Vinyasa Flow – bigger, better, faster, more…?

A few discussions recently in class and with some other teachers have been the cue for this blog post.

As all of us in life and yoga are feeling our practice develop, please consider this….
For those of you drawn to Vinyasa Flow for “variety”, ask yourself why?
“To stave off boredom and so my practice doesn’t get stale” was an interesting comment.
Another was “variety deepens my practice” – which begs the question, what is a deep practice? A mantra I have used many time in class (sorry for those of you who have to listen to it so frequently!) is

it’s not about the depth of the asana, it’s about the depth of your awareness within the asana.

and also  as Prashant S. Iyengar states
Yoga is about establishing the right connections. While in trikonasana if you are connected to the pose, that is yoga. If you are at the breakfast table and you are connected to your breakfast, that is yoga. But while in trikonasana if you are connected to your breakfast that is not yoga!!!

So a deep practice has little to do with “pushing” the physical body into new contortions – which are nothing more than shapes if you’re not feeling the pose and the transition of how you got there in the first place. Rushing transitions or cruising them on auto pilot is a valuable teaching cue to see a student whose awareness is everywhere but in their practice, body, breath, present moment. Confusing “variety” with “advanced” is another misconception, and begs the question, what are you practicing “for”? Deconstructing patterns of movement (and thought?) or to keep satisfying the ego….

Even if you look at this purely from the physical, one principal objective is to unite movement with breath – with alignment and awareness.
If your breath is restricted or laboured by fluctuating focus, if your movement is significantly impaired by tension, tightness or weakness and instability, and if your alignment and activation is distorted and mal-adapted due to repetition of poor function, then what are you hoping to gain by pushing your practice on and mixing it up? Except maybe a fast track to an injury and a complete by-pass of awareness by satisfying the cognitive mind…..
A teacher aims to strike a balance between both a challenging and a compassionate lesson plan and practice for students – if challenging for you is repetition because that “makes you bored” (really?! do you find walking boring too? And breathing?) then ask yourself, where is your awareness?
Tied up with your ego wanting more and box ticking asanas?
How deep is your awareness within those basic/foundation asanas?

Are you using your practice as a distraction?

A teacher isn’t there to stave off your boredom with intricate demonstrations of their choreographic skills in some mutual exploration of both our egos; (teacher – ooooh look at my ever increasingly fancy lesson plans, please like me as your external validation is crucial to my motivation; and student- oooooh look at this shape I can make on the mat, now I like me, now give me something else new, give me more variety, I have achieved that and now I seek new boxes to tick)

Instead, a teacher tries to guide your practice and awareness deeper, safely, so you feel the asana rather than just doing it, and in vinyasa flow especially, so you truly feel the transition with awareness, with a slow steady mindful increase in the alteration of sequencing to illustrate shifts in intensity with the bliss of release to truly feel your prana flow – safely.
Be honest with your practice and observe, how much awareness do you focus on the asana compared to the transition? Or is the transition nothing more than an inconvenient but necessary path that you have to go down to get from where you are now to where you next want to be? Fluctuation of attention and awareness…… And how much does that also apply to your practice as a whole? Are you engaging with and feeling where you are now in the perpetual present moment, or are you thinking about where you next want to take your practice?
Notice, what you notice.
Look for stillness in movement.
If your teacher gives you the same “drills”, there’s probably a very good reason why……….if a sequence is very similar with asanas but the transition between the poses has been altered, what do you notice there?
FEEL the detail.
Relish it!!
How much does this also apply to rest of your life off of the mat? Change and variety is good (and inevitable) but keeping it simple is where it’s at…as with all things, it’s about balance.

As Scott Sonnon so succinctly states

Shouldn’t those “very, very basic” steps be the bulk of what we learn and teach, to give as much care and compassion as possible to the mangled and distorted bodies that injury, stress and trauma from our jobs, activities and life have wrought upon us? IF there is such a thing as “advanced” yoga (and I’m not convinced that there is), then wouldn’t it be a deeper refinement of these very, very basic steps, both embodied and shared?
…… in martial art, there are no advanced techniques; only a deeper refinement of the basics. The truly “advanced” martial artists, are the one’s with “beginner’s minds” – continually returning to the refinement of the rudimentary steps, and maintaining an “empty cup” to revisit what they’ve already practiced, but with new eyes and open hearts.

If boredom is your issue, maybe instead of ever increasing variety in your asana practice, you would benefit from meditating more. Sitting in one position for the ultimate lack of variety but increasing the depth of your awareness by fathoms.

With practice.

And repetition.

Again and again.
The subtleties and depths you will experience within the most basic of asana practice will then make you wonder how on earth you ever “got bored” on your mat. Your practice isn’t there to satisfy the cognitive mind and keep you interested, in much the same way as your yoga practice isn’t there to target a specific body part (this class will tone your butt……however a teacher can structure a class to include a lot of gluteal and posterior chain activation work to balance the body, especially as many heart openers require glute softening and bandha activation…..but that’s for another post!) – please do not confuse increasing levels of complexity with being “advanced” or “progressing your practice”, sometimes the progress you need is to simplify, hone and repeat, repeat, repeat.

In an asana, the mind has to reach inside the body to find a quiet space until a point comes where perfect balance is felt. Geeta Iyengar

Bigger, better, faster, more is not yoga progress.

Mixing it up so you don’t get bored is not yoga progress.

Keeping it simple is NOT staying within your comfort zone (generally) – for many, that is taking it right OUT of your comfort zone beyond variety and distraction into deeper awareness…and that can be deeply UNcomfortable.

Your asana practice is a moving meditation, not exercise to feed your ego about what shapes you can make on the mat, or radically changing sequences to satisfy the cognitive boredom that comes with necessary repetition.

If you crave variety within your yoga practice, you are missing the point of your yoga practice.

Every moment is utterly unique, feel that with every cell and fibre of your being within your practice and you will never feel boredom in anything you do on your mat (and in your life) again !

Oh my….Muay Thai…..(the album version)

Some more of my novice observations from behind the gloves…. **please note – these have been written as flow/stream of consciousness and experience, rather than a thoroughly researched and well structured/ordered insight into technical detail….for the sticklers among you…;-) and I welcome your feedback.

My training has been way less than I had hoped to have done at this stage, owing to work, injury rehab, other training, teaching, admin overload and more stuff at home to deal with than you could shake a stick at, but it has been relatively regular, if lacking in overall volume. When I bung my gloves on the back seat and drive away from a session with sweat still stinging my eyes, eagerly planning the stuff I need to cover in my next class, it doesn’t matter how close to the lactic acid “throw threshold” I got to and how badly my shins are throbbing, being keen for more and that feeling of anticipation before my heart rate has even returned to it’s resting rate is a good sign that my manipura and anahata chakras are bold and bright about my training!

As with practicing anything new, the learning curve is not neat with perfectly incremental steady improvements. In fact, mine resembles an ECG from a cardiac patient on some weeks – irregular spikes of improvement followed by random plateaus, then (seemingly) massive troughs followed by another spike and so on. It’s been interesting to assess how I learn as I am learning, as well as doing the actual learning itself, although some of you might have already spotted this flaw in my learning – this Russian doll/navel gazing/infinite analysis leading to paralysis…..my teachers have been great, knowing when to indulge my inner geek, my manomaya kosha, and give me the detail and the understanding I seek, and then getting me to just hit the darn pads and quick enough so I don’t have time to think – switch off and switch on.

See it, try it, think it, feel it, know it.

All 5 of my koshas integrated in the learning process, ploughing that neural movement path way through all 5 energetic bodies and then the bliss when they all click and I flow. This happens with more frequency lately, but it’s still a pretty rare occurrence…It takes repetition, drills, focus. I trained today and frankly I was rubbish….I need more repetition AND TIME.

Spikes in learning have been triggered by some fairly obvious sources.

Foot work on a tractor tyre for instance.

If you’re wondering how on earth that in any way is obvious, it’s all about rhythm. The bounce from the tyre, overriding the thinking too much flatfoot leg lock stance that is often evident when first learning, re-connected my movement smoothly to my breath. The rhythm and the breath is the foundation and everything else flows from there (sound familiar yogis?!) – especially balance… Balance is crucial for energetic flow, and also so I fully commit to punches and kicks rather than being half arsed for fear of miss kicking or putting myself on the floor with no intervention from any opponent.

And then there is sparring………which ought to come under the heading of “fast track learning”, and so far, I have only done a handful of controlled sessions with teachers….in 5 minutes it highlights every weakness I have to work on (which is pretty much everything) and I come away with a list as long as my instructor’s arm (ie, much longer than my own ) of aspects to practice. Sparring has also taught me (rapidly) that the toughest, trickiest yet also the most predictable opponent I need to beat initially is myself. Under pressure and with the distraction of being punched at repeatedly to highlight the gaping holes in my (shockingly poor) guard, the techniques I haven’t yet adequately drilled into instinctive muscle memory all come undone, and I revert to flinching/winging it with neon arrows flashing and sign posting these massive gaps in my guard. Every time I take another irritating jab or light hook (they are all light coming back at me at this stage), I take it personally as an illustration of my inadequacy as not only does this disrupt my own flow and planned selection of techniques that I was going to use, it frustrates me. With frustration comes tension and a scattering of focus, as awareness shifts to my perceived inadequacy/skill weakness, my inability to “be ok with that” (ego – argh! ego…..poor tolerance for my own inadequacy when I should practice acceptance and let go and move on, being utterly in the moment) instead I get momentarily sucked into how “I feel” about it, rather than just feeling it…..and then there is the frustration at all the fitness and strength work I have done that I am unable to access because my skills are currently too poorly developed to do so. As a champing at the bit sort of gal, this one does NOT sit well with me! I love to feel the flow, disrupting it annoys me, and that frustration I generate internally and do to myself, REALLY disrupts it…..my old self sabotage samskara comes up again (the abuse I hurl at myself with my own internal dialogue, a kaleidoscope of colourful language and criticism is unleashed!)

I have controlled – and continue to do so on a daily basis – this petulant gobby internal critic on my yoga mat with time and absolute focus and attention directed inwardly, but in the ring under pressure (of sorts), with external random stuff flying at you, keeping that part of me quiet is a test! And just when I get a glimpse of internal peace and total focus with the punches coming at me, then I get a random kick that I did not see coming to really get me frustrated with myself. I need more training, more drills, more meditation….. I feel this, I KNOW this….

Also sparring revealed something I hadn’t anticipated….unloading on to pads is one thing, trying to kick someone in the stomach is something else. My massage and yoga work is all based upon the premise of fixing, helping and healing people, shifting my attitude with ref to doing something that could potentially hurt someone was, well, a conceptual leap for me. Until they go to hit you back – then you get over it, pretty quickly actually.

And then…..then….

there is Interclub!

This is a sort of restricted/controlled, safe form of competition, where it is supposed to be a test of skill sets rather than attempting to knock your opponent into next week (eg punching the head is allowed, elbowing it is not). My first experience of this (spectating) was on August bank holiday Saturday at Unit 1 (www.unit1gym.com). It was a display of a fairly broad range of ability and fitness and experience (and a fairly broad range of perception of ability and fitness and experience!), and a whole lotta love!

Yes, really.

Love.

Any event, where you have a gathering of individuals all united by the same passion is an energetically potent place to be. You can feel the air fizzing with that anticipation and connection. Whether it’s a gig, a busy buzzing yoga workshop or a packed Muay Thai Interclub, you walk into that space and feel yourself plugging into the collective experience. The respect between (most) fighters is palpable – there is nothing brutal or “UG” about this, it’s about skill, focus, fitness and energy. It is a martial art. It’s not dumb aggression and having something to prove – “it is about sculpting your energy with the breath to manifest into controlled movements with precision and awareness to the absolute best of your potential ability whilst another source of energy seeks to disrupt yours” (as previously stated – see earlier post). Feeling that respect between 2 fighters (let alone all the other fighters watching) is feeling the love – it’s a similarly powerful and visceral vibe to that which you feel in a particularly challenging sequence in a yoga class where the whole room lifts with the collective effort and focus of everyone trying to control their own energy and overcome their own dvesha (or even avidya) they experience through an asana. Total focus on balancing holding on and letting go. Awareness but non attachment. Being absorbed in the absence of effort as well as effort itself, it’s not easy and well all know it and the deeper we go, though our experience is personal, unique and in the moment, it’s also the thread that connects us all. It is individual yet universally collective….  And for some yogis who feel slightly critical of my venture into Muay Thai, it is worth remembering that our access points may all be different but we are all one and the same.

Watching each fight had me living every punch and block and breath and clatter and error and smile and battle to maintain that level of unblinking concentration yet still stay relaxed.

I barely breathed for the first 5 fights, and

I LOVED IT (can you tell?)

So considering I am currently novice, know little, am monitoring a few recent injuries of my own and have a minimal skill set so far…..I still found myself being drawn to it and thinking “wow, I’ll have me some of that!”

Then I started to properly consider it.

95% of me was thoroughly YEEEEHAAA about it and 5% was FFS you’re not in your 20s (*ahem*) anymore, you will get your arse kicked and you won’t be able to work. The 5% self preservation voice is a new character in my gaggle of quarreling internal dialogue, (brought about by being self employed and old apparently) so I am sure I can silence her with a well aimed internal left hook.

With respect (obviously).

It’s ahimsa because it’s a (martial) art…..

I also concluded that yep, I might have a go, if I can train a lot, A LOT more and I will need to meditate for at least an hour to calm down enough to get my gloves on, and also go on last, when practically everyone else has gone home and no-one will be watching.

My shin pads have arrived and my gum shield is on order.

That is all.

Oh my……Muay Thai (the radio edit)

“It is through your body that you realise you are a spark of divinity.”

B.K.S. Iyengar

 

It’s good to mix things up, do something different, learn something new.

Whilst repetition within your yoga practice is of paramount importance,

“Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory” Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois

it is equally beneficial to make sure that the body is getting a fully comprehensive approach to health and fitness (such as CV fitness, strength, stability, flexibility) and it is great for the mind to keep adding skills and going beyond the comfort of that which you (think you) know……and let’s not forget how great it is for the soul to try new things and experiment with new ways of using the body to really inspire and enthuse yourself about the myriad of different ways you can move, feel alive and tap into a deeper level of awareness.
Acquiring a new skill, more knowledge and exploring awareness from different “ways in” is something that I personally have to be disciplined to not do too much of…balancing my magic porridge pot of infinite enthusiasm for just about everything with the rest of the demands and obligations of life has always been the biggest challenge, but that’s another story…..

My love of all things sporting is well documented, or maybe a better way of putting it is that I do bang on about it often enough. I have tried many different activities, most I love, and very occasionally, some just don’t ignite me in the same way. One such example is aerobics (not that this is a “sport”) it always feels so contrived and often, downright bad for you, and I have never truly enjoyed it, just endured it for cross training/fitting in with my schedule purposes. I used to get annoyed with the lack of detail of “form” in the movement too, but maybe that’s just me….

Then, a few years ago, I found body combat classes. For those of you who don’t know what these are, think of an aerobics structured class that is based upon a variety of different combat/martial arts instead of prance/weight loss, where you get to punch and kick thin air to great music. A wonderfully superficial dynamic class to lose yourself in – ahhhhhh happy memories! I was very lucky as my first instructor, Deborah, was a truly fantastic teacher. I did this for a while and loved it, but was also aware that I could probably have done with some 1:1 tuition as I knew I was getting some details wrong and you can’t expect a teacher of a big (30+) fast moving and dynamic class to give you that level of individual attention and instruction.

Then I signed up for the 1st Rat Race “Dirty Weekend” (a 20 MILE run over the world’s largest assault course….another blog to follow on this baby…) and realised that I needed something additional to my training of running and yoga mat time to ensure that I got round in one piece, so…… I took the step up (and in) and made the transition from combat classes to Muay Thai boxing.

Even just writing that last sentence made me grin in a massive wide screen toothy grin kind of way.

I kicked myself for not having made that transition sooner (so I could have kicked myself with more power and better technical proficiency obviously…)

Most people will book into having 1:1 tuition so that they don’t make an arse of themselves in front of a full class of (incorrectly) perceived judgmental experts. Anyone who knows me will realise that that isn’t a fear I have as some of the best fun I have ever had could be perceived as me making an arse of myself; you only need to see me dance to realise this in an instant, but the fear of getting injured and not being able to train (or compete in the afore mentioned assault course) sent me in to book a private lesson.

On entering the chosen gym, just loitering by reception revealed something unusual.

The utter lack of ego in the whole gym area.

I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH AS A RARE AND WONDERFUL THING…. I knew I had come to the right place. Nothing turns me off gyms more than lots of mirrors,  strutting posers (of either gender) where everyone’s motivation is the competitive aesthetic, a flirt fest and/or cliquey elitism. This gym had not even a hint of any of that and I instantly felt that I could be on to something that was a good fit for me, before I even put my gloves on. Personally, I really don’t care if the lighting is muted or what the quality of the (invariably hired/rented) vast quantity and rarity of plants in reception is….. – I turn up to train, not buy into a brand and so long as the equipment is plentiful and safe, the place is clean, hygienic and has a good energy and the instructors are friendly AND competent, the rest is just wall paper….

I started and soon realised that I was rubbish at skipping, my foot work was flatfoot work, my punching and kicking was technically so poor that, er, technically it almost wasn’t punching and kicking, that shifting up several gears of movement meant my left and right started to get a little blurred, that being too keen can be a VAST barrier to performing ANY movement, that being a yoga teacher and sports massage therapist meant that any movement I couldn’t do instantly got analysed to within an inch of it’s very existence – and that apparently my shins bruise very easily. Oh and that I LOVED THIS!

That sweet connection between glove/foot and pad allows the energy to flow so powerfully that it feels like you ought to be lit up like a neon light – shining bright somewhere between total focus and sheer delight! (I hate using smiley icons in blog posts but I feel there ought to be about 20 at the end of that line!)

Very quickly I became aware of huge amounts of overlap between Thai boxing and Yoga and especially within the felt energetic experience. I am still very much at the novice end of the spectrum of learning, where I am starting to form sequences of punches and kicks without a great deal coming back at me, but the energetic flow within and around you and the breath being the absolute foundation is a thread that runs seamlessly from my yoga mat and into the ring.

It is not about violence or aggression or the desire to inflict pain on others or red mist “winning” in the classic sense of being better than everyone else, it is about sculpting your energy with the breath to manifest into controlled movements with precision and awareness to the absolute best of your potential ability whilst another source of energy seeks to disrupt yours. Aggression would merely create static in your own energy, interfering with your own flow from the inside before anyone else tried to. I feel that red mist would be represented as a spiky frequency unlike the symphonic harmonies of vibration in your body when it all flows so beautifully that you feel like you’ve just stepped through into another dimension…..energetic slipstreaming….

Well, that’s my interpretation of it at this stage, but I have only had a few lessons so far so I won’t claim to know anything about Muay Thai in any other way than my own simplistic and limited experience.

The fitness and sport side of this is already secondary to me as it’s the art and energy to it that is the biggest draw.

If you have difficulty practicing mindfulness, accessing it trying to land a kick when someone is trying to land a kick on you should help!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9Ef0ErCU1c

A nice easy representation of flow…..Fry after 100 cups of coffee – not the same but you get the idea…

My Muay Thai has also improved my meditation.

This I did not expect but now seems blindingly obvious.

The stillness on the mat seems amplified by the preceding dynamic movement in the ring – and with my yoga practice as well, it feels like the most perfect combination for me…at this time, as everything changes, is in flux and evolves (and because I can’t run at the moment….The Rat Race blog post to follow will cover that one nicely….)

From both the yoga and the massage side of my work, I often have clients ask me to recommend gyms where the instruction is based strongly on form and function rather than mindless reps into the oblivion of inevitable injury and also where they won’t feel self conscious/inadequate. Being taught properly to do a movement with technical precision and proficiency AND mindfulness is fundamental yet not always evident in some places I have trained. Many times I have had the dilemma of watching someone perform a movement, waiting for an instructor to intervene to improve efficiency and prevent injury, only to see them ignored as they plough on regardless. Rowing machines seem to be particularly adept at bringing out the worst in questionable instruction…..

Plus you want to do a movement/training that is a pleasure rather than a tortuous obligation for whatever has driven you there. Good instructors transmit that joy, and it was loud and clear in every lesson I had.

My absolute love of yoga runs so deep it has made it to my DNA (as my friends and family would verify – as some are frankly fed up with me jabbering on about it with irritating enthusiasm), but for those of you who want to try something different, I know a great place that might just ignite that spark in you.

You don’t have to compete, (I said I wouldn’t, but now I am not so sure….?) you don’t even have to get into the ring, but I defy you not to get all shiny eyed with wonder at how even a little bit of Muay Thai training makes you feel ! And it’s a powerful cocktail for the mind, body and soul when combined with regular yoga asana practice and meditation, and this post is for all you who have asked why I love Muay Thai, where to go to get some and how it fits with my asana practice. I could go into more detail (always…..) but I suggest you go try it, feel it and know it!

www.unit1gym.com

www.yogaattheboilerhouse.com

Golf. Into meditation….

I wrote this a while ago, but following a few recent discussions with friends, family and students alike, this seemed quite relevant – and as a couple of you have requested this be posted as a blog, even though it is not wholly “yogic”(!) – here it is.

 OOOH MEDITATION…….that’s what you need…..

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, I used to play golf.

Well I say ‘play’ but really I use that term quite loosely in this instance.

It would be more accurate to say that I repeatedly tried to do something resembling playing golf.

And boy did I try.

Waaaaay too hard.

Apparently, that was my problem.

It all came about because I moved house and ended up living opposite a golf course. Not long after I moved in, I was sat in my garden one sunny evening, listening to that wonderfully metallic thwack and chink that a driver makes when it strikes the ball oh so sweetly and marvelled at the beauty in that sound. It intrigued me.

Over the next month, I listened to this through my open window, whilst sat in front of PC working in the evenings and decided that I would give it a try.

“Golf?” said one of my friends “GOLF? Really? Er, why?”

I explained that it was a logical thing for me to do, living so close to a course so I didn’t have to travel and that I could nip up there in the evening if I had a free hour to knock a few balls to practise…and as I loved pretty much all sport, it seemed obvious that I would want to try something new – plus, part of the appeal was precisely because it was so different from everything else I did.

“Yes but….. golf? I mean, surely it’s nowhere near dangerous enough for you?”

Ah if only she’d waited a few weeks to see me wielding my five iron…..lethal.

So I went and had a go – and was hooked instantly.

I concluded that it is the crack of the sporting world, as I had one shot in my first practise where I hit it so sweetly (because I didn’t know what I was doing, so did it instinctively rather than analytically) that I spent the next few years chasing that high, trying to replicate that connection, that moment of oneness…or something…..in the end I was happy just to settle for not spending the afternoon in a series of a bunkers where a bucket and spade would have been more use than a set of golf clubs, but ultimately I was searching for that feeling again, where you strike it perfectly…… and it just flies……..*sigh*…….(preferably in the right direction, although that was a bonus secondary objective).

I had lessons, I practised FOR HOURS, I tried and tried and tried.

I read books on it (but I never could quite bring myself to watch it on the telly – I did have a life after all) and I even talked to other people about it in the bar in the clubhouse (I had to – you do get dehydrated after all that practising you know…)

My practise sessions were slotted in around my business, going to gigs, doing chores and my running, so say if I had a Sunday afternoon or a few hours on a week night free, I used to binge on golf (this was pre-yoga, I might add – which will explain much that follows….)

Hours and hours on the practise ground, in all weathers, on my own (I liked it better that way and also I could rock up in my jeans and collarless (*gasp*) T shirt and not get tutted at by the old skool members who disapproved of my reluctance to dress like I’d fallen in a dressing up box full of clown clothes and overpriced branded technical gear), until my hands bled from blisters and until I was hoarse from screaming abuse at the uncooperative inanimate ball that refused to be hit how I intended it and somehow seemed to defy the laws of physics….

My practise methodology revealed my limitations with golf.

Practise, analyse, dissect, adjust, repeat – on an eternal loop, complete with escalating levels of frustration and exasperation.

One of my biggest faults when learning something new was my undercurrent of impatience, as I had zero tolerance for my own inevitable initial inadequacy and incompetence. It was ridiculous and I KNEW THIS and I should have just relaxed and allowed my expectations to rise steadily as I progressed, rather than anticipating instant brilliance. It was nothing about being competitive with others – but with myself, I was ruthless and my own harshest critic.

Add to this an analytical approach of deconstructing a problem or error to find it’s source whilst failing to see this massive over analytical and self critical elephant in the room and you had me with a set of golf clubs.

And quite frankly, it wasn’t pretty.

My instructor berated me for being “too intense” and “overly analytical” (well, der…..) and also picked up on those little visual cues – white knuckles, forearms like Popeye from gripping the club so tightly, shoulders up round my ears, clenched teeth, vein twitching on my temple, very furrowed brow and my other “issue”, namely golf tourettes. With other people within earshot, I could rein it in slightly, but on my own, I would become so absorbed in my inadequacies, that I was oblivious to my “articulations of frustration”.

I will share with you the day of my absolute nadir of this…..

I was on the practise ground one hot and humid evening. I was there, alone, and had been practising for about 3 hours with fluctuating levels of success. It started off good enough but then apart from the odd blip of a neat shot (punctuating my practise with shouts of “WOO-HOOOOO”!) it had deteriorated to me hacking like a red faced axe wielding mad woman. The light was beginning to fade, so in true OCD styley, I had to finish on a good shot. The last 7, “last” shots had all been horrible or not good enough so I decided to finish, no matter what, on the 8th shot, because I was starting to get hungry, my hands were bleeding and also because I like the number 8.. These, I concluded, were all valid reasons to finish on the 8th shot.

I placed the ball, hauled myself upright and prepared, mentally going through the checklist of where every body part of mine was and where it was about to go – perfectly and with effortless ease yet manifesting a powerful shot, that was what I was going to do….that – was – what – I – was – going – to – do…. I relaxed my grip on the club handle so that I was no longer throttling the living bejesus out of it and inhaled, then slowly exhaled. I inhaled and wound up my backswing before accelerating back down for the most perfect air shot I have ever done – completely missing the ball altogether and driving thin air nowhere.

The rage of a thousand bad practise hours welled up inside me and released in a roar of heartfelt fury – crows rose from the trees around me, clouds formed and the sky crackled, and I let forth a fluent torrent of the bestest and baddest expletives known to humankind, along with some I think I made up on the spot, and took another swing at the ball, this time connecting and knocking it deep into the next County(ish). I flung my club down, shouted something profane and profound at the fast disappearing ball in flight, then heard a cough behind me….I turned round to see a little old man stood there with his dog, they had appeared from behind the trees where a footpath ran though the back of the practise area.

“Frustrating sport isn’t it?” he said quietly.

He smiled….. and I cringed – hot, sweaty, with mad, wild “through a hedge backwards” hair (that was where I had had to go to retrieve some of the balls I had actually managed to hit), bleeding hands, a blood stained golf club that resembled a murder weapon more than sporting equipment and a mouth like a sewer.

I blushed deep crimson at all the bad bad stuff he heard me holler and I hung my head in shame – also brought back to the reality and absurdity of how obsessed I had been at hitting these small white balls that seemed to mock me with their indifference to my efforts.

“I am so sorry, you weren’t supposed to hear that, no-one was supposed to hear any of that” I said apologetically.

He smiled with genuine empathy and understanding and said something about his hearing not being so good these days.

I didn’t believe him and the fact that he said that to make me feel better made me feel even more rubbish.

I told my instructor this story during my next lesson, and he made no effort to conceal his amusement at my outburst and lack of awareness of where the footpaths were (he also knew the chap and as I suspected, said there was nothing wrong with his hearing at all), so that lesson, following a quick nip round the course in a buggy to familiarise myself with where everything, including other people, were – we then focussed on putting. Now I have played crazy golf as much as the next person but I was even worse at this aspect of “proper” golf.

“Stop trying so hard” he instructed, as with each shot, I got further and further away from the hole.

“I AM” I barked back whilst trying really hard to not try really hard.

“Don’t try to hit the ball, just hit the ball” he added, helpfully…

I shot him my best Medusa look and then muttered something sweary under my breath.

“Just relax……”

“I AM relaxed” I hissed through clenched, grinding teeth.

I do not think I was a pleasure to teach somehow…

I was physically able, strong enough, flexible enough, with a good sense of kinaesthetic awareness, good timing, mentally sharp enough to process the information and understand every aspect from every angle yet completely unable to see that the only thing that was preventing me from playing well was myself, that bit of myself between my ears that had a direct connection with the desire in my belly to do it, do it well and do it right.

“You think too much….”

At this point I put my club/axe down and took a breath to calm myself.

“Look, right, all my life in everything I have ever done, effort = outcome. Analyse, learn, understand, practise and TRY. When things get difficult, dig deeper and train harder, try harder. Effort equals outcome – simple. I just need to practise more….it will go in this time….wait for it……OH FOR F***S SAKE….” – the ball sailed past the hole, clean off the green and into the bunker on the far side.

I am surprised he didn’t quit teaching altogether.

I even tried playing golf whilst a bit drunk in an attempt to override my ever so slightly obsessive/enthusiastic side – I didn’t play any better alas but it was definitely more fun. Air shots were hilarious rather than humiliating. One air shot I realised was because I hadn’t even put the ball on the tee yet – oh how I laughed…and how I wonder that I wasn’t barred from ever playing there again….manically guffawing to myself in the middle of a packed golf course, on my own, with a hip flask poking out of my back pocket….

The instructor even tried talking to me about anything other than golf while I was practising, in an attempt to distract me – this worked up to a point, unless he asked me about something I was very passionate about, such as music, and then I would become very animated and my shots would become even more erratic. Apparently I was “far too intense and heart on my sleeve”  – this was hardly a revelation for me and I did mutter something back about “sorry, I don’t do “droid”….”

A day or so later, one of my friends asked me how “that golf lark” was coming along – I rolled my eyes and sighed.

“Stupid sport, I don’t even know why I put myself through it….. Ordinarily I’m no quitter but I might have to concede defeat, stick my clubs on ebay and find something else. I just can’t seem to get anything resembling consistency at all – my only consistency is my inconsistency.”

I had started to wonder if my clubs were manufactured from my own personal kryptonite, as picking them up seemed to bring out the weakest and worst of me in a way that no other activity or sport ever had…..I then proceeded to bore him rigid with every last detail about my practise, strategy, persistent errors and conclusions. I stopped when his eyes glazed over and his expression was of someone who had lost the will to live.

“So you’ve gone all OCD with golf as well have you?”

“ OCD? No – if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to within an inch of it’s life. OCD -that’s just a label that people who lack passion and drive give to people who are very enthusiastic about something”.

“…Or everything…”

“No not at all, and hang on, what do you mean “as well”?”

“Whilst your enthusiasm is admirable and endearing generally, remember this is only golf. Plough your passion into your work or your running, not that you need any more in either but at least you’ll be happier and there’s a point to it. Or maybe you should employ the strategy you have to other areas in your life, which is kind of laid back, don’t give a f*** and with nothing to prove?”

He was right, on both counts of course, not that I saw it at the time, so I just changed the subject, as he had failed to give me a panacea for all my golf woes.  For this he was grateful, as at least I stopped wittering on about golf.

The best round I ever played was when I had resigned myself to give up and accept that maybe it wasn’t for me – I played on my own and, relatively speaking for me, I played out of my skin. Latterly I realised this was because I just played, rather than trying to play. All the effort of learning and practising all came together in one beautiful effortless halcyon afternoon where I felt like I could actually play because I stopped trying. My body played whilst my mind, though present, just observed.

I finally understood the instruction during one early lesson that  “empty your mind” was supposed to be met with me actually doing so, rather than making a sarcastic remark about “some people round here having a head start on me on that one” when 2 Rupert Bear trouser clad chaps had strolled past discussing the relative merits of the girls in Hollyoaks…

A few years later, I had a flashback to that good golf afternoon, whilst on my yoga mat having the practise of a lifetime.

It was that rare and wonderful kind of yoga practise where you flow with such strength and stability and ease of breath and fluidity and focus and you feel like you’re slipstreaming but in a detached, out of body way, as you cease to be a physical body with it’s limitations of myofascial snags, asymmetrical muscle lengths and old injury issues, your anatomy is almost secondary and you just “become” each asana rather than “doing”  them …… as though your entire body is full of thousands of electrical switches and they are all perfectly aligned so the current flows seamlessly everywhere, and you emanate a pulsating energy that surrounds you in a ready brek glow….your mind observes with focus and clarity but there is no critical or “conscious thinking” input.

You are aware, you feel and but above all, you just “are”.

For someone like myself, who is, and I quote my friends, “wired up differently”, my mind has been constantly running a background (and most of the time, all consuming and very foreground) programme of analysis since I was born, whether asleep or awake, this experience was wonderfully liberating and the best way I can describe it is as a form of fluid ecstatic calm. I previously tried to explain this to a student I was teaching as an example of yoga being as much about state of mind as well alignment of the spine (it was a class on Bandha and breath). The flow comes from the mind becoming still – calming the chitta vrtti – and not acting as a barrier of “static” between the breath and the body (and for those who practise yoga for it’s spiritual benefits, the connections to something higher or divine – however you personally choose to label it). You are utterly absorbed and immersed into what you are doing, in a moving meditative state, rather than consciously over thinking what you are doing in a preoccupied overly analytical state…..or drifting off thinking about what you need to pick up from Sainsburys later.

During one class whilst on my yoga teacher training course, my teacher and guru, observing my practise, placed her hands lightly on my shoulders in a long held Virabradasana 2 and whispered “you have so much strength and shtira in this asana, now let go and find the ease, the lightness and the sukha – stop trying and just be…..” – meditation had taught me how, so I did – and the asana melted from a solid to a liquid – and though firmly anchored to the mat, I floated upon it. The rest of the practise just ebbed and flowed with a buoyancy, where my breath carried me far deeper into my practise than before.

Some would call this a glimpse of Samadhi – this oneness, this “high” – except it’s not a high and that’s the point, it’s a state of calm, centred contentment and connection and it’s “bliss” is due to the fact that it is not extreme – it’s not at either end of a continuum of high or low, effort or ease –  it’s in the perfect centre of all of them, the point of balance, the ultimate “sweet spot” – as though you have positioned yourself at precisely the right place between sets of speakers, or you have struck a ball at precisely the right point for it to really fly, and then you really fly…..

Many of my friends play golf and a few have recently asked if I fancy getting my clubs/weapons out again….I am beginning to give it some thought….I think I will start with some serious hours at the driving range first though – just to get into full meditative metronome mode.

I might be in a better place meditatively on the whole to give it a go these days, and although I think I would be considerably less ranty now, if you play golf on a course near where I live, I would suggest you take your ear plugs just in case.

After all, you still need both ends of the continuum to give each other, and the mid point of balance, true meaning.

Hence why, no matter how old I get, or for how many years I practise yoga, I will continue to try to do doughnuts with the golf buggy, as my ability for calm, centred repose has also made me further appreciate that I am still very much in touch with my innate ability for thrills, silliness and general immaturity too…

Namaste!

 

 

Step on to your mat and make like a horse…

If you have ever been to a yoga class, you will understand this…it doesn’t matter how great a yoga class you are in, when you are first learning, there are times when the repeated instructions of “bandha, BANDHA, BANDHAAA” feel like they may well be in Sanskrit for all the sense they are making to you….

You attempt to analyse and intellectualise what it is you are supposed to be doing and feeling, and you try to break it down, step by step, and understand it before you can kinaesthetically “get” it.

But, sometimes too much description and over analysis may help you to get closer to understanding a concept, but take you further away from actually feeling it….mental paralysis from over analysis…..and that’s when analogies can be extremely helpful in attaining that “oh yeah, NOW I get it…” moment where it all makes sense. Or the “Magic Eye” moment as I call it…if you’re of a certain age and remember all those magic eye posters and books that companies like Athena et al used to churn out, where some of us would sit for ages in 6th form common rooms and University bed sits across the land, staring intensely into those “pictures” desperately trying to “see” what on earth everyone else was wittering on about, you’ll know what I mean… it took me many late night hours of furrowed brows and watering eyes before I finally got that looking too hard meant I saw nothing but a fast approaching migraine, and that I had to let my eyes passively expand out towards my peripheral vision to really see the picture emerge…or something….or maybe I should have actually been studying instead….these days, for the perspective of my yoga mat, I understand that passive “magic” eye as drsti, but that’s a whole different blog topic….

 For those of you who have read the title of this blog above, I can sense a “now where’s she going with this?”…

Please bear with me… for some of you who maybe aren’t too familiar with all things equine,  I promise to keep this basic (I will include *NH* – non-horsey explanations where necessary) but this might not totally connect as an analogy for you; whereas for others, this might have you metaphorically high fiving me from the bottom of your mula bandha.

This is not an in depth discussion about the intricacies and similarities between horses and humans anatomically, chakrally, or any other “lly”, it is just an analogy to convey the concept of how it should “feel” and what it is you are trying to capture  – the sense of alignment, energy and lightness within you on your mat. In essence, it can be the seemingly most obscure or random analogy that sparks with us for the eureka! moment to occur, and as this one worked for one of my students, I would like to share this with everyone in case it helps you to go all magic eye on your yoga mat too…

 Any horse riders out there will understand the concept of how different a horse feels to ride when it is “on the bit” (for the *NH*reader, think of it as rebalancing the horse from front wheel drive to being rear wheel drive – ie all the “impulsion” and drive is coming from the horse’s quarters. Even the non initiated person who has only seen horses on the telly will know that a horse moves differently when it is “collected” with it’s head and quarters looking engaged and it’s top line lengthened and rounded, rather than just “running” from the shoulders, top line shortened, head above the bit, back hollowed and rear quarters following along sometime next week).

Any rider will tell you it is a completely different experience, as when a horse is “on the bit”, it moves with light ease, strength and grace, balance and fluidity and a feeling of powerful buoyancy…the embodiment of shtira and sukha.

All those verbs and adjectives are that which you also seek to feel on your mat, and you know bandha is the key for you…so try this.

 Stand at the front of your mat, in tadasana and gently close your eyes.

Begin by focussing on the breath and the alignment of your spine.

You are aiming to engage each bandha in turn and finally all 3 in unison, but at less than 50%, so this is more about switching on awareness than ramping it up to full tilt. Now start by engaging mula bandha. Lift your pelvic floor or perineum – a good way to initiate this is by keeping your eyelids closed but rolling your eyes upwards within the sockets – as there is a neural link between the optic nerve and the muscles of the pelvic floor. Then exhale fully and engage uddiyana bandha by drawing your navel up and back towards your spine and then, keeping your spine long and lifting through the crown of your head, draw your chin down and in to engage jallandhara bandha (throat). Keep all 3 of these bandhas softly engaged as you inhale and exhale.

If you are struggling to feel the right areas switched on, keeping your eyes closed, visualise a horse moving effortlessly, floating with grace and power, on the bit with their equivalent equine bandhas engaged. Imagine the horse momentarily as a biped rather than quadruped, flip the horse up on to it’s hind legs and the areas they activate to “float” on the bit, roughly correspond to our 3 classical bandhas.

Mula bandha – root lock, the powerhouse, the foundation bandha from which all spinal alignment above sits upon – the seat of our energy. In Equine terms, this too is their powerhouse, driving the horse forwards and giving it the strength, balance and flexibility to propel itself up and over jumps – powerful quarters with hocks coming through under the horse’s body, (*NH* hocks = back knees – the bits that look like elbows on their hind legs).

Uddiyana bandha is drawn in and up under our lower ribs in the abdomen and when a horse engages their equivalent mula bandha, uddiyana bandha follows naturally with the correct alignment and integrity of their spine – this is what gives the horse it’s “collected” look, where it’s spine is beautifully rounded rather than hollowed – lengthening it’s top line and increasing stability, as we do too.

Jallandhara bandha – as you stand in Tadasana, with every inhale and exhale, your focus is on a constant awareness of lengthening your spine between each and every vertebrae – it is a sense of “lift” from your pelvic floor all the way up through the crown of your head – this includes lengthening your cervical spine (your neck) and bringing your awareness to your jallandhara bandha (chin or throat lock) amplifies this sensation. At the same time as drawing up through the crown of your head, you draw your chin down and in towards your chest slightly. A horse does this too, arching it’s neck (the degree of which is dependent upon it’s level of training/strength and flexibility), the poll being the highest point (*NH* poll = the top point of their skull between their ears, the crown of their head) with the head being in a position where when viewed from the side, a vertical line can be drawn down the front of the horse’s face. If a horse is “above the bit” (*NH* head further up and leading with their chin), it breaks the alignment and flow of energy from their quarters and they hollow their back, shifting the power to their forehand or shoulders. As you stand in Tadasana, jut your chin forwards and feel how it shortens your neck and what it does to your spinal alignment all the way down – you lose that “connection” from the rest of your spine and body and the sense of lift and buoyancy from below…walking round like that is incredibly hard work due to the domino effect of postural compensations, it’s energetically inefficient and likely to lead to discomfort and eventually chronic conditions or injury due to subsequent postural imbalances.

A horse is no different in that respect – particularly if they then try to do athletic things with their spine and their limbs, such as jumping –  if they are poorly aligned and imbalanced they can easily injure their back (as any rider will verify).

It takes many hours of training for a horse to be able to be consistently on the bit, as concentration, strength and flexibility have to be built up over time – no different from all the practise that we biped yogis and yoginis have to put in to learn to engage and maintain bandha, especially during asana transitions too.

 For another example, come to the front of your mat and play around with bandha in Virabradasana 3. Try it with all bandha off first and then, switch on mula bandha in the asana – you should feel that your legs and torso are now more connected energetically and you are far more stable within the balance. Bring an awareness to uddiyana bandha and feel your spine lengthen further out of your hips, a sense of buoyancy in your torso and an increase in stability within the pose, then add an awareness of jallandhara bandha, thus ensuring alignment of the entire spine, lengthening the cervical spine and allowing a feeling of energy to run without impediment through the whole spine and right through the crown of the head.

 So “step on to your mat and make like a horse” doesn’t mean flare your nostrils, toss your head wildly and then leap on to your neighbour’s mat without warning, because in your mind’s eye you’ve seen a killer pterodactyl in pheasant’s clothing….it means embody the feeling of fluidity, grace, balance and power that a horse has when it’s on the bit, the effortless float of transitions, the strength and the ease, the shtira and sukha.

 I welcome your comments and feedback below and I hope this analogy connects with you – either way, I suspect you weren’t anticipating reading a blog about yoga that included a reference to both horse and pterodactyl….NAMASTE!

 

 

Yoga, Massage, Suffolk and blogging!

What to expect from the Sahasta blog…… massage, yoga and life related ramblings, musings and points of interest. Some short, some not so short, some serious and some very definitely not so – but comment and feedback is always welcome….