Monday, 11 July 2011

Nancy Gilgoff Workshop - Wiltshire

This weekend I attended a 3 day workshop with Nancy Gilgoff, at the beautifully appointed Slater's Barn  in Wiltshire (go if you ever have the chance). I'd heard a lot about Nancy from S and others so I was really looking forward to it, although I must admit to being a little apprehensive as I knew we'd be focussing quite a lot on 2nd series, which I hadn't really practiced before.

I needn't have worried - it was an amazing weekend with a very wise, kind and inspirational teacher and I enjoyed it immensely. Last week I wrote another blog post called 'Questions' in which I aired some doubts and concerns I'd been having with regards to Ashtanga yoga practice - Nancy managed to dispel all of these over the course of this weekend.

One of the major differences in Nancy's approach to teaching Ashtanga is that she believes in letting people go right through the primary series (and, after a while, on to the 2nd series), even if they aren't able to do every single posture 100% 'correctly' - she believes that the focus should be on the breath and the movement through the series, not necessarily on achieving 'perfection' in each asana. To me this makes a lot of sense - it removes the attachment people have to achieving a particular asana (and risking injury by pushing themselves too hard in the process) before they're allowed to continue; instead it allows them to focus on the practice as a whole. It also means they're able to experience and benefit from the asanas that come later on in the series which will ultimately help them to one day nail Marichyasana D or whatever posture it is that they're struggling with. And overall it just feels like a gentler and kinder approach.

This is of course a marked departure from how most teachers approach Ashtanga, and Nancy made it very clear that she didn't think that her approach was 'better' than that of these teachers...she said it was just the way that she'd been taught, it's been working for her for 40 years and it was how she was told to teach by Patthabi Jois (she asked him just before he died if she should carry on teaching in this way and he told her yes). I for one hope she keeps on teaching like this for many more years to come...

One of the things that Nancy does have in common with most other teachers is her belief that Ashtanga yoga should be a daily practice (barring Moon days and a rest day each week). However, for Nancy this doesn't mean that you need to be thrashing around sweatily on your mat for 2 hours. 5 Surya Namaskara A's, plus the three seated Lotus poses at the end of the finishing sequence can constitute a practice...even just standing on your mat and breathing deeply for 10 breaths can be a practice (David Swenson said this too). It's about bringing awareness to your breath and your body, not pushing yourself to physical extremes. Again this was something that really resonated with me - I can definitely be guilty of pushing myself a little too hard in practice at times, in order to keep 'progressing' and I'm going to try to take a step back from this approach a bit and be kinder to my body. It's perhaps easier said than done - but much better to ease back and be able to enjoy this wonderful practice every day, than risk hurting ourselves badly and not being able to practice at all.


Tuesday, 5 July 2011


I've spent a lot of time recently contemplating my Ashtanga practice - and more specifically whether or not it does in fact promote 'yogic' values, or perhaps quite the opposite.

Last Friday I attended a day of talks and meditation on 'the joy of yoga' with Swami Nityamuktananda and Swami Veda Bharati. It was an inspiring and humbling experience to be in the presence of such wise and profoundly spiritual people and the biggest take away for me was that asana practice really does represent only a very limited aspect of yoga. In theory this information wasn't new to me, as I'm sure it won't be for most people reading this blog, but the way in which both Swami Nityamuktananda and Swami Veda Bharati really brought this understanding home had a profound and slightly unsettling effect which to an extent has made me question why it is that I spend an hour and a half a day pushing myself so hard in asana practice.

I also started my yoga teacher training over the weekend and again, this has caused me to reflect on the nature of my practice. Unsurprisingly, one of the main messages of the training was 'safety' - ensuring that you are extremely mindful of helping students avoid injury by paying attention to correct posture and allowing them to work within their limits. Ahimsa (non violence) is one of the yamas that comprise one of the 8 limbs of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and me an ashtangi who hasn't caused violence to him or herself through an overly zealous approach to their practice (knees being a common casualty!). Certain teachers too, in trying to crush students into various postures, have been responsible for causing serious injuries - is that what yoga is really all about?

It's a fairly common event for my fellow ashtangis and I to discuss a litany of injuries picked up during practice in the changing room of the yoga studio - of course this is usually accompanied by the standard platitudes of 'learning from injury' (which I do in fact believe is very important) and resolutions to practice more mindfully in future (again good - if you stick to your intentions). On my Twitter feed too, it seems that not a week goes by without one of the ashtangis talking about an injury that they've sustained - and I even read that Sharath Jois is currently only practicing 1st series due to injury...although I should say that I have no knowledge whether or not this is actually true.

Yoga asana is a physical practice and so of course injuries are likely to occur, but it does seem to me at least that they seem to affect ashtangis far more than the average yoga practitioner and I think that this is due to 2 things. Firstly the impulse to practice a rigorous series of postures on a more or less daily basis which possibly drives the body to exhaustion; secondly, that the traditional Mysore approach prohibits practitioners from progressing in the series until they have mastered all asana postures up to that point.

Non attachment - to both objects and the outcome of our actions - is another key tenet of yoga, and yet I wonder whether both the regularity and traditional series based approach to Ashtanga may actually lead to further least for the average Western mind?

Fellow ashtangis will know what I'm talking about - if you want to see them freak out, you just have to tell them that they're going to have to miss practice tomorrow. Most ashtangis (me included, I'll admit) are almost fanatical about their daily practice and will go to extreme lengths to ensure that they don't miss a session on the mat - even when they're injured or when their exhausted body is telling them that they should really rest instead. This doesn't smack of 'non attachment'...

And the focus on always trying to achieve the next posture (for me right now - and for the last few months - it's Marichyasana D) can also lead to a great deal of attachment to the results of our actions (it also leads to people pushing their bodies too far, too soon). You just have to witness the excitement of an ashtangi who's finally accomplished a particular asana and been given new postures to add to the series. Of course that's part of the challenge - to react to success and failure with the same steadiness of mind - but again I wonder if Ashtanga can sometimes work against the very values that it's trying to promote, at least within an already overly 'goal oriented' culture.

Asana practice is a beautiful and essential part of my life - I love it and I feel very fortunate to have found it. It helps our bodies to stay strong and supple, to stimulate the flow of energy, to improve our breathing and to concentrate and calm the mind. It improves our health and equanimity, helps us deal with the challenges that life puts in our way and allows us to move towards a greater awareness of ourselves and others. Without it our lives would certainly be less fulfilling - but do we really need to push ourselves to extremes to realise these benefits? I hope not...


P.S. I'd hate for anyone to think that I'm speaking on behalf of anyone else with some of the comments and generalisations I've made above - that's certainly not my intention. This post is really just a stream of consciousness that attempts to outline some of my observations, thoughts and reflections on my own approach to practice, which may need adjusting. I'm not sure if there are any actual answers to the points I've raised, but I'd love to hear the thoughts and feedback of my fellow yogis.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Adventures with Swenson - Part 3

A long overdue post this (again) but finally, after much procrastination, I’ve gotten round to penning my thoughts on our trip to Purple Valley over Christmas and New Year – after all it’s only been 5 weeks since we got back (tsk!). Warning: it’s a bit of an essay…so if you just want some 'top tips' for Purple Valley then scroll to the bottom.
So…where to start? Well I guess by saying that we had an absolutely amazing 2 weeks: ‘Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, awesome yoga practice, inspirational teachers’ just about sums it up.
A visit to Purple Valley is a bit of a luxury experience and very much a contrast to where S and I had been staying in Arambol the week before…truth be told we felt a bit spoilt during our 2 weeks there, but it’s an exquisite little retreat and we’d certainly love to make it back there again sometime.
The rooms are comfortable and cleaned daily, the staff are lovely…so welcoming and friendly, the gardens are beautiful, there’s a pool to relax beside, a juice bar and an on site treatment centre for massage, Ayurveda and Reiki. There are also shaded chill out areas with cushions and couches – the perfect place to spend some time reading between yoga sessions!
Before we went I’d also heard a lot about the food, and on the whole it was indeed excellent (especially when Sayuri was cooking…she’s a genius). If I was to be a really harsh critic then we did find it a little bit bland on some occasions which was disappointing – especially being in India, the land of spices. Maybe it was because they were deliberately preparing Sattvic fare? But either way I do feel a bit disingenuous here because, in general, the food was very good.
If you ever get tired of hanging out at the retreat (and after a few days we definitely wanted to get back out to see more of the ‘real’ Goa) then there are plenty of beaches that are but a short hop away – Mandrem was our favourite, but Asvem was lovely too and Anjuna (the closest) is definitely worth a visit, if only to experience the madness of the Wednesday markets. One word of advice to anyone planning a visit is that the cab fares do add up over 2 weeks and it’s easier and cheaper to hire a scooter – just beware of the potholes, pigs, monkeys, phone pylons and other assorted dangers on the roads!
But this isn't a travel blog - so on to the yoga. Elsewhere I’ve made no secret of how much I admire and respect David Swenson. What I didn’t know or expect was that his wife, Shelley, is an absolutely incredible teacher in her own right as well. They both radiate life, energy and wisdom and it was a privilege to spend 2 weeks in their company.
Both weeks were structured in the same way – we started with a led primary on the Sunday, there was Mysore practice Monday – Thursday and another led primary on the Friday. There were also 4 afternoon workshops each week (Wednesday and Friday afternoons were free) with a well-deserved rest day on the Saturday.
I must admit I found the first led primary absolutely exhausting. When you’re used to practicing on your own and at your own speed with a bit (ok a lot) of shuffling between postures, it’s something of a shock to be taken through the whole series at a relentless pace. It was incredibly tough, but what I found both interesting and rewarding was comparing how difficult I found that initial practice with the improvements I’d made come the last day – it still wasn’t easy, but I coped much better with the pace and intensity after two weeks of solid practice. “Practice, all is coming!” J
It was in the Mysore sessions however, that I felt I made the most progress in my practice (once I’d gotten used to the early starts!) - David and Shelley's measured advice and kind adjustments helped my practice to improve no end. I had a lot of ‘firsts’ and ‘breakthroughs’ during those two weeks and I attribute these entirely to their teaching.
The workshops were equally brilliant – they injected humour and a lot of fun into these sessions, which helped everyone to relax and get the most out of them. As you might expect, most of the workshops focussed on how to improve asana practice, with advice on how to approach elements of postures that people found particularly challenging. It’s amazing how many little hints, tips and tricks David and Shelley have that really help you to understand and explore various asana. Things that you previously regarded as impossible seem all of a sudden much easier to comprehend and much more achievable. And some of the little sound bites they introduced us to (e.g. “Activate where you must, relax where you can”) now serve as great reminders to use during practice.
At the end of most of the workshops David took us through some pranayama exercises – wow! I’d done very little pranayama before this and although I was aware it would be challenging, I didn’t realise to quite what extent. We only ran through some fairly basic techniques but it was extremely difficult to regulate the breath in the right way without wanting to pass out or gasp like a fish on dry land – I see now why it’s only generally taught to advanced practitioners (of which I am most definitely not one!). But it was an interesting and also somewhat humbling experience to push yourself and be challenged in that way and I look forward to exploring pranayama further in the future.
However, for me the highlight of the workshops (and indeed the entire trip) was the session on yoga philosophy. To hear David talk for the best part of two hours about the broader aspects of yoga was truly an incredible and touching experience and I’ll always feel lucky to have sat and listened to his erudite take on the world. It’s difficult to put into words quite how inspirational I (and everyone else I spoke to afterwards) found this discussion – but certainly if more people were to listen to David speak, and if they were to apply that wisdom to their own actions, then we’d live in a much better world.
The yoga aside, the other major highlight of our trip was the people we met – so many lovely, inspirational characters, many of whom have made the decision to live life the way they want to by doing the things they love (often yoga…unsurprisingly) instead of doing ‘what they’re supposed to’. S and I took a lot of inspiration from this and we’re hoping to apply the same set of values to our own lives moving forward (in fact we’ve already started to put some plans into action).
Equally, it was nice to meet other guys who were also into yoga, who I could relate to in a different way to friends back home and who I could speak to about a wide variety of things outside of the stock 'man chat' about sport and work...a refreshing change.
And it was also really fun – if not a little surreal at first – to sit around chatting with David and Shelley during the down time…they’re great raconteurs with so many fun stories about Guruji and other renowned yoga practitioners and if David wasn’t such an amazing yoga teacher, then I think he’d have made a very solid career out of comic impressions.
So in all it was an amazing experience that S and I feel very lucky to have shared together – and one that gave us a lot of inspiration and motivation to take back to our lives the UK. Although it was just a fairly short trip, I truly believe it had a very profound and positive impact on us both. Purple Valley…we’ll be back!

My 10 Top Tips for Purple Valley

1. Take ear plugs - the local 'dog choir' can be pretty raucous at night.
2. Consider hiring a scooter - but only if you're confident of navigating the various hazards (there are many!).
3. If you like peppermint tea take your own stash - it goes quickly and is a prized commodity (also helpful for making friends!).
4. Pudding also goes quickly - especially when Sayuri makes something chocloate based. Don't be caught out!
5.  Get out to the beaches, spice plantations etc. - the pool and gardens are lovely but there's so much else to see.
6. If you're eating out try to eat Indian - the European restaurants are over priced and the Indian food tastes much better (and you're in India!).
7. Don't worry if you're travelling on your own - you'll meet so many nice people there.
8. Be prepared to remove the odd creature from your room - we and a few others encountered a frog in our bathroom.
9. If, on film night, they propose to play a film about water crystals, protest vehemently and demand something else...I mean it.
10. Enjoy your practice!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A Cautionary Tale

I tend to sweat quite a lot during my Ashtanga pratice and, being 'follicly challenged', this sweat runs into my eyes which is both annoying and distracting.  To remedy this less than satisfactory situation I usually wear a bandanna when I practice. My current crop of bandannas were looking a little threadbare and so at the weekend I treated myself to a new batch. This morning, resplendent in my new head gear, I started my practice as usual, working my way through the standing sequence and into the primary series.

As I was reaching forward into Janu Sirsasana A, I noticed a droplet of bluish liquid next to the inside of my right knee - at first I was perplexed, but then I realised that this must have dripped from my head and taken some of the dye out of my new bandanna. This casual observation was immediately replaced by a second, far more concerning thought...that same bandanna, with dye running, was still firmly wrapped round my head.

Trying to stem the rising tide of panic, I duly completed my 5 breaths before getting up from my mat and walking to the toilet in as nonchalant a fashion as I could manage. Once there I whipped off the bandanna, looked into the mirror, and sure forehead had taken on the pigmentation of a smurf. Now in full on flap mode, I started to frantically wash my head in the sink - fortunately after 3 or 4 washes my skin had returned to its more customary pinkish hue and I was able to rejoin my practice, albeit in a somewhat flustered state.

So please heed my advice and learn from my mistake - if you're planning to wear a bandanna during practice, just make sure you run it through the washing machine a few times first.



Saturday, 15 January 2011

Balu - Arambol

Before we went up to Purple Valley, S and I spent a week travelling round Goa, visiting a number of different places. On our short journey we spent a few days in Arambol which, if you haven't been there before is certainly something of an experience - a very lively place with an eclectic mix of ageing hippies, new age traveller cliches, dreadlocked fire twirlers

Whilst we were there, we were lucky enough to stumble across an incredible, lovely Ashtanga teacher called Balu. Balu has an interesting life story - he's been teaching yoga for 12 years, he spent 3 years training in the Himalayas, followed by 2 years in Mysore and now splits his time between assisting in Mysore and running his own little Shala in Arambol.

S and I took a led primary class with him and we found him to be a very inspirational teacher with a lovely, gentle nature and a constant smile. It was a really enjoyable class (he showed me a great alternative to Marichyasana D which I'm still nowhere near) and at the end whilst in Savasana I had a pretty amazing experience. As you're laying there Balu comes around and gently lifts and pulls on your legs before placing them back on the ground - he then does the same with your arms before raising your head, straightening your neck and placing your head back on the floor. He finishes up by running his hands from the top to the side of your head (like a massage) and touching you ever so gently on your forehead. It was the smallest of gestures but it had a very profound effect on me - I actually felt quite emotional at first, and then I had a sensation akin to shivers running right through my body which lasted for a good 30 seconds or so. I won't go on too much but suffice to say it was an incredible feeling and a special experience that I won't forget in a hurry.

At the end of the class Balu asked us to stay for Chai and cookies - every Friday he splits his earnings 80:20. 80% he gives away to a charity that helps out orphaned children and the remaining 20% he uses to treat his students to some tea and biscuits which I thought was a really kind and thoughtful gesture. It was lovely to sit and chat with Balu and some of his other students and he also got S and I to join in their 'play time' and try out some partner yoga (much harder than I thought it would be!). It was a brilliant morning and one that S and I will long remember...I'd strongly encourage anyone who's interested in yoga and heading to Arambol to look up Balu and take the opportunity to practice with a very special teacher.


Adventures with Swenson - Part 2

About a week after taking the David Swenson workshops I was walking back to my office after lunch when whom should I walk past but...David Swenson. Seeing as I was about to fly out to practice with him for 2 weeks in Goa, I decided to take courage in my hands, tap him on the shoulder and introduce myself. Somewhat embarrassingly the conversation initially went something like this:

YB: "Er....hi...Mr Swenson?" (like I wasn't sure!)

DS (looking a little nervous): "Uh...yes?"

YB: "Hi...ummm...I just wanted to say hi."

DS (looking a little more nervous): "Oh...well, hi."

YB (increasingly babbling): "Sorry, I'm not explaining myself very well - I'm taking your workshop at Purple Valley later this month and I thought I'd just introduce myself."

DS (visibly relaxing): "Oh, great to meet you!"

From there we had a brief but very pleasant chat - it was mostly small talk but it was nice to see that the persona that comes across in his workshops is in fact the real David Swenson...down to earth, charming and funny.

I later found out that he emailed his wife Shelley about our little encounter and when I mentioned to him that he looked a bit worried when I initially tapped him on the shoulder, he replied with his customary humour "I thought you were going to ask me for money".

Top man.


Monday, 10 January 2011

Adventures with Swenson - Part 1

This post is a little late in coming but at the start of December I attended 2 David Swenson workshops at Triyoga London - I'd taken one workshop with him the previous year but wanted to remind myself of his teaching style before S and I headed to India, so that we'd know what to expect. I was so glad that I took these workshops because by the end of the day I was even more excited than before about our upcoming trip to Purple Valley.

David is such an amazing teacher - it's not just the vast amount of knowledge that he has stored in his head, it's the articulate, expressive and often amusing way that he manages to convey that knowledge to students that makes attending one of his workshops such an enjoyable and fun experience. But more than that, what sets him apart for me is that he's just such a genuinely lovely guy - so open, honest and humble in the way that he communicates with people.

The first of the workshops was a led full primary series - 'All Aboard the Ashtanga Train'. This was actually the first time I'd ever been taken through the full primary series and it was a great experience (not to mention exhausting) to be led through it in the 'proper' flowing way...even though I struggled to keep up with the pace at times (it takes me a while to shuffle my way into position in certain asanas - by then David was on his second or third count!). Come the end of that first workshop I was feeling fairly tired, but after a 30 minute break it was time for the next - 'Ashtanga's Greatest Hits'.

This workshop was a bit more light hearted than the first - it was basically an opportunity to try out a number of 'party poses' with many tips and tricks from David for how to pull off some more challenging asanas. It was great fun although I did have a fairly uncomfortable moment about half way through. After practising Mayurasana, the guy who I was partnered with was complaining to me that it hurt him where his elbows had dug into his torso...he then proceeded to show me the afflicted area. I assumed that the location of his pain would be around his ribs, but seemingly the discomfort was located slightly lower down his abdomen. Instead of lifting up his top, he instead rolled down the top of his shorts, revealing a good deal of his 'pant moustache' and a little too much of something else as well. Not quite sure where to look I just managed to splutter 'Oh dear..' and maintained a fixed gaze towards David at the front of the room, hoping that the moment would pass quickly...which thankfully it did.

That slightly awkward encounter aside it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and a great taster for what was to come a few weeks later in Goa...more of that to come.