Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The red sun, reflected on the square, of the TV...

I'm back to work as an urban planner, exactly one year after I took redundancy from my previous job. I'm grateful, of course, especially given the area I am now in charge of assessing planning applications is ridiculously beautiful, with some of the most stunning English landscape I have ever seen. I even have a favourite view from  my car on my commute into work, the morning light radiates gold off a vast wheat field viewed from the brow of a hill, off the A429 toward Stratford. However living in Coventry I sometimes forget that nature is everywhere.  Living in the city you have just to listen a little harder sometimes. I knew I'd find some haikus which reverberate with how I'm feeling right now...

Instead of foxes howling, or waterfalls, there's a car-roaring up the street, or the drone of  a refrigerator ... part of the life in which we are living.

             The red sun
              reflected in the square
                of the TV.

        Neons flash red & green.
April rains on still street.  Man
   Nods.  Red lights blink, blink.

                        After April rain
                        -in puddles of oil
                        city rainbows

        The whole block flooded.
        Men hauling pumps & hoses;
        children, plastic boats.

                        A great freight truck
                                        lit up like a town
                        through the dark stony desert.

So as sure as nature is found in the city, human nature leaves traces, samskaras if you like and cuts tracks in nature. Haiku can express not only nature, but human nature too. The name for  this kind of haiku is "senryu". Putting human nature in the foreground and nature in the background, everyone can see something of universal human nature in themselves or the world around.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Anthony Hall's Krishnamacharya's Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama Workshop Review, June 2014

I was really lucky this weekend to have been able to attend a workshop run by Anthony Hall, his only teaching gig in the UK before he leaves to live back in Japan. Anthony is known mainly for his awesome blog Krishnamacharya's Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at Home. I've been following Anthony's musings on yoga since I began my ashtanga apprenticeship a few years back, found his blog extremely relevant being a mainly home practitioner and so helpful in breaking down the practice, the asanas and the philosophy, so I have a real soft spot for his teaching. 

Anthony doesn't see himself as a teacher, OK, he's done a couple of teacher trainings, Ramaswami's and Manju's, but he first and foremost considers himself 'just a blogger'. However, I would argue that it is his blogging and his dissection of his and 'our' practice of ashtanga that makes him such a great teacher, and his willingness to share every single detail of the ins and outs of his practice, the highs and the lows, the successes and failures. He's also shared so much information on Krishnamacharya and has spent hours upon hours dissection and analysing his writings, making sense of it all for the benefit of the western mind. So it was Anthony's work on Krishnamacharya and his teachings of Vinyasa Krama as taught to him by Ramaswami that he chose to share with us at the workshop and I felt blessed to have been there. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Even Art has a "Mysore Style"!!

During my stay in Mysore, 'after the yoga', I was fortunate enough to spend my afternoons learning how to paint 'Mysore' style. My teacher was a beautiful man called M.S.Anand whose studio was on the 3rd floor on a traditional Mysore apartment block. He lives there with his wife, his gorgeous son and his Great Dane, 'Rocky'! You might think it a bit cruel to keep such a big dog on the 3rd floor of an apartment block, but Rocky loved it, loved the visitors and used to keep us company…by lying across the entrance the studio! But unfortunately Rocky's residence on the 3rd floor was not without incident! Because Rocky loved birds, loved to chase them that is, but despite great efforts on Anand's part to teach Rocky the pitfalls of chasing birds on a 3rd floor balcony, Rocky fell off said balcony no less than 3 times! Breaking his little legs on a couple of occasions, but mercifully surviving! Apparently Rocky used to be a canine model…however I think his modelling days are unfortunately up.. :)

But enough about Rocky. I was lucky enough to be taught by Anand in the beautiful Mysore style of painting in the typical 'Mysore' tradition. Watch and repeat. Watch Anand draw something and then attempt to repeat it until I had perfected it. I had pages and pages of hands in mudras, hands holding lotuses, feet decorated in anklets, until I perfected every possible combination of hand/mudra/symbol combinations! 

Anand has his latest masterpiece displayed in the departure lounge at Bangalore Airport. Here's a link to a piece on Anand in the Hindu Times:

So what makes Mysore painting so special? Apart from its vibrant colours, Mysore paintings are known for their elegance, muted colours, and attention to detail. The themes for most of these paintings are Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from Hindhu mythology such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. 

What Wikipedia says about Mysore painting: (Kannada: ಮೈಸೂರು ಚಿತ್ರಕಲೆ) is an important form of classical South Indian painting that originated in and around the town of Mysore in Karnataka encouraged and nurtured by the Mysore rulers. Painting in Karnataka has a long and illustrious history, tracing its origins back to the Ajanta times (2nd century B.C. to 7th century A.D.) The distinct school of Mysore painting evolved from the paintings of Vijayanagar times during the reign of the Vijayanagar Kings (1336-1565 AD) The rulers of Vijayanagar and their feudatories encouraged literature, art, architecture, religious and philosophical discussions. With the fall of the Vijayanagar empire after the Battle of Talikota the artists who were till then under royal patronage migrated to various other places like Mysore, Tanjore, Surpur, etc. Absorbing the local artistic traditions and customs, the  Vijayanagar School of Painting gradually evolved into the many styles of painting in South India, including the Mysore and Tanjore schools of painting.

Techniques: The ancient painters in Mysore prepared their own materials. The colours were from natural sources and were of vegetable, mineral or even organic origin such as leaves, stones and flowers. Brushes were made with squirrel hairs for delicate work but for drawing superfine lines a brush made of pointed blades of a special variety of grass had to be used. Due to the long-lasting quality of the earth and vegetable colours used, the original Mysore paintings still retain their freshness and lustre even today. 

Devotion: Mysore Paintings are characterized by delicate lines, intricate brush strokes, graceful delineation of figures and the discreet use of bright vegetable colours and lustrous gold leaf. More than mere decorative pieces, the paintings are designed to inspire feelings of devotion and humility in the viewer. The painter’s individual skill in giving expression to various emotions is therefore of paramount importance to this style of painting. 

Embossing: Gesso work was the hallmark of all traditional paintings of Karnataka. Gesso refers to the paste mixture of white lead powder, gambose and glue which is used as an embossing material and covered with gold foil. The gesso work in Mysore paintings is low in relief and intricate as compared to the thick gold relief work of the Tanjore School. Gesso was used in Mysore painting for depicting intricate designs of clothes, jewellery and architectural details on pillars and arches that usually framed the deities. The work was taken up in the morning when the base of the gold work on the painting was still moist so as to hold the gold foil firmly. After allowing the painting to dry, glazing was carried out by covering the painting with thin paper and rubbing over it with a soft glazing stone known as kaslupada kallu. When the thin paper was removed the painting shone brightly and looked resplendent with the combination of gold and a variety of colours.

Finally following weeks of repetition and perfection, I chose a painting to begin my own Mysore style masterpiece. As a die-hard ashtangi I inevitably chose Patanjali, the beautiful depiction of half man, half snake depicted holding the conch and chakra. Here he is below

I gave the original to my teacher Vijay Kumar in Mysore, didn't know any other way to thank him... It's now proudly up in his shala next to Krishnamacharya :) 

Since I have been back in the UK I have continued to practice the teachings of Anand, experimenting with more modern techniques of embossing, utilisation of gold leaf, form and composition. I think I may possibly be the only artist in the UK offering Mysore style paintings, taught by the master himself M.S.Anand. So far I have been fortunate enough to paint pieces for a number of yoga studios in the UK and India. Should you have any ideas for paintings to adorn your home practice space, puja room or shala, I currently take commissions, you can choose the God, the background, the iconography you want depicted and I will design something one-off especially for you!

Peacock Greetings Card

Ganesha Greetings Card


Seated Buddha

Shiva Nataraja

Lord Krishna

Durga Maa (work in progress)

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The places that scare you...

I'm home…. Just in case you didn't know.. Keeping a low profile though... (mind you, pretty unsuccessfully) as it's damn hard to live in the UK, without a job, with your parent at the age of 35, without feeling somewhat uneasy…

Feel like this man in a box
Courtesy of www.experiencelife.com

Living in the same situation in India, however, is completely different, you're surrounded by like-minded people, you don't stand out as the 'odd' one, everyone's given up their jobs, the 'normal life' in search of something... you have no society telling you you're different, that you have to live in a certain way, earn a certain amount of money, 'settle down' (I hate that word 'settle' - I would be damn happy if the word 'settle' never had to be part of the vocabulary of my life.) The uncertainty of India is liberating,   you just know you're going to be OK there..but back here I feel the uncertainty…very...smothering. Anxiety, hovering around the edges, waiting for its chance to take hold...trying desperately not to let it.. My mother would kill me…

I went away to explore the places that scare me….I did this through my yoga practice and by living with uncertainty, so why now is it so hard to keep this perspective?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say 'Live your life as an experiment'. Life is ever changing, we have no control over what happens around us or to our bodies, but if we live our lives as a controlled experiment, keeping your mula bandha on, or with complete awareness of our true-immovable self, whilst the variables around you are changing, you can observe the external changes without affecting the internal, pure you. But I'm still finding it hard. Clearly I have a low tolerance for discomfort. 

The complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri….a simple, direct relationship with the way we are. There are four qualities of maitri; steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing our emotional distress and attention to the present moment. These qualities can be cultivated when we meditate, when we are mindful and relate to difficult situations in our daily lives. I'm not meditating per se at the moment, but this doesn't stop me from trying to cultivate these four precepts during my daily ashtanga practice. The practice, well it pure and simply reflects you as you are that day. The practice is my mula bandha at the moment, that immovable place where I can check I'm still functioning properly, check that I'm not letting anxiety take hold, but at the same time keep pushing and testing my boundaries, moving towards the places that scare me, but where I know I have control….well, at least for the moment…

Mula bandha….who knew it worked on so many levels….

Where are those places in your practice that scare you? Jumping into Bhujapidasana? Into tittibhasana? Breathing in kapo? Jumping into bakasana? Out of it? Do you take each of these postures as the perfect opportunity to take yourself to the edge? To the places which scare you? Do you ask yourself why you don't jump into bhujapidasana? Have you ever even tried it? If the answer is 'no' then, well, you should…the postures are there to test you, to reflect your mindset…they're there for a reason, not just to make the practice look cool! (They do though, don't they?…which is exactly why you should be practicing this stuff!) They are there to take you beyond your self-imposed limits...

So I'm standing here at this present moment, completely groundless… but knowing that everything is constantly changing, that I have to hang on in there and go a little bit further with the irritation of uncertainty, of not being given any satisfaction and whilst I'm not liking it at present, like a zen koan, accept that life is neither form, nor emptiness, but a beautiful groundless answer. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Canada, Stillness and David Robson

So I finally got to the last country of my little yoga tour, Canada…9 months after I left the UK, the last leg of my journey. This country is so beautiful, so vast and I'm so glad I came at a time when there is still so much snow on the ground, to see the country in all its white and peaceful beauty. The nights are so silent, amazingly different from the mountains of Portugal and Bali, the horns of India and the sirens of LA. Yet it is this silence which has enabled me to focus once again on a home, self-practice which no teacher to push me. It's funny, I've practiced in many countries now and I never thought I'd say it but each country has it's own energy which imprints on your practice. 

I wanted to come to Canada not just to see my family here but to practice with David Robson of Ashtanga Yoga Toronto. I'd heard lots of good things about David and he seemed nice on his little youtube clip, so I thought I'd look him up! There just happened to be a Toronto Yoga Conference on at the time I got there and David was going to be there, so I booked onto his 'Jumpback/Jumpthough' workshop. And I'm so glad I did…

Photo: www.elephantjournal.com

The most striking thing about David's teaching was his focus on the ashtanga practice as a tool for meditation. It's easy to forget this when focussing so much on the asana side of the practice as I have been, so it was a great reminder and he gave conducive tips on how to keep your focus. 

David reminded us that any fidgeting, any extraneous movements or little flourishes in our vinyasas take us away from the meditation of our practice. Ashtanga is a tool that helps us realise any kind of fidgeting. Fidgeting does not belong in the practice!! When you see a thought and do not act on it you come a little closer to attenuating the 'kleshas' or obstacles to yoga and take one step closer to stilling the mind. It's the same in sitting meditation. 

Holding the exact conditions of a posture will show you the distractions of the mind. David says it's obviously harder to keep this focus whilst jumping back or through. However, if you see the 'vinyasa' (Jumpback/through) as a tunnel, or as a linear path to the next posture, then this will make it easier to remain focussed. The tunnel acts as 'blinkers' to anything going on outside your mat.

The fidgeting thing is very interesting in itself. I still have this hamstring issue which has been ongoing for a couple of months now…not sure whether it is a tear, blockage or what… Anyway, I'm working around it and whilst doing this with complete awareness a couple of patterns emerged where I could see I was unnecessarily adjusting myself. I noticed that when I stopped adjusting myself in these two postures/transitions, there would be no pain. Keeping samasthiti, whilst going into and out of postures, with no fidgeting seemed to be the key. It made me think that these unnecessary, minor adjustments (one being moving the feet one by one in downward dog…be aware, most of us do this!) were the cause of the pain/injury. How about that?! So I've started doing a little flick of the feet together to get the correct positioning in downward dog, it feels uncomfortable at first, but it's just another groove you have to get out of right? And doing it a few times will create new more comfortable and healthier patterns of movement. 

The other tool is the breath. David works on a 4 second inhale and 4 second exhale and had us practice the sun salutations to his drumbeat CD. 

Whilst practicing to the drumbeat, you cannot fail to concentrate on the breath, its quality and how the conditions of a posture affect the breath and the mind.  I bought the CD and have been practicing along with it and it is so unbelievably effective. It's more effective than a led class, as the drumbeat is hypnotic and sends you into such a trance, mercifully you've completed the series before you know it! Navasana hold no prisoners, neither does Utthita Hasta Padangustasana which made David laugh when he told me about it! Who knew that I have a massive aversion for warrior 1?! I mean, it's an easy posture, no? But spending 8 seconds in it makes me panic, God knows what that's all about….!!

For all intents and purposes, the drumbeat CD shows you the yoga, it shows you where you need to spend more time, it shows you your fears. It's totally worth downloading (see link above). (Oh, and David's talk through voice is rather sexy, to say the least…:)

So, there it is…I have 36 hours before I leave Canada to fly home. The end of this little yoga journey. But I'm sure only the beginning of others. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

My soul, Mysore

"This yoga is not for exercise. It is for looking at the soul. That is all". Sri K Pattahbi Jois

It's been a strange transition this past couple of weeks...from Gokulam, the 'Beverly Hills' of Mysore, to, well, 'Beverly Hills' Los Angeles!! One of the first things that hit me was the lack of noise, the hustle and bustle of the Mysore streets, the organic weaving of the traffic, manoeuvring through cows, the horns...oh the horns..!! This has been replaced by the vast silent suburbs of LA where the only real sounds are at night ... the sirens of police cars and the hovering helicopters. But I miss Mysore. Really miss it. 

After a couple of days I found a yoga class which I could cycle to, it take 25 minutes there and 25 minutes back, I'm knackered by the time I get there because it's uphill but the cooling ride home is nice! The teacher there Maria Zavala (www.mariazavala.com) is a long time student of Tim Miller, having spent over 8 years studying and assisting with him and before that Derek Ireland. She's lovely and helpful and her adjustments are soft but firm, it's nice to have a woman's perspective on the practice too, after such a long time only studying with men. But the 50 minute cycle each day plus the 2 hours practice is taking its toll on my body now, shame I have to cycle there, because it's only that that's hurting me, not the practice itself, which is just getting better and better. 

I am still following Vijay's advice and doing 3 days primary, 3 days second and my hips continue to open as the pain subsides. In fact there is no pain, (I'm still quick to jump to that false conclusion) just a little bit of fear left in there which continues to erode away during each practice. I'm back to grabbing the heels in kapo and Maria has got me catching my hells in chakra bandhasana again after a few weeks of rest due to a slight straining of the intercostals of my right ribcage. I also still have the injury to one of my left hamstrings which hurts sometimes in the standing forward bends and janu sirsasanas, but it's one of those injuries which teaches you things... I can now isolate the hamstring which hurt to stop the pain and use the others which is helping to engage the healthy hamstrings properly, which is helping with paschimottanasana and utthita hasta too, so I'm not too bothered about the injury because I can now see why people call them 'openings', I think it needed to happen to teach me another lesson :) 

I am still amazed with the teachings of Vijay, he's really made me believe. After I finished my teacher training with him we spoke about my hips and he made the joke about practicing for 5 years - 'Why aren't they open? What have you been doing?!' Kind of made me wonder what HAVE I been doing for the past 5 years?!! Seems like just carving out deeper and deeper negative samskaras through not enough practice with a teacher. I asked can you open them for me? He replied, do you want the hard way or the painful way? Both will take 8 weeks!! I took the hard option, (I didn't fancy multiple torn hamstrings!) but it was still bloody painful every practice as my hips were pushed to their limits in baddha konasana, upavistha konasana and pashimottanasana. True to his word, 2 days before I left Mysore, 8 weeks after his promise, my hips opened and I had my chest to the floor in all the above poses! I left the next day...

This practice, it's transformational. Believe me, I've been transformed. I am not a naturally flexible or strong person. But I've overcome the fear that postures will kill me, now I know they won't! And I will meet each new posture, each new challenge on and off the mat with my heart, my soul wide open, all thanks to Mysore. The body can take a lot before it breaks, if the mind believes...and is still and focussed. 

As Vijay says, 'Why so much fear when you are so flexible?' Cultivating flexibility of mind and body WILL overcome your fears... Now how do you want to do this...the painful way or the hard way?!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ashtanga Beverly Hills?

I'm now in Beverly Hills and I'm desperately looking for a studio with a good Mysore teacher...I can't find anywhere! Please advise!! :)