Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The practice is in the process

Recently a student, let’s call her Emma, approached me before class to ask me if she was good enough to stay. She had been to another teacher’s ‘advanced’ class and had basically been asked to leave. I understand that the teacher was probably trying to keep Emma safe, since she was at a different level to the rest of the class, but it had the unfortunate effect of externalizing her yoga experience. I tried to reassure her that if she was feeling comfort and release in her practice, she was doing fine, but after class she came to me again to ask if she did OK. I asked her how she felt: she said she felt great. “That,” I told her, “is how you did.”

A lot of the yoga we learn these days is very goal-oriented; we want to achieve difficult or impressive postures, regardless of whether they are actually appropriate for us, or even important. There is nothing wrong with striving in your yoga practice; there is a goal to every practice, and it could be physical achievement. The idea, however, is to practice for the sake of the practice, rather than to reach an end goal. Imagine you are reading a really good book. Do you want to finish as fast as possible, or do you savour every word, and feel a little disappointed when you reach the end? It’s the same with yoga – you want to be fully present when you practice, feeling the sensations in body, mind and breath. If you happen to achieve a posture you didn’t manage before, and if it makes you happy, great. But this is not the main reason for being on the mat. The main reason for being on the mat is being on the mat. Or, put another way, the practice is in the process.

This is one of those yogic mind-twisters – just as we learn to twist our bodies in asana practice, so the philosophy behind yoga is sometimes simple yet far from easy! In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says:

Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah (I: 12)

Abhayasa can be translated as dedicated practice, and vairagya as non-attachment to the fruits of your efforts. These two together lead to nirodhah, a state of stillness, quietness in the fluctuations of the mind. This is the whole point of yoga:

Yogascitta vrtti nirodhah (I:2)

Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, or, according to TKV Desikachar,Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards one object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” This happens because ending unnecessary mental activities can create clarity and one pointed focus.

It seems so simple – we practice the asana, with dedication but without obsession, and we get where we want to go. Except that we have to focus on the journey – keep our eyes on the road, as it were – or we will crash before we get there.

One of the most effective ways to stay present is to observe your breath rather than your body – many people have told me they experience physical breakthroughs on the days they are more focused on the texture and quality of their breath.

In life as in yoga, these principles can be applied – try to be fully engaged in the process of what you are doing, rather than focusing on the end result (cheating yourself out of what is here right now). Imagine again that book you enjoy reading so much: you can simply read it and enjoy the pleasure it gives you, or you can spend a lot of your reading time planning to read the two sequels so you can say you read all three books in a weekend. Which sounds nicer?

Ironically, if you bring your full awareness to what you are doing right now, you will do it better, and you will probably find the results come more easily. Another yogic mind-twister!

This month, spend time during your yoga practice noticing, really noticing your breath. Do this for a couple of days in a row and then notice if you find yourself more present and less worried about results.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Shameless Bragging

I had to, I couldn't resist. Even though I only make the most passing of cameo appearances, I am in the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Yoga + Joyful Living, in Anna Dubrovsky's artcle about yoga school last year. My five minutes of fame!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Yoga Playlist

I know some of you like the music I play in class, so here is a list of my personal favourites, all available at emusic for next to nothing.

Yoga Groove (DJ Free and Brent Lewis)

Yogafit: Music for Slow Flow Yoga
(Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors)

Loveland (Jai Uttal and Ben Leinbach)

Music for Yoga and Other Joys (Jai Uttal and Ben Leinbach)

Ahata Nada (Alanna Kaivalya) - I really love this one!

The last of the current favourites is Putumayo's Asian Lounge - not on emusic, but available at any good music store.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The 5 Physiological Principles and Yoga

Ever wondered why your practice is different from day to day?

This a great explanation. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Get OFF the mat!

Yesterday a student came to chat to me after class. He stood on my yoga mat. I tried really hard not to, but in the end I had to ask him to get off. Uptight behaviour? Probably. It's just that my mat seems like an extension of me, and standing on it without permission is a lot like standing on my toe without permission. The poor man was somewhat taken aback, as I usually seem quite relaxed.

I never stand on people's mats unless I am giving an adjustment, or the class is so crowded it is impossible not to. I wouldn't want to step on their toes. For the rest of the day, I noticed the mat behaviour of other people. Interestingly, nobody else stood on my mat. They stepped around it, or stood on the floor next to it if they wanted to chat. Now I don't deliberately tell people I have a 'mat thing', so how did they get there?

I think it may be an issue of boundaries and personal space - different for all of us, and issues always arise when one personal has different ideas of personal space to another.

I would love to know what you all think!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Confessions of a Curvy Yogini

Mostly, I feel pretty good about myself. Not always, but mostly. Not so the last few days. It may be because my skin is even shinier (read greasier) than usual, and my limbs have been sweat-sticky from the heat. I have been feeling cumbersome and uncomfortable.

It's at times like these that I miss my Ashtanga body. Although I had a sore neck and wrists, and there was that hamstring injury, my body fat was lower; I was closer to our cultural ideal of beauty. It's a source of great frustration to me that I should still fall prey to external ideas about my appearance - and then bring them into my internal world. Body image is one of those things that needs constant attention, otherwise the bad old self-loathing habits creep back in.

I have just finished Kelly McGonigal's Befriending your Body practice, and I already feel better. The creeping sense that everyone is staring at my chubby little arms (there, now you know my worst fear) has abated somewhat. The weight issue is a tough one, though, even for a dedicated yogini - on more than one occasion I have felt the pressure to look like those buff hotpant-wearing Yoga Journal models. I just keep reminding myself that internal comfort is more important than some unattainable physical ideal. It really really is.

Just don't stare too hard at the arms next time you see me!

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Tale of Three Kitties

Kitty One:
Street cat. Every-hungry, prone to undue hissing and spitting, often has rheumy eyes.

Kitty Two:
You know those cats who are either so inert or so ailing that they look as if they have already had a visit to the taxidermist? These are those cats.

Kitty Three:
This kitty is very very comfortable in her own skin, probably because it is so glossy and healthy. She just knows that everyone she meets is going to improve her life in some way. Spends no time worrying about where her next meal is coming from.

If these cats were yogis, they would correspond roughly to the three states of nature (guna): rajas, tamas and sattva.

According to TKV Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga,

Rajas is active, fiery, the one that induces us to act. Sometimes it pushes our mind into a state of constant activity and we cannot be still: that state is characterized by restlessness and agitation. Tamas is the opposite of rajas; it is a fixed, immobile, heavy state of mind. Sattva is the quality of insight that is white, clear, and transparent. It is a state of mind in which neither of the other two guna predominate. According to the relationship between rajas and tamas, duhkha [suffering] will take different forms. Our goal is to reduce these two guna until our mind achieves a state of sattva.

Which kitty do you choose?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I love goodies that make life more interesting. One of my current favourites is Soil's Rose Geranium Organic Hydrosol, which I get from Greenlands. Its basically a yummy flower water - I spray it on the bedlinen when making the bed, on my face and neck when I am overheated, and sometimes just into the air to scent the room. And the best thing: it only costs R30 or thereabouts. It's great for the conscience because it is locally and organically produced, too.

Another fave is my Bloom lipgloss, from Woolies new cosmetics counter - a very welcome gift from a friend.

It's these little things that make each day special for me.

What are yours?

Thursday, January 04, 2007


It’s so ironic: I am a yoga teacher (which, lets be honest, implies a more relaxed lifestyle than usual) and I found myself with a chronic shortage of time and energy towards the end of last year. Maybe I felt left out when I heard everyone else’s complaints about working too hard/not having enough time?

These days, it really is difficult to live a balanced life, since more and more seems to be expected of us, and there are still only 24 hours in a day. Yoga means union and therefore balance between ha (sun) and tha (moon). This balance needs to apply to all polar opposites – our masculine and feminine selves, upper and lower body, heaven and earth, back and front, left and right, work and play. But how do we even think about getting there?

It depends a lot on how balanced you feel – we all have a different comfort zone for how hard we can work (or play) without getting ill, or depressed, or just plain grumpy. As a rule, all of us need at least a little quiet time every day to recharge the batteries. Look at your life, and try to earmark what needs to be changed.

Go through all the main areas: work, family, studies, social, spirituality and so on. Note which areas are fine, and which are a drain. Some things can’t be changed, and some can, but there is usually a way to make your days flow more smoothly. If you are a parent, and your kids are small, the concepts of free time and sleep will be foreign to you, but it is ok to cut down in other areas like socialising. Also decide what is important to you and what isn’t; notice how much time you actually spend on the unimportant stuff (it’s almost certainly not all necessary) and see whether that can be reduced.

For example, although I absolutely love my work, one of my main issues was the amount of driving I was doing – it wasn’t unusual for me to spend four hours a day in the car. Now I don’t like driving. I give the keys to my husband every time we go anywhere together. Clearly I had to change something. It wasn’t easy, because it meant I had to give up classes with people I had grown fond of, but the situation couldn’t stay as it was, so I did what I had to do. Granted I was prompted by illness, but you could be more sensible and do something before you get sick!

If you find that your actual job is causing most of the stress – perhaps the environment is very high pressure and you really hate being there – that too can change. There is always a way, if you allow yourself a little time and space to consider the options. If you really give yourself permission to change jobs or careers, opportunities seem to appear out of nowhere.

It may just be a matter of changing how you do things – instead of driving from one end of the city to the other, try to arrange your activities so they are all in the same area on a given day. Sometimes less is more too – you don’t have to accept every invitation that comes your way. If you prefer to spend that time in a nice bubble bath, do it!

Any yoga practice helps us feel where and how we are out of balance, by bringing our awareness to the quality of our breath (which is invariably short and restricted when we are stressed) and also to the sensations in front and back, left and right. A practice that emphasises asymmetrical poses, or forward bends paired with backbends, will help this process along.

And of course, actual balancing poses are very useful! Ironically, if you try to do one-legged balancing poses with an unfocused mind, you will wobble, but they also clear the mind, so if you persist through the wobbling, you feel more balanced afterwards.

My favourite is tree pose (vrksasana).

Stand with feet together, toes spread wide, and equal weight through both feet. Slowly shift the weight to your right foot, and place your left foot against your right inner thigh (or knee, or ankle, doesn’t matter). Keep the weight through the midline of your body, and if you are feeling balanced, as you inhale, raise your arms out to the sides and up, to touch palms overhead, then exhale to draw your hands to your heart in anjali mudra. (below)

Either stay for six breath without the arm movement, or repeat the arm movement six times with the breath. Then change sides. Ahhhhh, balance. (Yes, the tree in the background was deliberate!)

Notice which side felt easier, and how the left side felt different to the right. If you want to warm up before practicing tree, do dynamic tadasana six times first. Stand with feet together, inhale to come up onto tiptoes and raise arms out to and up, exhale to come down. Arms and feet move in unison with breath.

You can also try a simple pranayama breathing exercise, called anuloma (with the grain) ujjayi. Sit comfortably, either on the floor or a chair, and start to breath in and out using ujjayi breath, constricting the back of the throat so it sounds a bit like you are snoring. When you are comfortable, start to breathe out through alternate nostrils, using your right hand to control the flow of air. So breath in: ujjayi, breath out: left nostril (release the sound in the throat), breathe in at the throat, breath out: right nostril, and so on. Notice the difference between sides. Do a few rounds of this then rest, breathing normally, and notice how your breath feels.

As always, please make sure you are in good health before trying these exercises and stop if you feel anything is amiss.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Can but Shouldn't

I spent several years learning arm balances, mostly, if I am honest, to impress other people. They make my wrists hurt. They make me grumpy. Have a look at this photo of me doing bakasana (crane or crow pose) a couple of months ago; you can see the frown even in this teensy little pic.

So why do them if I hate them? Well, actually I don't anymore. When I had my yoga consultation at KYM, my teacher asked me not to do arm balances. At least not every day (they are very clever, they never outright ban things, knowing of course the appeal of the forbidden.) Apparently, women (especially those over 30, sigh) are not ideally designed to take so much weight in the arms, and our joints degrade over time, no matter how strong and flexible the musculature is.

The other day, I was chatting to my friend Ann, who is also a yoga teacher and one I really admire. She mentioned that she thought if I came back to a regular power or vinyasa yoga practice, I would hate it, because my practice is so focused on the breath now. Bah! I thought to myself. How would she know? So I tried a podcast vinyasa class at home. There were arm balances. I kept being instructed to move when I was halfway through a breath. It made me grumpy. It made my wrists hurt. In fact, just to make myself feel better, I ended up doing my regular practice, so I could feel my breath moving me.

I was able to do all the poses, but the question is: should I have? More and more, I believe yoga is a tool, not an end in itself, and the postures serve the breath, not the other way around. A competitive, goal-driven practice often distracts us from our inner worlds, and can sometimes lead to physical injury or emotional upset. Just as with all things in life, you need to do it the right way for you - there is nothing wrong with a rigourous practice, as long as it is making you feel better (honestly) and serving to lengthen and smooth the breath (again - being honestly aware of your breath). Its the honesty that's the bummer - my ego loves doing the flashy poses, but really, for me right now, they are not necessary. And I feel much better than I did before, both physically and emotionally.

Reading List

Hi all!
A lot of you ask what books to read to deepen your yoga practice - here is a list of my favourites!
I will add updates whenever I find a worthwhile book.

The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, by TKV Desikachar

Yoga of Heart: The Healing Power of Intimate Connection, by Mark Whitwell

Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness, by Donna Farhi

Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice, by Christy Turlington

The Spirit of Yoga, by Kathy Phillips

Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga, by Gary Kraftsow

Yoga for Transformation: Ancient Teachings and Practices for Healing the Mind, Body and Heart, by Gary Kraftsow

Hip Tranquil Chick: a Guide to Life On and Off the Yoga Mat, by Kimberly Wilson

The Tree of Yoga, by BKS Iyengar

Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul, by Sharon Gannon and David Life