Yoga Workshop with Ashtanga Yoga Teacher Tim Miller

Tim Miller has been studying ashtanga yoga for over thirty years. He began his studies before I was born in 1978.  He teaches ashtanga yoga at his studio in California. He has an excellent reputation internationally as one of ashtanga yoga’s most senior teachers and yet this year was the first time he had taught in the UK. I feel privileged to have been able to have attended his recent workshop hosted by Yoga Manchester.

As a teacher and practitioner, I know that the more I practice and the more I teach, the more I experience and learn about this wonderful practice. To be able to learn and meet someone who has so much practical experience to draw from and share is a unique opportunity.

I think it important to keep learning. There is always more to learn about any topic and learning helps me keep my passion and enthusiasm for teaching as well as informing my teaching and making me a better teacher. Yoga is such a vast subject, understanding the physical and philosophical aspects of the practice is a never ending journey.

There is no beating the consistent relationship you can develop with your own regular teacher, who can learn to react to both your body and your temperament.  Workshops offer an opportunity to discuss the practice in more depth, I always learn something I can apply to both my own practice and my teaching.

Tim Miller’s workshop covered a nice balance between practice and philosophy. It was really interesting to listen to him talk about the yoga sutras. Listening to him share both his understanding of the text and his experience of it was inspiring and insightful. Each time I read or learn about this text, I learn something new. Here is a video of Tim teaching about the yoga practice….

His workshop on Saturday afternoon was about injury or areas of the body or practice which seem resistant to change. This was such a great idea as it enabled Tim to share the depth of his experience in a very individualised way.  He had a mat in front of him and people came up to work with him. People often struggle with the same things so I learnt a lot that I can apply to both my students and my own practice. I even got on the mat myself and Tim helped me release my hip flexor and quads in backbends, which is what I am currently working on in my own practice.

He told me that my shoulders and upper back were really open and I needed to work on my hips now. I resisted the urge to laugh at the irony.  In the early days of my practice I was told the flexibility would come and I should work on my strength. I am very diligent when it comes to my yoga practice so I worked on my strength and very gradually over many years I became strong. I was then told that because of my strength my upper back and shoulders were tight in backbends and so I worked on this with the same diligence. After years of practice this has apparently opened my back up and I find it ironic that if people comment on my practice they usually say something about how open my back is or how strong I am. I have in effect made my weaknesses my strengths. So when Tim commented that my back was really open I commented that I had just been practicing a while.  It’s only a short time compared to Tim miller but I have been doing yoga now for 16 years and ashtanga yoga for about 8.  Most of the transformation I have experienced both physically and otherwise has come from ashtanga yoga which seems the best fit for my mind and body.

Next month Kino is coming to Manchester, she is teaching a workshop for teachers during the day and a workshop for everyone in the evening.  I am attending both Manchester workshops and I know some ashtanga yoga Liverpool students are also coming which should be a fun outing.  I am also going to two of her workshops in London, again one of my students will be there too. This will also give a chance to practice with my regular teacher Hamish. I am looking forward to learning and then sharing that learning through my own teaching.

How has your practice changed since you began? Have you ever attended a yoga workshop? What was your experience?

Ten Tips for Staying Present and Calm

I think one of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it brings you into the present moment. It allows you to connect with here and now.

Even when practicing yoga it is possible to be elsewhere. I have certainly had days where my mind just won’t shut up. These are the days where yoga is a real challenge and yet these are the days where we need yoga the most. Don’t run from your mat, stay be with yourself. Don’t judge your mind, accept everything as it is and go back to your breath. Notice subtleties in your movement, gradually bring yourself back, here.

 Why is being here and now so important?

Blossom falling off a tree with a quote from Eckart Tolle about being here and now

So glad I found a moment to capture this beautiful tree on my daily bike commute

The mind is an incredible thing.  It just doesn’t seem to stay still. Sometimes life is great and sometimes it is challenging.  It doesn’t matter how much yoga you do, challenging things will happen and great, wonderful things too! Everything is changing all the time and yet the mind can cling to some fixed ideas about reality. Sometimes our minds repeat the same thoughts again and again, strengthening them, feeding them. These thoughts may have nothing to do with what is actually happening to you. Often they are about some possible future or some past experience.

I have observed that when something is happening, the mind often is not fully present with the experience. Instead it can think about what will happen because of this, even though it doesn’t yet know the future.  Sometimes we also filter things through our past – neither of these filters are real. If you are present then you have no choice but to surrender to what is happening. As you experience this more and more life becomes more beautiful and less stressful. You get to experience life in it’s many colours and embrace it each and every moment.

Believing and feeding a negative future in your mind can’t be helpful.  If you must have a vision of the future in your mind make it one that inspires you and makes you smile.

 How to stay present in your day to day life

  1. Practice it preferably daily, through yoga, meditation or just when going about a daily task like washing up.
  2. Be compassionate with your mind, if you notice it’s not being present, be with it.  Learn to laugh at it and tell it to shut up if it’s not being helpful.
  3. If you feel panicked notice what is actually happening, is it as bad as your mind thinks it is?
  4. Use your breath to make you aware of here and now.  Notice your breathing as it is or take a few deep breaths.
  5. Feel what it’s like to be in your body.  Feel the contact with the floor or the chair.
  6. Notice the sounds that are around you.
  7. Listen to what others are saying.  The mind can get so busy planning it’s next move. Take the time to really listen to what other people are saying instead of planning what you are going to say next.
  8. Focus on the every day things that are actually happening. Where are you right now and what are you doing?
  9. If you catch your mind creating stories, notice it without getting involved, like a cloud passing in the sky.
  10. If you feel you’ve got stuck living in the past or the future, that’s okay.  Now is the only moment you have, be here now and don’t worry about the past.

Do you find your mind likes to create unnecessary drama?  What helps you to stay present?

Ashtanga Yoga – Traditional Opening and Closing Chant

In Ashtanga yoga there are two traditional chants. One at the start of the class and one at the end.  In my classes I only do this chant in my non-beginners classes.  I do this because I think chanting can be a bit intimidating to some people.  This can be especially when they are just beginning their yoga journey.  People come to yoga for all sorts of reasons and I think that is fine, yoga has many benefits.

 

When I do teach the chant, it is is optional.  I know many of my students love it and some people just listen for whatever reason and that’s fine. I would hate someone to miss out on the many benefits of yoga because they don’t feel comfortable chanting.

Why do the chant?

I think the chant is really useful as a way to seperate your yoga practice from day to day life. If you don’t want to to chant you could take a moment to connect with your breathing.

What language is the chant and what does it mean?

The chant is in Sanskrit – an ancient language of India. The opening chant gives thanks to Patanjali, who wrote the yoga Sutras.  This ancient text can be considered the philosophical underpinnings of yoga.  If you are interested in deepening your understanding of yoga, you should definately read the yoga sutras. It was written approximately 200 years BC and has amazing relevance to our lives today.  In my mind when we say this chant we are also giving thanks to all the yoga teachers who have passed on the yoga tradition so that we can practice today.  The closing chant is more about taking the benefits of our yoga practice and putting them out into the world. You can find a  full translation of the chants here.

 

Religion and the Chant

Some people may not want to chant because they feel it is religious.  Yoga is not a religion.  It has a philosophy and can be practiced by anyone, regardless of whether they have a religious faith or not.

 

Pronunciation of the chant

This post came about because some of my students said they struggled to pronounce the chant when they are practing by themselves.  Last week I came across this wonderful video on yoga mammas blog.  The video shows Sharath and his grandfather Pattabhi Jois, saying the opening chant.  Pattabhi Jois was the founder of ashtanga yoga, he is no longer with us and the current head of the lineage is his grandson Sharath.  I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to study with both of them.  This video shows a beautiful transmission of the tradition.

 

Here is another video of Sharath chanting the closing chant.

 

Do you like chanting?  What do you like or dislike about it? Do you have any questions about the chants?

New Years Resolutions a Month on – 10 Tips to Create a New Groove

So it’s  February, every one has gone quiet about the  topic of new years resolutions.   Why is that?  Well………. change can be challenging can’t it.  If you decided to make a new year’s resolution the chances are you have to change your previous habits in order to succeed.  You may find that your old habits die hard.  Unfortunately statistics show that many people do not manage to keep their new year’s resolutions.

According to yogic philosophy we are born with mental and emotional tendencies which shape out actions.  The more we do a particular action the more more strong the groove becomes and the harder it is to change it.  Should we give up then?  No, I think the challenge of change is what makes goal setting so transformational.  It becomes less about making a specific change and more about being able to take conscious action rather than get stuck in a groove which is no longer serving you.

Scientists have found that when we repeat a particular we strengthen the connection in brain pathways.  However we are capable of creating new pathways whenever we want it just takes practice.  Eventually the new behaviour will become natural, so how do we get there?

Here are my 10 tips?

1) If you make a mistake, give yourself a break.  Think about what you could do differently next time?

2) Talk your goals through with friends, make them real.

3) Believe in you, you can do anything you want.

4) Be realistic and shoot for the stars.  You need a goal you can believe in and one that inspires you to make changes.

5) Recommit, if you find that you have slipped back into old pattern make a plan for how to make the changes you really want.

6) One step at a time, big goals can be overwhelming, always ask yourself what the next action is?

7) What was holding you back?  What benefit are you getting from any old behaviour that is stopping you from moving forward with your new goal.  What do you need to let go of – old view of self, watching less TV to create more time, etc. Can you think of another way to get that benefit?

8) Why do you want this?  What difference will it make?  Get motivated!

9) Know that change is not always linear, what can you learn from any steps that might have seemed like steps backwards.

10) Be here and now.  You are not your past or your future you are what you are right now, decide what that is and don’t let anything hold you back.

Did you set any new year’s resolutions?  What has helped you stick to your plan?

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron a Book Review

The week before my holiday I was very busy.  I had to make lots of decisions which involved making a leap into a future that I couldn’t possibly imagine. Amidst all this business, I saw a quote from Pema Chodron on Facebook, on a page I follow updated by one of her students.

As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground- something predictable and safe to stand on- seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we’re part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process.” Pema Chodron
(Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change)

 

I laughed in recognition, when I read this, what a wonderful reminder and how true.  It seems like such a human trait to want certainty and reliability when in truth no-one knows what will happen next. I shared this on Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s Facebook Page, I am sure many of you saw it.  I then looked up the book and decided I should read it on my holiday.

 

I have read a few other books by Pema as well as listening to her teaching .  She is a wonderful teacher.  As I am sure you noticed from the above passage she has an amazing way with words.  I also love how honest she is able to be in her teaching, she admits to her own shortcomings and humanness with great humour so we can all learn from it.

 

Helen looking at extinct Volcano in Lanzorote

Montana Roja, Lanzarote

I read Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change whilst on holiday in Lanzarote with my partner.  I am so glad that I did because it a wonderfully inspiring and insightful book and it has helped me to stay more present.  I was able to let go of all the business back at home and enjoyed all we ever have – the here and now.  Sure I drift from time to time and that’s okay, Pema’s words, my meditation and yoga practice help me to come back here.

 

Pema is a Buddhist nun and her books and teachings are based on Buddhist teachings.  She was a student of Chogyam Chungpa who wrote Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism BookCutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which is absolute classic for anyone interested in a spiritual path.  I find her teachings are very compatible and useful for me on my yoga journey and I am sure you would find this too.  She has written a lot about how to deal with pain and suffering from the perspective of someone on a spiritual journey.

 

Living Beautifully with  Uncertainty and Change Book

In Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change she shares her wisdom about 3 Buddhist vows.  She explains how traditionally these vows would be taken formally with a teacher.  In this book she introduces them in a more general way, as three commitments, so that anyone of any religion or no religion could benefit from these teachings. I guess some people could criticize this approach, saying that it waters down the tradition but as I touched upon in my blog post  Why Do You Practice Yoga and Does it Matter? I think that if something benefits you in any way then that’s great and particularly when someone someone as wise and insightful as Pema is sharing.  The traditional approach is still there for those who want to take it and maybe more people will be inspired too after reading her book.

 

In summary the first commitment is about not doing harm to others and ourselves.  The second is about keeping our hearts and minds open to the suffering of the world, developing our compassion.  The third is about accepting the world as it is.  Although these commitments seem much like common sense they are very challenging for any aspirant to keep.  Pema gives excellent guidance for dealing with these challenges.  I think people sometimes struggle with change because they expect not to fail and yet this is often how we learn and develop the strength for our future. Sometimes we can’t cope with our own or others’ pain and that’s okay. Sometimes we mess up – I know I do and the important thing is to learn from this and recommit to change or to do what we can do today. In this holiday season when many of us have time to reflect on how we want to move forward with our lives, Pema’s new book offers some great ways to embrace life without agenda, to accept it just as it is.  You may have eaten too much at Christmas, you may be tired cold, poor or ill, but this is your world to embrace, don’t wait for everything to seem perfect.  If we cling to happiness and run from suffering in the search of a perfect world, we may find ourselves living our whole life in our minds.  I don’t think that this means you shouldn’t have goals, you are the captain of your ship, not the ocean.  Enjoy the journey, embracing your life just as it is.

 

Have you read anything inspiring recently?  Have you read any of Pema Chordan’s Books?

 

Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali Explored – The Ethics of Yoga

 

The Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali approximately 500 to 200 years B.C.  In the opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga we pay homage to Patanjali.   The Yoga Sutras are an excellent guide for anyone interested in delving deeper into yoga. Despite being written so long ago, they are very relevant to the modern day practitioner of yoga. Each time I have read them I have understood them on a different level as insights from my own practice and life help me to understand them more.

 

In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines the term Ashtanga.  Asha mean eight and anga mean limbs. The yoga sutras are     not specific to Ashtanga Yoga and are relevant to all that practice yoga and are interested in delving deeper.

The eight limbs are:

 

  1. Yama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with society
  2. Niyama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with ourselves
  3. Asana – the yoga postures
  4. Pranayama- breathing exercises, control of prana, our life force
  5. Pratyahra – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – a state of consciousness whereby the mind is directed to one point
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi- a state of oneness

 

These eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga are not necessarily practiced in that order.  Usually practitioners of Hatha yoga, such as Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga that I teach begin with asana, the physical postures.  Actually the other limbs are also practiced within  the physical yoga practice as we shall see when we explore them further.

 

This is a big topic and I would like to write a series of posts about Patanjali’s eight limbs in order to explore them in my own life and hopefully get some other people’s experiences.  I would like to begin with the Yama and Niyama.  In the next part I will discuss each of them in more depth, to begin with I will define each one.

 

The five yamas are:

 

  1. Ahimsa – non – violence
  2. Satya – truthfulness
  3. Asteya- not coveting others possessions
  4. Bramachamera – sexual restraint (not necessarily celebacy)
  5. Aparigraha- to not be greedy

 

The five Niyamas are:

 

  1. Sauca – cleanliness
  2. Samtosa – being content with what you have
  3. Tapas – keeping the body fit,  to create  heat in the body and thus cleanse it
  4. Svasdyaya – self inquiry
  5. Isvarapranidhana – surrender to god

 

Well my Sanskrit dictionary  just grew!  Most of these are self explanatory and are practiced by most people anyway.  By practised, I mean we know these are things we should do, I am sure we all find it challenging sometimes, I know I do. We all get things wrong some of the time!  However they are useful guidelines in which to reflect our choices.  As discussed in the previous post about why people practice yoga, often people begin practicing yoga for purely physical reasons and then find that they are inadvertently changing for the better.

 

I will discuss each yama and niyama in more depth in future posts.

.

Do you think these ethical guidlines are useful?

Do you think they are challenging?

Why Do You Practice Yoga and Does it Matter?

For me yoga is a spiritual practice with physical benefits.  I enjoy it and I practice daily because I have found it transformative.  The term spiritual draws differing responses from each person, depending on how they interpret the meaning of the word. For me its meaning is somewhat fluid, as it exhibits varying qualities at different times.  I like yoga and meditation as they allow me to discover things for myself rather than being told what it is about. Although I also like to read the teachings, it is the fruit of my own practice that leads to understanding.  I find that fairly scientific but it is also very subjective, as all my experiences are interpreted by me.  Yoga certainly helps me to see through these illusions though and to question and experience more of what actually is.  For me mostly I am just trying to get beyond my thoughts and experience more of what actually is, be it spiritual or physical.

 

People practice yoga for all sorts of reasons.  As a teacher, here are some of ones I have come across: inner calm, relaxation, spiritual, losing weight, recovering from injury, increasing flexibility, help with sport (cross-training), help with sleep, anxiety, stress, increasing general health and wellbeing.  The list of reasons is endless.  For me any reason is valid.  Yoga is great and I feel many people can benefit from it.  Yoga in the West is sometimes criticized for having lost its spirituality for the sake of commercialism.  Whilst reading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Christine and her students we discussed this as it is brought up a number of times in Swami Muktibodhananda’s commentary

 

“Originally, a sadhaka practiced hatha yoga  for many years to prepare himself for the awakening of kundalini, or in terms of raja yoga, for the experience of Samadhi.  However, in the last fifty years, with the revival of yoga in the West, it seems the real goal of yoga has been overlooked or even completely forgotten.  Today, yoga is generally practiced to improve or restore health, to reduce stress, to prevent the body from ageing or to beautify it.  Hatha yoga does fulfil these of objectives, but it should be kept in mind that they are certainly not the goal.” Swami Muktibodhananda, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

 

While I think this is a valid point, I feel that more people are practicing and getting benefit from yoga than ever before.  I feel this is a good thing, whatever the reasons and generally people’s reason for practicing changes with time, I know mine has.  As a yoga teacher I try my best to make yoga accessible to the varying needs of my students.  I sometimes feel that this openness does mean that spirituality and philosophy are not discussed as much as they could be.  I make an effort to connect with my students and hope that they will feel they can talk to me about the deeper aspect of their practice.  I am always interested to hear about other people’s experiences.  I also hope that this blog serves to broaden what I share about yoga and what we discuss both here on the blog and in class and so far I am finding this to be the case.

 

If you are interested in exploring yoga philosophy I highly recommend readingThe Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, which contains a translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras at the back.  It is a wonderful book and a great starting point for this vast subject.  If you are practicing yoga to get fitter or loose weight, good for you – you may find you get even more from it than you expected…

 

Why do you practice yoga?  Have your reasons changed since you started practicing yoga? What is your experience about the physical and spiritual aspects of your yoga practice?

Hatha Yoga Pradipika – Sharing the Reading Experience

Christine Weise teaches and practices Ashtanga Yoga in Gainesville, Florida.  She is also the author of the Blog, Ashtanga Yoga in Gainesville, which I have read over the last few years.  I love the way that the practice of yoga connects people.  To me the wider Ashtanga Yoga Community is like a big family of people who do the same practice and as such go through similar experiences.  The internet enables us to connect and share our experiences with people who we may not otherwise meet.   Christine has decided to take this medium and use it so that we can share with her and her community, as they study the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

 

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is thought to have been written in the fifteenth century C.E by and the Indian yogi Svatmara.  It is considered one of the classic texts of yoga.  I first read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika during my yoga teacher training course.  The version I read was translated by Brian Dana Akers, he original text is in Sanskrit.  At the time I liked this version  because it is a does not contain a commentary, just a translation, leaving me to think about the text in my own terms.   The text has four chapters asanas (physical yoga positions),  pranayama (control of prana/ energy), mudras (symbolic gestures) and samadhi (state of oneness).  It explores the spiritual and practical aspects of the practice of hatha yoga, some of the practices explained are extreme and if I remember correctly some of the benefits of the poses are  far out if taken literally.  As much as I like to explore these texts I always like to do so from the point of view of my own experience.  As the Buddha said

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances.”

Picture of the book the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Christine is doing a shared read of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with her students and she opened this up to the wider yoga community via her blog.  The idea is that we all read a section of the book and then discuss it on Facebook.  I love to read books and the idea of sharing the experience with others appeals to me. Christine is reading a version of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swarmi Muktibodhananda. This version contains a commentary as well as a translation. I decided to buy Swarmi Muktibodhananda’s version, so that I could delve into this text a little deeper and join in their discussions, I am also re-reading Brain Dana Akers version so that I can compare the translations. If you are interested in joining in that would be great, I intend to write about my journey with the book here on this blog as well as joining in the discussion on Ashtanga Yoga in Gainesville’s Facebook Page. There is no need to have any prior experience of yoga philosophy to join in, just an interest.

Have you read or are you interested in reading The Hatha Yoga Pradipika?

 

The Real Moment

As some of you know, a couple of months ago I stubbed my toe badly on a Hoover and had to take some time off work.  As I travelled back from my Mum’s house in North Wales, I began letting people know that I would not be able to teach on Monday.  I was a bit disappointed because I love my job but I could barely walk so that was the way it was.

Once I had sent some texts out to those of you in my text group, and made an announcement on Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s Facebook page, I resumed reading a book by Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality

This is the first book I have read by Brad but I have been curious about him for a while.  Brad is a Zen teacher who is also into punk rock, he works at least during the time scale of his Hardcore Zen book in the monster movie industry in Japan.   He writes  about Zen in a direct, simple and humerous way.  He can be fairly opinionated which is unusual in spiritual teachers but I like his direct approach.  His blog can be found in the right side bar of this blog or here.

I was reading his book on the train, in pain and maybe a little frustrated I came across this line

“Suffering occurs when your idea about how things ought to be don’t match how they  really are.”  Brad Warner

Hmm, what a great one liner.  How true.  As I sat on the train I reflected that my suffering mostly came from my brains interpretation of the pain.  When I stopped and observed the pain for what it was, sensation and lost the stories in my head my situation wasn’t so bad.  I was on the train home after a lovely weekend with family.  I had the day off, I could have some me time.

Since that moment on the train, whenever I have caught myself sad, frustrated etc,  I have worked instead on acknowledging what the moment I am in is actually like, rather than what I think it should be like.  We could spend our whole lives waiting for that perfect moment in our heads or we could be in this one.  The above example is not a particularly challenging life event but if we work with minor problems I believe it will get easier to apply this wisdom to bigger ones.  Yoga and or meditation helps us to more present in these moments so that we notice them and stand a better chance of actually being HERE.

Have you read anything interesting recently?