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 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 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 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 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!!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Guest Post: Path to Yoga: Meet Vijay Kumar, Mysore's Ashtanga Gem...

Guest Post from Marco Pino of Thanks for sharing Marco!

Although Vijay is very young he already has an extensive teaching experience. He is an amazing ashtanga yoga teacher and a beautiful soul," my friend Dario wrote me on Facebook. With only 26 years Vijay Kumar is probably one of the youngest ashtanga yoga teachers in Mysore yet he continues to become more and more popular among western students.

I decided to follow Dario's recommendation and traveled to Mysore to practice ashtanga yoga with Vijay. The main thing that I like about Vijay's class is the emphasis on slow deep breathing, which give space for the practice to become more meditative although still very intense physically. I love how the whole class move at a very slow pace, it looks almost as if we were practicing tai chi, so to complete the whole primary series can take about two hours and half or even close to three hours.

I also like Vijay's adjustments. Instead of forcing you to get into any posture his gentle and deep adjustments, while asking you to breath deeply and slowly, teach you the right alignment and what your body can actually do without even saying a word. As he mentioned during a class, the purpose of his adjustments are to show you how you need to practice once you get back home.

One more thing that I love about Vijay's teaching style is that he likes to ask you to go beyond your limitations, when he knows you can do more. With him I've learned asanas that I wouldn't even bother to try doing by myself. When he was teaching me to do the jump back from marichyasana A he would tell me "try again", even though I had already tried three or four times and it just seemed impossible for me to do it. Sometimes he would even say "try until you can." 

Video of Vijay demonstrating the jump back from Marichyasana A and B

I hope you'll enjoy reading Vijay's interview. If you have previously practiced Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in Mysore with Vijay Kumar please feel free to share your experience with us in the comment section at the end of this blog. 

How did you get started into this yoga path?

I can say since birth because in our house, I'm raised in a Brahmin community, everybody is into Bhakti Yoga. Since I can remember anything we were always in theBhakti Yoga path. And to asanas I started when I was twelve. My brother, Vinay Kumar, started long before me. Initially my mother guided me a little bit and then my brother trained me well.

My mother was the first one to start asanas in our house, and very soon my brother joined her. They practiced together and I was the last one to start. So basically my mother was the source of guidance for both of us to practice asanas, initially. When my brother started to understand his body, when he could listen to his body well, when he knew that he can guide others then my mother stopped.

Vijay Kumar in Eka Pada Sirsasana
Vijay Kumar in Eka Pada Sirsasana

Why did you decide to teach yoga and in particular ashtanga yoga?

The beauty of what I do or what every yoga teacher does when they do properly is to promote good health in people, so that's what I do.

When I started to teach I did not have any boundaries that I should only teach ashtanga vinyasa yoga but because I like this method more and I can relate with it better, and because I understand it well I decided to teach it to others.

Can you tell us about the time when you took a six months break from your ashtanga yoga practice to dedicate yourself solely to the practice of meditation?

Yes, it was two years ago when I stopped completely all asanas because that's exactly when I understood more about introspection, looking within. Then I started meditation and I still do it but maybe not with that intensity because the initial stage is very important, like when you practice asanas. 

Video of Vijay demonstrating padmasana jump back

On the initial stage, until the body becomes free, we need to practice very consistently to get to some asanas. For example today I made you dopadmasana jump back. For this I have given you many preparations before or you were doing very well half lotus crossed legs. Only because of that consistency today padmasana jump back was easy.

Similarly, as Sri Patanjali says "Tivra-samveganam asannah", as the faith and dedication is more the closer you'll go (Sutra I.21: liberation through yoga is quick for the wholehearted, determined and energetic), even in meditation practice the initial stage is very important. So I stopped all other asana practice which was taking more time and only dedicated to meditation, six months continuously. Whenever I practiced I would sit for at least one and a half hours to three hours, only once a day cause I was also teaching. 

Can you tell us about your experience teaching yoga in China? How did it started, for how long did you do it and what was the biggest challenge that you faced?

My brother had a student from China. She was opening a new yoga studio and she needed some help. They had a good relationship as a teacher and student, but my brother couldn't go so he asked me.

I was then studying my mechanical diploma, actually my family had hopes of me becoming and engineer but I was more interested in yogic studies like studying the Bhagavata, Vedas and The Bhagavad Gita. This was an opportunity for me to see another country and to remain on that path.

Vijay moves to China

So I moved to China. I was eighteen and a half, the youngest foreign teacher to come and teach yoga asanas in China. The original idea was to stay only for three months but at the end I stayed for five years. 

Video of Vijay doing a yoga demonstration in China

For the person that I went for, whom my brother needed to help, I stayed for about two and half or three years. When I knew they were well stablished and after I had helped somebody else come to my position and take over, then I decided to move to another place. 

I did not like staying in one place for very long because that would restrict my ability to see other places, if I would stay in only one place would be like staying at home, and also because in Beijing I was teaching mostly foreigners so I couldn't learn even a word in Chinese.

So I moved to another place which was the most beautiful part of China and it was by the sea. I always wanted to stay by the sea and learn some surfing so this was more conducive because they needed some help and I got what they needed. I helped a lot in that place, it was more service, many months you don't get any payment, I was teaching for free.

I did surfing for two years whenever I got time because when you are doing in service it's a lot of work, you work at least like ten hours a day but I used to get a day off. The person who was managing all, giving us accommodation, food and everything else was from Australia. He loved surfing so he used to bring me there, to beautiful waves. I was still a beginner but I enjoyed it. 

Challenges encountered in China

Many challenges were encountered when I first moved to China. Discrimination because of my color and mainly because I did not understand the language, there were a lot of misunderstandings.

The first three months were the hardest, I almost rebook my flight ticket, I wanted to come back, but then I thought, "If I go back now I wouldn't have helped anybody so the whole purpose of coming here would be useless." I had discontinued my studies, I went there and if I come back home without helping them would be very useless. So I decided that until they feel like I have helped them and until they feel like they still want me there I won't go. 

That forced something within me that kept me there, but the first three months were really hard because of the food. I was having illusory Chinese taste because in Mysore what we eat as Chinese food is so different to what you eat in China itself, and also because I'm a pure vegetarian, you can't find any food without at least eggs. And I had a cook, that was one of the priorities, a cook, but what he cooked tasted like nothing, no salt, no pepper. It's ok for a day or two but continuously, for three months...

But when I started to really like that which I hated then everything became easier. You might have heard me saying "like what you hate, becomes easier." That's from personal experience. 

If you understand the language you understand the tradition

China is a very beautiful country and if you understand the language then you understand the tradition. China is a booming country, it's becoming more like the west, but even then they are very traditional and you can really only fall in love of the country when you understand the tradition. 

I really miss China because eventually when I learned the Chinese language I could relate to the people so very well, and I had no sense of discrimination. Actually there was no discrimination at all, it was only my belief that people were discriminating me because of this color or because I'm from a different country but actually they never did. It was only my perception, miscomprehension, like Patanajali says (sutra I.8), activities of the mind.

But then I learned Chinese and I made China like a second home. I had a sister there, a sister from another mother. She is still in touch with me everyday. It's very beautiful country. 

Who are your spiritual heroes or role models?

Spiritually speaking Sri Krishna, He is my source of guidance. 

From childhood I was taught the Bhagavad Gita, just to memorize the verses, so I never knew the actual meaning of many verses. But when I took the "sacred threat of trinity" ceremony that every brahmacharyi takes as an initiation to spirituality I requested the master who gave me the initiation to give me some Bhagavad Gita classes. He was kind enough to help me understand the Gita. 

Then when I started to read the Bhagavad Gita on my own it was a whole different experience. And now every time I read it it's still elaborating the boundaries of its meaning, so when I'm reading it more and more I can easily feel like Sri Krishna is relating to me, because Bhagavad Gita is the Supreme Living Entity talking to the Individual Living entity. Whoever reads it is for him a direct guidance. So I can say He is the source of guidance for me to spirituality. 

What are the most inspiring yoga books or scriptures that you have read and that you would recommend your students to read?

Well, for me always inspiring is the Bhagavad Gita, it's the source of guidance for yoga, it's the compact version of all knowledge. In only 700 verses you can find so much information for a whole life. 

To recommend others it depends on the relationship that I have with the student. Many people come to class just for the health benefit of yoga or they come with their own spiritual/religious beliefs. Although all beliefs are ultimately the same, it's just One Supreme living entity with different names, if we just say "read the Bhagavad Gita" some people might have a negative feeling in their heart because of their different beliefs. 

So I wont really recommend the Bhagavad Gita to everyone unless I know them very well, and when I know them very well first I want to explain them why they should read it, first I would teach them and then after they can read.

What is the biggest lesson that you've learned through your own yoga practice?

As I said yesterday there is no absolute truth in asanas. What you are able to do today may not stay with you tomorrow or, what you are not able to do today will come back to you tomorrow. 

Vijay Kumar in Ganda BherundasanaVijay Kumar in Kandasana
Ganda BherundasanaKandasana

Yesterday I was able to demonstrate for you some handstands variations, although I had not practiced them in two years. But sometimes, when I've tried to demonstrate handstands to others, it never happens. So we cannot really say that it's never changing. In asana practice the only requirement is to be able to sit straight, that's what I've understood. 

Vijay Kumar in Ekapada Raja Kapotasana
Ekapada Raja Kapotasana

Through asanas of course we can improve our health, physically and mentally, but if we get attached to them we stay in the preliminary stages, never progressing. You may see many practitioners practicing asanas for many years and still not understanding the different limbs like pranayama or meditation. 

Mediation, dhyana, is the main reason why we practice asanas. If we want to sit still in one position it takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of strength on the back to support itself, to keep the spine straight, that's why we practice asanas. 

But we should also keep sometime to listen to ourselves because for everyone the ultimate teacher is within. So we should give some time to listen to it, then more windows will open up to understand the deeper aspects of yoga. 

I've learned many things like this from my practice which leads me to spirituality. 

What is the main lesson that you want your students to take away from practicing ashtanga yoga with you?

I like to call it ashtanga vinyasa yoga, ashtanga yoga is huge, I'm teaching only ashtanga vinyasa, ashtanga yoga is eight steps (Patanjali's 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga). 

I want them to learn that the more they relax the more asanas become easier, and also to give more importance to deep breathing because breath and mind are closely related. 

The beauty of ashtanga vinyasa yoga is that it includes deeper aspects of yoga in it like pranayamaPranayama means giving a form to our breathing. When we incorporate deep breathing our attention is more focused within. 

There are many benefits that comes from deep breathing, eventually it help us to calm the mind down, and with long deep breath and proper approach towards the practice anything is possible. So we just need proper guidance and when I have guided somebody I expect them to follow as much as they can, that's all, because I can't be with them all the time. If they like it they will follow, that's all.

Vijay KumarVijay Kumar teaches ashtanga vinyasa yoga at Ashtanga Saadhana in Chamarajpuram, near the Lakshmipuram area in Mysore, India. For more information about class schedules and cost you can contact him directly through his, by phone +91 9663047900 or by email at

Ashtanga Saadhana
"Sri Ganesha"
#1079, Narasa Raja road,
Chamarajpuram, Opposite Law court,
Mysore 570005

Sunday, 19 January 2014

To all the boys I've ever loved....

This is a love letter to the boy who first broke my heart. The boy who first told me he loved me, let me paint a red jelly baby on his prized VW Beetle and didn't complain it was a bit wonky. I cried so much when we broke up I couldn't go to school. I watched Jim Morrison in The Doors and have never been able to watch it since. I'm apologise for being so clingy....I understand now that everyone needs space and time to be alone.

This is a love letter to the boy who adored me. I did too, but for some strange reason I wanted someone else at the time. You came to see me when you got out of hospital after cutting open your head after falling down your stairs, just to hold me all night on our friend's living room floor. You let me cut your lovely long hair. I apologise for leaving you, you were one of the kindest, sincere guys I've ever met.

This is a love letter to the crazy boy, the one every girl wanted to be with. We took photos of each other and painted portraits of each other which we both displayed in our A Level art exhibitions. I loved you so much. You climbed over my garden fence, onto the roof of the extension and up onto the window ledge to tell me you loved me and were never with that other girl. I apologise for not believing you. And I apologise for you losing your sock on the fence when my Dad sent you back out and over the fence home. I was so proud to be your girlfriend.

This is a love letter to the guy who broke my heart (again). You left your girlfriend for me after I told you I'd fallen for you that night at the University bar (you were behind it, came out and gave me a big hug) and that was one of the happiest moments of my life to know you felt the same. We talked philosophy and spent hours admiring each other. I wish you could've loved me for who I was back then. I've never gotten over the words that came out of your mouth. I hope one day I can.

This is a love letter to the boy I met on my sister's 21st birthday. We travelled miles together, argued of the stupidest of things, like making me barter with the owners of motels. You made me strong. You made me think things through and you accepted me just the way I was. I cried into my curry when we decided to split up. I've cried many times since. I love you and I always are one of my best friends in the world.

This is a love letter to the boy who told me he didn't love me. It really hurt me to hear that. You told me you were 24 so I would want to be with you (I was 26), you were only 21 but I liked you just the same.    But I realise now that it wasn't love at all, just lust, and that you shouldn't be with someone just because they are beautiful looking.

This is love letter to the boy I lied to. We used to talk all night. Listen to hours of comedy podcasts. It was always Christmas with you! I apologise for thinking you couldn't love me for who I was, or couldn't love me for my past actions. I should've trusted you, I should've been open and honest as you wanted me to be. I'm so, so sorry you couldn't forgive that lie. I hope one day you can and that one day you can open your heart to someone else who will make you truly happy.

This is a love letter to all the boys I've ever loved. Each of you has moulded me into the person I am today and I thank you. But you need to go now, let me go and I, I can release this fear of my heart being broken and open it once more. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Book Review: Teaching Yoga, Adjusting Asana by Melanie Cooper

I have been given the opportunity to review my first book for Yoga Matters, many thanks to Gemma for the opportunity, and I hope I can do it the justice it deserves.

Firstly it comes in a nice, compact A5 size, ring bound form, perfect for travelling. It has 11 chapters:

1.Teaching Yoga
2.Teaching Ujjayi Breathing
3.Teaching the Bandhas
4.Teaching the Drishti
6.Teaching the Spiritual Aspects of Yoga
7.Ethics for Yoga Teachers
8.Teaching Points
9.Teaching the Sanskrit Count
10.Deepening the Primary Series

Here's a brief outline from the publisher..

Leading yoga teacher trainer Melanie Cooper brings you the essential 
handbook for teaching yoga and adjusting asana (yoga poses). 

The first part explores fundamentals of teaching in a simple, clear, accessible way. Melanie covers how to teach crucial concepts such as breath, bandha and drishti, as well as more general topics including injuries, ethics and the spiritual aspects of yoga. 

In the second part of the book there are helpful techniques for deepening common yoga postures and a complete guide to hands-on adjustment for the Ashtanga Primary Series. 

With a wealth of information, clear writing, and fresh, detailed 
photography, this is an invaluable resource for qualified yoga teachers, 
student teachers, and yoga students who want to take their practice to 
the next level.
The book is primarily teaching ashtanga yoga, but specifically in a gym setting where it's not normally possible to teach the Mysore way. This is very helpful as the book covers all the possible scenarios and issues which can arise through teaching general classes.

I have trained in both the British Wheel of Yoga style (which is big on safety and teaching all aspects of yoga) and in a more traditional apprenticeship approach under the guidance of my teacher. Through these trainings I have developed a style whilst teaching in gyms/businesses etc which brings together both aspects of these teachings. I'm happy to say that Melanie's book teaches ashtanga in the same way, an intelligent approach to teaching what is a challenging series.

I also like the fact that she suggests extra reading material based on her ow research and it's ncie to see the same books being referred to as are in my library!!

One chapter which I found very useful is the teaching the spiritual aspects of yoga, as I find this difficult...or maybe just try and stay clear of teaching the spiritual aspects in my own classes. However Melanie has many tips on how to include these teachings (such as the yamas, niyamas, energy etc), and is so specific in how to teach them to your class, you could literally use her ideas in formulating your whole term of yoga classes.

Melanie's 'teaching points' are very useful in how to explain the subtleties of each posture and are what you expect to hear from a good ashtanga teacher.

I have just finished a TT with my own teacher in Mysore and learnt the sanskrit count for the primary series. The way I was taught the sanskrit differs slightly from Melnaie's, however, she does state thankfully, that there are many variations on the count and that you cannot actually 'pin down' the exact  vinyasa count, as it differs from teacher to teacher.

In chapter 10 on deepening the primary series Melanie offers lots of ideas for workshop-style classes which you could add in to your schedule to help students deepen certain aspects of their practice, like hip openers, back bends, forward bends etc. She's literally done all the work for you here too, as she provides great sequences under headings such as 'Opening the body for urdhva dhanurasana' and "Opening the body for marichyasana'. I'm excited to begin using some of these in my own teaching!!

The last section is on adjustment and she provides clear photos and instruction to adjust students and covers the whole primary series. A lot of the adjustments are in Brian Coopers 'Art of Adjustment' book, but that is not a book you want to be lugging around with you, so having them in this book is great.

All in all, I really like this book and would recommend it. It is very thorough and a great companion for any ashtanga teacher starting out!! Thanks Melanie and Yoga Matters!