It was clear and crisp on Saturday morning – a bit of a rarity in this year’s dry season – and perfect for a visit to Gunung Abang, the third highest mountain in Bali. I had already hiked up Abang three times this year, and like any place that I visit regularly, I felt like I had begun to develop a relationship with it. I arrived at the trailhead around 7 am, and the clear weather held for the duration of the hike. The mountain had been shrouded in mist and cloud on each of the other occasions that I had visited, so it was a very different experience this time to walk up with the morning light shining brightly through the thick forest. I found myself noticing and experiencing many different things, as if it was a brand new place at times. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the only thing that was different about Abang this time. One of the things that I enjoy most about this hike is the lush and dense forest. The trail used to be fairly narrow, and the vegetation closed in tightly against it in many parts of the hike. The trail was also quite eroded in many places and full of large rocks and roots, which made the hike technically challenging. All of these factors would stimulate a more participatory sensory engagement with my environment, which would lead to a feeling of a much fuller relationship with the forest and with the land. Feeling this kind of relationship with my environment is the essence and purpose of hiking for me. As I began my hike on Saturday morning, I immediately noticed that the trail had been leveled out. The erosion ditches were gone, and it also seemed much wider than before. My first thought was, “Wow, trail maintenance in Bali! That’s impressive.” It seemed odd to me. I’ve never encountered more than a small handful of people on this trail, and as I walked on it became apparent that a lot of work had gone into flattening and widening the trail. Soon, the trail grew to be at least 4 – 5 times as wide as I remember it being. There was a notable absence of the big rocks and tree roots that I remember. Massive amounts of vegetation had been cleared on either side, and the trail was now very flat, uniform and in many places neat “steps” had been cut into the dirt. While I still enjoyed the morning, I increasingly noticed that I felt much less connected to the forest than I preferred to be. The forest seemed so far away from me, on either side of the now massive trail. It was more difficult to feel the forest, and I had to make a conscious effort to do so. I made rapid progress on the ascent, and I began to feel that a lot of the meandering twists and turns had been removed from the trail. I started to feel like I was on something like a paved highway. Whoever had revamped the trail had taken the same approach that someone building a highway for automobiles would take. Instead of respectfully integrating the trail into the surrounding environment, a large and direct swath was cut through the landscape, with convenience, speed and ease of access being the main concerns. “Whoever planned this is certainly not an ecologist”, I thought, as I imagined how much erosion was going to take place during the next rainy season on this wide, exposed and flattened swath of dirt. I then began to wonder if this had perhaps been done for a large religious procession. Why would such extensive and unnecessary changes be made to the trail for a small handful of hikers? There are three small temples on the hike – two on the way up, and one at the top. They are all seemingly insignificant temples. The one at the top was a decaying old bamboo structure, along with a very old looking and crumbling stone archway, which had fallen into disrepair. I doubted there would be any major procession for such a minor temple. I reached the top in record time, even though I had walked quite slowly and stopped to take a lot of pictures. This confirmed my suspicions that the trail had been altered to become much shorter and more direct. It served the function of a highway. I still managed to enjoy the walk, for the most part, in spite of the changes to the trail. I am currently reading a book called “Animate Earth” by Stephan Harding, who is a colleague of David Abram. In the book, Harding writes about Abram’s eloquent descriptions of the reciprocal relationship between a human and its environment. The environment is not simply a static, soulless object for us to perceive, measure, manipulate and dominate, as most modern worldviews assume it to be. The environment is alive and participatory, and it perceives and responds to us as much as we perceive and respond to it. Animals, plants, and even the inorganic parts of the environment all have an ability to perceive, and they respond to us. The relationship moves in both directions, hence the land and the environment must be engaged with in a respectful relationship, just as we would with another human being. All animist and indigenous cultures have held this fact at the heart of their worldviews. To understand that our environment (meaning everything that is not us, including all of the animals, plants and inorganic parts) is alive; that it has intention, intelligence and preference; that it perceives us as much as we perceive it; and that it is ultimately a whole which we (homo sapiens) are just a small part of, and ultimately inseparable from, could be considered to be a form of animism. This type of understanding occurs outside of the realm of the rational, analytic and objectifying understanding that science and most of modern human society is based on. It arises from the subjective feeling and intuitive aspects of the human experience – or our organic, intuitive, animal intelligence. What I enjoy most about hiking or immersing myself in natural places is the cultivation of this kind of feeling based and reciprocal relationship with the forest and with the earth. A good friend of mine and I used to give names to the specific trees, rocks or places that we would frequently encounter on our walks. We would speak of the trees or places we intended to visit on each of our hikes. To us, these trees, rocks and places were actual entities which we had a reciprocal relationships with, and visiting them was not unlike visiting a human friend. They would respond to us as much as we responded to them. One of our favorite tree friends was a massive old oak tree, which resided on the top of a hill along one of our usual routes. We aptly named it “the tree on the hill”. It was a well known being to us, and we frequently paused and spent some time under its large branches when we passed by. One day, some years after I had moved away, my friend wrote to me and reported, “the tree on the hill died this year. It didn’t get any leaves this spring. Later, some people came and cut it down. When I walked up the other day, there were just a bunch of sawed up logs where it was supposed to be.” I recall feeling a great sadness upon reading those words. An old friend had passed away. I imagined what it would have been like to walk up the hill and to encounter a pile of sawed up logs instead of being greeted by the tree. A very strong and unpleasant visceral feeling arose deep inside of me. My friend also reflected that he had felt extremely disturbed when the tree on the hill died. It seemed to be a representative statement of the gradual decline of that section of forest, which we had witnessed over the years as the surrounding human settlement encroached deeper into it. I often feel like I directly perceive how a specific forest or environment “feels”. Is it happy and thriving, or unhappy and wounded? How does that feeling relate to the forest’s impression of me and to its reaction to my presence within it? These perceptions don’t come from analytical observation and evaluation. They come as direct feelings and intuitions, as if the forest as a whole is speaking them to me. As an extreme example of this, in my early 20s I worked in the silviculture industry in Northern Canada during the summer months for a few years. My job was to plant trees – reforestation – in areas which had been clearcut by logging companies or burned by forest fires. When working in a freshly clearcut area, where the stumps, branches and remnants of the trees were still lying around not yet dead, but in the final stages of dying, I always felt like I was walking through the scene of a horrific mass murder or genocide, with the bodies of the dying victims strewn everywhere. I could feel the pain and anguish of the remnants of the forest, and all of her living and non-living entities. I sometimes felt the forest was very angry, and that my presence offended it deeply. There were some days in places like these where everything would go wrong. Every five minutes, something would appear out of nowhere and trip me up until I fell flat on my face. Or I would step on a jagged branch of a dead tree, and it would jump out of the ground and whack or scratch me deeply. One day, after being tripped or scratched for the hundredth time or more, I yelled out to the wind in exasperation: “It’s not my fault! I didn’t do this to you!” The forest didn’t care. It was hurt, angry and lashing out in whatever way it could. Other times, when I am in healthy and thriving forests or environments, I feel an immense loving energy emanating from my surroundings. I feel completely accepted and integrated into the environment, as if it will take care of me and no harm could possibly come to me. In the Yukon region of Northern Canada, where I used to live, people usually carry bear spray, which is meant to be a last resort defense in bear attacks, with them when they hike. I never felt the need to carry bear spray, even though I was often strongly criticized and called foolish. When confronted about this, I would smile and state that I go hiking with the intention of loving my environment, and that the environment recognizes this and loves me back. I have a friend in the Yukon who is extremely adept at listening to the non-human world. One day, I was having tea at her house and she related a story to me about the construction going on in the lot beside her property. She told me that the contractor of the construction project had approached her and inquired about the potential removal of some trees that were on her property, close to the lot where the construction was taking place. The contractor had said that the trees were in the way of some equipment that they needed to use, and he proposed to cut them down and then replace them with new trees once the construction was completed. Since the trees were on her property, he would need her permission to do this. She told me that she had replied to him that she would ask the trees if they were willing to be cut down, and then let him know the following day. She said that when she went out later to ask the trees, the clear message coming from the trees was “no”. She reported this to the contractor the following day. “How did he respond to that?”, I asked. She said that he began to argue and attempted to bargain with her. She told me that she finally cut him off by sharply saying “Look! The trees said “no”, it isn’t my decision. End of discussion.” On my hike on Saturday, I definitely felt like the forest was moderately wounded. The previous times that I had done this hike, the forest had always reached out to me and embraced me. Today, it remained aloof, and a bit sullen. Walking in the middle of this newly widened trail, with the large swaths of vegetation removed from either side, I felt like the forest chose to ignore me. When I approached the edges of the trail, to take a picture, or to touch something, or to look more closely at something, the forest would come around and respond to me. But, I clearly had to make an effort to engage with it for that to happen. The forest was sulking a bit, and it was not a natural flowing relationship like it had previously been. When I reached the summit of Gunung Abang, I understood what had happened. I was correct in my guess that the desecration of the forest was for religious purposes. The small clearing at the summit was completely unrecognizable. It had been dramatically landscaped. All of the big old trees that I remembered as residing there had been cut down. The vegetation was all cleared away. The entire shape of the clearing had changed. The entire area was bare exposed dirt, with a shiny new concrete temple complex built in the middle of it. It looked like a construction site. It was a construction site. It was very disturbing, and I again experienced a strong and unpleasant visceral feeling. Even though the removal of the trees made for a more open clearing, and the views all around were more expansive than they were before, I did not enjoy being on the summit at all. The following two sets of pictures represent nearly identical camera angle shots of the summit, before and after the changes were made. One set was taken on a hike in June 2016, and one was taken on this hike in September 2016: The last hike that I did before this one, which was in the dense forest of Gunung Batukaru, also contained temples and stone idols. Yet, these man-made structures all felt completely integrated with their environment. In fact, there were a few man-made things that I hadn’t even noticed until I descended by the same route and passed by them a second time. They were so well integrated with the forest, that they remained hidden to the casual glance. When telling a friend about this later, he asked, “Did it seem hindu or animist?” “Definitely animist”, I replied. The stone carvings actually felt alive to me, as if some force had breathed soul and life into them and the forest had also accepted and integrated them as a part of it. I distinctly remember two small stone wild cats, which sat on the ground, nestled into the trees and undergrowth on either side of the beginning of the trail. They did not stand out to the eye, but once I stopped and looked at them more closely, they came to life. They were fierce, and snarled menacingly at me, as if to warn me about entering the forest. I sneered and growled right back at them, as if to say, “Ha! I am not afraid. Don’t worry, I belong here.” They relented, and I walked through happily. Saturday’s experience was the exact opposite. Whoever built the new temple on the top of Gunung Abang, and paved a highway through the forest in order to do it, had absolutely no relationship with the land or sensitivity to the feelings of the land. There was no life or relationship in the man made modifications, only soullessness. The temple, and the highway through the forest were not built for the forest, or within a relationship with the forest. They were built for something that exists only in the realm of abstract and disembodied human thought and fantasy. This is the way of the world today. Whether we worship capitalism and money, or abstract and disembodied gods, or an unfeeling and objectifying science, we are turning away from our authentically felt and reciprocal relationship with the rest of the planet earth – with the living entity called Gaia – which we are inherently a part of. The rest of the planet – Gaia – knows that we are doing this. It is intelligent. It has feelings. It perceives our actions. And, it is not very happy. Our relationship with the earth is the essence of our existence, it is a defining feature of who and what we are. We are whole when we are lovingly and respectfully integrated into the form and life of Gaia. We speak to Gaia, and Gaia speaks to us. When we stop listening to her and we stop participating in the relationship with her, Gaia becomes ill and displeased. I wrote about one of my previous descents from the summit of Gunung Abang in my recent article “Becoming Animal”. I described how I broke into a run on the way down, and allowed my body to make instinctive and intuitive movements from a place of organic animal intelligence. On Saturday, I realized that this organic intelligence does not arise entirely from within me. I realized that organic intelligence arises out of my reciprocal relationship with my environment. It is an emergent property of that relationship, which cannot be experienced in isolation of that relationship. Descending from the summit of Abang on Saturday, I broke into a run a few times, but felt much less steady or confident than I did in my previous descent, which I wrote about in “Becoming Animal”. On Saturday, as I ran, the slope felt too uniform. It was just bare dirt. There were no “obstacles”. No rocks for my feet to find. No tree trunks or branches for my hands to find. On my previous descent, the “obstacles” – and specifically my relationship with them – stimulated and cultivated my organic intelligence. Nearing a sharp bend in the trail, my hand would instinctively grab a narrow tree trunk, and I would use it to swing around and make the turn in mid-air. Or, perhaps the tree trunk had called out to my hand, “Here, turn now! Let me help you!” Nearing a big rock, my foot would instinctively step on it and use it as a springboard to propel myself up into the air and over another obstacle, such as a ditch or another rock. Or, perhaps the rock had called out to my foot, “Here, I will give you a lift!” Nearing a sharp drop off, my hand would instinctively grab a hanging branch, and use that to slow down my momentum, so I could navigate the drop more carefully. Or, perhaps the branch had called out to me, “Hey, slow down now! Be careful. I will help.” None of this was possible on Saturday. The flat and leveled surface of dirt, with its unnatural carved steps, did not allow for any of these spontaneous relationships with my environment. Every time I broke into a run, I soon felt like I was uncontrollably picking up speed on a sheer descent, with nothing to moderate or modulate it, and I would have to force myself to slow down and walk again. Within the human body, each organ, or muscle, or specific population of cells or microorganisms is a discrete and distinct entity of its own. It has characteristics which make it distinguishable from the other parts of the human body. At the same time, it is also a part of the greater human body. Its integrated role in the functioning of the whole human being is as much a part of the essence and definition of what it is, as are the characteristics which allow it to be distinguished as a discrete and separate entity. Remove a heart from the human body, and it will cease to be a heart. It will quickly stop beating, die and decay into detritus. To be a heart, is to be a healthy and integrated part of a human being. Similarly, human beings are also discrete entities of their own. Each human is different and distinguishable from other humans, and each human is different and distinguishable from other animals, plants, rocks, and the rest of the planet earth. Yet, each human, and the collective population of humans as a group, is also part of a greater whole – that of the living entity that has been called Gaia, or the self-regulating organism which is the planet earth. Just as a heart cannot be removed from its relationship to the human body and expect to continue its existence as a heart, a human being cannot be removed from its relationship to Gaia, and expect to continue its existence as a human being. There has been a lot of talk about colonizing Mars in the news recently. This fascinates me. When I imagine what it would be like to live on Mars – if it were possible – I feel like it would be a hell. It may be possible to manufacture artificial life support systems which would allow humans to survive on Mars for some period of time – just as it is possible to set up controlled laboratory conditions where a heart can be kept alive and beating outside of a human body for some period of time. Yet, there is no doubt in my mind that such an experiment would eventually fail, and those humans who made it to Mars would die a terrible death through a combination of physical complications and psychological insanity. The human organism simply isn’t designed to function and survive outside of the greater whole of Gaia – the planet earth. Our role on this planet – within Gaia – is a part of the definition of what and who we are. We cannot exist outside of that definition. The spiritual implications of this are vast. Science asks us to surrender to objective reasoning, and to reduce anything in the realm of feeling or intuition to subjective speculation. Capitalism asks us to surrender to money and unfettered growth. Monotheistic religions ask us to surrender to an abstract and disembodied God, and to a heaven that lies beyond this planet, which we will be rewarded with at the time of death. Our physical experience on this planet is reduced to being a testing ground for our ethical virtues and our worthiness of ultimately escaping to a better place at the time of death. Eastern renunciate religions ask us to remove ourselves from the attachments that relationships bring, in order to know the self. The Eastern ascetic attempts to cut himself off from relationship as much as possible in order to escape its samsaric clutches, and to enter into solitary and isolated contemplation. The planet earth and all of the relationships and connections we have with it, are reduced to being viewed as illusory, a cause of suffering, and ultimately meant to be transcended. With these types of worldviews prevailing in 7.3 billion powerful and technologically equipped human beings today, it is no wonder that Gaia is wounded, and crying in pain. None of these worldviews recognize that our inherent nature is that of being in intimate and reciprocal relationship with the greater whole of this beautiful, living planet. None of these worldviews recognize that our relationship with Gaia is a fundamental and defining feature of our existence as humans. It may very well be that the only hope to re-establish the health, happiness and vitality of Gaia, is to revive the worldview and spirituality of animism: To re-engage in our reciprocal sensory relationships with the non-human world, to re-learn how to listen to the non-human world, and to re-discover that this relationship with a greater whole is a defining feature of what it means to be human. To be human is to be in relationship with the non-human, and to play a balanced role as a part of the greater whole of Gaia. We co-evolved in intimate, intricate, and reciprocal relationship with all the other parts and components and the whole of Gaia over millions of years. To know the self, can only mean to know the role of the self within its manifold connections to the rest of Gaia. To imagine that a human being could find truth and liberation by transcending its relationship with Gaia is as ridiculous a notion as imagining that a human heart could find truth and liberation by transcending its relationship with the human organism. In my last article, I wrote about surrendering to the self, and to the intuitive organic intelligence of the self. Comparing the experience of my two different descents down Gunung Abang – one on the old trail, and one on the new trail – helped me to come to the beautiful realization that the organic animal intelligence of the self can only arise out of the reciprocal and participatory relationship of the self with the rest of the environment. To surrender to the self and to surrender to the organic intelligence of the self means by definition to surrender to Gaia and to our relationship with her. Fortunately, Gaia – the living, self-regulating organism which our entire planet is – is much greater than us. We are only a small part of it. One day the human species will be no more, and of all their gods and idols will die along with them. But Gaia will live on. Gaia doesn’t need us. Nature doesn’t need us. Life doesn’t need us. We are replaceable, and we will eventually be replaced. Other forms of life will evolve out of our dust and our detritus, and they will grow over our monuments and our ideas, until all traces of the human species are buried under the ashes of time. Gaia will survive and thrive, long after we are gone. This fact gives me great comfort.
A practitioner in my Mysore program recently asked me: “If one side of a posture is more open than the other, and I feel like I can keep going deeper in the more open side, should I hold back to try to even it out with the less open side?” My response drew from what I feel is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice. What follows is an expanded version of my response to this question: “Don’t attempt to consciously direct the organic intelligence of the body. There is a deep intelligence in the sequencing of the postures and vinyasas. They are designed to restructure the body in a particular way over many years of daily practice. The body also has its own innate, organic intelligence. The intelligence of the body interacts with the intelligence of the practice in a complex way, which even the most knowledgeable anatomy expert cannot even begin to see clearly. The tensegrity patterns which hold the body in its stable structural state exist within a vast and complex web which has its own inherent intelligence. As the practice influences the body and the tensegrity patterns of its structural state, all kinds of complex shifts, changes and evolution in those patterns are taking place. What we observe on the surface may sometimes seem illogical or counterintuitive – such as one side of the body becoming more open than the other side, or some types of transient pain. But, if we could see what is happening beneath the hood, in the myriad of complex inner patterns which we cannot directly perceive, what is happening may make perfect sense. The temporary outer expression of the body is simply a passing phenomenon which is a byproduct of a much vaster internal process. The organic, instinctive intelligence of the body knows very well what it is doing. It is often better not to impose our conscious ideas about the restructuring process onto the body, because our conscious ideas are based on very limited information – the outer expression which we see on the surface. Trust the innate intelligence of the body to direct that deeper internal process in the best way possible. It is more relaxing that way. Sit back and surrender to something that does not actually require conscious manipulation. Do all of the postures and vinyasas of your practice every day, in order, with sensitivity and awareness. Whatever the body happens to be allowing on that particular day, go into it. Allow it to happen. Don’t hold back. Whatever the body happens to be resisting on that particular day – encounter it, but don’t force it. Respect the resistance. Come up to the edge of it and feel it, but don’t push too hard against it. Flow through the practice in this way and just sit back and watch as the magic unfolds within, and the patterns of tension and release continue to shift, change, and evolve over time as the structure of the body shifts, changes and evolves over time. It is a beautiful journey.” I’ve maintained a daily practice of the first four Ashtanga series, without any alteration to the modern sequencing for 13 years. The description above represents my current perception of how the system works most effectively and healthily on the human body, based on my own personal experience as well as the experience of observing hundreds of students who have practiced with me. The concept of “surrender” to a greater intelligence than that which we can directly perceive is a key theme in the above description. I believe that “surrender” is an inherent property of a healthy human mind. The human mind has a powerful capacity to conceptualize, and to attempt to control its inner and outer environments. This is a wonderful capability, and we can and should use it when it is appropriate. It is also important to understand that relaxation cannot occur without surrender, or a relinquishing of control. If we are always attempting to control and manipulate ourselves and our surroundings, we will exist in a constant state of stress. This is a pathological condition. Stress is unhealthy to any organism. Some tension is necessary for life to exist, and some degree of conscious conceptualization and manipulation will increase our quality of life, but a dynamic balance between a state of tension (or stress) and relaxation (or surrender) is likely to be the most functional and healthy. This balance is another form of bandha. Spiritual and religious systems also cite the concept of “surrender” as being an essential ingredient in the path to liberation and freedom. In other articles I have written, I have discussed how this surrender often takes the form of giving one’s personal power away – to a god, to a guru, to a dharma, to a concept, to an imagined and unattainable ideal, etc. In these contexts, surrender becomes a subtle but powerful way for people to be subjugated and controlled and essentially to mistrust themselves. I feel that modern religion and spirituality emerged and became rooted in human cultures by capitalizing on the inherent need and characteristic of the human mind to “surrender”, and feeding it lofty abstract concepts such as gods, gurus, heavens and ideals of liberation to which it should surrender. It is no coincidence that modern forms of religion and spirituality came into existence around the same time that agriculture did (about 10 000 years ago), and the modern human population began its path of unchecked expansion and growth. The need to organize greater numbers of people into increasingly co-operative networks based around increasingly unnatural and specialized tasks (ie. modern human society) required a common ideology, a common myth, a common shared story that we could all agree on and be bound together by. Religion and spirituality evolved to fulfill this crucial role and requirement for modern, organized human society to work. Religious and spiritual concepts which claim to be of divine origin, and are therefore essentially unchallengeable by mortal and imperfect humans fulfill this role perfectly. Early modern humans agreed that in order to attain freedom, heaven, salvation, or eternal peace, they had to surrender themselves to the demands of the higher powers – the gods, the gurus, the concepts, the liberation ideals – which governed the universe. This proved to be very effective and allowed human society to continue to co-operate and expand its numbers and its power to the point we have reached today, where we live in a dream bubble of our own making and have very little relationship to our organic, animal roots as members of the interconnected web of species on the planet earth. This worked to increase the numbers of our species in the early phases of the agricultural revolution – and increasing numbers of copies of genes is the currency of success as far as biological evolution goes. However, having transcended some of the laws of biological evolution at this stage in our species’ journey, we have come to a point of deep crisis, and our very survival is likely at stake, unless we are able to radically shift our worldview and our reality. If surrender is an inherent trait of a healthy human mind, then it must have already existed in the human mind before the emergence of agriculture and modern religion and spirituality 10 000 years ago. It is likely that the new abstract religious concepts to which humans learned to surrender subverted the traditional ways that human beings utilized the mind’s ability to surrender for the millions of years that the homo genus existed before the comparatively recent advent of agriculture and modern religion and spirituality. My current feeling is that that when human beings existed in hunter gatherer clans prior to 10 000 years ago, the mind’s surrender would have been to the innate biological intelligence of its own organism. Though the state of consciousness of pre-agricultural humans cannot be definitively understood, I feel it is possible to speculate based on the anthropological observations we have of the few hunter gatherer societies which have survived in the modern world, as well as introspective observation of the way my own consciousness behaves in different environments and lifestyles that I have engaged in throughout my life. In pre-agricultural times, humans likely spent much of their existence in an embodied organic animal state of intelligence. This would have been a very beautiful form of self-awareness and self-understanding, which placed great confidence in the human sense of instinct and intuitive understanding. This state of consciousness and self-awareness is very different compared to that which our rational and analytic dominated minds tend to exist in today. To survive in the forest, without the network of support of a modern human society, the sensory and perceptual systems of these humans must have been highly developed. The variety and degree of intelligent skills that each and every human being would have developed and mastered over a course of a lifetime would have been enormous. Those who were not able to do this would not have survived. The embodied state would have been a prominent feature of this existence. Consciousness would have generally stayed within the framework the physical, biological organism, and this likely led to a very deep sense of trust – or surrender – to that innate organic intelligence. I imagine it was a very complete and whole way of living, and the existential crises and feelings of disconnect that so many people experience in the modern world likely did not exist for those human beings. There was probably not much need for lofty spiritual aspirations, because an embodied life that directly perceived its place within an interconnected web of species was likely full and complete in nearly every way. Modern humans currently face a serious crisis as a species where we are literally poisoning the planet that we are a part of, and which we rely on for survival. It is quite possible that in the not too distant future, the planet earth may no longer be hospitable for human life and homo sapiens will become extinct. I believe that the fundamental reason we are allowing this to happen is that over the past 10 000 years, we have moved from a reality and a self-awareness which is based on intuitive, instinctive, organic intelligence to a reality and existence which is entirely an abstract construct of the human mind. Our sense of self and awareness is now based on the ideas and suggestions of these imagined and artificially constructed concepts, rather than the organic physical reality of our bodies and the rest of the planet which we are a part of. In a recent TED talk author and historian Yuval Harari gives a very lucid description of the difference between objective, physical reality and the imagined fictional reality that humans have created, and which we now almost entirely exist in. The objective, physical reality of trees, rivers, wind, rocks, animals, and our own organic intuitive intelligence is our biological heritage. It is the reality that humans existed almost exclusively in for the millions of years before the agricultural revolution. Over the past 10 000 years, and especially in very recent times, that objective physical reality has been almost entirely replaced by an imagined, fictional reality created by the human mind. Money, countries, cultures, corporations, laws, religions, heavens, hells, and gods have no basis in physical reality. Yet – we base nearly all of our lifestyle habits, behaviors and decisions on these fictional entities which the human mind has created. As Yuval Harari says in his talk, these imagined entities are now the most powerful forces in the world, even though they are not real. It is no coincidence that the rise of power of these creations of human imagination has occurred at the same time that the objective reality of lakes, rivers, trees and animals has become neglected, abused and destroyed. Not only has the objective reality of these other physical entities of the planet earth been forgotten and neglected, but the objective physical reality of our own instinctive, organic, intuitive human intelligence has also been neglected and abandoned. How many people today can say that they truly live in a way that most of their decisions, behaviors and actions draw from an ability to perceive and understand what is going on within their own organism at the level of embodied experience? I think very few people can honestly say that they live this way. Most decisions, actions and behaviors are based on the fabricated ideologies and expectations that come from society, culture, family, job, religion, scriptures and idols. Where does the modern human being place its faith and its capacity for surrender? Is it in abstract, fictional concepts, or is it in the intuitive organic intelligence of our own bodies and beings? I think the answer to this question sums up the vast majority of what is wrong in the world today, both in terms of intrapersonal well being, and in terms of our collective problems as a species. If we turn to spiritual practices as part of the solution, then we need to be sure that we are not using them to perpetuate the problem. As I stated earlier in this essay, I feel that modern spirituality and religion arose as a part of this process of abstraction and the manufacturing of a fictional reality. Any spiritual practice which asks us to give our power away by surrendering to a fictional idea is not going to help in the current crisis that we face. Nearly all the religions and practices that exist today fall into this category. What will help are practices which help us to rediscover and deepen our relationship with ourselves by cultivating, and ultimately surrendering to, the intuitive, organic intelligence of our own bodies and beings. This increases self-trust, self-confidence and a sense of wholeness. We need to stop giving our faith and trust away to ideas and ideals, and start cultivating and placing our faith in our organic intelligence. We need to stop surrendering to the whims of gods, jobs, countries, cultures and money and start surrendering more to the power and intelligence that lies within the nerves and flesh of this animal human body. By reconnecting to and developing reverence for our own objective, physical nature, we will naturally reconnect to and develop reverence for the objective reality of trees, rivers, rocks and animals. The path back home to nature begins through our own bodies. This leads me back to the description of the process of Ashtanga Vinyasa practice that I began this essay with. I have maintained a 16 year daily practice of two of the most powerful embodiment techniques available on this planet today – Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Vipassana Meditation. Both of these techniques are also connected to extensive dogmas and ideologies which are products of the human mind. By saying that, I do not mean that the philosophy surrounding these techniques is worthless. Certainly, some of the ideas of fictional reality that human beings have created are positive and helpful. Yet, after 16 years of open minded practice and experimentation, I have found that the real reason these techniques work for me is not due to the fictional ideologies that they are connected with, but because I use them as a way to embody my consciousness and to develop the capacity of my organic intelligence. Whether I am sitting still in meditation and experiencing the subtle ebb and flow of sensation throughout every part of my body and being, or whether I am flowing with my body and breath in a profusely sweaty sequence of advanced asanas and vinyasas, the essence of what I am doing is the same. When I practice either of these techniques, I am practicing the letting go of my rational, analytic mind, and letting go of the governance of human made ideas over my being, and I am dropping deeper into and surrendering to the organic intelligence and the felt physical reality of my human body and its sensations and feelings. Many people consider asana to be something that is designed for training the body and meditation to be something for training the mind. For me, they are just different aspects of one and the same thing. They are both somatic, body oriented practices which are extremely effective at cultivating and deepening the sensitivity of our intuitive and instinctive intelligence. In both of these techniques, there are steps in learning which require rational and analytic understanding. In Vipassana meditation, we must learn how to apply our focus to different parts of the body, how to scan, feel and move on, what to place importance on or not place importance on, etc. In the Ashtanga Vinyasa technique, we need to learn how to move the breath inside the body, how to sequence the asanas and vinyasas, how to position the body correctly according to basic principles of alignment, etc. Yet, these are all very superficial aspects of the techniques. They are only meant to be a doorway which opens up into a much deeper experience of embodiment and a state of consciousness which flows intuitively and instinctively. In a mature Vipassana meditation practice, there is very little conscious directing of the awareness. Once one has learned how to move the awareness through the body and feel the somatic experience of sensation everywhere, the conscious directing mind can step back and allow the intuitive aspects of the process take over. In many of my meditation sittings, I drop into a dream like state, where I am continuing to scan and feel my body, but the conscious mind actually becomes suspended and the subconscious dreams, visions and images become my predominant mental experience. This is a feeling of the self at an extremely deep organic level – the subtlest layers of somatic tissue sensation with the corresponding mental images and patterns which arise spontaneously from that felt awareness, with no overlaying of conscious ideals or ideologies. What plays out in those states is very healing, clarifying and restorative. Deep and sometimes detrimental patterns of the psyche are disrupted and reconfigured. Much of what the mind requires from actual sleep and dreaming is accomplished in these sittings, and the need for sleep and dreaming is significantly reduced. In a mature Ashtanga practice, there should also be minimal conscious direction. Once one has learned the correct vinyasa sequencing, and the correct breathing and alignment principles, all that remains to do is to shut the analytical mind off and to flow through the practice instinctively and intuitively. This is where the real magic takes place. When one’s mind simply flows with the movement of the breath and the physical body – especially the subtler internal movements connected to bandha – one can feel the dynamic intelligence of the organic body itself take over. The body understands intuitively how to move or not to move. It understands how to expand and slow down the breath, how to slide deeper into a position, and when to back off and not push against some form of resistance. Some mature practitioners speak of experiencing a state where “some other force” is moving their body and breath through the practice. This force is certainly connected to bandha, but the essence of that force is the organic, intuitive animal intelligence. It feels very good to surrender to this intelligence in practice. When the conscious, analytical mind overlays its ideas and ideals onto the practice and subverts the organic intelligence, the problems of lack of self-trust, self-confidence and self-acceptance occur. This also becomes a breeding ground for injury. Conscious analytical and objective analysis of breathing or alignment techniques may sometimes be beneficial and necessary, especially in the beginning stages of practice. But, in a mature practice which is used as a technique of embodiment and cultivation of organic intelligence, this conscious analysis should constitute only a very small percentage of how the energy and attention is directed. The analytical, objectifying practice is a much more superficial level of practice than the practice which flows from a purely intuitive and instinctive state of being. When one is able to practice in this intuitive way, self-practice in isolation often becomes preferable to practicing in a group or under the direction of a teacher. I am sometimes asked if I am okay with practicing alone for most of the year, and without the guidance of a teacher, or whether I am able to go as deep into my practice and progress on my own as I am with a teacher. The truth is that nearly all of my deepest, most beautiful, and powerful practices occur in that very intimate space when I am alone, with myself in the dark early morning hours. It is easiest to slip into the purely embodied state when one is not concerned about being watched by others, or about integrating instruction from others. When we are alone, and in the dark, we are forced to feel ourselves more. It is good to visit a teacher from time to time, and if one is fortunate enough to live close to a good teacher, it can be good to practice most of the time in the teacher’s shala. However, all mature practitioners should strive to be as independent as possible in their practice. Relying on a teacher to “take you deeper” is a giving away of one’s power. It makes one reliant on the power of the teacher, and it undermines one’s ability to surrender to and develop confidence in one’s own intuitive organic intelligence. A good teacher knows this fact very well. A good teacher can see when a practitioner is able to access their own organic intelligence, and therefore requires very little input or external direction in their practice. Giving input or adjustment where it is not necessary will disrupt the student’s internal process. As a teacher myself, I find that as my experience and maturity grows I place more and more importance on allowing the practitioners’ own internal journey to unfold within the container of the shala room, with as little input from myself as possible. The best moments in teaching for me are when I can step back and scan a full room of 20 or more practitioners, and feel like there is no one that I need to attend to in that moment. The only sound is that of everyone’s breathing, and everyone is immersed in their own internal journey. This is where the magic of group practice really happens, when everyone is practicing in the intuitive animal state of organic consciousness. When a student requires assistance to attain a particularly difficult asana, or if they are stuck in some inefficient movement pattern, I will certainly help them. I might help them every day for weeks or months at a time. But, as soon as I get the sense that this person has the capability to find their own way into it, then I start to leave them alone and just watch. It is fascinating to see the animal intelligence take over at this stage. Everyone has their own unique way of finding their way into something new. This is also why I feel it is important not to impose strong and rigid micro alignment ideals onto people. For me, the most fulfilling moments as a teacher are not when I physically or verbally help someone to attain something, but when I watch them learn how to attain it themselves, without my help. It is not only through physical yoga and meditation that we can access and cultivate the organic intelligence of the human body and nervous system. As I stated earlier in this essay, our hunter gatherer ancestors probably existed in this state nearly all of time. Their life and their sensory relationship with the more than human world of animals, rivers, wind, rocks and trees would have been completely inseparable. They were part of this greater whole, and living in the world absolutely required living in an embodied state. Any activity which requires us to be both physically active and sensitive can help us to cultivate and deepen this organic intelligence and to deepen our trust in it. Hiking is one of my favorite ways to do this. Long before I discovered yoga or meditation, I used to spend a lot of time hiking with a good friend. We enjoyed going out to the forest late at night, and to walk along the forest trails without the use of any light to guide us. We would use other abilities aside from our vision to feel the forest and navigate through it without stumbling or falling. It is a skill which develops very easily and quickly, once one surrenders to the innate capabilities of the human body. Sometimes one of us would break into an spontaneous run, and the other would attempt to keep up and follow, somehow navigating all of the hidden obstacles, and making lightning fast bodily decisions as each rock, tree, twist or turn suddenly presented itself. Things would happen much too quickly for the analytical conscious mind to make decisions. It was purely the organic instinctive body intelligence which would lead the way. I was reminded of this wonderful kind of experience a couple of weeks ago as I was descending through the forest trail after climbing Gunung Abang here in Bali. The trail is narrow and steep, and full of large rocks, tree roots and erosion ditches. I had been walking down fairly slowly, carefully scanning the ground and placing my feet in the appropriate places. After reaching a particularly steep section, the stress of continuing to move slowly and carefully seemed to be too much, so I broke into a bit of a run, and then just kept going. I picked up speed and suddenly my body was flying down the trail, with that familiar experience of having to make lightning fast decisions as each rock, tree, ditch or turn in the trail presented itself. There was a great sense of freedom in letting go of the stress of calculating each and every movement, and just surrendering into the instinctive organic reactions of the body to guide the way as I sped down. Even though any wrong move at that speed could have led to serious injury, my confidence in and surrender to the organic intelligence of my body made me certain that I would be fine. It was a far more uplifting and liberating way to experience the descent. When watching a master musician perform, one can get the sense that the same thing is happening. Things are happening far too quickly for the performer to be calculating or analyzing the notes or strokes or various techniques that they are applying. If one watches and listens with an open mind, one can literally feel the embodied state of the performer as they drop into their own organic intelligence and allow the body and sound to flow spontaneously. I love to watch the bats around my house at sunrise and sunset. They move with such lightning speed and precision as they catapult themselves around, catching insects to eat and avoiding obstacles. Occasionally, they will fly into my open house and effortlessly zoom around, seeking their prey, and avoiding all the walls, pillars, roof, floor (and me!). Sometimes one will fly straight at me, and I will instinctively duck down, even though I know there is no chance of it hitting me. The amazing thing is that bats do not use sight at all. They feel their environment through echolocation – emitting high frequency sounds, and then navigating with their sensitive ears, according to the pattern of those sound waves bouncing off the objects around them. When I watch them, it absolutely blows my mind to witness the stunning organic intelligence and precision that nature has endowed these creatures with. We humans too, have these kinds of capabilities. We have simply forgotten how to use them for the most part. I believe we can also develop and refine them to a very high degree. Watching an advanced and embodied Ashtanga practitioner flow through their practice is much like watching a graceful animal move through its environment. The quality is the same, because both are moving from a place of organic, embodied intelligence, and not from conscious manipulation. While physical or sensorial activities such as hiking (or any kind of sport) or music can aid us in accessing the embodied organic intelligence more readily, I believe that embodied yoga and meditation stand out as being particularly effective in cultivating this layer of our human nature. In Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice, the technique of moving the body and breath with vinyasa allows us to access the deepest and subtlest layer of somatic movement, which is that of bandha. Bandha will not be readily accessed by most other forms of embodied activity, such as hiking, sports, playing music, etc. Accessing the physical state of bandha in body and breath takes us to a much deeper place of embodiment and organic intelligence, and hence awakens perhaps as yet untapped layers of the human potential in this realm. Similarly, in meditation techniques which focus on embodiment, if we can sit still in a well aligned posture where bandha is present, and we train the mind to feel the subtlest sensations in the deepest layers of organic tissue, we also access untapped layers of the human potential. Many people tend to focus on the idea of these techniques leading us to altered states of consciousness. I prefer to think of them as leading us to much deeper states of embodiment and a very effective deepening of our organic intelligence. These techniques will not automatically accomplish this for everyone. Intention must be there. Those who practice yoga and/or meditation from a place of dogma, and who constantly impose these ideologies onto their actual practice, will only end up objectifying and vilifying their physical body and their organic intelligence. Those who view the body as something that is “lower” or an “obstacle” that needs to be overcome through rigorous practice will certainly not become more embodied or sensitive through their practices. These practitioners usually end up creating more dissonance in their relationship with their own bodies and mistrust or even disdain for their organic intelligence. They often display a lack of self-trust, a lack of self-love, and a lack of true self-understanding. When they discuss their practices, it will always be in the language of dogma and striving, and never in the language of felt, personal experience. I see many devout yoga and meditation practitioners who dutifully and devotedly recite their prayers and mantras before and after their practices, yet when I observe their actual practice, I see no sensitivity, trust or faith in themselves, in their body, or to the actual technique they are practicing. The practice becomes a way to further mistrust the body and to give their power away to an idea. These same practitioners will usually display very little sensitivity in their daily lives. Rather than using the practices to increase somatic sensitivity and awareness, the practices are used to distance themselves from their own organic experience, while they overlay the ideas of the dogma they are following onto the body. Whether or not one finds meaning in the philosophies and dogmas connected to the practices, I feel the most important thing is to approach the practices with an intention to become more embodied, and with an intention to surrender to the instinctive organic intelligence that lies within the physical tissues and nerves. This ultimately leads to self-trust, self-love and an embracing of the organic animal intelligence of our human heritage. If the practices are to help make us “whole”, then we need to bring this long neglected and forgotten aspect of being human back into our way of being. Once we learn to love and trust ourselves as the animals that we are, we can then relearn how to love and respect the rest of the planet earth, which we are inseparably a part of, and which we rely on for our own survival and longevity as a species. Returning to the wholeness of a hunter gatherer existence is not feasible for the human race. We have forsaken our roots long ago, and there is no turning back now. And, there have been many beautiful and wonderful ideas that have developed in the past 10 000 years of human culture which we cannot and should not forsake. I think the issue facing us now, is to understand that we have strayed too far from our roots, to the degree that wholeness and longevity are no longer possible in the state we currently exist, both as a species as a whole in our current position on the planet, and as individuals in the state of consciousness that our modern, manufactured reality has promoted. What is required is a radical shift in perception, and I believe that shift must involve reincorporating our organic, animal intelligence back into our way of living and being. I view effective embodiment practices such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Vipassana Meditation as being excellent tools to aid in this process, if we choose to use them in this way. Acknowledgements: Thank you to visionary artist Edward Foster, for allowing me to reproduce images of his beautiful paintings for this article. When I was searching online for a supporting image for this article, I came across his paintings and spent quite a bit of time on his website admiring his works. The title “Becoming Animal” is borrowed from the excellent and recommended book of the same title by cultural ecologist David Abram Thank you to KPJAYI authorized level 2 Ashtanga teacher Greg Steward of Ashtanga Vidya in Seoul for taking the time to edit and offer valuable suggestions on the first draft of this article. Many of my articles are also translated into Korean and published on his website. Other language translations: The Italian/strong> translation of this article can be found here Thank you to Francesca d’Errico for the Italian translation. The Polish translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Marek Łaskawiec for the Polish translation. The Korean translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Sojung Lee for the Korean translation. The Russian translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Anna Glinko for the Russian translation.
I first began to practice the third series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system in early 2005, shortly after relocating to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Northern Canada. I had learned the primary and intermediate series from Mark Darby in Montreal the year before, and following a period of travel and then settling in a very remote and isolated corner of the world, I was far away from anyone who could offer me guidance in my Ashtanga practice. I’ve always enjoyed self practice, and having had four years of experience in the Iyengar yoga system (including being trained as an Iyengar teacher) before starting Ashtanga practice with Darby, I was happy and confident to be isolated and on my own with this new system of practice. I arrived in the Yukon in September 2004 and settled in for my first winter in the north, with eighteen plus hours of darkness per day and temperatures as low as -40 degrees celsius. I spent the winter house-sitting for a friend of a friend who lived a few kilometers north of town. My only transportation was my feet, and I would take a bi-weekly trek into town to teach a yoga class, purchase some supplies, and then trudge back up the long hill through the snow and biting cold wind. I had no internet connection and had little else to do besides walk the dog in the forest around the house, read books, cook food, and focus on my daily practices of Ashtanga yoga, pranayama and Vipassana meditation. It was a special time and I have fond memories of that winter, in spite of its hardships. Though I had only been practicing primary and intermediate series for a little over a year, and they certainly both needed more work, I grew curious about the third series. I had already experienced a significant amount of structural transformation from primary and intermediate series, and now that those changes seemed like they were starting to settle and take root in my body and being, I grew eager for more intensity and change. Matthew Sweeney’s first edition of his Aṣṭāṅga Yoga As It Is book was the only publicly available resource for the advanced series at that time, so I ordered it, and a few weeks later it arrived in my frozen mailbox, all the way from Australia in the other corner of the world. With enthusiasm and vitality, I immediately began to experiment with the postures of third series at the end of my intermediate series practice each morning. I would add several postures of the third series each week and I quickly bit off more than my body and nervous system could effectively digest. Within two months, I had taught myself all of the postures of third series, and practiced it four days per week. The structural changes and discomfort which I experienced over that winter can only be described as “extreme” and “intense”. My upper body responded with massive shifts, and my rib cage and shoulder girdle literally changed shape from the inside out. I felt things move that just shouldn’t move in a human body. I can still vividly remember a two week period, where every time I moved from upward dog to downward dog, the entire right side of my rib cage would slide out of its articulation with some other set of bones. This particular sensation was not painful, but it was almost sickening to feel a part of my body that should not really move actually slide out of place and then return back again. I kept practicing and eventually this effect stopped happening. I would use my pranayama and meditation practices later in the day to “recover” from the overwhelming intensity of the effects of a hastily learned third series on my body and nerves. It was fortunate that I didn’t have much else to do in my life at that time, because it would have been challenging to remain functional within a relationship or to do any more than the minimal amount of teaching work that I was doing at the time. I discovered another important principle during these months, which is that daily, long term Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice is not necessarily compatible with other forms of body work. I had met someone in Whitehorse who was a beginning Ashtanga practitioner and a Rolfer. I had experienced the 10 session series of Rolfing about five years earlier, and held this practice in high regard. This Rolfer and I agreed to do an exchange, where I would give her a private Ashtanga class in exchange for a Rolfing session once per week. In the first Rolfing session, I described to her what I was doing in my practice and the tension and discomfort that I was experiencing in my upper body, due to all the shifting and changing. I also described the very strange and disturbing sensation of the right side of my rib cage literally sliding out of its usual articulation with some of the other bones. She had me lay face down on the table and said “Let’s see what is happening.” She started by feeling my rib cage, applying gentle pressure, and suddenly my rib cage did the sliding thing. She gave a little yell, and literally reeled back several steps. “Oh my God!”, she exclaimed. “What was that?” I laughed and said, “That is what I was describing. I was hoping you could tell me what it is.” “Wow, are you okay? I don’t even want to touch you now.” Was her response. I convinced her that the rib cage sliding actually did not hurt at all, and that I wanted her to see what she could do. With some trepidation, she started again. By the end of the one hour session, I felt great relief. The tension in my upper body seemed to have completely vanished and I felt an immense sense of freedom. She told me that she felt my energy was expanding outwards uncontrollably, and that she had attempted to instil a sense of “the container”. I thanked her profusely and we agreed to meet again the next week. Within a few days, the pain and tension in my upper body had all returned. The following week, the Rolfer released the tension again. This cycle repeated itself a few times. Eventually, I realized what was happening. Third series was asking my body to change. Because I had learned the series so quickly, the changes were dramatic, and they were very destabilising. The pain and tension were a result of the body attempting to accommodate all of the rapid and dramatic structural changes. The Rolfer was doing her best to stabilise my body again, which would always release the pain and tension. However, by stabilising my body, she was bringing it back towards its old structure – the one that third series was attempting to change. So, there was a tug of war going on. Third series was asking my body to do one thing, and the Rolfer was asking my body to do something else. Once I realized this, I explained it to her and told her that I needed to just trust my practice and to allow all of the effects of the practice to work themselves through my body without any other intervention. Fortunately, my 29 year old body was strong and forgiving, and my faith in the method of practice and in myself saw me through. A few months later I came out the other side with a somewhat stable third series practice and third series body. Around the same time that I felt my body begin to stabilise, the daylight began to rapidly increase and the weather slowly followed the lead of the change in daylight and began to warm up. I then experienced my first spring and summer in the north, culminating in a complete absence of darkness during the peak months, and I began to enjoy the fruits of my long and difficult winter of self directed transformation. I felt like I had a new body – and in many ways, I did. I felt straighter, taller, and more naturally in tune with the field of gravity. In particular, I noticed much more ease in my seated meditation practice, which I did for two hours a day. It became effortless to hold my spine in alignment with gravity and to keep my shoulders and chest open and relaxed in relation to the spine for the entire period of sitting. I diligently practiced the third series as my main practice (4 days per week) for the following three years, all without consulting a teacher. By this time, I had established my own yoga school in the Yukon and began to feel a calling to go back out into the wider world – Yukoners often refer to anywhere that is not in the Yukon as “the outside” – and connect to the greater global Ashtanga community. When I was living in Montreal, a few trusted people recommended Richard Freeman to me, and this had stuck in the back of my mind. I now felt a strong calling to go and see Richard, and I applied for his month long teacher intensive in Boulder, Colorado. I was accepted, and went to practice there in 2007. At that point, I probably I had a fairly respectable looking third series practice, by anyone’s standards. However, I was not entirely familiar with the standard pedagogical methods of the Ashtanga community, and wondered what the reaction/reception would be when I wandered into a new place and rolled out a self-taught third series. I did mention in my application for the course how I had learned my practice, including that I had taught myself third series. The Mysore style classes at Richard’s studio were not very traditional. Though practitioners were expected to follow the traditional series, not everyone did, and I never saw anyone being told which postures to practice or not to practice. People came in and practiced whatever they felt like practicing, and this was generally accepted by the teachers. It was a comfortable situation for me to walk into at that stage of my own practice journey. I practiced primary, and then intermediate series in my first two days at the studio. Having not been questioned by any of the teachers, I decided to try third series the next day, which happened to be a Mysore class that Richard was teaching. Richard took a significant amount of interest in what I was doing, gave me a few corrections on vinyasa and alignment, and basically gave my third series practice his approval. I continued to work on third series under the guidance of Richard and the other teachers at his studio for the remainder of my time there. I thoroughly enjoyed the month that I spent in Boulder, and subsequently returned two more times in the following year to participate in Richard’s “advanced intensive” courses. I enjoyed practicing amongst other like minded individuals again, and Richard seemed to attract the types of practitioners to whom I could relate and connect. Richard himself is a very inspiring practitioner and teacher. As enjoyable as my time there was, I don’t think I learned very much about my asana practice, or how to use the Mysore method of practice appropriately as either a student or a teacher. It felt nice to receive verification that I had basically taught myself third series correctly, and for the strong points in my practice to be acknowledged. I also appreciated that the alignment principles which I had come to understand through my own practice were in line with what Richard was teaching. Richard’s eloquent verbalization of the alignment principles helped to crystallize my intuitive understanding of bandha. However, by not being given any restrictions or pressure around the limitations in my practice, or my method of learning it, there was very little stimulation for evolution and transformation in my practice. At this stage, in 2007, I also felt drawn to go and practice at the KPJAYI. I had actually been to the old AYRI in Laxmipuram in 2000 when I was still a student of Iyengar yoga. I met SKPJ, who allowed me to watch a Mysore style class. I was unimpressed with what I saw at that time, and hadn’t felt any desire to return, even after I adopted the Ashtanga practice in 2003. Now, I had regained my interest and was starting to consider another visit to Mysore. When I mentioned this to a fellow student at Richard’s course, she mentioned to me that if I was travelling to India, I should go and practice with Rolf Naujokat in Goa. She felt that Rolf and I would get along very well. This recommendation resonated strongly with me, and I made plans to go and practice with Rolf in Goa that same year. When I arrived at Rolf’s shala in Goa on my first day, he informed me that I should practice “only primary, and no adjustments”. I enjoyed practicing primary series in the energy of the room very much, and Rolf came over to help me with catching my legs in the final backbend. He then asked me about my regular practice. I told him I was starting fourth series. “Oh, great!”, he exclaimed. “Who taught you all those postures?” I was unsure how to answer his question. I knew it would likely not go over well if I told him I had taught myself third series. Things here felt a little more strict and controlled than they did at Richard’s studio. “Richard Freeman taught me”, I lied. “Oh, Richard taught you all those postures? Great! Tomorrow practice intermediate, and then let’s see.” In my intermediate series practice the following day, Rolf and his wife Marci noticed several weak spots, including dwi pada sirsasana and karandavasana, as well as a few other things. They both adjusted me quite strongly in several postures and gave me a particularly hard time. The next day, Rolf asked me to practice intermediate series for the remainder of the week. The strong adjustments continued, and Marci was particularly aggressive towards me. She kept asking me questions about my practice in a way that felt like an interrogation. It was an intense experience, and very different from the easy going and positive energy I had felt at Richard’s studio. On one hand, I felt a strong focus and increased depth in my intermediate series practice, due to the adjustments and strong pressure they were putting on me. At the same time, I felt intimidated and picked on by their comments and questionings. The combination of the intensity of the asana practice and the relations with them brought me to my edge – that place where real self-encountering occurs. On the third or fourth day of practice, as we were preparing for the opening prayer, Rolf called me into a separate room. With kind, but firm energy, he asked for more details about how I had learned the third series. He specifically asked if Richard had taught me the postures “one by one”. I told him the truth, which was that I had basically taught myself third series and that Richard had then helped me with it and approved of it. Rolf’s response was very clear: “No, no, no. This is not the correct method as I learned it. You need to learn each posture one by one from a qualified teacher. This is how my teacher taught me.” He also pointed out the three or four places in my intermediate series that needed improving. He told me that they wanted me to practice only intermediate series with them, and that if I didn’t like it, they would be happy to give me a refund and I could go somewhere else. My answer was also clear. “I’d like to practice with you,” I said. “I really enjoy being here and will practice whatever you feel is appropriate.” Rolf’s eyes lit up. “Good!” he exclaimed. “We also like you very much. You have very focused energy. We are only a little bit mean to you because we like you and you have the capability to improve your asanas.” Once that was cleared up, practicing with Rolf and Marci became a little smoother. On one hand, I was disappointed to have an entire series taken away from me, but on the other hand, I could feel much more depth developing in my practice of intermediate series. It was quite an epiphany in terms of my understanding of how this method of teaching works most effectively. By being shown where my limitations were, and being forced to stop and encounter them, I was required to put my attention, awareness and effort in the places I had previously avoided or glossed over. This pressure was the stimulus for evolution and transformation in my practice and in myself. After about a month, I had improved my intermediate series to the degree that Rolf had wanted to see. He congratulated me each time I attained the form that he wanted to see in dwi pada, karandavasana and tic tocs. One morning, as we entered my second month of practice, he told me: “Now your intermediate is very strong, much better. Now we start third series. Today, you try visvamitrasana after headstands”. I was still not overly familiar with the “correct method” of being given postures one by one, so I assumed that his instruction meant that I should just start practicing all of my third series postures. At the end of intermediate, I began practicing third series, and was on the third or fourth posture when Rolf looked over and exclaimed “No!, I told you visvamitrasana, not all those other ones!” He told me to go back and redo visvamitrasana. After watching me practice it, he said “Very good, now do backbending and next week vasisthasana”. I was again disappointed to find that starting third series with Rolf did not mean I could just go ahead and do my third series practice, but that it meant practicing ONE posture from third series and then waiting again. However, in the subsequent days, I noticed that I was really focusing on visvamitrasana, and attempting to make it as perfect as I could. There was a new found feeling of stability and depth in the posture. Rolf then began a trend which would continue for the subsequent seven years that I would practice with him. Every Monday, he would give me one new posture. Each time I practiced that new posture, it was in some ways like experiencing it for the first time. After having focused on deepening the posture which preceded it for a week, and then placing all my awareness and attention on practicing that one new posture as well as I could for the following week, the result was a significant deepening of my entire third series practice. At the end of that first trip in Goa, Rolf had taught me up to urdhva kukkutasana C. On my final day, as we said goodbye, he told me “Now you know how it works here with me. If anyone says they did third series in Goa with Rolf, they will have a really strong practice.” I assured him that I enjoyed it very much and would be back the next season. I had lost all interest in going to the KPJAYI. I knew that Rolf was my teacher. Going back home, I immediately returned to my old routine of practicing primary and intermediate series once per week each, and third series on the other four days of the week. It was interesting to note that the postures of third series which I had relearned with Rolf that year felt much better and more stable than the rest of the series. Over the following two winters, in trips of three or four months each time, I completed the third series with Rolf. Each time I returned to Goa, I would drop my usual full third series practice and pick up where I had left off the previous season with Rolf. The routine did not change. Every Monday I would get the next posture. I never asked, and he never forgot. Once I had reached viparita salabhasana, he split my practice so that I was only practicing third series each day, without intermediate series as a warm up. Once I had completed the third series with him, he told me: “Next year, same procedure for fourth series. If you can do them, I will teach each posture one by one. If you can’t do them, then you have to wait.” I had never practiced fourth series before, so the subsequent four years became the first time that my personal practice at home actually matched the practice I was doing in Goa with Rolf. Due to the years of preparation I had done, I could do most of the fourth series postures on my first try when Rolf gave them to me; however, there were a few postures which were difficult, and he had me stop on those postures for periods ranging from several weeks to several months. After four more seasons, in trips of four or five months each, I completed the fourth series with Rolf. I then had a personal practice of primary, intermediate and third series one day per week each, and fourth series three days per week. Rolf’s teaching method changed quite a bit between my first season with him in 2007 and my final season with him in 2014. Over the years, he grew to accept and assimilate Marci’s ideas of how to modify some of the postures and the changes she made to the Ashtanga system itself. By the end of my seven year period of learning with Rolf, none of the other students were being taught the traditional postures in the traditional way, and Rolf and Marci had developed their own unique interpretation of the Ashtanga system. With me, however, Rolf maintained the same traditional method that he had learned himself from SKPJ for all seven years that I practiced with him. I feel extremely fortunate to have learned the entirety of both the advanced series from Rolf in this way, and I believe he enjoyed teaching me as much as I enjoyed learning from him. My understanding of how the Mysore method of practice works most effectively was shaped during this formative period of learning with Rolf. Several important aspects of the pedagogy of this method became clear to me, especially during the first few seasons that I practiced with Rolf. There are practitioners who have enough motivation, strength, and understanding of the practice and of their own bodies and nervous systems to teach themselves new postures. One can even teach oneself an entire advanced series, as I did. I don’t necessarily feel that this is a bad thing to do, especially if there are no qualified teachers available to learn from. However, self-teaching can result in more mistakes, creating unnecessary pain and discomfort. This is especially true for an immature practitioner, as I was when I taught myself third series in my first winter in the Yukon. I taught myself third series far too quickly. I was enthusiastic, and underestimated the deep reaching structural effects that daily practice of this series would have on my body. An experienced and mature teacher who understands how the series works on the human body would never allow a student to move through the series so quickly, even if the student could do all of the postures. When Rolf taught me fourth series, he sometimes slowed the pace down even more, sometimes waiting two weeks before giving me the next posture. “You do that one fine,” he once said, after not giving me the next posture in the series one week. “But we’ll just wait another week so you have more time to digest it.” This concept of “digesting” postures is an important one. The first few times one performs a new posture, its effects on the body are more superficial. One can often feel new areas of the body and nerves being affected by the posture, but this just an initial taste. It is a first meeting and exchange between the body and the energetic and structural dynamics of the posture. The body does not yet feel the need to integrate those elements deeper into its permanent structural framework. Over the subsequent weeks, as the posture is repeated each day, the effects of the posture work their way much deeper into the body and nerves. The body starts to understand that this posture and its effects are now part of its movement repertoire, and the body must then shift its structure accordingly in order to accommodate these new patterns. The tensegrity patterns of the entire body need to change, and the fascia and bones themselves sometimes have to change their position in relation to each other during this process. These deeper effects will not play out until the posture has been repeated numerous times – usually for several weeks or months – on a daily basis. We can think of the body as a very complex hierarchy of systems. There is a dynamic arrangement and communication between the musculoskeletal, nervous, breathing, digestive, immune, endocrine, and other systems. Within each of these systems, there are also subsystems which are interacting and coordinating with each other. Within each subsystem, there are further levels of sub-subsystems, etc. We can make the picture even more complex by also adding in the “non-physical” components of a being, such as emotions, thoughts, beliefs, etc. These also organize themselves into patterns which also influence the physical systems. These systems and elements of the being all communicate and coordinate with each other in an ongoing dynamic exchange, making compensations and compromises so that the being as a whole always maintains the optimal level of functionality and ability to maintain itself as a discrete entity in the world. The habitual behaviors in which an organism engages in its relationships with the world will also influence how the different systems and subsystems of the organism functionally arrange themselves. A person who has spent fifteen years climbing mountains on a regular basis will have a very different type of inner balance and stability which defines their “self” than a person who has spent fifteen years living in a city and working at an office every day. If the office worker suddenly decides one day to climb Mt. Everest, and attempts to do so, all of the systems of his body would have to very quickly find novel ways to try to support this new and extreme behavior of the organism. Almost certainly, it would be too overwhelming, and the result would likely be severe physical and mental debility or death. However, if the office worker started by taking a few short hikes on the weekends, progressed to some easy multi-day backpacking trips, eventually moving on to hiking up hills and smaller mountains, and so on, it is quite possible that this person could eventually climb Mt. Everest in a way that would actually benefit their overall being. By giving the systems of the body time to calibrate and adjust to the smaller and more graduated behavioural changes over a period of years, these activities can be successfully integrated into that person’s being, and the final step to actually climbing Mt. Everest could then also be safely incorporated into that person’s being. Similarly, if the long term mountain climber and adventurer suddenly quit all forms of this type of activity, moved to the city and took up a job as an office worker, this person, too, would likely experience overwhelming changes within his physical and mental being. All of his physical and mental systems would have to rearrange themselves drastically to accommodate the extreme change in lifestyle and sensory experience, and he would also likely experience physical and mental unwellness due to this sudden and extreme change in behavior. The asanas we practice also affect the way our systems and subsystems arrange themselves and relate to each other. It should be clear from the analogy above that smaller steps in learning new asanas is going to be much smoother for the body to digest and integrate in a healthy and balanced way than suddenly adding a large number of difficult and advanced asanas. Rolf also told me that SKPJ once said that you need to perform a posture 1000 times in order to master it. My interpretation of this statement is that this is how long it takes for the body to fully digest and completely assimilate a posture into its permanent structural and movement repertoire. If one practices a posture five to six days per week, this adds up to about three and a half years to get 1000 repetitions of that posture. If we think about our practice, the postures which we have been practicing daily for over three and a half years do tend to feel very natural and innate, while the ones we find difficult are usually those that we have learned more recently. The process of complete digestion cannot be rushed. Attempting to learn too many new postures too quickly will overwhelm the body, and it will not be able to digest and incorporate them effectively. The result will be structural chaos and instability, which comes along with quite a bit of pain and discomfort, as I experienced in that winter in the Yukon. A strong person may be able to persevere and come out the other side with benefit, but it seems reasonable that we should try to avoid unnecessary pain and discomfort. One more analogy would be to compare the human body to an ecosystem. Ecosystems are also composed of many interacting subsystems in a complex pattern of arrangements. Any change in one part of the ecosystem will affect the balance of the system as a whole. Furthermore, these resulting changes in the ecosystem will not necessarily be immediately apparent. For example, if we add a new species to an ecosystem, the immediate effect on the ecosystem as a whole might seem minimal. After some weeks or months, however, we may notice that other species which were already present in that ecosystem have begun to either decline or thrive, due to the addition of the new species. If we then observe the ecosystem after and even longer period, say months or years, we may find that there are secondary and tertiary effects, as the species which began to thrive or decline will then affect other species and elements in the system which are dependent on them, and so forth. It may take years before the ecosystem reaches its final state of equilibrium to accommodate the cascade of effects resulting from the addition of one new species. A healthy ecosystem will likely be able to integrate the addition of one new species (or environmental condition, etc) with minimal chaos. As it “digests” the new component, gradual changes will characterize the process of integration. Over months and years, the ecosystem will rearrange itself and a new balance will be struck. The ecosystem has been altered, but it was able to function relatively well, as a whole, during this integration period. Now, imagine if we suddenly added five or ten new species or environmental conditions all at once. The result would likely be much more dramatic and probably much more detrimental to the basic functionality of the ecosystem as a whole. While the system would eventually find a new balance over time, the process would not be gentle, and we would likely witness great chaos and suffering in the ecosystem while the very complex set of new dynamics attempt to sort themselves out. Again, the analogy to adding asanas to our daily practice should be clear. I feel that all of the preceding discussion lends itself to support the idea that it is ideal for us to learn each new posture one by one from a qualified teacher. A qualified teacher is one who has already learned and digested the postures and series that we are working on, and they therefore understand, through their own experience, how these postures work on the systems of the human body, both in the short term and longer term. They can then give us appropriate guidance as to when to wait and “digest” versus when to move forward and add new postures. There are some “older generation” Ashtanga teachers who are very lenient in giving out postures. Even if a student has not effectively integrated the preceding postures in the series, these teachers will continue to add on more postures to a student’s practice, seemingly indiscriminately. Some of these teachers were taught this way by SKPJ in the early days, and claim that this is the “original” way of teaching this method. SKPJ refined his methods quite a bit over the years that he taught. One of the most notable aspects of this refinement was that he slowed down the pace at which he taught postures to students, and that he demanded increasing perfection in the asanas before moving students on in the series. Sharath has continued with this trend even more. Some of the older teachers will claim that this was simply a way to manage and deal with the rapidly increasing numbers of students. I suspect it is more likely that SKPJ and Sharath witnessed the negative and detrimental effects that learning the series too quickly had on some of those first students, and realized that learning the series more slowly was more appropriate. The term “research” in the old AYRI name was quite appropriate, I think. If a practitioner is self-taught, or has learned a particular series from one of the more lenient teachers (both cases apply to me in my first five years of practice), I think it is very healthy and beneficial to practice with a teacher who has stricter standards and is not afraid to stop students in the places they still need to work. As I described in my experience with Rolf (and later with Sharath), being stopped provided the stimulus for more transformation and development to happen in my practice. Stopping students creates an awareness and a healthy pressure which stimulates more focus and energy to flow into the weakest areas of practice. It is a psychological “trick”, but it is a very important part of the method. I have experienced the benefits of this myself as a student, and by applying it as a teacher I have also witnessed its effectiveness. Being asked to “master” each particular posture before moving on in the series develops patience and self-encountering. We all have postures and movements we dislike and instinctively try to avoid. It requires great effort and attention to consciously go against our instincts and encounter these experiences every single morning. This is the field where authentic and deep personal transformation occurs. If we are required to “master” a particular aspect of a posture or vinyasa before we are given the next posture, then we have no choice but to apply the attention, awareness and effort necessary to make that happen. This is often where we truly encounter the most stuck areas of our bodies and beings, and it is how the practice changes us as people. Time and time again, I have noticed in myself and in my students, that if we are not required to master something before moving onwards in the series, then we will never bother to maintain the level of effort and attention necessary to create that mastery. Once we have been moved on past a posture, it naturally loses importance and prominence in our awareness. Another important reason for “mastering” a posture before learning the next one is for physical integrity and safety. Each posture (or set of postures) in the system serves as a preparation for something more difficult which is to come later. If we don’t fully develop and integrate the movement patterns which are required with the current postures, then when we come to more difficult postures which are based on those same movement patterns, we will be in trouble. One early example of this comes in the marichasana series. Many newer practitioners struggle with binding in these four postures, especially in marichasana D. Some practitioners will require months or even years of persistent work to successfully bind in all four postures. I have noticed that many teachers are lenient, and eventually move students on in the series before they can successfully bind in all four marichasanas. Without developing the ability to bind in all of the marichasanas, supta kurmasana and garbha pindasana will be impossible in most cases, as these two postures rely on the movement patterns developed in the marichasanas. Students who are still struggling with the marichasanas and then move on and also begin to struggle with supta kurmasana and garbha pindasana end up putting too much pressure on their bodies. Struggling with marichasana D alone might be a sustainable degree of challenge for the body to go through each day. If the student stops there and finishes the practice, the body will eventually develop the movement patterns necessary to bind in marichasana D, without experiencing too much discomfort or excessive pressure. However, if the student attempts to practice marichasana D, along with several other postures further along in the series which also require deep movement of both the hip and rotator cuff, then it often ends up being too much struggle for the body to go through each day. The result can be a lot of pain and a significant increase in the risk of injury. Over my years of teaching, I have noticed that the students who have been taught all of primary series very quickly, and yet are still struggling with many of the postures in the series, are invariably the ones who report having knee, hamstring and shoulder injuries in their first six months of practice. These students are often grateful when I scale their practice back to half of primary series or less. In 2013, I came across an article which inspired me to go to the KPJAYI and practice with Sharath Jois. This inspiration stuck with me, so in 2014 I applied and was accepted. Six months after completing the fourth series with Rolf I found myself in Mysore where I was required to drop my advanced practice and start again from the beginning. In 2007, when I began practice with Rolf, I had to drop one full series from my personal practice. In 2014, when I began practice with Sharath, I had to drop three full series from my personal practice. Fortunately, I understood that this is required of everyone on their first trip to Mysore, so I was prepared to do this. I enjoyed refocusing on primary series, and then on intermediate series with Sharath. I did experience some frustration and self-encountering, but overall it was a very beneficial process for me, and it strengthened and verified my understanding of the system which I have expounded on in this article. I detailed my experiences of my first three months of practice with Sharath in two articles: A New Chapter: Reflections from Mysore Six Weeks In You Stop There: Lessons from Sharath Jois and Reflections on the Mysore Method Returning home after this first trip with Sharath in early 2015, I was faced with a rather large gulf between the practice which I had been doing with Sharath in Mysore (at that time up to dwi pada sirsasana) compared to my previous personal practice which I had learned from Rolf over seven years. After my first trip with Rolf in 2007, I quickly returned to my old personal practice; but this time I felt in no hurry to immediately return to my previous personal practice of the advanced series. I had enjoyed returning to intermediate series and refocusing on the postures which could be deepened, and it had been many years since I had practiced intermediate series daily. I also knew that I would continue to practice intermediate with Sharath again the following year. This time, going back home, I initially maintained a daily practice of intermediate series only for several months. After a few months at home, I began to miss the practice of the two advanced series, and felt a natural desire to add them back into my practice. This presented a dilemma: It had now been about six months since I had dropped the two advanced series (at the beginning of my trip to Mysore). It seemed like it would be a bit much to just jump back into full advanced practice after a six month gap of not practicing these two series. I realized that adding the advanced postures back gradually would likely be a healthier and smoother process. I also felt like I still wanted to maintain a daily practice of intermediate series until my subsequent trip with Sharath, which was only a few more months away. My solution was to start gradually adding third or fourth series postures to the end of intermediate series four days per week in my daily practice. On two of the days, I would add third series postures to the end of intermediate and on the other two days, I would add fourth series postures to the end of intermediate. I added between one and three advanced postures on most of the days that I practiced like this. The first day of practicing each new advanced posture (after a gap of six months of non-practice) usually felt a little shaky, yet it was also very interesting to see how familiar they felt in my body. By the second or third repetition of the new postures, they felt completely stable, and in many cases they felt even deeper than they had been before my trip to Mysore with Sharath. Dropping those advanced postures for six months and refocusing on the basics had not diminished my ability to practice them – in many cases it actually improved my ability to practice them. This was a very interesting result to observe! I treated the experiment as if I was practicing the advanced postures for the first time. I only added new postures from third or fourth series if the ones I had already added felt completely stable and open, and the practice as a whole felt stable and nourishing. Because I already had a ten year relationship with third series, it all came back very quickly. I was able to add two to three postures from this series just about every time I did the practice, and it was not very long before I was practicing two full series – all of intermediate and all of third – on the two days per week that I did this practice. Fourth series took a bit longer. I had only completed the fourth series a little over one year earlier, and my relationship with it was far less stable than my relationship with third series. My body had not fully digested fourth series before I went to Sharath for the first time. The first part of the series (which I had a longer relationship with – up to five years), came back more quickly than the second half. There were several points in the adding back of fourth series where I did stop myself and waited for a few days or weeks, when the overall effect of the series on my body and nerves seemed to require a little more time to stabilise. It was several weeks or a month after I completed third series that I also completed all of the fourth series and was practicing the full intermediate and full fourth series two days per week. In the beginning of this process, I was unsure if practicing two full series per day would be sustainable for me, especially when followed by three or four hours of teaching each day. But by adding the advanced series back gradually, it turned out to be fine. It felt very stable and very strengthening. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Soon enough, it was time to return to Mysore, and drop the advanced series yet again. There was more work to do in intermediate with Sharath in my second trip, and I detailed that experience here: You Stop There, Part II: Reflections on my Second Trip in Mysore with Sharath Jois Returning home after my second trip in Mysore (which was just two and a half months before the time of writing this), I was faced with a similar situation as I had been in the previous year. This time, the situation was complicated by the fact that I had been injured in Mysore, and was still in quite a bit of pain. I was still unable to practice a few of the postures in intermediate series due to the injury, so adding back the advanced series was not even a consideration at this stage. It took about two months at home to reach the point where I was practicing full intermediate without needing to modify anything, and for the pain from the injury to have completely dissipated. At this point it had once again been nearly six months since I had dropped the advanced series from my practice, and so I again began the same procedure off gradually adding back third or fourth to the end of intermediate, four days per week. This process began three weeks ago, and I am now up to seven or eight postures from each of third and fourth series at the time of writing this article. Once again, I am treating it as if I am practicing them for the first time. The injury I sustained in Mysore had quite a deep effect on my body. Though I am no longer experiencing pain, I do still feel structural effects, and a lot has changed in my body as a result. Because of this, I feel like I am experiencing the effects of third and fourth series in yet another unique way. I am witnessing their effects on the body from a new perspective – perhaps from a healing one. Three weeks ago, when I decided to start adding the advanced series back, I was unsure if I was ready. Though I was pain free in my intermediate series practice, I felt quite tired, heavy and stiff overall. It seemed counterintuitive to start making my practice longer and more intense in this situation. Yet, something told me to try, and so I did. In the first week, I added just two or three postures of each advanced series. It was amazing to feel the overall shift in the energy and the experience of my entire practice. Adding these new postures created a significant sense of space in my pelvic area and injected a new flow of vitality into my body and my practice. It felt like everything came back to life. It is clear that I made the right decision. I look forward to continuing the process over the next couple of months. The pictures which I have included in this blog post are from my third series practice at home in Bali, about two weeks ago in April 2016. They are taken at around 4 am, after having completed all of intermediate series as a warm up. They represent the third time that I had practiced these postures, after nearly a six month gap of not practicing them. The pictures are not staged. They are a candid capture of moments in my regular flowing practice. As I practice in a room with relatively low light, I did increase the overall brightness of the pictures using windows photo gallery. Otherwise, they are completed unedited. I initially intended to post these pictures on my Spacious Yoga facebook page, with a few paragraphs about my relationship with third series, and a brief description of the benefits that can come from dropping parts of our practice and then starting again later. As I began writing, I realized that I had much more to say than could fit into a few paragraphs. The result is this lengthy article.
I recently completed my second three month trip practicing with Sharath Jois at the KPJAYI in Mysore. Last year I wrote two blog posts about my first trip, “A New Chapter” and “You Stop There”. These articles expressed my perspective of the experience of starting over as a beginner with Sharath, after having had a daily Ashtanga practice for 12 years, having completed the 4th series with my previous teacher Rolf Naujokat, and having been a Mysore style teacher myself for a number of years. I had not been planning to write about this second trip in the same way. My impressions of practicing with Sharath remain much the same as I described last year and writing about it again seemed like it would be both redundant and clichéd – two things which I strive to avoid. It was a difficult trip for me, and a very personal one. I’ve been working with many inner struggles recently and this was the salient feature of my time in Mysore this year. Most of this is too personal to share publicly and initially seemed like another good excuse to not write about my trip. Upon further reflection, I realize that the struggles and pain that everyone goes through are an important aspect of practice which are all too often ignored and hidden. Yoga websites, social media, and popular yoga culture are full of unrealistic and professionally staged photo and video shoots which depict us at our very best – glorifying the beauty of some advanced asana in a pristine natural setting or a temple and often accompanied by some “inspiring” cliché from one of the better known spiritual texts or teachers. The reality is that our practices rarely look or feel like that. I have never practiced in front of a temple, and the only time I practice outdoors is when I am camping or there is no indoor space available. There are wonderful days where practice does feel light, free and blissful, but for the most part Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is difficult and often is a struggle. The images portrayed by these staged photo and video demos are not an accurate representation of the day to day experience of Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, and I feel that they promote unrealistic personal expectations and negative self judgment in the minds of those who consume dozens of these images every day. Even when the struggles and pains of practice and life are publicly acknowledged, they are often glorified and spiritualized as necessary sacrifices on the road to the reward of enlightenment. Superficial analogies are made to the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita or other misinterpreted teachings where our pain becomes our noble cross that we have to bear on the path to personal salvation. I guess it is what keeps some people going, but it doesn’t really work that way for me. I do feel that there is some value in sharing the experience of the struggles which I encountered on this trip – at least those struggles pertaining to my asana practice. I had to relearn some important lessons. At the end of my first trip to Mysore last year, Sharath had allowed me to practice up to dwi pada sirsasana, which has always been a challenging posture for me. I wrote more about this in my “You Stop There” article. Going back home to Bali at the end of last year, I felt no hurry to return to practicing 3rd and 4th series, which were my main practices of the preceding 8 or 9 years. Practicing intermediate series daily in Mysore and being asked to work more deeply on dwi pada had been beneficial and felt good. I was happy to continue with intermediate series at home. Practicing under Sharath’s strict standards also made me realize that I would face another challenge on my subsequent trip: Karandavasana. While I could lower down and lift back up in karandavasana to a standard that was acceptable to my previous teacher, I knew that it would not be sufficient to satisfy Sharath’s idea of “perfection”. Dwi pada sirsasana and karandavasana don’t look very similar on the surface, but they share one very important feature. Both postures require a significant degree of lumbar flexion, posterior pelvic tilting and lengthening of the lower back and pelvic muscles connected to those movements. One could say that these two postures represent the extreme of “apanic” movement. This movement is very difficult for practitioners who have an anteriorly tilted pelvis and deep lumbar curve or lordosis – in other words, a “pranic” body structure. It is interesting that both postures occur in intermediate series. There are no postures in 3rd or 4th series which require the same degree of apanic body movement, except perhaps bhuja dandasana at the end of 4th series (which was also very challenging for me and I got stopped on for several months while learning that series with Rolf). All of the other leg behind the head variations involve one leg behind the head, which requires significantly less lumbar flexion than having two legs behind the head. All of the other arm balances (except sayanasana) are done on the hands, not the forearms, which also requires less lumbar flexion. Deepening my dwi pada to Sharath’s standard was beneficial for my pranic body structure. Though I had already worked hard for many years to develop my body’s ability to exist in the apanic state, deepening dwi pada had brought that movement to another level for me. It was also a very good preparation for improving my karandavasana. After experiencing the improvement in my dwi pada, I was determined and inspired to improve my karandavasana before coming to Mysore this season. I continued to practice intermediate series every day, and I put more attention on karandavasana, attempting it three times in each practice session. Many people focus on the fact that karandavasana requires a lot of strength. The standard assumption is that those who cannot do it well are simply lacking in strength. For me, this was not the case – it was simply a mechanical problem arising from being 190 cm tall and having an anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis. My previous technique for lifting back up in karandavasana would be to lean forward and let the face come even closer to the ground and then allow the rest of the body to lift back up to pincha mayurasana. While I did not rest my head on the ground, I would typically finish the lift up with my nose only about an inch from the ground. Fully extending my shoulders at the end of the lift up was not possible. My previous teacher had considered this good enough for me to move on, all those years ago. I now realized this would not be good enough for Sharath, and that he would likely want full shoulder extension when I lifted back up. I started to focus more on the shoulders in my practice of the posture. I found that when I attempted to extend the shoulders before lifting the rest of the body, I would not be able to lift the rest of my body up at all. Still, I knew that establishing the foundation of extending the shoulders was important, so I stopped worrying about coming up at all and tried to rebuild the posture based on better shoulder extension in the initial stages of lifting back up. This proved to be quite frustrating, as there seemed to be no movement happening at all. After some time I began to use a strap above my elbows to help stabilize the shoulder girdle more and get a bit more leverage. This technique provided a glimmer of hope as I could see where the movement might start to come from, but it still seemed far away from actually happening. I continued to do this diligently, three times per day in each practice session. Finally, after about six weeks it just happened – as most major breakthroughs do – and I found one day that after getting the initial lift in the shoulders, the rest of the body followed, and I was able to lift right back up and fully extend the shoulders into a perfect pincha mayurasana. I was able to do this quite reliably from that day onwards, and I continued to practice it like that with the belt around my arms for several more weeks. Once I felt confident with the aforementioned technique, I decided to get rid of the belt. I was shocked and disappointed to find that without the belt, I was back to square one. There was absolutely no movement happening. I was amazed that simply having a strap above the elbows would make such a difference and I felt that I had probably made a mistake by working exclusively with the belt. Though it had given me the experience of feeling what it was like to lift back up perfectly, it had not helped to develop the movement pattern in my body at all. It was a good reminder of why exclusive reliance on props is not very helpful. I again began the diligent process of trying it 3 times per day, without feeling like I was really getting anywhere. I would try 2 or 3 times without the belt, and then on my last attempt would use the belt and lift back up fully, just so I would not lose the body memory of the feeling. This went on for a long time without much sign of progress. Eventually, I began to miss the experience of 3rd and 4th series practice. I knew that I had to continue to practice intermediate every day if there was any hope of improving karandavasana, so I decided to try a different practice routine, where I would add 3rd or 4th to the end of intermediate. I added a few postures of each advanced series per session and would alternate days, so that one day I practiced intermediate and 3rd and the next day intermediate and 4th. This felt quite good and strengthening. I continued to practice intermediate only on Sundays and primary only on Fridays and on the other 4 days I eventually worked up to practicing two full series. This routine allowed me to maintain a daily practice of intermediate and also get two days each of 3rd and 4th. It was part way through this process of adding back the advanced series that karandavasana finally happened without the belt. This was probably about six months after leaving Mysore. It felt like quite an accomplishment to finally be able to achieve the one posture that is least suited to my body’s natural structure. I also felt a sense of satisfaction that I would likely be able to go to Mysore without being held up in intermediate series to work on another posture again. Karandavasana came and went for a little while, but soon enough I could do it without the belt every day, and on most days I could do it on my first attempt. On the days where I could do it on the first try, I did not bother to repeat it and it started to become just another posture in my practice again, without so much extra emphasis. I arrived in Mysore in November feeling very strong. I had had several months of practicing two series per day and everything felt aligned, balanced and open. Beginning practice in Mysore felt wonderful. As I noticed in my first trip, just being in that room took my practice to another level. I felt even more open, strong, and focused. After the first week of primary series, I attended the led intermediate class to begin the second week of practice. Sharath gave me two new postures in that practice, acknowledging that my dwi pada was now good enough and taking me up to tittibhasana. A few days later in Mysore practice, I was part way through drop backs when Sharath looked over at me. “What did you do?” he asked. “Tittibhasana”, I replied. “Pincha mayurasana”, he said. “Now?” I asked. “Yes, now.” I had already done several deep backbends and my spine was in a state of extension. Now I was supposed to just hop up into pincha mayurasana, out of sequence and under his analytical eyes. I managed to pull it off reasonably well. It was not my best pincha ever, and I could clearly feel that the backbending had taken away the usual stability I felt in pincha – but it was good enough. “Karandavasana”, he said. Now I was unsure. My natural lordosis was deepened by the backbending, and I had clearly felt less stable than usual in pincha. This would be a big handicap for attempting karandavasana. I also had not done karandavasana since before I arrived in Mysore, and Sharath was watching me. I tried. It felt awkward and unstable lowering down and I was quickly losing hope of success. As I started to lift back up, my hands slid in towards each other as they usually did. Sharath groaned loudly, “Noooo”. I made it about halfway up but then found my back was still too much in extension to complete the lift. I came down and looked at him. “The hands are not correct”, he said. He didn’t seem to care so much that I hadn’t lifted up, but chose to focus on the fact that my hands had slid in. I was surprised that he focused on the hands. While I realized that, ideally, my forearms should stay parallel to each other, I didn’t think he would care too much about that detail as I had established all of the other aspects of the posture. The next practice happened to be led intermediate again. It would be my first time to attempt karandavasana in the led class. I was able to follow his count moving into the posture, but by the time he had counted to five and gave the vinyasa to lift back up, I had already taken 12 breaths or so! I had never tried to lift back up after staying so long in the posture, and I was already quite tired as I was not yet acclimatized to the added strain of led intermediate with Sharath. The result was that I could not lift back up again. I also noted that only a small percentage of the class were able to lift back up with Sharath’s count. I laid on my belly like everyone else and was about to get ready to go to the change room for finishing postures, when I noticed that he was taking his time to help several people lift back up. I also noticed that a few people were giving it a second attempt, so I thought I might as well try again. As soon as I had lowered down, Sharath’s attention was on me. “Lift up”, he commanded. As I started to lift up he again groaned, “No, no, the hands are not correct”. I was still tired and felt intimidated and again was not able to complete the lift back up very well. “Try again”, he said. At this point I had little hope, but gave it a third attempt. It was a little better than the second, but still not very good. “That’s how ladies do it”, he said. I looked up at him and he concluded, “All the ladies do it better than you. Now you go inside (to the change room for finishing)”. A few people actually messaged me after the class and told me not to take his comments personally and that he was just challenging me to do my best. I knew that was the case, and I actually took his poking fun at me as a compliment. He wouldn’t have bothered to take the time to give me that attention if he didn’t see some potential or a reason to. I did feel challenged though. I was pretty determined to make sure I didn’t fail at karandavasana in class again. The following class, which was again Mysore style, I was able to lift back up fairly well. My success didn’t generate any reaction from Sharath. From that day onwards I was able to do the posture fairly reliably in Mysore class. However, at this point Sharath was ignoring me. After a couple of weeks of practicing karandavasana pretty well and being ignored, I decided that Sharath was likely waiting until I could do it without the hands moving in. So, I decided to start working on it a bit more at home. I am a strong advocate of limiting asana practice to once per day. I often advise my regular students to follow this guideline strictly. If one has both the energy and the ambition, it can be tempting to do a little extra work on stuck areas in the afternoons or evenings. This rarely brings healthy results, especially if it is done regularly. It can be beneficial to perhaps have a few spontaneous exploratory sessions every now and then, especially if an opportunity to get a few tips from a more experienced practitioner arises, but doing extra training on top of an intensive daily Ashtanga practice is usually going to lead to problems. I see the Ashtanga Vinyasa series as a system of bodywork which rebuilds the body and nervous system from the ground up. The sequencing of the series are very intelligently designed and take the body and nerves through a lengthy process of deep structural transformation. I personally believe that it is the most effective form of bodywork that is publicly available on the planet today. Practicing the same sequence every day gives the body and nerves consistent repetitive inputs. Over time, the innate intelligence of the body begins to understand these inputs and eventually integrates those movement patterns into its permanent structural repertoire. In other words, the structure of the body itself changes in order to accommodate and integrate these repetitive movement patterns. Any set of repetitive movement patterns will change the structure of the body. If one hunches over a computer or a mobile phone or a steering wheel all day, the body structure will change to reflect this. If one carries a heavy backpack over a mountain several times per month, the body structure will change to reflect this. If one grows up with abusive family members and is constantly recoiling in fear or shame, the body structure will eventually reflect this. With the Ashtanga practice, the unique aspect of the system is that the new movements we learn and repeat each day are consistently arranging themselves around the internal form of bandha and deep and expansive breathing. The movements are therefore arranging themselves around the activation of the scaffolding of the innermost layers of structural tissue. If the postures are done with reasonably good alignment and conscious awareness, the structural changes that result will tend to bring the midline of the body into harmony with the field of gravity. Many long term practitioners become taller and straighter as a result. Chronic tensions which arise from us being in a constant battle with gravity are automatically eradicated over time, as the body realigns. This is truly a holistic process. It is also a particularly complex process. While each posture does “work on” specific sections of the body, it also simultaneously works on the body as a whole. Each Ashtanga series also works on the body as a whole, with the net effect of practicing all of the postures in the series being much greater and deeper than the sum of the effects of each individual posture. In systems thinking, we can talk about “emergent properties” which arise from higher levels of organization but cannot be found in the parts of that system. A car, for example, has many emergent properties that cannot be found in any of the individual parts from which it is composed. A forest has emergent properties which cannot be found in each individual tree, animal, or rock. Similarly, an Ashtanga series, practiced in sequence with the connecting vinyasa and breathing has effects on the structure of the body which cannot be found from practicing any of the individual asanas in the series in isolation. I think it logically follows from this that if the repetitive sequence of postures we are practicing is having a net effect on the structure of the body as a whole, it is a very complex process which even the most knowledgeable anatomy expert cannot possibly hope to completely understand. We should probably respect this complex process and not complicate it further with extra inputs. Practice the series in the morning; then take the rest of the day to allow the body to integrate those inputs before reapplying the process the following morning. Slowly but surely, the body changes. When it is done in this way, the changes are usually stable. But, if we feel like we are stuck on one posture, and then go home and later in the day apply some more repetitive practice of this posture (or hip openers or back openers or core strengtheners) out of the context of the sequence, then the inputs on the body become very different and the body now has to contend with a second set of unique and demanding inputs to integrate into its structure. Since these inputs have come without the usual context of the Ashtanga sequence, they may not necessarily even be in harmony with the first set of inputs that are coming from the sequence. For example, one could experience being stuck at a posture that requires some degree of opening in the hips that is not currently possible. It might make perfect sense to then go home and spend 30 minutes in the afternoon doing extra exercises to stretch the hips. But, it could very well be that the net emergent effect of that person’s entire morning practice is currently to generate more opening in the thoracic spine during backbending. The body needs to compensate for the opening in the thoracic spine by tightening up somewhere else – ie. the hips. So, by going home and then forcefully stretching the hips, one is actually sabotaging the intelligence of the body and the direction it is attempting to move in with the practice. A tree can be shaped by an expert gardener – or even by natural environmental conditions – over time. The entire shape of the tree can be permanently and dramatically changed over a period of years by the cumulative micro effects of the daily inputs given by the gardener and environmental conditions. However, if the gardener attempts to force too much change in the shape of the tree too quickly with excessively strong manipulations and inputs, the tree will either break or wither and die. Sustainable change takes time to integrate. Asking for too much change too quickly will never bring sustainable results; or, if it does, it will necessarily involve a period of fairly intense discomfort and instability before the results become healthy and sustainable. This is why I strongly believe that one should not practice any strenuous asana beyond one’s daily morning practice. The inputs of the Ashtanga sequence on the human body are very deep and powerful. It is wise to treat them with respect and give them the space they need to settle in and be integrated. In complete contradiction to the above explanation, I decided to start working on karandavasana at home. Why did I disregard my own views on doing extra practice at home? It’s a good question, and an important question. I never would have done this had I not been in Mysore. There was definitely an element of wanting to perform and to prove something. Sharath had challenged me and had done so publicly. I wanted to meet his challenge, and I had a limited period of time during which I could do this. I also felt that having practiced the advanced series for nearly 10 years and having just gone through a phase of practicing two series per day, that my current practice in Mysore of intermediate series only up to karandavasana was fairly easy and non-strenuous. My practice was only one hour long and finished by 5:30 am. It seemed relatively harmless to attempt a little more later in the day at home. I was certainly wary about the prospect of practicing karandavasana at home without the context of the sequence. For the shoulders to support the movement safely, they require a significant amount of warm up and need to be well aligned. If any problems arose from this extra practice, I figured they would come from too much strain on an improperly prepared shoulder girdle. I attempted it at around 11 am, before lunch and still a little bit warm from my morning practice. I would do a few simple shoulder openers and then go straight into attempting karandavasana. I was happy to find that there was no strain at all on the shoulders and that I could do it quite well. I started with 3 – 5 repetitions of the posture, and over the next few days worked my way up to 8 – 9 repetitions, usually done in sets of 3, with a bit of a shoulder release in between sets. I found that I actually felt very good after doing this. I would feel more open in the chest and shoulders and feel taller and straighter, which I always interpret as a sign of “correct practice”. I would normally do this extra little home practice 4 days a week, from Monday to Thursday, and then give it a rest on the other three days. Though there was no significant change in my karandavasana, after a few weeks I did start to manage to keep the hands a little more apart after 4 or 5 of the repetitions at home. In the shala, my performance of karandavasana did not improve. In fact, it seemed to be getting a little more difficult as time went on. I could still do it in the shala, and usually on my first attempt, but it was sloppier and the hands would come in more than in my home practice of the posture. I didn’t have much hope of being able to achieve karandavasana without the hands coming in before the three month trip was over. I resigned myself to being stuck on the posture for the remainder of the trip. Several people mentioned to me that Sharath would likely move me on within a few weeks, and that the way I was practicing karandavasana was definitely good enough – he just wanted to make sure I had to work a little bit harder before getting moved forward in the series. Whether this was true or not, I realized that the posture could be improved and I did want to be able to practice it without the hands coming in, so I continued with my home regime. Part way through my second month of practice at the shala, things started to get more difficult. I noted the same thing on my first trip: The first month felt very open, light and easy, while in the second month and third month things started to tighten up and practice became more challenging. All of the other postures in my practice began to feel a little stiffer and the flow seemed to be less natural. Practice became a bit of a struggle overall, though I could still do everything reasonably well. Around this time, I also started to notice a strange effect after my home karandavasana sessions. After finishing my 8 or 9 repetitions, I would stand up and feel a bit of cramping at the bottom of my sitting bones. It felt like the insertion point of my hamstrings and was quite a strong sensation. It would only last a few seconds, and I would simply do a standing forward bend and then everything would feel fine. I assumed it was the hamstrings and I found it very peculiar. I wondered how it was that karandavasana was creating a strain on the hamstring, since my hamstrings are open and strong and the effect of karandavasana on the hamstrings should be fairly negligible. In hindsight, this was the first warning sign of something going wrong and I should have paid a lot more attention to it. The sense of struggle in my practice carried on for the next few weeks of my second month. Karandavasana was becoming more difficult as well. It seemed to take more effort to lift up and it felt sloppier. I also started to feel more tired during the day, and began taking naps, which I had not been doing in the first month. In the second half of the second month, there was one day where Sharath seemed to be giving everyone new postures. I was having a particularly difficult time that day. It was hotter than usual and I felt quite low in energy and stiffer than usual. As I came to karandavasana, I wondered if I would be able to do it at all. I was looking forward to being in the finishing room. I did manage to do it, and as I straightened back into pincha mayurasana after lifting up, I heard Sharath say, “You did?” I jumped back into chaturanga and then heard him say, “You did karandavasana?” I looked at him and said “Yes, I did.” “Show me again”, he replied. I groaned to myself. I was so sweaty and exhausted, I was not sure I could do it a second time. I tried. As I had feared, I was not able to lift back up. When I looked up, Sharath had already walked away silently. I chuckled to myself and thought, “blew my chance”…. After that day, I was not able to lift up in karandavasana at all. My ability to do the posture vanished completely. Each day in the shala, my attempts to lift up would get worse and worse. For a few days, I was only able to lift part way up. Then, I could barely even get my legs off my arms at all. Finally, it came to the point where I actually could not even start to lift up. My brain would give the command to lift up, and the muscles simply would not respond. I would just slide off my arms and shake my head in bewilderment. It felt like a mental block as much as a physical one. Though I never bothered looking up to see if I was being watched, those who were practicing near me told me that Sharath was watching me intently each time I attempted to do it. After a week or two of this, he came over one day to backbend me at the end of my practice and shot me a disappointed look that said it all. My only response was to laugh sarcastically and shrug. No words were necessary. Losing the ability to lift up should have been my second warning sign that something was going wrong and I was perhaps overdoing things by practicing at home. This sign was much clearer than the little moments of cramping below my sitting bone, yet I also ignored this warning sign. I became frustrated and actually started putting more effort into the home practice, sometimes attempting it more than 10 times per day, even though I was no longer able to lift up at home either. It began to feel like I was beating a dead horse, yet I kept beating it. I know from experience in the practice that big breakthroughs are often preceded by a period of time where things seem to hit rock bottom. Sometimes things have to come apart before they can be rebuilt in a better way. I theorized that this could be what was happening to me now. My assumption was that losing the ability to lift up at all in karandavasana was hitting rock bottom. I was wrong. During the final week of the second month, I began to feel really unstable in my practice. There was a strong sense of resistance and avoidance and I could feel what I can only describe as a quivering, shaking feeling deep in my nerves. While my inner focus and composure were still there, the deepest root of my physical stability seemed to feel strongly threatened. I began to feel other elements of my practice which were second nature to me also slipping away. Jumping into bakasana became sloppier; during one led primary series class I could barely even lift up and jump back between each posture. The whole practice felt clunky and seemed to take me back about 15 years to what my first year of practice felt like. It was humbling, to say the least. Finally, the hitting of rock bottom happened: During one Mysore practice, after completing bakasana I jumped through for bharadvajasana and suddenly felt what seemed like a bolt of lightning shoot through my left leg. It was probably one of the most intense pains I have ever felt in my life and my leg went partially numb. I practically went into a state of shock. I have had experiences before where something really gets tweaked in the practice, and then by carefully continuing the practice, it disappears just as quickly as it came. This was much stronger than any “tweak” I had ever felt before though. I very carefully put my body into bharadvajasana, which I could do, but the entire body was still quivering in shock. When I tried to jump back, the electric pain shot through my left leg again. I gingerly stepped through and did the other side of bharadvajasana. I repeated the process for ardha matsyendrasana and it was very clear that this tweak was not going to release. I could not even fathom attempting eka pada sirsasana, so I just sat there for a minute, unsure of what to do. The intensity of the room swirled around me and I had a very lucid feeling like suddenly being jerked violently out of a dream. I decided to end the practice. I walked over to the stage and told Sharath that something had happened to my leg and I needed to stop practice. He looked at me and then quickly nodded and said “Okay, don’t do backbending”. I went into the change room with the intention of doing the full finishing sequence, but the pain was so strong that I could not even lift my body into sarvangasana or sirsasana. I struggled to place my body into yoga mudra and then laid down to rest. Getting up and rolling up my mat was excruciating and I was unsure I would even be able to walk out. Thankfully, I did manage to do that. I was concerned, but figured that it would be something that I could release with a few days of primary series practice. There were three more days left in the week and I managed to do a very painful primary series on those days, though certain postures were not possible at all. It did not seem to get any better. It was a very strange pain, and unlike anything I had experienced before. There was no pain in the spine or back, and the spinal movements themselves seemed to be unrestricted. Anything that required the same kind of abdominal and pelvic strength or flexion that karandavasana requires would send a shooting pain through my left outer thigh and all the way down to my foot. Certain types of forward folding, with the legs in different rotations also elicited the same pain. Other types of forward folding were fine. It depended on the rotation of the hips and the degree of strength required. It was very clear to me that this pain was caused by my excessive karandavasana regime, as any postures which resembled the movements of karandavasana triggered the pain most strongly. Backbending was the only movement that did not elicit any pain and actually felt more open than usual. I decided to return to intermediate series practice, though anything beyond the twists would not be possible. With some trepidation I came to the led intermediate practice the following Monday. It went okay (though still very painful) up to the backbends and twists. As we came to eka pada sirsasana, I decided to stop and got ready to leave for finishing postures. Sharath was well aware of me and watching from the stage. He encouraged me to attempt eka pada. I was surprised to find that I could do the right side. For the left side, he told me to at least attempt it as much as I could, which was not very much. He stood near me for the next few postures and guided me with some suggestions for modifications, making sure I stayed up to karandavasana. It felt empowering to complete the practice, and I found the leg was actually somewhat better afterwards. Stretching it to the degree that was possible seemed to help a bit. I still had some hope that the problem would resolve itself sooner than later. I felt a deep sense of surrender as we began Mysore practice that week. For the preceding two months, I had felt quite a bit of performance pressure around karandavasana. Now that my practice was in smoldering ruins, and I knew there was no chance of doing karandavasana at all and that several other postures in my practice had to be modified or avoided, there was actually some sense of relief. Though my practice was very painful and unpleasant, that sense of surrender to my circumstances also created a sort of relaxation and letting go. I developed a new routine which involved skipping the left side of eka pada, dwi pada and yoga nidrasana. I could do tittibhasana and pincha mayurasana. For karandavasana, I would lift up and cross my legs but could not lower down, as even the lowering movement would start to trigger the pain. It was a challenge to be in this state. It was very humbling, and a good experience to go through. Sharath’s attitude towards me also changed. He became more outwardly kind and less pressuring. Though each day was an immense struggle, moving slowly and carefully and bearing the pain that many of the movements elicited, I did see that slowly but surely most of the movements were gradually returning. Each day and each week I would feel a little more open, and could go a little further into certain movements, or use the internal strength a little more without triggering the bolts of pain. The practice became about finding that fine line of generating enough movement to stimulate creative healing but not so much that would cause aggravation of the symptoms. Facing the intense physical discomfort and the emotional vulnerability of having to go through this process in public was a very deep form of practice. In many ways, it was about dropping back into the real purpose of the practice. Instead of obsessing about the external appearance of one particular posture, I was able to drop back into the internal process of working with my reactions to my own inner experiences. My third month in Mysore was a difficult process of slow recovery from the injury caused by my own excessive ambitions. As I was also struggling with other aspects of my Mysore experience and my experience of life in general, I was eagerly looking forward to the end of my trip. I longed to return to my home in the humid and quiet rice fields of Bali, where I could practice alone and in the dark before teaching with only the sounds of crickets and frogs to accompany me as I limped through my practice and continued to encounter my own pain. I had completely let go of all ambition to “move on” past karandavasana and was ready for the trip to end. A couple of weeks later, I had healed to the extent that lowering into karandavasana became possible again. Lifting back up still seemed light years away. In my second to last led intermediate class, I attempted karandavasana as usual and then rolled up my mat to go to the change room for finishing. As I started walking, Sharath turned towards me and said “Show me”. I actually laughed out loud sarcastically. He then turned back to whomever he was helping. I just stood there for a minute, and wanted to tell him “No”. What was the point? Karandavasana was not going to come again for a long time. He remained focused on someone else, so I sighed and put my mat back down and gave it a second attempt. I was shocked to find that I actually was able to lift halfway back up. I felt a deep focus and strength that I had not felt since the beginning of the trip. For one brief moment everything came together again inside me. Sharath didn’t say anything and I then went to the change room for finishing. The next day in Mysore class, I prepared for backbending after my attempt at karandavasana and Sharath again called to me from the stage and told me to repeat it. I failed again, and he attempted to give me some helpful instructions, which were things I already knew but that my body just could not execute in its current state. I still had no hope of lifting back up again anytime soon. I was expecting it to be at least a few more months. I then continued to attempt karandavasana twice per practice session, as it seemed like that was what Sharath expected now. I could feel that he now wanted to move me past the posture but could not justify doing so until I could lift up again. I, however, was quite content to wait until the next trip! In the following led intermediate class, which was my last one of the season, he again asked me to “show him” after I started to walk towards the change room. The same thing happened as in the previous week’s class; I was able to lift up part way and felt that glimmer of what it used to feel like, but was not successful in lifting up fully. On Thursday of that final week, which was my second to last Mysore practice of the season, I lowered down into karandavasana as usual. Somehow, I then lifted back up. It was shocking. I didn’t feel like I had really tried to do it, and I had had no ambition or expectation to do so. Yet, somehow my body came up. I was so surprised that I actually started trembling. I unfolded my legs and extended my shoulders straight. It was sloppy and certainly no better than it had been in the beginning of the trip, but I had done it. I jumped back to chaturanga from pincha and immediately heard Sharath’s voice from the stage – “Mayurasana”. I looked up towards him, just to make sure it was not a coincidence and that he actually was talking to me. He gave me the biggest smile I have ever seen on him, and nodded and gestured with the mayurasana arm position. It was an intense moment. Suddenly, all the pain and the dark tunnel that my practice and life had been for the past while dissolved into a moment of lightness. It was as if a thick fog had suddenly lifted. I smiled back at him and nodded and attempted mayurasana. He immediately informed me that it was not correct and critiqued several aspects of how I did the posture. The following day I was able to do karandavasana again. Even though my body still had a long way to go to heal completely, it was an unexpected and somehow fitting way to end the trip. Having been home in Bali for two weeks now, I am still working through the injury. I managed to put my left leg behind my head and to do supta kurmasana for the first time since the injury in my practice this week. Still, there is a lot of pain to work through and I anticipate it will be another 2 – 4 months before I am pain free. Interestingly, karandavasana has returned to feeling quite smooth and feels like one of the least effortful parts of my practice at the moment. This trip to Mysore was a very important one. In many ways I feel like it was a calibration of my relationship with Sharath. I think we both learned a lot about how to deal with each other, and my next trip will be much better as a result. The interesting question that still stands out to me is why I chose to disregard my own understanding of how to practice? Why did I allow myself to succumb to the ambition of excessive practice in order to perform? I would never have chosen to do that anywhere else, whether at home or if I was practicing in another shala. Was it that the environment of Mysore brought out some unhealthy inner tendency of mine which I had not yet completely resolved? And, was it my time to face that tendency again? Sharath pushed me hard on both of my trips, for reasons that only he can know. One thing that is clear to me however, is that Sharath would not have approved of my extra practice of karandavasana at home. He also strongly advocates not practicing asana more than once per day. If I had asked him what I should do to improve my karandavasana, he definitely would not have told me to go and do what I did. I know this, and I knew it then, so I certainly take most of the credit and responsibility for my own actions. I will certainly learn from my mistake, and this will serve me well on future trips to Mysore as I get into more advanced practice there. I share this story for various reasons. I feel it is important to publicly express and share the darker side of practice as well as the dangers of “incorrect practice”. As social media and pop culture increasingly promote asana practice as an image contest and a fashion show, the dangers of harming oneself by getting caught up in this trend increase. Even though I was not attempting to create the perfect karandavasana so that I could post it on facebook, youtube, or the cover of a magazine, the fact is that I was still trying to create a perfect karandavasana at least partly for image related reasons. This is what led to my excessive practice which led to my injury. The most interesting thing is that I intellectually understood all of this very well before this experience. Even though I have watched numerous fellow practitioners and students injure themselves in a similar way, it seems I had to finally experience it for myself in my own body to fully comprehend the truth of it.
Given the amount of time in my life that I have spent hiking and hanging out in bear habitat, I consider myself lucky to have almost completely avoided any form of contact or encounter with bears. I’ve only once seen a bear while out walking, and that was a fleeting encounter as the bear ignored me and continued along its way – which is how the majority of human-bear encounters go. I’ve done plenty of day hikes on my own, including many in bear habitat – but most of my backcountry hikes involving overnight camping have been with one or more other people. A few days ago, I embarked on what was to be a 5 day solo hike in Algonquin Park, Ontario – the first place I experienced backcountry hiking when I was a teenager and still my favorite place in the world to be immersed in nature. It was the third purely solo backcountry hike of my life. I’ve probably hiked through this area 15 times in my life, though the last time was in 2003. Early October in this part of the world is ideal for hiking: The fall colours are in their glorious peak, the weather is crisp – but still mild enough to work up a sweat in the afternoon, it is generally dry, and the biting insects are non-existent – having perished in the onset of cooler nights in the preceding weeks. I arrived at the access point to the Western Uplands trail around 1:30 pm after a 3 hour drive from the suburbs of Toronto where I was staying with my family. It was several hours later than I would have liked to arrive given the 12 KM distance to the lake where I would spend my first night, and the limited daylight hours at this time of year. Still – I had enough time if I carried a good pace. I put the finishing touches on my backpack – which as usual was far too heavy for comfort. In a group hike the shared supplies – such as tent, stove, fuel, cooking equipment, water filter, etc., can be split up amongst the group members. On a solo hike, it all goes on one person’s back – along with the cold weather sleeping bag, extra clothing, thermarest pad, 5 days worth of food, and all the other necessary odds and ends to survive and have some relative comfort in the backcountry for a week. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and as soon as I entered into the wonderland of colours and smells, all of my sense doors came to life and synchronized with my nervous system and inner being. I felt happy, calm and aligned on all levels. As humans, we place far too much importance on our relationships with each other and with our human-made devices. Our sense doors and nervous systems have evolved over millions of years to be in relationship with the non-human world. There is little wonder that most people feel unfulfilled in life, as they keep themselves isolated in a human–only world and attempt to satisfy their need for relationship in this very narrow realm. In his excellent book “Becoming Animal”, David Abram suggests that the growing acceptance in popular culture of the connection between body and mind is not enough and that most of the therapists and healers exploring this connection have missed something very vital. He claims that to fully experience balance and well being, we must also emphasize the connection between the human body-mind and the body-mind of the non-human world – the body-mind of the earth. To truly be balanced and whole, our senses need to be in relationship with the non-human world, as they have been “designed” this way by the co-evolution of our species with all of the other non-human entities over millions of years. In essence, we are coupled to the non-human world to such a degree that it is a part of us and we are a part of it. Cutting off this vital aspect of our heritage and our being, as the modern city-dweller does, is to cut of a part of what we are. Maintaining a reciprocal and communicative relationship with all the non-human forms of life (and non–life) always has a profoundly balancing effect on the senses and nervous system, and on the deeper layers of our being – for those who choose to pay attention. In my opinion, those who are not able to have this kind of ongoing relationship with the non-human world have little chance at sustaining true clarity and harmony. I feel that the major shortcoming of traditional perspectives on yoga and meditation is that they fail to address or recognize this vital aspect of being human. Just as the reductionist approach to science attempts to isolate a variable from its natural context in order to learn more about it, this approach to understanding the human psyche removes the human individual from the context of its manifold relationships with all that is “other”. Liberation is sought by attempting to overcome or detach from the illusory or impermanent nature of these relationships to the physical earth and all of it’s non-human inhabitants. My own evolving perspective of spirituality is that the relationship between ourselves and the non-human world is so deep and ancient, that we need to practice in a way that recognizes these relationships as a part of who and what we are. We need to remain aware of and immersed in relationship with the rest of the planet earth, if we are to know ourselves completely. Immersed in the manifold relationships with the non human world, I never feel lonely or bored when I am alone in nature. In fact, I usually find that any concerns that have been weighing on me tend to lighten and become less significant once I step into a world that is dominated by that which is non-human. I thoroughly enjoyed the 4 hour hike to Maggie Lake, though the weight of my pack was bogging down my energy and awareness by the time I arrived. Maggie Lake is large. There is a 6 KM trail which circumambulates the lake and about 10 designated campsites scattered around its shores. I chose the second site which I came to. There was a large cleared area – perfect for a tent and some extra space on the soft pine needled floor for morning yoga if the weather allowed for it. There was a decent fire pit with some large flat logs surrounding it and someone had kindly left a neat stack of chopped wood. The site was only a few steps away from the rocky shore and clear waters of the lake. I had not seen any other hikers on my walk in. Sound travels very well across a lake in the silence of the backcountry, and hearing no other sounds or signs of human beings, I guessed that I would probably be spending the night completely alone on this lake. It was about 5:30 pm and the sun was already sinking low on the Western horizon over the lake. I figured I had about 60 – 90 minutes of daylight left. The beautiful and inviting campsite and lake would soon become completely dark – a form of darkness that is much denser than anything we can experience in human settlements. I had numerous things to accomplish before that happened and I began to feel a little stressed. In order to prepare for the dark and cold night safely I needed to set up my tent and lay out the things from my backpack in their appropriate places. I needed to find firewood and cut it, as the little bit that had been left at the campsite would not last long. I needed to set up my stove and cooking equipment, collect water, cook my food, eat my food, wash up my cooking equipment, filter water for drinking, repack my food and then hang all the food up in a tree to protect it from animals. This was quite a bit of work to accomplish in a short time, so I kept my focus strong and set into action. I managed to get it all done, and in the last bit of fading light I roped my food bag over a high and strong looking branch that I had located earlier when the light was better. I was not completely satisfied with the location of the food pack. It is often difficult to find a perfect location – high enough that a bear cannot reach it from the ground, and far away enough from the trunk of the tree that a climbing bear could not reach over and grab it. The branch also needs to be strong enough to hold the food bag. This particular branch was a little low and a little close to the trunk. Still, I figured it would be good enough. I had never had an issue with animals getting food out of a tree at night and I had used many non-ideal branches in the past. With the work finished, I was finally able to relax a bit and enjoy the darkness and solitude of the lake. I spent a few minutes sitting by the fire, and then wandered over to the lake to watch the final glow of daylight on the Western horizon fade and disappear. I noted that there were no other lights on the shores of the lake – no flickering campfires. I was indeed alone, probably the only human in at least a 10 KM radius. It was a clear night and an incredible canopy of stars slowly emerged. I spent some more time by the fire, feeling sleepy and vaguely disturbed in my body due to the tension of carrying my heavy pack over 12 KM and the stressful rush to get everything finished upon arrival. I slowly relaxed and tried to read a little bit. I was too sleepy to focus on the writing, so just sat quietly in meditation until I felt like it was time to get into bed. I walked over to take one last look at the lake and open sky, in the now complete darkness of night. The star canopy was incredible. I could not focus my gaze on it, it was a bit like an illusion where the more I looked, the more stars would appear and then seem to dance around, flicker and disappear. The sky was alive with an infinite number of points of light, all varying in brightness and seemingly moving around. I could relax my gaze and focus on the recognizable constellations which clearly stood out, but then when I tried to focus more the sky would seem to fill with more and more elusive points of brightness behind the constellations – a background of ever increasing complexity. It had been a long time since I had seen a sky like this. I walked back to the fire and put the last few things in their place for the night. I had a small machete for cutting wood which I was about to put under a plastic bag cover with my stove and water filter on an old tree stump. I reconsidered and then brought it to the tent with me. Just in case…… Though there are many documented cases of humans who have been killed or badly injured by bears – the probability of this happening is very low. One has a much greater likelihood of being killed or injured in a car accident on the road then of being killed or injured by a bear in the backcountry. Still – just as one takes reasonable precautions against car accidents, or protection (such as seatbelts) in the event that one is in an accident – one also takes reasonable precautions to prevent bear encounters in the wilderness (such as treeing all the food after dark) and thinks about protection (such as a weapon) in the unlikely event that there is a bear encounter. When I am camping with a group, I don’t think about bears beyond taking these precautions. When I am camping alone, it is a different story. Alone, my thoughts and fears can run wild and on my previous solo trips the process of getting into my tent and lying quietly before sleep was always a very fearful one. I would imagine “what if….” and picture a bear coming into my campsite at night, perhaps with some interest in me as a meal. I would imagine what I would or could do – which generally would be very little. The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability that arose would trigger more fear reaction and the process would build until I consciously applied various techniques to put a stop to it. Still, I was never really completely comfortable in going to sleep at night when alone in the wilderness. The fear was always there, just below the surface, even if I had it under control. Encountering that fear was part of the process of hiking and camping alone. Mountaineer Reinhold Messner, whom I consider to be a fascinating person and a great yogi, made similar statements. Of the many mind boggling feats of mountaineering which he accomplished – a number of them were alone. He often stated in interviews that he climbed some of his most dangerous climbs alone simply to face his own fear. Being alone at night on the mountain was an almost unbearable fear for him, and the process of encountering that was a way to know himself better. Another very true statement he made was that when you are in a dangerous situation with another person, the fear is much less because you can share it. When you are alone in a similar situation, the fear is much greater as you can only experience it yourself and process it inside yourself. I was happy to note that tonight seemed different for me. Maybe I was just so tired that I didn’t have the energy to imagine a bear encounter. I did feel the familiar thoughts arising, but it was very easy to let them slide off and I felt quite comfortable and safe as I quickly drifted into sleep, warm and cozy in my winter sleeping bag. That was around 9 pm. At 12:30 I woke up sharply. A few times in my life I have been awakened with the awareness of a very real danger that I had to respond to. This was a similar experience. I woke up and was immediately very alert. The only way to describe what I felt was that I perceived a vector of energy running at a diagonal to the orientation of my body in the tent, its closest point perhaps 5 meters away from my head. The vector of energy ran directly to where my food was hanging in the tree, perhaps 15 – 20 meters away from my tent. I sat up immediately and listened. Sure enough, there were some loud noises. Thumping and then some sticks snapping. I realized that something was near my food. There was no fear, just a heightened state of awareness and a calm lucidity. There were several different sounds. The heavy thumping, the snapping of sticks, and then another sound which was the very particular sound that a dead tree makes when you are trying to pull its roots out of the earth – a sort of earthy ripping sound. There was little doubt that it was a bear. I tried to rationally deny it to myself, thinking that it could be some smaller mammal, but I quickly put my own doubts to rest as it was clear that the sounds I was hearing could only be made by a very large mammal, and a large mammal with some degree of dexterity – which ruled out every possibility except a bear. I noted with some interest that I did not feel emotionally afraid. At an intellectual level I was quite aware that this was a very bad situation and that the paranoid imaginations of my past were now actually happening: I was alone in the wilderness, in the dead of night, and a bear had voluntarily entered into my campsite and was aware of my presence there and clearly not afraid of me. “This….is….really happening”. I acknowledged the reality of the situation to myself, but the emotional fear reaction that would come when I had imagined this situation in the past was notably absent. Part of me wanted to react emotionally, as if it was the right thing to do, but the emotions were distant clouds. They could not touch me and I could not touch them. The center of my being and awareness was simply calm and collected focus. I reached for my headlamp and slipped it onto my head (without turning it on), grabbed and unsheathed my machete and held it in my right hand and quietly waited. There is no standard procedure for a bear encounter. There are common threads of advice, but the advice can be different depending on whether it is a grizzly or a black bear as well as numerous other factors. In this region of Canada it could only be a black bear. Black bears are generally considered to be less dangerous and potentially predatory towards humans than grizzly bears are – but black bears are also less predictable and there are certainly enough documented cases of black bears stalking and killing humans. Bears tend to avoid humans in general. The vast majority of bear encounters happen because the bear is caught by surprise. Once the bear realizes that a human being is close by, it turns and leaves the area. This is the best case scenario and the most common scenario. The next scenario is that the bear realizes there is a human close by, but it does not leave or show fear – or the bear voluntarily enters into contact with humans. This increases the danger of the situation significantly and this was the situation that I found myself in at that moment. Bears are very intelligent and have keen senses. The bear could smell me and there is no doubt at all that the bear knew I was very close by, in my tent. This did not seem to faze the bear at all. The only way the situation could become worse would be if the bear decided to investigate the possibility of making me into a meal. So far, I had no reason to believe this would happen. “They” say that if a black bear approaches you or your camp, the first course of action should be to try to scare it off. Making a lot of noise, flashing lights, jumping around in order to look big are the commonly listed techniques. I could see this being potentially effective with a group of people, in the daylight. While guidelines can be good, blindly following them without analyzing the unique situation at hand can be troublesome. I could have put my headlamp (which is particularly bright) on strobe, used my fox 40 whistle, which I had also located and had in my other hand, and stepped out of my tent and shone the flashing light at the bear, blowing my whistle, yelling and waving my machete around. This might have been enough to send the bear running away into the night. It also could have made the bear feel threatened, and liable to attempt to defend its newly found food source from me. Had I been with at least one other strong person, whom I felt confident would stay cool if the situation escalated further, I might have suggested we do just that. But I was alone and it seemed exceedingly foolish to try to scare the bear away and risk provocation. I decided to sit and wait. The bear would either succeed in getting my food, have a good meal and leave, it would fail to get my food and leave, or it would either get my food or not, and then decide to investigate me and the tent. I figured the first possibility – that it would get my food and then leave was the most likely. The chances of it coming to the tent were very low, especially considering I had been careful to have no trace of food in the tent. I devised a plan in the unlikely event that the bear did approach my tent. Once I heard it come close, I would begin to make a lot of noise. I would blow my whistle and yell. If that did not work and the bear attempted to come into the tent, I would move on to Plan B. If the bear wanted to come into the tent and kill me, it could. A bear could slash or bite through the thin polyester walls of the tent in no time. I knew that I would have one big advantage, however: The bear would have to use its claws or its teeth to rip a hole in the tent before it could reach me. If I stayed cool and poised with my machete and my light, I would see exactly where its limb or face was going to come through the tent, and I would be able to take the first shot. The machete was brand new, the blade was sharp and about 2/3 the length of my forearm. If I struck well, the bear would be seriously injured before it had a chance to hit or bite me – especially if the strike was to its face. It would likely be enough to send the bear running off, bleeding and confused. I seriously hoped it would not come down to this, but it also gave me confidence to know that I had a plan of action which had a reasonable chance of success if it did come down to it. I calmly waited. The noises went on for a long time. Eventually I heard another large thud and figured my food had hit the ground. The subsequent sounds of wrestling plastic confirmed this. It had probably been close to an hour since I woke up and I had been sitting upright, half out of my sleeping bag with machete in hand for the entire time. It was close to 0 degrees and I was starting to get very cold as my upper body was exposed to the crisp night air with only a light layer of clothing on. I still felt little emotional fear and was increasingly confident that the bear would not approach the tent. I decided to lay back down and cover myself with the sleeping bag fully. I kept my headlamp on my head and lay the machete beside my sleeping bag, still out of its sheath. I kept both my ears off the pillow and continued to listen intently and wait. Eventually the noise subsided. I figured the bear had departed. I was surprised to find that I felt very sleepy and eventually started to drift off. I awoke a short time later to more of the same noise. The bear had returned for more. I sighed and stayed in a lying position while the bear apparently went for another round of the same procedure. I actually drifted in and out of sleep while the bear continued to wrestle with the tree and my food. It probably went on for a total of three hours. Eventually, silence ensued and I went back into a deeper sleep. I awoke to the first signs of dawn around 6:30 am. When sleeping outdoors, the subtle changes that immediately precede the onset of dawn can be tangibly felt and often lead to a natural awakening from sleep. Still tired, I went back to sleep. I was confident the bear had long since departed. Around 7:30 am it felt fully light and I decided to venture out. As soon as I opened the tent door I saw my food bag still hanging in the tree. I was quite surprised and happy but then quickly realized that the bag was empty. Walking over I saw the detritus of my food and its wrappings spread around the ground. It looked a bit like a bomb had hit it, with tiny shards of plastic and little bits of rejected food everywhere. The hanging food bag (which was also my tent bag) had been pulled closer to the trunk of the tree, was looped over the branch a second time and had a gaping hole in the bottom of it. I took stock of what was left of the food. The bear had been selective in what it ate. It almost completely avoided the dried foods which required a lot of cooking. These would have provided little nutrition for the bear if eaten raw, and the bear knew that. Unfortunately, some of the bags holding this kind of food were ripped open and the food spilled out over the ground. A few meals worth remained untouched. I began to pick up the pieces and salvage what I could. I noted with some amusement that my Vega Sport Protein bars – all 5 of them – were the bear’s favorite. There was not a single crumb left of any of the 5 bars, and all that remained of the wrappers looked like they had been put through a paper shredder. This was a smart bear! Those bars were by far the most nutrient dense food that I had and would have been perfect for a black bear preparing for hibernation. The next favorite part of my food were all the other fresh and raw foods – dates, nuts, seeds, dried fruits – all of which had been completely opened and eaten, though a few crumbs of each still lay in the bottom of those bags. Though I was sure the bear was long gone, making fire felt like the first thing that should happen. It was a cold morning – but the main reason for making fire was to re-establish myself as the reigning boss of the campsite. In the daylight and with a good fire burning, the territory was once again mine. Humans are diurnal animals and it is easier to feel confident and able to use our abilities to our advantage when it is daylight. I tried to decide my next course of action. After rounding up the remnants of my food and deciding what was still usable, I had about 1.5 – 2 days worth of food left. To complete my hike I needed 3.5 more days. During the night I had felt there was little question that I would be heading back to the car first thing in the morning. Now, I felt a little more relaxed and open to other possibilities. There was no hurry. I felt hungry and still had my hot cereal and instant coffee, so started to prepare both things and reflect on my next course of action. I had three choices: I could try to continue my hike, and ration the food I had out – eating less, or increasing my daily walking distance so I could cover the distance in less time; I could try to shorten my route and spend one more day and night at another lake; or I could hike out the same way I came in and leave. I didn’t want to give up my hike. 4 more days in the park would have been wonderful, and I had carried in enough food and fuel and clothing to do that. One perspective would be to look at my food loss as a “donation” to the forest, and continue on with what I had. I tried to think of different backcountry hikers that I knew or knew of, and I knew that some people would shrug the incident off and carry on. On the other hand, I could take the perspective that what happened was a form of a warning and that the forest actually wanted me to leave. I could count myself lucky that the situation hadn’t been worse, and leave with the good fortune I still had. Pushing on could be risking further and greater problems. If I distanced myself more than a day’s walk from the car and another misfortune happened, it could be a very bad situation indeed. I knew the park was quite empty of other hikers and there would be no one to help me out even deeper in the park. It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue and the air so crisp and clean. The sun had risen and my spirits were high, in spite of what had happened. I did not want to leave this pristine place after only one night! I decided I would like to carry on and set about preparing to do so. After my breakfast I sat beside the fire and carefully stitched up my tent/food bag with a needle and thread. I re-organized and re-bagged my remaining food. I took my time and enjoyed the place. After some time, I pulled out my map and tried to figure out the best options. If I quickened my pace so that I only spent two more nights, it would mean hiking 20 KM a day, which felt like a bit much, especially given the shorter days of autumn. If I spent three nights and rationed my food out, it would mean eating very little. If I shortened my route and cut across to another lake that I had not planned for, I might not find an empty campsite. Besides – wherever I spent the next night, I knew that as soon as I made camp my thoughts would be predominantly with worry about another bear incident. It would not be a pleasant evening. I also noted that the bear had only left me with food that would require cooking. This meant I would need to use my stove every time I wanted to eat, regardless of the environmental conditions. Staying in the park was seemingly like less of a good idea. It was approaching noon and I needed to make a decision. It would be 4 – 5 hours walk, whichever direction I was going in. I sat by the lake and noticed the sky was starting to change. Part of the horizon was acquiring a density which I knew was the beginning of an overcast sky. There was a good chance that within a few hours it would be completely overcast and raining. That sealed the deal. I decided to stay in camp a bit longer, eat some lunch and hike back to the car. My excursion was over. It definitely felt too soon to leave the forest. The clarity and focus of mind that comes from the deepening of relationship with the non-human world and the removal of many of the human made distractions is a real treasure that I only get to touch once in a while. To have to let go of it after only two days felt like a shame. Nonetheless, I was happy and I felt good. It had been a beautiful two days in the forest, at one of the best times of the year. The weather was perfect and I was lucky to have experienced what I did. To walk out in the current nice weather and a full belly would likely be better than pushing deeper into the park, to spend a night in the rain without being able to eat as much as I wanted to. I hiked out in a good mood. I crossed paths with two groups of hikers on my way out. Both were heading to Maggie Lake. I related the incident to both groups and warned them. It was nice to note that both groups of people were more worried about me and my lack of food than they were about walking into a lake with a habituated bear hanging around. Both groups offered me food in spite of my assurance that I was not hungry. One of them literally forced me to take a few energy bars before they carried on their hike. People are very generous in the forest! I learned a lot about bears. I used to think of them more as bumbling, brutish animals whose main advantage was in their size and strength – not in their intelligence. This bear was extremely intelligent. In reflection, I was impressed at how it executed the whole operation. It had clearly done this before. It knew exactly when to come – when my fire had died down to nothing and I had been in bed for several hours. It knew I would not dare to challenge it in the dark. It might have been watching me and planning since before dark. It knew how to get my food out of the bag in the tree, and then it knew which foods to eat and which to leave. It was not a bumbling foraging bear that randomly happened onto my campsite in the night – it was a well planned and executed theft by an intelligent and sentient being. As humans, we often tend to objectify the non-human world to the degree that we forget that we are not only perceivers – but we are also perceived. All of nature perceives us. It all has intelligence – even the trees and rocks have a form of intelligence and can perceive us. This bear had immense perceptive abilities and it perceived and analyzed me in a lot detail. I was an object, a factor in its quest for food before a long winter’s hibernation and it made a number of correct calculations and actions to minimize my ability to keep my food out of its reach. Another interesting thing was that my previous imaginings of a bear coming into my camp at night while I am camping alone were MUCH more frightening than when it actually happened. Looking back on the incident, I can honestly say that there was next to zero emotional fear while it was happening. Yet, all those previous times that I imagined it happening I would be gripped by an overpowering and visceral experience of fear. I’m not sure if I will ever hike alone again. I love the experience of the solitude. When there are no other people, we absolutely have to be completely immersed in relationship with the non-human world. While one can experience this on a solo day hike, the longer one stays immersed alone in nature, the deeper this experience gets. It is wonderfully clearing and rejuvenating. At the same time, I never want to experience what I just experienced again. Though I was able to remain fearless and clear headed, and everything turned out OK (aside from losing my food and ending my hike early) – there is no doubt that being alone in such a situation vastly increases the risk factor, especially if the bear turns aggressive. We’ll see…..time will tell.
Authentic yoga practice is an exploration in relationship. One who is practicing yoga as sadhana (rather than yoga as entertainment) has a relationship with their teacher, a relationship with the practice method or tradition, and most importantly a relationship with the self. Ultimately, the real work of yoga is to deepen and strengthen these relationships. A solid and stable relationship with the teacher and with the tradition of practice are essential factors in a healthy and transformative yoga practice, but ultimately those relationships are meant to serve as the foundation and support for the deepening of the practitioners’ relationship with the self. A deepening of practice always involves a deepening of relationship. It can be helpful to keep this mind when we are seeking out ways to deepen our yoga practice. There are many yoga experiences for sale these days, and many of them are marketed very well. These experiences may include some or all of the following: A famous and charismatic teacher (or several famous teachers); a certificate of completion, perhaps conferring one with the title of “teacher”; exposure to new postures and/or innovative techniques, knowledge, information, tricks, etc; a paradise like setting; and perhaps supplementary forms of quasi spiritual entertainment. These types of yoga retreats and events may look exciting and feel stimulating, but when considering this kind of experience, I feel it is important to ask oneself if it will really deepen one’s practice – if it will really strengthen one’s relationship with a teacher, a tradition, and with oneself – or if it is simply a quasi spiritual form of entertainment, yet another distraction in the world of commodities competing for a piece of our increasingly weakened attention span. It is common Western thinking that deepening comes through accumulation. The more we can accumulate, the more we have, and the more we have to offer. A quick glance at the website of an average Western yoga studio (and Eastern studios which mimic the Western yoga studio model) will exemplify this type of thinking. A popular studio usually offers classes in a number of different styles or forms of yoga. Something is there for everyone, and the potential student is welcome to choose whatever suits their particular mood: Hot or cool, fast or slow, gentle or vigorous, etc. Glancing at the teacher roster will usually show a large number of teachers. The biographies of the teachers usually include a list of several different styles of yoga that they have “studied” and an even longer list of well known teachers that they have “studied with”. There are even multidisciplinary teacher training programs where over a span of one month, potential teachers are “trained” in several different styles of yoga, by several different mentors, and then left to decide which particular form they want to start teaching. It is increasingly rare to see a yoga school which gives thorough and structured instruction in one tradition or system of yoga, and even rarer to see a teacher’s biography which states something along the lines of “I am qualified to teach yoga because I spent 20 years practicing under Master teacher X and went really deep with him”. In any long term relationship, we need to continue to adjust and recalibrate in order to keep it healthy. The same goes for a long term relationship with a teacher and a tradition of practice. This commitment and constant adjustment and recalibration can be a strong stimulus for healthy self evolution, if done with intention and awareness. Ultimately, this provides a stable foundation to take us deeper into relationship with ourselves and to evolve into healthier and more functional people. A relationship by definition involves an interaction or exchange between two entities. If we are having a “relationship” with ourselves, and deepening that relationship through yoga practice, it implies that there two different aspects of ourselves that need to communicate with each other. Canadian author Matthew Remski recently wrote an article in which he attempted to define the concept of “meditation”. Part of his definition included: It can be helpful to view meditation as the gradual process of improving numerous layers of internal conversation between the “feeling-self” and the “conscious-self” I found this to be quite helpful in clarifying my own concept of how we use yoga practice to deepen communicate with ourselves. Modern human society has created the possibility for our conscious minds to exist almost entirely in a world of ideas, conceptions and creations. We really don’t need to feel very much, if we prefer not to. Much of the conceptual world of the conscious mind makes little or no sense to the innate intelligence of the feeling body – yet we have trained ourselves to stop hearing the feeling body as we drag it along through the conceptual universe the mind has created. Only in times of extreme pleasure or extreme discomfort, when the feeling body shouts out so loudly that it can no longer be ignored do we start to listen. Even in these times, that listening rarely represents healthy discourse or dialogue between the conscious mind and feeling body. Usually it involves doing the quickest and easiest thing possible to satisfy the cravings or remove the cries of pain of feeling body, so that it retreats back into the shadows and we can return to our fabricated mental world of ideas and concepts. My various practices have evolved and intertwined over the past 15 – 20 years to the stage where they are united by one process: To improve the communication and deepen the relationship between my conscious mind and my feeling body. In other words, my practice is a vehicle to deepen my relationship with myself. The different forms of formal practice that I take on a daily basis – including vipassana meditation, ashtanga vinyasa yoga, pranayama, the Buddha’s pancha sila or Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas (the practice of investigating the ethics of our relationships with the world), dietary observations, etc. – are all different lenses through which I examine and tinker with this central theme. Each of these practices is necessary for me, as any one of them alone will not suffice to cover the entire field of my own experience, my own feeling body. Just as “science” is divided into separate categories of exploration, such as physics, biology, chemistry and psychology, so that the entire field of publicly observable, objective reality is covered, so the different spiritual practices of seated meditation, asana, pranayama, ethics, diet, etc. are all there to cover the entire field of the introspective, subjective reality of the feeling body. According to some interpretations of the Buddha’s teaching, the unconscious mind is constantly in contact with the sensations of the feeling body. Not only that, but the unconscious mind is constantly generating a reaction of craving or aversion to the sensations of the feeling body. We remain mostly unaware of this ongoing process of reaction to sensation, but it’s long term effects become deeply embedded in our psyches. These reactions are the foundations of all our mental complexes, habit patterns, tendencies and the general issues that most people are aware to some degree that they have and that perhaps they should “work on”. The Buddha termed them “sankhara” (in the Pali language) and Patanjali termed them “samskara” (in Sanskrit). According to both teachers they are the source of all our suffering, both internally and externally as we reflect them into our relationships with the world. The first step to working on these reactive habit patterns is to become consciously aware of them. The most effective way to do this is to go straight to the source where they are generated – the interaction of the mind with the feeling body. The essence of the Buddha’s vipassana practice is to be aware of the feeling body without generating any reaction to it as continuously as possible. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha claimed that if we can stay aware of the sensations of the feeling body and we manage to not generate any reaction of craving or aversion to those sensations and feelings and we can do this continuously, without interruption, not missing that awareness for even a moment, then we will become fully liberated from all of our sankhara patterns (enlightened) within a period of 7 days to 7 years. Whether it takes 7 days or 7 years would depend on the level and degree of accumulation of sankhara patterns, which is unique in each individual. It may sound fairly simple to become liberated. We just have to do one thing for somewhere in between 7 days and 7 years. Unfortunately, observing the feeling body objectively is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it is epically hard work. Any authentic practice that takes us deeper into this experience is not likely to be an easy sell. It is an immense challenge to face what is happening inside without flinching or turning away. Yet, my own explorations have led me to believe that this is the most direct way to becoming the most consistent, integrated, functional and meaningful beings that we can possibly be. It is really the only way to strengthen and deepen our relationship with ourselves. It is the most honest communication there is. Once the conscious mind and feeling body have learned how to communicate with each other more harmoniously, we start making healthier life choices on all levels, from what we choose to eat and how we spend our time, to how we tend to react and interact on a deeper level with everything around us, including other beings. I have observed these benefits grow in myself over 15 years of steady and consistent practice. It is my understanding of what Sharath Jois often refers to in conference as “the yoga happening inside you”. While I do have doubts and reservations about whether these benefits can be extrapolated to the Buddha’s definition of total liberation, I have no doubt that the benefits exist and continue to increase with long term practice. Yoga and meditation practices that are for sale are often touted as bringing about “bliss”, “peace”, “happiness”, etc. There is little doubt that a deeper sense of contentment, consistency and functionality should be the long term results of these practices. We may very well also experience short term effects that can be both blissful and intoxicating as we practice. However, for one who is practicing authentically, by which I mean using the practice as a means to deepen their awareness of and communication with the feeling body, there is soon enough going to be some unpleasant experiences and feelings to encounter. In fact, this can sometimes be the dominant experience for extended periods of time along the way. All of our negative and unpleasant sankhara patterns need to come into the light of the conscious mind, via the feeling body. We need to see them and look them in eye and learn how to be completely comfortable and OK with them. Only then will the patterns weaken and begin to dissipate. The good news is that we don’t need anything aside from our own steady awareness to achieve this. We don’t need protection or help from deities. We don’t need mantras, blessings, incense or prayers. We don’t need shaktipat. We don’t need a body worker or an exorcist. It’s all within our own reach – all we have to do is be willing to know and feel our own sankhara patterns completely, by using an authentic practice to take us there. Then, the transformation happens naturally, without force or being contrived by the conscious mind. Once we’ve created non reactive union between the conscious mind and the feeling body, the realignment happens automatically. For 99 percent of people, having a stable relationship with one tradition and one guide will also be a necessary support network to this work. This is simple, but epically challenging. Human beings are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So, if we are engaging in a practice that brings us into conscious contact with some potentially unpleasant experiences in the feeling body, our natural instinct will be to run away. It requires comprehension of the process, determination, focus and faith to stay with it and override our instinctual response to avoid. We also must do this in a balanced way, encountering only as much as we have the capacity to process and integrate into our lives. Not so many people are willing to do this deeper work, which is why spending 20 years with a master teacher in one particular practice remains an uncommon phenomena. When people are working authentically and they do start to encounter deeper layers of themselves through practice, I have observed that there are three things that tend to happen: 1. Stop practice – turn away and repress sankhara patterns. This is the most common occurrence. Stopping practice can mean quite literally quitting. Stopping Ashtanga (or whatever practice it may be) and moving on to another form of yoga or practice. But, it can also manifest in subtler ways. For example – a teacher holds a student on a particular posture because it is not yet mastered there is still some deep work to do. The posture is challenging as it is bringing up some unpleasantness in the feeling body and the mind is reacting to that. The student decides that he has had enough of this particular teacher and moves on to find another teacher who is less demanding and allows them to avoid, modify or even skip that posture. The student hasn’t quit Ashtanga, but they have succeeded in avoiding the most transformative opportunity in the practice. Other practitioners manage to bash their way through the practice without feeling themselves at all. Rather than using the practice to deepen their sensitivity towards their feeling body, they actually numb themselves as a way to “get through it”. Or, they turn on the TV, play music, talk, etc. These are all ways to avoid the real work, the introspective encountering of the self through the practice. One is going through the motions physically, but they are not really practicing. 2. Use practice to feed and deepen sankhara patterns. This is also a regular occurrence. Those with self-deprecating and self abusive tendencies can find very fertile soil in the Ashtanga practice to make these sankhara even deeper. The model Ashtangi with the perfect physique and beautiful practice becomes an ideal that the conscious mind of the student attempts to embody, denying the reality of their own feeling body as they try to bash it into their vision of perfection. The yoga selfie era of Facebook statuses and Yoga Journal covers has contributed much to this unfortunate phenomena. As a result, eating disorders manifest or are worsened, knees and backs are forced until they break, and the rift between the conscious mind and the feeling body becomes wider and wider. Or, those with self aggrandizing tendencies can also find fertile soil to deepen their patterns. The strength and energy generated by the practice are channelled into becoming even more manipulative and controlling. Once these types of people become teachers with other students looking up to them, the effects can become outright disastrous, for themselves and for the other lives that they succeed in damaging. There are too many stories of abusive and scandalized teachers and gurus. This is not an uncommon path to take either, unfortunately. 3. Quietly observe, and keep practicing. One can cultivate patience and objective observation. Whatever the feeling body is telling us, we listen. We try to listen as clearly as possible. And we accept what it has to say to us. And with that sensitivity, we continue our practice with awareness and allow the changes to manifest naturally. Having a clear understanding of what we are really doing with the practice, combined with faith, focus, humility and patience, along with the support and guidance of a good teacher and a healthy tradition can allow us to gradually work through all the sankhara patterns that practice exposes us to. This is difficult, it requires a real willingness to adapt and change. It requires humility and it requires surrender – to our tradition, to our teacher, and above all to our own feeling body. Those who do take this path become very grounded, balanced, functional and compassionate practitioners and teachers whose lives are greatly enhanced by what they do. No one is perfect, and even with the best intentions, we all end up falling into category 1 or 2 from time to time. It is another reason that the support and feedback of a healthy practice community, a good teacher, and a lot of self reflection are necessary. If we have these supports and this intention, and we persist, then we will succeed in practicing authentically and the practice will be a support to help our lives become the best that they can be.
I recently returned from my first three month trip to practice with Sharath Jois in Mysore. I am not a newcomer to the Ashtanga system – I completed the 4th series with my previous teacher Rolf Naujokat earlier in 2014, and have maintained a daily Ashtanga practice for nearly 12 years. I knew that when I went to Mysore for the first time, none of this would matter. When I went to register at the beginning of my three months, Sharath asked me his standard question, “Who is your teacher?” I replied that I had been with Rolf for the past 8 years and first learned the system from Mark Darby a few years before that. Sharath didn’t ask which posture or series I had learned, nor did I volunteer this information; he had no further questions for me. Regardless of a person’s background, Sharath has everyone start over from the beginning when they come to Mysore for the first time. There are good reasons for this. The way the practice has been taught in Mysore has changed over the years. The practice itself and the method remain the same, but one thing that has changed, and continues to change, is how quickly and under what circumstances people are taught new postures and series. Each Ashtanga teacher also has their own interpretation of how SKPJ or Sharath taught them. Due to all this variation, the level of integrity in the practice of a first time student in Mysore can vary. Sharath takes everyone back to the beginning, and observes their practice based on his own standards. What stood out to me right away is that Sharath has high standards, demanding great integrity from the students who come. These perhaps arise from Sharath’s own high standards that he sets for himself. Sharath has been a part of the Ashtanga lineage in Mysore longer than any other living person. Although he was only a small boy when the first Western students came to practice in Mysore, he began his life in SKPJ’s house, and lived and breathed alongside his grandfather until his death. Sharath’s connection to the lineage is quite different from a few trips to Mysore – or even many trips – punctuating an otherwise separate life on the other side of the world. Sharath has completed 25 years of “serious practice” as he calls it – not counting the years he learned asanas for fun before the age of 19. He has been teaching for nearly as long, and in recent years has taught hundreds of students per day, every day of his teaching season. Sharath witnessed firsthand how SKPJ’s teaching method changed over the years, and how different types of bodies and minds responded to those methods. He has spent 25 years applying his own evolving interpretation of the method to many different types of bodies and minds. Sharath has also gone further in his own practice that anyone else in this lineage and system, and still maintains his daily personal practice in spite of having enormous personal responsibilities of family and institution. Sharath Jois has had more direct experience with the practice on his own body, and in the bodies of thousands of students, than anyone else alive. His perspective on the practice is unique in it’s macro and universal, as well as micro and personal aspects. For my own first trip in Mysore, Sharath had me do primary series only for the first three weeks. He began giving me intermediate series postures in the fourth week, one or two or three at time. He would wait for a few days or a week and then would give me the next set of postures. This started to become a familiar routine during the second month. At the end of the second month he told me to practice up to Eka Pada Sirsasana and the next day he instructed me to join the Led Intermediate class. During my first Led Intermediate class, after completing Eka Pada Sirsasana I began to roll up my mat and make my way to the change room for finishing postures. As I stood up, Sharath came over and said “You try Dwi Pada”. I had to unroll my mat in a hurry, and was still setting it back up as Sharath started counting the five breaths for the posture. I quickly tried to zip myself into Dwi Pada. During the exiting Vinyasa, Sharath stood in front of me and said “You stop there”. I nodded in understanding and as I moved through upward and downward dog, he looked at me again and repeated for emphasis, “You stop there.” I wasn’t surprised. Out of all four series that I have learned and practice, two of my most challenging postures are still in Intermediate series – Dwi Pada Sirsasana being one of them. My previous teachers had deemed those postures to be good enough to move beyond, and for the past 7 years I have only been practicing Intermediate series once per week, devoting the main days of the week to practicing the 3rd and 4th series. Although I have been well aware that two of my intermediate postures are not up to the standard of all my other postures, the fact that I only encounter them once per week has allowed me to avoid doing the necessary work to go deeper into them. When I would occasionally reflect on this, I would chalk it up to the fact that my 6 ft 3 body and its natural lordosis would not be capable of doing those two postures to the degree of perfection that I have observed other advanced practitioners doing. “Everyone has one or two weak postures”, I told myself. I continued to gloss over these posture in my once a week Intermediate practice. While just about any other senior teacher would judge my Dwi Pada to be good enough, Sharath has higher standards. And even if it was good enough, Sharath knew that it could still improve. “You stop there.” Once he gave me that instruction, I knew the now familiar pattern of me getting new postures regularly was broken. There would be no new set of postures later that week, or the following week. In fact, he kept me on Dwi Pada for the entire third month until the end of my trip. I was not surprised. Each week, before the Monday Led Intermediate class, my girlfriend Susan would say “I think Sharath will move you on this week.” I would smile and say “We’ll see”. It wasn’t so difficult for my ego to accept that I had been stopped in Intermediate series. I knew I wouldn’t get beyond Intermediate Series on my first trip, and expected my two challenging postures to be noticed by Sharath. What was difficult was that I had to actually do the work on Dwi Pada! Nothing changed in my Dwi Pada for the next few days, so I decided to give it a little more examination at home. I asked Susan to adjust me more deeply into it, to the degree that I felt Sharath wanted me to be able to do on my own. She did this once or twice so I could get the feeling of the posture. We took before and after photos. For the rest of that week I played around with it at home, trying to find my way into what it felt like when I was adjusted more deeply by Susan. I started to have some degree of success in what I had previously considered to be impossible for my body. In class at the shala I would also spend more time on it, doing it 2 or 3 times before moving into my finishing postures. Within two weeks of Sharath’s “you stop there” instruction, my Dwi Pada had improved significantly and visibly. I could feel a whole new level of extension in my upper thoracic spine, ease in lifting my head, and evenness throughout my body. Still, it was not yet as good as it could be. As I was leaving the shala after practice one morning, Sharath asked: “Iain – you did Dwi Pada?” “Yes”, I replied. “OK”, he smiled and left it at that. It was during my third or fourth Led Intermediate class that Sharath came up behind me during Dwi Pada. “Lift your head more!” he exclaimed. I tried. “Iain – lift the head, spread your feet more!”. He half-heartedly pulled my left foot to the side. He clearly was not going to adjust me; he wanted me to do the work myself. As I rolled up my mat to leave after Dwi Pada, he again said “The head must be more up – spread the feet!” He looked perplexed, as if I was ignoring his instructions on purpose. “I’m trying”, I assured him. Day by day, Dwi Pada became deeper and fuller. I no longer needed to play around with it at home outside of regular practice time, the transformation of the posture had taken on a life of its own and was steadily moving in a particular direction. In the three weeks since I have left Mysore, it has continued to improve, and the new state of the posture now feels very natural. It’s been so enjoyable for me to see the changes in a posture in which I previously assumed I had already reached my maximum potential, that I have continued to practice Intermediate series only instead of immediately going back to my regular 3rd and 4th series practices. It’s nice to spend some more time with what Sharath has taught me. For this change to occur, I needed no technical instruction, and I only needed two adjustments from Susan. I didn’t need a two-hour workshop, breaking down the mechanics of the posture, or a special adjustment clinic. I didn’t need bodywork. I didn’t even need to be adjusted by Sharath in the posture. All I needed was to hear the words “You stop there” in order to begin to focus and develop the posture myself. This clarifies and validates some of my understanding of how the Ashtanga system works, both as a practitioner and as a Mysore-style Ashtanga teacher. I am now based in Ubud, Bali and I am exposed to a wide range of students, coming from all over the world and coming from many different teachers. This is quite interesting and a great experience for me. I can now understand much more clearly why Sharath takes everyone back to Primary Series when they start with him. My perspective is that a significant percentage of students who come to practice with me are practicing further into the series than is appropriate for them. I have frequently felt the need to pull people back when they join practice with me, pointing out which postures they have not yet properly integrated or developed, and asking them to stop their practices there. Some students are quite open to this, some are not so happy. It’s a bit tricky as a teacher, to be able to do this in a compassionate way, so that it doesn’t feel like I am taking something away from the student. The reality is, I am giving them something, by showing them where they need to work. By saying “you stop there” at Dwi Pada, Sharath didn’t take away the second half of intermediate, 3rd and 4th series away from me. I still have all those postures, and I can still practice them whenever I want (just not in Mysore yet). But what Sharath did is to give me Dwi Pada, and that is a real gift. By being asked to stop and do the work, I now feel what Dwi Pada should really feel like, for the first time – 11 or 12 years after I first learned it. Having realized this, I am now finding it easier as a teacher to ask students to “stop there.” And if the student is receptive to it, within a matter of days, I can see, and they can also feel, how the posture I have stopped them on starts to transform and change. There is also the potential to take this concept to an extreme and demand an ideal of perfection that is unattainable. As in anything else, it takes skill and experience to find the middle path, and to find the middle path with compassion. Becoming rigid and overly idealistic will be just as detrimental as being the opposite way. Each student is an individual, and each individual has their own unique capacity for the different types of movements. As I worked on Dwi Pada in the shala in Mysore, I couldn’t help but look around and start to compare. Especially during Led Intermediate, I noticed that some of the people who were allowed to move on past Dwi Pada and do more postures were not doing Dwi Pada any better than I was. In fact, some were significantly worse than me. I would sometimes grumble to Susan later in the day about this. She would remind me that they had probably also been stopped on Dwi Pada for some time, and that Sharath had eventually decided that they had reached their maximum potential and moved them on. “He knows that you can still do it better”, she told me. Of course, I knew she was right. The act of stopping students at a particular posture in the Ashtanga system is not to force everyone to conform to a set standard, but to make sure that each individual develops the posture to their own maximum potential, in a way that is healthy for them. This is why the standards are different for each individual. The expectations for Marichyasana D are going to be very different for an older person who has had 5 knee surgeries, compared to a younger person who is healthy, but just a bit stiff. The young and stiff person will likely be asked to stop there until they open up and can bind the posture, whereas the older person with damaged knees may be given different expectations. It takes perceptiveness, skill, and experience on the part of a teacher to do this kind of analysis well. This is the correct application of the Ashtanga system, what I believe is the most important insight we as teachers should be trying to develop in ourselves. It’s my observation that some Ashtanga teachers can get involved in other aspects of teaching at the expense of this insight. It’s especially easy to get caught up in teaching that makes the students feel good on a superficial level. Examples of this are giving great adjustments, giving students new postures, and displaying a lot of intellectual knowledge around the anatomy and physiology of the body and how it works in the postures. When you hear praises being spoken about some Ashtanga teachers, often “he/she gives great adjustments” is a part of this description. And, almost everyone feels good when they come away from a few weeks with a senior teacher and have been given a bunch of new postures to work on. And, teachers who have a lot of intellectual understanding of anatomy and physiology, and can give long workshops discussing and expounding this understanding are also given a great deal of respect. These are all good recipes for popularity and influence for the teacher. It’s an understandable challenge for teachers to resist focusing on these aspects of teaching. The result, however, can be to lose perspective on what the actual point of the practice is. Receiving a quality adjustment can be very transformative. In fact, it is often an essential ingredient in instigating a transformative process. As I mentioned earlier, when I started to explore Dwi Pada more, the first thing I did was ask Susan to adjust me more deeply into it, so I had a bodily experience to work towards. Getting a good adjustment can help to open things up, but more important it gives the mind and nervous system an organic experience of what the end result should FEEL like in the body, so that one can try to recreate it when working on one’s own. Though I asked Susan to adjust me in Dwi Pada, I only needed her to adjust me two times. Once I had that experience, I knew my job was to then recreate it myself. It just gave me an understanding of what I was looking for. Sharath never attempted to adjust me in Dwi Pada. He merely verbalized in the simplest terms what was lacking in the posture, and then left it up to me to figure it out. This is how the most skillful teachers will work with students – give them the minimum amount of input necessary for them to understand where they should be going, and then leave it up to them to work it out for themselves. This approach produces the strongest, most stable and most integrated result in the students, and it gives the students greater strength, confidence and power in the long run. All good teachers know this. When I was practicing Iyengar yoga 15 years ago, I also had this experience. One day I was trying to do an arm balance, struggling and falling over again and again. My teacher (who also happened to be named Sharat) was standing a few feet away quietly watching me. After a lengthy period of time, one of the other students asked “Sharat, why won’t you help Iain?”. My teacher replied “as a teacher, you have to watch, and see how far your student can go”. This wisdom is there in all good teachers, from all traditions of yoga, and other forms of practice as well. Over-adjusting takes power away from the students, and gives it to the teacher. The students become dependent on the teacher for those “great adjustments” to help them feel good. They never develop the ability to make themselves feel good. This dependency serves the teacher by giving them more popularity, student numbers and income, so it can be difficult for the teacher to resist giving out “great adjustments” like candy. I remember my first Iyengar teacher describing this dynamic. He said “I could give you all an amazing buzz in class every day, and make you addicted to me. I have the power to do this. But, my job is to teach you independence, so you can rely on yourselves. This is real yoga.” Understanding of anatomy and physiology is also important. To know how the joints should be rotating, where a particular movement should and shouldn’t be coming from, what specific part of the body is actually stuck, and similar categories of knowledge are helpful and important, especially for protection against injury. But – they do not replace the real work that needs to be done to get unstuck. Years ago I attended a couple of workshops with senior Ashtanga teachers. In these workshops, the teachers broke down the mechanics of Eka Pada and Dwi Pada. It was interesting and illuminating – intellectually. But, these workshops did not change my experience of Dwi Pada even slightly. I came away feeling like I had just spent hours with a teacher who had a lot of knowledge – but my Dwi Pada did not change one bit from it. Years later, it was only when Sharath told me, “You stop there” that I finally did the work to change my own Dwi Pada. Teachers who give out a lot of new postures can also be very popular. Some students may attend a 2 or 4 week workshop or a few weeks of Mysore classes with a “posture-happy” teacher coming away with a handful of new postures to “work on,” whether the student is ready for them or not. At the same time, the teacher might be giving “great adjustments” in the difficult postures that are already part of the students’ practice repertoire — instead of stopping them there and asking them to work more deeply. This dynamic can breed misunderstanding of how the system works on the body-mind, what the job of the teacher is and what the goals of the practice actually are. Other, less experienced teachers — with little or no traditional Ashtanga training — develop liberal interpretations of the Ashtanga method and offer Mysore style and Led classes under the Ashtanga name. These teachers are giving out as many postures as a student can handle without collapsing from exhaustion. The goal is to give a strong workout. The result is usually very little integration and a lot of pain and injury. This is also a gross misinterpretation of the method. The Ashtanga practice is here to help us see where we are stuck. This can manifest on the physical, energetic, mental or emotional plane (or most likely all four at once). Stopping at the postures that force us to encounter where we are stuck is how we actually get to work through some of this, and this is how the practice transforms us as people – physically, energetically, emotionally, and mentally. The very best Ashtanga teachers will be the ones who show us where we are stuck, and where we need to stop and do the work. The best Ashtanga teachers will be the ones who don’t keep giving us great adjustments every day, or spend hours explaining to us the anatomical details, or hand out new postures that we are not ready for. The best Ashtanga teachers will encourage or even force us to stop there, give us minimal guidance, and ask us to do it ourselves. This, in my humble opinion, is the role of the Mysore style Ashtanga teacher, and the correct application of the method. Other language translations: The Russian translation of this article can be found here. Thank you to Anna Glinko for the Russian translation.
I don’t often publicly express opinions or viewpoints until I have fully digested and integrated the experiences that lead to their formation. I realize that this has become increasingly rare in today’s world of social media where we can impulsively broadcast all of our experiences and opinions instantly. It is not uncommon for photos, quotations and reactions from a certain experience to be uploaded to thousands of people on Facebook, before the experience itself is even finished. Often this sharing creates a fabricated picture of a fairy tale life, rather than a representation of the reality as it is. I find this fascinating, disturbing and bizarre all at once. Even before the era of social media and widespread use of the internet, I never owned or carried a camera, much to the disappointment of friends and family who wished to see visual documentation of my travels and experiences. I felt that the act of taking a picture was already turning the experience into a false representation of itself and removed me from actually participating in and experiencing it fully. I feel the same way about social media these days and so I do not tend to publicly share many representations of my day to day life. Yet, I’ve been touched by the number of emails and messages I’ve received over the past seven weeks from friends and acquaintances who are genuinely interested to know how my time here in Mysore is going. After writing a similar description numerous times in email replies, I decided to write a longer reflection of my time here in Mysore to share with others. In order to do that, I think a bit of background to the current situation is required: Though I have been drawn to practice in Mysore a few times over the 16 years that I have been practicing yoga and the 11 years that I have had a daily Ashtanga practice, for the most part I have not felt it to be a strong priority. Not coming to Mysore had become a conscious choice, as I worked my way through the Ashtanga series and became a Mysore-style Ashtanga teacher. The next logical step for most people pursuing this track is to come to Mysore, practice at the KPJAYI and receive authorization. In fact, I did come to Mysore in 2000, while I was still an Iyengar Yoga practitioner who had a strong draw to the flow and breathing in the Ashtanga method. After finding the old AYRI shala in Laksmipuram, I knocked on the door and met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois briefly. He asked me two or three questions and then advised me to watch a Mysore style session the following morning. My Iyengar biases did not lead to a favourable opinion about what I saw that morning and I happily left Mysore to return to my Iyengar teacher in North Goa. In 2003, I met Mark Darby, and was inspired to switch my personal practice to the Ashtanga method, learning the primary and intermediate series from him. As I was already teaching yoga in the Iyengar style at the time, it was natural for my teaching to follow this shift in my personal practice. By 2006 my teaching had completed the transition that my personal practice had taken three years earlier to the “correct” Mysore-style method. As I was living in a remote part of Northern Canada at that time, without access to a senior teacher, I had to use my instinct and intuition to guide both my practice and teaching of the method as I founded an Ashtanga community there. In 2007 I decided that things were serious enough that I should emerge from my Northern isolation and connect to the global Ashtanga community. Coming to practice in Mysore seemed to be the most appropriate way to do that and I began to seriously plan for this. During a course I took with Richard Freeman, a fellow student happened to recommend to me that I should visit Rolf Naujokat if I was intending to go and practice in India. She felt that Rolf and I would be a good match for each other. I instantly felt a strong draw to go and see Rolf and registered for classes with him that same winter. So, I had revised my plan to include a winter of practice with Rolf before I started going to Mysore. That was 2007. That first winter with Rolf became seven winters. When you know you have met your teacher, it is clear. Rolf initially took away my self-taught third series practice and insisted on teaching it to me in the correct way, which meant a certified teacher giving me the postures one by one. He re-taught me the third series over 3 winters, and then taught me the fourth series over 4 winters, which we completed in April 2014. As I progressed through the advanced series and began to place more emphasis on my career as a Mysore style teacher – I would question from time to time whether I was doing the right thing by choosing not to go to Mysore. It would help me a lot as a teacher to get authorized and to “prove” myself to the greater global Ashtanga community in this way. Yet, inside, I had no desire for the Mysore experience. I was spending 3 – 5 months each year with Rolf and also sitting an annual 30 – 60 day Vipassana retreat. I felt completely devoted to Rolf as my teacher. I had no desire or need for another teacher, and felt I was getting a truly authentic transmission of the Ashtanga lineage from Rolf. It seemed counterproductive to fragment my time and my Bhakti by trying to develop a relationship with Sharath at the same time as I was practicing with Rolf. If I went to Mysore during those years, it would only have been for the authorization certificate, which to me was not an authentic or appropriate reason to go. In making life choices, I have always tried to allow my heart and my connection to my deeper yearnings to lead the way. Often, this went counter to what logic or reason dictated. I have always chosen the experiences that lead to deeper fulfillment inside me over experiences that might give me a strategic advantage in some superficial realm of life. Many things in my life and inside me changed during the years of 2012 – 2014. One of those things was my feelings about Mysore. In many ways, my relationship with Rolf came to a form of completion when we finished the fourth series in April 2014. While nothing about my feelings for him changed, the superficial aspects of our relationship did. There were no new postures to learn after that, as he had taught me as far as he had learned himself. While that did not mean I could no longer benefit from and enjoy practice with him, there were other aspects of his yoga shala that were less than ideal for me. These had become increasingly difficult to ignore. In fall 2013 I was teaching for what would be the last time in my previous home of the Yukon in Northern Canada. I was starting to get ready for what would be my final trip to Goa to finish the fourth series with Rolf. I was researching something online and came across a blog post from a well known certified Ashtanga teacher. I casually read the post, which ended up being a description of some aspects of her experience in the shala on her previous trip to Mysore. She was learning the end of fourth series with Sharath and it happened to be about the same place in the series as I was at in my learning with Rolf. Though her description was brief, I had a powerful visceral reaction to how she described learning that part of the fourth series with Sharath. I could literally feel the intensity and focus of the shala in her description and I could sense how it would be to practice what I was practicing if I were in the shala in Mysore with Sharath. And so, it was awakened – a deep authentic yearning to practice in Mysore. Not for authorization, not to prove myself to anyone, but simply to come and feel what it was like to practice here. And for me, that was the right reason to come. 14 months later, it is November 2014, and here I am – seven weeks into my first practice session with Sharath Jois in Mysore. Which brings me back to how things are going here: I came here with a very open mind, with as little expectations as possible as to what I might experience and how it might be here. I’ve heard all the negative stories about Mysore – the superficial competitiveness and aggressive attitudes of some folks, the anonymity, the inexperienced assistants giving poor or dangerous adjustments, etc. I also knew that I would have to let go of my fourth series practice for my time here, and start over as a beginner, surrendering to the pace that Sharath would deem appropriate for me to progress through the system again under his guidance. Thus far, I haven’t felt negatively affected by any of these factors. I do see that some practitioners are competitive and superficial. They are desperate for some form of recognition from Sharath – chasing after the next posture, or authorization, and this forms the basis of their actions and experience here. It doesn’t seem like a pleasant experience for them. Yet, I don’t find it to be anywhere near the degree that other people have reported. I also don’t experience the social discussions about practice to be geared in that direction either. Which posture or series one is on has only been given a passing mention in most of the conversations I’ve had with other practitioners, and that also in a non-judgmental way. It’s also a fact that I am my usual hermit self here, and socialize very little. Most of the socializing I have done is with people I already know from other places and already feel some sense of like-mindedness with. So, it’s possible that I’m just blind to certain attitudes in the general student population. Nonetheless, I think the important point is that it is not a part of my own experience here, which shows that it is avoidable. Another factor in this is that I have arrived in Mysore at an ideal time in my own journey. Having completed the fourth series with Rolf, I have my practice. It is something that no one can take away from me, and after 11 years of daily practice, I am beyond needing to prove anything to anyone. Whatever postures Sharath gives me has no bearing on the practice that my teacher taught me over the past 7 years. I am also an established and respected Ashtanga teacher. Whether I get authorized and certified or not has no bearing on the opinion of the many students who have practiced with me as their teacher over the past decade. So really, I have nothing to chase after here – only to enjoy what is given as a bonus to what I already have. If I had come here even 3 or 4 years ago, I might have felt more caught up in the chasing after recognition part of some other people’s experience here. In terms of safety, I could not feel more at ease here, and I think that is the experience of many people. All the stories of bad alignment and frightening adjustments are not true, from what I have observed. In fact, I think more of this goes on in other studios around the world, and amongst teachers who have misinterpreted the Ashtanga method or feel like they as teachers have something to prove to their students. Sharath runs a very tight and clean ship. He has an excellent sense of how and what each student should be practicing, and he keeps a close eye on his assistants and what they are doing as well. He is very good at making sure each student develops the protective factors of strength and alignment in the practice. The only posture I have been adjusted in here is catching the legs in the final backbend. Sharath is truly masterful at this adjustment, and he continues to take me much deeper into it than I have ever experienced before. When he adjusts me in this posture, it feels almost effortless and very safe and well aligned. This morning he moved my hands to hold my knees for the first time ever. It was intense, but didn’t feel like a struggle. It was relatively easy for something that seven weeks ago I would have said was impossible for my body. When I came up from the backbend he was smiling broadly at me. When the assistants adjust me, it is obviously without the level of skill and experience that Sharath has, but it usually very good and I have yet to have a “bad adjustment” here. I could see the potential for less experienced practitioners who are also very enthusiastic and less aware of their own bodies and limitations to use the heat and intensity of the room here to push themselves too far in certain postures – but overall I would not say it is an unsafe place to practice, in fact it is the very opposite. Coming from a daily practice of fourth series, followed by several hours of teaching on most days, I was looking forward to my time here as a bit of an easy ride. I knew I would be practicing primary series only for at least a few weeks, and then adding on Intermediate postures one by one. As I completed both of these series 9 or 10 years ago, I assumed it would mean three months of relaxed, easy practice. I looked to it as a restorative yoga holiday of sorts. The heat and intensity were the first things that struck me here. I arrived at the very beginning of the season and Sharath started off with a series of 5 led primary series class for everyone. I’ve never practiced with so many people at once – 80 people in the room. Sharath’s pace and Vinyasa count was also quite strong for me and I felt humbled to be struggling in primary series during those first five classes. I enjoy hot, sweaty practices very much, but it has been a long time since I practiced in the kind of heat that I arrived to here. I’ve also done fast primary series practices, but holding chatwari was not something I was used to. Ever attentive, Sharath called me out on several things during the first led classes, including holding the entire class up in chatwari for some time while he yelled at me from the stage to “do it properly”. I had no idea what he meant until he finally told me to “go lower”. I had been accustomed to keeping my upper arms parallel to the ground, but he insisted that I go down until my chest was nearly touching the ground. Since I’ve adapted to his specifics and to the heat, I’ve enjoyed practicing primary series here thoroughly. I have taken the opportunity to develop more strength in some of the transition vinyasas and my focus on mula bandha more deeply. As the postures themselves are all very accessible for me, I’ve taken the opportunity to challenge myself more in other areas of the practice. By the second or third week, my upper body felt noticeably bigger and stronger, but not in a way that was making me tighter. I still felt tired in my breathing muscles (due to being extra precise and clean in the Vinyasa) by the end of each practice until the end of the first month. After practice at the shala, I come home and do my 45 minute pranayama practice in the open air on our balcony and I was surprised at first to find that this was also challenging due to the extra workout I was experiencing on the muscles of breathing and stabilizing. It was also a month before my pranayama practice regained its usual ease. Sharath started me on Intermediate series at the end of my third week. He gave me a few postures every few days for a couple of weeks and then held me on Kapotasana for a week. This week he gave me the go ahead to start Supta Vajrasana. Now that I feel fully adapted to all aspects of practice here, it is really a sweet practice experience. To be able to flow through postures that have long ago been integrated into my body and nervous system is now giving me that restorative experience that I thought I would feel in the first month. To be able to take the time to deepen the meditative and strengthening aspects of Vinyasa, breath and mula bandha in primary and intermediate series is a nice experience after all these years of putting my focus on the advanced series. Sharath is an excellent teacher in all ways. He is truly a master of this system, and he understands all of its aspects from the physical to the psychological to the spiritual. His ability to be present and keep track of 200 – 300 students per day every day is stunning. He doesn’t memorize exact details about everyone, but he does know each person and where they are at. He also knows how to work with each person as an individual based on that understanding, and what each person is and isn’t ready for. The fact that he keeps this up for six months continuously, perhaps seeing 600-800 different people over these six months is truly astounding. He has my full respect. His talks and the way he answers questions in conference are also very good. I was happy to discover that he does talk about yoga and what is important in the same way that I have come to understand. His storytelling and references reflect a context of traditional Indian philosophy – something I’ve moved away from in the past year or two – but the essence of the meaning and his understanding of it are similar enough to my understanding for me to enjoy his talks thoroughly. Sharath tirelessly expounds the same essential messages to all the students. “The yoga has to happen inside you.” He says this several times during each and every conference. He regularly reminds us that he has woken up at 1 am every day for the past 25 years, not to self-aggrandize, but rather to convey the message of bhakti. He wants all students to understand that focus and dedication are essential ingredients for true understanding and experience of “the yoga happening inside you”. In his physical adjustments, Sharath knows how to take you deeper into a challenging posture in a way that feels both safe and effortless. I’ve noticed he does not adjust very much. Only catching the legs in the final backbend (or working up to that for those who cannot yet catch), and a few other key postures from each series. Nothing that is not necessary. He spends a lot of time sitting on the stage, surveying the entire room, quietly watching. A few mornings ago as I walked out of the shala after practice, Sharath happened to be standing near the door about to help someone in a backbend. He’d been up since 1 am, done his own practice, and was probably about half-way through his daily task of supporting and teaching 200-300 students for 6 hours. “Thank you, Sharath”, I said quietly as I walked past him. He turned his head and for a moment met my gaze and smiled a true and authentic smile. He showed no tiredness, no impatience, no patronizing – neither of us wanted anything from the other. “Thank you”, he replied, and turned back to his next backbending adjustment. I have little doubt that I have found my new home for developing my own practice, and my next teacher.
Thoughts that arose for me after reading a recent article in the Atlantic: The Dark Knight of the Souls. The role of physical and psychological discomfort in Ashtanga Yoga and in Meditation practice is a subject full of confusion among practitioners and non-practitioners alike. Ubud is full of courses and workshops offering quick and easy access to bliss. The Western Spiritual World in general is full of these promises. It sells well! I enjoy a bit of bliss as much as anyone, but the reality is that any authentically transformative practice will soon enough bring us into contact with the inner shadows that we would prefer to avoid. Overlaying vibrations of bliss onto a field of darkness will never give lasting results. The darkness needs to be weeded out, and for this to happen it must be seen. When physical and mental discomfort are experienced in long term and deep practice of yoga or meditation, it can be a result of faulty or excessively aggressive practice – or it can be a result of correct and appropriate practice, when the time has truly arrived to face some shadows within. It requires a very skillful and experienced teacher to help guide a practitioner through these murky waters. An appropriate teacher can help the practitioner to discern between faulty and correct practice and to take appropriate measures to navigate the darkness and come out the other side feeling healthy on all levels. Only a teacher who has explored and experienced all aspects of the practice – and their own body and psyche – can do this well, I feel. Photo credit: Clare Plueckhahn
This essay was written by Susan Su is re-posted from her site, SusanSu.com. To see the original, go to http://susansu.com/achievement-unlocked Today Iain was given the last asana of the Ashtanga fourth series by his teacher, Rolf Naujokat. For all the non-yoga people out there, “finishing fourth” is an enormous achievement, beyond reach for 99.99% of humans and maybe 100% of Canadian ex-tree-planters/backcountry hikers/science nerds. I’ve spent many months carefully studying Iain’s success formula, and it basically boils down to this: STEP 1 – Work hard STEP 2 – Don’t give up STEP 3 – Fall down STEP 4 – Get back up STEP 5 – Work hard STEP 6 – Don’t give up and finally, STEP 7 – Once your ego has baked some nice crusty attachments onto the fruits of your hard work, unclench your hands and be at peace. Then, go back to work. Iain has shown daily patience, peacefulness and strength in his own practice, which is what makes him a special teacher — he lives it. After finishing fourth, no celebrations ensued; instead, it was the regularly scheduled programming of an hour of pranayama followed by systematic house-sweeping, laundry-doing (ours and especially mine, heh) and generally taking care of business. He even had energy and attention to listen to me wax grouchy about my own yoga practice, how the mosquitos bothered me more than usual today, how I’m impatient that my upper thoracic won’t burst open the way I want it to right now. How can someone who’s been practicing for 15 years, and who’s slogged through 10x more painful change and uncertainty than I have, still maintain the attentiveness to listen, consider, and reassure? How can this person not have more important yoga-related concerns to think about? How does he prioritize? The answer is simple: The most important question is the one you’re currently making eye contact with. The most important moment is now. Yes, it’s absolutely important to prioritize, and there are times when we all have to juggle. But often, our shifting glance is us merely sliding our attention back to ourselves — our worries, our desires, our ego. It’s only natural, a survival technique back in the days of getting chased on the savannah and needing to watch your (diminishing) tail. Ah, me. The universe is contained therein. At least, that’s what it felt like when I was once again analyzing my struggle with kapotasana. Or taking inventory of all the emails that I want to write today. Iain’s been doing kapotasana for years. In fact he practices a few scarier, triple-X versions of it that come up the later advanced series, every day. How does he stay interested in my struggle? “I have nothing left to teach you.” Rolf spoke so the entire room could hear. He was smiling from some place deep inside, and also in his eyes, and also in his entire face. Rolf had just given away, pose by pose, the practice that he’d painstakingly learned, pose by pose, from his teacher decades ago. When he gave the last pose, he was smiling BIG — no envy, no withholding, no projection, only love. I wrote this because I felt touched and inspired by the transmissions that I saw today — teacher to student, partner to loved one. These were the subtle movements of generosity, floating from room to room of our lives like a friendly ghost. No matter what your agenda says today, let generosity float through your house. It’s so easy; all you have to do is open the door, step a little to the side, and it will flood in. To everyone in every walk, keep practicing and stay humble! It really works 🙂 –Susan To see the original essay, go to http://susansu.com/achievement-unlocked