Wherever I Lay My Mat

“Wherever I lay my (mat) that’s my home.” Paul Young

People often ask me, “What does yoga do, how has it affected you?” They are asking usually to see if something I say will trigger them to take up the practice, spur them on to have courage to attend a class, or they might be generally interested in why yoga has taken such a hold on my life. I used to start with a physical explanation or a few words to try to encapsulate what yoga is or does, but it was never enough, or it was too much (their eyes would start to glaze over) or I would say something that they didn’t agree with – in the end I would say to people, “Well, it has to be experienced, my words are not enough, try it!” And that’s true, but perhaps if I say some words on my own personal experience of what yoga has done for me over the last 25 years, that will provide a better answer.

I started yoga early, my mother took me to a class that she went to in the local village hall near Winchester, UK when I was just 14. A lot of 40+ women in tights lying around, moving their bodies in strange ways and even more strangely, they seemed happy! I dabbled with it at college, a few classes here and there but it was when I was 24 that I really committed myself to a regular practice. I was going to a class at a gym in Winchester, it was huge and it was in a circle, so everyone was facing each other doing the postures…..not my most comfortable environment being the introvert that I was! So I asked the teachers if there were any other classes I could go to, she gave me a long list of telephone numbers (no mobile phones or internet in 1991…) and the only number who answered was Julie Smith, an Iyengar teacher. I’d been warned that Iyengar was “just physical yoga” but not being one to listen to anyone’s advice but to make my own mind up, I went along to her class. Firstly, it was in rows, not a circle (phew), secondly it was the hardest physical yoga I’d ever done, thirdly, when I looked out of the window my teacher said, “Rachel, pay attention, this is a yoga class, no time for day dreaming.” It was like a slap straight into my conscious mind – “Wake up!” And from that moment on, my real yoga journey began.

Bringing Yoga Home – St Catherine’s Hill Winchester UK

Julie coached me, like she did all her students, encouraged me and got me firmly on the path. Because of her I got to meet Guruji Iyengar and without her I would not be where I am today. I am eternally grateful. But back to the question, what does yoga do for me? The question stays the same but over the years the answer changes, because the path of yoga unfolds before you and the results get broader and more far reaching that you could imagine when you take your first steps. Results come quickly, even after the first class especially to those who are already fairly self-aware. In the beginning they are mostly physical – better range of movement, more muscle strength, better sleep, relief from aches and pains etc. As time goes on these physical benefits get more wide ranging and with concentrated practice and the help of a good teacher, ailments, physical and emotional problems can and often are alleviated and eradicated. Nowadays, I rarely visit the doctor, if I have a sprain or muscle ache, cold or other illness, I turn to yoga first before seeking help from Western medicine. That in itself means that mentally I am taking responsibility for myself so it inspires confidence in the body’s natural healing powers.

The emotional and mental benefits of a regular yoga practice are huge, but how can a seemingly “physical” practice affect the mind? The second yoga sutra of Patanjali says – yoga cittavritti nirodhah “Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind” so 2,000 years ago, it was known that the practice of yoga could have this affect, that by applying ourselves to ourselves and to the study of the body through postures, breathing, refinement and regular practice, our busy minds could find a way to stillness. As someone who has intermittent bouts of depression and anxiety, or for any of us in times of grief or loss, heartache or turbulence, this practice has been hugely important for me personally in helping to move my way through these waves and to help others also to reach calmer waters.

But perhaps the most surprising effect of yoga for me, has been in the way it has completely shaped and changed my life and introduced me to a wider community. Through the teacher training and ongoing teaching and learning, I have had the opportunity to travel the world and meet people from all walks of life, connect with them through a common bond of yoga that unites so many of us.  Practicing  and studying together and teaching so many wonderful people has expanded my horizons in every direction. Because of yoga I was able to move to another country, find like minded people, start teaching and start a small community of students. Over the years I have now managed to branch out and teach and practice in other countries, travelling alone and happily anywhere that I am invited to teach or to the US to study with my teacher, Manouso, or to India to study with the Iyengar family.  My younger, introverted self would have dreaded the thought of leaving home, but now I travel with ease and through the practice, as the song says, “wherever I lay my (mat), that’s my home”.

So my answer really to those who ask is, Yoga is far-reaching, it will surprise and delight you, sustain you in times of hardship, lift you up in times of grief, bring you good feelings in your body and mind and be a friend to you whenever you need it. You will even meet more people and maybe discover new friends and connections and become part of a wider family. But you have to have a sustained practice to realise all these benefits. Although I’m still far from having a constantly calm mind, free of fluctuations, I get glimpses now and again and I know I’m on the right path, and as BKS Iyengar says: “Illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you have to choose to embark on the Inward Journey to discover it.”

Time and Place

“I am here because I’m supposed to be here. I’d better be responsible for what I am doing!”

Those were the words from a talk given by Manouso Manos (arguably one of the finest yoga teachers on the planet) on day 2 of his summer intensive in San Francisco. I am lucky enough to be in attendance. He runs these weeks three times a year from the 1st to the 7th of the month in March, July and October for established Iyengar yoga students (minimum 2 years experience or more) and this is my third visit to his studio, The Abode of Iyengar Yoga, here in Glenn Park. I’m also lucky enough to be attending the three year course on Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics in Los Angeles, also taught by Manouso.

Taking the therapeutics course was a “no-brainer”, in other words, when the application for the course came through on an email newsletter 3 years ago, I applied straight away. I was at a kind of crossroads at the time – I had just got home from a lunch with a friend where we had been talking about yoga, as she and I often do, and our roles as teachers, our next steps. I can remember saying something along the lines of, “There’s something I’m supposed to do but I’m not quite sure what.” When I saw the announcement about a therapeutics course with Manouso Manos, it took my breath away – what perfect timing! I had to go through a selection process and was delighted to be accepted and then mildly terrified at the commitment that it involved – three trips a year to the USA for three years, course fees, accommodation, not to mention all the temptations of shopping and food in LA!

Twice a year, the therapeutics sessions (three days in LA) dovetail onto the intensives that Manouso runs at his own studio in San Francisco. It’s a great opportunity to study with this great master of yoga for an extended period. But it costs – extra time, extra money, extra travel. I was trying not to think of all this as I walked down from my Air BnB place to the first day of the intensive, but I couldn’t help thinking, “What am I doing here? What’s it all for? Am I really up to the mark? How did I get here?!!” Feeling less than adequate and slightly out of the world having flown half way across it the night before, I arrived at the Abode on Monterey Boulevard at 7.30am and greeted my colleagues and friends. And of course, as soon as we began, I was already “home” (“wherever I lay my ‘mat’, that’s my home”) and I knew exactly why I was here and nothing else mattered at that point except to focus on his teaching and what I was doing and penetrating inwards into my ‘self’, and into this great subject of yoga.

And as if that wasn’t enough, in his talk for that day (he gives a short talk every day of the course), he talks about the concept of free will, chance, fate and destiny and puts forward the question of whether free will actually exists or is it simply that wherever we are right now is exactly where we are supposed to be, and, if that is the case, we had better take responsibility for whatever it is that we are doing. He goes onwards with that to say that we are all collectively responsible to pass on this knowledge that is being passed down to us, that was passed down to him from BKS Iyengar, as we are in this place at this time, to learn it, absorb it and pass it on to help others.

In the next day’s talk, Manouso went into detail about “Skillful Action” which is one of the definitions of yoga according to the Bhagavad Gita, but which can be described as doing the right thing at the right time – taking the appropriate action to achieve the right result. You can apply this concept into any area of your life, the way you conduct yourself in society, at home, at work or even in your yoga practice or towards your own self-preservation. I’m so glad that I decided the right course of action was to apply for the Iyengar Therapeutics course 3 years ago. It has been no less than a life-changing experience. I’ve met some amazing people, gained invaluable knowledge and discovered the holes in my own – I hope I have enough skill and responsibility to pass on what I’ve learned to others!

Some of my buddies and I at our favourite post-workshop restaurant, Toast Bakery on West 3rd Street

Keep Calm, Carry On

“Lot of people they don’t know what they are capable of.
And when they do, they almost don’t believe they make it”

Patricia Walden

I nicked this from a friend’s post today on Facebook – she’s the kind of teacher who always seems to post just the right thing at the right time to describe my day – uncanny as I’ve never met her – such is the synchronicity of yoga teachers and like minded people perhaps, or just coincidence. Either way, this quote came on a day when I did just what she described and it reminded me so much of my own students and their journey through the yoga experience.

I’ve been attempting this pose kind of with a wink in the eye for some time – as my senior certificate level approaches, the attention to it is getting more serious but still keeping a good humour about it so that I don’t develop a negative attitude when it keeps eluding me! So today, with that same good cheer I went about “attempting” the pose, but for some reason, a change in the weather/attitude, I decided to practice it in a different way, more playful, more curious and less formulaic – how about like this, or like that, or what happens if I do this…..and while my mind was distracted (all the time whilst upside down on my head) my right foot in half padmasana (lotus), my left foot suddenly made contact with my right knee, for the first time in my years of practice without someone pushing my foot there. I surprised myself so much that I lost myself in the joy of it and of course fell straight out of it. But something had unlocked in my brain, so I went on to tackle other elusive poses and had similar successes, but this time, was prepared for the shock value, and managed to keep my head.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it states that our practice and our attitude to all things should have equanimity, be free of attachment and desire for results. Although this might sound austere and devoid of feeling, you could also argue that this approach gives us enormous freedom to “play”, to experiment and to just try, be curious, without the pressure of goal setting or expectation. The trick is, not to panic when things actually work! But instead, to keep a cool head – “Keep calm and carry on.”

When I was in Pune last year, one of the most memorable classes was with Sunita who was teaching some very strong backwards extensions – we had to attempt to arch back as far as we could from standing – we repeated and repeated several times. She could see the fear in many of us and at one point she said, “Just try it and see.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you achieve a good pose or not, whether your pose is better or worse than anyone else’s in the room, just do it, without the fear, without those boundaries that we surround ourselves with. Let go.

Padmasana
Padmasana in Sirsasana

Stay Centered in Yoga in Life

Today I was preparing for the Wednesday intermediate Iyengar Yoga class which I teach for 2 hours each Wednesday afternoon in the Algarve. This week it’s standing poses and I had decided to choose a sequence inspired by one of Geeta Iyengar’s classes I had taken last November, whilst in RIMYI, Pune (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute – otherwise known as the Iyengar “mothership”). I love to look back at those classes and take myself in my mind there, trying to recall images, sensations and words that she spoke to us, information, ideas and messages she was conveying. I’m an avid note taker (after the class, not during) but I don’t often use them religiously to recall information – I find that once the moment has passed, what we take away in impressions is much more lasting and useful than a sequence of hastily written down words and phrases which often later, make no sense – or even writing that we can’t read (I said I was an avid note taker but not necessarily a good one!) One of my main teachers, Manouso Manos tells us that we have to learn to see and hear things in a specific way to allow the teachings to go in deep. When we are taking notes during a class, we are actually drawn away from the subject, not towards it instead of being fully absorbed in the moment – “yoga is about being in the NOW”

RIMYI Gates

However, there is always something in my notes that sticks out and comes back as a reminder and if I can remember pertinent phrases, I will write them down to ponder over later. I had written down something that she said at the beginning, and this was the beginning of the first class of the month for all us international visitors, “Don’t mess around going here there and everywhere whilst you are here in Pune. Focus on RIMYI and learn as much as you can.” Geeta is so present and such a wise person and she sees so much. She sees us arriving in Pune thirsty for knowledge, hungry to absorb as much as we can in the time (usually one month) that we have at the Iyengar Institute. She hears all our questions, our eagerness to know everything, now. With the patience of a saint (!), she guides everyone who comes to her to be present and dedicated to their practice in a purely yogic way.

As in life, split yourself in too many directions and the focus is lost, the meaning of what you are doing/learning/aspiring to become is not there and your energies are dissipated every which way. In this age with all the activities and pathways of learning open to us, we can get lost in a sea of information and sign posts pulling us, choices to make, directions to take. Focus on what is in front of you, absorb as much as you can and you will learn faster, deeper, better and the knowledge will stay with you for longer. When you do your practice, what you have learnt will be there inside to draw upon even if you don’t have your notebook, or your iPad to hand to refer to, even if your teacher is not around to guide you. Your best teacher is always within you.

After all, among BKS Iyengar’s last words to his grand daughter, Abhijata Shridar before he died, having given 80 years of his life to yoga were: “I have shown you all these things, now realize them for yourself.”