Drawing on Sand

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Drawing on Sand

Last week, I hit a beautiful stride in practice. All was flowing smoothly: the breath, the corresponding postures. Even my difficult poses seemed to be giving way. Backbending, which has been so elusive of late, seemed to have returned. I was so happy.

The last two days, however, has been a different story with a completely different body. I’m not thrilled, but I also accept that this is a part of the journey.

It’s a humbling reminder that sometimes practice is a little like drawing on sand, that some depths take a great deal of time to set, that there is a certain impermanence to day to day practice, that it takes little to sweep away what we have so artfully crafted.

Still, there is no need to be frustrated. There is no need to be attached. This is the nature of things, that nothing stays the same, least of all our minds, our bodies.

Maybe this is the greater lesson: to know that what we do, what we create, what we breathe life into will inevitably change, or die, or go away–and not just be ok with that, but instead actively celebrate this cycle of life and living.

 

Photo: Zeina composing circles in the sand, the sun setting behind her, during our Ashtanga in the White Desert Retreat. White Desert, Farafra, Egypt.

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Snakes & Ladders, The Game of Practice

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Surely as we develop strength and flexibility, both in the body and in the mind, the practice should get easier. Right?

Practice doesn’t always work that way; it isn’t black and white; it isn’t so straightforward.

Since last week, for example, I’ve been struggling with kapotasana (pidgeon pose), a posture that I had thought I’d gotten to know, gotten comfortable with. Kapo and I made friends, I thought…

But between deepening my relationship with my leg behind the head and the winter weather here in Barcelona (it’s mild I know, but I am have been living many many many years in the tropics), what was once manageable has gotten a whole lot harder. In fact, backbending in general, which I really love, has changed so dramatically over the last two weeks, it’s been startlingly humbling.

I realize, however, that I have a choice: I could despair, I could get frustrated or angry, I could give up this crazy leg behind the head business and preserve the postures that I’d worked so hard  for, that I was admittedly very attached to–the later of which may be one of the reasons, along with tight hips, why it’s taken me so log to get here, this awkward place–

Or I could just practice; practice with acceptance that my body is adapting and that it’s not always easy; practice with patience that these openings take time; practice with understanding that moving forward sometimes comes with its share of backsliding–that practice is an interesting game of snakes and ladders; practice with trust, with faith in this system which has just about turned around every limited thought I have even had about the bounds of my own physical body; practice with love, showing up everyday with an open heart and mind…

Guruji, Pattabhi Jois, said it best: “Practice, practice, all is coming…”

PHOTO: This photo–like practice, like life–taken in “black and white” is full of subtleties in tone and shades. We will be talking more about the struggles that come with practice on the Sunday, March 1 workshop on the Bhagavad Gita, Pazzifica Ashtanga Yoga, Barcelona. More details on www.pazzifica.com.

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.

Feeling Feedback

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Feeling Feedback

There I was at kapotasana (pidgeon pose) yesterday morning nearly a week since touching heels. The New Year’s revelry in Sinai, trek back to Cairo, and travel to Barcelona–where it has taken some days to settle in both in life and in practice–had taken a toll on me. Needless to say, it was an intense five inhales and exhales.

As I sprung out of it, I felt an old emotion in my chest, a soft explosion, a subtle but potent release. I gasped aloud, grateful that I was alone self-practicing because crying came so very naturally with the breath. I felt my heart. I was surprised and relieved to feel a release from an old ache, which had been hiding so very stealthily in my body.

There you are, I thought, pulling myself together and getting on with the rest of practice–still crying, mind you.

Sometimes we can see it coming, this wave of emotion from some deep down place, moved out of its hiding place by one or a combination of unpredictable factors: real life events, an hour and a half of deep concentrated effort, strong intentions, a deep stretch or posture…

As a teacher, it’s quite a sight when you’re watching from a distance. The signs can be so clear, the flow of practice perturbed by the movements of the heart and mind. We actually look as delicate as we feel at these moments. The breath changes. The vinyasa stutters. The posture wobbles. Brows furrow. The face changes.

Other times it catches us unawares, and it feels a little bit like being an innocent bystander observing some great but secret shift happening in the mind, heart and body. And then it passes…sometimes softly, other times not so.

When it comes–and if you practice long enough and with enough consistency, these moments certainly will come–we must honor them. We must give ourselves enough space to observe this process called yoga, to learn the lessons that come, to work out what needs to get worked out. But this too needs to be balanced with a healthy amount of surrender, of letting things go and simply getting on with it, returning to the breath, returning to the steadiness of practice.

Photo: Mat laid out for my own practice this morning after the mysore class at Pazzifica Ashtanga Yoga in Barcelona. When I look at this photo I see a very special meeting place, where me and the deep down parts of me get to know each other intimately.