Cat, teeth, car

Some days everything seems to go awry. But somehow in the chaos we are shifted out of the status quo and our daily habits. For a while we experience life afresh. New patterns are formed. Received wisdom is questioned.

Take yesterday. A fairly ordinary working day except I had a dentist appointment in the afternoon. The morning proceeded more or less as planned. I had fewer students in my yoga classes but that was accounted for. It is summer after all and people need a break.

Things started to go awry just as I was leaving the morning classes. As I turned out onto the main road from the teaching venue I nearly ran over a tabby cat. I was going at the statutory 30 miles an hour maybe less. A blur of grey and black fur dashed just in front of my wheels and a red collar was the echoing memory. No swerving yet I was observant enough to know I was within inches of inadvertently killing a beloved pet. Running over a pet cat would have crucified my day. But no, I was let off that drama. The cat lived another of its nine lives.

Nearing home I crossed the mini roundabout in a slightly skewed fashion and hit the curb on the other side (rare event!) but continued on relatively unscathed except for my driving pride. Just a little bump. My steering was not as steady as usual my intuition sensed but my rational mind thought no more about it. My stomach was calling for lunch. Body wins over mind.

Salad lunch alfresco with my partner and cat was a pleasant interlude before facing the dentist’s chair. I allowed myself to fully enjoy the present moment to allay the fears of the future encounter with the dentist. Then to the bathroom to diligently circle the electronic toothbrush from tooth to tooth easing out any green flotsam. Funny how obsessively we can clean our teeth if we know they are going to be inspected. Being such a hot day I also had a shower so I could grace the dentist with a pristine presence!

At 2pm with plenty of time to spare, as I hate being late for anything especially appointments and meetings, I got into the car and backed out of the driveway. Thud. Thud. Thud. What the XYZ was that! My partner stuck his head out of the study window and pointed at a car tyre. Dead flat front passenger tyre. What the XYZ am I going to do now?

All yogic calm disappeared for a fraction of a second. Scenarios ran through my head. Can’t get to the dentist. Oh no. Can’t teach tonight. Call the breakdown company. They take an age. But the dentist is waiting … . Present moment awareness kicks in suddenly. Strategic scheming. Partner can give me a lift. At that moment he came out and offered me said lift. Initial issue resolved.

Dentist’s chair. No anaesthetic. Routine cleaning job but boy was it uncomfortable until I let my mind wander over what I was going to do when I left the dentist. I tuned out of the present moment and was in future planning mode. It was only later that I reflected on my yogic training about being in the present moment. In the dentist’s chair the last place I wanted to be was the present moment focussing on every minute stimulus of my gums being poked! My mind was better off in the past or future. What a revelation! It made me think about the importance of questioning received wisdom. Always be in the present moment? Bullshit! What am I missing here? That’s for some guru to explain to me in minimalist language.

Something had shifted in my mind. A questioning.

I had to wait at a bus stop to get home from the dentist’s. It had been years since I had waited at a bus stop. So used to driving a car. There had been a time in my youth where I was anti cars and only took public transport in three different cities – London, Milan and Rome. All great fun and here I was, several decades later, having to use my initiative on the public transport and feeling all at a loss.

Found a bus stop. No good. Destination not featured. Continued to next bus stop. A whole range of buses. Chose the bus I thought was right but realised later, when the bus didn’t materialise at the allotted time, that it only ran at the weekend. Re-scanned the timetables and a few minutes later I was sure I had the right bus. 310 seemed to be the most frequent and had an abbreviation next to it which meant ‘school’. And wonders of wonders it happened to be coming imminently and if I missed that there were several close on its tail. Jackpot! Three in a row.

On a bus. Surprised at the price of £4 for single trip destination. But then I am behind the times and prices have inflated greatly. Up to the top deck. Wandering round the countryside it would seem. At first I felt annoyed then relaxed into the present moment. Marvellous. I get a chance to look inside people’s gardens and houses from the top deck. Wow! This is fabulous. I am seeing these towns and villages from a new angle and perspective. Time has slowed down. I am not focussing on driving. I can observe the countryside and the gardens and neighbourhoods from on high. Time has definitely slowed down. I would have been so lulled into the present moment but an urgency gripped my mind that I needed to get that flat tyre sorted and that meant contacting the breakdown company (which will remain nameless but they are wonderful and over the last few years have helped me and my old car out of many a scrape). FLASH. BING. What kind of a present moment was I in now?

Was I in the present moment of the lulling quality of a bus meandering from town to village to town? Ot was I in the present moment of the emergency of getting a tyre fixed so I could teach another yoga class in the evening?

What does living in the present moment actually mean?

Unpacking ‘OM’ glyph

‘OM’ is the sacred sound of Yoga. It can be found in many Sanskrit chants and is ubiquitous in the yoga world. The symbol or glyph of “OM’ can be found on clothing, mats, books, etc. But what does it mean?

The qlyph of OM is pregnant with meaning and is linked to the idea of the Higher Self. It represents the idea of ultimate reality. The sound is actually A-U-M or AUM.

The first curve – A of A-U-M – represents the conscious waking state.

The squiggle in the middle – the U of A-U-M – represents the subconscious dream state.

The lower curve – M of A-U-M – represents the unconscious non-dream state.

The upper curve in the glyph facing upwards represents the interface between the finite world and infinity.

The dot at the top called the bindu (meaning dot in Sanskrit) represents the point at which creation begins and is known as the symbol of the cosmos in its unmanifested state.

All of these states of OM are stages on the way to self-realisation¹ which is what the practice of yoga is ultimately about.

There is so much more to this glyph. For further information see reference below.

Footnote:

¹Self-realisation means fulfilment of one’s own potential. Yoga is known to be the science or art of integrating body, senses, mind and spirit to the Self thus reaching self-realisation.

Reference:

Nishchalananda Saraswati, Swami (2006), The Edge of Infinity, Collected Works, MANDALA YOGA ASHRAM, WALES pp204-207

Ashtanga yoga jumps

Reinvigorating my practice of Ashtanga Yoga I realise how I have lost the ability to fly. During the years of static posture work I have lost my mojo!

I started practising the style of Ashtanga Yoga about twenty years ago. Ashtanga is a dynamic style of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras, but Ashtanga Yoga is the name of this particular school of yoga. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

All those years ago I managed to practice the Primary series relatively well but then I signed up for a yoga teacher training course and found that the style I was to teach was actually termed ‘Hatha yoga’ which meant a more static form of yoga than Ashtanga. My own practice then became a mixture of Hatha and the Iyengar style and I dropped the vinyasa style. (In fact all yoga styles that include physical postures come under the ‘hatha’ label which often confuses folk taking up ‘hatha’ yoga).

It is now some 15 years later that I am returning to the discipline of Ashtanga. I am somewhat older. Despite my continuous ‘hatha’ yoga practice I am not so fluid in practising the dynamic sequences of Ashtanga as I was. One thing I have particularly found on return to Ashtanga practice is that I have forgotten how to fly.

In Ashtanga at certain points in the vinyasa the practitioner transitions from one posture to another by jumping. This has come to be known as flying in Ashtanga yoga if you do it well.

David Swenson, in his book: ‘Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual – An illustrated guide to Personal Practice’ has a section on ‘Applying the Physics of Flight’. So for example if a practitioner is transitioning from the yogic posture of down dog to the sitting stick pose the idea is to jump the legs up and then bring them smoothly down between your arms and buttocks on the floor. This seems to require jumping the feet off the floor so you are almost in a half hand stand. But actually it is more complicated than that.

David Swenson’s advice is to follow a set of four rules for applying the physics of flight as summarised below:

To jump from down dog and bring the legs through to dandasana.

  1. Engaging the lower bhandhasMulabhanda and Uddiyana Bhanda
  2. Lift the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘your landing gear’) up towards the ceiling
  3. Lead the jump with the hips not the feet
  4. Imagine the ceiling is high and aim for it with the hips.
  5. Drop the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘landing gear’) when landing.

So I am now to be seen in my yoga hut hands on the floor, buttocks in the air, hips jumping up and down towards the ceiling pulling in my perineum so my hips can get as high as possible. That is all very well but I am no longer light enough to float my legs through my arms so in an ungainly manner I readjust myself so that I am sitting on my buttocks with both my legs straight out in front of me! Oh how I long to be able to fly up with the legs and float through again as I used to do in my younger body. At the moment I can only imagine that happening. But the great thing about yoga is that if you give the mind a posture to mull over in all its intricacy it does somehow send a message to the body that this may be possible in the future. And of course endless practice helps too!

‘99% Practice ~ 1% Theory’!

K. Pattabhi Jois (quoted in Swenson 1999 p.249)
Flying © Sanandi-jacq

Bibliography

Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary).

Swenson, David. (1999. Ninth Printing 2004) Ashtanga Yoga. the Practice Manual. An Illustrated Guide to Personal Practice. Ashtanga Yoga Productions. pp.60-65

Footnote

¹ Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace

Integration of yoga postures

One of the main goals of yoga is to relax body and mind so that the individual can touch the still point within – the point of inner intuition.

At the end of the physical practice of yoga the posture of savasana (literally corpse pose) is fundamental to integrating the physical and mental changes that have occurred as the result of practice. This pose held for about 10 minutes minimum allows the body to rebalance and the mind and spirit to relax. Anyone who leaves a yoga class before the relaxation is missing a vitally important section of the class.

It is also true to say that any type of strenuous physical practice such as walking, swimming, running or cycling can also bring us to a point of great physical relaxation so that the mind and spirit have a chance to relax completely and enjoy ‘what is’. After seven days of walking 15 miles a day on the Camino Francés to Santiago there came a point where the body was so gloriously fatigued. I lay down in savasana on the allotted Albergue bunk bed and felt a deep sense of relaxation and lightness of being.

In yoga it is not only the corpse pose that aids integration of the physical postures but also the practice of meditation. Simply sitting quietly with the eyes closed and focussing on the breath after a hatha yoga session can over time draw the individual to the ‘still point’ within.

Photo and painting: Sanandi-jacq

Yoga yoking to the whole

Each person is unique yet we belong to the whole of humanity much like individual pebbles belong to the beach. Pebbles are shaped by the action of the sea as we are shaped by the action of life’s currents of conditioning.

No two pebbles are exactly the same. Each pebble has its unique history, shape, colour and provenance. Each pebble has a right to be on the beach. Each pebble contributes to the beach.

Yoga in Sanskrit means ‘to yoke’ or ‘union’. Practising yoga brings a sense of wholeness with oneself and connection with all that is.

Pebbles on a Dorset beach – each one unique Photo credit: © Sanandi-jacq

Yoga joint-freeing series

Yoga is for everyone whatever age group. The secret is in modifying the postures according to the needs of the body. In yoga there is a series of movements called the joint-freeing series or Pawanmuktasana Part 1. This series can be performed at any age.

The joint-freeing series starts with wiggling the toes and finishes with gentle neck movements. Performing simple movements of the joints regularly helps to keep the synovial fluid healthy. In this blog I will concentrate only on the feet to get you started.

The secret is to perform the movements with awareness and intention. By bringing your awareness to the body part you are moving and having the intention to keep the joint well you are training the body to respond to positive thought. Moving the joint in conjunction with the breath aids in focusing the mind on the joint. Regular practice, i.e. everyday particularly in the early morning before or after rising, is recommended to get the body into a habit of healing.

Stop what you are doing now. Take off your shoes and socks/stockings and look at your feet and toes. People often don’t like their feet but for today admire the miracle of your feet. Become aware of all the joints in the toes.

Now begin to curl the toes. Then straighten them noticing what is happening as you do so. If you want to go further add in the breath. As you curl the toes breath out. As you straighten the toes breath in. Repeat the exercise 6-10 times on each foot. If you are short of time you can wiggle both sets of toes at the same time. But it is better to be focussed on one foot at at time as our feet are often different. Pause and notice how your toes feel.

If you should perform this exercise everyday you may find that your toes become so flexible that if you took up a paint brush you could paint with your feet! Some people find that their toes may get a little stuck – there may be a toe that doesn’t move much and so on. The secret is not to judge your own body but to be patient with practice and see if anything changes over time.

Once you have started wiggling your toes you will want to move the other joints in your body. So staying with the feet and starting with your right foot point your toes towards the floor then flex your foot. Do this 6-10 times. Then do the same on the left. As you do so bring your awareness to what is happening in the lower leg – you may find that muscles are moving in the calves. Is anything else happening that you are aware of? Enquire of your body how it is responding to the movements.

Then for the final foot exercise circle the right ankle 6-10 times in a clockwise direction then 6-10 times in an anticlockwise direction. You can use the breath to slow down the movements. Half a circle breath in and half breath out. Then do the same on the left. Be aware of how each ankle feels as you circle it. Maybe the joint clicks as it releases. Don’t worry about these sounds. It usually means that the joint is releasing. Notice if there is a difference between one ankle and the other. Bring your awareness to what is happening in the lower legs. Does circling your ankles affect more than just the ankles?

The joint-freeing series covers all the joints of the body (except the spine) and if performed with awareness and a sense of enquiry into the workings of your own body can have a beneficial effect on the joints, the muscles and fascia around the joints and your sense of well-being. As with all exercise regular and consistent practice is necessary to really appreciate the benefits.

SELF-PRACTICE: When you wake up tomorrow morning before getting out of bed focus on your toes, feet and ankles. Notice how each part feels without judgement. Then begin the three exercises outlined above in the following order. It is more beneficial to focus on one foot at a time. However, if time is an issue exercising both feet at the same time is fine. Do this for the next 30 days and see if there is any change in how your toes, feet and ankles feel.

1) Toe-wiggling

2) Pointing and flexing the feet

3) Circling the ankles clockwise and anti-clockwise.

MORE EXERCISES FROM THE JOINT-FREEING SERIES TO FOLLOW.

Looking after the joints of the feet. Photo credit: © Sanandi-jacq

Reference:

Satyananda, Saraswati, Swami (1996, reprint 2005) Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha, Yoga Publications Trust, Mungar, Bihar, India pp.23-27 Section on Pawanmuktasana Part 1 series – toes, feet, ankles.

Our daily yogic breath

Daily sitting focussing on the breath brings the mind to a calmer place. Less swirling of random thoughts. Less room for the inner critic. More room for awareness. More spaciousness and peace.

Twenty minutes regular practice in two sessions – one in the morning and one in the evening – eases stress and anxiety in everyday life.

Meditation on the breath has the added benefit of making the mind more creative when off the mat. Well worth the time.

Dropping conditioned masks

Throughout life we gain masks of conditioning. Deep yoga practice enables us to slowly peel back the layers of that conditioning until we reveal the true self within. It is not so easy to drop the many masks that provide our sense of armour as we move through the world. As the masks drop an inner vulnerability reveals itself. Yet, this vulnerability is our strength. Once we begin to know who we really are, we see life differently.

Cryptic? Yes, it feels this way until we begin to practice the 8-fold path of yoga and start to shed what doesn’t belong to us and what we don’t need. Then there is a sense of liberation.