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We Made the Cut!

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This photo of four red-billed oxpeckers was selected as one of the top 15 guest photos taken at Londolozi during 2014.

I can’t believe it.

Click the image to view some astounding pics.

Our Top 120 on Flickr

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A recent look at our top 120 album on flickr revealed a lot of changes. Photos from our recent trip to South Africa abound, but many of the classics from previous trips are still represented. This photo of Tiger 24, a 250 kg male, taken in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India is still #1 after nearly four years. Click the tiger to view the album. Enjoy.
Tiger24

Balancing Practice and Life

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Not too long ago, I received a question asking about practice and ageing. Without going into the details, I answered that since ageing affects each person differently, it all depends on the individual’s energy level measured against one’s responsibilities off the mat.

I replied that if you feel like practice is exhausting, depleting or leaving you without the energy to fulfill your other life responsibilities and activities, then it’s time to look at whether your practice suits you or whether you have pigeonholed yourself into a practice that is no longer appropriate.

Then, I thought that this is good advice for anyone in just about any circumstances, not just with respect to ageing. It can apply to school, work, family and traveling to name a few.

Ultimately, the question is one of balancing Practice and Life and it made me think of two attitudes on the uses and benefits of yoga practice.

On one hand, there is the attitude that practice needs to be intense and challenging so it can press our buttons, shake us up and give us insight into the workings of our minds, emotions, etc. Put another way, practice needs to produce a lot of tapas to be effective. In this case, practice is a crucible for our personal evolution and the breaking down of old, conditioned responses and patterns. The catch is that this type of practice is very high maintenance and can be very tiring because of the tapas generated.

One of the great things about taking practice at KPJAYI in Mysore is the ability to “leave everything on the mat” because there are very few if any other commitments outside of practice. It doesn’t matter how tired we are because we can dedicate a lot of time to taking care of ourselves afterwards. Without the burdens of running a yoga shala or holding down a job, we have a lot more time to rest and recuperate. Nevertheless, trips to Mysore end and we all return home eventually and have to reintegrate into our “real” lives.

As best I can, I’d like to preempt comments from Ashtanga parents who will assert that, since starting a family, their days in Mysore post-practice are no longer simply about long rest and recuperation. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that your days in Mysore with your family are radically different from how they were before you had children. That said, from discussions with parents in Mysore, it still seems like things are relatively more relaxed than they are back home where one has to juggle jobs, shalas, kid’s activities etc.

On the other hand, one can also approach practice in a way that it functions as a support to our daily routines and responsibilities. Practice would still give us an awareness of where our minds and emotions are as well as keeping us honest about what we’re thinking and feeling. However, it would leave us with enough energy to fulfill our other responsibilities.

There must be balance between these two attitudes.

A person who tries to leave it all on the mat without budgeting the time and energy required to fulfill one’s other responsibilities will probably find oneself unemployed, injured, sick, burned-out or any combination of the above.

That said, a yoga practice that isn’t enough of a challenge could start to feel empty or boring. Without enough tapas, our time on the mat isn’t going to serve the role of practice. Put another way, practice needs to be challenging enough to create the conditions for awareness and insight without exhausting us. If taking it easy were a viable yoga practice, we’d all be enjoying long hot bubble baths rather than sweating on our mats.

Holding down a job, raising a family, having meaningful relationships automatically create tensions between practice and life. Practice requires a level of intensity to be practice but without being so intense that we cannot function off our mats. It’s a duality and a paradox, but certainly not the only one that exists for the Ashtanga practitioner. Ashtanga Yoga forces us to recognize, integrate and find balance between many dualities such as Strength vs. Flexibility or Determination vs. Non-attachment.

Finding a happy medium so we can have a meaningful practice and a meaningful life off the mat is just another balancing act that we can master if we remain open to the idea of change and adaptation.

It’s not uncommon to falsely approach practice as a set-in-stone collection of asanas that remains constant. As yoga teachers, we will often say “no matter what is going on in your life, practice. It will benefit you.” But what does that really mean? If we consider the act of showing up on our mats and the generation of tapas as the important factor rather than the specific asanas we perform as yoga practice, we can find balance and practice diligently without exhausting ourselves or driving ourselves crazy with false expectations.

The Expectation of an Easy Asana

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In a previous post, I wrote at length about how to approach kapotasana, a difficult backbend from Ashtanga’s Intermediate Series.

On the Sunday that this video was taken, I was tired, my body was stiff and the asanas were very challenging. It led me to think a little after practice about what it means to be “comfortable” and “consistent” in an asana, especially in one that is difficult and brings up a lot of physical, mental and/or emotional triggers. It also got me to thinking about how we can deceive ourselves into equating ease in an asana with the elimination of physical sensation.

After having practiced for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen many asanas become easier as my body changed in the sense that I don’t have as much negative physical sensation as when I started. I have also, however, accepted that some asanas might always be difficult. Having proficiency or even mastery of a posture does not mean that there will be an absence of physical sensations, thoughts or feelings which may not be positive. When students have asked me whether such and such asana will ever be “easy”, I say that it might still be physically challenging but it will be easier because it won’t cause the mental and emotions stress that it once did. “Easy” does not imply an absence of sensations. After all, we have central nervous systems so not feeling isn’t an option in this world.

So, how do we find comfort and consistency?
We can find comfort in an asana by learning to use only as much energy as necessary. If we use too much effort, it adds stress to the body and restlessness to the mind (chitta). It’s no coincidence that Sharath will say to relax when he’s giving someone a deep backbend. If we can relax, even a little, the asana becomes more comfortable.  For each individual in each asana, there is an optimal energy level that achieves “comfort” in the pose. Like I suggested above, comfort is not an absence of sensations or thoughts, it is the ability to hold the pose without generating stress despite the existence of strong sensations, thoughts and emotions.

The optimal amount of energy used in an asana is facilitated through correct regulated breathing. Over time, proper breathing also works to stabilize and strengthen the mind. Unregulated breathing makes the mind unsteady and increases any difficulties we have in challenging asanas. Activated bandhas and focussed dristhi are equally important to reduce strain and effort in difficult asanas.

Consistency comes slowly over time as we learn to manage the levels of sensation we are experiencing without panic, judgement or commentary. We gain a level of equanimity from doing an asana repeatedly and learning to breath correctly. Ultimately, we learn to trust that we can do an asana despite the strong sensations. We also internalize that we can do an asana despite how we are feeling (energetic vs tired) or despite the weather (January polar vortex vs July heat wave) or any of a myriad reasons that our minds get agitated.

Some practices will be harder than others for any number of reasons but we can still do difficult asanas if we use our breath, bandhas and drishti to minimize effort and strain and to keep the mind focussed.

What Are The Differences Between An African and Indian Elephant?

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Zimbabwe Elephants 2007

Ever wondered what are the differences between elephants in Africa and India? Look no further…

Click here.

In Search of Leopards – Londolozi Blog Post

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Marthly Male Leopard

I wrote a short piece for the Londolozi Blog sharing my four night safari experience back in September.

Man, I can’t wait to get back there.

Click the image to read.

Whale Coast Photos Posted

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We have posted an album of our photos from the Whale Coast of South Africa. We spent four nights based in Hermanus, a small town 120 km southeast of Cape Town. It’s a beautiful part of the Western Cape with mountains, ocean and amazing scenery.

It is the final album from our trip to South Africa.

Click the image to view the album.
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