Ashtanga

spring equinox vernal equinox balance yoga

On Balance and the Equinox…

 

March 20th was the spring vernal equinox. For a tiny slice of time the earth span completely upright on its axis, day and night were equal in length across the planet, light and dark are matched and yoga teachers across the globe heed the call to talk about finding balance in our lives as well as our Uttitha hasta padanghustasana.

Balance is something of a buzzword in yoga. Studios are named after it, teachers use nifty balance sound-bites and in every yoga class we go to, if we don’t find ourselves standing on one leg and doing strange things with the other one then we’re holding a pose and trying to find the perfect equilibrium between stretching ourselves (both literally and figuratively) without pushing to a point of lasting discomfort.

But what if constant pursuit of the conventional ideal of ‘balance’ in our lives – particularly the one upheld by the yoga community – is a bit like chasing a unicorn?

Maybe balance as we typically imagine it is a little over-rated.

A few years ago, I was really driving my veterinary career. I did a surgical and medical internship in one of the best horse hospitals in the country and suddenly found myself working more hours than I was aware existed in a week, earning way less than when I was 17 and at ‘Pizza Hut’ and coming nowhere near the daily recommended allowances for sleep, vegetables and exercise. Unless you counted cat-napping in pathology meetings, ketchup and chasing errant patients and/or vet students. One particularly memorable bank holiday I scored a 64- hour shift without a shower, sleep or proper meal. My life was not balanced. But, in the moment, I was pretty happy. I had purpose and was working towards something that was important to me.

We all go through phases like this. Take the first flashes of a new relationship. We choose our beloved over (healthy) food, sleep, self-care and phoning our friends and grandmas. Life is messy and spontaneous – it doesn’t drop neatly into equally proportioned boxes.

Even when I decided to devote more energy to yoga because 100+ hour weeks knee-deep in poo weren’t doing it for me anymore (and I love it), I still didn’t move in the ‘balanced’ way people expected. I quit my job, moved to a damp and crumbling farmhouse in a new area, simultaneously started two completely different businesses and acquired a puppy, a parrot and a proverbial bun in the oven. A hair-brained plan. Well, it wasn’t a plan. It was some more intense, free-wheeling shooting from the hip. But I’m happier than I ever thought I had a right to be.

I’m just not convinced we make the biggest impact in our lives when we prioritise equally dividing our attention between our career, family, significant other, friends, self-care, diet, dogs and gym routine.

Just like in asana, our ‘ideal balance’ in life is immensely personal. What looks great on one person would result in bone breakage for others. What might look slow and easy from the outside can be a ridiculously rich and fierce experience inside.

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If our physical balance in class is a reflection of our inner balance… and I immediately pulled myself up the one time those oft-quoted words left my mouth in class, then it’s not the cookie cutter balance we’re often led to believe we’re searching for. It’s unearthing peace and equanimity with exactly where we are and immersing ourselves in the present moment. If we’re wobbling (and wobbling is cool) it’s likely because we’re momentarily stuck in the past or racing ahead to what comes next, rather than being fundamentally out of whack.

When we’re genuinely consumed by what’s happening right now, when our reality makes us feel electric and alive, our posture blossoms and steadies. Off the mat, our life feels productive and worthwhile.

Instead of defining balance as equal division of attention between our various earthly commitments, that division should feel appropriate to ourselves and the moment. Who cares if our pose or our ‘work-life’ choices look wonky as sh*t from the outside?? If it genuinely feels delicious and lights you up then go for it. And more power to you.

With (happily unhinged) love, Sal xx

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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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