Don’t worry, this blog will not solely constitute my cobbled together and somewhat tardy notes from yoga workshops. However, seeing as I have a bit of time on my hands during the day this week, whilst running my yoga retreat in Turkey, I decided to catch up on a number of long-standing jobs, one of which is writing up workshop notes.
So, here is a ridiculously overdue summary of the notes I took during Joey Miles’ recent(ish) workshop at Stonemonkey Studio. It was the second time I had attended one of Joey’s workshops in Leamington. Previously he had taken us through postures of the second series but this time the morning was a traditional Mysore self-practice and the afternoon was a discussion of yoga philosophy.
Phew, the morning session was hot. Humidity and sunshine outside melded with hard toil and sweat in the basement studio to create a sweltering heat. It felt as close as you could get to Mysore without having to catch a flight. Sweat dripped onto the floor and mats, and limbs flew into positions that are usually elusive. Joey worked round the room well. I received assistance with drop-backs, which involved Joey clamping his legs around the outside of my thighs to keep my knees parallel, which was very effective. I also liked the way he used a simple touch of the brow between eyebrows (third eye area) as an adjustment – it has an instantly calming effect and for me was a reminder to lose the worry-lines, stop straining into drishti and soften into the pose.
In the afternoon Joey began by discussing how old yoga is. People often bandy the phrase ‘4000 years old’ around, but apparently there is no qualification of this apart from unconfirmed yoga poses appearing in the drawings of ancient Indus peoples. The upanishads (ancient Indian texts containing early concepts of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and some references to yoga) have been dated at around 2500 years old. Other ancient texts, the vedas, are older but these are not so directly associated with yoga, in particular as they provide instructions on how to carry out rituals in order to attain worldly thing, which doesn’t align well with yoga teachings that instruct us to lose attachment to worldly things. So, it may well be that yoga is not as old as we think but, to my mind, we’re still talking about thousands of years so we can safely say it’s been around for quite a while!
The focus of the afternoon was the study of lessons 7 and 9 of the Taittiriya Upanishad. There are 220 recognised upanishads, but only 10-15 of these are considered to be key texts relating to yoga. Joey reminded us of the importance of carrying out svadhyaya (self-study), which is one of Patanjali’s niyamas (spiritual disciplines that we should do to achieve enlightenment via his eight-fold yoga path). One way of carrying out svadhyaya is by studying the ancient yoga texts so that we know the history of what we practise. I have thus far been pretty rubbish at doing this myself (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started George Feuerstein’s translation of Patanjali’s yoga sutras only to give up in flummoxed confusion, yet along tackling any of the bigger texts!) but, if I intend to teach others yoga, I feel it’s my duty to know and understand where it all came from, in order to place the modern tradition in context.
Joey reminded us that, when studying these old texts or indeed any text, we should do so with self-reflection (another form of self-study in itself) by focusing on what we want to get out of the text and working out what we can extract from it that is useful versus what we can leave behind if it’s not useful to us.
I like this approach a lot as one of the things I’ve struggled with as I’ve gone deeper into yoga is the feeling that I am expected to follow certain prescriptions to the T, without thought, just because ‘it is the way of things’ or because ‘my guru told me to’. Call it my inner rebel, or just my self-preservation, but it fits much better with me to read and understand the texts or listen to what someone has to say, but then apply my own filter of personal self-study as to what aligns with my own personal truths, so that I then only adopt the bits that I feel serve me in a positive way. Yes, I can understand that this might sound like a bit of a cop out, but I don’t mean by only choosing the bits that are easy to follow, rather by making sure that I ponder each statement and see if it’s something that I would like to bring into my life rather than take everything blindly on faith. Aanyway, sorry, bit of a tangent there – back to Joey…
Lesson 7 of the upanishads translates as follows:
One should meditate upon the elements of which this whole universe is constructed, namely earth, sky, heaven, the primary and intermediate quarters, fire, air, the sun, the moon, stars, water, herbs, trees, ether and the body. Then one should meditate upon oneself, considering prana, vyana, apana, udana and samana, the organs of sight, hearing, thinking, speech and the sense of touch, and skin, flesh, muscles, bones and marrow. Having revealed thus by intuition, the seer proclaimed that the whole universe is based on verily this fivefold principle, and one set of five fulfils the other.
Now, the following is what I wrote in my notes and I would be very happy to be corrected if I have got anything wrong…
Prana, vyana, apana, udana and samana are the five types of energy in the body. Prana is energy in the chest cavity, which rises with the breath, so it has an upward quality to it. Apana energy resides in the abdomen and legs and has a downward-moving, grounding quality and is strengthened by activation of mula bandha. Udana energy flows between the throat and the head and activates our sensory receptors and thus its activation is counter to pratyahara (sense withdrawal). Ujjayi breath is udanic as it stimulates the throat region, therefore Joey warned us not to be too forceful with our ujjayi breath, rather to let it ‘simmer’ so we can simultaneously practise pratyahara. Samana is the energy found between the heart and the navel; it is much more subtle than the others and involved in stimulating digestion and circulation. Nauli and a healthy diet can both help the flow of samana. Vyana is energy that flows through the body’s nervous channels, so it encompasses all area of the body. Kumbhaka (breath retention) and maha bandha (when all three bandhas are engaged at once) can stimulate its flow.
So, from lesson 7, the useful thing that I take from it is that we should meditate on ourselves and the world around us in great detail, travelling from our outer surroundings to our inner bodily workings. This strikes a chord with me, as one of the things I truly believe is that we have become rather disconnected from both ourselves and the natural world around us in modern life. Yoga helps us to reconnect, first by coming to know our bodies better then by gaining a deeper understanding of our place within the world, and how we’re all connected. So I definitely like the sound of this kind of detailed quality to a meditation on this subject and will try to bring it into my own practice and my teaching. I would also like to experientially explore the different energy types in the body through pranayama and kriya techniques.
Joey also told us that each element is typically associated with a particular sense, which might explain the last, rather confusing sentence of Lesson 7. To me, it’s showing how we are intrinsically linked in to the world around us. Here are the associations, along with my initial thoughts:
Earth – touch (yep, figures)
Water – taste (hmmm, don’t get this one, although I guess we need to drink water?)
Fire – sight (I guess fire is very eye-catching?!)
Air – smell (kind of get this one – we sniff the air to smell)
Ether – hearing (nope, not getting it)
As you can see, only the earth-touch association made complete sense to me immediately, so perhaps I need to explore these associations more at some point to understand them better.
Joey also mentioned the five koshas (layers of the body), which are written about in the upanishads. I had come across these before in BKS Iyengar’s amazing book, Light on Life. I will mention them here, but suggest you read Iyegar’s book for a full understanding; he even structures the chapters of the book around these layers.
Anamaya – the physical body.
Pranamaya – the subtle (energetic) body
Manomaya – the mental/emotional body
Vijanamaya – intelligence/wisdom
Anandamaya – layer of bliss
This makes sense to me – we are all of the first four, and to deny any of them in my opinion gives an incomplete view of us as beings. And we have the capacity for the fifth at all times. Anyway, as I say, read Light on Life for more on this – I am dipping into it at the moment myself and it never fails to help me in some way whenever I pick it up.
I won’t provide the full translation of Lesson 9 as it is long and quite repetitive, but the main thrust of its instruction is the importance of learning, thus supporting Patanjali’s svadhyaya teachings, and justifying why we were all sat in a basement studying sanskrit texts on a sunny afternoon!
Also, as an aside, we didn’t look at Lesson 8, but I noticed it is a short text that describes the importance of chanting om. It doesn’t really provide reasons for this, it just states that om is the universal truth , will make the gods hear and other such grand claims. I struggle with this a bit – for a start I don’t believe in the ‘gods’ as such, and it doesn’t strike a chord with me in the same way that Lesson 7 does. As it happens, I love a good om. Despite having at first been a bit reluctant to om and chant, not quite understanding the reasons for it, over the years I’ve decided that it’s not going to do me any harm and that I should just give it a go, and now I actively enjoy it. For me, collective chanting of om has a special power, an energy of sound vibrations that gets you deep within. And as my confidence and understanding has grown, my own ‘om’ provides me with a deep, comforting resonance that wasn’t present in my more uncertain self and leaves me feeling calm. So I would qualify my previous comments to say that, even if something doesn’t immediately make sense, as long as you don’t think it’s harmful to you, there’s no harm in giving it a go, as we learn through direct experience, and usually find that those old yogis knew their stuff, even if they’re not always that great at explaining it to us! So explore, learn through your own direct experience, and find your personal take on things – just reading books isn’t going to give you the answers you need, it’s all in the practice.
I realise there’s a helluva lot in this post, and much of it needs breaking down further, which I hope to do in future posts. It just shows me how enormous the subject of yoga is and how you can probably only scratch the surface in a lifetime!