Ah…to be present–easier said than done.
How often are we pulled into future projections, expectations? On the flip side, how often do we hold on to old feelings, stories? How many of us are haunted by memories?
How much do we actually live in the presentness of our lives–in all of its wonder, joy, messiness and complexities?
A couple of weeks ago, I was embroiled in a decision-making process that had me mulling over numbers and future scenarios, as well as past difficulties–all really good tools in terms of making well-informed choices. But I was distracted and confused by it all. In the end, however, it took settling into the present moment, weighing my own feelings about the things I actually know and experience to get to an answer that I could really sit with: that I am happy where I am and that I am little pressed to change that. It seemed so simple, just at that moment.
I am often baffled by my own mind, how it is pulled so easily in so many directions. Once again, practice is an amazing antidote for this. We get on that mat. We do our thing. Our focus and attention may wander here and there, but eventually they are pulled back into our center, and slowly over time we are training ourselves to experience THAT exact breath, THAT exact movement, to stop looking at others or beyond our current practice or our current posture, to trust that change will come when it’s time. When we start to live this experience of being present on our mat, we start to repair the damage of a world that cajoles us into seeking out some future happiness. That’s not to say we aren’t allowed to direct our energy, or even want things for ourselves–its about cultivating that harmony with simply being.
This, I feel, is also what Pattabhi Jois has so famously imparted on us: “Practice, practice, all is coming.” Again, easier said than done. Yet, they key is in the doing. Just practice–the strength, the flexibility, the āsana will all come, but also, perhaps most importantly, this appreciation for the present moment, whatever it looks like.
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
I love autumn, despite how unfortunately little I’ve experienced it, growing up in tropical Philippines and one-season wonder Los Angeles. I love the crispness in the cool air. I love seeing the leaves changing color. And then there’s this stirring, seeing the world before you change, how nature simply knows that soon it will be time to shed its old self, it accepts and celebrates this in a quiet show of subtle but tremendous beauty.
When I’ve been lucky enough to catch fall over these years of travel, I just fall in love with it (sorry, I could not help the pun!). I was in Arashiyama, Kyoto last weekend with a girlfriend and we both found ourselves jumping excitedly as we saw the bold reds, oranges and yellows of the mountainside, which had been, not that long ago, a pretty uniform green.
Autumn arrives here in Japan during a difficult week for both of my home countries. New regimes are stepping in to the highest seats of power and with them rhetoric and promises (some might call: threats) that is difficult to stomach and dangerous towards minorities. I have feel sad as a woman and as a first-generation immigrant, I worry for the safety and well-being of friends and family, particularly in post-election America.
The changing trees, however, remind me that transformation is always at work. There will always be shifts. Summer is not forever, winter will most definitely come, and, when all seems lost, spring will soon follow. Everything in its good time.
I don’t know how the world will change–though, I don’t plan on sitting idly and watching it all just happen.
But when I see the autumn leaves, I’m excited by it because it reminds me of something essential about myself. There will always be this time, this time of letting go, and that somehow this way I move forward. This is when I regroup, I look at my stores, knowing that energy is precious and limited and that its my duty to find where it is best served.
Our yoga practice likewise has its own seasons. Sometimes not quite in the same order, but sometimes very similar. The autumnal flow of practice is a pretty dramatic time, change is visible and tangible with the inescapable the feeling that we are at the end of something. We celebrate. Or mourn. There’s a great show before we huddle in for our deep internal winters, emerging when it’s time for spring.
As I process the changing world around me, I return to the lessons on the mat, looking for equilibrium by standing on my own two feet, by breathing deeply through the feelings of separation and fear, by examining my expectations for a world that appears to be going in a different direction. I am asking myself how do I balance a need for calm and collected thoughfulness while acknowledging that my participation is needed in the world I want to live in. I don’t exactly know how, but I do feel that I’m equipped with a way to do it.
One thing is for sure–and has always been a certainty–the world is changing and, like it or not, we will change with it.
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.