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.

The Practice of Finding Those Wide Open Spaces

 

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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.

When It’s Tough to Practice

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Life is not always so accommodating towards practice. There’s, of course, a work, personal and domestic life balance that needs to be maintained. And we learn to negotiate between them.

There are the other times, however, where it is not a matter of time as much as it is a matter of space–emotional space. When the factors above close in on us, it takes a toll. And the tool, our sadhana, which we so often rely on to help us deal with stress and tension, amplifies our emotions, whether it’s anger, or frustration, or pain, or sorrow, or…the list goes on. At the best of times, practice can be a slow uphill battle. When under emotional duress, it can be total carnage.

What then? The teacher’s answer would be to practice anyway. Easier said than done, I know. But when it’s tough to practice, this is when we need to be practicing the most. The mat, the practice, is a sharp yet subtle mirror, and facing it when times are challenging is difficult but ultimately helpful because it does its job. It allows us to see ourselves and the issues that weigh heavily on us.

Practice anyway.

Practice any way. It may not be your optimum, it may not even be your full practice, perhaps it’s simply getting through sun salutations, maybe it’s just getting on the mat and breathing before the thoughts and feelings crowd in on you. Then, come back and do more the next day, giving your body and breath the space to expand. The sheer guts and determination to show up for yourself can become a wellspring of inspiration and strength.

If you have the courage, the heart for it, watch carefully, observing the places of discomfort and the places where there is space. Each day watch as it gets better because everything changes. The practice itself becomes a vehicle for these small or big shifts. Slowly, what was originally disempowering becomes its opposite. When it’s tough to practice, just practice.

Practicing at Dawn

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December 20, 2013.

It’s dark. The air is still a night time cool. The horizon’s color is just starting to brighten with the rising sun. And the moon, the moon still hovers over the Nile River.

In terms of practicality, of winter weather, it seems an odd time to get on the mat. But here in Aswan, with the air so fresh, with students still in bed before the first full day of the retreat, it’s an ideal time to wake, stretch and welcome the rising sun.

Key words today: gratitude and potential as I prepare for my first solo retreat: Ashtanga in Aswan.

Sunday sadhana

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Sunday sadhana

“The power of a movement lies in the fact that it can indeed change the habits of people. This change is not the result of force but of dedication, of moral persuasion.”

-Stephen Biko
South African Political Leader

Storm signals were up this morning, yet students still filled the room. Practice is always best when performed with love and dedication. So grateful to be in such dedicated company.