I started third series last week. The Advanced A series. Supposedly the time Ashtanga becomes advanced as second is ‘only’ the Intermediate series. Ha! That always makes me chuckle as to me, Primary is itself an advanced practice, particularly relative to other forms of yoga. But I digress…
I’m one pose into third and can’t quite believe I am where I am. I’m also incredibly excited at the new territory ahead and incredibly proud about where I am, it being both meaningless and meaningful at the same time. When I first started yoga, I had no idea whatsoever how my relationship with it would unfold and how my journey would evolve over time. I had no intentions to teach and I didn’t even know that it was something I’d be doing for this long. I just knew it felt good, it did wonders for the back pain I started going to it for (within a week) and I had finally found something that enabled me to be physical that wasn’t playing sports, getting repeatedly kicked in the face (as was the case during my six month stint of Thai boxing) or mindlessly pounding away on a treadmill at the gym being forced to listen to godawful music and be surrounded by strutting body builders.
That was back when I started in 2000 at a local gym, being taught hatha yoga by the most flexible ‘old’ lady I’d ever seen (I was 21 at the same… anyone over 50 was old). I soon moved to Japan for a year however, and did a bit of self practice (but actually hardly any) in between teaching English, being submerged in natural hot springs, travelling around and taking in the beauty of that most incredible of countries, and nights out singing alcohol-fuelled [bad] karaoke. Hedonism came before practice.
I came back to the UK and returned to the ‘old’ lady’s class for the 10 months or so I was back home but my itchy feet needing a scratch got the better of my stiff hamstrings needing a stretch and so off I was again, this time to the Tibetan Plateau (a place called Ladakh at the northernmost tip of India bordering Tibet), again teaching English but this time to Buddhist monks and nuns, living in 600 year old monasteries and being taught Buddhist philosophy in return along with food and board. A wonderful exchange. Again, I did bits of self practice and have fond memories of teaching a bunch of giggling nuns some yoga but again I didn’t do much. At around 4000m above sea level even climbing a set of stairs was a challenge. It was also quite tough to practice in the cave I lived in for three months that I couldn’t even stand up in. Not to mention the fact that by the time I was living in the cave, winter had hit hard and temperatures hovered around -15C.
Where Japan was my year of hedonism and extroversion, my year in Ladakh – one of the most breath taking places I’ve ever seen in my life – was one of introspection and introversion. It was a period of being quiet and still, the time I first learnt to meditate, having my own little perch on the edge of a cliff top overlooking the epic Indus Valley where I would watch cloud shadows glide across the dramatic landscape, experiencing my inner world feeling as vast and expansive as the external environment in which I was privileged to be living in. Some photos I took from what was an incredibly special period of my life are below.
I decided to leave Ladakh in March 2004 and began my journey to the nearest phone to call my mum who would arrange my tickets back to London. The journey was three hours on foot trekking down from the monastery through a path that snaked through interlocking mountains, eating my takeaway breakfast of toasted barley flour mixed into a dough with yak butter tea and sugar. This was then followed by a three hour, bum clenching bus ride across precariously positioned roads on the sides of the Himalayan mountains. I remember the journey being a breath taking one just as every trip was. Even after months of living in Ladakh, my breath was literally taken away every time I stepped outside. Along with the sense of awe just mentioned, the trip to the phone was also accompanied by a constant, low level dread that my mum would be out and instead I’d have the pleasure of speaking to BT answerphone. Luckily she was in. But instead of the excitement I thought would fill her voice on speaking to her young son and hearing that I’d be coming home, she told me not to return to the UK but to go see my older brother who was travelling in Thailand. She was worried he was lonely and needed company as it was his first time backpacking. I was ecstatic at the possibility of experiencing heat again and not having to wear 8 layers of clothing on a daily basis.
I returned to the UK in 2004 after what turned out to be a month long retox in Thailand and decided I probably needed to do something about this ‘career’ thing. I moved out of my mum’s place to North London and picked up yoga again, this being the start of a consistent practice, going three or four times a week. Every time I moved (which was around every 10 months for some reason), I’d hunt down a local studio and unconsciously stay connected in an almost umbilical way to the thing that was becoming, and has become, the most consistent thing in my life.
I journeyed through different styles and teachers, from Bikram to Anusara, to Ashtanga, then dynamic flow and vinyasa yoga, and back to Ashtanga again, finding myself becoming more lithe and flexible, stronger. I held myself differently, began to feel more confident as the teenaged, self-conscious slump I’d had for many years changed into a more poised and grown up posture, literally giving me a different stance on the world. My late nights and mornings-after spent being trigger happy with the snooze button changed into (slightly) earlier nights and an enjoyment of being up at a time of beautiful silence as I began to get into the morning Mysore style of practising. My rhythms changed, as did my relationship with what I put into my body. I realized just how much I needed those two hours each morning before going to work and being in often intensely emotional groups all day, something David Swenson mentioned in a workshop I attended a few years later where he talked about the ‘force field’ a morning practice creates to help keep you calm, grounded and steady and able to deal with whatever life (or a group of often very damaged people) decides to throw at you that particular day.
I’d been teaching a small class at work for a couple of years by this point, had consistently been assisting my teacher to keep improving my understanding of bodies and my ability to adjust, and had been doing every yoga workshop I could to indulge my massive hunger to learn more about the practice of yoga. I taught more. Teaching taught me more than I probably taught others. A familiar feeling as it was one I often had when I was teaching English in Japan and Ladakh.
Interestingly, when I look back now as I write this, a very short while after starting Third, I can honestly say that I had no intention of advancing when I started yoga. When I first started primary, I didn’t even know other series existed. When I started second, I never thought I’d go beyond but nor did I think I’d just stay where I was. I just never really thought about it, turned up each morning and did what I did. My teacher would give me a pose at a time, when she could see I had developed the necessary patterns and understood how to navigate myself within each pose and its subsequent vinyasa.
My curiosity led to me wanting to understand the postures and to work on the things I had to work on in order for me to move towards one of the main things I believe the practice does – restructuring, realigning and rebalancing the body. The key themes I worked on began to feed into other poses and other parts of my practice… Muscles softened and allowed access to deeper sets of muscles and muscle chains which grew stronger and more familiar each day. I could (and still can) almost literally feel new neuromuscular pathways being laid down which are then able to be cultivated and used and enjoyed. All of these various threads fed and feed into the rich tapestry that is the practice. I feel more excited about my Ashtanga practice now than I ever have before, and that is after seven years of focusing on this one, same discipline alone. I owe an incredible amount to my current teacher, Eileen, and to Debbie before that.
What I’m saying is that I just did my practice. Regularly. Consistently. Mindfully. I knew that it was the thing that kept me sane, the thing that brought a cerebral guy like me into my body and taught me about being embodied. It was my deepening understanding of the practice, the increased recognition of and curiosity about the patterns within it, and the intention to practice in a way that was safe and not violent towards myself – particularly as a result of the being-hit-by-a-car accident in 2010 and having a verterbra that would forever be wedged into a different shape – that I feel has helped me get to where I have.
It is meaningful in that I feel a sense of accomplishment – some may say this is ego based and non-yogic. I say sod them. Finishing second series took me seven years and was a voyage consisting of frustration, joy, relief, bliss, fun and much more. I’d practiced yoga for a few years by the time I started primary so, although it was challenging, I was pretty competent at it and was moved on to second quite quickly. This was the beginning of what was to become something that brought me face to face with myself in a way very little else has done before (only a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat and explorations of ayahuasca have done similar things). It paradoxically brought me in touch with things I was proficient at and many more that I wasn’t. It taught me about the narratives I so often create, both on and off the mat, that only serve the function of being blocks and getting in the way. It connected me to my frustrations and taught me patience and practising the art of effortless effort. It frequently made me question why the hell I did Ashtanga and contorted myself into these crazy poses. I questioned that a lot. Above all else, it taught me about the joy of physicality and to be grateful for my body, particularly when the accident I had could have so easily and dramatically changed it permanently.
Finishing second is meaningless in that the end of the second series is simply a man made concept and is in fact different now than how it was when originally taught. So the marker of it being the end of second is an arbitrary one. Nevertheless, it is the completion of something that I have been practising for seven years and for that I feel proud. It is the result of seven years of dedication, discipline, and very early starts. What’s more, it is not where I or any person is at in their practice that is I believe is important, but the (ongoing) process of what being on that journey is like. I’ve seen people desperate to finish second series and teachers that take them through it incredibly fast without them having the necessary patterns for them to practice safely. It’s so easy to experience injury in primary, even more so in second and beyond. What’s the hurry of getting to the end? To use a timely analogy, it’s like having an entire Christmas dinner feast laid out in front of your very eyes and you being in a rush to fill your plate and get every mouthful down you as soon as possible, barely tasting it as you do so. The opposite approach is taking your time, savouring each and every bit, every morsel made all the more flavoursome as you know how much god damned effort has gone into preparing the feast. The sweet bits (pigs in blankets), the less enjoyable bits (brussel sprouts) and every thing in between. Whether we’re talking about getting through a series, getting through a meal or talking about the journey of life itself, don’t be in a rush to get to the end – fully experience and have contact with the process of getting there…