Last week I received an email offering me the opportunity to help on a yoga teacher training taking place in October in Northern India.

The email came from Lila Conway, a wonderful yogi who first taught me how to teach a few years ago in the Sivananda ashram in Uttarkashi in the Himalayas. We’ve stayed in touch and I even bumped into her in Kerala last November.

The course will be wonderful. Based at the Yoga Niketan Ashram on the bank of the Ganga in Rishikesh, it will be four weeks full of devotion, fun and hard work. It’ll be a memorable and life-changing experience. I thought long and hard about whether to accept such an incredible opportunity.

I declined. On this occasion it doesn’t work with other commitments I’ve got at home in October. I know we can make it work another time and I know this will be the first of many that she’ll run. If you’d like to find out more, visit www.yogaprema.org.

But what is it about the pull of India? I was talking to a friend the other day who came back around the same time as me last December. She’s returning later this month – for how long, she’s not sure.

I know I’ll be back. If not October then perhaps at Christmas. India is an addiction. It does your head in, assaults you in every possible way but she’ll win your heart and you’ll keep going back for more.

Another yoga friend came back to the UK a month ago and, like me, she’s considering whether life in London is for her. She’s turning her back on a stressful job and instead wanting to do work that makes her happy. She wants to rent out her high rise flat in East London and move somewhere a bit more green.

It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my thinking. Staying connected to my practice will keep me grounded until I book that flight…

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Some of you may be wondering how I’m settling back in to life in the UK after five months away. Well, I can say that’s going alright. I went away to deepen my yoga practice and I feel that it’s paying off.

Gratitude

Last weekend I skyped my thumb chum Laurie who I met in Thailand doing my 500 hour training. We talked about how our five weeks of learning ashtanga has benefitted our yoga practice immeasurably.
Michel adjusting me in class
Michel adjusting me in class

A year ago I was tentatively dipping my toe into a beginners ashtanga course prior to going away.  Now when I practice ashtanga, it feels like a pure meditation. Every movement flows with the breath and, ok, so I forget the sequence from time to time but it works. It makes me feel so alive.

Since being back in the UK, I’ve had teachers come up to me at the end of classes telling me that they could watch me practice all day. They’ve asked me where I learnt ashtanga and I tell them to seek out Michel Besnard. I am so grateful to him and Roslyn.

I remember him saying that the gift he was giving us was an ashtanga Mysore self practice but really he’s given me so much more than that. I’ve learnt so much about myself and I love Michel’s motto of ‘who cares!’ Who cares if you can’t do a backbend/sit in lotus/ lift your leg as high as the person next to you etc etc. Just enjoy your practice.

Laurie was saying the same thing. She’s based in St Louis, Missouri, and is now on the teaching faculty of a 200 hour yoga teacher training at the studio where she works. We feel so lucky to have had the experience.

Yoga Hall St Albans

This week I covered my first class at the Yoga Hall in St Albans. Run by Laura and Finlay, they follow a disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda’s, Faustomaria Dorelli.

I feel that everything that I’ve learnt over the past few years is coming together in my teaching. Before my time with Michel I would never have focused so much on standing postures or suggested to

Swami Sivananda

Swami Sivananda

students that they lift their middle toes to engage the muscles in their legs. In the class at the Yoga Hall I threw some yin postures into the mix, whilst also teaching some Sivananda-based pranayama and relaxation.

While students laid in savasana, I speedily made herbal tea in the kitchen for everyone after class. Swami Sivananda looked on with his reassuring eyes from a picture on a cupboard door, and a postcard of Swami Vishnudevananda was blu-tacked onto the wall above the mugs. It’s a lovely place and I feel at home there. Their satsang/chanting evenings once a month are wonderful too.

 

Yoga Harpenden

I’m also lucky to have met an ashtanga teacher out near me in Harpenden who is fast becoming a good friend. In jolly proper Harpenden you’d be hard-pressed to find many Californians who’ve lived in  ashrams and follow silent gurus… but I found one! April is inspiring me to keep up my daily practice and we have plans to run a local ashtanga/yin yoga workshop together.

I’ve also decided that after ten years, I’m done with living in London. I’m happy to work in an art gallery there for a couple of days a week but it feels too busy and stressful. Hertfordshire’s fields, fresh air and friendly people are a-calling. I just need to work out how I can afford a car and a flat. I can’t live with my parents forever…

Any of my 500 hour training buddies reading this? How has the training affected your practice and teaching? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Om shanti.

This article is from Andrea Leber’s wonderful yoga blog. It’s about the dangers and issues of being a single woman visiting India. Have a read and feel free to comment. I hope you enjoy it as much as me!

Yoga & Joyful Living

I have been to India numerous times, travelling mostly by myself. Recently a friend was planning to go but got worried by what she was reading in the news. ‘Do you think it’s still safe?’ she wanted to know.

Replying YES would have felt like belittling recent atrocities, brushing them aside like an annoying fly we won’t worry about once it’s out of sight.

Replying NO would have been a slap in the face for millions of well-meaning, friendly and helpful people who genuinely welcome tourists.

Until recently, women travellers could at least take comfort from the fact that it was more or less safe in the foreigner-bubble. Not anymore. A Swiss woman has been raped, a British woman jumped from her hotel balcony on the second floor, injuring both legs, frightened of the hotel owner who (she says / he denies) wanted to enter her…

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I must say that I’m rather enjoying teaching my Sunday morning Yin yoga class at Bermondsey Fayre, SE1. I’m used to teaching Hatha yoga which involves more movement and you get through a lot more poses.

But Yin places emphasis on stillness and prolonged time in postures to encourage the connective tissue to lengthen. We do some warm up movements such as ‘happy baby’ and ‘cat and cow’ and sometimes the odd bit of partner yoga which is always a giggle. One of the big differences is that I’m playing music in class for the first time. This helps to focus people’s attention as one pose can seem like a lifetime.

Anyone who knows me will know that I’ve always been rather fond of music. Whether it’s singing musicals in the car, chanting sanskrit mantras in satsangs, or having karaoke birthday parties (my favourite karaoke number is Elton and Kiki – Don’t go breaking my heart. A classic, I’m sure you’ll agree). Now let me tell you a secret. Sometimes in class I have to suppress the urge to sing along. It’s true. And that would not be relaxing for students.

I’m spending some time today putting together a playlist for Sunday’s class:

Yin class screen grab from iTunes

Mali Music album cover

Mali Music

It features some yogi stalwarts such as Deva Premal and Jai Uttal, but I’m enjoying throwing in some unexpected ones. Nora Mangiamele taught me to teach Yin and she always started the class with some upbeat numbers. I love Hot Chip and the mysterious dubstep man who was known simply as ‘Burial’ for a long time, like music’s answer to Banksy. One of his tunes is called ‘In McDonalds’ but somehow I didn’t think that was right for yoga.

Mali Music was one of Damon Albarn’s projects, working with musicians in the African country. The album’s happy and the Blur man can do no wrong in my opinion.

I heard about Wah! a few years ago on my first teacher training when a buddy was raving about her. She’s American and her actual name is Wah Devi. Imagine that.

Wah! Maa album cover

Wah! Maa

I was thinking earlier that some of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells would work well in class so I downloaded Sentinel from iTunes.

And if any of you enjoyed the music from the French film Amelie, you’ve got Yann Tiersen to thank for that. This song Kala isn’t quite so ‘in your face’ as the Amelie soundtrack but still has a quirky feel to it and feels relaxed enough to play in class.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn is a Pakistani musician who’s pretty well known. His music featured in the soundtrack for the film ‘Dead Man Walking’ with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. I can see that some people might think that he sounds rather like a wailing man in the throes of death, but I like him. However, I like Take That and some people think that’s ridiculous too. Here’s a song from ‘Dead Man Walking’:

Nora introduced me to Peter Kater and this is the music from the 2006 film, ’10 questions for the Dalai Lama’. In this documentary the film maker interviews His Holiness in Dharamsala, India. The soundtrack has beautiful piano pieces and some feature Tibetan monks chanting mantras. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Dharamsala and Rewalsar Lake in Himachal Pradesh with my Dad and this music instantly transports me back there to monasteries where we sat listening to chanting monks with fantastically long squawky trumpets.

So anyway, feel free to download these songs from iTunes and create your own Yin yoga playlist. Or even better, come along to the class on Sunday and try Yin yoga with me. Contact Bermondsey Fayre to book your place.

Do you have any songs you enjoy playing during yoga? I’m always keen to hear other people’s suggestions. Feel free to leave your comments below…

Chanting monks

Me and my Dad sitting with chanting Tibetan monks (2010)

This Sunday morning I’m going to start teaching a Yin Yoga class at Bermondsey Fayre near London Bridge station. The following is a conversation I had with YOU!

“What is Yin Yoga?”

Well I’m very pleased you asked that question as I was about to tell you. It’s a form of yoga that works on stretching the body’s connective tissue (ligaments) by holding postures for longer. We might hold a posture for anything up to 7 minutes.

“That sounds intense. Who’s it for?”

Anyone can do Yin but it’s ideal for people who already do some form of sport. Perhaps you enjoy going to the gym or you run or swim. You might already practice an energetic type of yoga such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga or Bikram.

“Why should I practice Yin?”

Because it works on a really deep level to open your body. It also can stop you getting injuries. Muscularly powerful people can become incapacitated because of joint problems. Bad backs, bad knees – these are the injuries that force sporty people to stop doing what they love and make elderly people shuffle about. Yin Yoga postures gently stretch the connective tissues that form our joints.

“I didn’t think you could stretch connective tissue.”

Oh little did you know! Moderately stretching the joints is good for you but it must be done in a Yin fashion – ie gently and over a period of time. Hence why we hold the postures for quite a few minutes.

Think about our teeth. You can’t exercise your teeth by wiggling them about as they won’t move. But if you wear a brace, gradually, over time, they move. This is like Yin and your flexibility will improve enormously. By surrendering to gravity, you can go deeper into poses. You relax your muscles and the release naturally happens.

For more information about yoga classes at Bermondsey Fayre visit their website or or email Liz to book your place for this Sunday.

I’ve taken this information from Paul Grilley. To find out more about him, visit www.paulgrilley.com.

Learn more about Yin Yoga by watching this video by Bernie Clark:

This week I had the pleasure of hearing some of the Srimad Bhagavatam being chanted. The Srimad Bhagavatam is an ancient yoga text that talks about the life of Lord Krishna.

Was I in India to hear such a thing? Nope, I was in Putney at the London Sivananda Centre in the company of Sri Venugopal Goswami and his wonderful musicians. Based in India in Vrindavan – the birthplace of Lord Krishna – they visit London every year for seven nights of chanting, chatting and meditation.

Sri Venugopal sits on high in front of about 20 people and expertly chants and interweaves readings from the text.

The tambura drones throughout and we’re transported to a land of Krishna and his gopis. “We chant a little” announces Sri Venugopal and his cross-legged musicians perk up. A slight Indian guy with a cheeky grin and an 80’s mullet begins expertly flicking his wrists and fingers on the tabla drum. The pace quickens and the gruff-looking harmonium player gets lost in the music.

Sri Venugopal closes his eyes and his chanting transports us to Vrindavan. We sit and easily forget our snowy, cold London day. And just as quickly as the chanting started, it stops and he talks.

He talks of Stalin. Though I’m sure this is his own addition and not a Srimad Bhagavatam original…

He talks of devotion and the heart. He talks of karma yoga and selfless actions: one man checks up on his neighbour as he hadn’t seen him for a month and was concerned. “Why would you just be coming to say hello?” asked the neighbour suspiciously. Sri Venugopal says how sad it is that we now live in a time when people think that there must be an ulterior motive. You can’t just do something to be kind.

He talks of the ego: imagine a thick block of ice (very easy to imagine at the moment) and a small candle sitting alongside. No matter how small the flame, gradually the ice will melt. The ice is our ego and the flame is chanting, meditation and yoga. Little by little these teachings reduce our ego. How good is that.

I was surrounded by familiar faces and some unexpected ones too. It was a lovely night and I look forward to their return.

Here’s a clip I found on YouTube of Sri Venugopal performing on a previous visit to the Centre. Sneakily filmed for your pleasure…


*Title courtesy of that famous yogi, 50 Cent and his song, ‘In da club‘. Yes, I can do pop culture too.

I’m on the beach at Kovalam watching the sun set on India for the final time. I recognise a middle-aged couple from the Sivananda ashram standing in the shallows watching the sun too. They both wear silver om necklaces and look sun kissed.

I walk towards them and they welcome me like a long lost friend. We didn’t speak once at the ashram. They say in broken English that they speak no English. I tell them that I leave for London tomorrow morning. They leave for Berlin in two day’s time.

She mimes singing and points at me. They must have heard me leading a chant during satsang. “Sing… engel” she says pointing at me. She points to her forearm and mimes what can only be goosebumps. “Singing… engel” she says again. She beams at me and touches my arm tenderly.

I thank her for such a wonderful compliment and we part. I continue to walk along the beach letting each wave wash over my feet. Tears spring from my eyes. India is beautiful. Whatever you offer to Her, she returns it ten-fold.

I walk further along the beach. The glamorous girl who played terrible Russian pop music in the dorm is sitting on the beach watching the scene. We wave to each other from afar.

Groups of Indian boys throw sand at each other and boldly ask me how I am. Young couples in love take photos of one another. Indian women in drenched salwar kameez sit on sun loungers waiting for their daughters to finish playing in the water.

Stephen from the ashram is throwing a frisbee in the air, trying to catch it. He goes to the Putney Sivananda Centre from time to time and lives in Plymouth. He talks enthusiastically about how yoga saved him from an unfulfilling life down the pub. “Pubs contain such dark energy, don’t you think?”

The End?
Thinking about my time away since July, my goal was to practice and increase my knowledge of yoga and I certainly feel like I’ve achieved that.

From my five weeks in Koh Samui with Michel Besnard and the gang, I learnt so much about Ashtanga yoga, my own body and about other types of yoga such as Yin and Acro. My teaching will never be the same again.

20121219-164535.jpgThe Absolute Yogis

I learnt what it means to be ‘yo-glam‘ on Koh Phang An, and I can now give Thai Massage based on the time I spent in Chiang Mai.

Koh Phang An gang

Koh Phang An gang

20121219-165936.jpg

Thai massage girlies

I was also glad to have the opportunity to catch up with my yoga buddy Sherylee and her husband in Sri Lanka.

20121219-164756.jpgThree on a motorbike: with Sherylee and Brett

During the two months I’ve been in India, I witnessed the madness of Osho’s glitzy ashram and felt Amma’s love through her ‘darshan’ or blessing. In Goa I was barked at for two weeks doing Iyengar and I got to see the big man himself in Pune.

20121219-165131.jpgHangin’ in Goa

I’ve had a go at learning the harmonium and gained insight into the daily life of an Indian family courtesy of Babaji and the Dhabolkars in Arambol, Goa.

20121219-165319.jpgBabaji

And I ended it all back where it started in 2009 in the Sivananda ashram in Kerala. It was wonderful to share some of it with my Mum and Dad and my sister.

20121219-170153.jpgWith Mum and Dad in Kerala

20121219-170348.jpgWith Kaths in Thailand

The sun has set and it’s time for my final meal. I feel sad but happy and blessed to have had this entire experience. I know I’ll be back. India does that to you. The yoga helps too. It certainly brings people together.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog while I’ve been away. Thank you for all the comments, encouragement and the personal emails prompted by my witterings.

From next year I’ll continue to write about yoga related things. Have lovely Christmases and New Years and remember to stay positive and follow your dreams.

Hari om tat sat.