On yoga, on life: a review

Have you got Netflix? If you have, I highly recommend a film on there called ‘On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace’. It’s about a bloke called Michael O’Neill who used to photograph Hollywood stars. In a nutshell: he got injured, was told he’d never use his arm again, found yoga and meditation, his arm recovered.

As a result, he decided to devote his time photographing yogis. The film features interviews with teachers talking about yoga philosophy. They are wonderful. The kundalini teacher Gurmukh talking about fear of death, Eddie Stern on community and peace. Swamis explaining how we are not our body and how yoga is every minute of the day. I particularly remember one teacher saying that we’ll only be happy when we let go of desire. It’s the wanting that makes us unhappy.

Not so great are the clips of him taking photos of young yogis doing extreme poses in front of beautiful scenery – silhouetted against a sunset, a grafitti’d wall, the New York skyline. Skimpy clothes. Why do it? Why conform to a yoga stereotype? If these teachers are saying yoga is so much more than the physical body, why bring it back to that?

Kumbh Mela, 2010

Anyway, it was good to watch. He visited the Kumbh Mela – the massive Hindu pilgrimage that takes place at different locations along sacred rivers. I had the honour of being part of the Kumbh on Ma Ganga in Haridwar, India, in 2010 – something I’ll never forget.

I finished the film and took a moment to consider my current life with a one-year old baby and how my life has changed since I took my dip in the Ganga eight years ago. I felt that I had drifted away from yoga somewhat. I’m struggling to get on my mat and there are a lot of pooey nappies.

But then I thought a little more: this is my yoga at the moment. It’s not the beautiful asanas but it’s the day-to-day grittiness of life. One Swami in the film explained Bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion. I’d also say it’s Karma yoga – giving without any expectation of reward. I am devoting myself to my son and my family.

Can I care for him in a way that is kind and caring? We do our gratitude practice while he has his bedtime milk. We chant along to Swami Vishnudevananda in the car on the way to the local soft play centre.

And while I haven’t managed an unaided headstand for over a year now, it’ll come back at some point. I’m happy if I manage a few sun salutations and standing poses.

So if you have Netflix, watch it. But please pay more attention to the words of wisdom than the cliched contortions…

Have you seen it? What are you thoughts?

(Thank you to my Berkhamsted buddy Laura for suggesting I look it up.)

Ibiza yoga holiday – May 2016

What a week! Cathy and I would like to thank everyone who joined us at Can Dream in northern Ibiza. We think it was the best holiday yet. Thank you for your good humour, dedication to the practice and for generally being good eggs.

Click on each image for a closer look.

Early morning ashtanga practice
Not a bad spot
One of Justin Field's amazing meals
One of Justin Field’s amazing meals
Morning ashtanga practice
Morning ashtanga practice
Afternoon yin practice
Afternoon yin practice
We climbed every mountain
We climbed every mountain
We conquered the seas
We conquered the seas
A lot of smiles
Dinner time
Dinner time
The gang
The gang

A Sri Lankan child’s pose

Frogs Sri Lanka As I practice, the frogs look on.
Serene, calm, untouched by the events unfolding around them.
I inhale deeply.

A cacophony of birds announce the dawn.
They chirp, squawk and caw.
I exhale completely.

Noted irritation at hovering mosquitoes hoping for a juicy breakfast.
Constant cicadas (or maybe crickets?) chirrup.
I inhale deeply.

A palm frond clatters down to earth.
Plump raindrops rhythmically patter onto fat waxy leaves.
I exhale completely.

The 6:45 Hikkaduwa to Colombo rumbles through sounding its horn, scattering barking street dogs.
Pythons and people remain unscathed – this time.
I inhale deeply.

The trees sway and the monkeys play.
The coconut cutter shimmies closer.
And the frogs look on.

This is my friend Sherylee’s place to practice.
And wherever I lay my mat is my home.


Thank you Sherylee for a wonderful few days of chats, dogs and hospitality. Sending you lots of love and blessings.



Indian tales: The highs and lows of Goa yoga

Earlier today I had my last yoga practice in Goa. I was on the roof of a one-storey building – the kitchen for the beach huts where we’re staying. As I went through my standing postures, an old bloke was shimmying up the surrounding coconut palms, sending ripe coconuts crashing to the earth below. I faced the ocean and breathed with the waves.

Tomorrow we leave Goa and head to Mumbai for two nights before flying home to London. I’ve been thinking about the yoga I’ve practiced over the last two weeks. Here are some things I’ve learnt and perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

Drop-in classes: a mixed bag

You just really don’t know what you’re in for. On Christmas Day morning I went to a led Ashtanga class with an Indian guy called Deepak. His adjustments were a little unconventional (verging on dangerous) and I felt my body tense whenever he moved near me. He was as bendy as the bendiest bendy thing and didn’t seem to show much empathy for Westerners in their first ever yoga class.

Other classes were lovely but just going to one class then trying a different class the next day doesn’t allow a student/teacher relationship to develop. Consistency is key.

Immersion is good

Katharine and I stumbled upon the Indian Shanti Yoga Festival and it became one of the highlights. At a plush beach resort in Ashwem, we spent three days surrounded by yoga addicts and a schedule that ran from 8am to 10pm… all for £25.

I reconnected with Sivananda yoga through classes with Nataraj, the Director of the ashram in Kerala where I’ve spent time previously. Witnessing him in his baggy Sivananda yellow t-shirt and white trousers just made me feel so happy. He looked a bit at odds with girls wearing tiny lycra shorts but the atmosphere was very welcoming and inclusive.

There was a lot of bhakti (devotional practices). The festival opened with a homa (fire ceremony) to Lord Ganesha. We all offered something to the fire – something we wanted to cast aside for 2014. Swamis from various Indian ashrams taught classes and led the chanting of Sanskrit bhajans.

(Anand led the Ganesha homa.)

(Swami Sugoshananda: “Everything happens as planned and it is for our own good.”)

I also went to a Bhagavad Gita talk, taught by an elderly New Yorker with a huge white beard, long hair and piercing blue eyes. He reeled off the slokas (verses) in Sanskrit. Hearing the words of Krishna to Arjuna with his accent: “Hey Arjuna, so you gotta fight people you care about. But you just gotta do your duty!”



Acroyoga is awesome

Acroyoga founder, Jason Nemer, taught at the festival.

With one person being the base, another the flyer, and another the spotter, we did some therapeutic flying. We practiced giving each other massages in ‘folded leaf’ and worked on backbends suspended in the air in ‘high flying whale’. We did handstands holding onto the backs of your partner’s ankles while they were in a high plank.

(Me being a high flying whale.)

I like the philosophy behind the practice. It’s about building trust and confidence through letting go. The flyer has to resist any urge to control and you are totally in the hands (and feet) of your base. It’s playful, fosters closeness and you learn a lot about your partner. The sessions open and close with kirtan – chanting in a circle, developing togetherness.

Jason will be teaching five days of acroyoga at Triyoga in London later this year.

The final day included four hours of Thai Yoga Massage run by the acroyogis. Thai massage is seen to be a complementary practice to the more acrobatic side. I like this. It’s the yin and yang idea. The massage is the yin (calming, cooling, slow, soft) and the acroyoga is more dynamic, energising and fast-paced.

Summing up

Some of my most enjoyable yoga moments have been my self practices but I’m also looking forward to going home and getting back to classes – both teaching and being a student.

I know this trip has been about relaxing, spending time with my sister and also doing some yoga, but if I were to return to India for yoga, I’d do a period of study with someone who can help develop my practice. I’ve got my eye on David Garrigues’ intensive in Kerala in 2015, a trip to Mysore or even a retreat with David Keil at Purple Valley in Anjuna.

That’s the joy of yoga. There’s always more to learn and India is always calling.

Classes start back in London and Hertfordshire from 12 January and the first yin/yang workshop at Breathing Space in Harpenden will be on 18 January. My first BAYoga Studio yin workshop is on 1 February.

Happy new year everyone.

Om shanti.

Indian tales: At home with the Dabholkars

For anyone who read my blog while I was away last year, you may remember talk of my adopted Indian family – a local family whom I had the honour of befriending via daily harmonium lessons with the grandad – ‘Babaji’. Over three weeks, my daily visits lengthened and became the highlight of my stay in Arambol. Read last year’s blog post.

In the house, the sons (Chandrahas and Srinivas) live with their parents (Maji and Babaji), their respective wives and an assortment of children. I am yet to totally work out whose children are whose.

Maji, though wizened and hunched, definitely rules the roost. She’s always been painfully shy around me though I have gathered that she likes my clothes and thinks I’m respectful. I bring my hands in prayer and bow slightly when saying hello and goodbye to her. Points to The Wener.

When I knew I would be returning to Goa, one of the first things I did was send them an email.

Yesterday we popped by for tea and a spot of Indian TV. Here are some of the highlights:

Chandrahas provided a TV commentary: “This is comedy programme. You can tell by the size of his moustache.”

I asked why so many Indian men had moustaches. He said it’s a sign of manliness. I asked why he didn’t have one. “It would be grey in colour” came his reply. The children laughed. They understood more English than they felt comfortable speaking.

We also watched a short programme where actors played parts of Hindu gods and goddesses. Ganesha looked fetching with a trunk down over his stomach and Shiva was very stern with his hair piled up on top of his head.

Then Chandrahas told us we were watching a drama about some families. It sounded like Eastenders but with more exaggerated expressions and dramatic music. It seemed to be a family favourite.

Tejas stayed very quiet but opened up talking in English about his favourite subjects: WWF wrestling and cricket. He informed us that England is losing in the Ashes. “It is a total whitewash.” He is about 10.

Sweda, Chandrahas’ wife, was not allowed into the living room as she had her period. She sat on a chair in the doorway and craned her neck round, eager to be included. She wasn’t allowed to touch us. Srinivas’ wife affectionately held Katharine’s hand as we sat. There was a lot of love in the room.

A neighbour popped by and looked taken aback to see the two of us sitting there. Sweda said, “She is asking how we know you. She is very surprised that you are our friends.”

Siddesh asked Katharine if someone coloured her hair. She was told it looked like Lady Di’s.

20140103-165137.jpg (Lady Di and the Dabholkars)

Maji brought us chai and Indian sweets in what looked like the family’s finest crockery. We drank the tea and politely ate the sweets – homemade laddus. For anyone unfamiliar with laddhus, these are balls of what Katharine described as compressed sand. I’d say they’re a bit like sawdust. You need to drink tea at the same time otherwise they coat the inside of your mouth in a claggy paste.

We ate them very slowly, nodding, making the right noises and smiling our appreciation. “You like them?” asked Chandrahas. We nodded and smiled lots. Out came two more. We ran out of tea.

After two hours Srinivas took us home on the back of his motorbike. The family waved us off.

On Monday, we’re going back for dinner and then we’ll all go to their temple for a puja (ceremony). Sweda told us that her period will be finished by then. I said that I look forward to being able to hug her.

It was so lovely to see them all again. Babaji held my hand as we said goodbye and said little. The family seemed much more relaxed than when I spent time with them last year. It felt like they were just seeing old friends and were less ‘on show’.

They made us feel so welcome and I can’t wait to go back on Monday. We’re not entirely sure what we’re in for but we know it’ll be memorable.

We’ve been lucky to get a glimpse into everyday Indian family life. They’re kind hearted and a truly wonderful family.

20140103-165246.jpg (from left: Srinivas, Siddesh, Priya, me, Shardha, Pradnya, Tejas, Sadanad, Chandrahas)

Indian tales: Plain sailing trains and automobiles?

I’m in Goa for Christmas and New Year with my sister Katharine. We’re spending time on the beach and doing some yoga.

For the first five days, we’ve been in southern Goa in Patnem. I’ve been to a few yoga classes and hung out with some friends from home.

Today we left for North Goa, Mandrem to be precise. Both Katharine and I know that train journeys are always an experience and it felt time to get in touch with the real India – away from the British families and the music of Amy Winehouse and Bob Marley that we’d been hearing incessantly. The day proved to be a true Indian journey in every sense.

The plan was to get a taxi for an hour to Madgaon station – the main train station in Goa – and then get a train north to Pernem. From there, it was a short hop and a skip to Mandrem.

We were told that there was a train from Madgaon at 2:40pm. This was backed up by the internet.

We arrived at Madgaon station and got in the queue for tickets. Almost instantly I had to tell a bloke to get behind us as he tried to queue jump. For the next 30 minutes he pressed his body up against my rucksack on my back and complained that we were leaving too much of a gap in front of us. Indian men have no sense of personal space.


(Ticket office. It looks quite calm in a photo. It wasn’t.)


(Katharine on the platform)

A young girl was ahead of us in the queue. She had a beaming smile and big brown eyes. She asked us where we were from and made polite conversation in impeccable Indian English.

Men queue jumped ahead of us. Sweat trickled down my legs and arms. People shouted and gesticulated. And then we were at the counter. Katharine got jostled out of the way and suddenly all these hands holding filthy dog-eared rupee notes forcefully pushed their way under my arms, over my shoulders and through the tiny hole in the grubby perspex to the cashier.

Whoever was the loudest appeared to get served next. “Two for Pernem” I said in my biggest voice. By the fourth time I’d said it, I had her attention.

“Madam, train is at 6pm.”
“There’s a train at 2:40!”
“No madam, 6pm. Come back later.”

And with that, I was consumed by the crowd and found myself cast aside. Buggery bugger. We double checked at the information counter (more jostling). 6pm it was. The young girl found us and stood nearby while we discussed our options.


(Madgaon station ‘rogues gallery’. I’d like to start a campaign to get one of these at Harpenden station.)

Cheated of our train journey, we found ourselves in the queue for the prepaid taxis. The board said that the fare was the equivalent of £15. Our train tickets would have been 30p each. We grumbled.

Again we were at a counter.

“We want to go to Madrem.”
“1750 rupees.”
“But the board says 1500 rupees.”
“Diversion for a festival. It will take longer. The price is 1750 rupees.”

We said we wanted to pay the board price. They stood their ground. We stood our ground. The locals joined in. Why do they always do that?

We begrudgingly accepted and got shown to our taxi. We questioned our poor elderly taxi driver. I’ve never seen such pronounced cheek bones in my life. I don’t think he was in possession of his teeth. He didn’t know of any diversion. Everything seemed to confuse him.

The faff continued. We gave in and off we drove.


Plain sailing
There is always a part of me that mistrusts these exchanges. Are they trying to get the better of us naive foreigners? You hear of so many scams that it makes you sceptical.

I remember turning up jetlagged at chaotic Delhi station about ten years ago with my dad to be told by an ‘official’ that our train was cancelled and we needed to give him our tickets. He was lying and we knew it.

Travelling around India on public transport is tiring and often doesn’t go according to plan but it’s also the most rewarding part of visiting the country. In Goa it’s easy to remain in your beach resort eating chips. Or you jump in a taxi and stay in your own little cocoon.

I’d still say that I love train travel in India. Chatting to families on platforms, sharing snacks with locals in your carriage, asking the chai wallah for a cup of that boiling sweetness, watching the vibrant countryside slide by hour after hour. Yes the toilet might be a hole in the floor through which you can see the speeding tracks below, but believe me, these are the magical moments.

This country has me under its spell. It teaches you patience and acceptance and tests you every day. Don’t ask me why but I love it.

Have you been to India? Any of this sound familiar? Or maybe I’ve made you think that this country isn’t for you. Feel free to comment below.