Sunday, July 1, 2018

Free your mind ...

and the rest will follow … 

I have always loved this song by En Vogue (yes, I am dating myself).  Super-catchy melody accompanied by a snappy beat.  I am attracted to songs based on melody and beat; definitely not a fan of slow sappy songs.  I don’t really pay attention to lyrics though.  Many a time have I sung along to songs on the radio, without even realising what words I am singing, let alone their meaning.
But somehow, these 3 words from the En Vogue resonate with me … Free your mind.

There are 8 limbs of yoga.  The first 2 limbs advise on the moral codes we should follow in interacting with others and personal duties towards ourselves (yamas, niyamas).  The other ‘lower’ limbs deal with the body (asana, pranayama).  These prepare us for the ‘higher’ limbs which deal with the mind (pratyahara - sense withdrawal, dharana - concentration, dhyana - meditative absorption) and ultimately lead to Samadhi (enlightenment).

In today’s modern context of yoga, there are classes for Asana, Pranayama and Meditation, each with different styles and techniques.  I have my regular Ashtanga (asana) practice and I try to do some Pranayama first.  I find that it helps deepen and lengthen my breath in preparation for my Ashtanga practice.  Meditation? Nah, but not that I haven’t tried.  If you put me in a seated position first thing in the morning with no movement involved …. I will fall asleep and it doesn’t matter how much sleep I have had the night before.  My gift of being able to sleep anywhere anytime is a curse when it comes to developing a meditation practice πŸ˜€

Different forms of meditation have different methods.  Some will focus on a thought/concept, a deity or repetition of a mantra.  Some get the mind to concentration on breath control or observance of the breath.  Some will instruct not focussing on anything at all but to watch the thoughts that come into your head.  Not holding on to any but just acknowledging it and letting it go.  The Ashtanga yoga practice has been described as ‘Meditation in motion’.  Students are instructed to focus on observing and controlling the breath, keeping it steady in length, depth and rhythm whilst syncing it to specific movements.  Drishti (specific gazing points in each asanas) also help to focus the mind.  I have to admit that I may start off doing that but in the end, my mind wanders off.  Yes, bad Ashtangi. But I can’t help it.

My time on my mat each morning is my personal time.  Breathing and moving through asanas which are automatic to me now is a chance for me to   mentally let go.  It is amazing what thoughts come into my head and even more astonishing, the conclusions and ‘A-ha’  moments that pop out of nowhere.  Many a day have I stepped onto my mind worrying about something or pondering a problem and during my practice, the solution just comes to me, clearly and logically.  I have even generated mental To-De lists; things that I have needed to do for weeks but have forgotten.  Strangely (or not), it is sometimes hard to hold on to these thoughts.  The To-Do list is usually forgotten by the time I am done with practice.  I am guilty of stopping (just a few times) to write them down .  The solutions or possible options to more complex issues/problems though, tend to stick and get reinforced in my head.  Sometimes they even get sorted out in point-form which I love.  Call it an occupational leftover from my previous life as a management consultant.  It never ceases to amaze me what passes through my mind during the time I am on my mat.

There are days when I manage to keep my mind on controlling my breath and observing the sensations passing through my body.  Inevitably though, my mind will go off at some point.  If Guruji heard this, he would probably go ‘Bad lady. Incorrect method’.  But instinctively I feel that sometimes not controlling your mind is enlightening; a form of release and freedom from all restraint.  I feel mentally lighter; no worries or concerns, even if it's just for a while before coming back to reality.

So, try it … click on this link ... come onπŸ˜‰

Monday, April 8, 2013

Consolidation & Evolution

Someone asked me recently why I haven’t written anything on my blog (it’s been 2 months since my last entry).  My answer was - there’s nothing to write about.  I am not travelling, I am hardly practicing and have backed off teaching as a result of my shoulder injury.

But I realise that I have something to write about - I have entered another phase of my yoga journey:

Since I started ashtanga yoga in January 2001, I have generally been moving forward in terms of my asana practice (with a few backslides here and there of course).  My shoulder injury has caused my practice to retreat to a beginner level.  I realise however that there is a very big difference between my practice now and when I first started.  Then, I was struggling through the poses.  I was getting to know my body in terms of what I could do, couldn’t do.  The practice was new and I was trying to figure out how to adapt my body & mind to it.   

Now, I am re-visiting my practice; going through a period of Consolidation.  I may be doing the same asanas as when I started but the key difference is that they are now familiar.  My body is a bit broken but in general, very different from what it was in 2001.  I am now classified by Doctors as ‘hyper-mobile’ which makes me laugh because I was so stiff when I first started.

I recently read an article about how Ashtanga Yoga has evolved since Guruji first started teaching Westerners years ago to how it is being taught in Mysore now with Sharath at the helm.  It focused more on the asana side of the practice.  It got me thinking about how each individual’s personal yoga practice evolves through their life (single to married to having a family; times of stress, injury, getting older etc).  Does the yoga change or take a different form? How does one's attitude towards the practice change?  In my opinion, the yoga should always support and nourish versus demanding what we may not be able to provide at that point in time.  It's common knowledge that Ashtangis are usually Type A personalities :o).  The practice demands discipline but I have learnt that it doesn't equate to rigidity.  The challenge is to look past the outward practice and delve deeper into the inner yoga
Sharath keeps telling us that Yoga is not just physical, it is a spiritual practice and it is for self-transformation.  In his last Mysore conference this season, he apparently said something which resonated with me.
“In life, the terrain keeps changing, it is not smooth all the time.  So, don't get disturbed by these things. You keep your practice. Keep your steadiness in whatever terrain comes into your life. Keep on practicing yoga. Never leave practicing yoga. That is how we balance ourselves in whatever difficult times or happy times.  With happiness you should accept both the terrains, both the happiness as well as sorrow. For that your mind should be steady and still...If you believe in yoga, if you practice yoga, it will never let you go."

I think I am going through my own little evolution, looking back on how I have progressed in the practice and analysing what I have to do moving forward with this injury.  In order to do that, I had to let go of my detachment to my regular practice.  Boy, that is hard because I miss it so much.

I maintained my daily pranayama but started to do less asana and fit in more exercises to strengthen my shoulder.  Then I think I overdid the exercises so I took a week off and did absolutely nothing physical (that felt like a year!).  When I re-started, I took a day off every few days and experimented with different routines every day.  I started to swim to see if this would complement what I am doing.  I wake up every morning with neck ache so I am trying different sleeping positions with different pillows.  I have devised my own stretches (some using a wall, massage ball etc) and tweaked certain asanas to relieve the neck ache.  I am still figuring out my limits to what I can before I feel pain and trying to pinpoint what causes me discomfort.  It is an ongoing process.
So, 12 years after I started my Ashtanga journey, I am going back and trying to look at it with fresh eyes.  It is not easy; I am filled with doubt.  Will I ever be able to practice freely without inhibition and fear of pain? Will I ever be able to do poses in which my shoulder is vulnerable?  I know that there is no use looking back.  This is what my Yoga practice has evolved into.  I can only look forward.  There are so many paths to the same destination … I’d like to think I’m just going offroad for a while.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Quiet Refuge & Peaceful Solitude

I completed my Life is Short World Tour 2012 almost 2 months ago, when I returned from Mysore last December.  I knew Mysore would be a different experience, even before I left.  I almost cancelled my trip a week before I left Singapore due to a setback with my already bad shoulder.  Many people questioned why I was even considering going in the first place.  What they don’t realise is that Mysore (and  Sharath) is the best environment for practice with an injury.  Sharath doesn’t push you - he supports you and encourages you.  People usually get injured under his watch because they push themselves too far.  So I maintained my faith that Sharath and the Shala energy would be just what I needed in order to build up my practice and got on that plane.

I started with uncertainty and trepidation.  I didn’t want anyone to touch me (even Sharath in the beginning).  Not only was I unable to practice freely … I was full of fear.  That mental anxiety translated into a lot of physical tension, in my neck and shoulders especially.  But over the first week, the familiar comfort of being in the Shala allowed me to Breathe and dissolved a lot of the demons in my head.  Sharath didn’t adjust me for a while, but he was definitely watching the first few days.  That was comfort in itself, somehow I felt safe.

The challenge of practicing in Mysore is battling your own ego.  If you get caught up in the whole ‘’What pose are you doing, how many new poses did you get, are you grabbing your ankles in backbends etc’’ conversations and it makes you competitive, then you’re in trouble.  There is nothing wrong with the desire to practice to the best of your ability.  Unfortunately most of the time, people evaluate ability in terms of what pose you’re doing.  Sharath has said this a lot in the last few years – Yoga is a spiritual practice, it is for self-transformation.

My practice did get stronger in Mysore but my shoulder didn’t end up getting better.  I went to see Sharath in his office and asked jokingly, ‘’So, is it time for me to retire?”  He laughed, “Just do what you can”.  When I asked him, "What should I practice?", he replied,"Up to you."  Having him understand what I was going through (even though there was nothing he could do to help me) made my trip worthwhile. 
When I got back to Singapore, I went to see an Orthopedic surgeon.  The good news is that I don’t have to do surgery, the bad news is that the instability of my shoulder is a difficult condition to treat.  I have now shifted my focus to trying to control and strengthen the muscles that I need to stablise my shoulder.  My approach towards my practice has changed.  I still get onto my mat 6 days a week but it is no longer important what I can achieve physically (although I really miss my regular practice).  I go there to seek quiet refuge and peaceful solitude.  But then, isn’t that ultimately what Yoga is all about.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Instant Coffee for an Instant World

 My sister sent me a link to last week’s sermon by a Catholic priest.  It was entitled “Coffee, Karate and Christmas”.  The sermon was about how Starbucks is now selling Instant Coffee - so you can drink it as soon as you want it.  He contrasted that with the movie Karate Kid where the character played by Ralph Macchio (I only watched the original) was made to do mundane chores instead of practicing Karate.  It turned out that these chores laid the foundation for the karate moves that he was going to learn.  Plus, the Master was trying to teach him that Karate is more than just fighting.  It’s about discipline, perserverance, mercy and self-control.  There is no such thing as instant Karate.

The priest used this analogy to introduce the season of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day) and how Christmas was more Karate, versus Coffee.   For Christians, it is more than the lights, present, trees covered in tinsel and the sounds of carols which have sprung up overnight – the message of Christmas goes deeper than that.

Reading his sermon got me thinking about how many people today are taking the Coffee versus Karate route towards Yoga.  In our modern world where we get instant information via the internet and instant messages via SMS, we forget that the path of Yoga (like learning Karate) takes time, discipline and dedication.

The physical asanas are not easy.  It takes time to open up tight areas in our bodies, building up flexibility, stamina and strength.  Many also overlook the less visible aspects - developing the Breath (which is the key to a Calm, Focused Mind) and Yoga Philosophy which also teaches one how to behave towards oneself and others.  There are people who can do the physical practice easily but are they true Yoga practitioners if their thoughts are fractured or they treat others with dis-respect?  Does being a good practitioner necessarily mean that you will make a good teacher?

Yoga students used to devote themselves to their practice and One Teacher their entire life.  They used to remain students for a long-time before becoming teachers themselves. Today, Yoga is becoming more mainstream, but alas, also more commercial.  Many fusion forms of Yoga are appearing and Teacher Training Courses are becoming very common.  Sometimes I think that we all want to run before we can even walk.

It is hard to deny that with today’s technology, we live in a world where we can easily get instant gratification.  This is not necessarily bad but we have to remember that some things require time and the journey plus the lessons learnt traversing it is often more important than the destination.