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.


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.

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.

Yoga teaches to listen to my body

Yoga teaches me that the body has needs, wants and desires.  These are communicated to the mind through pain, pleasure and longing.
Yoga teaches me that male and female – and everything in between – practitioners can come to respect the needs and signals of their bodies, overcoming the dominance of the mind.
Yoga teaches me that until we come to yog, we are necessarily involved in a submissive or dominant mind-body relationship.  When the mind commands the body to move-make-do-act constantly, incessantly, the body is obliged to do so, until it collapses in a foetal heap in need of sleep.  Sometimes, the abuse is so severe that the body rebels completely and starts to run the show.  But, the body does so through a passive-aggressive kind of submission.  “Oh, how I ache, it cries, I cannot wake I cannot sleep.  Help me!”
Does the mind listen?  Maybe, maybe not.  I suspect that quantities of pain killers are usually consumed before any listening begins.
Yoga teaches me that the dominant mind will first chastise the body, bending it to its will.  The body will oblige, but again, only for so long.
Yoga teaches me that true yoga begins to happen when the mind and body listen to one another, establish a mutually co-operative, symbiotic relationship.  Like a settled old couple, the mind asks for booze, the liver says perhaps not, the mind concurs, then perhaps has a small nip before bed, and the body happily settles into a comfortable sleep.  Or the body asks for magnesium, the mind is listening attentively and selects appropriate foods, the body is satisfied and the cravings cease.
Yoga teaches me that this is possible.  Yoga relies on an ancient body of knowledge in which a reproducible formula for self-realisation is laid out.  I have trod this path for 16 years.  I have lived these changes. I would not bother to blog about things I did not experience myself.
Yoga teaches me that we can heal the mind-body relationship.  Abhyasa-vairagya, discipline and detachment.  Yoga teaches me to keep at it.

Bonds, not things.

Yoga teaches me that the process of purification – tapas – is necessary and useful.  Yoga teaches me that the time for tapas arrives just when it should. Yoga teaches me to recognise the disordered perceptions handed down by our families and to modify them as needed.  My parents were both hoarders.  Not hard to justify if you grew up in Depression-era Toronto or WW2-time Leeds, as they did.  In the age of plenty, collections of yogurt pots and old socks are unnecessary. Yoga teaches me to discern between detachment and spurning.  I have spent the past year emptying my closets of clothes, books, cables, tat and trash.  The end result is a spectacular spaciousness where once there was clutter.  The elation at seeing emptiness outstrips the flea market triumph of the find that brought most of this stuff into my life.   Yoga teaches me that I could have ejected these things from my life much earlier, but the process would have been aggressive and unconscious.  I could have become angry at the clutter – this has happened – and rid myself of things that are useful or treasured.  Instead, I found myself one day in a place where I truly appreciated the things, gave them thanks, even embraced them, then happily let them leave my life.  It is a nice, comfortable process. Yoga teaches me that the space we empty of things can fill with other things, but they are not likely to be material.  We moved to a larger house in order to have more space for, well, everything.  Hobbies, art material, instruments, cooking implements.  But the only space that love needs is a corner in the heart.  The heart is infinitely big, its capacity untested in most cases. I don’t need a bigger house to house more things.  I need a bigger heart to hold more people, to make the bonds that tie stronger and stretchier.  But, caution, with detachment.  I hold you in my heart, but I never aim to own you. Yoga teaches me to lighten my home and open my heart.  Yoga teaches me, patiently and carefully, that our wholeness is something felt from deep within.

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.

Yoga teaches me that arm balances improve shoulder alignment

Thoracic outlet syndrome.  TMJ.  Frozen shoulder.  Tingling fingers.  All these conditions, and many more, have to do with the shoulder joint.  Yoga teaches me that using arm balances helps bring the shoulder joint into alignment. There is a group of muscles known as the rotator cuff.  Put simply, these muscles stabilise the shoulder.  They are usually pretty weak.  Modern life doesn’t encourage us to develop them.  Most people can’t even detect the rotator cuff muscles, when prompted. Arm balances can be symmetric or asymmetric postures.  Symmetric postures, like plank or downward dog, or handstand are more easily maintained because it’s easier to balance.  Beware bad habits, like rotating the shoulders upwards and inwards, hyperextending the shoulder and/or elbow joints.  The feeling I seek is like rolling the arms down and inwards from beneath the armpits.  If you aren’t feeling that, you are not engaging the rotator cuff.  Yoga teaches me to ignore the rotator cuff at my peril.  I will only get neck ache and head ache. Asymmetric arm balances are harder, but as with all asymmetric postures, they teach me about imbalances between the two hemispheres of my body.  Yoga teaches me to ask why I balance better on my right arm than my left?  Why do I rotate more on the left than the right?  Why does one shoulder click and the other lock or hurt.  I watch my imbalances, keep practising, and over time they correct.  Or they are less pronounced. Yoga teaches me to love my body anyway, just cuz. My osteopath adjusts my diaphragm, pericardium and hyoid and reminds me that seeking help is good.  When the yoga gets deep, things shift around.  Professionals are there to help keep us aligned and to reflect back at us what we are projecting.  I tend to overwork spinal extensions.  My osteopath reminds me that this tends to put my T10-T12 out of alignment.  So, I hold back.  Yoga teaches me to listen to the opinions of others, to let go of my egotistical all-knowing and to surrender. Yoga suggests to me that when I finally align my shoulders, my heart will feel freer.  All I want to do in this world is learn to love.  My armour comes off piece by piece.  Yoga teaches me not to fear my nakedness.