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.

Up in the early morning

Up in the early morning on Saturday, I chanced to spy the alignment of the heavenly bodies. Sun, moon and star traced a straight line in the dawn sky, casting their reflections on the calm surface of the sea.  As the heavens sang their coloured glory and the birds their joyful chorus, I was given a reminder of my own insignificance.  It felt great.
When I see the planets align, feel the Earth turn upon its axis, watch the days break and then later fade away, I realise that I matter little, if at all.  I am a speck upon a speck, hurtling through space and time infinite.  
In childhood, we believe the world revolves around us. Much of our long-lasting angst arises in childhood when we somehow think that we are responsible for everything that happens around us.  Parents divorce, must be because I didn’t put my socks on that morning.  Vacuum cleaner broken, must be because I left that dirty little candy paper on the floor.   Etc etc ad nauseum.
Growth, maturity, is reached, I believe, when we lose our sense of self-importance.  When we realise that we won’t save the world, that our scope is limited, we see that our only duty is to be as good as we possibly can be within the tiny scope of our lives.  This is actually much easier, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not that difficult to decide to walk in the door of your house with a smile on your face despite your soul-destroying day at work, now is it?
We are all specks upon a speck, hurtling through space.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  Life is a huge mystery and probably none of it matters.
Yoga taught me all this.  Yoga taught me to be still, quiet, and find that quiet place within myself.  I often close my classes with a discourse that goes along the lines of “that stillness that you feel inside, right now, was always there.  It’s just that you didn’t know how to reach it.  Yoga gives us the tools to reach that still point, that quiet place, and to do so repeatedly and reliably.  That is what yoga is, a series of ancient and well-tested tools that help us find our true selves, our quiet, calm, detached peaceful centre.”
We are specks upon and speck, hurtling through space.  We probably matter not at all.  And that’s ok.
Happy Monday, dear souls.  Be joyful.

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.

Re-post from The Guardian: Yoga for Lazy People

Here is a cute little article from today’s Guardian:  Yoga for Lazy People.  Have fun and…get on your mat!


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.

New Year, new you

Good morning dear yogis, or yogis-to-be!

prismatic lotus flower
lotus flower

Wouldn’t you like to make 2018 the year that you take up yoga?  Yoga is so ubiquitous now, it seems almost silly not to at least try?
But why should yoga be everywhere, and now?  Because it complements any other form of physical education or sport, but can also stand alone.  Yoga can be used by anyone engaged in demanding sport like football, running , CrossFit, to help rehabilitate muscle and connective tissue, improve breathing technique and oxygenation, and generally settle you down after a hard workout.
Yoga is completely adaptable for all ages and fitness levels.  Especially Viniyoga, the style of yoga that I teach.  The central tenet of this style is that the yoga adapts to the person, not the person to the yoga.  This means that viniyoga sequences are modifiable, which is not the case in many yoga styles.  As we know, the European population is ageing, and ageing brings with it certain changes such as connective tissue stiffness in post-menopausal women, overweight and obesity, problems with bone density, heart disease, sleep problems and a host of other concerns.  While yoga is not a magic pill, it certainly helps practitioners to feel better in their bodies, to sleep better, to accept more gracefully the changes associated with ageing, and to overcome loneliness.
Yes, what I say about loneliness is very important.  Yoga is fundamentally a solitary practice, a journey within.  But, in the West, the social aspect of yoga, the group work, is tremendously important.  If you join a yoga class, you will find like-minded people, and that sense of separation might be temporarily eased.  Loneliness is a big problem in Europe.  Yoga, quite apart from all the other physical benefits, can help overcome this pervasive sense of aloneness.
So, please come along to class and see what it’s all about.  You will be welcomed with open arms and a big smile.
Peace, namasté, Rachel

ReCipE tIme: Toasted Sunflower Seed Salad

Between the sunflower seeds and the sprouts, this salad is protein, vitamin and mineral feast!
Ingredients:  Escarole, rocket/rucula, misuni, beet greens, lamb’s lettuce, grated carrot, black olives, tamari toasted sunflower seeds*, sprouts:  alfalfa, radish, cress, green mung bean, brown lentil, raisins, balsamic vinegar, olive oil.

Toasted sunflower seed salad.
Toasted sunflower seed salad.

*Method for Tamari Toasted Sunflower Seeds: Heat a heavy pan (I use cast iron), then add seeds and let them sit, without stirring, until you hear one or two pop.  Then, reduce the heat and move the seeds gently around the pan until some of them are beginning to brown.  Don’t overheat or overcook as you will destroy vital nutrients.  Place the seeds, still warm, in a bowl and add tamari or soy sauce, stirring immediately.  Allow to cool, then sprinkle on your salad.  They are also lovely with brown rice and nori sprinkle, for a simple and nutricious evening meal.
Mix it all together and, voilá, baby!