“Look at this,” said a male non-yogi friend of mine, thrusting his iPhone screen towards my face. “You can do yoga up The Shard!”
I looked at the screen. There was an image on an email: slender, young, women in tight yoga gear, opening out in warrior two whilst taking in the vibrant lights of London far below.
He continued, “This is what you should be teaching. How cool would that be!”
I looked up at him scrunching my nose. “Nah, I’ll pass thanks. If you did yoga up there, you’d spend the whole time looking out at the view whereas yoga’s about looking within.”
He replied, “Oh I wouldn’t want to do any of that looking in stuff. That would be well scary. I don’t want to go there. But The Shard… that might tempt me to try yoga.”
I liked this conversation. It made me smile. Here was a bloke – a hardcore Arsenal fan (not that I’m stereotyping, of course) – considering yoga because of the cool location. The very location may be so distracting, that he misses the whole point of yoga. But if it gets him on a yoga mat for the first time, then what’s the harm?
I heard the other day about yoga classes being offered in a brewery in London. You do a class, then have a beer afterwards. My first teacher training was with the Sivananda school of yoga where even eating garlic is considered a huge no-no. Yoga in a brewery? Swami Sivananda would be turning in his grave if he hadn’t been reincarnated.
I was in Thailand before Christmas and I practiced overlooking some stunning scenery – the incredible beach with the white sand and the glassy sea in the early morning golden light. But those practices were some of the most unfocused practices I’ve ever had. I was so overwhelmed by my surroundings that I was wobbling all over the place.
It’s funny how far ‘yoga’ has come. It’s hip and everyone wants a piece of the action. In London, it feels like yoga’s being offered anywhere and everywhere just to get people through the door.
Give me a scruffy, sweaty, beaten-up old room any day. Just my body, my breath and my mat. That’s what works for me. And who knows – some of those brewery yogis may find that they enjoy the practice in that room with me.
Off the back of what may have been Harpenden’s inaugural evening of Sanskrit chanting last weekend, I’d like to share my favourite chanting albums with you.
You’ve got no excuses now – you can get your Om on in the car, whilst doing the washing up, or on the 8:04 to London St Pancras. As with all the best hit parades, we’ll start in reverse order (click on the titles to buy/listen to the albums):
Amma, otherwise known as ‘the Hugging Mother’ loves to chant. I’ve chanted with her on her world tour when she’s visited Alexandra Palace in North London, and I’ve also been honoured to join her at her ashram in Kerala. In Kerala she had me in tears (read about my Amma experience).
Her chanting is proper traditional Indian yoga chanting and a proper slice of devotion (bhakti).
I first heard of this group last year via the harmonium teacher Daniel Tucker and I really like this album. They’re not amazingly well known and you can download via their website by simply naming your price.
When they chant ‘Hari Bol’ I always think they’re saying ‘horrible’ over and over again.
Ok, this isn’t strictly a kirtan (chanting) album. It’s the soundtrack for a film about His Holiness the Dalai Lama but it does feature Tibetan Buddhist chanting. It’s by multi-platinum selling Pianist/Composer/Producer Peter Kater, who has received six Grammy award nominations. He’s amazing. It’s amazing.
This album features snippets of audio sung by Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda – the teachers who founded the school of yoga where I originally did my teacher training.
It also features modern takes on traditional chants, including one led by Swami Krishnadevananda who ran the Putney Sivananda Centre where I taught for a few years. He was about six foot five, from South Carolina and he rocked the harmonium. The version of Raghu Pati Raghava provides a chance to hear his voice.
Snatam is slightly different to the other yogis included here. She chants in Gurmukhi – a language that’s Sanskrit based, but not pure Sanskrit – and she was brought up in the Sikh Kundalini yoga lineage as taught by Yogi Bhajan.
She has a wonderful voice and the name of this album – Anand – translates as ‘bliss’.
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.
I was Madrid recently for a few days and I’d thought that if I had time, it would be great to visit the Sivananda Centre there.
And so, on a wet and windy Spanish afternoon, I emerged from the Metro into the suburbs, avoiding the splashes as cars whizzed past through puddles. Struggling to hold my printed map, bag and umbrella I walked down a side street and found a familiar orange sign saying ‘Sivananda Yoga’ outside a residential block.
I was buzzed in, left my shoes on the shoe rack and I instantly relaxed. I was greeted by a lady in her 60’s wearing white baggy trousers, a trusty yellow t-shirt and a smart black blazer. And she started babbling away in Spanish. “Habla Ingles?” I replied in my best GCSE Spanish. “Si, si un poco, you are here for the class?”
I went into the class and she was teaching. She pointed to a space next to her and we sat to chant the Dhyana Slokas. A couple of people joined in including myself and through my closed eyes, I sensed someone looking at me. I peeked and she was looking straight at me.
It’s funny, if it was me teaching, having someone turn up at the last minute, with only a schoolgirl’s grasp of the language, I may have had tiny pangs of panic: How will she understand what to do in the class? Has she even done yoga before? I have 11 other people to pay attention to!
But, as I joined in with the om shantis, I hope I reassured her that it was all going to be ok. The class covered the breathing exercises, the sun salutations and the 12 basic postures and it was great. There were a few subtle differences but it all made sense and it was fortunate that I know my Spanish left from my right.
After the class, I wandered round the reception area/shop taking in the familiar books (in Spanish), postcards, pictures of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda and even a graduation photo from the last London teacher training course. The Centre was more modest than the London one but just as welcoming.
As I was sitting on the Metro going back to my hotel, I thought about how lucky I was to be able to rock up to a yoga class in a foreign country and feel totally at home. There most definitely is an international Sivananda family and I feel very blessed to be part of it.