The qualities of a yoga practice – Santosha and Ahimsa

I had a great group come along for class yesterday afternoon.  We did a practice designed for the legs and the âpana.  We all had a good go at some standing balances, with a transition between two postures. And mostly everyone fell out of the poses at least once.
Teaching a class is a dynamic, fluid thing.  I usually have drop-in groups, and of varying levels of experience.  The skill of a teacher depends on being able to tailor the practice to the group and make it enjoyable and useful for everyone, while never straying from the essence of the teachings.  This is called “pedagogy” and is the art of teaching.
I used the falling out of the poses to teach some yoga philosophy.  I used the Sanskrit words “Ahimsa” and “Santosha” to help people understand how to deal with things like falling out of poses.
Ahimsa means non-violence.  I use this word in the context of not allowing violent self-critiquing thoughts to arise.  It is common to sigh in frustration when we can’t do something, say to ourselves “I always fall” or “I will never get it” or “I am useless”.  We use ahimsa, which is one of the five Yamas of yoga, to practice peaceful, non-harming inner (and outer) dialogue.
Santhosha is one of the five Niyamas and of my favourite Sanskrit words.  It means contentment, enjoyment more or less. Fall out of a pose? hahahah!  Use Santosha to not want what others have, ie:  don’t compare yourself to others, and be content with what you are.
I say:

Some people believe that the Universe is a big game, that it is all a joke.  The archetype of the Trickster God is very common. Hermès, (AKA Mercury, my ruling planet) of the Greeks, was a trickster.  Krishna was a trickster The Raven of the Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples is aso a trickster.  When you start to think of checks and balances in life as jokes, as something to laugh at, it all gets a bit lighter. 

You see, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.  Fail and take it lightly, step wrong, then do a little shuffle and get back on the beat.  Use non-violent inner dialogue to correct yourself, but not castigate.  Use good humour to just take it as a little joke.  Don’t put that strenuous face on in yoga,  have fun.
Taint What you Do, It’s the Way That You Do It, as the old song goes.  Here is a delightful live version of that old song, recorded by Sedajazz just up the road in beautiful Valencia.


On the roots of yoga, and giving thanks

I read this article today in The Independent:  Americans who practice yoga ‘contribute to white supremacy’, claims Michigan State University professor
The professor says that the way that yoga is practised in America today amounts to culture appropriation and an offshoot of colonial culture.  Ouch.
I don’t live in North America, but I have read a lot on the yoga blogosphere about how yoga over there is much divorced from its spiritual or its philosophical roots.  I am not the best one to comment on this.  The professor says:

They can be aware of the history, roots, and magnitude of the practice and give credit where credit is due. Humility, respect, and reverence go a long way.

I agree 100%.  Anyone who comes to my class knows that I will bore you all to death by closing the class giving thanks to my teachers, who taught me how to teach.  For the record, my teachers are Carmen Sánchez Segura, Claude Maréchal and TKV Desikachar (although I never received direct instruction from Desikachar.).
Enjoy yourself a little yoga mix over on mixcloud.  Get on your mat and breathe deeply.  When you find a sliver of light, a slice of joy within, share it, connect the joy that resides deep within you to the joy that resides deep within others.  Hey, they need it just as much as you do.


Yoga is meant to calm me…so why do I feel so nervous?

This is a brilliant question that I received this week from a newcomer to class.  This particular lady was recommended yoga by her doctor, so comes as a special case.  Ideally, it must be said, such a person would have private tuition.  But, the mere fact that she has managed to make contact and come to class is practically a miracle.
Before the second class, she asked me this

During class last week, I felt very good.  But afterwards, I went home and felt more nervous than ever.  Isn’t yoga meant to calm me down?

Thus I replied:  Most anxiety arises from repression of emotions.  Anxiety and depression are often mixed, and sometimes confused.  But they are vastly different.  While depression has to do with a lowered level of mental activity, anxiety is a heightened state.  In yoga terms, anxiety is rajas and depression is tamas.  
Anxiety seems to arise when the brain is over-active.  This can be an excess of information, or an excess of emotion.  Most people with anxiety develop coping mechanisms.  The best way to plunge on through life when your brain is screaming red murder is to pretend it isn’t happening.  Here is the delightful Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s explaining it much more clearly than I ever could:

So, this lady suffers from chronic anxiety.  ie:  running to Tiffany’s every time she gets the mean reds.  And Tiffany’s can be a place in your mind, it can be a bottle, it can be distraction, an addiction, whatever.  You’re afraid and you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, the best response is to run, right?
Well, yes, until it isn’t the best response.  Because, just like Holly Golightly, if we could find a real live place that makes us feel like Tiffany’s, then we would buy some furniture and give the cat a name.
You see, dear readers, dear students, dear seekers, yoga brings you home to that real live place. When suddenly you have contact with the Still Point inside of you, simply through breathing, movement and the right teacher, you realise that all your running was in vain.  And you relax a little bit.  But… the minute you relax a little bit and then go back to breathing fast and shallow, fighting with the traffic, being surrounded by people who are NOT on the Path and almost seem to wish to shove YOU off the Path, you have to start running away again.  And you feel even more nervous than before.  
You can think of it as a study of contrasts.  If you are always in the mean reds, then a little deeper tone of red is hardly noticeable.  But if you are suddenly “in the pinks” and you go back to the reds…ouch.
Why does yoga make me feel good in class but nervous afterwards? Because yoga holds a mirror up to your inner state and makes you look at the things you don’t want to see and have probably spent a lifetime avoiding.  For that reason it is very, very, very important to have a trusting relationship with a qualified teacher.
Upon receiving that information from my student, a person I know hardly at all, I modified the pranayama at the end of the class and gave a technique specifically indicated for her, but that would cause no harm to any other members of the class.  And then, the next morning, I texted her, to make sure she was okay.  And she was.  And what’s more, she felt good.
So, people, there are Youtube videos a-plenty, gymnasium yoga fit classes galore, all sorts of bells and whistles.  But yoga is a practice that transcends all of this stuff and has tools to help everybody and the teacher is the one who will show you the path.  Get on your mats, comes to class, breathe deeply, be joyful.  The Spirit is within you, let it move you.

The sun will come out, tomorrow….Yoga before the sea and the big blue sky

Yesterday morning dawned rainy and grey.  Around these parts, precipitation is a present, a gift.  The chill in the air was invigorating, and the light reflecting on the wet cobblestones a portend of danger, for they are slippery when wet.
Sophie and Laurence and I warmed up with a white tea before class, then ventured upstairs to el Cielo, which means “Heaven” in Spanish, for yoga class.
There was a chill in the room, so we doubled up the yoga mats, and distributed nice, warm, hot pink wool blankets.   When we reached the floor phase of the practice, I noticed that the chill was starting to bite.  Feeling protective of my students, I hoped and prayed for some warming rays.
As we began to practice dvipada-pitâm (“the two-legged table pose”), the sun burst through!  Suddenly our little greenhouse of a room warmed up!  Joy!  We finished the sequence with Dolphins and headstand prep…energies were moved, smiles dawned upon faces and yet again, yoga worked its magic.
Thanks to everyone who came to class, it is a honour and privilege to be allowed to teach even a little bit of this ancient system.  Thanks to all the yogis and sages who kept this oral tradition alive for us to employ now, in 2018.  Thanks to my teachers, Claude and Carmen, for dedicating your lives to teaching teachers.  Namasté.

Authenticity in teaching yoga: Why it took me so long to teach.

authentically ok
authentically ok

The first time I ever practised yoga was in January, 1999.  That is 19 years ago.  How time flies.  I knew from the very first class that I wanted to teach yoga, that it was my path.  So, why did it take me so long to start teaching?  One word:  Authenticity.
I had for the longest time the feeling of being an imposter.  Imposter syndrome is the persistent feeling that you are a fraud.  In the five types that are listed there, I would say I am a Natural Genius and a Rugged Individualist.  Oh, with a bit of Perfectionist thrown in, for good measure.  It’s a high bar I have set for myself.
In yoga, the stakes are high.  You are not playing with people.  You are doing serious work.  And lest we forget, you can only teach what you know, so the most serious work you are actually doing is on yourself.
It is not easy to start off with the Yamas and Niyamas, the codes of ethics that underpin all serious yoga practice.  Non-harming, purity, self-study, contention…it is a long list, and very hard to adhere to 100% of the time.  Add that to six-days-a-week practice, and an evolving practice at that, not stagnating, bringing new things to the mat.  Phew.
It is easy to fall into the idea that you are never good enough to teach yoga.  Or rather, for me it is.  Evidently, for others it is not so difficult.  There are plenty of people out there who, a year after discovering yogâsana are on a 200-hr course and then teaching a few months later.  This is not a criticism of such people, it is a reflection on my inner process, my evolution.
I could not allow myself to do such a thing.  Maybe it is simple enough to say that my baggage was too heavy, my inner world too murky, my compass skewed.  Who was I to teach anyone how to live happily?
And yet, slowly, progressively, I oriented myself, I shed my baggage, I shone my light.  The interesting thing was discovering that we don’t have to be 100% perfect and clean.  But, we need to love our own flaws, our own pain.  When you learn to love your pain, you become whole and when you are whole you can hold space for your students to learn to love themselves, in their entirety.  When I got that,  I started to teach in earnest.  Now, it is my passion, my absolute passion!
A lot of marketing in the holistic world centres on authenticity.  How can we tell the real from the false.  I dunno, I don’t have a simple answer.  I think it’s intuition, I think it’s a feeling.  All I can say is that I think I am authentically ok now, I think I am.  I hope I am cos goddarn I am not going back to that place where I was before!   So, if you feel like checking out my classes, meeting me to ask about how I teach, having a conversation, you’re already here on the blog.  Take the next step and get in touch.
Love, Rachel

Teaching yoga from the heart

Every day I wake up thinking about yoga.  It has been like this for as long as I can remember.  It is my deepest passion, my guiding light, the shining star in my sky.  1313146901-300px
Yoga teachers are bound to one fundamental rule:  you can only teach what you know.  And knowing yoga is about doing yoga.  You cannot teach postures that you cannot do yourself.  You cannot create the discipline necessary to establish a home practice, even if that home practice is as humble as getting on your mat once a week, unless you yourself have a home practice.  And you cannot impart the power of yoga to ease suffering and pain if you do not use yoga yourself to ease  your own suffering.
An example:  I got really sick over Christmas.  And I was alone.  After days of coughing, breathlessness, helplessness, I found myself in a state of terrible anxiety.  I am going to die, I thought.  We are all going to die, I thought.  Death, sadly, has a 100% success rate.  it is the most elemental, primordial fear that we humans have, and it is a rational fear.  Because it is scary to think that our days are numbered, that all that we know will pass, that all the people we love will walk off this mortal coil one day and the worst thing is, we know not when.
womanchildstar-300pxI have a particularly intense relationship with all this because of the cancer rehab work I did.  I watched people I loved, my patients, die year after year.  I avoided the funerals because I had to maintain some sort of professional distance.  In the last year I worked in breast cancer rehab, I had four women lie on my table weeping, and all of them were younger than me.  How can you process that?  How can you deal with the fact that illness is real, that all the yoga and chanting in the world will not heal a tumour, and that even the doctors are helpless in the face of this.  How?  how do you deal with that?
Well, first you freak out, if you’re me.  Yep, it lay on me like a shroud and I carried that mantle for years. I tried, I tried my very best.  But then it got too much and I ran.  I rejected the world of oncology, I didn’t want to know.  And then I got real.  I realised that I possessed the skills to ease this particular suffering, this terrible elemental pain that we all share.  I have yoga.  My mission in life is to teach the yoga I know to ease the suffering of our human condition.  There, mission statement. I don’t know if I ever had one before!
Yoga will not change the fact that we are mortal.  Yoga will not make you live forever.  But yoga can make you still in the face of all that fear, all that sadness, all that fragility.  Yoga can teach you to sit still and say “Yes, okay, it is like this.”  And dear, dear people, that stillness is so necessary to this world.  One day you will be called upon to be still in the face of a storm and if you know how to breathe, to chant a little prayer, to ask the Universe for guidance when you yourself don’t know what to say, when words fail you, when your heart wants to burst, you lie in the hands of your maker, this incomprehensible, beautiful, contradictory, frustrating world that we live in and you say “I don’t know, please help me”, then you have the power of yoga.
And if all this is getting heavy, but you’ve stuck with me until now, thanks for listening.  And let me tell you this – yoga is about joy.  Yoga is about the joy you find when you understand and accept the reality that is ours, and you say – HEY !  But I am ALIVE!  And I have love inside me!  I have so much love to give and there is always somewhere to put my love!  And then you smile, and you laugh and you are present and available and, and, and….you feel HAPPY!  So dear readers, this is what I did when I was sick.  I sat and I chanted and breathed until I remembered that this life is the one I have, and it is marvellous, beautiful, miraculous, just as your life is marvellous, beautiful and miraculous.  
Now get out there and have a great Friday!  Live, love, laugh.  I will be teaching in less than an hour, and I will probably hug all my students afterwards.  Cos I am like that.

On yoga and loneliness (the scourge of our times)

In this morning’s post, I mentioned one of the benefits of yoga is the relief of loneliness.  This is not often mentioned when people talk about yoga.  Mostly, yoga is said to relieve back pain, insomnia, sluggish digestion and various other physical ailments.  Those of us who practice yoga with any degree of seriousness know that the psychological and emotional benefits of a sustained yoga practice outweigh the physical gains.
You see, as this article points out, loneliness can be as dangerous to a person’s health as bad habits like late nights and too many fags.    And yoga, when done in a group setting, ie:  a class, helps relieve loneliness.

two hands

Loneliness is the the illusion of separateness, of separation, and is a trick of the ego.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the ego sets out to convince us that we are disconnected from one another.  In the simplest sense, our ego sets us apart from other by comparing and judging.  “I am more intelligent/worldly/attractive… than so-and-so.”  Or, we think that others are ignorant, “so-and-so has no common sense, can’t they see that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, these people are all sheep”.   Those sorts of thoughts are so incredibly common that we often don’t even realise that we are having them.  But, their effect is devastating.  If left too long, we can end up truly isolated.  I have lost count of the number of students who at some point in their 50’s realised that their old friends have fallen away and new friends are increasingly hard to find.  Uh-oh and a big ouch if that happens to you.
What to do?  Tame the ego is the obvious thing.  It is not easily done, but the cool thing about yoga is that it sets out a tried and tested path for taming the ego.  The first step is defining the ego, knowing it is there but that the ego is not YOU.  Then, once you know what to watch out for, you start to watch its tricks.  You get used to that stupid, petty little judgemental voice steering you wrong and, eventually, you stop listening to it.  Then, in the stillness, you get more and more used to listening to the quiet-voiced corrections of the heart.
Yep, sounds a bit esoteric, I know.  But it goes something like this:  the ego says “look at the stuck-up prick holding court at the bar again.  My goodness, what a loser.  And all those people listening to him…I have nothing in common with these idiots.”  But, when you know that it is the nasty little voice of the ego slamming around in your head, you just say “shut up”.  And, in the silence you hear another voice saying “look at that fragile person in need of attention.  And all those fairweather friends listening in for want of anything better to do, like real communication, or even blessed silence.   Their suffering is my suffering.  Let all creatures live happily.”  That, my friends, is the heart talking.
Yoga teaches you to turn everyday situations around so that we can see the beauty, fragility, and love that is all around, all the time.  THAT is what yoga does.  And the group class is fun-da-mental for this process.  In the group class, we fall out of postures.  We suck at the forward bends.  We fart (well, not me personally, but you get it, right?).  In the group class our cracked heels are exposed and sometimes we turn up late.  And sometimes we cry.  And sometimes we laugh, and sometimes we spontaneously hug.  All this happens in yoga because we still the fluctuations of the mind (Yoga citta vritti nirodhah) and insodoing discover that we are all a lot more alike than we originally thought.  Out the door with the illusion of separateness, all hail connection.
So, come on and do some yoga with me, with us.  With anyone, because honestly, although I try to earn a living at this, if you take away from this post the desire to try yoga and you go with another teacher, or a YouTube video (but with a friend, natch!) then I am totally cool with that.  You can let me know if I have inspired you, even a little bit, by leaving a comment.  Because you know what?  Even I am prone to the lonelies, even I need to feel the love.  There, I said it.
I shared a quote from Mike Lousada the other day, and it resonates here too:
“Love is the deep truth of being. Anything else is an ego story designed to keep us feeling separate and alone.  Surrender to that deeper field of Love and Life will open to you”

We need love, not splits

Yoga teaches me that what this world needs is more love, not more flexible bodies.
Yoga teaches me that postures linked to breath are part of a path, but the path leads to compassion and comprehension, not contortion or competition.
Yoga teaches me that when we undo the knots and become soft, we can learn to love without asking to be loved in kind. Yoga teaches me that we don’t lose anything by doing this – it is a safe practice, once we truly arrive at the place where this is possible, rather than forcing the practice by spiritual bypass.
Yoga teaches me to know myself deeply, profoundly, intimately.  Yoga teaches me to let go of the shame I feel about showing who I really am.  Yoga teaches me that when I do so, the anger also evaporates because it no longer serves.  It was just the tool I used to protect myself from the shame of showing my true self.  On guard!
Yoga teaches me that there are many people who are on the path who may be bendy but are still angry and/or ashamed.  Yoga teaches me that this is okay, that I may be one of these people and not know it, but if I am lucky enough not to be, then I can shine that good fortune out and be patient and encouraging, not critical.