I first met Emmeline a few years’ ago in India. Since then we’ve done AcroYoga together on various beaches and in London at TriYoga with Jason Nemer, one of the practice’s founders. In May we’re running a weekend of workshops together in St Albans, Herts.
I asked Emmeline why AcroYoga makes her tick.
I first got into AcroYoga in 2011 while doing my Yoga Teacher Training in Bali. I’d practiced yoga for 16 years but I soon became an AcroYoga convert.
I’d describe the practice as a fun combination of acrobatics, yoga, and Thai healing arts – Thai massage. It’s popular in the States and rapidly spreading worldwide. I’ve been addicted ever since. I guess there’s five reasons why:
It’s accessible to most people
It may look like the work of circus artists, but there are basic positions that nearly everyone can enjoy. I’ve done AcroYoga with my aunty and uncle, who are in their late 60s, much to their delight. And children absolutely love it!
You learn lots about yourself and others
Plato said “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”. In AcroYoga, we often test our limits and end up finding new strengths. Trust and communication are crucial – without them you’ll quickly end up just a heap of bodies on the floor.
It’s so engaging you won’t be able to think about anything else
When you’re balancing upside down on someone else’s feet it’s impossible to be anywhere else apart from the present moment. That can be hugely exhilarating and a great stress-buster.
You do it with other people
I love hatha yoga but it’s largely a solitary pursuit confined to your own mat. AcroYoga is done with a minimum of three people (a base, a flyer and a spotter) so it’s very sociable. Many towns have AcroYoga communities who meet regularly and ‘jam’ – it’s a great way of meeting lovely fun people.
It’s way more fun than the gym
I’ve never had much motivation to train in a gym. In AcroYoga we use each other’s body weight to build strength and flexibility. Balancing each other on our feet and hands is hugely entertaining and often involves a large amount of giggling. It’s a great workout and 100% more exciting than a stepmachine.
And did I mention already that it’s great fun?!
Emmeline and Clare’s AcroYoga weekend is suitable for beginners – to both AcroYoga and yoga in general. It’s 9-10 May at All Saints Studios, St Albans. For more information visit the workshop page.
When Emmeline isn’t AcroYoga-ing, she can be found on superyachts offering yoga instruction, massage and beauty treatments. To find out more about her, visit Angels on Board.
This weekend David Garrigues will be teaching at BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted, near London.
David Garrigues is the director of the Ashtanga Yoga School of Philadelphia. He is one of a few US teachers certified to teach Ashtanga Yoga by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. As an Ashtanga Ambassador he bases his teachings on the idea that ‘anyone can take practice’ – a core idea in the teachings of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.
We asked BAYoga students to submit questions for David and we spent an evening chatting on Skype. I asked him students’ questions and added a few of my own. Here are his answers. Enjoy…
Cathy’s question: How did you discover yoga?
DG: It was when I was 16 in my first job. I started washing dishes in a diner in Seattle. In these restaurants there’s always the eccentric dish washer guy who’s older and gone off the path of life and so they have to be a dish washer!
There was one of these fellas at the diner and he was into different stuff: anarchy, books, UFOs, philosophy and yoga.
He took me to this local park one day and we did the sun salutations. Immediately I loved it. I started doing it by myself and I’d only do it outside. It felt really elemental, to be outside saluting the sun. It felt right to me.
I lived in an apartment by the beach with my Mom and I’d go to the park near us and I’d do it every day at sunset.
I kept doing that for ten years before I actually got to a yoga class. And when I did finally get to one, it was because I was running a lot and I got real stiff.
I loved the class and it wasn’t long before the yoga replaced the running. I went to this class regularly in Seattle with a teacher called Marie Svoboda and it was in her studio that I got hold of a tape of Guruji (Sri K Pattabhi Jois) teaching ashtanga.
When I saw that, I was completely hooked. At around the same time, I saw in the Yoga Journal that he was coming to California on a tour and so I booked to go spend a month in Santa Monica taking led primary with him in 1993. I was 28 years old.
The experience was completely mind blowing. I followed him for two weeks to Maui, Hawaii, and then a year later I went to India to start my serious study with him in Mysore.
I ask: Who or what inspires you?
DG: Although he’s no longer alive, Guruji still inspires me. His voice, his person and what he taught me lives inside me and that totally inspires me.
I’m inspired by anyone who is serious about their spiritual path. Yogis, BKS Iyengar, Peace Pilgrim and anyone who’s fully devoted to living the path.
Creative people inspire me – people who truly looks inside and find a way to express themselves.
It’s a funny thing but some of my past friends have really inspired me. The bassist in Guns and Roses – Duff McKagan – he was a good friend and his whole way of being is inspiring. He’s so positive and he’s made such a great life for himself.
There are so many people that just see the possibilities for life and go for it. They make it good for themselves and good for others.
There’s so many areas of need in the world – the environment, animals. Anyone who’s devoting themselves to those areas inspires me.
My students are also so inspirational. They’re so amazing. Their practice inspires me. Their whole life, how they manage to find time to practice and do everything else they have to do in their life.
Last but by no means least, my partner Joy inspires me. She’s more right in the front lines of inspiring me every single day. How hard she works and what she values and the connect we have, it’s so inspiring.
April‘s question: What do you think about when you practice?
DG: I try to remain absorbed in a few techniques so I try to eliminate all thinking. Or I limit my thinking to the ‘allies’ or the root techniques. These are pranayama (conscious breathing), vinyasa (positioning), bandhas (locks), drishti (gazing), and dhyana (meditation). I work to stay directly absorbed in these.
I also contemplate the greater context, the image of self and try to realise or have a wisdom about that. A contemplation of eternity, and beauty are really large. They form the background. That’s the ultimate experience that’s beyond thought.
Jo‘s question: Does the ashtanga practice ever get easier?!
DG: Putting it in those terms kind of misses the point. The concept of ‘easy’ goes with ‘hard’ and those are opposing terms. In Sanskrit they’re called ‘dvandvas’. They’re opposite pairs.
Asana gives you the ability to not be harangued by opposites. It’s like, “So what! It’s hard or it’s easy” and that ceases to lead your thinking or where you’re orienting yourself from.
So that might seem like dodging the question because it’s a difficult place to be or taking a stand point from a high place but you need to contemplate those places – even when you’re not there because eventually you’ll be there.
If you’re in the mindset of ‘this’ versus ‘that’, then no, the practice does not get any easier! But it doesn’t matter because you’re on the path of transcending that whole way of thinking.
And of course the opposite of practicing is not practicing and then it’s even harder. You find that out fast by dropping your practice!
Jo’s question: How do you get through a home practice when your brain is saying go and drink coffee?!
DG: Well there’s a couple of things.
You might need to go drink coffee! You don’t want to be divided in yourself in terms of what’s important to you and how you want to be spending your time. You have to carefully observe that dividedness and resolve it.
Or put the coffee thoughts aside.
Or you can change things behaviourally. So for instance, I never feed my cats before noon. If I fed them at 7am, then I know that at 5.30am that would be when they’d start wanting food.
They’d be waking me up at 5.30am so instead I back it out. So it’s fine for me that at 10.30am they start bothering me for food.
So if you’re really thinking about coffee, then maybe you should wait longer to have it. So your practice will be done before you start wanting it. You’re anticipating that kind of thing.
If you’re used to drinking coffee at 9am and you start practicing at 8.30am, then that’s a problem. Maybe start drinking coffee at midday and make room for your practice.
Make it a habit to do your practice at the same time and clear out everything else so your mind doesn’t get distracted by wanting to go do something else.
Kev‘s question: What does going to study in Mysore give you that you can’t get from normal Mysore classes?
DG: Well, it gives you an experience of the roots of ashtanga yoga and the opportunity to be within the community that exists today. People are very serious about their study and that’s a nice environment to be in.
The feeling in the room, and Sharath and Saraswati are the direct line from Guruji and they’re carrying on the tradition. There’s a lot to benefit from having that experience and feeling that.
And the city of Mysore is amazing. Maybe it’s the best city in India in many ways. It’s beautiful and the experience of India itself.
The thing is, now that Guruji is no longer alive, the practice can tend to get more and more removed from that source. It can lose track of some continuity and the roots of the practice. Going to Mysore can help to personally give you the sense of those roots and connect you to the practice more.
It’s not essential though.
Martin‘s question: How can I work towards a stronger connection to mula bandha during my practice?
DG: The allies are important: pranayama (conscious breathing), vinyasa (positioning), bandhas (locks), drishti (gazing), and dhyana (meditation).
It’s all interconnected. So when you study breathing, it leads you to bandhas. When you study alignment along the central axis, again that leads you to bandhas. When you study the foundation of the asana, it brings you to mula bandha. Every technique contributes to that.
I see the practice as a labyrinth and mula bandha is further in the interior of that labyrinth. And so to start on the outside and start to talk about mula bandha is challenging. You got to walk through the labyrinth and work on the techniques and then mula bandha is easier to make sense of and work with.
One thing is to have a very dynamic centre. This area of the body has got to come alive. Your movement, your breathing, your awareness and consciousness emerges and returns to that centre.
And also that you consider the two words as mantra. ‘Mantra’ means mind instrument. Mantras are for japa (repeating) and so what is this ‘mula’?
Mula is foundation or first basis or root or earth and so contemplate what that actually means in terms of your physical body and your psychology. What is the root of my mind?
‘Bandha’ itself has many meanings and that’s why it’s used for japa because you have to think of it over and over with all its different meanings. It’s to shut, to lock, to close, to redirect.
It’s an energetic thing and it’s about shutting off the energy and redirecting it. It happens at the base, at the pelvic level. You have to contemplate what that actually means.
Olena‘s question: At what point into your ashtanga practice did you start pranayama (beyond ujjayi) and did you notice it having any effect on your asana practice?
I feel really strongly about this subject and that’s why I’ve produced a double DVD and book on pranayama.
The first DVD contains exercises for anyone. You can work on these exercises from the day you start practice. So you can begin a study of breathing right away that’s not within the practice. I would not do it instead of the asana practice but you can do it right away.
Disc two teaches the ashtanga pranayama sequence and there’s five pranayamas in that sequence. That I recommend waiting for. It’s variable, but I would say 3-5 years of practice before taking it up but it has an incredible effect on your practice.
Breathing is the link between the body and the mind, and the mind and the spirit. To learn to centralise yourself in your breath in the asanas kind of is the whole show. That is it. The breath is also known as ‘elusive’ as it’s so challenging to stay with it.
Pranayama allows you to see where your breathing fits. The breathing is actually meant to create the asana. You create the positions and so you notice a big difference when you separate and isolate the breathing.
When you learn the ashtanga pranayama sequence you add kumbhaka (retention) and that gives you a whole new experience of stopping the body and the breathing and noticing what happens in that interval, in the space when those things are no longer happening. It provides you with a whole lot of adventure.
Niki‘s question: How do you feel about the use of props? Should we cast them aside and find ways of adjusting the posture to our body’s limitations or do you feel they have a place in helping understand the asanas?
DG: Props are really important and valuable. There’s a whole art in the study and the use of props and so they’re used very thoughtfully and economically.
Sometimes they’re not necessary and they can cultivate a laziness. A certain vigilance is needed when you use them. I have a saying: props are like the dhow – the one begets the ten thousand things. One begets two, and two begets three.
So you use one prop and all of a sudden you need a second. And then that second leads to a third. And so you have to be very judicious in your use of props.
But on the other hand, to me, there’s a whole reorientation of thinking needed about what constitutes a posture or a final point of a position.
There’s so many factors that go into making a limitation. There’s injury, age, genetics, level of commitment, and asana skill.
So there’s so many variables but we tend to get fixed on one idea of what the asana should look like and then we cram our body into that shape no matter what. That is a dangerous and unyogic method.
So when you let go of that, when you work with the principles of alignment and open up to what the shape is trying to be or what you’re trying to express through it, then it will automatically bring in props at some point because they just fit in terms of bringing out the meditative quality, or aligning the body, or being able to breathe, or feeling a certain thing.
It’s important to remember that if we have injuries, we need to work with where we’re at. Binding, feeling like we have to drop back, grab our ankles – you know it skews in a harmful way and it leads to injury and a shortsighted way to see things.
Your practice is for life and if you include the possibility of props, you extend the life of your practice and that is in your interest.
I ask: How does the physical practice of yoga make you feel?
DG: I mean there’s nothing like it. Incredible! It’s incredibly hard work and discipline and a challenge but the feeling inside the body is unmatched. It’s a funny term but it’s bliss. It’s ananda.
But it takes a lot of suffering to get to that. But asana is everything. It gives you physical health, it clears your mind, it’s very subtle. You get a mastery over the body, the senses, the breathing. Like, wow!
It’s the most incredible set of techniques and it offers you total freedom for your whole life. I cannot imagine not doing asana. To me, that’s just pretty much unimaginable. Even though there’s so much sacrifice and renunciation and discipline that it asks for. It’s still unmatched.
I ask: What makes you happy?
DG: Practicing yoga makes me happy. Teaching yoga makes me happy. Joy makes me happy.
I’ve got three cats now and they all make me happy. We’ve got Bunny, Karmakazie and Lexster. It’ll be hard to leave them when we visit Europe.
Other things that make me happy: reading great books, seeing great movies and listening to great music.
I ask: This is the second time you’re visiting Berkhamsted. What do you like about the town?
Well, it’s a very cute English village. Just the feeling, the landscape, and the people. Everyone’s been very welcoming and eager to learn and enthusiastic. You guys have a good sense of humour and I like that.
And there’s a great host there: Cathy! She made us feel welcome at BAYoga Studio and she is an excellent person. She was eager to have me come and that helped! It feels like a good community to share yoga with.
I’m aware that I offer a slightly unique approach. There’s some traditional things but I emphasise some particular aspects. It’s not exactly ordinary and I felt that people were open to that and eager to learn from me. And that’s always exciting.
I ask: What do enjoy about visiting the UK?
Well, London for one thing! We’re looking forward to spending some time there. I think I’d like to answer that question in a few years as I think we’ll need a while to explore the place as much as we’d like to.
But I think the UK is an amazing place. There’s a lot of beauty, culture and history. In my experience, the ashtangis there are a good bunch of people.
Cathy Haworth runs BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted, Herts. She teaches Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and particularly enjoys teaching ‘Mysore’ style classes. I’m one of her Mysore students and I asked her a few questions about this style.
CW: Where does the Mysore style of ashtanga yoga come from?
CH: Mysore is a town in Southern India where the founder of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, Shri K Pattabhi Jois lived. Since his death in 2009 his grandson Sharath continues running the shala and each year thousands of ashtangis go to Mysore to practice with him. I’m planning on visiting for the first time this summer and I can’t wait.
CW: How would you describe Mysore style?
CH: Ashtanga yogais a dynamic style of yoga where movement is synchronised with the breath. There’s a set sequence of poses which are held for five breaths and you then move onto the next posture.
To practice ashtanga yoga ʻMysore styleʼis to practice the ashtanga sequence in a class situation but at your own pace. You follow your own individual length of breath, receiving guidance and adjustments from your teacher on a one to one basis. I, or whoever is teaching, don’t lead the class as such.
Learning the ashtanga sequence may at first appear a little daunting, but myself or your teacher is there to assist and we take it slowly.
As you learn and grow confident in each pose, you’re given new poses by your teacher, making this a very personal journey. Once learnt you have a practice for life.
CW: What’s so special about a Mysore practice?
CH: Moving with your own breath at your own pace enables you to work at your own level, extending the breath as it suits you. We all have different lengths of breath and this way of practicing enables you to be in charge of your own destiny.
It is a disciplined approach to yoga that allows for no opt out of poses because you find them challenging. You have to face up to every eventuality that the pose may bring.
Thereʼs no hiding, and by working with your own breath you can really connect to what may be happening both in the pose internally and externally. By bringing this discipline into your life enables you to be more focused and present not just on your yoga mat but in all aspects of your life.
It gives you the space to be you.
Whilst on your mat, working and moving with your breath, you are able to let go of the outside world and be in the present moment, allowing the real you to shine through.
Once off the mat we take on board the many outside influences that we have accumulated over the years and often act in a very different way to who we really are.
Being on the mat allows us to be true to ourselves and the more you practice, the more you are able to let go of this external ʻbaggageʻ and allow yourself the space and freedom of just being who you really are.
CW: You’ve mentioned before to me about the versatility that these classes offer. How is that?
CH: You don’t have to be on your mat at the very start of a class. You come when it suits you. If you get stuck in traffic, if you have to drop the kids off at school… that’s fine, no rush. The latest start time is one hour before the end of the class.
Classes vary in length from 2-3 hours at BAYoga Studio and if you’re a beginner you’ll need to allow approximately an hour to do your practice. Eventually, as you progress you will build on this to 1.5-2 hours.
One of the many joys of a Mysore practice is that it is very portable. I know that wherever I may be in the world, I’ll have the opportunity of going to a class knowing exactly what to expect from an ashtanga Mysore style class. Get on your mat in Paris, Sydney, New York or India and you know that you will be just fine regardless!
CW: Thank you Cathy.
Cathy teaches Mysore style classes at various times throughout the week. Find out more by visiting bayogastudio.co.uk. On a Tuesday morning she teaches a Mysore style class from 9.15-11.15am and then I teach a yin yoga class from 11.30-1pm at BAYoga Studio. Come along to both classes for only £16. It’s a bargainous morning of yin and yang.
Cathy and I will be teaching an ashtanga/yin retreat together 3-5 October 2014. Visit the retreats page for more details.
Do you practice Mysore style Ashtanga? What do you enjoy about it? Feel free to comment below.
Norman Blair is one of the UK’s leading yin yoga teachers and has been teaching in London for over ten years. His monthly yin workshops at Globe House in Bermondsey are wonderful and leave you floating for at least three days after you leave the building (speaking from personal experience).
Norman kindly took the time to answer some questions.
CW: Tell me about your first yoga class.
NB: My first class was at Bodywise East London and a friend took me as she thought it would be good for me. I don’t really remember much about the class but what I do remember is that my friend, who I’m still in touch with, thinks it’s funny that I now teach yoga. She says that she’d never seen anyone as stiff or uncoordinated as me. There I was then… and here I am now!
I know there’s teachers who come from a place where they’re naturally really gifted in their bodies, but I really wasn’t one of them. It can be an asset to experience stiffness, a lack of coordination, difficulty with body parts and injuries. It allows you to see how much potential there is for change.
I went to those classes in East London for a bit, and then in 1993 a friend of mine called Oz was doing an Iyengar teacher training and needed her own group. I volunteered and over the next five years we’d meet in her living room on a regular basis.
Oz then went to Crete in 1995 to spend time with Radha and Pierre – John Scott’s teachers – and came back with an ashtanga practice. I remember sitting in her living room while she did a demo of the primary series. It was really intense – watching this small woman demonstrate such control, flow and grace. After that, I was hooked. I’ve been practicing ashtanga ever since and I also get a lot from Iyengar classes with Alaric Newcombe.
What I’ve learnt though is that less is more. People get confused with ashtanga and think that it’s all fast and intense but what’s the rush? Pattabhi Jois said, “you take it slowly”. We just need to slow down. One class a week is fine. I did that for five or six years.
I first encountered yin yoga at the Manchester Buddhist Centre in November 2001. It was unlike anything I’d experienced and the next year I met Sarah Powers. She’s been my yin teacher ever since.
CW: How do you describe yin yoga to someone who’s unfamiliar with the practice?
NB: It’s a very soft, slow form of yoga. It gives us time to be more gentle to ourselves. It’s a perfect antidote to the rest of our lives which are often spent chasing around.
One of my favourite lines is from Pico Iyer: “The mind is more than capable of seeing a stationary blue car and constructing out of it a six-act melodrama.” I know that’s true of me.
But yin gives us a chance to slow down. It gives us the chance to take our time. It gives us the chance to create space where we can be more aware of how distracted we can be.
I’d also say that yin is a potential bridge between western yoga classes and a more meditative practice. We need to stop and slow down. It’s so important.
Personally speaking, yin has really helped to open my body but what I would say is that people who are hyperflexible need to be cautious in yin as there’s no strengthening work. Just because you can go deeply into a pose doesn’t mean you’re ‘good’ at yin.
But it’s really helped to open my body. It helps that I love it as well.
CW: How does yin challenge you?
NB: By nature I’m fairly impatient and impetuous. To be still is hard. To maintain a level of attention is also a challenge. And to not get caught up comparing myself to someone else.
CW: How would you describe your teaching style?
NB: If someone’s really laid back in their everyday life, when it comes to their teaching, I wonder if they’re really up tight and like, “Do this! Do that!” Whereas in my normal life I’m quite focussed and impatient. I have the speedy London walk and I’m aware of the impact that’s had on my life.
As a result, when I’m teaching I’m all about taking it slowly, taking it easy. We have to let go of thinking, “I can’t do this…” or “I used to be able to do that…”
I encourage people approach their practice as “here I am right here in this body, right now as it actually is.”
Someone said to me that it’s about being firm but fair and I want to help people find their potential by using skillful effort. In western culture it’s all about striving for the goal and we push ourselves too hard. And there’s always more goals. Where does it end? We need to be gentle with ourselves whilst also applying a bit of a push.
We also need to be conscious of how each day is different. Some days we might need more of a push and, on others, we might just need to put our feet up on the sofa. It’s accepting that that’s ok. We have to just do what feel right with a level of skillful inquiry.
I like to think of myself as a conduit for helping people to find their potential.
Of course I still have lots to learn. I know I find it hard letting go of people. Sometimes people don’t come back to classes and sometimes I have to suggest to students that they need to go to another teacher.
For example, I’m half way through the second series and, being realistic, I’m probably not going to get much further. If there are students who are going beyond that, I can’t teach them asanas that I don’t practice myself. I’ve suggested before now that students go to Hamish Hendry. It’s hard but it’s right for them and I have to let go.
CW: How do you bring the practice of yoga into your everyday life?
NB: I feel that the word ‘yoga’ comes with baggage. I’m quite influenced by Michael Stone and he prefers to call it ‘intimacy’. Matthew Remski calls it ‘evolutionary movement’.
When someone’s doing a dance class, they can be far less striving and goal orientated than someone doing a yoga class. It’s about what we bring to the situation. It’s about working on ourselves and transformation.
We all live in this world but I feel we have to be conscious of the choices we make. I fly, for example. But I do believe in social transformation and the more aware we become of our inner landscape, the more conscious we can become about other people.
There was a book written about a Buddhist nun called Tenzin Palmo: ‘A Cave in the Snow’ and she talked about how great it would be if when we meet people on the street, our first thought were: “may they be happy and well”. Not judging them on the way they look, or the clothes they’re wearing. Not thinking “I don’t like you” or “you remind me of so and so”.
It’s these unconscious conversations in our head. Part of the practice is becoming aware of these conversations and just seeing people and things for their natural beauty.
I also enjoy the practice of eating in silence. You just eat with no distractions – no TV, books or music. The food actually tastes better! You’ll eat more slowly, you’ll eat less, and you’ll become more satisfied.
I’ve also been thinking recently about the sustainability of my physical practice. Is your practice sustainable? If we’re going to strive and sweat and grunt and groan, it could be debatable. It’s ok when you’re 25 but I turned 50 this year and I approach my practice very differently to ten years ago.
I’ve learnt a lot. I do it less. I do ashtanga 3-4 times a week and I love it. But I want to be able to do it in ten or 20 years’ time. I want my practice to be sustainable.
This practice of working on ourselves will continue until our last breath.
CW: What’s the best thing about teaching yoga?
NB: I remember when I started teaching, someone said to me: “Don’t give up your day job”. I took this on board and I said I’d give it six months and see if I could manage financially and also to see if I’d enjoy it. Fortunately, it went well and I continued.
I’m always looking to evolve how I teach and learn more about teaching. Continuity and consistency of teacher is important. We can learn so much by putting our nose to the grindstone and spending time with a specific teacher. We can learn so much by staying with a situation – it’s like a relationship with a partner. If you decide to give up after three months, what do you learn?
I’ve been going to Hamish Hendry’s ashtanga classes for 14 years, I’ve spent 12 years practicing yin with Sarah Powers. I’ve learnt a lot by sticking with teachers.
CW: If you didn’t spend your weeks teaching yoga, how else do you think you’d spend your time?
NB: Before I taught yoga, I did a variety of different things. I worked for a local authority, I worked on a fruit and veg stall in Spitalfields market. I’m not sure how I’d spend my time but I know I wouldn’t be so happy.
But you know, you’ve got to make the most of this life. Life is so short and precious. With my alliteration hat on, I’d say that I just teach the preciousness of life, the precariousness of life, and the parasympathetic nervous system…
CW: What makes you happy?
NB: A good book. The taste of food. Bouncing on trampolines. Being in my kitchen. Standing on the top of Parliament Hill Fields looking over London. Standing on my head. Simple stuff.
CW: What are you up to over the next few months?
NB: I’m very excited about a teacher training I’m starting at my new studio in North London with Melanie Cooper. We teach day workshops together and a few months ago we were doing one and everyone was lying in savasana and we thought that we could do it as a teacher training.
We work well together and it’s a nice balance – Melanie’s got a lot of experience teaching ashtanga and has run teacher trainings before. I’ve taught people how to teach yin on five-day intensives and yin is definitely needed in today’s world.
I also run supervision groups for yoga teachers. All psychotherapists have to go for supervision after qualifying and it’s the same with acupuncturists and other professions. It’s totally accepted.
But in yoga teaching, you do your training and then you’re set adrift. When I first started teaching, it would have been great to meet together with other teachers and share stuff.
Each group is closed and runs for six meetings over six months – no one new can join once it’s started, it’s confidential so we can express fears and dreams and the day-to-day difficulties and joys of teaching yoga. Also it’s a place we can bring up any issues with students. I think it’s a really important thing to get going. The first session is an introduction on Sunday 1 December where you can come along and have a chat and see if you’re interested.
With winter in the UK closing in and the early mornings becoming darker and colder, snuggling under your duvet is likely to feel increasingly appealing. But how do you stay connected to your home practice?
I’ve heard people say that the hardest step to practicing on your own at home is rolling out your mat. But once you’re standing on that mat, you’re half way there.
I’ve asked some teachers for their tips to help you stay motivated through the winter months…
One of my favourite sayings is: A little a lot is better than a lot a little. Make it accessible. You could just sit for five minutes. Go with the morning. When does the evening start? When you get in from work? After dinner? Before bed? The morning is better.
If you can’t work out how to fit it in, just get up five or ten minutes earlier. It’s not rocket science. We can be so disciplined in reading the paper, watching the latest boxset…
People forget that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time. We have to be realistic about what we can do and we just have to do our best. Be less ambitious.
Get support. It’s great to have a home practice but a sense of community is important. In Buddhism it’s called ‘sangha’. The support that we require in these hard and difficult times isn’t unique to now – they were difficult in the times of Buddha too. But we need support. We need sangha.
Norman has been practicing yoga for more than 15 years and teaching since 2001. If you’ve enjoyed reading this, I’ll be interviewing him for the blog very soon – sign up on the right to make sure you don’t miss it.
Dedicate a specific time each day to practice which is realistic and manageable.
Let go of the idea that you need to do a full primary series practice. In an ideal world this is great, but with the many pressures we often put ourselves under, this is not always possible. Be happy to start with ten minutes and let the universe decide if you are able to do more.
Remember what you feel like when you finish your practice and reconnect to that feeling if you are struggling to get on your mat. Have you ever regretted getting on your mat? I know I haven’t.
Aim to get to a certain posture in your practice each time you start. This may be the sun salutations, standing, or maybe navasana. When you reach that posture, see if you feel like doing more. If not, be very happy that you have achieved your goal. Don’t forget to allow time for your relaxation at the end.
Avoid beating yourself up if, at the end of your day, you didn’t manage to get on your mat. Trust me, it doesn’t help! Look to smile inwardly as you progress through your practice, trust it, and enjoy it.
Cathy runs BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted, Herts. Her favourite class to teach is a Mysore self practice and can’t wait to visit the place itself in India next year.
When it comes to starting a home practice or keeping one going my best advice is to find something to motivate you and let that motivation be fluid.
BKS Iyengar says that practice “waxes and wanes like the moon”. Some days I spend several hours luxuriating on my mat with my books and pen to hand. Other days it’s all I can do to stick my legs up the wall in vipariti karani. It took me about three years to be ok with that.
I’m pretty sure that since you’re reading this blog something’s motivating you, but in case you’re stuck here’s my top list:
1. I’m going to a workshop/training/retreat I better get a bit fitter
2. I’ve been on a workshop/training/retreat and I’m pumped with enthusiasm
3. No reason, I just gotta do it
4. I really don’t want to do this today but I’m going to anyway
5. I am going to nail that pose
Christina Sell would say that every second you put into practice is a deposit in the bank. If you see someone striking a perfect pose and the words “I could never do that” enter your thoughts, the truth is that for the majority of us, we’re not born like that. What you don’t see are the hours, blood, sweat and tears which went into that asana.
Adele describes herself as a yoga teacher and spiritual adventurer. She’s very excited to be currently studying towards her 500 hour qualification with Chris Chavez. This requires regular trips to Istanbul. Can’t be bad.
So keep it up people! And do you have any advice? What keeps you motivated in your home practice? You can leave your comments below.
As part of my Teacher Interview series on the blog, I bring you Dr April Nunes Tucker.
April and I teach workshops together and her main practice is Ashtanga yoga. Originally from California, she’s been teaching for almost 20 years and her classes are challenging yet fun. I talk to her about the interesting journey that’s brought her to Hertfordshire.
CW: Hello April. There aren’t many people in this neck of the woods that can say they’ve spent four years living in a yoga community. How come you made that decision?
ANT: It was 1994 and at that time I’d just finished my first degree in dance. I was working as a waitress in Southern California and a lovely lady at work suggested that I go visit the Mount Madonna Center (MMC) in the mountains in Northern California.
I arrived late afternoon, walked around, had dinner and pitched my little tent surrounded by 355 acres of beautiful redwoods. I felt so fearful of the place that when the sun rose the next morning I packed up and drove away.
That week I was bothered by how I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had frightened me about the place. In an effort to face my fear, I went back.
I was only there a few minutes when a woman stopped me and asked, “would you like to meet with Babaji? He’s just had a cancellation.”
‘Babaji’ is what devotees call Baba Hari Dass. That was my first meeting with the very important man who gave me the tools to better my life through yoga.
Our meeting was surreal. He’s a silent monk who hasn’t spoken for almost 60 years but I felt as though he could read my thoughts. He asked what I did, what I planned to do, and when I told him that I wasn’t sure, he wrote on his chalkboard, “you could live here.”
It took me less than a month to pack up and move to MMC and I didn’t leave for four years.
CW: How would you describe the Mount Madonna Center?
ANT: Baba Hari Dass is the guru and he teaches classical Ashtanga yoga with an emphasis on meditation. This is different to how we practice Ashtanga vinyasa yoga in the West.
The ultimate purpose of practicing yoga is to develop concentration in order to achieve peace. The classical Ashtanga yoga system consists of eight parts:
The first of these is the ‘yamas’ – a Sanskrit word meaning ‘restraints’ – living your life in a non-violent way, being truthful, not stealing, continence and non-hoarding.
There’s also the ‘niyamas’ or observances – having a sense of purity, being satisfied with what you have, undertaking spiritual study and recognising our limited ego-self.
Doing the physical postures or ‘asanas’. These traditionally belong to the system of Hatha Yoga.
Practicing pranayama exercises – breath control.
Observing what’s going on inside, instead of outside (pratyahara)
Developing concentration (dharana)
CW: What was daily life like there?
ANT: Busy! Wake up early, attempt to meditate, walk from my tent or cabin to the kitchen (my first year there I spent in a tent – cabins were at a premium!), help cook breakfast for anywhere between 100-500 people, take a break walking through the woods or practicing asana.
On certain days, attend a class with Babaji, work the rest of the afternoon on a building site or in the garden or scrubbing toilets, eat dinner, wash dishes, sit around chatting, drink herbal tea and then go to bed.
… And then do it all again the next day. It’s based on the idea of ‘karma yoga’ – doing things selflessly.
CW: Tell me about Baba Hari Dass
ANT: Babaji is an incredible human being and a wonderful teacher. He taught me how to be less afraid, concentrate and accept myself more.
One of his well known quotes is: “Work honestly, meditate everyday, meet people without fear and play” and this is what he teaches. I feel his vow of silence allows his teachings to come through with great clarity.
He has a lovely sense of humour, is compassionate and the most remarkable person I have ever met.
CW: Did you learn lessons that you carry with you in daily life?
ANT: I carry the sadhana practice that was given to me by Babaji. It includes chanting, hand mudras, pranayama, kriyas (methods for calming the mind) and meditation. I try and get up an hour before my kids every morning in order to do the practice. Sometimes it gets cut short when they start clambering over me but the intention’s there.
CW: You taught yoga classes there. Was this your first experience of yoga? What were the classes like?
ANT: I taught asana (the physical postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques). MMC hosts very big retreats – often with around 500 people – so my first teaching experiences were a baptism of fire!
I was on a stage with a sea of people in front of me and a two other ‘demonstrators’ on smaller platforms either side of the stage doing the same asana as I taught it. Scary!
My only previous experience of ‘yoga’ was doing a little class in the staff room of the restaurant where I worked in California with my waitress buddy who followed Babaji.
CW: What were the other people like who lived there with you?
ANT: There were all sorts of different people there. Some were only staying a month just checking out the scene, others were original devotees of Hari Dass since the 1970s. The people there were as varied as people are anywhere.
I will say that I believe living in a community setting magnifies personalities. It is very good training for looking at yourself when you are irritated with others.
CW: There are lots of spiritual/yoga communities in California. Why do you think that is?
ANT: Everyone is searching everywhere. Maybe I’m being generous but California has a lot of natural beauty and people are open to alternative ways of thinking or being. So Eastern philosophies such as yoga flourish.
Also I think many people who live in California are quite privileged and can ‘afford’ to take time out to work on personal development.
CW: You now teach Ashtanga vinyasa yoga – as popularised in the West by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. What do you think is the best thing about teaching yoga?
ANT: For me, teaching a class has three parts: before, during and after. Before the class I enjoy the discipline of attempting to put the reins on my ego. I try to come into class as open and humble as possible.
During class I try to keep my ego in check – demonstrating humbly, allowing for humour and executing compassionate adjustments as much as possible. I really like that sensation of ‘being in the zone’ where I can intuitively flow through a class.
Sometimes after classes I get a real hit of emotion – love or sadness or joy. I like this because it makes me feel very alive. It’s a direct reflection of our human connection.
CW: If you weren’t teaching yoga or looking after two small children what job would you be doing?
ANT: I would probably be lecturing in a university on contemporary dance. That’s always been my field of interest – particularly human movement and the way that it connects people and communicates meaning. I have a PhD in dance and have researched movement repetition.
I like how Ashtanga vinyasa yoga and my daily sadhana practice rely on repeating certain movements and this links nicely with my specialism in dance.
When I go back to the academic world I hope to continue finding ways for dancers and dance academics to become interested in yoga through my research.
CW: How does the Ashtanga vinyasa practice challenge you?
ANT: I feel that the key to the Ashtanga practice is the repetition. To offer an image, the repetition of the practice is like an anchor – the anchor for a boat out at sea.
Imagine a boat floating on the surface of the water with a big heavy chain with an anchor at the end. The anchor’s chain goes down… down through the water until the anchor embeds itself in the sand on the bottom of the ocean floor. That deep ocean floor is like that part of self that knows it’s all ok – the part of the self that knows peace. It is the repetitive yoga practice (the anchor) that can tap into that peaceful part of the self.
The boat represents the part of ourselves that we identify with most readily – the self that’s pulled this way and that by things we desire. It’s the part of the self which is affected by the weather, the currents of the water and the part that gets angry or sad as seagulls shit on it as they fly overhead.
CW: Complete the sentence: A life without yoga would be….
CW: Thank you for your time April.
April can be found in Harpenden teaching a Sunday morning class at Roundwood School and private classes in people’s homes. She can also be found on Facebook and email. April and I teach yin/ashtanga workshops at Breathing Space in Harpenden and the next one is planned for Saturday 21 September from 3pm – 6.30pm. Visit the workshops page for more details and to book.
If you’re interested in learning more about yoga communities/ashrams, I’ve frequented some in India:
As part of a new series on the blog, I’ll be interviewing various yoga teachers – each with their own story to tell. The first of these is Lila Conway.
I first met Lila on my Sivananda teacher training in 2010. Having signed up for the month-long course in the Himalayas, I simply wanted to deepen my understanding and learn more about the practice. I had no plans to ‘be a yoga teacher’. In the final week, she sat us all down and said that it was our duty to share our new knowledge with people back home and teach. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Here she talks about her love of India, Sivananda yoga and teacher training.
CW: Tell me about your first experience of yoga.
LC: In the early 90’s I was living a typically fast paced, hectic lifestyle working 24/7 in the London fashion industry. It was really demanding and competitive and I often used to feel physically ‘burnt out’.
It made me start questioning the meaning of life and I started searching how I could lead a more peaceful existence. I found ‘The Book of Yoga’ by Sivananda and started practicing at home. Although I found it a bit weird at first, I really began to feel a sense of peace after chanting mantras and practicing Tratak (candle gazing).
Soon after, I made the decision to leave my London life and take a year out travelling. Everything moved quickly from then on. I went to a yoga class in Thailand and was hooked… it was really my first deep experience of true connection, peace and healing.
CW: How do you bring the practice of yoga into your every day life?
LC: Yoga is a way of life, it’s not something we do only when we step on a yoga mat. And so I try to see everything as an offering – whether it’s preparing a meal, teaching a yoga class or gardening. We are divine consciousness itself and yoga is a means and a method to awaken to that realisation.
The moment I wake up I offer gratitude and repeat a mantra. I do the same before I go to sleep. My daily practice routine is that I start the day with a small Puja (devotional worship of deities) to connect to my spiritual teachers and God. I think it’s a beautiful way to begin each day – offering light, incense, flowers and water to the divine. I then sing some devotional mantras, do some breathing exercises, mantra meditation and yoga asanas.
The practices we do in yoga are varied according to the path you follow. Flexibility, peace of mind and improved health are all wonderful side effects of the practice. However, keeping the ultimate goal in mind keeps me motivated and committed to the practice.
Yoga is a process of awakening consciousness, removing the layers that obscure our inner divinity and ultimately returning to the eternal abode of love. Every small act we do helps in this process of evolution.
CW: Who or what inspires you?
LC: Wow, so many things inspire me! Nature, life in all its forms, seeing the transformation yoga brings to people. My students inspire me so much too. I’m also inspired by spiritual texts such as ‘The Bhagavad Gita’, the healing power of raw food, plants and herbal medicine.
I have such deep gratitude and inspiration for my first teachers – Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda – for giving me a strong foundation in my spiritual life.
I also am inspired by various spiritual Masters and their service, humility and pure love: Bhaktivinoda Thakura for the poetry and beauty of the Bhakti yoga tradition, Amma for her message of love and service, and BKS Iyengar for being a living legend in Hatha Yoga.
The list really could go on and on!
CW: You’ve spent lots of time in India. What do you feel makes the country so special?
LC: It’s the land of the Rishis (sages), saints and yogis. The ancient texts of the Vedas were revealed to the Rishis in India. Lord Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and many incarnations of God have appeared in this sacred land.
The people of India teach me so much: patience, tolerance, acceptance, surrender, simplicity, devotion, faith, family values… so many qualities.
India has a wonderful way of magnifying my inner stuff and things I need to deal with in my life. Although not always comfortable at the time, it definitely helps to have an internal spring clean and I always feel better for it!
My greatest moments of inspiration often come in India. The place makes me feel alive and at home. I love the culture, food, language, temples, music, colours, smells (well… most of them), smiles, frustration and the joy that this magical country brings.
CW: How come you’ve spent so much time there?
LC: I first went to India to study yoga and stayed in the Sivananda ashram in Kerala. I stayed so long my teachers advised me that the next step was doing a teacher training. I completed the course in 2001 and it was a huge journey and personal transformation.
It didn’t just ignite a spark but a raging fire! I couldn’t walk away from this whole new world that had opened up to me so I stayed on as voluntary staff. Three months became nearly eight years spread across both India and Canada.
Every year I was actively involved in many yoga teacher training programmes, including advanced teacher training courses. I would assist the main Hatha yoga teacher in all classes and demonstrated postures, adjusted students and taught a little. I was trained slowly and systematically over a period of seven years.
In 2007 I was given the authority to teach yoga teachers and taught my first course in Canada. Although I left the ashram in 2008, I continued to return to India each year to teach on training courses at the Sivananda ashram in the Himalayas – where I met you! This year I am very happy to be back in India teaching my own teacher training course in Rishikesh.
CW: What do you enjoy about training people to teach yoga?
LC: Swami Vishnudevananda beautifully put together a month-long intensive yoga teacher training course unlike any other. It is an intense programme which is a systematic introduction and direct experience of the traditional yogic lifestyle and system of learning in the Gurukulam way (meaning teachers and students live together).
As the course is residential and the programme is from early morning until evening, we spend the full month working with the students and supporting them. I feel very blessed to be part of this journey in people’s lives and I do my very best to represent my Guru and his teachings. It’s a wonderful exchange of energies.
I feel alive and challenged and even though I have been teaching for many years, I always learn so much every time. We go through the highs and lows together and by the end of the course students are always positive, inspired, shining and full of energy. It’s so good to see and it really inspires me seeing the effort, commitment and heart that each teacher trainee puts into their practice and the course.
CW: What qualities do you feel make someone a good yoga teacher?
LC: The highest quality is humility. When a yoga teacher is humble, they remain open for the divine energy to flow. A yoga teacher is a channel for the ancient teachings and always has the student’s best interests at heart and never teaching to impress or for name and fame.
A good yoga teacher always remains a student and shares from direct experience and a proper understanding of the spiritual teachings and discipline of this beautiful science.
CW: What’s in store for you over the next few months?
LC: Excitingly, I am in the process of writing a new manual for our next teacher training course in Rishikesh in October. I am also busy in communications with Swami Guruprasad in India – we are running the course together.
We are also working on some short videos of Swamiji so students can get an early peek of his wonderful words of wisdom.
My Bhakti Yoga teacher from India is coming soon so I will be fully immersed in his teachings for a week. This will give me a huge boost of inspiration ready for our August weekend yoga retreat near Bath, ‘The Heart of Yoga’ for which I am preparing some beautiful heart opening practices and have some amazing friends also coming to give talks, kirtan, delicious food, massage and more!
I’m also getting ready for a new term with Yoga Prema in Bristol. And then before I know it I will be on a flight to India for the October yoga teacher training course!
CW: Thanks Lila. Good luck with it all!
To learn more about the Rishikesh teacher training course Lila talks about, visit the Yoga Prema website.