Since the start of Syria’s civil war, more than 11,000 children have been killed. Two million Syrian children are now refugees, forced from their homes by fighting, surviving in overstretched camps, cramped temporary accommodation or on the move.
On Sunday I was part of the team organising a charity workshop at Whitespace Yoga Studio in support of the work of Save The Children in Syria. So far the event has raised over £950. This will help Save The Children who has teams on the ground inside Syria right now delivering food, clean water and life-saving medicine to children who desperately need it. If you would like to read more about Save The Children’s work in Syria, there is information about the Syria Crisis Appeal on the Save The Children website.
If you would still like to donate, you can via JustGiving: https://www.justgiving.com/whitespace-studio
A huge thank you to the other teachers, all the wonderful people who donated and took part in the workshop, and to the people behind the scenes who made it possible. If you’d like, you can see more photos of the event on Whitespace’s Facebook page:
In November 2015, I was able to spend a weekend training with Kate Ellis on the Art of Teaching One-To-One organised by Whitespace Yoga Studio. Kate currently teaches on the triyoga Teacher Training and the Yoga Therapy Diploma course run by Yoga Campus.
Kate’s perspective is that teaching one-to-one is the traditional form of learning Yoga asana, and she describes how teaching one-to-one allows the teacher to follow the flow and energy of the student, be more student-led, individually attuned and focused — highlighting the relational aspect of the work and how rich the experience can be for both student and teacher. Although I expect Kate wouldn’t describe herself as a teacher of Ashtanga Yoga, for me her approach resonates strongly with how teaching is done within an Ashtanga Yoga assisted self-practice class, where teaching is one-to-one within a group setting. In Geraldine Beirne’s 2014 article in The Guardian, Geraldine writes:
[…] self-practice is the traditional way of practising ashtanga yoga and offers a highly personalised approach without the price tag attached to one-to-ones, and with all of the group energy of a conventional class. Here, you will be addressed by name, the teacher will know your practice inside out, and best of all, for me at least, this “class” is quiet – there’s very little talking and no new age music.
During the weekend with Kate, we worked through a range of poses in detail. Close attention was paid to what is it that we’re actually asking the human body to do when taking each pose, looking to simplify, and to develop patterns that can inform moving into more complex poses. A lot of the work was done in pairs, practising assessing the stability of the structure formed by the body, and working with some simple assists that support the student without taking them out of awareness or doing the work for them.
You can read more about Kate and her work at http://kateellisyoga.co.uk/, and there are more photos from the workshop on the Whitespace page on Facebook.
(Photographs from workshop © Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio 2015)
Names and numbers are important. The Sanskrit word ‘Ashtanga’ refers to the eight limbs or components of yoga described in The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. John Scott tells of Pattabhi Jois calling Ashtanga Yoga a ‘counted method’, and even the name ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ has a number in it!
The fourth limb is given as prāṇāyāma, which can be translated as the practice of breathing exercises. The building blocks of pranayama are puraka (inhalation), rechaka (exhalation) and kumbhaka (breath retention). John Scott teaches a pranayama technique of twelve exhalation-inhalation breaths and uses a counting technique based on the fingers of one hand, which is also described by T.K.V. Desikachar in his book The Heart of Yoga. The four fingers of a hand contain twelve bones, and the thumb can trace a spiral round from the base of the index finger to count each breath.
Counting, breathing, moving. The union of body, and breath, and mind into a single focus. Continuing this focus of the senses for a single full breath of unbroken concentration lasting twelve seconds. Repeating for twelve breaths, taking us to the edge of meditation. Then perhaps repeating this twelve times over, leading into total, perfect absorption. Stillness. Equanimity. All this bringing together the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga into a practice we can do anywhere.
In our November ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we practiced counting twelve breaths and looked at how this mindfulness can be carried into our practice.
The next ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class is on Saturday 12 December and there is regular Ashtanga self-practice and led-practice every Sunday.
At times, the discipline of a yoga practice can be a struggle. It’s easy to forget this in a world of rainbow-coloured unicorns and perfect handstands on Instagram. If a yoga practice is indeed ‘practicing for life’, practicing skills on the mat that we can take off the mat, then a yoga practice should at times be a struggle, it should require effort, it should be hard. How that struggle manifests itself for any individual will be different, we all have our own demons, but building a sustainable yoga practice gives the personal space in which to identify and confront those demons.
In our October ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we looked at sūtra 1.12 of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. This line begins a group of five sūtras that introduce the ‘how’ of a yoga practice. Two elements are identified: abhyāsa and vairāgya.
The Sanskrit word ‘abhyāsa’ is often translated to English as ‘practice’, and challenges us to cultivate a consistent practice over our entire life. An individual personal practice. One of persistent effort in our actions, our speech, our thoughts. A practice that leads to stillness, stability, tranquility, equanimity. One that builds positive patterns in our life, in good times and in bad, in times of struggle and in times of ease. Never give up.
This practice works together with ‘vairāgya’, meaning ‘non-attachment’. Letting go of aversions and fears, understanding the need to practice without attachment to the outcome. Seeing the negative patterns in our life, both the conscious and unconscious ones. Always let go.
We all have patterns in our lives, some we see clearly and others are deeply buried. Our unconscious mind, our automatic associations, attitudes and beliefs, influence what we perceive as conscious, rational decisions. These deep biases are the lenses through which our perceptions our filtered. The ‘IAT’ Implicit Association Tests developed by Harvard University measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable acknowledge conciously, such as biases on age, race, and gender.
The balance between practice and non-attachment given in sūtra 1.12 is sharply focused in an Ashtanga Yoga ‘led’ class, in which all the movements, the vinyasas, are counted out loud and everyone practicing follows along together. The effort of these classes is high, it’s easy to get too caught-up in the energy of the group, to lose ourselves in the practice and at the same time we’re challenged to let go of our own pace, let go of attachment to achieving a particular posture, a specific form. Find the balance.
The next ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class is on Saturday 14 November and there is regular Ashtanga self-practice and led-practice every Sunday.
When I first started practicing yoga asana, in standing forward bends I couldn’t touch the floor. Sometimes it still feels like I can’t move forward at all. However, when I look back, things have changed. It just takes a little time.
In Sanskrit, the seated forward bend practiced in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series is named paścimottānāsana. A literal translation to English of ‘paścima’ is west or back of the body. If I am standing facing the sunrise in the morning, then the front of my body is facing east and the back of my body is facing west, and so this forward fold that stretches the back of the body is the ‘western stretch’. This name doesn’t mention folding forwards, it’s all about the back of the body. I believe that’s helpful, to get inside forward bends we need to look at the entire back of the body, from head to toe.
There is a direct connective tissue relationship from the bottom of our feet to the top of our head. You can feel this in the body. One example is if you sit on the floor with your legs directly out in front, point your feet away from the shins, and then flex your feet with your toes towards the shins. Notice the changes in sensation down the back of the calves, knees, thighs and maybe even up into the seat and lower back.
In our September ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we looked at the anatomy and techniques involved in safe and effective forward folding. Exploring an understanding of the anatomy and having an intention in forward folding of more than just bending at the middle of the body.
Within the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series there is a lot of forward bending. The second vinyasa movement of the practice is a standing forward fold and this is just the beginning. Asana by asana the intensity and emphasis of the forward folding develops through the Primary Series, allowing us to explore the sensation of asking the back of our body to stretch in different ways: with different relationships to gravity and to the floor, different foundations, different use of the feet, the arms and shoulders, different rotations of the hip joint, different relationships of the femur into the pelvis, sometimes with symmetry and sometimes asymmetry. This also highlights how the relationship between postures is not always consecutive with standing postures early in the practice having a relationship with seated postures much later on.
The next ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class is on Saturday 10 October and there is regular Ashtanga self-practice and led-practice every Sunday.