Ask an Western Ashtangi how they got hooked on yoga and generally they will say it was ‘the physical exertion of the practice’, had it been the stillness of Iyengar or the mystic chanting of mantras and strange pranayamic breathing involved in Kundalini, they would have walked away saying it was stupid hippy shit.
For me however, it was quite the other way round, my first yoga class was a Kundallini one that my mother dragged me to in Clapham aged 15. I remembering finding the experience quite cathartic and very sublime, though when the teacher in her heavy Italian accent said ‘flex your anal sex organ’…I do recall having to hold back immense amounts of laughter. Perhaps explaining – in less graphic terms – where the region was and what the chakra was called, the purposing of doing so etc,..and asking us to hold the ‘Mula Bandha’ might have been more beneficial.
So, though a little perplexed by the whole experience it certainly did not put me off when it was suggested to have yoga lessons at school. Not one who has ever liked intense amounts of exercise, I used to relish the hour and half with Anne a tiny Iyengar teacher, though rather top heavy teacher – who always completely dumbfounded us how she would be able to contort herself into such poses when some of us could barely touch our toes and she in every other respect looked like someone’s Granny. There were 3 of us in the class so it is the nearest to one to one yoga I personally have ever experienced, and since it was Iyengar for 3 stressed out A-level students, it was basically an hour and half of completely relaxation a week without the horror of a drop of sweat.
During the breaks between exams I used to practise at a studio near our house in Putney, the classes I suppose where some form of derivative of Sivananda yoga, however, since I used to always take the 11 o’clock class, I soon discovered it was in fact the pregnancy yoga one. So not only did I quickly learn the modifications whilst pregnant, but also enjoyed another very chilled class that was a welcome distraction from my exams….
I should perhaps at this point note, that though I had an absolute aversion to perspiration and basically any anaerobic exercise, since I had done quite a lot of ballet when small I had remained quite flexible (probably a contributing factor to not ), though from a mix of riding with an ill fitting saddle and adolescence had developed terrible posture and a back problem…
My next yogic encounter and probably my most significant was during my gap year when myself and friends were turtle saving on the Island of Koh Phra Thong off the Burmise coast in Thailand. Danny Paradise, who was formerly Madonna’s Ashtanga teacher was doing a retreat there, and since we had meals together he in his chilled out Hawaiian tones invited us to ‘check it out’. This was my first experience of anything that had resulted in more than a blush in my cheeks, we had all seen Geri Halliwell’s ashtanga workout video…but actually doing all the sun salutations and vinyasas was extremely hard work and exhausting. As being like most girls not having much upper body strength at first it seemed to be endless and by surya namaskar B, I was always completely out of breath and very flustered. However, Danny is certainly one of the most encouraging and inspiring teachers, that I have so far on this journey encountered- who did the most fantastic adjustments putting one into binds that as an Ashtanga beginner I never thought possible.
So, with a mixture of the satisfaction of achieving what I thought perviously unattainable and intrigue into the philosophies that went in tangent with this, that seem to align so closely to things which my mother had been saying for years, self awareness, the importance of nourishment of one’s body and soul and not always being reliant on the mass pharmaceuticals so easily in supply in the West, but rather looking to within to heal one-selves really seemed to fascinate me. I also adored the fact we’d have the most enormous breakfasts, of fruits, yoghurts and pancakes afterwards.
Therefore, I continued on mainly doing lead classes mainly at the Life Centre and Triyoga- only once taking a Mysore class in Edinburgh where the teacher in the very traditionalistic view would only allow me to do an hour and half of Surya Namaskas in order for me to get Ujjayi breathing right – an experience so horrendous and repetitive that I vowed never to do Mysore again. I continued on this path of dabbling – going to a few classes a week with months at a time off due to the busy London lifestyle, colds etc,…Until three years ago when missing two steps to the bar in killer heels resulted in a broken foot on New Year day and crutches for 5 months.
Once finally on my feet again, I quickly discovered that in order to gain any sort of balance yoga and lots of physio were the only things that helped. Ironically being on crutches for so long was the only thing that built up enough upper body strength to do my suyra namaskas and all the vinyasas need in the primary series without dropping down in exhaustion.
Thus due to this unforeseen limitation in movement, and in particular, the fact that they had had to put a pin in, I resolved that I wouldn’t spend the following winter in England, but would go instead to India and learn more about the other aspects of yoga – not simply the asana. So in November 2009, I did my 200 hours Yoga Alliance at the Himalayan Yoga Valley School in Goa, unlike some, my aim was not to become a teacher but rather to learn about all eight parts which form Raja yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyama, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi) and to give me a stronger foundation; being a dynamic practise to prepare for Mysore….
Having vowed never to to do Mysore again, I gradually realised that in order to actually improve ones practise in the ashtanga series or in fact any yoga you need to practice 6 days a week, and that the best place to learn Mysore was Mysore, where it had been founded by Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois (his photo is in most yoga studios).
It wasn’t, however, until I was in Goa learning modifications, adjustments and aspects of hindu philosophy, that one of my teacher’s voiced the concern that unless I was very advanced on my primary series or in fact on series two I wouldn’t get much of a look in at the main shala as there are so many students, that the teachers tend to lean their focus towards the more advanced practioners, rather than improving the correct alignment of asanas in students developing in their practice. It was therefore suggested instead I try the shalas Sthalam 8, or Mandala Mysore.
The instruction at Mandala Mysore was fantastic, and the fact it offered drop in whilst you were deciding which 4-6 weeks courses you wanted to commit to whilst there was brilliant – this and the highly influencing factor that one of the drop-in options being at 3 pm rather than the conventional Mysore 6 am…Whilst there, I in my insanity, decided to undertake 6 week twice a day dynamic vinyasa, pranayama and back opening course with Vinay Kumar….the fact that the sun salutations are more similar to hatha in stepping/lunging back rather than the ashtanga and jiva jumping was a false sense of security and with each movement there was a bandha lock, meaning that you were absolutely exhausted, within 5 minutes in…so I was most relieved that after a week and half in to be struck with dreadful Mysore belly that wouldn’t go and have to make a hasty retreat home….
Since returning from my 5 month India experiment, I have tried when possible to get up for Ryan Spielmann’s Mysore at the Life Centre, however, having spent so long in India when you are made so aware of the importance of eating light, and sleeping early for the best practise this is pretty rare. I instead mainly try to go to Jivamukti with Stuart Gilchrist on Monday evenings at the Light Centre in Belgravia, and there after drop in to classes at the wonderful Jivamukti centre in Kensal Rise.
I am still doing Mysore once a week on Saturday’s with the fantastic Michaela Clarke – mainly because of her brilliant adjustments and the fact it starts at 8.15 rather than 6 am. I have moved more towards Jivamukti in the last year as I find it’s an all encompassing practice, I find that many of the drop in classes at other studios are now too easy, and all about the asana, where as Jiva incorporates mantras, and pranayama and also looks at reflection, and setting an intention in your practice. The asanas in Jivamukti are also much more directed toward the physical needs of women as though as intense as ashtanga which was incidentally devised as a distraction for novice monks to suppress their sexual energy, Jivamukti is much more about back openers, therefore holding a focus on emotion and your anahatha charka.
Finally, in consolation to anyone who has read the entirety of this and now thinks the only way to do yoga is 6 times a week, i would like to reassure them that all though this is always my intention I very rarely achieve this. And like the ideal 6 day a week practice there is all the underling veganism intertwined in yoga. It is argued that bar the many other environmental and moral reasons for not eating eggs and meat is because it makes your body more lean, and therefore the practice is made easier. I, however, follow the advice of my philosophy teacher Moorthy G in Goa who said that depending on the environment your in will, very much effects what your body requires to sustain itself and frankly, I find it too cold here, not to have the occasional shepherd’s pie and glass of red wine, where as in India it’s veggie all the way for fear of bugs and poisoning. To achieve my aim of doing yoga 6 times a week, I have started going on retreats a few times a year to really improve my practice, however, even then I am always thrilled to hear when it’s a Moon day (i.e a day off).
Personally, if there is anything I have learned in the last ten years of practice, it is to do the form of yoga that suits you, to meet your current needs in life, and to find a teacher that you like and inspires you. Years ago I once tried Bikram which I thought was horrible with all the heat and sweating and risk of over stretching. I really couldn’t understand the need for the external heat, which one can create with ujjai breath and vinyasa, however, since I am about to undertake a detox, I am thinking of including this once or twice a week for the next few months, to fully purify out the toxins.
Finally, I think Yoga London is the most fantastic forum, as it gives advice and directions in all aspects involved with Yoga, so in some respects avoids the trails and errors I had to go through to get to where I am currently.
I wish you all the happiness in the development of practice.