ahimsa yoga blog Cumbria Lake District

The One Yoga Move We Should ALL Be Practicing…

… is called ahimsa.

Ahimsa is one of yoga’s yamas.

It might sound like it involves stretching a hamstring, but to practice ahimsa we’re chasing a totally different kind of high. We’re going after those nice warm moments you find yourself getting when you practice yoga and find yourself inexplicably acting a little better towards other people and yourself… even if it’s just for a few minutes after rolling out of Savasana.

And yep, it can be practiced just like any other stretch.

Some explanatory background… The yamas are the first of the 8 limbs or ‘practice areas’ of yoga. ‘Ashtanga’ literally translates to ‘8 limbed yoga’, although the system is recognised universally across the different yoga schools. Other limbs include asana – our physical practice – and pranayama – our breathing practice. The yamas are a set of guiding principles for ethical living, concerning our outwards behaviours and attitude towards to the world. The fact that this is the very first limb of yoga – before physical practice – give us a clue as to their importance.

So what does Ahimsa actually mean and why should we take it to heart as we deepen our physical practice?

Ahimsa is often translated as ‘non-violence’. Which sounds like a logical place to start an ethical code. Except not many of us would describe ourselves as violent people or be able to pinpoint too many acts of true violence in our lives.

(Yep, incase you were wondering this is where the great and sticky yoga/meat-eating debate comes in, but we’re definitely saving that one for another day… Except to super-quickly say that whilst I personally choose a vegan diet, I definitely don’t think that eating meat and being a ‘good’ person/yogi are mutually exclusive. There are no lines in the sand in yoga or our individual ethical choices.)

Instead of ‘non-violence’, I like the more modern translation of ‘non-harming’. Little acts of negligence, damage or harm to things, people and ourselves are a whole lot easier to identify and work with. Not that ahimsa asks us only to avoid harmful deeds; it also reminds us not to speak carelessly or maliciously, or think harmful thoughts. Because – being honest – we can get on our mats and stretch ’til the proverbial cows come home, but if we walk out of class and start whinging, bitching and flipping the bird at inconsiderate road users, we might as well have gone to ‘legs, bums and tums’. (No disrespect, LBT).

It’s a big playing field once you get to thinking about it. And perhaps it’s the point of practicing ahimsa that we start to consider our actions and their consequences rather than instantly morphing into perfect human beings.

Think about how much brain space and energy we’d save if we could learn to live without random acts of road rage, looking in the mirror and berating our thighs, snarking at our loved ones when we’re under-carbed or binge watching Vikings/X-files re-runs/[insert personal Netflix choice here] instead of getting some much-needed sleep. Lots. That’s a lot of spare power for handstands, baking cake, making love, singing in the shower, selfless giving and dreaming up amazing plans for holidays or a generally-blissful Utopian future. Or whatever makes your own little corner of the world a better place.

It sounds kinda nice, right?

One of the best exercises to start consciously practicing ahimsa in our lives is really simple. (As simple as doing ‘legs up the wall’ in bed, which I’m also forever recommending for its life-enhancing benefits.) For one whole week, try to make yourself aware every single time you say something unkind or casual about another person. It might be your partner and they might deserve it. It might be a certain colleague, a faceless immigrant on the news, or an overly face-y celebrity in Heat magazine. Just bring the comments to mind, either in the moment or running a few mini-reviews throughout the day, and quietly consider the consequences of sowing these little seeds of negativity. Is this really acting like the person you’d like to become? Probably not. So we try to do it less. Then, we try to stop gossiping completely.

Just another say to let that post-practice goodness start to seep a little deeper.

However you do it, practice ahimsa like a hip opener. An open heart is way cooler than a good baddha konasana.

With love,

Sal xx

 

Ashtanga yoga chants flame

The Ashtanga Practice Chants

I used to find chanting mortifyingly embarrassing. A tiny bit of me still sometimes does, usually when I’m doing it on my own in front of class and someone is still gawking at me even though I’ve asked everyone to shut their eyes! But the rest of me loves to chant. I’ll happily squawk along to Krishna Das in the car, I like the way my OM sounds in the shower and it’s my 2016 mission to teach my new parrot the Gayatri mantra. I really do believe it’s an important part of our yoga practice and the fact we English-es tend to shy away from it makes me a little sad. Chanting instantly connects us to ourselves, to the lineage of Ashtanga and to the ancient traditions of yoga itself.

We chant to book-end our practice as it is calms and centres us. Like taking time to ground ourselves in Samastitih (mountain pose) before we start our physical practice, it gives us focus, marking our space and time as sacred and special. On a metaphysical level, chanting is thought to raise our personal vibration. This brings us closer to our Source or Unviersal Consciousness (or whatever ‘God’ means to you).

Chatting to students, it seems a lot of the initial discomfort around chanting stems not just from classic British awkwardness but from concerns about chants being connected to a religion – whether Eastern or just any religion – cult or secret society. Rest assured, this isn’t the case. The chants we use in class are completely non-denominational.

Traditionally, chants are learnt by listening and repeating – much like pop songs on the radio. And as with pop songs on the radio, this means you often have absolutely no idea if what you’re singing is ‘right’ or 110% made-up. You learn to love it anyway. It adds to the experience. For example, there’s a common Ashtanga chant whose words will forever make me think of going for a wee in a caravan (Story for another day, maybe??!) (One that doesn’t actually involve either of those things!), until scarily recently I thought Fifth Dimension were all about the dawning of the ‘Age of Asparagus’… and what do you mean Jarmiroquai doesn’t have candy in his heels?? It’s all good.

So if you promise not to pay too much attention to the written words, and hoping it will make you feel more comfortable with using them, here are the English translations for the two most used Ashtanga chants – the opening and closing mantras. If the English leaves you just as confused or bemused as the Sanskrit –simply try to enjoy the sounds. Although rarely spoken today, Sanskrit is an ancient and sacred language where the sound’s innate vibration is what really matters.

(NB. The Sanskrit here isn’t correctly accented – my love of chanting unfortunately trumps my love of trying to get the Mac OS Extended keyboard to work… Apologies!)

Opening chant:

Ashtanga opening chant Sanskrit

OM

Vande gurunam charanavinde

Sanarsita svatmasukhavabodhe

Nihsreyase jangalikayamane

Samsara halala mohasantyai

 

Abahu purusakaram

Sankachakrasi dharinam

Sahasra sirasan svetum

Pranamami patanjalim

 OM

 

I bow to the lotus feet of the supreme Guru,

Who teaches knowledge, awakening the great happiness of the self-revealed,

Who acts like the jungle physician

Able to remove the delusion of conditioned existence.

 

In his guise as the divine serpent,

With 1000 white radiant heads,

In human form below the shoulders,

Holding the sword of discrimination,

The wheel of fire representing infinite time,

And the conch representing the divine sound.

To the sage Patanjali I prostrate.

 

For more chat on the meaning of OM – click here.

 

Closing chant, A.K.A. mangala mantra or auspicious prayer:

Ashtanga yoga closing chant Sanskrit

OM

Svasti-praja bhyah pari pala yantam

Nyayena margena mahim mahisaha

Go brahmanebhyah subamastu nityam

Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu

OM

Santih santih santihi

 

May all be well with man-kind,

May leaders govern the world with honesty and love,

Protecting all that is sacred – life,

So that all beings of the world can live happy and prosperous

 

As always, feel free to get in touch with any questions or comment below – and for those of you coming to Sunday’s workshop… yes! We are going to be using them, even if it’s just me chanting while I hope you close your eyes.

With love,

Sal x

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Yoga Chikitsa – What Exactly is the Ashtanga Primary Series….?

Often portrayed as a bewildering selection of stick men or photos of guys in their pants (see below…!), the Ashtanga Primary Series is a specifically choreographed sequence of 72 asana, or postures, handed down through this traditional lineage of yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series - Yoga Chikitsa After an opening chant in Samastitih (mountain pose) the series progresses through Surya Namaskara (sun salutations) A and B, the standing postures, seated postures, closing sequence, a closing chant and then relaxation in Savasana. The sequence builds in the flexibility and strength required for each posture so that the body is warm and suitably opened as each arrives.

The Primary Series contains all the necessary physical elements of yoga to establish all-round health in the body; sun salutations, forward bends, twists, back bends, lifting and core strength and inversions.

 

Although the seated postures change as you progress through the series (yep, after you’ve mastered Primary comes Secondary, then Advanced A, B and C!) the chants, sun salutations, standing poses and closing sequence always remain the same – a testament to their fundamental importance in our practice however our bodies change.

The series was originally composed by Pathabi Jois – affectionately known to many more senior Ashtanga practitioners who were able to go and practice with him in India, as ‘Guruji’. With the exception of Saturdays and ‘moon days’, Jois taught Ashtanga every day in Mysore until his death in X. Although the experience has changed dramatically since Jois’ time, it’s still possible to practice at the Ashtanga Institute (www.kpjayi.org) with his grandson, Sharath.

Yoga Chikitsa, as the primary series is formally named, translates from Sanskrit as ‘Yoga therapy’. Practised regularly, the poses work to heal our bodies of ailments and injuries. We build the strength and flexibility to take our yoga practice deeper – both physically and in seated meditation. The heat, or tapas, we generate in practice is thought to purify our minds and bodies.

The dynamic flow of the sun salutations is a foundation for the whole practice, which is interspersed with linked Vinyasa. This delicious, serpentine flow is fairly unique to Ashtanga. Each breath has its place and movement. When we learn these movements our knowledge of the practice goes from an intellectual to a kinestethetic understanding. One of the most beautiful things about the practice is catching the current of breath-movement flow, the one we all know from when we’re ‘in the zone’ with our sun salutations, then keeping hold of it for 90 minutes or more. Even slipping into this feeling for a few minutes lets us drop into ourselves in a way that’s often inaccessible in everyday life.

This link between movement and breath is integral. Without careful breath, we’d just be doing gymnastics. With careful breath, we invite ourselves to remember that this key to life, death and connection is not just within our reach, but within ourselves, every day.

Ujayi, or victorious breath, is one of the hallmarks of Ashtanga. It’s so effective at uniting our bodies and minds that it is now used across many styles of yoga and it’s this emphasis on the breath that turns our practice into a moving meditation. Once we’ve learnt a section of movement, we use the breath to bring grace and fluidity to our movements. It’s then that this slightly crazy series of bending, stretching, jumping actions becomes a dance.

As with any dance, it helps if you know the steps! Although students usually soak up more than they realize from class, sessions are often too short to run through the whole series in completeness. And – tradition and lineage, aside – it’s really fun! You’re (almost!) guaranteed to finish each full practice with a smile and sense of achievement. This Sunday (28th February) there’s going to be a workshop to explore the whole series in its traditional form, made accessible for all levels of student. The details are just below. If you can’t make this time but are keen to know more about future events, be sure to sign up to our mailing list by clicking the link.

 

Primary Series Workshop

Parish Rooms, St. Andrew’s, Penrith

10.30 – 12.30

2 hours practice, followed by tea, chat and deliciously healthy cake-ish snacks J

£12 – £8 concessions (or £4.50 + 1 stamp off 6-class pass)

EVERYONE WELCOME – all levels of student, including those who practice independently.

To book: use the form below, e-mail saldrifts@gmail.com or call/text 07554 441776

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