Ashtanga Yoga and Ramadan

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
8:30-10:30am
4:30-6:30pm
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)

NŪN CENTER is located at 4 Shafik Mansour, Zamalek. Call or email us for questions or to book for Ramadan: 0122 398 0898 / we@nuncenter.com. http://www.nuncenter.com

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The Practice of Flight


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.

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.

 

Cairo, The Romance Continues

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Taken at Cairo’s Gezira Club by the late Zeinab Lamloum, a great photographer, devoted ashtanga student and good friend.

There are some places that simply draw us, that holds a place in our hearts and our imaginations, that stirs in us some deep kind of recollection of what it is to be terribly, beautifully human. Since late 2013, that place for me has been Egypt. So, in this year which I’ve dedicated to living more fully, more authentically, making my fourth teaching trip to Cairo feels like a pretty good idea.

Over the last few years, I realize, I have formed an interesting, and ever changing, relationship with the place and its people. My first trip, I subbed for fellow teacher, Egyptian Iman Elsherbiny when she took her own trip to study with our teacher in Mysore, India. That first experience was like stepping into someone else’s life, living in her apartment, teaching her classes, being taken around by her friends. My second trip, I joined forces with Iman to help her open her new yoga space, The Shala in Maadi, during which we did a few retreats together which solidified our own sisterhood; her friends became our friends. The last time, I was teaching workshops and retreats, mostly on my own, I spent practically every weekend away from Cairo, it was beautiful but discombobulating. I started to make my own connections, but it was snippets of a life in a whirlwind.

In a way, over those trips, Egypt and I were having a romance, intense but fleeting, substantial enough that it has kept me wanting more; so risky at times that I wanted to keep myself at a safe distance. Still, the feeling remains, I know that Egypt and I like each other.

It’s been nearly a year and a half since my last meeting with Egypt and I wonder whether we’ll jive or not, whether we can we still top the magic of the first, second, even the third time?! I’m not going to try to think too much or speculate the possibilities. I can’t speak for Egypt, but I know I’ve changed and I have a feeling that in the backdrop of Cairo I will know how much more different I am from the other times I’ve come to visit. I know I have grown there, and I know there is probably more growing to do together.

I have different intentions than previous trips. Instead of seeking adventure, wanting to teach everywhere and spreading myself too thinly, I am concentrating my energy, hoping for a stable two and a half months of teaching and self-study.

This time, I am making Nūn Center in Zamalek my base for two months, while continuing to offer Inner Dance in The Shala in Maadi, where the healing modality grew a steady following by the end of 2014.

Between April 17 and June 10, I will be teaching a Sunday to Thursday Mysore program between 7:30-10am at Nūn Center (pronounced “noon,” Nūn is the symbol for primordial water in Ancient Egypt), along with supplementary weekend workshop classes on Friday mornings that will include “Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga” and various themed explorations paired with the traditionally counted led class. For more information on the Nūn  Ashtanga and Inner Dance offerings, please check out the website http://nuncenter.com. Email or call for bookings and inquiries we@nuncenter.com/+20 122 398 0898.

I will also be facilitating Inner Dance in The Shala in Maadi on Thursday evenings. For information on the Inner Dance schedule please call 01223717729-01222384498 or check out The Shala Facebook Page.

There will surely be more in store, dates are being floated and ideas are brewing. So, please continue to check in for updates.

I can’t say where this romance will take me, but I suspect it’s where I want to be going, deep into the personal work that fuels my own teaching, my hunger for learning, and my love for living. I’m excited to say: Cairo, I’m coming.

For Weekly Mysore Classes & Friday Workshops
Nūn Center
4 Shafik Mansour, Zamalek, Cairo
we@nuncenter.com/+20 122 398 0898

For Thursday Night Inner Dances
The Shala
6, Road 200 (in front of the South Africa Embassy), Maadi, Cairo
01223717729-01222384498

 

Fly Your Prayers

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Paris, Beirut, Syria, Iraq, the list goes on. So much darkness all around. There is too much loss, one too many people displaced, everywhere there is suffering. And from practically everywhere, too, at least a week ago, after the attack on Paris, prayers were launched via hashtags towards the darkest places on the planet at that moment. A week on and social media is now abuzz with the backlash from all sides: criticism and fear-mongering.

What to do now? Where do we all go from here? Incredibly big questions for incredibly complex problems, which have a whole lot of history that needs, first, understanding, and then careful and steady undoing. What happens now to all these prayers?

Over the months here in San Francisco, I have had the great opportunity to explore the ashtanga practice and intention-making as medicine with some amazing teachers. There is a great healing energy that comes with declaring one’s clear and simple prayer. It is personal, our prayers are our own but they are also universal. Your prayer for peace and happiness and love–guess what, everyone wants that too! We forget that, ultimately, we want and deserve the same things, yet we continue to build walls of separation–personal and physical and political boundaries.

When we come to our mats and we practice, we open with a mantra. In the western yoga community, there’s a lot of sensitivity about what that is. For me, it’s a prayer. The essence of this prayer honors the great process of being led from darkness to light. We sound this out and then we practice. We plant this sound, this seed, into our body and then we nourish it with our breath, our movement and our attention. And whoever has been really practicing knows that this prayer becomes alive, it grows in the body and blooms in one’s life.

When we practice, we fly our prayer. It grows wings and it soars.

It’s really good to see people express their prayers, their hopes, even their admonishments during these difficult times because it shows that we as a community of human beings acknowledge that the world should not be like this. But how do we now live in these prayers, how do we breathe life into them, and walk into them with grace, how do we take these hashtags and sounds and ideas and bring them into a living practice that can support substantial change?

I feel personally challenged by this, how can I be this prayer, for myself as much as for everyone else.  I know it will look different for me in my life as it will for someone else. But I hope that we all start to do so, to really live in these prayers.

I want to close with a poem from Rumi that a friend sent a couple of days ago just as I was starting to write this blog. These questions are very old and perhaps we should defer to wisdom of the Sufi poet:

What will our children do in the morning?
Will they wake with their hurts wanting to play, the way wings should?

Will they have dreamed the needed flights and gathered the strength from the planets that all man and woman need to balance the wonderful charms of the earth?

So that her power and beauty does not make us forget our own.

I know all about the ways of the heart-how it wants to be alive.

Love so needs to love that it will endure almost anything, even abuse, just to flicker for a moment. But the sky’s mouth is kind, its song will never hurt you, for I sing those words.

What will the children do in the morning if they do not see us fly?

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.

Shine On: Happy Diwali!

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Be Light. Happy Diwali!

Today is one of my favorite festivals in India. Well, except, when I am, actually in India–then it’s a little harrowing, very loud, and driving a scooter across town is akin to traveling across war zones as one needs to weave deftly around pockets of merry-making firework-obsessed celebrants making noise and explosions very few meters from each other.

Diwali is the Festival of Lights. It is a reminder than even in the darkness of the new moon today, that each of us is an oil lamp, that we each have a role of lighting each other’s path.

It has been an amazing period of time for me here in San Francisco. Amazing for all of the gifts, but likewise so were all the challenges. Being stationary for the last 7 months has given me a chance to really sit with myself and stand in my own life–and it was at the darkest stages where I saw the most light. That is the relationship between light and dark, the great common sense between the duality of it.

I am grateful to all those night lights, bright and shiny human beings, who I feel incredibly blessed to know. I also know that in these exchanges, I have been the same, a little light that has helps in the dark.

I like to think that at some point, I should be able to see my own light all the time. Perhaps when that happens, the path disappears and there isn’t anywhere else to go. Until then, let’s tend those oil lamps, celebrating not just the lights all around us, but that deep internal glow that never gets extinguished. Shine on, everyone!

Happy New Moon, as well as Diwali, no class at Mysore SF today. Take rest. See everyone back on the mat on Thursday.