You may recall from our previous post that many teachers refer to the benefits of digging one deep well, rather than many shallow ones. Using that analogy, whilst we are still digging a few different wells at the moment, here in Bali we are digging deeper into our Ashtanga Vinyasa practice and seeing what further treasures we will find. It is this sense of ‘digging’ that relates very much to the ‘research’ that is conducted at the Ashtanga Yoga Bali Research Centre and the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore. There are no scientists in laboratories, or researchers buried with their noses in books. You are both the researcher and the object of research. Every day your job is to come to your mat and do your practice with awareness. In doing so you observe your breath, body and mind, see what comes up and investigate how this can be used to transform yourself to lead a more balanced and harmonious life.
Arriving in Bali after our experience in the Sivananda Ashram was a little shock to the system. To be honest after such an intense immersion in a spiritually charged environment, and the hectic pace of the Ashram schedule, anywhere would have been a bit of shock. However, unlike the Ashram schedule, our Ashtanga asana practice (Mysore style) with Prem and Radha was over by 10am. Unlike being in an Ashram or retreat centre, their Shala is a, err, Shala so you turn up, practice, enjoy a chat and a cooling, alkalising coconut and then the energy disperses as everyone leaves and the rest of the day is up to you. So Bali life took a bit of getting used to, alarmingly mostly due to all the free time we found ourselves with (how awful for us, we hear you cry) and the seeming temporary loss of purpose. We found ourselves drifting, missing the feel of an Ashram community, and longing for our learning to continue. But this longing for a return to Ashram life became a reminder of an important lesson in itself for us. One can become too attached or dependent on particular conditions for your spiritual practice, whether that be an ashram, a particular yoga class or teacher, or being in a beautiful, peaceful place in the mountains or by the sea. In doing so, we forget that, just as Prem and other teachers have taught, the answers lie within. At this point, we found ourselves being guided by the wise words of our teacher, Paul Dallaghan, who as fate bizarrely would have it we bumped into at the Sivananda Ashram in January: ‘Cherish the inner ashram’ he advised.
Nonetheless, we took a bit of time to settle in Ubud. Our own lack of routine gave us the first real feeling of missing our home and life in Dakar. Gentle reminders of home came in the form of a call to prayer being carried by the wind from the nearby temple every morning at 6am; instead of the Imam praising Allah, the Hindu priest was invoking the divine via the Gayatri mantra, accompanied by the tinkle of Balinese Kempul gongs. In the lush tropical greenery of our garden and surrounding area were many of the beautiful flowers and plants which we have at home in our garden in Dakar, such as bright pink bougainvillea and the Balinese equivalent of the mini Senegalese Baobab trees. It felt liberating to be back on a scooter again, wind rushing through our hair (and Ewan’s beard), reminding us of whizzing down the Corniche, Dakar’s coastal road. When we made a weekend trip out of town to Amed, on Bali’s eastern coast, we were overjoyed at being near the sea and it's expansive horizon again, and marveled at how different the calm placid waters compared to the ever turbulent waves of the Atlantic off Dakar's coastline.
It’s not as if Ubud is short of spiritual seekers or activities to fill your time with though. In addition to the Australian adventure seekers, Balinese artists and Chinese tour groups, a large percentage of foreigners in Ubud (especially since the book and film of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ were released) are single women trying to ‘find themselves.’ However, as someone said, ‘it is not a bad place to be if you are lost!’ Willowy ladies in colourful flowing clothing were everywhere, the rules and regulations of their home countries’ fashion police discarded with abandon, long hair piled up in ‘Shiva buns’, sipping on freshly squeezed watermelon, ginger and mint juices before drifting to sound healing sessions or massages, whilst the modern-day equivalent of wandering minstrels plucked guitars in street-side cafés, hoping to charm a lady or two. As we quickly discovered, there were more yoga classes and workshops than you would have time to, or even care to, attend. Typical classes advertised included: ‘Release yourself from your Ancestors’ (because obviously they're the ones holding you back from realising your dreams, right?)' ‘Awaken the King and Queen within’ and ‘Radical Forgiveness’, because sometimes normal or even extreme forgiveness is just not enough. Another workshop involved something along the lines of ‘drawing down the white hot tantra juicy energy into your bliss soul consciousness’, facilitated by none other than the Bliss Master himself. Seriously, we’re not making any of this up. In other words, more ‘healing modalities’ were on offer than you could shake a crystal healing rod at. Needless to say that applying one’s discriminatory faculties before parting with one’s precious dollars was essential.
As adaptable as humans are we inevitably got into the swing of things. We began to welcome the familiar smell of the pigsty we were met with upon arriving at or leaving our guesthouse. We enjoyed seeing and hearing the proud cockerel and his hens come trotting by, aimlessly pecking at the ground as we settled into our early morning pranayama and meditation practice before heading to class. We could guarantee that we would be paid a visit by Gordon the Gecko (yes, Wall Street reference…) upon our return in the evening, who without fail left behind a generous 'marker' in the exact same spot. Animals clearly love routine too! Not only were our Balinese hosts friendly, so too were pretty much every other Balinese person we met. It certainly made us wonder about the general friendliness of some cultures compared to others, and the reasons behind this. Our almost daily ‘commute’ on our scooter to Prem and Radha’s Shala took us over hills, through little villages, and past beautiful expanses of rice fields. The vivid green of the rice fields set against the crystal-clear blue sky was mesmerising, at least for Catherine; Ewan had to use all his powers of concentration to avoid the legions of seemingly suicidal dogs who took pleasure in stepping unexpectedly onto the road, and other enthusiastic scooter riders who had no fears overtaking on narrow bends. With time we got to know people we were practicing with at the Shala, and felt the warmth that such human connection brings. Stories were shared (often including reports on the latest massage or tarot reading) over long breakfasts, spoilt for choice in the wide array of Ubud’s eateries. Food became a major event for us and for many others in Ubud, to the extent we felt that the book Eat Pray Love should be renamed Eat Pray Eat! For a relatively small town, Ubud is simply overflowing with raw food cafes, vegetarian warungs (small eateries), and health food stores; imagine a place that only serves almond, cashew or soya milk with your coffee. No dairy here darling. This was a real treat for us, as options for vegetarians in Dakar’s dining 'scene' leave a lot to be desired.
After about 9 months of Ashtanga self-practice mostly at home in Dakar, practicing with Prem and Radha was just what we needed. Eagle-eyed, they worked the room tirelessly as we moved through our Mysore style self-practice, providing verbal cues and sensitive hands-on adjustments. With a focus on alignment they don't take any nonsense in their Shala. You can be sure if they see you practicing in a way that will be harmful to you in the long term or attempting a posture that you are not ready for you will know about it (and so will everyone else)! It was a good lesson in letting go of your own practice and surrendering to the instructions and guidance of a teacher. Prem’s familiar words every morning became a daily reminder that this practice is about more than just the asana: ‘Watch your breath, link it to the vinyasa count, watch your energy, observe any tendencies in the body and mind…otherwise all you are doing is gymnastics…’ Although a physically intense practice, intended to be practiced 6 days a week, the main focus of the work should be on the inside and should give you the energy needed to carry out the rest of your duties for the day. As David Swenson, another senior Ashtanga teacher has said: ‘a yogi is someone who leaves a place slightly nicer than when they found it’. The practice should be helping us to live in the real world and to leave it a better place, not exhausting us.
So how do you practice in a way that works with your energy, not against it? That supports your life rather than drains it? This is where the ancient Indian system of Ayurveda, the ‘Science of Life’, comes in. It is a complimentary sister science to yoga, whose aim is to restore balance to the mind and body. According to Ayurveda, each person is born with a unique combination of three bodily humors, the ‘doshas’: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These humors define a person’s temperament and characteristics, physical, mental and energetic. When these humors are in balance, good health will prevail; when they are out of balance, the risk of disease is heightened. To achieve balance, first you need to know what your unique constitution is and to see where any imbalances are. Based on this you can then make changes to your environment, diet, physical exercise and so on. Depending on your constitution certain foods, environments and practices will either help to keep you in balance or aggravate you and contribute towards imbalance. To give a practical example, Prem told us of Vata types who have come to the Shala (slim build, airy qualities, easily scattered minds…sounds like a lot of yogis…) who are living on raw food diets. In Ayurvedic terms, precisely because Vata types have a light airy quality to them, they generally need food that helps to ground and bring them back to earth. Dry, light salad simply isn’t going to do that and over the medium to long term could even be detrimental to their asana practice, draining them of their energy, as it is simply not giving them enough ‘juice.’
Prem and Radha are both long-term students of Ayurveda and are particularly interested in how its application can support your Ashtanga asana practice and vice versa. As relative newcomers to Ayurveda, we welcomed the opportunity to learn more from them and signed up for an Ayurvedic consultation. It felt like a sort of spiritual life-coaching session at the same time and gave us the opportunity to develop a closer connection with them both. We found them to be caring and supportive in a way that really complemented their straight-talking approach in the Shala. Being aware of your constitution and the likely triggers that may lead to imbalances can help you to prevent them before they knock you off course. A good example of this is travel, which can aggravate certain Vata characteristics as it involves movement and transitioning from one place to another. In order to help ground and settle, establishing a fixed routine and eating nourishing, wholesome cooked foods are helpful. In teaching asana classes, being aware of someone’s constitution can also help you to guide them in their practice. In simple terms, someone who is easily distracted (more Vata type), may need reminding to keep their attention focused, someone who is aggressively pushing through their practice (Pitta type) may need to be reminded to slow down and come back to the breath and someone who is slowly moving through their practice with less energy (more Kapha type) may need to be reminded to give their practice a bit more va-va-voom! Ayurveda reminds us that each individual is different and what might be appropriate for one person is different for someone else. Similarly in life, each of us is on our own path. Whilst compromises may need to be made along the way, we need to learn and listen in order to be true to what is right for us.
This brings us back to looking inwards. Prem and Radha were refreshingly honest about a personal tragedy they had recently experienced, breaking down the image of ‘perfection’ that students can sometimes ascribe to their teachers. They too are at the mercy of the whims of life, just like the rest of us. We are all here in this human body trying to make sense of and find meaning in life; to find ways of dealing with its ups and downs. As the title of Prem’s book indicates, buying a new car, winning the lottery or even doing a yoga course will never be the ‘answer’. It is the effort that we place on cultivating our inner life, the intention we put into everything we do. And how can one start to do this? Be the observer. Start to become aware of the habits of your mind. As this awareness grows you start to see where your mind is taking you. You are then in a more empowered position to choose whether to follow the mind’s meanderings or not.
How many of you are familiar with thinking about and making future plans? Most I'm sure. We spend a lot of our time living in the past or planning for the future, wondering where life will take us this year and to an extent trying to shape it according to what we think we want. Something we became more aware of during our time in Bali is how this desire to plan is so linked to a desire for certainty, and having what is really an illusory sense of control over our destinies. Whilst a certain amount of planning is needed in order to lead a somewhat functional life (!), the mind tends to happily grasp after any idea it can get hold of and just run with it, taking you down the metaphorical garden path. Unless you’re a landscape gardener this is not the most productive use of your mental energy. Next time this happens, try to observe where your mind takes you. Perhaps your mind is attaching to a particular idea because of a fear of some alternative that is harder to grasp, of ‘jumping into the abyss’. Time and again, we are advised to trust, to let go, to surrender. What does this really mean though? To let go of the need for certainty and control, perhaps. Could it be that the fear of the unknown and the subsequent desire to control that can lead us astray and away from listening to our intuition, to that voice inside of us? In reality, we have little control over external events, hence the importance of dedicating time internally and taking responsibility for how we think and act. The only way out is in!
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti-i
Catherine & Ewan x
For a really interesting interview with Prem where he discusses many of the topics touched on in this post, check out http://loveyogaanatomy.com/anthony-prem-carlisi-interview/
For more information on Prem and Radha’s Shala, check out http://www.ashtangayogabali.com/home/