Time

By the time you read this article, the new decade and year of 2020 will well and truly be underway. Starting a new year brings reflection and new focus on all the areas that we dreamily hope to improve or change, and we take stock of the year or 10 years gone by, sometimes wondering how we got to where we are today.

Many people posted photos of themselves from ten years ago vs present day on social media and it reminded me to stop and pause on my own journey through the last decade. A lot can happen in a year, let alone a decade! The photos of smiling faces often hide the effort, trials, tribulations and pain that people have gone through from one point in time to another and the person looking out from the 2020 photo is often very different from the one in 2010 How many times have you heard someone say – “Where did the time go? How did I get here?!”

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.” Steve Miller

My personal journey has been, for the past 25 years or more, supported by my asana practice and illuminated by study of philosophy, both of which have now become my sadhana (self-practice) – whether the two have intensified because of the events in my life or due to them is hard to say, but the results are the same, the deeper and more subtle limbs of Astanga Yogasuch as Pratyahara (withdrawl of the senses), Dharana (concentration) and Dyana(meditation) have started to both comfort and inspire me in what can be sometimes a turbulent world, as if the wheel of those 8 limbs is turning slowly to reflect deeper waters to draw from.

“If you are looking for a whale, you cannot search in a pond, you must go to deep waters.” Prashant Iyengar

For many of us who have come to yoga through attending classes, the physical practice of Asana is a steady path to follow. It keeps us healthy, nimble, strong and happy and many of us stay quite happily for years with purely this aspect of the practice alone. We know that it is different from other forms of “exercise” as it affects the organic functioning of the body, the nervous system and the mind.

“We are missing the gold is we do asanas as a physical practice only.” Geeta Iyengar

As time passes and we continue to persevere in our practice, we find ourselves in a comfort zone we never thought possible in the beginning. Do you remember your first yoga class? Your first dog pose? Your first teacher training session? (I do, I was terrified!) Your first trip to India perhaps? One minute we are struggling to do a simple forward bend, the next we are in Sirsasana (head stand) in the middle of a yoga studio while the teacher gives us instructions to stay longer! Wait a minute? What happened? Look at the photos of my two poses for example, one from 2009, the other from 2010. Both look the same but the intensity, sensitivity, understanding and feeling in the later one is much deeper.

“It is impossible to pass from ‘bad’ to ‘best’ without passing through ‘good’. BKS Iyengar

When I was a child, I had a poster in my bedroom that had the phrase, “Time is just nature’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.” I think my parents put it there to remind me not to want everything all at once. This phrase has often come into my mind when I’ve become impatient with myself of, as I see it, underachieving, not getting there fast enough, not learning enough or teaching enough.

Instead of being impatient, wanting everything NOW we could reflect that like BKS Iyengar said once, life is like a river, it never stops, even when we think that progress is slow, the river is still moving and where it seems that one person achieves great things in a short space of time, there are others, like the tortoise, who get to their finish line slowly and steadily, but she gets there. Along the way, we must keep our hearts and minds open to all the gems of knowledge and experience that go into making our lives fully rounded and our yoga practice deeper and fuller. It doesn’t have to be the possessions we have, or the wealth we have accumulated at the end of those ten years that makes us smile in our photo, but the spiritual richness gained by all our collective experiences lived with an open heart, curious mind and sense of self both in our day to day life and our time in our Sadhana.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” Bhagavad Gita

Bakasana Then and Now

Home Practice Guides

Home Yoga Practice Guides and Tips

12 Simple Steps

  1. Start slowly. Even 5 minutes every day is better than 90 minutes once a week. Gradually build up to a longer practice.
  2. Be disciplined but not too rigid: Stick to a routine of time and place and keep your space “sacred” – however, be prepared to be flexible in times of holidays, family visits, illness etc. Plan your week/month according to your commitments – be realistic
  3. Accept the rhythms of your body – there will be “good” days and “bad” days but always room for learning
  4. Use recommended books that inspire you – ask your teacher. Explore the vast subject of yoga and don’t be afraid to dip in to the philosophy side too – that can often help you to develop a more fully rounded practice.
  5. If in doubt, stick to what you know – but be playful too! If you lack inspiration or ideas, use the practice plans at the end of this handout or from yoga books.
  6. Use the right equipment in the correct way – if in doubt, ask a teacher or email me.
  7. Write down things you can remember from classes or workshops – try new things whilst still fresh in your mind.
  8. Be intuitive, compassionate & attentive – listen to your body and don’t forget to breath!
  9. Don’t push to your limits when you are ill/recovering/menstruating. On the other hand, challenge yourself to explore into your limitations but stay safe
  • Practice with other yoga friends and share experiences – inspire each other.
  • Tell your family what you are doing so as to have space & support to practice.
  • Never miss out on Savasana (relaxation pose) – save time and space for that and rest well.
  • And one for luck: Use technology – video and audio materials are now easier to find and the website yogaselection.com is a fantastic resource for all levels

“That’s exactly how it is in yoga. The places where you have the most resistance are actually the places that are going to be the areas of the greatest liberation.” Rodney Yee

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.”

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.”