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!! :)

Monday, 17 February 2014

'Rolfing', ashtanga and getting myself back...


A few weeks ago I began a course of ‘Structural Integration’ also known as ‘Rolfing’, as a yoga teacher told me once that it was the best form of body-work that they’d experienced. I hesitated at the price back in the UK (it can be quite expensive, I think 40-50 GBP and there weren’t that many Rolfers around) so when I saw that there were a couple offering it for less than half that in Mysore, I jumped at the chance to give it a go.

My yoga teacher has been working with me for a few months now, trying to entice my hips to open, but for some reason they just weren’t budging! He even said, ‘Michelle, I don’t understand, you’ve been here for 5 months now and you still cannot do baddha konasana?!’ So I decided to ‘get Rolfed’ and see if the manipulation of the myofascial tissue would somehow release my hips.

I explained I’d been having pain in the front of my right hip, but that both were sore most of the time, restricting movements especially in marichi A and C as well as ardha matsyendrasana. So she took a look and did some work on the SI and the hips as well as doing something to my arms as I had wrist pain but also across my collar bones. The results the next day were astounding! The wrist pain was gone, she said that because of the growth of muscle in my arms it was squeezing my nerve to my wrist and that by separating them it would release the nerve and there would be no pain and, the next day there was no pain. My SI and hips found a kind of space that they’d never had before and I could do leg behind head without ‘much’ pain! But the best result of this session was that I could instantly breathe deeper and without holding tension in my left shoulder which for some reason I noticed always happens. I was told that there was what Rolfers call the 10 series where they work on the whole body over 10 sessions to get your body back to its natural balance. So given the results I signed up for the whole course.




So sessions 1-3 are referred to as the "sleeve" sessions, which address the superficial layers of connective tissue. They are devoted to improving the quality of your breath with work on the arm, ribcage and diaphragm. Opening is also started along the upper leg, hamstrings, neck and spine. The next aim is at providing you a powerful foundation by balancing your foot and lower leg.
Session 3 focuses on creating balance between the front and back of the body. This is done through a side view for understanding how the head, shoulder girdle and hips are related to one another when standing in gravity.
Sessions 4-7 are referred to as the “core” sessions and address the area between the bottom of the pelvis and the top of the head, as well as the deep tissue of the legs, which play a role in support.
Session 4 establishes a floor to the pelvis and brings awareness to the medial line of the leg through work extending from the inside arch of the foot, and up the leg, to the pelvic floor.
Session 5 is concerned with establishing balance between the surface and the deep abdominal layers with respect to the curve of the back.
Session 6 aims at finding more support and movement in the legs, freeing up the coccyx, and creating a horizontal pelvis.
Session 7 focuses solely on the neck and head, the positive pole of the body. Looks to balance the head neutrally over the spine.
Sessions 8-10 are “integrative” sessions strive to blend the previous advancements, and ones yet to be made, into the body in a way that encourages smooth movement and coordination. They are designed to further deconstruct twists and rotations, which affect the freedom and integrity of the lumbars (vertebrae of the low back) by lifting the thorax up and ordering the legs and pelvis below.
Session 10 relates the fascial planes to each other and creates an overall balance of the body. This is a final tuning taking you from a state of static balance to dynamic balance.
I have 2 sessions to go, but I am literally addicted to Rolfing now! It’s great to practice yoga in between the sessions because you can notice the changes so much. My balance whilst standing is better because she worked on my feet and heels, moving the heel into proper alignment and taught me how to stand properly. I used to stand with an exaggerated lumbar curve which has now gone and she also sorted out my head which I used to hold forward but now it sits properly at the top of my spine. A few years back I injured both knees (doing yoga in fact and have never been the same since) and my whole body contorted to try and protect them. The rolfing has ‘unstuck’ all my hamstrings and quads so that my knees now track properly and this has allowed me to use the muscles properly, instead of them acting like other muscles, pulling and straining and twisting my legs and knees. I’m not describing this well at all, but the overall experience has been amazing. Probably one of the best things I’ve done for my body ever. It’s one of those, ‘why didn’t I try this before’ moments.

This is the best comparison I have found for yoga and ‘Rolfing’ from www.connectivehealing.com.

“These two disciplines in many ways are variations on a single theme: both work towards the physical and emotional evolution of the individual by addressing structural alignment and whole-body integration. They share the same fundamental goals and principals, only their methods differ. Combined the two reinforce each other and allow for an even deeper exploration and awareness of self.
In yoga you practice asanas to lengthen, strengthen and align your structure. In Structural Integration (SI) your practitioner uses their hands to work with 3-dimensional soft tissue patterns that limit the body's comfort, balance and alignment in the gravitational field. It does this by focusing on the fascial system.
Fascia surrounds, supports and penetrates all of your muscles, bones and organs throughout your body in continuous web-like layers. This fascial net is the body's internal system of flexible support giving strength and shape to our bodies. This system responds to injury, chronic tension and habitual movement patterns by shortening, thickening and becoming glue-like thereby locking in these unhealthy patterns of strain and pulling the body out of alignment. SI works systematically and globally to release fixations, restore ease and create deep, comprehensive order in your body. It literally changes your shape, sometimes quite dramatically. People feel lighter, energized, more grounded and balanced. They experience greater breathing capacity, increased range of motion, ease and fluidity of movement, and a body more resilient to injury.
Yoga actually had an early influence in the birth of Structural Integration. Dr. Ida P Rolf, the biochemist who created SI, studied Iyengar yoga and drew upon its principles along with those of osteopathy, homeopathy, and the Alexander Technique. Dr. Rolf believed yoga was the best exercise system ever devised if done with the right teacher. She also believed that hands-on manipulation was needed to fully free the structure and to achieve ultimate length and separation in the joints. This led to the development of what is commonly referred to as "The 10 Series." This series is comprised of ten sessions, referred to as hours, which balance your body in segments with each session addressing a different aspect of your structure and movement. The results become cumulative as each session adds to the results of the previous ones.
Just as breath is the foundation of a yoga practice, it is also a focal point of The 10 Series. The first hour is devoted to improving the quality of your breath with work on the arm, ribcage and diaphragm. Ida once pointed out, "When the position of the ribs change, breathing changes. Getting more air into the lungs and getting it to move faster is going to change the chemistry of every cell in the body. So, in a first SI hour, we have started changing the chemistry of every cell in the body in the first 10 minutes."
One client of mine recently told me that for her SI is "like being yoga’d." Another described her experience with the following: "

Prior to being structurally integrated, I "worked" on having better posture. Now, I can "relax" into good posture because my body is properly aligned from head to toe. In yoga my balance increased significantly as I was able to spread my toes to increase surface area and reach longer through my spine. In addition, my flexibility increased exponentially with no additional effort. ."
While SI is successfully used to treat everything from migraines to fibromyalgia this was not Ida's primary objective. She was more interested in the evolution of the individual. Dr. Rolf saw SI as a means to evoke the greatest human potential lying within each one of us. In this way SI and yoga also share the common goal of facilitating deeper levels of consciousness and aliveness. As a more intimate and comfortable relationship with your physical body is fostered, the emotions and attitudes which are housed and expressed in your posture and patterns of holding are brought to light and given the opportunity to dissolve and become integrated.
Yogis have long been noticing the effects of SI as they find they are able to reach new depths and levels of ease both in mind and body. At the same time yoga is one of the best ways to support and maintain the benefits of SI. The combination of the two is a rich opportunity to broaden your sense of self thereby allowing the chance to transform limiting patterns of movement, thinking and behavior.” (http://connectivehealing.com/index_files/structural_integration_SI_and_yoga.html)

Well, I still can’t do baddha konasana and get my chest to the floor, but it’s improved greatly! However, something's definitely shifted as I can now get both legs behind the head relatively comfortably (eka pada for some reason is a little harder but I'm putting that down to a wonky SI joint/anteriorly tilted pelvis on the right), over the past 3 weeks I've been working on the Tittibhasana sequence in Intermediate and can now complete the sequence with full correct vinyasa, without collapsing in a heap and dead thighs on my mat! I think Vijay's pleased with my progress...well he must be cos he's given me Pincha Mayurasana to practice now...and I know what's coming next...more baddha konasana, upavistha and lotus work needed for that one for sure...

Nevertheless, the bit in the article about feeling energized is completely true too. I used to feel a lot of weight in my legs and the lower part of my body but now feel like that weight is distributed evenly throughout my body, I feel like my energy is moving a lot more freely now and I can differentiate single muscles now, when before they were all just ‘stuck’ together. I’d got to a point where my body no longer felt like my own body, I knew something was wrong but just couldn’t work out what was wrong. I knew there were blockages in energy, I could feel them and I have tried physiotherapy, psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, cardio-work, even an energetic healer and I would have to say that Rolfing by far, is the best thing I’ve done. Yep, even over yoga. But now I can continue my yoga practice with greater energy and use it to ensure that the blockages and unhealthy patterns, those physical and mental samskaras don’t come back!!

If you would like the details of the Rolfers in Mysore, drop me a message J


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear...


Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear….

This was the line Vijay came out with following an attempt at catching my heels on my own in chakra bandhasana a few days back.

He’s been working with me on it daily, one day with him assisting me into the posture the next day I have to do it on my own. One day I fell to my elbows after I lost balance when my hands were really near the heels…he was crouching next to me and as I fell all I heard was an, “Ouch!” from Vijay. I was pissed with him as he was there and watching and could see it happening and instead he just let it happen, let me fall. OK, so I didn’t die…didn’t even break an elbow thank God, but the fear, you know, the fear was there, the fear is still there. But I guess it’s a little less now, knowing nothing bad can happen. He does stuff like this. A lot. To me.

But this day, I was walking, walking my hands in and it was the first time I could see my own heels and I could see how far my hands were away from my heels…and it was about a hands-span away. After I came back up and jubilant and all, he said, “Good” and I said, “Yeah I was only a hands-span away from my heels” and he shook his head and said, “Noooo…you were 1 inch away from touching!! What does it say on those rear view mirrors??...Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear!!” and walked off…

Vijay’s comment resonated with me. It reminded me of how little self-confidence I have in my practice. I could see my heels, but still my mind was saying, “It’s not good enough”. The mind playing tricks on me again. You can’t do it, you can’t do it. Then Vijay comes along and acts as the true reflection of my capabilities. He knows what I can do before I even know myself. He’s like the purusha to my prakriti…the stepping stone between my reality and the truth…

“It is only in still water that we can see.” (Taoist Proverb)

Vijay is my still water.

The truth is you need a good teacher. If you’re anything like me, a little too laid back, a little tamasic maybe and maybe a little kaphic, you need a good push in your practice. You don’t believe in yourself? It’s probably just fear manifesting in a bit of a sloppy practice, which was fine before I came to Mysore, but it doesn’t wash! The practice reflects your fears, your weaknesses, it breaks you down and then builds you up again, stronger than before. I used to think that this was just on a physical basis, but it works on so many levels. You think you have it? Nah….think again…there’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like, ”Nati, nati, nati” (I may have spelt this wrong)…not that, not that, not that. Never assume you have it, there’s always another level, another layer to peel away. But this is a good thing. It means your practice should never get boring, that if the primary series doesn’t bring on a sweat anymore that there is something more that you can give to it, another level to find in it, one that brings on that sweat, that heat, that tapas to burn away through another layer, bringing you closer to the truth.


Thursday, 30 January 2014

Enthusiasmos and getting stuck...

Feels like I haven't posted about my practice in ages despite it going through constant changes. The fact is I'd been sick for 3 weeks solid and my energy reserves were getting dangerously low. The last two days I've felt like a different person, full of prana.


In class today Vijay told me after a painful upavistha konasana where I thought my adductors would tear apart (we are working on opening my hips), that I should still do a jump back (not step back - oh no!) .....but with enthusiasm... as without enthusiasm I would not be looking forward to the next posture. When Vijay mentioned enthusiasm I immediately thought of a line in 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'.

"The Greeks called it 'enthousiasmos', the root of 'enthusiasm', which literally means 'filled with theos', or God, or Quality." A person filled with enthusiasm doesn't sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He's at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what's up the next track and meeting it when it comes. Enthusiasm occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one's own stale opinions about it.

You have to care about your practice. It is important to try to practice with care as it is closely tied to quality. And as we know, things made without quality, frankly suck. "A person who sees quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who's bound to have some characteristics of quality." "Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art."


The practice should be carried out with as little effort as possible and without desire. If you become restless, speed up, if you become winded slow down. You practice in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion, then when you're no longer thinking ahead, each posture, each vinyasa, isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. You begin to notice things as they are. "To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top." So I've been told... I need to put more quality into my practice, every little detail is important. Vijay's very strict, but very wise.


So about getting stuck. I am so close to being able to jump back like they do in the films, that I can almost touch it...But I get stuck. I get stuck right at the point where I need to bend my elbows and shoot the legs back. I'm even hovering there arms straight, knees pulled in to chest, feet off the floor and Vijay's shouting 'bend your elbows! bend your elbows!' and I'm just there stuck mid-air willing my elbows to bend but for some reason the message from the brain is not getting to the arms...some kind of short circuit. 

The fact is I've not been bending my elbows for so long that it's a habit that is going to be hard to break. What I need to do is it in lolasana and practice bending my elbows so at some point along the line, like at about the 61st time of bending them, the new pattern will begin to ingrain itself into my muscle memory. Basically if something isn't working in your practice, preventing you from doing something, something needs to change. It may even be the smallest thing, like moving your foot 1 centimetre to the left. Mind you, it's easy to say all this, it's harder to do it. 

"Quality is not static, its dynamic. And when you really understand dynamic reality you never get stuck. It has its forms but the forms are capable of change."

Quality is something you can develop, it's not just intuition, not just an unexplainable 'skill' or 'talent'. It's the direct result of contact with the basic reality, which dualistic reason has tended to conceal. You can gain quality by simply practicing...enthusiastically!


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sometimes letting go is just not pretty...

I've been sick with something, don't know what, thought it was a gastro flu virus which 3 of us in the house had, but then it kept on so took some anti-biotics, then it kept on and took some pro-biotics...now I'm just not sure what's going on! 

Obviously being in Mysore, the 'letting go' capital of the world, people are fast to jump to the conclusion that when you are sick in the stomach it's your body trying to get rid of something that is not good for it, that it doesn't want anymore. A few weeks back I had a session of 'Rolfing' after being advised by a yoga teacher that it was amazing. I went and gave my details to the girl along a list of stuff going on with my body, tight left shoulder, dodgy knees, relentlessly tight hips. She worked for 1.5 hours on my ankles, IT bands, knees and hips and later on that evening I was pretty sore around those areas. That night I had a rumbling in the stomach and had to dash to the bathroom with severe diarrhoea. But it wasn't just once, it went on and on, until the point where I had no control over it and 'let go' all over the kitchen and bathroom floor... :( 

Despite my bedroom only being 5 metres away from the bathroom, I had to have a bucket next to my bed for the rest of the night. Big sigh. I spent the next hour on my hands and knees cleaning my own crap up off the floor with 2 rolls of tissue paper...half naked...in the dark... Thankfully it was the middle of the night and somehow I managed to maintain a small semblance of dignity. The next day I had to explain to the housemaid who's english isn't great that I had been 'sick' over the kitchen and bathroom floor and when she saw the bucket, well, she didn't speak to me for 3 days. (Actually, thank god she didn't, trying to get through to her using the english language is like trying to get blood from a stone...my own english is going downhill drastically here with everyone speaking with badly strung together sentences of random words!! Anyway, I digress...) 

But here's the strange part....Somehow I managed to drag myself to class the next morning, expecting a poor practice and instead I had the most open hips ever! Postures which had been killing me like baddha konasana, upavistha konasana and eka pada sirsasana seemed like I had been practicing them for years (well I have but with little progress). Finally some space has appeared in the joints which I hadn't felt before and I can feel what it feels like to have open hips, which I can continue to work on slowly each day. I'm still suffering with some discomfort in the hips, but for christ's sake, I have 35 years of crap to clear out!! 

Unfortunately I cannot be sure what is was that caused this opening...it could have been the rolfing, it could've been the diarrhoea, it could have been having to clean my crap up off the kitchen floor, or it could have been just continuous, dedicated practice over a long period of time. Nevertheless, I like all 4 reasons equally!!