Tag Archives: ashtanga

Yoga and human development weekend retreats in Europe, summer 2014

Come and join me for one of four refreshing weekend retreats this summer in Europe!

imageInspired by the popular retreats in Auroville, South India, I’ll be facilitating three human development retreats in three places in Europe that are close to my heart.

I’m also super excited about co-facilitating a yoga coaching retreat weekend in London with the wonderful Laura Graham Dullaert (12-13th July, see more info below).

Through coaching, we distinguish our inner leader and saboteur voice, connect with our life purpose, and discover where we store our emotions in our body. Listening for the answers within, we create more awareness in our body, mind and soul, and how they’re connected.

The retreat will give you coaching tools so you can start using your listening capacity and intuition both with yourself and others. We’ll tune into that life affirming fulfillment energy so you can unlock your full potential. You’ll come away feeling refreshed and empowered.

Each retreat we’ll draw upon the beauty of the natural environment.

In the Provence, there’s the lavender fields and the gentle June sun. In the Cotswolds, there’s the ancient English forest and village life. In Amsterdam North, there’s the water, the boats and the harbour looking out over the busy city life from a distance.

Get in touch with me to reserve your place!

The lavender retreat, 28-29th June

image Bonnieux, Provence, France (1hr drive from Marseille airport) Explore your full potential in the fresh early summer in the Luberon. Sample the air filled with herbs, lavender and the gentle June sun. For more info, click here.


The green retreat, 19-20th July

imageLower Slaughter, Cotswolds, UK (1.5hr train drive from London Paddington) Retreat into the green forests and English village life. Rejuvenate and explore in a beautiful garden home. Register by 7th June to qualify for the early bird fee! For more info, click here.

The water retreat 16-17th August 

imageAmsterdam North, the Netherlands (location tbc, 30 min cycle ride from Amsterdam Central station) Jump on the ferry away from busy Amsterdam town and take in the quiet harbour perspective. See the sun or rain drops play with the water. Register by 19th July to qualify for the early bird fee!

Yoga and coaching retreat, 12-13th July

imageSynchronicity yoga studio, Clapham, London SW9 Join Laura and Julie for an urban retreat to build awareness in your body, mind and soul through yoga and coaching.

Laura and I have been working together for the past 10 months on fusing yoga and coaching. We’re super excited to share our learning with you on three key themes: listening, intuition and balance.

imageYoga and coaching invite you to listen to the conversations going on between your mind, body and soul. You learn to recognise the different voices and to find your own path, in your life and on the mat.

You start to become familiar with the voice of your intuition and how to use it to enhance your well being and your relationship with others. You learn to look after yourself, to trust yourself to create the yoga practice that you need.

Balancing the need for discipline that a daily practice requires, with adapting it according to your needs is the key to a sustainable, injury-free and joyful yoga. This integrity is exactly what we’re looking to achieve in life. We want to make empowered decisions which are in line with our values, instead of following what our circumstances dictate.

Check out Laura’s website to see the amazing teacher she is, making ashtanga yoga accessible, sustainable and a lot of fun! For more info, click here.
Register by 31st May to qualify for early bird fee.


Yoga at Mysore, or how to stretch your way to heaven

mysore palaceThe last two months I’ve spent studying yoga asana, pranayama, philosophy and sanskrit at Mandala Yoga Shala in Lakshmipuram, Mysore. Mysore is a proud heritage city dominated by the Maharaja’s palace where Krishnamacharya, the ‘father of modern yoga’, used to teach. Lakshmipuram is a leafy neighbourhood full of mansions from the Maharaja’s time. Walking the quiet streets, here and there you’ll spot little yoga shalas started by (students of) students of Krishnamacharya. They mostly teach non-Indians who are keen to sample the traditional Mysore style of Ashtanga yoga.

Lakshmipuram street viewSo among the kurtas, cows and coconuts, you’ll spot one or two foreigners carrying yoga mats. They come from Europe, America, Asia and they live across the neighbourhood in rooms and apartments rented out by Indian families. They hang out in a couple of places and talk about adjustments, anatomy, pranayama, healthy food, ayurveda. Some live here, many come back every year.

PadmasanaThere’s also the K. Patthabi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Gokulam, the Beverly Hills of Mysore where Patthabi Jois moved his shala after the one in Lakshmipuram became too small. The ‘main shala’ is considered something of a fad by the cool Lakshmipuram crowd. Why spend so much money for maybe one adjustment a day if you’re lucky? Those in the early slot have to get up in the middle of the night to secure a space; if you don’t, you can practice in the changing rooms. I’ve heard nothing beats the energy at the main shala, but not everyone appreciates the business empire that Sharath has built. He is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and together with B.K.S. Iyengar the most famous of Krishnamacharya’s pupils.

So we’re good here in Lakshmipuram. The classes are small, the teachers genuine and the people dedicated to this intense physical style of yoga. My Taiwanese classmate moans and groans as my teacher lifts up his leg to almost 180 degrees in a standing balance pose (utthita hasta padangustasana, see picture). The corrections are pretty severe so you have to listen to your body and tell your teacher when to stop, else you risk straining a muscle. Everyone seems to get injured at some point and there’s a lot of talk about the yama principle of ahimsa, non-violence, against yourself as well as others. Ashtanga practitioners can be fiery people with a competitive edge so it’s important to stay with your own body’s pace and not want to advance too quickly.

TrikonasanaI’ve been very careful not to injure myself because to me this is the opposite of why we do yoga – for spiritual growth, for meditation in movement, for being present in your body, breathing and purifying it for 2 hours every day. And yet, it also happened to me. I was working very hard on extending my hamstrings, which in London had seemed impossible. I had become used to bending my knees a little in all forward bends and focusing on opening the hips. Instead, on the very first day here my teacher told me after a few asanas that he’d seen enough. We were going to start from scratch. We were going to lengthen my hamstrings and I wasn’t to bend my legs in any posture. As long as my hamstrings stretched no further, we wouldn’t go beyond sun salutations and standing postures, only a quarter of my normal practice. Ouch. That hurt my ego, but at the same time – wasn’t this a unique opportunity to allow my body to really open up, now that I finally had all the time in the world? Why rush ahead when the whole point is to take life as it comes? If my body has stored up years of office work and stress and cycling and running, then why not now take the time to purify it?

UpavishtakonasanaSo I did, and it hurt massively. My teacher told me to persevere, not to mind others who were going ahead much faster through the sequence, and to breathe through the pain – after all this is what is called ‘good pain’ in Mysore. ‘Bad pain’ is when knees or other ligaments hurt; ‘good pain’ is when muscles scream ‘stop torturing me’. I didn’t stop, I kept breathing and discovered another benefit of the practice. You learn to stay calm and keep breathing under tough circumstances. It makes a difference.

So after a month of painful practice, I suddenly felt a lengthening. When I walked my strides seemed longer, my feet more extended and my hips were turning backwards more. I could now hold my leg straight in most poses and even clasp my hand around my wrist and put my chin on my knee in seated forward bends. Well, for a couple of days, until my teacher pushed me forward a little more, and I didn’t tell him to stop and my right hamstring was stretched just a little too much. Ouch.

Eka pada sirsasana‘Don’t worry, this is normal, just take some pain killers and keep practicing.’ I decided not to be upset with myself, for after all, I’d taken all the care in the world to avoid an injury, and yet, there it was, it seemed inevitable. And I know how much I learnt from previous injuries about how to heal the body and the effect of asanas on different parts of your body. So I went practicing again the next day, testing which poses I could and couldn’t do. I just kept breathing and maintained a gentle practice. Until I hit Janusirsasana A, when my body suddenly remembered that this was the pose in which it all happened, and wham, I couldn’t stop crying. My muscles screamed, ‘How could you have done this to us??’ But the led class went on, and amazingly, in Janusirsana B and C, I was all fine again. It was as if my body had retained the memory of the injury and then had let go. Of course it was still painful, but bearable and not emotional.

I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the daily Ashtanga practice – the continuous cleansing makes one not only very sensitised to the needs of all parts of your body, but also able to flow through life much easier. After a meditation in movement, things don’t stick so much and we rest in the more stable rhythm of the universe. Every day we feel different in our body, but whether we’re ecstatic or sad, the breathing and focus wash out any extremes. Fewer emotions hook themselves in your body. We get a glimpse of the peacefulness and bliss beyond Maya, our perceived reality of form. This is Brahman, the land of Samadhi, where the ego is dissolved in flames and objective truth shines its formless glory.

All yoga pictures are by Christine Love-Hewitt. Check out her site http://www.yogicphotos.com so you can book your own photo shoot at Mysore!

Take off

So the adventure has started. I’m on a 7-month sabbatical in India to do yoga, to write another novel, to do nothing, to see where life takes me and to enjoy. Not sure about the order.

On last year’s trip to Thailand, I discovered the benefits of yoga almost as a side effect to writing my first novel. I had told friends, family and colleagues that I’d write that book, and so I would. Meanwhile on lush tropical islands I learnt much more than I anticipated about letting go, love and life. So much so that the ending of my book was changing real time.

Now I feel quite different and one of the main reasons for taking more time off is to explore what happens when you let things happen to you. Instead of organising life, why not flow with what the moment offers? If you like it, you go, if it doesn’t feel right, you stay. You can go in the general direction of your intentions and wishes, but be mindful of alternative suggestions that come your way. It would be a shame to miss out.

Since it’s my wish to study the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga, I decided to start this adventure in Mysore, Karnataka, India. This is the city where Pattabhi Jois, who brought Ashtanga yoga to the West, used to teach before his death in 2009. For the past nine months, I’ve been doing self practice ashtanga (Mysore style) at Stillpoint Yoga London (a wonderful family of lovely people). I love starting the day with a 90-minute mind-body-soul purification. In my experience, a regular practice cultivates awareness, stillness and a profound sense of ease, grace if you like.

It means that it becomes easier to be present, kind and loving in the moment, and be attuned to what your heart, or intuition, tells you about what is happening. Life becomes lighter because unnecessary worries about the future drop away. Should I stay or should I go, is a question that you can trust yourself to answer more truthfully. If you stay, new opportunities materialise, others close down. And if you go? Same thing, just different!

To ‘follow the flow’, or to use another yoga favourite, to ‘open your heart’, you’ve got to know it first. That’s not that easy, especially when educated in a system that favours rational thinking. Yoga – asana, pranayama, meditation etc – helps you unpeel the layers covering the heart so you can give more freely without expecting one-on-one returns. The beauty is that you’ll receive returns in spades, or other unexpected shapes that you may have never noticed before.

So let’s see what happens over the coming months now that I’ve created the opportunity to flow and learn. I don’t plan to practice at Patthabi Jois’ studio because ashtanga yoga can get a little competitive, and its birth place is likely to attract the alpha male variety of the yogi bear. I do want to write about these crazy yoga cities full of Westerners seeking enlightenment while creating new social hierarchies based on how long one can stand on one leg. I intend to blog and do research for the new book. And to enjoy myself. Inshallah!

P.s. needless to say, I don’t think that yoga will magically turn all the world’s problems into pink bunnies. I do think it’s one of the ways that can make people feel more comfortable in their own skin.

Big city yoga

Yoga is a booming market, especially in big cities in the West. In the US, it grew by 87% from 2004 to 2008 – about 16 million yoga practitioners spent $5.7 billion on yoga stuff. Not all of you may be familiar with exotically named postured such as ‘Dog with the head down’, or ‘Adho Mukha Svanasana’ (see picture). It’s a staple posture in two of the most popular yoga forms in the West, Ashtanga and Iyengar, which are variations on Hatha yoga, one of the eight classical yoga strands developed in India from about 200BC onwards. If you think yoga is all about middle-aged female slowness, or that it’d be funny to bark when doing the dog postures (true story), then think twice.

Yoga is very popular with the fast-moving urban types, who practice Ashtanga, Madonna’s power yoga, because it means twisting yourself very rapidly into a flow of stretching postures. The flow is strung together by at least 50 Vinyasas, or sun salutations slash sun push ups (see picture). For the fastest-moving, hyper competitive city types, aka strategy consultants and bankers, this is not enough. They really enjoy doing the same flow, but then at 40 degrees Celsius in a closed carpeted room. Apparently, Bikram yoga leaves you so high that it’s addictive.

Yet traditionally yoga is non-competitive. Many Western teachers, however, forget that the aim is to reach into the posture as far as your body allows. So in the West’s bastardised version, yoga is often practiced in gyms. Trying to find a yoga studio near my new flat, I came across some quite bizarre ones. Like the very crowded one with mirrors where a middle-aged Essex guy kept shouting: ‘C’mon guys, I’m seeing some wonderful postures here! C’mon guys, work it! Work it!’ Or the ‘advanced’ one where a Chinese acrobat was training a group of hyper-flexible dancers doing headstands instead of Vinyasas. The acrobat ignored my best efforts.

So I settled for my current teacher who is a bit more subtle. At the end of the practice, everyone queues up to pay, and he hands out compliments in return. To some people (like me) he just says nothing. For the record, I’m a very motivated student, it’s just that my legs are not so flexible due to too much cycling and running…But I love the stillness that envelops your body and mind gradually throughout the practice. Afterwards, I feel cleansed, pure and radiant. It’s a rare feeling of pure concentration, of body and mind focused on two simple things: to breathe and to move.