Astanga Yoga London

5th of July 2020
05th July 2020

Today is not only Full Moon but also Guru Purnima. Purnima means full moon and each full moon in the Indian calendar has a name. Guru here refers to Jupiter.  Guru has many meanings. Obviously the most familiar is teacher or spiritual guide. It also means heavy as in their words have deep meaning. And also Gu means darkness or ignorance and ru means light or leading away from. But guru also is used in Sanskrit to describe part of a meter of a phrase. So if we looked at the first line in the Bhagavad Gita written in anushtubh/sloka meter we find the following,

Dharma kshetre kuru kshetre.    So we have Dhar-ma  kshe-tre  ku-ru kshe-tre.            This produces:   Guru, laghu(light), guru, laghu, laghu, laghu, guru, laghu.

So thanks to all the Gurus who have brought humanity this far, to all future gurus to your inner guru and mostly to all you who have taught me so much.

I am deeply honoured to have you in my life as friends and students.

Now go party.

 

4th of July 2020
04th July 2020

As you can see we had a little go at working out mats for when we reopen. We measured carefully to comply with the government guidelines. We do want you all to feel safe. Our first week back will be a test run to see how things work out. We’d rather not have appointment times and trust you’ll all just ‘space out’ as normal. We think it would be better than a whole bunch of people all turning up at the same time. But please be patient if we have to iron out any problems. We will need everyones contact details. Wash/sanitise your hands on entry. We have a head thermometer. We can have 10 people at a time practicing. We’ll use the finishing room as a waiting room for 7 people.

Happy Independence day to all our American friends and students.

Next on our list for study of the Yoga sutras is the concept of Vrtti. Which usually gets translated as mode and refers to how the mind is. Vrtti comes from a route verb Vrt meaning to turn or swirl. Which suggests Patanjali thought of the mind as constantly moving in a circular fashion. Which happens when our thoughts go round and round. Patanjali simplifies all our thoughts into five patterns. Which makes it really difficult to place some of our thoughts. Some things we struggle trying to find a place in that five point plan. Right thinking, wrong thinking, imagination, sleep and memory. Also Patanjali splits them all in half again as painful or not painful. So examples of this are as follows.

Right thinking without suffering leads to samadhi, with suffering leads to attachment. Wrong thinking without suffering is when you see an image of Krishna in your toast, with suffering is that piece of toast will protect you from coronavirus. Imagination without suffering is where you imagine a spark of divinity in side you, but with suffering where you’re daydreaming away about someone you saw on zoom. Sleep without suffering brings a rested mind, but with suffering you become forgetful. And memory without suffering is one that reminds you that yoga is awesome. But with suffering is where you stay in bed.

3rd of July 2020
03rd July 2020

So Boris Johnson said gyms will be open in two weeks time. So we have all our fingers crossed that we can open up too. Keep an eye on our website. We’ll be putting up a covid 19 safety page with all the info you need. And if you haven’t figured out how to wash your hands yet, we’re fucked.

A few people have asked if we will still be doing stuff online. I think it has been very beneficial for students who don’t have access to the shala because they live far away. So yes we will retain some online classes. I think this blog will be taking more of an irregular appearance once we open. But helping students learn and inspiring them practice is important to us.

Inspiration will come from many places. Books and videos, nature and people. The thing to do is to keep your eyes open, so that you are open for inspiration. I really like this line from William Blake. To see a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.

In the YS we come across the word Drashtuh, similar to drishti. Both have the root in ‘to see’. Nouns are slightly more complicated in Sanskrit than English but the point is that drashtuh means the seer. Which at first seems an odd choice of word. Patanjali could have used Purusha or Atman, or even Kshetrajna as in the BG.  And it’s difficult to find any commentary on why he chose that word. So here’s my theory. All the other words are pure nouns, but drashtu comes from a verb root. So I think Patanjali was trying to move away from giving something so intangible a name. By naming it it becomes part of the regular temporal world. And then we think we have found it because we can name it.

We want to name everything, to own it and yet once we accept that is not possible a whole new world opens up to us. One where the sun always shines.

2nd of July 2020
02nd July 2020

I just got totally drenched, well the dog did. But we dried out by the wood burning stove. How lovely is that. A long time ago, a friend an I built a tree house and installed a wood burning stove, made out of an old gas cylinder. Do not try that at home. Because there has to be no gas in the cylinder, any left when you cut the cylinder with an angle grinder will explode. Which would mean a very nasty mess with my head in John’o’groats and my ass in Lands end. So fill the cylinder with water first. Anyway enough guerrilla building skills.

The commentary on the YS we’re looking at is by Vyasa, the same dude who wrote the Mahabharata. How did people find the time?? On the first sutra he equates yoga with samadhi. But his main addition is the five states of mind theory. They are, and translation is somewhat difficult. Disturbed, stupefied, distracted, one pointed and controlled. (kshipta, mudha, vikshipta, ekagra, niruddha) The last being the state of yoga Ni means leading to and ruddha means holding or stoping. TBH I’m not a great fan of categorisation of people or the mind. I feel we are all unique. The benefits are to help others understand us but often they don’t help us understand ourselves. Anyway we all like to find out our personality type. So if you’re interested I’m INFJ in the Myers-briggs personality test.

Anyway obviously we spend most of our time in a distracted state and occasionally slip into one pointed or with lockdown a bit of stupefaction. The more we move towards a satvic way of living the easier it is for our minds to move into a one pointed state. A satvic mind is something that is not forced. There is a lot of discipline needed but you can’t drag the mind kicking and spitting into samadhi. Our mind quite likes sense gratification. We have to learn slowly to follow our needs not our wants. And the medicine that helps us on that path, that makes the path a little smoother, that reduces the anxiety of trying to think your way out of thinking is Yoga

1st of July 2020
01st July 2020

How time flies. I’m hopeful it will fly even quicker to opening too.

What is the difference between yoga and chocolate. When I reflect back one of the saddest things for me is all the people I’ve met, had varying types of relationship with, may be a 10 minute conversation, lived with them or dated them, taught them yoga. And now we’ve lost contact. Partly technology has helped us stay connected but for all those lost contacts what to do? Occasionally I do bump into someone from the past and I realise actually that was the past and we’ve both changed. I guess it’s that feeling of nostalgia we all have. Wanting to recreate something, an experience that brought pleasure. We constantly try to recreate experiences, but the second piece of chocolate never tastes as good as the first.

But then what about yoga? We repeat that, looking for a similar experience and actually the experiences get better and better. So that is the difference between yoga and chocolate. You can have too much chocolate but never enough yoga.

So to continue with this blog we are going to move away from stories. We’ve done all to briefly, my favourite, the Mahabharata with the Bhagavad Gita included and then we looked at the Ramayana and a brief look at the Aditya Hridayam which is part of the Ramayana. Then we looked at the story of Narasimha. There are a lot more stories in the upanishads that Louise is teaching and then there are the Puranas which very few people read and I’ve only read a few so not qualified to cover them.

So now we’ll look at the Yoga Sutras (YS). Which is one of the first books people pick up in regards to yoga philosophy and not surprisingly one of the first books they put down. At only 196 verses long it’s short and pithy. Which is what sutra style is about. There are many other sutra books all with few words and hard to understand without a commentary. Many western scholars have commented on the YS and also you can find many Indian commentaries too. Of extreme importance is Vyasa’s commentary. Some have suggested Vyasa and Patanjali were one and the same. Part of the great difficulty in understanding the YS is that it’s written approximately 2000 years ago in Sanskrit. And as we know Sanskrit words can have many meanings. So the first word of the YS is Atha, which translates as now. But in what way did Patanjali mean now? Was it ‘Oi NOW!’ or was it ‘now we shall move on to the subject of yoga’  or may be ‘Now’ that is the only lesson you’ll need’ or does Atha have other meanings. Quite a few other sutra texts start with atha. So it is something that grabs you attention but also a sound that reverberates in your mind and draws it inwards connecting you to your inner guru. Starting you on the road to focus more than the word ‘now.’ When you  look through the dictionary at atha it comes with similar words like ‘here begins or so then’ Opening words. But also ‘if’ is in there too. And that changes everything. If is a question, yoga is something for you to explore, not just to follow blindly some 2000 year old dead sage with a snake for a body. If opens your eyes as much as Atha focuses your mind. That sliver of a space between question and answer. Because the more we look for an answer the less we will see.

30th of June 2020
30th June 2020

Why do we practice? It’s that age old ‘to be or not to be’ sort of question. And there is certainly a passing resemblance between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Bhagavad Gita.  But I want to through something completely different in the pot. Karma. Yes of course we practice because of our past karma. But more importantly yoga burns karma up.

One of my lock-down luxuries has been watching more tv than normal. My latest pleasure has been on more 4. Amazing places. I love small spaces and I wonder if building a home is some instinctive thing. Not that I could ever be an architect.

Going back to our animals in Indian philosophy. Indian stories are full of animals from worms and ants to snakes and a 5 trunked elephant. Too many to count. So here are a few and their stories.

Matsya, the fish. When Shiva was explaining yoga to Parvati, Matsya was listening in. Matsya often gets depicted with a horn, for pulling Manu’s boat along during the great flood. The flood story is repeated in many cultures. And of course Matsya is Vishnu’s first avatar. Matsya is the constellation that we call the plough or great bear. What’s interesting is that we know that the two last stars point to the north pole star. But few know that the inner two stars point to what was the north star 5000 years ago it’s called Thuban or Dhruva in Sanskrit. How did the pole star change? You’ll have to look up precession.

Frogs represent the rising sun, I suppose like we have cockerels to wake us, in India it’s frogs. Elephants and turtles don’t normally go together but in Indian mythology the world is supported on four elephants standing on a turtle. Now that takes a lot of imagination or soma. And of course Terry Pratchett used the concept for his Disc world series. Indra rides on Airavata the elephant with five trunks and ten tusks. And most obviously we have Ganesh. Who rides on a mouse called Mushika and Ganesh is very protective of Mushika and Mushika reminds Ganesh not to eat too much (he’s not very successful).

The different Gods ride on different animals Shiva has his bull Nandi and Vishnu has Garuda his eagle, Saraswathi has a swan and Yama the god of death has a donkey.

We’ve already talked lots about Hanuman the monkey/vanara and we’ve covered a lot about snakes/nagas.

So our final story is Narasimha. Nara means man, simha means lion. So he’s usually depicted as half lion half man. There are many stories of half animal half human and just like in school plays no one wants to play the donkeys arse. The human bit is always the head end. That is apart from Ganesh, who’s original human head wasn’t up to much.

Narasimha is an avatar of Vishnu. There is this demon called Hiranyakashipu which means clothed in gold. Which signifies too much wealth and power. He has been granted a boon that he can’t be killed by man or animal, in the day or at night, inside or outside. So pretty tough demon. He also has a son called Prahlada who worships Vishnu, much to Hiranyakashipu’s chagrin. One day he asks his son ‘So you say your god is everywhere’ pointing to the front doorpost. ‘Yes he is in everything’ Prahlada replies and with that Hiranyakashipu smashes the doorpost. But hiding in the doorpost is Narasimha, neither man nor animal, the doorpost is neither inside or outside, and you guessed it’s twilight. And so Hiranyakashipu gets his arse truly kicked.

There are many more Indian stories to tell. But I think it would be good to look at the yoga sutras. Tomorrow…

29th of June 2020
29th June 2020

Sorry today is going to be rather short. Had quite a busy day with mental health first aid course and then trawling through government guidelines on close contact places of work, really don’t think they know anything about yoga. Anyway we will have more info on our website about the sort of things we are doing to keep you all safe (complying with ‘elf and safety) shortly. When we know when we can open it will be front page news on our website and as many people as possible we will email/text/message, sorry no snail mail. When I first opened people used to write letters asking to join class.

I think the main difference will be that obviously we will have to restrict numbers. As we are unsure how many will want to come in, the first week will be a bit of a test. I hope we don’t have to do appointments as getting through London is hard enough. And probably better you don’t all turn up at once. Of course we will be clean clean clean. A couple of things you can do to help will be put all your clothes in a bag and don’t use the shala mats. We’ll leave more cleaning stuff in the toilet so feel free to spray to your hearts content. I’m hoping to swap to paper towel.

If we need to open longer we will do and we will probably have classes on Saturday too.

I promised you animals today, and I’ll do more tomorrow but today has to be the first and most sacred of animals in India. The cow. I guess the life giving milk is a big thing and the dung for fires and shala floors. Only 30% of Indians are vegetarian so why the cow? Party it represents mother earth but also there is the story of Kamadhenu. The wish fulfilling cow. In some stories she appears from the churning of the oceans story. But always there is someone trying to steal her. I never understood why stealing cows was called cattle rustling, surely it should be done quietly, without any rustling. In Scotland there’s a famous glen called the hidden glen, high up near Fort William, where my ancestors did their rustling. And of course we also have Nandi, Shiva’s bull who’s main job apart from transportation is to stop Shiva getting angry when someone breaks his mediation.

The important thing that a cow represents is that crossover between human culture and raw nature. Of course India was the first place to domesticate cows, water buffalo and aurochs and they were the first domesticated animals in India.

28th of June 2020
28th June 2020

I know I have been doing yoga for over 34 years but I’m still surprised by it. I wake stiff and tired and somehow a perfect practice comes out of that. And how come I never get bored of it? It’s not like I’m immune to boredom, that has been tested quite a lot recently. For me what makes a good practice is one where I’m less distracted than normal. Getting up that little bit earlier than you’d like helps with this.

So we’re coming to the end of the Ramayana. Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman fly back to Ayodhya on Ravana’s flying machine and the paths and road are lit up with oil lamps to welcome their return. The return of Rama and Sita is still celebrated in India it’s Diwali. I remember my first trip to Mysore was over Diwali. It was a beautiful introduction to India, not sure if I got much sleep. Along with oil lamps on everyones doorsteps boxes of fireworks are lit at street junction.

In some tellings of the Ramayana the story ends here. But in others there is a final twist. Rama still doesn’t trust Sita so she goes through the whole fire shit again. But this time, being a little more pissed off she goes to live the forest. But she’s pregnant and gives birth to Luv and Kush. They grow up learning the story of Rama from a sage who lives near by, non other than Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana. One day they eventually get to meet Rama and retell his story. Only then does he accept Sita back, but too late as she stands before him smiling the earth opens up and she walks into it. It’s a rather confusing ending. Sita came from the earth (her name means furrow) and she returns to it. So I feel it was always a temporary relationship. Rama as purusha, soul and Sita as prakriti, nature. Come together as almost a story or a play to show a spiritual path. But where did Valmiki learn the story from, from a crow. So tomorrow we will look at the myriad of animals that feature in Indian stories.

 

27th of June 2020
27th June 2020

Summer rain, I’m reminded of a poem that someone once placed in my muesli bowl 34 years ago.

A seed.                                                                                                                                                  Some rain                                                                                                                                               Some sun                                                                                                                                                Some night                                                                                                                                                   Someday

My Mum’s a poet and I’ve struggled to understand poetry, not as an art form, I think it’s great. I love the simplicity of some them and yet others I find just too short. I suppose I also feel they should have lots of ‘meaning of life’, but then why should they, they could be

Anyway today we had an amazing zoom workshop for all the staff, organised by Lauren. It was anti-racism and Charlene Brown and Janet Durrant did a fantastic job. I hope we can do more to help and I’m looking at ways to always improve. Talia has become my woke consultant as any teenager should. I’m hoping we can do some social action promotion. Simple things like shop local.

So Ravana is dead, his brother Vibhishana, who went over to Rama, is given Lanka to rule. And Sita  comes out to meet Rama. At first the both have tears in their eyes and then Rama does something that many have struggled to understand. He rejects her. He says I have done my duty but I don’t know if you have done yours. He’s questioning if she had been faithful. There is a great emphasis on women being faithful in Indian stories but the rules for men are different. No surprise there. But Sita is not a fool she instructs Hanuman to build a fire and she walks into it. Saying ‘let Agni (fire God) be my judge’ And of course she comes out burn free. So is this the original trial by fire? The phrase we’re familiar with is supposed to have come from the Salem witch trails, where ‘God wouldn’t allow a pure soul to burn’. Of course this hideous practice was taken a step further in Britain with the trail by water where if you could swim you were a witch. Fortunately we have moved a little forward. Sita on the other hand although Rama accepts her back the trust has been broken. And trust is the glue of society. But remember Sita is also a Goddess and goddesses need their freedom.

Yoga sometimes feels like a trail by fire, though fortunately not of the witch variety. And what is wrong with witches anyway, they’ve just swapped their black cloaks and cats to lab coats and test tubes.

26th of June 2020
26th June 2020

One of the questions that comes up all the time is ‘how much should I push myself’. There is no answer. You can’t measure either how stiff or in pain you are. On a scale of 1-10… is pretty ambiguous. Nor how much effort you put in. It goes with out saying that if you feel good, work hard. But it’s more when you don’t feel your best. So this is what I do. We all know how to do less. So if we start with that just add on a few extra bits. Work on one asana for longer. Do head stand for longer. Do more chants, meditate. That way you don’t feel bad for taking it easy.

The Aditya Hridayam is like the Bhagavad Gita of the Ramayana. Only it’s not a teaching of what to do in a difficult situation. It’s more in the line of bhakti yoga with a good bit of tantra chucked in there. So at first it reads like a poem of praise to the sun god and some mantras to say. Then when you realise that the sun is really our prana and the yoking of the sun’s chariot is pranayama and controlling our senses does it begin to really make sense. It finishes with Rama sipping water as a final blessing. This still happens today. Many times when we have been in India and been invited to a puja the priest at the end comes round with a vessel of water and you are given a sip spooned into your hand. And in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna reminds us that simply a sip of water is enough for a show of devotion. But Agastya finishes by saying, ‘make haste’. Stop dithering, you’ve said the prayer three times as required. Fire your arrow, kill your ego.

And so the arrow is fired it pierces Ravana. Usually its in the navel but some translations have it just beneath the sternum. And some say it was the heart. Anyway he dies and his body is given to his brother Vibhishana. Lakshman wants to celebrate his death. But Rama says that Ravana was a great warrior and full of wisdom. So he should be given full honours.

Of course just like many other famous people, myths surround Ravana and in 2018 they found his body in a cave surrounded by snakes…