Internal music

Yoga is a journey from the gross to the subtle.

Both gross and subtle states are always there, so in a sense nothing is changing. The journey is a mental one with your awareness penetrating ever deeper layers of your being. It’s as though you start out as a hard, solid and opaque creature and as the years go by and your yoga practice deepens, you begin to perceive yourself as softening, becoming translucent, and in strange fleeting moments, as immaterial, something that resonates like peculiar music.
I sometimes think of myself as a song that is in a continual process of being sung even though my ears can’t hear it, and that this thing we call hatha yoga is the unblocking of the ears so that we may hear ourselves, the Nada.

This process is not hastened by doing ever more advanced asana, nor necessarily more anything. Practicing four hours a day in the wrong way will at best leave you puzzled as to why you’re not really going anywhere, and at worst, in a state greatly diminished from where you started.
The old saying is true:
“It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”

Quality not quantity! That’s what matters. I don’t mean quality in the sense of good and bad, I mean as in the feel of something, it’s texture and tone. The expression of something, it’s undulating speeds and rhythms.
It is by paying attention to these speeds and rhythms that we find a way to align ourselves with the natural force that sustains and moves us.

Our ego desires to control this force, to somehow use it to gain a sense of empowerment. Perhaps. Who knows? Maybe that’s just me, and we’re all different anyway and have our own desires, but most of them are borne out of ignorance of what we already are, of our true nature, and so, it is with some irony that if we do things right and begin to perceive something of our true nature, we realise that not only are we already complete and in need of nothing more, but that this force does in fact control us, not the other way around. It is one with the Universal forces and therefore so are we, we are bound to everything else in existence by some cosmic ‘fascia’. This isn’t some mindless mechanical structure, it’s intelligent, omniscient, and the best thing we can do is to simply ‘get out of the way’ and allow it to move us. To dissolve our ego as best we can and align ourselves with it’s current.

This can’t be done with the ‘thinking brain’, that just gets in the way and messes things up. We need to quieten down this chattering companion and use the ‘feeling brain’. By tuning into what we are feeling we can dance in time with our internal music.

 

 

Paschimottanasana

Paschimottanasana

 

I learned how to teach aged 7

I remember, at the age of 7 my grandad said he’d teach me to ride my bike without stabilisers. I was excited! I didn’t do anything like this with my grandad!
I sat nervously on my bike outside and waited for him.
“Not on the pavement” he said. “you don’t cycle on the pavement. On the road”
This road?! The one the cars, buses, and articulated lorries on their way to I.C.I. drive down?!
“Of course, where else?”
He brandished a spanner and removed both stabilisers.
Whaaat!? Both of them? Surely we should go for the more sensible approach, simply raising them a little so they’re not quite on the floor but still there in case I lose my balance.
I don’t recall his exact response but I’m sure it was something like “Do you want to learn to ride without stabilisers or not?”

I never saw my grandad more patient and supportive as he was that day. I assumed it would take weeks to learn, slowly getting used to those raised little wheels, keeping hold of that safety blanket whilst I honed my balance, but that wasn’t how it was going to go. Up and down the road we went with him holding the saddle, running along side me, stopping and waiting for the occasional bus or lorry to trundle past (this was 1978, traffic still ‘trundled’). I kept looking back to check he was there holding me.
“Keep your eyes ahead, pay attention to where you’re going!”
Over and over, over and over, up and down… until one time I looked round and there he was, a hundred miles away, smiling. I was riding for the first time on my own and the world had changed ever so slightly, massively, I felt something new. Freedom.
Did he do any of the riding for me? No, he revealed to me the simple fact that I could ride. Keeping me safe and under his guiding hand just long enough and no longer.
This is how I aspire to teach. No stabilisers. I don’t have much interest in showing people what they can do with props – I want them to understand what they’re capable of without them. What it feels like to be free.
A teacher’s guidance should help you on your journey towards yourself, towards that supreme teacher who whispers instructions to you in silence. If not, you are being led nowhere.
I get this comical image of my grandad, were he alive, stumbling along the roads of London holding the saddle of my bike as I ride to work. Absurd I know, but in a manner of speaking isn’t this what many people who attend yoga classes are doing, even those dedicated to weekly lessons? Have they fallen into the trap of riding with their stabilisers on into ‘maturity’ whilst their teacher runs alongside them holding the saddle, facilitating a fun ride once or twice a week instead of showing them the way to cycle on their own? At what point does help become robbery?
I sound like I’m throwing accusations at fellow yoga teachers but I’m not. There are so many great teachers in London that students here are spoilt for fine choice, rather I’m urging the practitioners to become aware of when they’re robbing themselves.
My grandad taught me to ride by teaching me to trust in my own ability, but what if I’d have chosen not to to cycle again without stabilisers unless he was there watching over me? Where would my new found freedom be then? What if I went and reattached them? Ridiculous!
Riding a bike has only one ‘revelation’. Once you can ride you can ride, but your journey on the path of yoga has myriad revelations. A good teacher shows you HOW to practice. HOW to engage, HOW to see, to listen, to feel, but he can’t do it for you. My own teacher used the analogy that if you want to pull up the rug to see what’s under there, he will lift one corner for you, but you have to lift the other three yourself.
Your greatest discoveries are made during your self practice. So practice! Practice persistently! “Keep your eyes ahead and pay attention to where you’re going” and trust that you can succeed. Lift the rug and see what lies beneath but know this, there are many many rugs to lift along this long and winding path, so many revelations! But once you know HOW to lift a corner, you can lift them all, one by one, by yourself. You wont need to rely on me forever, if I do my job right.

What Style of Yoga Do I Teach? The Art Of Shovelling Sh#t

    “ What’s your style?”

Any boy who grew up in the 70’s, or 80’s even, will surely know the answer to that question.
“Iss called da ard of fighding widoud fighding” ~ the immortal words of Bruce Lee.

When someone asks me what style of yoga I teach, being a child of the 70’s, I often hear these words pass through my mind. Once I start stumbling through my overly long and unnecessarily complex answer, which I’m sure loses them after the first minute (What?! your answer lasts more than a minute?!) I find myself yearning for an answer with the punch of Bruce Lee’s.

And so I have been advised to work on my ‘Lift Speech’. “Sum up what you do in 10 seconds”.

Really? I can’t sum anything up in 10 seconds. My brain likes to complicate things, which makes me a pretty bad networker.  A preferable quality it seems for someone trying to earn a living from what is now a multi billion dollar industry! Wow, I didn’t see that coming when I first put foot on this path back in the early 90’s. You were lucky if you could find a class in the local gym back then, and the only yoga clothes were dodgy tie dye pants from Camden market.

I struggle with the modern day commercialisation of this ancient spiritual practice, but at the same time I ask myself, how else am I going to get by in these times of rising rents and living costs if I don’t succumb to that which I loathe? (loathe might be a little strong but you get the point).

“So what do you do?”
“I teach yoga”
“Oh right, what style do you teach?”
“There is only one style of yoga at the end of the day. It’s called the art of shovelling shit. Your own shit. Cleaning up your house and throwing away your junk. Polishing your floors and opening the windows to let the air circulate, oiling the hinges so they don’t squeak, then getting a nice big fire going. What happens after that depends on how well you took care of the basics.”
“……..”

Hmmm, I’m not sure that’d work as my lift speech. Perhaps people are asking the wrong question.

The word ‘yoga’ means different things to different people and this is an important point, because as soon as I tell someone I’m a yoga teacher they instantly project their understanding of the word yoga onto me.

It’s like watching a movie and thinking ‘oh right, this is like that comedy I watched last month’ or Horror, or Si-Fi, or whatever. We like to categorise things, put them into genres, into pigeon holes. If someone already has a clear idea of what yoga is, then whatever ‘style’ I teach they will naturally pigeon hole it. ‘Hatha’, ‘Vinyasa’, ‘Dynamic’, ‘Flow’, ‘Dynamic Vinyasa Flow’. It’s not a perfect analogy but you catch my drift. Maybe the exchange should go more like this:
“What do you do?”
“I teach yoga”
“Yoga! What’s the point?!”

Hmmm, that caught me off guard, what use is my lift speech now? I’ll try this..

“Well…it calms the mind”
“I don’t need my mind calming”
“It’s good for your breathing”
“I can already breathe”
“Do you have tight hamstrings? It can help with…”
“Nope…”
“….….”

The Yoga Industrial/Complex (I just made that up) has one objective. Selling yoga. Why would it make the effort to open up meaningful dialogues with people about what yoga might mean to the individual, when it can simply sell pre-packaged variations from the ‘yoga shop’? Why encourage people to think when you just want them to consume? For all the new ‘styles’ of yoga out there, how many of them teach one to reflect and look deeper inside themselves?
If you want to sell yoga in the market place, get people to look outside and compare themselves to others, to read glossy yoga magazines and see the beautiful adverts with sexy yoga models who perfectly reinforce the global presentation of what yoga is really about. It’s highly marketable, but it’s a trap, and it limits ones perception of this ancient practice, this science. It’s subtle, insidious and it’s powerful. You don’t feel yourself falling into this trap, so you don’t try and get out. And even if you did…would you? You love being a sparkly ‘yoga guy/girl’, don’t you? Go on, admit it.

This is where the guidance of a good teacher comes into its own.

The art of advertising is convincing someone they need your product even if they don’t, or that they need your version even when they already have someone else’s. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to sell a product. I don’t want to convince someone that they need my version. But…but, I do need to let them know what I am offering and how it might benefit them personally.

“So what do you do?”
(Don’t say teach yoga, don’t say teach yoga!) “I help people”.
“Hmmm, intriguing. What do you mean? How?”

OK, I staved off the “What’s your style?” question. What next?

A meaningful dialogue perhaps, about how my skills and knowledge may be able to positively impact their life on a more personal, individual level? Perhaps.

We’ll have to talk about it and find out.

Yoga For Men

I wrote this ‘article’ almost exactly 2 years ago. I had fanciful aspirations of getting it published in something like ‘Men’s Health Magazine’ but realised after contacting them that that wasn’t going to happen. I have sat on it since and would most likely continue to do so, had it not dawned on me that in a couple more years it will become irrelevant, due to the fact the landscape is changing – directly in line with the salient point of the piece. I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean once you read it, but in a nutshell: In the relatively short time since writing it, the number of men attending my classes has doubled. I suppose I should feel vindicated.

 

“My mum does yoga”.
I wish I’d been given a pound every time I’ve heard a man say that.
It always goes like this:
Bloke: “so what is it you do then?”
Me: “I teach yoga”
Bloke: “Yoga! Really?…My mum does yoga” or sometimes it’s “Gran”, occasionally it’s
“girlfriend”, but it’s never “my dad”, or “my big brother”, or indeed any male figure what-soever.
What’s that all about? Seriously, I’ve been teaching yoga for over 15 years and it’s
always been the same.
Until recently that is, because something interesting seems to be happening finally.
I’ve noticed a change over the last year or two, and more so in recent months, and it’s the
increased number of men showing up in my classes, and I don’t believe it has anything to
do with the number of nubile women in tight clothing.
It seems that some kind of critical mass has finally been reached, and that the very
real and practical benefits of this ancient system has finally lodged into the popular psyche
of the average bloke. The sort of guy who only a short number of years ago, wouldn’t have
stepped foot in their local gym’s ‘holistic studio’, let alone have walked into a dedicated
yoga centre of their own free will.
So what changed? Well the media portrayal has changed, certainly. I quite regularly
come across articles that speak of the health benefits of a regular practice. Such benefits
have always been clearly stated in yoga texts (some of which sound impossibly optimistic
and overstated to the ears of the novice) but there have been recent studies in the West
vindicating it’s positive effects on physical wellbeing, stating for instance, that: ‘Yoga may
work better for lower back pain than conventional treatments’*1 . US Marines are using it
to reduce the risk of injury, maintain mental calm under fire, and to cope with the
psychological fallout following trauma in the field: ‘Om in the army: the US military gets
yoga’*2 . And of course everyone knows now that many high profile Premiership
footballers are attributing their reduced number of injuries and lengthened careers to a
regular yoga practice, Ryan Giggs being a case in point: ‘Ryan Giggs: Yoga is key to
prolonging my Manchester United career’*3. I think we can certainly attribute at least some
of yoga’s surge in popularity with men to news articles like the ones above. Once high
profile male sportsmen, and football players at that, began singing it’s praises, it took it’s
first step into the realm of male acceptability. Suddenly it wasn’t a suspect thing for a real
bloke to do anymore, footballers were doing it, Goddammit!
Now it appears men from all sporting backgrounds are using it to compliment their
chosen sport. Amongst my private students alone there are hardcore cyclists and runners,
plus a 3 x New Zealand Ironman finisher. Who knows how many other sportspeople line
up in my open classes, as I only really speak with the ones who come with knee, hip and
back problems (as they need to notify me before starting the class). And in case you’re
wondering, the yoga practice always helps to some degree.
In truth, this probably accounts for most of the new uptake: using yoga to stretch out
the tensions caused by more traditional sports and exercise regimes, and coping with
injuries incurred whilst partaking in them. Add to this all those (and there are many) men
suffering with undiagnosed, chronic back ache who are pointed in the direction of the local
yoga class by their GP or osteopath, and we must have 90% of UK men signing up for
beginners courses. And the rest? Well, there’s got to be some guys out there interested in
spiritual enlightenment. Hasn’t there?

You know what’s funny though? It’s that I should even be writing this article. The fact
of the matter is: traditionally yoga was predominantly practised by men anyway! Indeed it
was seen as quite progressive when Sri. T. Krishnamacharya (the granddad of our main
contemporary systems) saw fit to teach women.
It is sheer speculation to say why yoga was adopted by the fairer sex in this country
first. Perhaps it’s simply because yoga is wrongly perceived as an ‘exercise’ that requires
an existing level of flexibility in the first place. ‘Flexibility challenged’ people might see the
front cover of yoga magazines and think ‘how nice it would be to have a body like that’, but
can’t put themselves in the picture. Hmmm, but then why has there always been a steady
influx of not-so-flexible women in regular yoga classes?
Well maybe it’s because there isn’t any perceived achievement per se. You can’t
‘win’ at yoga. Could this make it less appealing to men? Yoga classes are challenging
though, albeit a personal one which shouldn’t have anything to do with your classmates.
This is a crucial point to understand otherwise you risk putting yourself under pressure to
‘compete’. Let me tell you guys, you are not going to ‘beat’ the girls on this one, so relax,
breathe, and just enjoy the way your body feels after an hour of quality ‘stretching’. You
won’t need anymore reward than that.
However…if you are of the ‘Men’s Health Magazine’ reading faction, and quite keen to
use yoga to help keep you toned and in shape, you will be happy to know that there are
yoga styles out there that will certainly help you with this, just remember not to go into a
class with the same mindset as you do your gym workout and push too hard. Ease
yourself in gently and allow time for the benefits to accrue.
On this point, there are many articles online detailing ‘yoga workouts’ for anything
from getting back into shape after childbirth, to using ‘yoga for explosive power’, and a
long list of celebrities, models and sportspeople who use it to increase this and to
decrease that, all the while singing it’s praises as something they could not now live
without. What things does it decrease and increase? How come it seems to take hold in
someones life once they’ve developed a dedicated practice? I’m not about to do an online
survey of what the celebs are saying, you can do that for yourself after all, but I can
contribute something here about my own experience, and why it has become a constant in
my life, and let me start by stating: I was no natural yogi!
The following is meant as inspiration to all you average blokes who have stiff bodies,
like to drink etc… and would rather party than get up at dawn to ‘salute the sun’.

 

Accidental Yogi: my own story.
I fell into yoga by accident. In my younger years I went to a boxing club (though only
for about a year) I was heavily into athletics at school (field events were my thing) then I
took up kung fu (again for little more than a year) Over the years I played a lot of squash, a
little less tennis, and less still badminton. None of which I dedicated enough energy to
become particularly good at. I virtually lived on my bike from the age of 7 and when
BMXing came along I found something I liked enough to do every day.
Then I found alcohol. Later I discovered music/clubs. Later still I discovered things
that made music/clubs better. I’ll say nothing more about that.
Fortunately, I also discovered yoga along the way, which it has to be said, didn’t fit
that easily into my lifestyle, but I enjoyed it and I liked the way my body felt afterwards. I
thought I was naturally flexible because I could touch my toes (just). The truth was that I
was very, very stiff in my lower back and had chronic back pain since the age of 14
following a misjudged springboard dive at the local swimming baths. Unfortunately
osteopaths didn’t seem to exist in Teesside in the 1980’s. On top of that I had the attention
span of a fly, my breathing was terrible and I had very serious digestive issues. I needed
something in my life that was going to help me sort myself out.
That ‘thing’ turned out to be yoga.
What I hope will inspire you is this: I didn’t make any big changes, and I didn’t try to
be something that I wasn’t. I just kept doing the yoga practice, week in week out (and yes,
sometimes I did go a week or two, or three without it) and slowly it worked it’s magic. Yoga
can and does help you change your body for the better, but on a more fundamental level, it
changes your perception of your body for the better. Plus, over time you start to feel
younger. You think more clearly. The world you see around you is the same, but there’s
less mental clutter and less stress. You enjoy a greater sense of clarity: physically;
mentally and emotionally. Yep, it’s good stuff.

 

Diet.
Let’s clear up a common misconception. When the subject of yoga comes up, I often
hear men say something to the effect of ‘I couldn’t give up eating meat’. There is a strong
association of vegetarianism with yoga due to it’s links with Hinduism, but that does not
mean you need to start making changes to your diet just because you’ve started attending
a class at your local gym. Everyone’s constitution is different. There is no perfect diet
carved in stone that suits everybody. Taking up a regular yoga practice will help you
develop the ability to listen honestly, to the genuine needs of your body, gradually freeing
yourself from habitual eating habits which do you a disservice. For some people that may
lead to giving up or cutting down on how much meat they eat. It will most certainly make
you think more about the quality of the food you put into your body, and as they say, you
are what you eat.
So what do you do now? There are countless classes out there these days to choose
from, so how do you choose? So many teachers offering so many different styles, which
one should you try? Should you go to a dedicated yoga centre or are classes in gyms OK?
There are no definite answers but recommendations from other people can be helpful. The
best thing to do is not to limit yourself in the beginning because you don’t always know
what you’re looking for even when you think you do.
Try a whole selection of different classes and styles with a number of different
teachers until you find one you connect with, and can relate to and trust. Someone who is
going to be as tough on you as they are kind, who cares enough about what they’re doing
to work you, but at the same time will never try to push you beyond your limitations
because of their own agenda. People can and do get injured practising yoga, but don’t
blame yoga! The teacher needs to know their stuff and not simply be regurgitating
something they read or were told by someone else. As my teacher says: the information
must come alive inside the teacher, only then can they hope to bring it alive in their
students. Another way of saying this is: stay clear of bullshitters.

 

Who are you, anyway?
An article on yoga wouldn’t be complete without at least a little nod towards the
philosophical element, so I’d like to finish by asking: who are you? Inside, underneath the
conditioning of life and society. Who is reading this article? You are not your name,
someone else gave you that. You are not what you do for a living, that’s just something
you ‘do’. It can be argued that you are not even the person you see in the mirror. What if
you had a face transplant? What if in the future they could put your mind into another
body? So are you just your mind? Hmmm, what happens when the mind ceases it’s usual
activity? Under general anaesthetic for instance, have you gone?
But hey! You don’t need to get into that side of things if you don’t want to, yoga can
and often is used as just another form of exercise, and this is fine. Horses for courses. And
to be honest…that’s all it was for me when I started. I had no aspirations to go into it in any
depth, I just wanted to be more flexible, but look where I am now. I never planned to be a
yoga teacher. And that’s one of the other nice things about it: it’s a journey. Your own
unique one which continually surprises you. The funny thing is that the surprise IS YOU.

 

Tim Cummins
London
17/10/12

 

*1 Guardian/Science 31st Oct 2011
*2 Guardian/Life and Style 31st Aug 2011
*3 Guardian/Sport 27th March 2012

Thailand Yoga Retreat part 2

 

My last post gave a general idea of Khao Raa Retreat in Kho Phangan, now I thought I’d share some more pics and give an idea of the rest of the island for those of you who have never been, or indeed think you might like to join us next year! I’ve so many photo’s to choose from, it’s hard to narrow down the selection to only a few…I think this is going to be more like a gallery.

 

Coconut beach

Coconut beach – Haad Khom

 

Before the yoga course began we had a week to get things organised at Khao Raa and make sure everything and everyone was ready to go, but we certainly made time to relax too. We did most of this on ‘Haad Khom’, Coconut beach, where we stayed in a bungalow 20 feet from the shore, and on ‘Mae Haad’ which is the best spot on the island for snorkelling. On a good day there’s about 20m visibility and a fantastic array of colourful fish and some impressive coral.

 

Mae Haad. Best spot on the island for snorkelling.

Mae Haad. Best spot on the island for snorkelling.

 

Watching the sunset on Mae Haad.

Watching the sunset on Mae Haad.

 

Sunset 1 copy

 

WatOn day 1 of the retreat, we’d planned something special to bring the group into the right kind of space following their long haul flights. We took them up to the oldest temple on the island to do a ‘welcome to Thailand’ class. I kept things very simple and focussed,  just getting them into their legs and grounding them. Long flights disturb ‘vata’ – the element of air, which has a direct connection with the respiratory and nervous systems, and by extension the mind. I’m not hugely into talking about ‘the vibe’ of sacred sites, perhaps I’m not particularly sensitive to such things…well, compared to people who say things like: “Oh my God, the energy here is just sooo amazing! I can feel my chakras tingling” (or “throbbing” or whatever)…BUT, I have to say, this place is special. My chakras may not have been pulsating (or maybe they were, can I really say?) but the Pagoda and area immediately adjacent does have a wonderful calm energy to it which instantly brings one into a reflective state of being. It feels cloaked in peace. When I went up there prior to the commencement of the course, I had been very taken with the place and found myself drawn to the shrine. It is to the Islands most revered Saint. I had special moment and said a little prayer (not something I do generally) for the upcoming course. Maybe it helped.

 

Khao Raa girls

Khao Raa girls. Our local team.

 

We managed to get a pic of the local team when they weren’t working, had to wait untill the retreat was over to get the shot though! And below we have our indispensable helper, tour guide and massage couch builder ‘Sam’. Can’t imagine running the retreat without his help.

 

I personally employed his Sam copyservices when I went in search of the dog that attacked me one night with it’s two mongrel cohorts, whilst we were on our way to see a temple on a moped. We were on the moped, not the dogs. I had to have a course of Rabies shots just in case, and was advised to go back and find the dog 10 days later to see if it was frothing at the mouth…or dead…and depending on it’s condition I would either discontinue the treatment or have more shots. We went back in the day in the safety of a 4×4 and I was strangely dismayed to find the dog being a fine example of a well behaved family pet, being pushed around by a child. I’d have felt more vindicated to see it snarling at anything that moved. The feeling passed though.

And below we have the final member of the local team, ‘Meow’ the very lovable resident cat. She loves being around people whilst they’re practising yoga. She must be attracted to the energy because she can’t really see any more, she is rather blind. And as you can see, rather fat.

'Meow' the resident cat.

‘Meow’ the resident cat.too. You’ve never seen a cat put away so much Thai curry

 

We organised a few group excursions over the course of the week: to a temple, to a herbal steam, and to the aforementioned Kho Maa to do some snorkelling, though sadly the visibility wasn’t too great on the day we went. The photo below shows how the  small island is reached via a sand bank from Mae Haad at low tide.

The view from Kho Maa looking back at Mae Haad. An afternoon catching some rays and snorkelling.

The view from Kho Maa looking back at Mae Haad. An afternoon catching some rays and snorkelling.

 

 

Sunbathing on Kho Maa

Sunbathing on Kho Maa

 

 

The class in Ardha Bhujangasana. Part of 'surya namaskar'.

And just to prove that some yoga practice did actually take place here’s the group mid ‘surya namaskar’.

 

Comar

 

Now this might sound strange, but one of the highlights of the week in terms of group bonding, was a game of ‘Jenga’ on the last night. Yes the game where you stack blocks. It went from being a game where you were hoping the person before you knocked it down, to being a team effort where everyone pulled together once we realised we were in with a chance of actually beating the game. Everyone had really bonded over the course of the week and this felt like a beautiful expression of that group dynamic. And we did it. We beat Jenga (that means we kept going until there were not enough pieces to make a legal move i.e. no removing blocks from the top three rows). Not getting it? Maybe it’s one of those things where you had to be there to.

Fatma Jenga

Jenga'd

Jenga’d

 

The Last Breakfast

The Last Breakfast

 

So that’s it for the actual yoga course. Here’s some shots from the days that followed.
These next few were taken on a day out to the East side of the Island. Tan Sadet is regarded as a very beautiful location, and is relatively remote compared to most of the other towns, giving it an ‘away from the crowds’ feeling. We weren’t massively taken with it to be honest. I think it’s just a tad too quiet and remote for us. No vibe. Nice waterfall though.

Tan Sadet

Tan Sadet

 

Tan Sadet waterfall

Tan Sadet waterfall

We didn’t stay long at Tan Sadet, instead heading for Thong Nai Pan Yai a little further north. This place is still stunning even though it has become extremely commercial over the last 10 years or so. A very different clientèle is to be found here and not one we’d have much in common with, so it’s unlikely we’d ever stay here for more than a night, two at the most. Never-the-less, a very beautiful and chilled out ‘resort’ which I could imagine my parents holidaying in.

 

Tong Nai Pan Yai at sundown.

Tong Nai Pan Yai at sundown.

 

Golden hour. Stopping to take photos of sunset.

Golden hour. Stopping to take photos of sunset.

 

Sunset bike

 

Well I didn’t plan for this blog to go on so long! Still got a couple of shots I want to share with anyone whose made it this far. The place we ate at most (when we weren’t staying at Khao Raa of course) was at the food market in Thong Sala. It was cheap and tasty and and had a great atmosphere. But most importantly,  it had a mango sticky rice stall.

 

Mango sticky rice stall

Mango sticky rice stall

For the the final week of our ‘post retreat holiday’ we made the trip to Haad Yuan, a beach just a short boat ride from the infamous party ghetto of Haad Rin, but which feels like a separate island, and in fact we kept referring to it as such by mistake. It was here that I finally ‘dropped’. And when I landed I looked up and felt for the first time during the trip ‘I’m on holiday’. I’d been enjoying myself, but it wasn’t until I had some distance from that sense of working and being on call that I finally let go. What a beautiful and elusive feeling – to ‘let go’! Haad Yuan has it’s share of parties too, but there’s also a sense of community there, albeit a transient and more often than not ‘under the influence’ community, but it draws you in and it’s hard to leave. In fact there are a few people who haven’t!

On the boat to Haad Yuan

On the boat to Haad Yuan

 

My favourite pastime when I'm in Thailand. The food in Bamboo restaurant is too good!

My favourite pastime when I’m in Thailand. The food in Bamboo restaurant is too good!

 

Sunrise on our balcony with the waves lapping below.

Sunrise on our balcony with the waves lapping below.

 

I don't see sunrise's like this from my bedroom window at home.

I don’t see sunrise’s like this from my bedroom window at home.

So that’s it. I got to the end eventually. I hope these two blogs capture something of what you might expect from a yoga course/extended holiday in Koh Phangan. We’ll be announcing the 2014 course very soon. Maybe I’ll see you there :)

Thailand Yoga retreat

I can’t believe I’ve been back in London over a month already.
Plus we’re already fully into May. I suppose after a 6 month winter (6 MONTHS!!!) ones mind begins to blur out the details of daily life.
So where did I go? How many times better was the weather in Thailand than miserable England’s?  About a million times.

Entrance to Khao Raa Retreat

Welcome to peace and tranquility

 

Sun shining down through the palms

Walking back to the bungalow late afternoon.

My trip was a mix of work and pleasure, though to be honest, when you’re teaching in a place like this the lines between the two can become blurred. I mean, there were times when I was sitting quietly, either looking out across the jungle or over the sea and I caught myself thinking: “wow, this is my job!” Well, a nice little perk anyway.
I had returned to the beautiful and very secluded jungle retreat of Khao Raa on the Island of Koh Phangan at the foot of Khao Raa mountain in the Island’s interior. Koh Phangan is better known for it’s full moon parties than it’s yoga retreats, but that might change as more and more yoga shalas open and the full moon party eventually eats itself. I gave it a wide berth but did see the aftermath, the day glow vest tops and a snippet of it on YouTube. (I last went in 1998 and had a great time, and although it was already showing signs of commercialisation by that point, it has now mutated into something quite scary…OK, maybe scary’s the wrong word, but whatever it had that made it wonderful and famous in the first place has long since gone ).

Pee Mee, The owner of Khao Raa, with the ever smiling Pee Gee to the left.

Pee Mee, The owner of Khao Raa, with the ever smiling Pee Gee to the left.

The retreat is run by a group of women with the wonderful Pee Mee at the helm. Pee Mee has this way about her that leaves you feeling like she’s your Nana in an alternate reality, one in which she happens to be a gourmet Thai chef. Fresh, home cooked food using ingredients from the surrounding gardens/jungle whenever possible. No canned coconut milk here!
I. Can. Not. Believe. I didn’t take any photo’s of the dishes! You’ll have to take my word for it, amazing food! Check out the pic below to see how they get their coconuts. The “monkey man” comes round with his little employee (who works for peanuts…sorry couldn’t be helped) who climbs up to get them, leaping from tree to tree. From a yoga practitioners point of view it was great to see the “monkey mind” in action…Monkey climbs half way up tree, stops, forgets what he’s doing…his handler calls to him and he remembers…climbs to top of tree, looks about, forgets what he’s doing, ‘nice view from up here’…handler calls again, ‘oh yeah, coconuts’…monkey starts to shake the coconuts to find one that’s ready to pull, forgets what he’s doing and starts to scratch his bum…and so it goes.
Over and over again, tree after tree.
I wonder if he really is paid in peanuts.

Monkey collecting coconuts

Ever wondered how they get the coconuts down?

The accommodation is very traditional. If you ever wanted to get a feel for how the local people live, this place will certainly give you an idea. The bungalows are made from wood with concrete bathrooms, and are built on stilts which raise them quite high above the jungle floor. We loved how homely we made ours feel. We found it hard to leave and, when we returned for 2 nights at the end of our extended trip we really did feel like we were coming home to the open arms of an extended family.

Our bungalow amongst the palms.

Our bungalow amongst the palms.

One of the highlights of practising yoga here is the stunning view across the Island. On a clear day (when the air isn’t too humid) you can see Ang Thong national marine park, somewhere we plan to take everyone to on a day excursion next year. Take a look on Google for some images of this amazing location. It’s paradise.
Like last year, there was a mixed level of ability with the students that attended. Some were shadow yoga students of mine, returning to Khao Raa having enjoyed it so much the year before, some had done plenty of yoga retreats elsewhere and with different teachers, and a couple were taking the plunge and coming away for the first time by themselves to do something like this, and I couldn’t help thinking ‘well done, good for you!’. It takes courage to step out of your comfort zone for the first time and travel half way round the world to spend a week doing yoga in the jungle! Incidentally they loved it and asked when the next one is.

Downward facing dog and upward facing cat

Downward facing dog and upward facing cat

My day started at the crack of dawn when I’d get up to do my own practice whilst the jungle was still and everyone else, apart from Pee Mee, was sleeping. A truly beautiful experience.
By 7.15am I hear the whispers of the first students coming down to the yoga space to squeeze in a quick cup of herbal tea. By 7.30am everyone is on their mat and class begins.

Connecting to a sense of inner stillness at the start of class.

Connecting to a sense of inner stillness at the start of class.

The discipline of a daily yoga practice can have a hugely positive impact on ones sense of wellbeing, not to mention the physical benefits, and when you practice twice a day those effects are duly magnified, especially in the humid heat of Thailand. Everyone, including the stiffer members of the group were delighted with the breakthroughs they made by the end of the course.
It’s interesting to observe peoples varying expectations and how they relate to their bodies so differently. At the end of the week one of the students stated with a sense of marvel, “I never thought I’d be able to touch my toes first thing in the morning”.  These little unexpected breakthroughs are one of the defining characteristics of workshops and retreats. The sorts of things that you might never seem to get any closer to in your usual practice suddenly creep up on you when you are away with your teacher, away from your usual distractions and daily habitual patterns. And let’s not underestimate the subtle effect that the teacher him/herself has on you when working with you so intensely .
After all these years, I am still surprised by advances I make when I’m away with my teacher on a course. It’s a strange thing because I always expect ‘something’ to shift in me, but it’s always something I wasn’t aware of until it moved. And that, is exactly why we need the guidance of a teacher. Because we can’t actually see the things that we need to change the most. The things that restrict us in our growth typically reside in our blind spot. At the end of the day that’s what a yoga practice is about: freeing yourself from the blockages and restrictions that keep you from experiencing your Self.
Learning to touch your toes first thing in the morning isn’t a bad place to start.

 

Well that’s all I’m going to write now. It gives you the general idea of the location and retreat. I plan to write a part 2 with some pics that show more of the surrounding areas, and give a feel of being in Kho Phangan, so come back and visit soon.

Shadow yoga demonstration

I’ve been asked so many times by students: ‘why don’t you make a video so we have something to follow?’.  A shadow yoga DVD is already available, so there is little point in me trying to replicate it, but I did decide there was some merit in posting a clip for my students so they can see the way I practice, after all, it is me they’re learning from. I thought it would also be appreciated by anyone browsing my site, wondering what shadow yoga is about.

So here it is. I hope it gives a sense of what the form looks like as a self practice. Demonstrating a move here and there in a led class doesn’t really capture that.
The clip shows the latter part of the third Shadow Yoga prelude form ‘Kartikkeya Mandala’ or ‘Garland of Light’, and includes the shadow yoga variation of Surya Namaskar. It’s a beautiful form and a pleasure to practice.
For most people, the arms and shoulders, and legs and hips, hold a great deal of tension. So much so that the movement of prana around the body becomes restricted. To attain the benefits of seated asana these areas must be relaxed so as to allow unrestricted circulation of the internal winds (vayu). This isn’t possible if it’s blocked up in the shoulders for instance.
Kartikkeya Mandala reduces these restrictions by refining the movements of the limbs, unburdening them from the heavy imposition of the muscles. Of course muscles are being used, but they must not dominate. Over work of the muscle chokes the flow of the life force. This is a difficult aspect of ones yoga practice to come to terms with, especially if, like me, you have always relied on your physical strength to attain results.
The video was shot almost straight through, taking as few breaks and re-takes as possible with the intention of giving a realistic representation of a self practice, or as realistic as it can be when someone’s pointing a camera at you.
I am very grateful to Brian Doherty for shooting the video, to my friend Nicky for the use of the space, and also to Al Gromer Khan for giving his blessing in the use of the beautiful soundtrack you hear.

Salutations to the Teacher

Well it’s taken years of dedicated practise. But the penny has finally dropped. The bigger picture, the long game, the intelligence behind the method, it’s clear now. What am I talking about? In a nutshell the path of hatha yoga as taught by my teacher Shandor Remete, or as his school is known, Shadow Yoga.
I have been practising yoga for a long time now, and shadow yoga in particular for the last 12 years. I did my teacher training at Islington Yoga with John and Karen Evans whilst travelling each year to do courses with Shandor and Emma Balnaves. But it is only now, after completing the crowning course of the teacher training program with them both this March, that I truly feel complete in my training. The edge of the blade honed. Such is the power and skilfull intelligence as teachers that these two wonderful and generous human beings possess. It was a privilege to be present (this was the last teachers program they will run) and a blessing in the true sense of the word.
For the last 16 years I have been gathering myself together. Now I am ready to teach.
With love and respect to Zhander and Emma.

Perugia airport 28/4/12

Accidental yoga teacher Part 1

Welcome to my first Blog!
Where to start? What to write?

Perhaps a ‘few words’ on how I even came to be in position of writing about yoga.

Wellllll, I knew from an early age that I was destined to travel a Spiritual path…I still remember the day I felt this amazing vibration emanating from my heart chakra I was filled with love, and this knowingness, that Nirvana was my goal in life….
No not really.
I didn’t really know anything about yoga until a girlfriend, back in 1995, asked me if I’d like to come to a yoga class with her at the gym. Although ‘gym yoga’ now has a very limited appeal to anyone who is serious about learning, back then it was pretty much the only place to go. Apart from a limited number of notable exceptions of course.
I already went to the gym and spent a good 20 minutes stretching in the warm up area, so I thought I’d give it a go.
And the rest, as they say, is history.

A bit more detail?

OK.

I really enjoyed the classes and was happily going twice a week, which I thought was pretty good going at the time, and it coincided with a period in my life when I was looking inward for personal direction. It was inevitable that sooner or later I would want to embark on a big clichéd journey to find myself. Being rather unoriginal in such matters, I decided on India, and began planning my trip. That is to say I started talking a lot about it without making much headway. After all, going to India was a bit of a mission. Especially back in ’96. (If you’ve only visited India for the first time in recent years, believe me when I say it’s gotten a little more tourist friendly since then.)
As it happened I wasn’t destined to travel to India for another 2 years. Something else came up. Something that seemed like a better idea with regards to finding some inner direction. One day whilst I was hanging out with the aforementioned girlfriend, she showed me a leaflet for a yoga teacher training course in Canada, and said she was thinking of doing it. What did I think?

A light bulb lit up in my brain! A little voice said ‘this is what you need to do!’. Forget India, it’s way too much effort. No it didn’t really say that last bit.
‘That’s what I’ll do!’ I exclaimed.
‘You what? This is my idea! Back off’ she (possibly) replied. Oh I didn’t mention, we were ex’s by this point.
Less than a year later I travelled to The Laurentian mountains North of Montreal to spend the most freakishly wet Summer in my life’s history, in a tent, with an ex (how on Earth that ever seemed like a good idea I will never know) studying harder than I had ever done in my life. Not that I’m saying I’d been a slacker through school and college. Although that would be true, I totally was.
Why? I hadn’t found anything that interested me enough to really want to learn about it in any depth. But now here was a subject which took me deeper with each new thing I learned about it. It challenged the limits of my understanding. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. And to this day that hasn’t changed.
Even so, looking at the way things have panned out, it’s ironic that at NO POINT DID I PLAN TO BE A YOGA TEACHER.
Nope, I went only to gain a deeper understanding of a new physical practice that calmed my mind and left my body feeling relaxed. It was only after I’d returned to the UK and reflected, that I decided it would be a terrible waste of so much study and effort to allow it to merely fade away. To disappear from memory. That was when I decided to practise what I’d learnt on the only people who were willing: my friends and family.

That was way back, ’96-’97, so you’ll be happy to hear that these days I walk the path of hatha yoga with far more dedication.
I’m sure you’ve read enough for the time being, so…to be continued at another time.