Yoga on Osney Island

My friend, Lilina, and I are working together to offer classes to our community.  These classes are in the ‘The Workshop’, above Osney Osteopaths on Osney Island, Oxford.

For more details on my classes, see ‘Classes’ on this site. For more details on Lilina’s classes, see ‘Classes’ on her site.  Although we are independent operators, we are working collaboratively on making sure yoga is available in West Oxford.

The space is looking lovely and we’d be thrilled if you could join us!


Why yoga?

When people in the West think of yoga, they invariably think of asana, ie physical posture practice.  This is indeed how most of us start with yoga: we go to a class (either real or on line), we watch a teacher lead us through instruction and demonstration into and out of various poses, some of which are easier than others.  We are—sometimes, not always—encouraged to pay attention to our breathing at the beginning of the class and we end the class by lying flat on the floor for a few minutes with our eyes closed.  Depending on the style of yoga, the postures can either be in a set sequence, they can be varied from class to class; there can be fewer postures held for longer, there can be a string of postures that flow from one to another.  Sometimes the class is in a hot room, sometimes the class is outside; sometimes there’s music, sometimes not.  There so many varied possibilities for the physical practice of yoga that some say we should more accurately refer to different yogas rather than just simply yoga.

People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons—it could be to get fit, to lose weight, to calm down, because their friends are doing it, or (as in my case) after injury, or many other reasons besides.  And depending on your reason, you will—through trial and error—gravitate toward the type of yoga that suits you. And of course the type of yoga that suits you can vary by the day, depending on your mood, energy levels, physical ability, time constraints, etc.

However there is more to yoga than just the physical practice, much more.  And given this wide array of asana practice options I do sometimes worry that not enough attention is being paid to the other, arguably more important, aspects of yoga.  We enjoy the postures without understanding where they come from and why we’re doing them.  So what kind of true enjoyment is that?

Students of yoga can of course read the Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Vasistha, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita, the Gheranda Samhita and many other texts to try to understand what lies behind yoga. I highly recommend doing this if you have time and interest as yoga is a deeply complex and beautiful subject. But students who are looking for a bit of a shortcut should consider reading two recent short books that provide a good summary of what yoga is actually about.  Radically Simple Yoga. For Now (David Dodd, 2016) and Greed, Sex, Intention: Living like a Yogi in the 21st Century (Hannah Whittingham and Marcus Veda, 2018).

Radically Simple Yoga. For Now distils the philosophy found in the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita in such a way as to bring the radical ideas of this ancient tradition vividly into the present.  Yoga is not just something that stays on a mat, it is as Dodd puts it ‘an experiential philosophy’ that practitioners take out into the world.  His text is densely packed with ideas and even occasional diagrams that really help some of the more abstract ideas in the Yoga Sutras to come alive. Although the book is short, it can take some time to absorb the deep concepts that are explored in the text, namely how the practice of yoga fosters and develops our self awareness, curiosity, acceptance, focus, purpose, spirituality and creativity both on and perhaps more importantly off the mat.  The book encourages and inspires its readers to adopt an internal approach to the practice of yoga that will change their lives.

Greed, Sex, Intention: Living Like a Yogi in the 21st Century explores the yamas and niyamas, the dos and don’ts of personal conduct found in the Yoga Sutras.   Each of the yamas and niyamas–non harming  (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non stealing (asteya), chastity or fidelity (brahmacharya), non possessiveness (aparigraha),  cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), surrender or acceptance (ishvara pranidhana)—is treated to an extended meditation by the authors who find various clever ways to show how each of these ancient ethical rules can inform our behaviours in the present day.  The book is written in a very conversational and down-to-earth style even as it explores the moral dimension of yoga.  At the end of each section, there is an example of how each principle is embodied (literally) through discussion of a single yoga posture.  Ahimsa (non harming) in action is urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).  The embodiment of santosha (contentment) is paschimottansana (deep forward fold).  Etc. This linking of yama or niyama to asana is smart: after discussing how these rules are to be applied in wider life, the authors make sure to bring these rules to the mat.

Most students come to yoga through their bodies, but they find that there is much in the tradition to occupy their minds. And indeed, the point of the asanas is to get the body ready for extended mental activity, namely meditation. However, asana practice is itself already a kind of meditation through movement. It fosters a sense of inner awareness and concentration that grows out of the experience of being in the postures. This inner awareness is something that can shape our own behaviour and the way we interact with the world.

Although yoga is made up of many different types of physical practice, the purpose and possibility of yoga remains the same. Next time you are on your mat, don’t just go through the motions.  Practice by paying full attention to your experience in each moment.  Over time you will transform your mind, your self, your actions, your habits and finally your life.  This, in a nutshell, is what yoga is all about.


Yoga across a life

‘The full blossoming of maturity is the best fruit that life can offer.’ Vanda Scaravelli, Awakening the Spine.

Our tastes change as we move through life.  The sweeties we enjoy as children become unpalatable for us as adults.  We revisit a favourite book from our teenage years only to wonder what the fuss was about.  And we have all had the cringe-making experience of seeing photographs of ourselves smiling broadly while wearing completely ridiculous clothes, and now asking ourselves what on earth we were thinking.  Some change can also be painful, as we outgrow places or even people. But being stuck in a rut is much worse.  Our progression through life arises out of our ability to change so we should embrace rather than resist it.

The practice of yoga across a life will inevitably and gradually change with time.  When I started practicing yoga I concentrated on a fast flowing Ashtanga based practice which suited me very well at the time. My practice was fuelled by a lot of nervous energy that I could channel into the vinyasas.  I could get my heart rate up very quickly and really enjoyed the satisfaction of getting a good ‘workout’.  However my preferences have changed over time and I am now much more interested in detailed alignment work and developing a sense of what it feels like to really be in my own body.  I still really love a good vinyasa flow class—they’re great fun!—but the work I do on my own is much slower and centres on a more nuanced exploration of what I am made and capable of.  Through daily personal practice over many years, I have moved decisively away from treating yoga as a workout.  I now rely on yoga to give me a certain strength and suppleness that allows me to enjoy living my life.

Having seen how my own practice has changed incrementally over time, I have been interested in learning more about how yoga helps people to age well. I have read two recent books on the subject: Yoga for Healthy Aging (by Baxter Bell MD and Nina Zolotow, 2017) and Lifelong Yoga (by Sage Rountree and Alexandra Desiato, 2017). Each of these excellent books explains how yoga can promote healthy ageing, but they differ in approach as well as in their overall message about the ageing process itself. In the first book, ageing is a negative problem that can be solved or at least slowed; while in the second book, ageing is a process that can be managed both gently and positively to its inevitable end.

Yoga for Healthy Aging: This book is an introduction to yoga as well as a guide to the changes that we can expect as we grow older.  The authors give general advice on starting a yoga practice and provide a general introduction to yoga philosophy, stress management and meditation.  There are specific chapters on strength, balance, flexibility and agility as well as on the cardiovascular and nervous systems.  Each chapter describes how our strength, balance, flexibility, etc is affected by ageing and then provides a detailed explanation for ‘how yoga helps’.  These explanations include suggestions of particular poses as well as specific sequences with photographs of each pose (which are described in detail at the back of the book). The sequences are divided in to easy or challenging, or they focus on strengthening specific areas of the body, eg arms, legs, core, etc. Ample attention has been paid to the functioning of the body and mind and this is no doubt in part because of the medical experience of one of the book’s authors (Baxter Bell used to practice Western medicine). But the book covers much more than how the body ages. The sections on philosophy, stress, meditation and breathing could appear in any book on yoga, either as an introduction or a reminder. This book is useful to any practitioner no matter how young or old.

Lifelong Yoga: This book is also an introduction to yoga and considers how yoga can help develop or preserve strength, flexibility, balance both in abstract terms in also through various poses.  The poses are presented and described individually and then sequenced together at the end of the book.  The sequences here are not simply designed to cover either balance, strength or flexibility. Instead they are presented as practices to incorporate into the rest of one’s day.  Some sequences prepare for another activity (including other sports or ‘before a weekend with grandchildren’ or ‘before a long drive or flight’ or ‘before a day of cooking, baking, and eating’ or ‘before an emotional day (wedding, funeral, or big life event).’ Other sequences are meant to be performed in response to other events or situations during a day, such as ‘after a lot of sitting’, ‘after a vacation’, ‘after over doing it’ or ‘after an emotional day.’  The idea behind all of these sequences is that yoga should be woven into the fabric of our life rather than standing outside of it.  Our practice can help us live well as well as age well.

Lifelong Yoga also cleverly weaves yoga philosophy throughout its text. The text is peppered with  brief references to  certain yogic principles found in the Yoga Sutras, including the yamas and niyamas (the dos and don’ts of how to live) the kleshas (afflictions), samskaras (impressions and habits), etc.  At the very end of the book in a chapter on ‘Easing Toward the End’ is a discussion of the importance of savasana (corpse pose) which is ‘a reminder that we are all moving toward the final letting go. [ . . .] It can become a reminder that growing older and dying is natural, inevitable, and the appropriate end to a good life.’  The book does not shy away from the fact that ageing has an end point. It encourages the reader not to suffer from fear of death (abhinivesha) but instead to accept the inevitable. We are encouraged to ‘move from fear to mindfulness, [ . . .] from disconnection to union.  That is yoga.’

Accepting that change (and ageing and indeed death) is unavoidable is surely the secret to a happy life.  A small part of this, at least for me, is accepting that my yoga practice will change and develop throughout my life. What was good for me 10 years ago will be only a fond memory 10 years from now.  And I can’t even imagine what my practice will look like 10 years after that.

I only know that I will continue to practice yoga for the rest of my life and that this practice, however it continues to evolve, will help me to age as gracefully and healthily as I can until the end.


We all have yoga bodies

‘Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation.  But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.’  Bhagavad Gita, 12:12.

Given the fundamentally internal work of yoga it always strikes me as rather odd to see endless photos of yogis in various very advanced postures. If the focus of yoga is what is happening on the inside, the propensity towards yoga by instagram seems to me to completely miss the point.  I do understand that it is amazing to see what the human body can do and that the advanced postures can only be achieved by years of dedicated practice.  But the celebration (or is it fetishisation?) of the external manifestation of a pose can have the unintended consequence of discouraging others who will never be able to reach the poses that are featured by the young and bendy.

How many times have I heard people say that they would love to try yoga but they can’t, because they can’t even touch their toes?  Countless.  But it’s of course precisely for those who can’t touch their toes that yoga is most important.

Yoga is made meaningful to its practitioners when they pay close attention to the body and breath rather than simply going through the motions. This internal focus has many benefits. It encourages us to develop an awareness of how the breath and the body function both separately and as an integrated whole. It also allows us to learn to manage the strong sensations felt in the body during the practice of asana and to develop an appreciation for how the body releases and improves over time.

The book Yoga Bodies: Real People, Real Stories and the Power of Transformation (by Lauren Lipton and Jamie Baird, 2017)   is comprised of photographs of people in various yoga poses.  There are over 80 photos, each one of someone in a yoga pose. The person in each photograph shares a brief story of how they got into yoga, why they practice, what their practice has given them.  Although each story is completely different, the common theme between them is one of transformation. Each person’s life has been fundamentally changed in some way by the practice of yoga.

There are certainly photos of young and bendy practitioners in astonishing poses, however the majority of the book focuses on a range of people of all ages, sizes, races, abilities.  Seeing the photos with their corresponding stories creates a context for each pose.  The focus moves from mere mechanical practice to one of knowledge, of understanding why yoga is practiced. The poses are not photographed because they are perfect or aspirational. Instead the photos are of very different people who are united through their love of yoga in all its different forms, without any attachment to the glory of nailing a difficult pose.

The photos and stories in themselves transform a common misperception of yoga. Yoga is certainly not limited to the super flexible or to the young or to the expert. Instead it is for all of us in all our wonky imperfections. Although the focus in the book is on the individual in terms of photos and stories, the effect of the book is to emphasise the universality of yoga which itself is an inspiration.

The next time someone says that they can’t touch their toes and so can’t do yoga: show them this book!