The most expensive algae in the world

Can anyone help me out here? Having finally turned veggie this year, I have now become one of those tiresome health-conscious people who ‘worry about their protein intake’. So, after months of various people banging on to me about the wonders of spirulina and its supremacy in the world of protein provision, I decided to join the band-wagon. A trip to Holland and Barrett later, and a disbelief that I had just forked out £12 for a small bag of algae, and I arrived home with the packet below.


Now, I am like a small child when I buy new things – I have to use them IMMEDIATELY, irrespective of circumstance. As such, I found myself ripping open the bag like an excited labrador and pouring some onto the banana and yoghurt I was eating for pudding. A cloud of green powder exploded across the caravan, covering my face and hands, oops. Using a cloth to rub it off just smeared it into a film of slime, until I looked like I was fully dirted up with army camo. Seriously, this stuff is fine, and I don’t mean its taste. In fact, when I came to try actually eating the stuff, I found it just made my entire dessert taste of pond. Yes, it tastes as bad as it looks.

So now I am stuck with a bag of the stuff, knowing it’s really good for me but not quite knowing what to do with it. A brief online search for recipes didn’t really inspire me, as most brightly suggested ‘adding it to your veggie smoothie’ as though that was already an integral part of my daily diet. I clearly have a long way to go with the whole vegetarian thing…

Still, its credentials are formidable:

  • Comprises 65% protein and essential amino acids;
  • High in essential omega oils (the kind you get from oily fish);
  • Very high in chlorophyll, which removes toxins from the blood and boosts the immune system;
  • Very high in iron;
  • Really effective anti-oxidant – even better at absorbing free radicals than superfoods like blueberries;
  • Significantly more calcium than milk; and
  • Contains loads of additional important vitamins and minerals (cue huge list of impossible to pronounce words that tend to make me zone out).

So if anyone has any advice in how to use it (i.e. how best to mask the fact you’re eating algae grown on the surface of a pond), please do let me know. And likewise I will share any good recipes that I find on here.

In the meantime, Chris and I are now discussing how we can cultivate our own – how hard can it be? For a start, it tastes remarkably like the rather ‘pondy’ water that comes out of our taps in the caravan, which we draw from our large storage water-butt, which in itself is drawn from a bore-hole – perhaps we’re already sitting on our fortune?!

Post-script: I tried putting it on my muesli this morning. The resultant verdigris paste freaked me out rather, but the evidence is below that it actually wasn’t too bad.  The tidemark of green on my lips afterwards was a bit weird though – I felt like some kind of clean-living Joker character.

DSC_0423[1]  DSC_0424[1]


Yum (kind of).



Mysore the social leveller

Just back from a great session of Mysore-style self-practice at my local yoga studio (the wonderful Stonemonkey) after a bit of time away from group classes and I was musing about why I love the Mysore approach so much.

For those who don’t know, ashtanga yoga originated in the city of Mysore in India, and was created by a yoga teacher called Pattabhi Jois. It involves a set sequence of postures that the practitioner gradually works through – so you move through the same sequence each time you get on the mat. The postures follow each-other in an intelligent, systematic way, each one preparing for the next, and gradually opening up the body. Traditionally the teacher gives you the next posture in the sequence when they feel you have ‘mastered’ the previous one (not that we ever ‘master’ a pose – but that’s for another post). There are actually a few sequences (called ‘series’), which include progressively more difficult postures (although that’s not to say the first sequence is easy!). You start with primary series, move on to intermediate and then some very dedicated practitioners may move onto Advanced A, B, C and D. 

Anyway, with this approach, it means that a group class can be held despite everyone being at a different stage in the sequence, and indeed this is how ashtanga was and still is traditionally taught in India, hence being called ‘Mysore style’. Basically, you turn up, roll out your mat and do your ashtanga practice, no matter where you’re at with it. You can be a complete beginner or on one of the advanced sequences, but you’re all in the same room at the same time. The teacher just moves around the room assisting where needed.

You might say that this seems a bit of a cheat – why pay to go to a class that’s not led? Where you’re just doing all the work yourself? But really, it’s the complete opposite. Whereas, in a group led class, the teacher can’t easily get round everyone in each pose and it’s hard to focus on individuals, in a Mysore class, you get individual, personalised attention at the points in your practice where you really need it. It’s like having a one-to-one class in a group setting. And if you go regularly the teacher will come to know your practice so they will look out for the postures that you require assistance with, or if they haven’t spotted you flailing around, you can just wait patiently until they do notice. And then the teacher will take time to guide you through your ‘sticky’ bits with dedicated personal attention. It really is a brilliant way to develop your personal practice.

So why else do I love it? I love the fact that the little mat-shaped pools of individual focus around the room conversely generate a collective energy that helps to carry everyone through their practice. I love that it is, fundamentally, a room full of people working hard, intent on their personal development, chipping away, grafting. I love that it’s a social leveller – you can arrive in a sports car or an old banger but once you’re in the room you’re all measured by the sweat you drip, the breath you take. I love the smell of incense, the oceanic sound of ujjayi breath, the comforting warmth. I love the way my body tingles and my mind soars as I lie in savasana afterwards, lulled and bouyed alike by the breathing of those still in full flow. I love that something so individual, personal and special can be enhanced by the shared experience; we humans are sociable creatures at heart… 😉


Anatomy Focus – how do we engage moola bandha?

Hmmm, where to start?! Moola bandha is a vast subject, much debated and discussed in the yoga world at every level, from its purely physical uses to its energetic functions and beyond. It even has its own well-known book written all about it. When you’re new to yoga it can be a difficult concept to get your head around. This article aims to introduce the idea of moola bandha and provide some starting hints and tips on how and why to start to use it, with a particular focus on its ability to help us feel grounded.

What is moola bandha?
Moola bandha is one of the yoga locks or ‘bandhas’ and translates as ‘the root lock’. It is associated with engaging muscles found in the pelvic floor area.  The other two locks that are most commonly spoken about are uddiyana bandha (the ‘flying-up’ lock, an engagement of the deep transverse abdominals) and jalandhara bandha (the ‘chin lock’, engaged by drawing the chin to chest and often used in meditation practices). Each one has its own functions and, together, they are said to seal the body’s energy in, allowing us to use it effectively to carry us through our yoga practice.

Moola bandha is, along with uddiyana bandha, linked to developing core strength deep within the lower abdominal region of the body. By engaging both these locks together (it is actually very difficult to engage either one in isolation; the muscle groups tend to naturally work together), we switch on what I like to call our ‘central powerhouse’. On a physical level, when you see yogis and gymnasts seemingly ‘float’ up into headstand or handstand, much of the strength and grace required for this comes from an intimate knowledge of their inner body and effective use of their uddiyana and moolha bandhas. (As an aside, we will spend some time looking at this in my up-coming August workshop.)

However, as well as creating a deep core strength and helping to develop a light, ‘floating’ sensation in your practice, moola bandha is conversely also associated with feeling grounded. Esoterically, it is located in the same position as  the base chakra, muladhara, which is associated with grounding and the element of earth. Regular practice of moola bandha is said to be calming, and has also been linked with reducing anxiety and depression.

How do you engage moolha bandha?
To engage moola bandha, a great beginning point is to contract the muscles that you would use to stop yourself peeing if you were desperate for the loo. Now, advance warning here, it’s impossible to talk about moola bandha without getting a bit ‘over-familiar’ and be warned that doing an internet images search for it at work could lead to an embarrassing situation! This can put off those new to yoga, who already worry it might be full of weird mumbo-jumbo and odd cult-ish goings-on. But I promise you, stick with it, and you too will marvel at its amazing benefits with practice and perseverance in time.

So, for men, you need to draw up on the perineal muscles located between the anus and testes. For women, you need to draw up on the perineal muscles located behind the cervix. At first the anus muscles will probably contract too, but with practice you can drop this secondary engagement and it becomes a more subtle, focused action. Imagine the perineum (the skin between the sexual organs and the anus) as being a flat muscle like your diaphragm, drawing upwards as you contract to form a kind of ‘umbrella’ shape.

What are the physical benefits of moola bandha?
When used in your asana (posture) practice, use of moola and uddiyana bandhas will help support postures from your central powerhouse, easing the stress on limbs and making the body feel less heavy. You will find a strength and lightness forming at your centre, which can help to carry you through tough postures like the virabhadrasanas (warriors) or arm balances. Yes, it takes practice, and at first you’ll probably be too busy working out where to put your hands and feet to think about it, but taking a few minutes each day to practise engaging the moola bandha muscles will build your awareness over time and allow you to gradually bring it into your yoga practice until eventually it almost happens without you thinking about it. Like any other muscles, it takes time and dedication to tone them and build muscle memory – and for pregnant ladies and new mums, it’s great for toning the pelvic floor!

How can moola bandha help with grounding and calming the mind?
To explore the calming effects of moola bandha, try the following breathing exercise:

Find a comfortable seated position, ideally a variation of crossed-legs (this can be lotus if you can hold this comfortably for at least five minutes). If possible, have your sit-bones connected with the floor rather than sitting on a block – leaning your back against a wall can help here. However, if it’s too uncomfortable without a cushion or block then that’s fine, just make sure the sit-bones are connecting fully with the support that you’re using.

Close your eyes and visualise your spinal column, with the tailbone and sit-bones descending downwards to connect with the earth or block beneath you. Gently switch on moola bandha by drawing up on the perineal muscles as described in this article. Don’t over-exert here; it should be quite a gentle, subtle action. Keeping moola bandha switched on, take your awareness to your breath and lengthen the inhales and exhales, breathing through the nose.

Imagine that when you breathe in you draw energy from the earth up the spine (this upward energy is called ‘prana’). Feel your torso grow with the pranic flow and feel the neck extend and the crown of your head ascend. Keeping moola bandha switched on, as you exhale, imagine the downward flow of this energy back down the spine (this downward flow of energy is called ‘apana’), and feel the sit-bones fully connect with the floor or prop beneath you.  Keep this slow breathing practice going, really imagining the upward and downward flow of energy up and down the spine as you inhale and exhale.

Over your breathing practice, try and lengthen the exhales as much as possible, focusing more and more on that sinking, grounding feeling, but without losing the upward extension through the body on the inhales to avoid slumping. By keeping moola bandha switched on throughout the breathing session, even during the exhales, you may feel a deep sense of mental calm, clarity and inner balance descend. And if you don’t feel that, don’t berate yourself – these things take time, and know that by doing the practice you are toning the pelvic floor muscles and gradually building awareness. Enjoy… 🙂

Mindfulness: why ‘coming back down to earth’ is a good thing

“Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.” Thich Nhat Hanh

All too often we live in our heads: in our fantasies of how we would like to be, how we think we ought to be; in our judgements and criticisms about how we’re not quite good enough as we are; in our expectations of others and ourselves; in our fear, bitterness and anger; in our worries about the future and regrets about the past.

All of this means we’re never really living in the moment and experiencing life as it truly is, right now. Whatever stories are running through our minds, the world is still ticking along outside regardless. The birds don’t give a damn about our crises, they just keep singing. The stream just keeps flowing and the clouds keep on drifting through the sky. By becoming caught up in our stories, we are seduced by them and start believing them, and it becomes more and more difficult to step outside of our mind and actually notice what is happening around us.

Mindfulness is quite a buzz word at the moment, and for very good reason. The zen Buddhists have been talking about its benefits for thousands of years. My interpretation of mindfulness is being acutely aware of the present moment, and using all of your senses to fully appreciate all that it has to offer. Its beauty is in its simplicity. It can be practised at any time: eating, walking, meditating, doing yoga, gardening, running – whatever. It just means stepping outside the constructs of our mind and instead entering the realm of the physical and tangible; that which can be truly sensed right there, right then. For example, it could be taking a moment whilst outside to stop and really listen to all the sounds you can hear, feel the breeze and sunshine on your skin, smell the blossom, notice the colours that surround you. Or it could be really focusing on the flavours as you mindfully chew your dinner, fully appreciating each mouthful. Or it could be sitting and paying close attention to every aspect of your breath: its sound, texture, the sensations of warmth and cold it creates on your upper lip and nostrils and you breathe in and out.

Mindfulness is about finding the miraculous in every moment. It’s about coming back to earth from our self-constructed head-space, and appreciating the very miracle of being alive. Practising mindfulness is immediately and inherently grounding. Through mindfulness we come back to earth, and feel gratitude for its supportive, solid presence beneath us.

Posture breakdown – tadasana (mountain pose)

Tadasana teaches us how to stand properly, and therefore also how to breathe properly, and is arguably one of the most important postures in yoga. It teaches us body-awareness, improves strength and balance and allows us to explore energy flow through the body. It is also a wonderful opportunity to connect with your breath and the earth beneath you and to find stillness in the moment. Imagine yourself as a mountain rooted to the ground through ancient bedrock – solid and peaceful.

How to do it:
The grounding benefits of this posture start with the feet, so take time to establish your feet foundation. Stand with your feet either together (there can be a small gap between the heels) or slightly apart and parallel (traditionally feet are together in ashtanga and vinyasa flow, but this isn’t essential). Come up onto your toes, really spread them as wide as possible, then sink slowly back onto the heels. Actively press downwards into the mat through your feet, imagining that the four corners of each foot are pressing down equally. You can explore this by rocking forward towards the toes then back towards the heels then trying to find that ‘sweet spot’ in the centre where you feel balanced equally across the whole feet. Spread the toes and open the soles fully to the mat to feel fully grounded and rooted through the feet.

Take a moment to find a neutral pelvis position. Most of us have a tendency to either stick the pelvis forward when standing, which causes a rounding and weakening in the upper back and tightening across the chest, or to stick the bum out, which causes compression in the lower spine and loses any engagement of the abdominals. Imagine your pelvic bowl is holding water, and you don’t want to spill the water out of the front or back of the bowl. Experiment with tilting the pelvis backwards and forwards until, again, you feel that sweet spot of balance, where the sit-bones (two bony projections that descend from the base of the pelvis) are pointing directly downwards into the earth.

As you continue to press down through the feet, feel the rebound of energy that travels up through the body. Feel this rebounding energy flow up through the spine, finding upward extension all the way up the neck and out the top of the head. Bring your shoulders to your ears and roll them back and down, drawing the shoulder blades together down the spine. This opens the chest and allows the rib cage to expand so you can breathe fully. Your ear, shoulder, hip and ankle should be in line, if you were looking at yourself side on. Most of us have tight pectoral and chest muscles that draw the shoulders too far forward, so it can feel wrong when you’re in the aligned position. But keep working with it, and over time those muscles will stretch and the shoulders will draw back more easily.

Tadasana is a quietly active pose with all parts of the body working together to find strength and balance. Draw up on the kneecaps to engage the fronts of the thighs and reach into the fingertips to engage the arms. So you’re now pushing down through the feet and simultaneously growing upwards through the body, with pelvis and shoulders in alignment and arms and legs engaged.

Now take the awareness to the breath. Breathe through the nose and lengthen the inhales and exhales as much as you can without over-exerting.

Next take the awareness to the abdominal area. Gently draw the navel back towards the spine and upwards slightly to engage the deep transverse abdominals (uddiyana bandha) and lift up on pelvic floor muscles to engage moola bandha (more on moola bandha in the anatomy article). If you’re engaging the bandhas correctly, the lower belly won’t move much during breathing and instead the breath is naturally directed into the upper chest, which helps to open the chest and rib-cage further by stretching the intercostal muscles between the ribs. Breathe into the chest, focusing on the sensations of movement in the rib-cage as you breathe in and out. Make sure you don’t allow the shoulders to creep up to the ears as this happens; keep them rolling back and downwards.

Now, whilst keeping the alignment and engagement through the body, try and find some peace and rest in the pose. Go inward, focus on your inhales and exhales and follow their journey through the body, feeling an upward extension on the inhales and a sinking grounding on the exhales. Soften your face. Really feel the sensation of the mat or floor beneath your feet. Connect with the earth beneath you. Know you’re fully supported and imagine you’re absorbing some of the vast reserves of energy stored at the earth’s core.

There are no real contra-indications for this pose, unless you have very low blood pressure, in which case standing up for a prolonged period might not be suitable for you.

Great for building body-awareness and developing foundation alignment principles.
Allows a focus on developing full breathing, opening the chest and rib-cage fully.
If done with full integrity, builds strength in the legs, arms and core.
Calming, grounding, balancing and peaceful.

Anatomy focus – how back-bending is also chest opening

It is an anatomical rule that when certain muscles in the body contract to achieve a particular action, another group of ‘antagonistic’ muscles will stretch; you cannot have one action without the other occurring. In back-bending, muscles in the back, such as the erector spinae and trapezius, contract, meaning muscles on the front of the body need to stretch.  There are many front muscles that need to stretch, including the abdominals, deep hip flexors, and quads on the front of the thighs. But this article focuses particularly on the chest-opening muscles associated with the rib-cage.

The hardest part of the spine to open up in back-bending is the thoracic (mid-upper) spine. One of the main reasons for this is that each of the thoracic vertebrae is attached to a pair of ribs. So in order to open the thoracic spine up, you need to lift the ribs and stretch the intercostal muscles between each pair. Yet this can be difficult for many of us due to our lifestyles causing a tightening in this area over time.

Many of us spend a lot of time sitting down – at work, driving, watching the TV.  All this sitting causes us to slouch forward so that, over time, our chest muscles tighten and our back muscles weaken.  This in itself restricts our ability to breathe fully, and the resultant shallow breathing eventually causes the intercostal muscles in the rib-cage to tighten further – it’s a vicious cycle. The rib cage becomes more and more immovable, until it’s like wearing restrictive armour, preventing us from fully breathing yet alone back-bending!

So, the best thing we can do to assist with re-opening up the rib-cage is learn to breathe fully. Just five minutes each day breathing slowly and fully can help bring back movement and free ourselves up from our self-inflicted rib-cage armour. When breathing, try placing the hands on the rib-cage so you can feel the expansion on the inhale as the intercostal muscles stretch and the ribs move apart, and the contraction of the intercostals on the exhale as the ribs move back towards each other. And remember that the rib cage expands out in all directions when we inhale, so try these different exercises:

1.Place the hands on the side ribs, and focus on that outward expansion into your hands as you inhale. Try and direct the breath out to the sides, into your hands.
2. Place your hands on the front of your rib cage, fingers just touching on the sternum area. Focus on expanding the breath forward, so as you inhale you feel the fingers draw apart, then feel them lightly touch again on the exhale.
3. Finally, place the back of one of your hands against your thoracic spine (if your shoulder mobility allows this action). Now focus on expanding the rib cage out towards the spine, so you feel your back press into your hand on the inhale and descend again on the exhale. This one is the hardest to do, but is key to learning how to create space in the thoracic spine.

Then, once we learn to open the chest and rib-cage fully, we can truly start to access an opening in the thoracic spine, and our back-bending will come alive.  Rather than other parts of the spine over-compensating and jamming up, the curve will be more evenly distributed throughout the whole spine, and we can enjoy the wonderful sense of freedom and rejuvenation that this creates.

Why is opening up so hard?

There is a lovely saying, which I often find myself using: “We are as young as our spines are flexible.”

This is so true – you see it in those who have practised yoga their whole lives and seem to defy age (this is what I’m holding out for!). Really, much of their ‘youthfulness’ is their upright posture, their continued fluidity of motion and bounciness that comes with freedom of movement in the spinal column.

So, yes, keeping the spine mobile is really important to help keep our bodies feeling free and youthful. Of course, this involves all kind of movements – sideways bending, twisting, forward folding, back-bending. However, of these, surely the biggie that we focus most on, is back-bending. For some of us, this is easy; we are born with naturally flexible spines. But for many of us, back-bending can be one of our most dreaded aspects of yoga. It can feel scary, it can feel tough and, frankly, it can feel emotional. We’ve probably all heard stories of people who have an emotional release following deep back-bending; I’ve been there myself recently.

Why is this? I think a lot of it is to do with feeling vulnerable when we fully open our hearts. Back-bending is also front-opening, as is explored in the Anatomy Focus article in this newsletter. Looking at a person’s posture can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling. When we’re scared, unhappy or defensive we hunch forward, literally trying to make ourselves smaller, more invisible. Conversely, when we’re happy, in love, full of beans, we’re bouncing around, heart open, smiling out at the world. Back-bending removes this defence mechanism – we have no choice but to puff our chests out, exposing ourselves to the world, surrendering. And this takes trust. We are but mammals and, like other animals, we have an instinctive desire to protect our most vulnerable parts such as our hearts. So to open up our chest and therefore our heart, we need to take a leap of faith and trust: trust ourselves, trust our teacher, trust in yoga. And that can be tough, especially when we’re going through bad times and our trust has been challenged.

But it’s also what makes back-bending so rewarding, both physically, as we feel our bodies opening up, but also emotionally, as we trust, surrender, and feel the liberation that comes with that. No wonder there are such huge releases of emotion when we finally let go.

Posture breakdown – utrasana (camel)

Utrasana (camel) is a deep back-bend that appears in ashtanga second series.  It’s not to be taken lightly, so go steady and listen to your body as always, and use the modifications suggested below if you’re new to it.

To avoid over-using the lumbar (lower) spine, it’s important to extend upwards through the spine as much as possible in order to access an opening in the thoracic (upper) spine, which is notorious difficult to open up. The breath is really important here – really use the breath to inhale into the upper chest and thoracic spine region and feel that area expand and grow as you arch back and lift your chest to the ceiling. Also, push the hips forward as much as possible in order to assist with extension through the spine.  You can experiment with tucking the pelvis under (although be careful not to over-engage the glutes if you do this) or you can work with a more neutral pelvis with sit-bones descending, which can create more space in the sacral area. You’ll find the front of the thighs and abdomen need to work hard  in order to keep the hips forward as you arch back and find your feet with your hands.

In the final posture the wrists are on the heels, with palms pressed to soles of the feet, fingers pointed towards toes.  Make sure you don’t collapse all of your weight into your hands, which will result in collapsing into the shoulder joints and compression round the neck. Create space around the ears by keeping the arms active and drawing shoulder blades together down the spine and lifting them up towards the ribs. The neck can be neutral (i.e. more or less looking diagonally up to the corner of the room), or you can drop the head all the way back like in the photo, but be mindful that this can put a lot of strain on the neck if you have issues there.

Avoid over-compressing the sacrum by trying not to over-squeeze the buttocks as you lean back and by inwardly rotating your thighs to release the outer hips as much as possible.  Push down actively through the shins and tops of the feet to help keep the legs strong.

Beginner modifications:
To begin with, just work with achieving extension through the spine and a lift in the thoracic spine and chest by leaning back as described above, but keep the hands on the hips, elbows drawing together to help open the chest. Eventually, when you feel ready to go back, you can come up on the toes to bring the heels closer to you. You can also try reaching back one hand at a time to begin with. In this case, try taking the hand to the opposite foot and reaching back with the other hand. Then swap sides.

Great front opener – stretches the whole of the front of the body, including the psoas.
Builds strength in the back.

Joey Miles workshop notes

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!

Anthony ‘Grimley’ Hall workshop notes

I recently attended a workshop with Anthony ‘Grimley’ Hall, who has become increasingly well-known in the yoga world through his blog, which began as a means to chart the development of his own yoga home practice and share his findings with others. What’s interesting about Anthony is that, at least to begin with, he didn’t have the guidance of a teacher; he worked it all out for himself from books and the internet and that makes it even more incredible to see what he has achieved all by himself, moving through primary and second ashtanga series and onto postures from beyond and also exploring Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama teachings, not to mention documenting his progress in painstaking detail through photos, videos and written accounts on his blog. The amount of discipline, enthusiasm and commitment, not to mention time, required for that is inspiring indeed!

Since then, his blog has expanded to provide a mind-boggling array of yoga information and resources, as his studies take him into more detailed research and reviews of workshops, books etc. Definitely worth checking out, although be warned that there is so much on there it can be a bit overwhelming to navigate around at first!

Something I particularly like about Anthony’s approach is that, fed up of researching new postures and only finding photos of the ‘perfect’ end point, usually executed by a gorgeous slip of a yoga thing in a way that seemed hard to relate to for a yoga newbie, he sought to address this by posting photos and videos of his progress in postures, so that he could share with others his journey of finding his way to the pose, rather than just posting his successful arrival. I love this – yoga is indeed all about the journey, and we can become far too fixated on wanting to reach the end-point. And then what? The journey never really ends, and when we finally realise that we can settle back in our seat and enjoy the ride.

I am as guilty of hankering after ‘mastery’ of a pose as anyone else, and constantly try and find the balance between wanting to achieve new poses and just enjoying where I am on the journey. Anthony’s humble approach has inspired me to share with you more of my own yoga journey. The poses that I share with you might not be ‘perfect’ in an internet viewing sense, but they are always perfect in a personal way – exactly where I should be at that point of time. We are always perfect in our imperfections… 🙂

Anyway, here are a few gems I gleaned from Anthony’s workshop:

  • The focus of the workshop was Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama teachings. ‘Vinyasa’ means ‘movement with breath’ and ‘krama’ indicates a sequence or pathway. Together, they describe a holistic system of yoga that uses logical sequencing of linked groups of postures to enable students to gradually build up their practice at their own pace, even within a group class. Students are only offered the next posture in the sequence when they are comfortable in the previous one. Sound familiar? Yup, ashtanga yoga comes directly from this tradition, as does iyengar yoga. Both Pattabhis Jois and BKS Iyengar were students of Krishnamacharya, so you can see what a huge pivotal influence he has had on the yoga tradition.
  • We looked at the principle of ‘kumbhaka’, which means breath retention. This is something that Krishnamacharya was strict on, and which has been lost within the ashtanga system. In most postures (but not twists), there is a 2-5 second retention of breath after each inhale or exhale, depending on whether the head is facing up or down in the posture. The benefits of this are supposed to be a stimulation of blood flow round the body and an increase in carbon dioxide in the blood.
  • Another central tenet of Krishnamacharya’s teachings (d’ya know what? I’m going to call him ‘K’ for the rest of this post!) was long holds in certain postures – apparently he recommended ten minutes in chaturanga. Hmmm, five minutes in utkatasana was enough for most of the room of ashtangis! It was good to challenge ourselves, as we’re so used to the five breath hold. Many students commented that a fine-tuning of alignment occurred naturally through the breath during the long hold; this was especially apparent in downward dog. Personally, I found it revealed to me my tight areas with great clarity, and also revealed the guarding patterns that I unknowingly employ during the usual five breaths. Given longer to explore the pose, you become aware of this ‘cheating’ behaviour and let it go with the breath, allowing the healing work to truly begin. So definitely a good practice for ashtangis to adopt from time to time I would say.
  • Anthony talked about the importance of fluid transitions between postures; a common part of vinyasa yoga styles. It is through the integrity of the repeated transitions that we gradually build strength, stamina and, eventually, grace.
  • We really did focus on the breath. We allowed the practice to be led by the breath. We were reminded that monitoring whether you can breathe slowly and with ease in a posture is a good indication that you have ‘mastered’ it and, traditionally, would then be offered the next pose. I am trying to bring this into my attempts at kapotasana, which tend to involve quite stressy, quick breaths (AKA – get me out of here quick!) and unfailingly I notice that if I can control my breath, my mind softens and the body immediately follows and I can see where the journey ahead lies rather than feeling stuck on the wayside!

Thank you Anthony for a great workshop – it’s good to get out of the ashtanga box sometimes, and also interesting to explore its roots… 🙂