For more than 37 years I have practiced yoga, and yet still I feel I am learning another language. It takes me by surprise, as things that are new often do. This language, this series of poses, is fresh, alive, requiring a different way of entering into the conversation. We can certainly box yoga into a continuation of all of our habits, but the body is forever changing, it is fluid, affected by everything – temperatures, people, illness, moods and thoughts. It shows strengths and weakness. But it is absolutely who we are. And it longs to communicate with us.
And am I bored with this yoga practice after all this time? Yes, my mind can be resistant, but when the knee bends and I begin taste, then NO. . I still want to enter this world of mystery. The mystery of me and our world, the micro and the macrocosm.
The words yoga and practice can sound like a fixed thing, until the components of body/mind/soul enter into the equation. It is then we find how little we know and so we must dance and play with a beginner’s mind. Listening to her strange language is fascinating and revealing. The way she holds fear, anger, or heals, or doesn’t heal. The way she travels through time. What gets relinquished, what is gained, and lost. When we stand on the mat to start, a gear change happens as we notice the mind and her habits of knowing everything, entering into the deep and often silent waters of the body. We are artists facing a blank page, explorers looking into the unknown.
It is a language that is not familiar so mostly what happens, as in any power differential, is we become like the dominant person in a conversation, taking over before the other has finished, or even started. We use only one channel, the mind, and there we find in words and thoughts our already formed ideas. The body gives us a language like space – timeless, quiet, still, fierce, strong.
Somehow we need to ask our childlike selves along as we begin to play, to respond, to be curious, and to not already have the solution in our minds. We need to set out into the deep with our fears and prejudices, and be ready to be turned and turned around into the dance of faith, openness.
Join us for the next spring intensive and bring the joy and freedom of mind back into your yoga. Come and taste the joy.
I taught a class at Carriageworks. It was a soil installation by Asad Raza called Absorption. Walking into the space was to find a room full of dirt … 300 tonnes of it! But the dirt was not just dumped and left as if dirt was just an idea . It was loved nurtured, combed (raked) air stroked through it, fed all sorts of amazing things as needed and had her ph levels tested daily. She had headphones attached to her so we could hear her vibrating sounds.
We took off our shoes. ‘Yes’, we were stepping on sacred ground. We began our ‘prayer’, our asana.
And the sacred ground sang to us, perfumed our deeper senses into her, each of us feeling her life bringing us home to our real selves. She held our bodies, stilled and settled our feet, found us. We come from this earth and we shall go back to her. How sweet and lovingly she greets us.
This was some special experience of earth!
Ode to Dirt
Something niggles, under the settlement of your everyday eyes. Do you really believe that you are connected to everything around you and that in each moment we are in airwaves of communication?
What arrives in the email box, what song, what sight, calls to you? Do you believe that what stirs your heart, speaks to you, could have meaning? Indeed could be especially calling to you, meeting the hook in you that asks for its pair in that moment, showing you the way, now?
No matter how clogged and invaded the airwaves, there is a sigh, the beatings of desire, calling us home.
What is a teacher, one who is not able to walk on the path so they show others? Or someone who is so tuned to their own steps, they say ‘look, see this, hear that?’ They delight is in the walking. They want students to walk too, to have courage so their hearts will brave to look, feel and know.
What is the student, one who wants to be told what to do? Or one who asks for a guide, one who says ‘yes, you have walked ahead of me, you can show me so I can wake the teacher inside’. Love is something we may have felt at a mother’s breast, or in a kindness, or that very moment when we feel the messenger say ‘come, come this way…. You are beloved.’
Yoga is for path walkers, whatever age or state.
To become a teacher is to become a professional path walker. Light footed and free, ready to meet the student because you are student. When I hear of how much will I get.. or no, it must be this and way and not that, then we must open our ears to the messenger, come, now show us how to proceed. Find your path, listen to it, don’t turn the path into you, let the path open you into becoming a student of living.
We turn everything into ourselves and then complain it is not satisfying. Of course not, we long in our being for the other. Not ourselves.
Geeta Iyengar has passed on the 16th December, 2018, she was 74 years old.
I have learnt about life at this woman’s feet. Today what I know is that it is not what I leant but the transformational impact of that person. My emotions, my grief and loss are separate, in a way only my own. She changed the world around around her by who she was and how she lived. In the small mind when someone is alive we constantly have small communications, about how things are done what we like or dislike, how we are interrupted or helped. We are all like this, despite words like non attachment, love and respect.
When the big mind is freed we can see Reality.
My teacher was one of those, a big mind, a Reality teacher. If there was an interest in the knee or alignment it was so that we were transformed, not so that we corrected our small mind. Our knee is painful and we want it not to hurt, so she went there, correcting and adjusting, so that we could get on, understand the power of this thing called yoga, which we know so little about. Our small mind knows much about everything, but to taste the Big Mind it is a matter of Grace and jumping off. We must relinquish ourselves, our small knowing mind to the other, a teacher, to God.
With Geeta you could smell the Big Mind, catch the fragrance, feel the light. Our souls were awakened. We necessarily be pulled through the small mind, focusing on anger, discomfort, but what we were discovering was that there is pain in light. For all of us, the teacher included. Nothing smooth or sweet. This is a transmission of fire. Save your life, wake up from your small preoccupations that close our ears so that we cannot hear, or our eyes that will not see. We want to see and hear only what fits in our known world, she raged no, look deeper.
Geeta was pure and somehow innocent. But she could identify the shopkeeping minds that we have in the west, happy with what we can collect on the outside, confusing this with the inner transformation. She was not distracted but focused, she had made her choice long ago at sixteen, it was Yoga, a solitary simple path with no husband or children or gold around her neck.
I think we imagine yoga as a small thing, but it was about life, transformation, integrity. It was how we live, breathe, always with the transcendent as the focus. That is all. She only had to go deeper.
She was re reading her fathers books seeing more and more what lie there. She was always able to get out of the way, as students who loved her sometimes we wished she wouldn’t. We were full of ourselves and she was busy with the act of emptying. We were filling up, perhaps interested in becoming something/someone, using yoga, she was walking the other way, into the relinquishment.
That was a force to feel. Our small minds want everything kept small, even the other.
We don’t know another, so we make things up, make them familiar to our world. She was not familiar, she did seem to follow rules about how she should behave, to be nice and palatable, she just taught. She was not our friend, there was no stickiness.
She showed me God. I had always had God as my centre, but she lived a religious life in the sense of her identification. It was how she spoke about things, rarely using the G word in the beginning, more toward the end, but it was the simplicity of her orientation. She was walked the path of the pilgrim, as a woman, as a yogi, as a Hindu, a path that is the same for all who seek this way. It took me a lot of time and re calibration inside myself to see this. She stretched us into ourselves, often not gently, or so that we could happily understand, nor that we could be at ease with with what we found out about ourselves, she was not a familiar.
On a cellular level in the silence of a being, we knew. We were not being taken the path of understanding, we were not her candidates for her blue book in steps for a teacher in developing body wisdom, we were thrown from cliffs, forced into long silences with ourselves, left empty and exhausted, but simple.
Over a long time she uncomplicated yoga. I never had any words for what was happening to me, I wanted to be able to speak and explain but I couldn’t. There was the outside changing of the body, the wonders one feels when you begin to feel well oiled and light, but it was on the inner layer that I had no idea. I was not becoming a better person, a good person, I was becoming a cellular person, feeling spaces and movements, stillness and presence. I was also learning about inhabiting the body of a woman, inhabiting a world that was emotionally and intellectually connected to that body. We often break this up into things about us, like mensuration or menopause, or childbearing. But these were the surface things, inside I was learning about the cellular tension of being a woman. What did woman need emotionally, mentally, how did their wombs respond to this and that. The wiring of us as women.
I know that we could only go to these places because she had travelled the path.
She was my light, my teacher, and she was my companion. She was what I will never have words for, she could somehow show us that words were thin, experience was all. She was in all senses a student of her Guru, also her father, she was a woman who was born to look straight into the light, a teacher to show others that light.
Our little village where we stay has thickened, there are more rooftops, less rice paddies. Yet arriving in the night, the fragrance is in the air and the quiet penetrates. I feel welcomed.
I wait to start, first with the teachers who are training, and then the retreat proper. So a day later we begin, early in the soft morning light, the sounds of waking birds dense. The ducks, now happily freed from their night resting place, plonk into the pond, splashing, playing and then shaking their little tails, spreading their wings, nudging each other, always together, never just one.
We too are freed from the normal life. People are tired from travel, but there is a lightness too. We start by opening the windows in the body, making some space to move into, looking for some freedom. We move quite quickly, negotiating the inner barricades looking for ways around and not into. Finding the thread of the energies.. going with them, letting them loose. Where is the support? What windows are needed to be opened, the groins, side body, arm pit chest… what else?
Beginning to taste some freedom, our eyes lift higher. We can listen, respond to the inner process of negotiation.
Five days later the retreat begins, bringing fresh new blood, a mixed group, no longer only teachers and trainees. The old and the new working together. It takes some negotiating, it is always a bit overwhelming a new group, everyone seems to take up so much room before they shrink into the size of a mat. We all have to arrive again, begin again and we often exhilarated by what we learn from each other.
Isn’t it the time now for these dialogues? In yoga, yes, in the different spiritualities, religions, countries, homed people and those without. Men and women. I am always amazed to see animals of different species ready to look out for each other, use and enjoy each other. We need the other, they take us out into the wild, wooly yet graced life. Nothing is fixed, isn’t it wonderful, how yoga wants to stretch us?
If it is chariots or sandals,
I’ll take the sandals.
I like the high prow of the chariot,
The daredevil speed, the wind
A quick tune you can’t
But I want to go
A long way
And I want to follow
paths where wheels deadlock.
And I don’t want always
To be among gear and horses,
Blood, foam dust.
To wean myself from their strange allure.
The pilgrim sandals.
– Denise Levertov
I was moved to read the story of the American Yogi Maty Ezraty, who died suddenly this week aged 55.
Maty’s life was about yoga, she founded a business that became very successful, but what was interesting to me was her clarity and simple open hearted response to yoga and the life she made around it. She thought about it, she did not tie herself into any way which restricted her capacity to be a practitioner/teacher, her intuitive sense and her love and understanding of what yoga was about. She taught how she believed, that yoga will open us, and she was not daunted by the politics of how or what should be taught. She believed in helping others, embracing the wonder of what yoga can be for all of us, a liberating experience. She was not restricted to any given way, but pursued the way that would allow people’s lives to be transformed.
I believe this is what we need everywhere, in yoga, in religions, in our countries, and in our ordinary lives. Let kindness and open heartedness prevail. We can easily get caught up in the political speak of any situation, become meshed in ideas of right and wrong, and forget the bigger picture, losing sight of the thing itself, the attraction that drew us in the first place.
Maty did not have a long life, as we often imagine we will have if we do yoga, but it was a life lived with an inner freedom that served others. It is the freedom of the mind we are after in yoga, not only the fit and healthy body. There is a cost, there is an effort, and it is not a small cost only, but one that is risky and challenging, and requires our participation. Living in a frightened and restricted way, with ourselves as the centre, is not the practice of yoga. Yoga is a practice of opening our hearts and minds.
We have to work for this freedom, and it takes time. We have to keep our eyes open, particularly to the movements of our heart, opening and closing, we cannot become numb and lost and so caught up that we don’t care.
I experienced this in the retreat to Bali this year, which was wonderful. It was strong, in the sense of people working, focusing, letting go, and then finding the benefits of their focus. We worked on all levels, but with a joy and freedom which was striking, bringing an uplifting, delightful lightness as each us moved into exterior, and interior new spaces. So much of everything we do is aided by how we set out and the willingness to say “Yes”.
Each year I step away from my life to work and travel in distant lands. I come to work in a very large retreat house, living and working with people from many different nationalities and orientations. I am always pulled up by the need to let go if we are to work together. Many moods and disturbances can happen from moment to moment in this hardworking environment, yet we keep going on, and everything can change from one meal to another. Humans working together are a powerful source. I like and dislike, I am pleased or hurt, but really… so what?… the next day comes and there is work to do, and each and every interaction changes me.
Bali is like that too, day in and out we do the sitting and the asana, our inner sense of ourselves is disturbed and challenged. When we turn up our focus is on our likes and dislikes, our personal needs. Then, with the ritual of sitting and practice and some silence, the routine grabs hold of us, our small self slips a bit and we are away. There is a generosity that a yoga practice teaches, towards ourselves and our limitations, and then toward the other. There is a pleasure in working, and soon we have a little community, no longer individuals doing their own thing. We make something bigger than ourselves which holds us.
This is a real joy and one worthy of the effort that each will make.
It is autumn and the leaves must fall for their tree to flourish next year and for the roots to be nourished. The days shorten and the air grows colder so this renewal can take place. We can find that we want to go back into our shelter, back to what we know, the familiar body, into our own house, to the Australia with a reliable weather pattern.
But it is not going to be so.
In the changing seasons, in the unknown, in changing bodies, we are pulled up. A mind set emerges that could have always lain there. But we discover this is a habit that is now dead, out of date, no longer useful. We are changing. We must let go.
Gandhi, when he moved from India to Britain to become a lawyer, wanted to look like an English gentleman. When he walked with his people across India as a way of empowering his brothers and sisters, demonstrating to the English that they must leave, he walked in a simple dhoti, woven from the cloth that he had spun. It was not costly fabric (in human life and dignity) that the poor of India, living in horrific poverty and degradation were killing themselves to weave for the English. He had changed, radically. His moral landscape was entirely different from the one he had started out with and he used a very different compass to that which the younger man navigated with.
We walk a tension as a learner on the yoga path.
We are beginners always in our yoga life, but when we start we are like Gandhi, wanting to make an impression, do well enough, use yoga for our benefit. But you can be taken by surprise, by what lies beneath our shiny, hopeful exterior; our “can do’ attitude may not be enough. We find a resistance, a current that is deeper, that has to be met. It is in no way shiny or hopeful, but fearful or angry, disturbed even. Something has to be faced.
This is the time when we start to work, when we step onto the path. We may be surprised by the joy of the habit of ‘yes’, this is what I do, the faith already there in the way of practice.
The rift may go deeper though, the commitment young and only beginning to take hold, the muscles not strong enough to hold. There is then slippage, and stories emerge about why not, why we should not practice. We can feel isolated, alone, and unable to shift. This is when the family of humans around us can give us courage to step back on the mat. There they are, still doing it. There is that teacher still turning up. We are all the same, we will suffer and work through similar periods of often great adjustments.
I read these words this week and they stayed with me. They are useful for any time of life. They are a practice of living. They are words to live by when any part of you is facing a death.
Don’t wait. [Step fully into life. Be present.]
Welcome everything, push away nothing. [Turn toward your suffering.]
Bring your whole self to the experience.
Find a place of rest in the middle of things. [For example, focus on your breath.]
Cultivate don’t know mind. [Practice a beginner’s openness, curiosity, and humility.]
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “To leave the world a bit better, whether by healthy child, a garden patch, or redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you live—that is to have succeeded.”
Is that enough for you?
Reflections of students and teachers on the teaching path.
Jeff Steel is currently an Iyengar teacher in training, although he has been teaching yoga for a very long time. Here, Jeff shares with us what being a yoga practitioner, first and foremost, is all about and his experience after practice one day…
I would like to share my personal reaction to an afternoon inversion sequence I practiced after a morning backbend class. I often feel the calming effects of inversions, but on this occasion I was particularly affected by an intense backbend practice earlier in the day. My body was tired but my mind was racing and agitated. In the past, a very poor night’s sleep would follow!
I did an afternoon restorative inversion sequence at home. The sequence is detailed below. Whilst doing the sequence, I felt the morning backbends gave me deeper access to the inversion asanas whilst the practice of Salamba Sarvangasana, Halasana and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana calmed my nervous system and mind. I was particularly struck by the contrast in my state of mind before and after the practice.
Perhaps the restorative practice effects were amplified by my intention to calm my breath and mind before stating and during the practice. As Caroline has often said, the inversions are the centrepiece of an Iyengar yoga practice. Personal experiences of the effects of asanas keep me returning to the mat.
Inversion Restorative Sequence
Ardho Mukha Viraasna
Supta Baddha Konasana
Ardho Mukha Svanasana
Uttanasana (head supported)
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Yoga teacher training
Being in the teacher training program with Caroline Coggins over the past 3 and half years has been an incredible and rewarding journey.
I had been practicing yoga under the guidance of Claire Havey for about 10 years. When Claire asked if I would like to start teacher training, I said yes. I joined Caroline Coggins teacher training program really wanting to deepen my practice and understanding of yoga but not really being sure about being a teacher; this seemed a far away and such a distant possibility.
I remember the first training program weekend I attended and the moment when Caroline asked me to teach a pose. I was terrified and I couldn’t think. I was so nervous, unsure, how to take the pose from my head and translate that into teaching: What to say? How to say it? How to demonstrate? How to convey to others?
To teach at that moment turned everything inside out; taking the knowledge from the inside and conveying this to the outside and then taking information back in again. It was involution and then evolution, going in and then out and then back over and over …
Struggles and obstacles
I had many struggles on the journey to becoming a certified teacher and still have these struggles; self-consciousness, self doubt, fear, trying to find my voice and how to find a connection with students, how to be present to the teaching, to be able to see, hear, feel, and then take the right action.
Something Caroline often said during the program is “how do you get out of your own way?”. That is how do you not become your own obstacle and inhibit your teaching and how do you work with students to integrate the teachings; how to create a shared experience? how to be there for the students?
Not getting caught up in the negative voices and the insecurity has been a personal struggle for me and Caroline has helped to guide me and to realise the importance of the yoga practice a core basis to becoming a teacher and also how do stay with the students.
Caroline wrote to me before my assessment and delivered some important advice on teaching which is so vital..she said “let it make a true difference”, “stay with them deepen them keep seeing them…only them and forget yourself”. These words resonated deeply, yes I have to forget myself to be able to teach.
Teach from the heart
One of the first things written in “Basic Guidelines for Teachers of Yoga” written by Guruji and Geeta S. Iyengar is “Teach from the heart and not the brain”. I think that is so beautiful and true. How do I teach from the heart? What does that look and feel like? I know this is what Caroline Coggins does and she works so hard to impart to her students and trainees and I believe this is really the true challenge of teaching is how to create a heart to heart connection.
The process to certification is thorough and onerous but I suppose it has to be. Being a teacher of the Iyengar way is a huge responsibility and I feel honoured to be on this journey. There are hundreds of hours of training, practice, assisting, reading, reflection and teaching which help to build a balance between these elements of learning and then these elements can be slowly and steadily be integrated into teaching.
How to understand from the self first and then move to external, to move and connect with others and then to go together. The certification just feels like another beginning and another step on the journey with lots of side steps, trips and stumbles I am sure to be found along the way.
I think what I have realised is how many people around me have been there and supported me on the path to certification and this makes such a difference.
I feel so grateful to have such wonderful teachers, I sincerely thank my teachers, Caroline Coggins and Claire Havey. Also I am thankful to be part of such amazing yoga communities at East Redfern Yoga Institute and Half Moon Yoga. The support from teachers, fellow trainees and students is incredible; this is belonging.
As Guruji and Geeta Iyengar outline in “Basic Guidelines for Teachers of Yoga: students are a special gift as the students teach the teacher and help the teacher to be a better teacher, so I especially thank the students who have helped me to learn and been on the journey with me over the past few years and hope will be into the future.
I feel blessed for the love of my partner, children, family and friends, this means so much on the yoga journey; to be connected to each other and be there for each other is so important and to learn how to love..this helps to open the heart.
I hope to keep learning and to be the best teacher I can be. I want to be able to serve and contribute and to make a difference where I can and to always keep on learning and growing. Thank you to Gurujii for being the overall guiding light and to Patanjali for the art, science and philosophy of yoga which has been passed down over thousands of years and which can show the way for all of us.
From my heart
If you’re interested in Teacher Training with Caroline Coggins, go to the Advanced Learning Pathways.