Practice of Pieces 

 

 

 

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

 

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Bookish Beware: Less Reading, More Experience

 

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A world of books. A rare little independent Japanese book seller in Nakatsu, Osaka.

I’ve always identified myself as being a literary person. I studied English literature in university and even majored in creative writing. I love books, the actual physical touch of them, the weight of them in my hands, the smell of paper. As a youth, books were my escape from an awkward adolescence. My first experiences of love, obsession, heartache were from the novels I read, even the experience of reading them was very real to me, from forming attachments to the characters to feeling sadness when our time together would inevitably end in the last pages of a story. I still enjoy getting engrossed in a good novel, but I don’t seek them out as much as I used to.

My last bookish phase came with the beginning of my yoga practice. I collected as many books on yoga, I wanted to understand it, to use the same love for words to experience this new way of living. I don’t think I read through a third of these books that take a whole shelf on my bookcase in Manila. The ultimate teacher is always life itself, every book, lecture, teacher is a supplement to the greater lesson-maker which is life.

No one and nothing can show you the experience of anything. One might help facilitate or guide or share. Ultimately the job of experiencing anything is our own. We must, simply, experience it. To learn yoga, we must must practice. To live life, we must live.

Sometimes, I miss my books. I miss the old me totally absorbed in the pages of another world. But I also know that my lack of enthusiasm for a world of paper, stories and information is due to a greater engagement with the world that I live in–that these days, I favor activities that dissolve the stories and words that have previously defined me and my life. And perhaps, in the future, I will enjoy reading again with the same voracity as before, but for now, I am content in enjoying the moment before me, the unfolding story of life in real time.

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 Light Is On, Mysore Room KL

 

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.

 

The ashtanga lineage: Patanjali, Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois watching over Mysore Room.

 

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.

 

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.

Catching Wind, Empowering Practice


So many times I have found myself blown in certain directions. Mostly, though not exclusively, with incredible positive outcomes. Even gale force-like winds and maelstroms, which might have moored me into isolation or thrown me into some catastrophic disaster, would eventually abate and I would land wherever with the softness of a feather. I consider myself blessed to have had such good luck to be propelled so. I also know, that in many ways, I called for it, that I invited the elements myself to move me. Time and time again, I’ve taken myself to some peak, opened my arms in surrender, and like wings unfurled, I would get picked up and thus be transported.

I wondered, however, what would it be like if I participated more in this act of flight? The last year in particular has been about recognizing the difference between flowing with things and flying myself.

It’s been an amazing process, coming to a deeper understanding that all this raw energy can be transformed and directed. That I am not prey or play thing to the forces I perceived to be much greater than myself, but, instead, an active player, instigator, herder of energy.

There is so much in this; the world at large is packed with potential energy, raw, unharnessed. In the microcosm of us, we are likewise full of unrealized vitality and force. When we learn to access this, when we learn to use it skillfully, to move it in certain directions, something huge shifts. We are empowered.

This naturally happens when we practice. There’s this wealth of untapped energy in our bones, our connective tissues, our muscles, our breath, our thoughts and hearts. Our practice helps us soften the gross layers, physical and subtle, emotional and mental, that keep us from connecting with our own physical/metaphysical body.

When we practice with consistency over a long period of time, we start tapping into these energies, which then become apparent in the practice itself. We extract energy from the practice and it fuels us. Our bodies become efficient, so does our breath, we develop an economy of thought and effort and before we know it, we are no longer consuming energy but creating it, so ample that it overflows and drips into our lives causing all sorts of creative bounty /mayhem.

This is my tenth year of yoga practice. It’s not a very long time–I continue to feel like a babe in the woods–but it’s not a short time either. Whatever length it is, it is long enough to observe the effects of practice, how it’s changed, how it’s changed me, how my life has changed because of it.

These days in Cairo’s Nūn Center, there are a number of beginners and some students returning to practice after a substantial break. And naturally the struggles that come with starting an ashtanga practice begin to appear: the body gets tired, the mind wavers, the internal debate on whether to go to class starts when the alarm rings in the morning.

I remember my teacher saying that if you never leave your practice, it will never leave you. I still have those days where doing my own practice is like going to battle with myself. What he said, though, it’s true, and it gets me on my mat, it gets me through the first sticky sun salutation, and, eventually, the practice helps me catch wind.

Mysore Classes here at Nūn continue. Sunday to Thursday, 7:30-10am. This week, we are adding Ashtanga Basic classes Monday and Wednesday at 7pm. These classes can be used as an introduction to the morning Mysore program. Drop ins and all levels are welcome!