mysore, India between the fall and winter months of the year.

Wherever you practice, you want to be able to cultivate focus and create a healthy platform for the body.

Recently, however, as I traveled between Aswan in Northern Egypt and Naweiba in Sinia, I found that outside the constructs of the “yoga studio”, spaces have a life of their own. They were often outdoors where cold, wind and sunlight  invariably come into the practice. Objects, passers-by, animals come into view, tugging at the focus. Noise calls for attention. In Naweiba, the most even ground was carpet atop gravel.

During the retreat I was teaching, there was one day we thought we had sneakily secured a chance to practice at a sweet spot in the Philae Temple in Aswan. The floor was stone, hundreds of years old. And even. I rejoiced at the flat surface on which we could go over the finer details of jumping forward and back in the vinyasa. That was until the guards totally panicked as they saw us get started on our colorful mats and we were only just standing and breathing. They freaked and ran us (infidels) out of the temple.

As a teacher, I wanted to be able to provide my students with the best learning experience. The space is a crucial part to that experience. And so far, we had no space and our poor logistics had resulted in unnecessary drama. As we chugged along in our boat to another island on the Nile River where our local guide said he knew a spot, I wondered whether I was failing my students in some way.

Said island was amazing. And sandy. Unevenly sandy! I tried not to panic. Instead, we started where we’d left off in Philae, “Aummmm,” getting on with the afternoon workshop program.

It wasn’t what I had planned–as I’d planned for having a nice stable ground to work with. But the result was so much better than I could have planned or anticipated. We adapted to the environment and adopted a sense of fun and playfulness that you can’t help but feel when you are out of doors, enjoying the afternoon sunlight, feeling the sand at your feet. It was probably the most fun class we had that weekend. It was spontaneous, light-hearted, but also quite challenging physically.

Sometimes the conditions for practice is far from perfect. Try not to scoff at it; for all you know it might be better than perfect!

Photo: So successful was our class in this spot that we planned the same outing for the second retreat in Aswan. This is batch 2 retreat participants enjoying their savasana in the late afternoon sun on the slope of this picturesque river beach.

Masks We Wear

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Unmask

We all have different masks we wear. Some, we hide behind. Some, we use as a shield to protect ourselves. These figurative masks can be tools of evasion, of subterfuge, of inauthenticity.

But what of the mask of practice, this mask of yoga which we put on each time we get on the mat? The face inevitably changes as we get into the flow–and at times, some kind of strange, indescribable thing happens. And we call it “yoga.”

What is this? Is this real? Or are we just pretending for the moment, wearing a guise of yoga?

In Africa, traditional masks, such as these pictured above, are used in ritual practices often with music and dance. The mask helps the wearer conceal his human identity and helps him transform into a medium between the earthly and spriritual realms

The mask of practice works similarly.

We come into it, this sacred ritual: the steady gaze and breath, the stoic expressionlessness of the face, only to disengage with our identifications with the self and attachments that come with that self.

And then, we dance. We dance to the most primordial sound, the rhythm of our own breath, communicating, connecting for that brief moment with something that exists beyond ourselves.

Photo: Traditional African mask collection in a shop in Aswan’s (Upper Egypt) souk.

Opening Circle

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Opening Circle

Looking at this photo, taken on the roof deck of Fekra Cultural Center in Aswan, makes me smile: oh, how over the course of the retreat, this empty circle filled! With people, with yoga practice, with peace, with camaraderie, with yoga! What an opening it created for each individual and for building community! When we gather with intention and explore yoga while-heartedly, things open…

The connections (to practice, to nature, to ourselves and with each other) made those days continues. On Facebook, the jokes, photo postings and well wishes keep on coming, but also in a more subtle level, there’s this sense of nourishment and calm in the body, heart and spirit.

And while time for retreat has passed and real life with all it’s complexities draws us further from our experience in Aswan, I remind myself that a circle has no beginning and it certainly has no end.

Photo: The start of the first Ashtanga in Aswan Retreat on December 19. Our circle awaiting filling.

Mauna Mornings

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When water is still, calm, unperturbed, it is easier for us to see out own reflection.

It is so different when the wind blows or there is a strong or even weak current. Sometimes, though, we ourselves cause disturbance. We throw rocks, causing tides and ripples, the mirror blurs. No need to throw rocks into the river, it is hard enough to get a clear picture in nature.

Photo: Men and bird, both fishing the Nile–the view yesterday morning from Fekra Cultural Center in Aswan. We are observing Mauna, a practice of mindful silence, during the mornings of this second retreat. There is something very special about the stillness here in the morning, the quiet supports the morning sadhana/practice.

Yoga Present

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P1220769Yoga Present

It’s the 24 of December. Christmas Eve in Aswan, Egypt. This afternoon, we are starting a second retreat here at Fekra Cultural Center in El Shalail, Aswan–for someone who grew up Catholic, it may seem strange to be working at this time of year, but really I can’t imagine a more perfect way of celebrating the holiday.

It’s a very different Christmas. There are no nativity scenes here, no tinsel, certainly no holly. There are no presents wrapped under a tree, at least not the kind one would expect; regardless, this is a time of giving.

There are different ways that we define “present.”

Present. An adjective. To exist in the moment. The etymology of this comes from the Latin, pre = before, esse = to be.

Present. A noun. A gift, an offering. There’s the notion of bringing something into someone’s presence.

Present. A verb. The act of showing, introducing, giving.

I can’t help but think that this might be my most authentic Christmas yet. Here we are about to start a yoga retreat, practicing tools that bring us into the present moment. All of us, reveling in the act of sharing, giving ourselves and each other sacred time and space.

This retreat is but a humble offering, it’s not wrapped in any fancy paper, there aren’t any fairy lights or surprise visits by Santa, but it’s real and it’s loving. And I feel so blessed to have another nine yoga explorers join us here in this very special place, honoring us with their whole-hearted presence.

Photo: Tree pose with Christmas Tree in the Old Cataract Hotel in downtown Aswan. A group of us went to enjoy a little Christmas cheer with coffee and cake!