Home is Where the Heart is… Ramblings from a 3 week yoga retreat

Where do you begin looking for something you’re not even sure exists? For as long as I can remember I’ve felt a very sad feeling inside me. It comes up a couple of times a day and I can only describe it as a feeling of home sickness. A longing that doesn’t actually disappear even when sitting with my family around the table at “home”. Could it be that home is a place I hadn’t yet discovered?

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Most of us spend our whole lives completely disconnected from our bodies, listening with great attention to our minds while our intuition slowly gets drowned out. Finding escape in superficial things that make us feel happy temporarily then forming dependencies based on fleeting glimpses of ecstasy. Turning to drugs, alcohol, shopping, false gurus, or a constant stream of destructive relationships only to be left wondering… Why can’t I just be content? I’ve travelled the world looking for a feeling, a feeling that over the last 3 weeks I have finally found within. Yoga is generally translated as “the union of mind, body and spirit” and through this ancient science and art form I am beginning the clichéd journey of self discovery to find my way home.

 

Teachers reveal themselves in the strangest places. So when I met Ana Kathrine Martins while volunteering on her permaculture farm in Peruibe Brazil, up to her ankles in horse poo, I felt this woman had a wealth of knowledge to share. I had no solid knowledge about the ancient teachings of yoga or how they could possibly pertain to my life or my quest, but as it turns out I was ready to learn and Ana was the person to open the door.

Our lessons would begin at 7.30am with 3 hours of asana (practicing the poses) followed by an amazing hot brunch, 2 hours of work on the farm, lunch, siesta, theory, more asana, breathing and meditation… Monday to Thursday for 3 weeks. I was nervous and excited but really had no idea what was in store. Before the course began we spent a week working on the farm and Ana lent me 3 very interesting books to whet my appetite and start me on my journey. The 1st was called “Awakening the Spine” by a beautiful woman called Vanda Skaravelli, one of the few Europeans to be trained by BKS Iyengar back in the 1930s. Skaravelli talks about the importance of gravity, the spine and listening to the teacher within, she also talks about the danger of organisations as yoga must be looked at as a personal introduction between our mind and body and ultimately our soul.

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My biggest personal barrier to practicing yoga and meditation was always one big question “Am I doing this right?” Skaravelli addresses this head on by encouraging us to listen to our inner teacher, so while it is important to learn the poses from a teacher who understands them and can help you to work within your own limitations, once you have this knowledge you can tailor the practice to suit your own life incorporating the other disciplines as you feel you need them.

Do not look at your body like a stranger, but adopt a friendly approach towards it. Watch it, listen to it, observe its needs, its requests, and even have fun. To be sensitive is to be alive.” – Vanda Scaravelli

The second book was called “The Body Has Its Reasons” by French women Thérèse Bertherat and Carol Bernstein. This book completely revolutionised my take on the way I use my body and the things I think I can’t do. The story is told beautifully through a series of case studies pertaining to adults who have imprisoned themselves in a body riddled with aches and pains. Physical scars from years of built up tensions and restrictions, from the head mistress who has a permanent crick in her neck from holding her chin in the power position, to the ex football star who can’t bend down and touch his toes because that was never in the game plan. The book opened my eyes to my own restrictions, for example the way I hold my breath to make my waist appear smaller or how my knees still turn in even though I have re-trained my feet from my pigeon toed childhood to apparently straight. Through closing our bodies we close our minds, we are all currently only peering through a crack, imagine how bright the future would be if we all just opened the curtains a little wider.

The 3rd book was called “Health, Healing and Beyond” a biography about the founding father of modern yoga Krishnamacharya, written by his best student and son DKV Desikachar. This book was a fantastic overview of the ancient science and philosophy of yoga which originated in India and has been handed down painstakingly through the generations. For anyone curious about the journey of yoga from the caves in the Himalayas to its current form, this book is invaluable. It outlines the teachings from the ancient Yoga Sutras (which were 1st written by Patanjali in the language of Sanskrit 200AD) and words them in an easy to understand format. It also outlines the magical life of Krishnamacharya as a teacher, a student, a father and a healer (November 18, 1888 – February 28, 1989).

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The poses (or asana) are the most popular and most widely practiced part of yoga in our western society. Asana means to stay or abide, so the poses are a tool to calm the mind and move closer to our true “essence of being”. Through sustained practice we learn how to challenge our body pushing our limitations and testing our patience, faith, concentration and nervous system using our physical body to override the mind and connect with the soul.

 

 

As well as the asana, I’ve now learnt there are actually 8 parts to the traditional yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras. When followed, these basic principles help to cultivate a life of lasting inner peace. Gradually taking the spotlight off the mind and bringing centre stage back to our instinct, enabling us to act from the heart, feeling more clarity and contentment living in the present moment. Patanjali’s teachings have been translated time and time again throughout the ages and are more relevant now than ever before. The ancient teachings work together to help us find balance, restoring order to our chaotic minds and lives. Summarised they are: 

  • Yama:  The 5 social and ethical guidelines
  • Niyama:  The 5 personal guidelines
  • Asana:  Physical poses to improve health and increase strength, flexibility and balance.
  • Pranayama:  Prana is the life force which can also be translated as breath, pranayama is controlled breathing
  • Pratyahara:  Control of the senses to reduce distraction from the temptations of the physical world
  • Dharana: Concentrating focus in a single direction
  • Dhyana:  Becoming one with the object of focus or meditation
  • Samadhi:  Enlightenment

Without going into a wordy explanation of each of these 8 principles I would like to outline the 5 Yama and 5 Niyama as I think these are the most important to practice on and off the mat:

YAMA: Social and Ethical guidelines

  1. Ahimsa – Compassion for all living things
    Ahimsa literally means not to hurt or harm, but to take this a step further it means practicing compassion. Adopting a sense of understanding for all sentient beings around us and taking time to do good things for each other.
  2. Satya – Honesty
    To be honest with yourself is the key to happiness, by holding in the truth we may be harming ourselves or even those around us. It is possible the truth may also cause more harm than good so it is paramount to assess the situation and decide if there is a compassionate way in which to deliver the message.
  3. Asteya – Non stealing
    This seems like a no brainer but it also extends to things like time or the attention of others. Being aware of what is given freely to us and what we are just taking for granted.
  4. Brahmacharya – Being faithful 
    By being faithful in our relationships we reserve our energy for positive encounters and protect our loved ones from unnecessary pain. I believe The Yoga Sutras focus more on the sexual energy side of things, but I believe it’s just bad for the soul to be unfaithful in any respect, in any of our relationships.
  5. Aparigraha – Taking only what is necessary
    In todays world there is a mad focus on having the most stuff. This Yama speaks about the dangers of hoarding and greed and encourages us to be respectful of resources taking nothing more than we need.

NIYAMA: Personal Guidelines

1. Sauca – Purity
The first niyama is sauca, meaning purity and cleanliness. Sauca needs to be addressed both inside and outside, not only paying attention to our hygiene but also to the toxic emotions we poison our bodies with.

2. Santosa – Contentment
Being happy with what we have rather than unhappy with what we don’t have. Practicing acceptance and gratitude for everything we have been blessed with and accepting that everything really does happen for a reason.

3. Tapas – Feeling the heat
Tapas can be translated as “to heat the body and therefore to purify”. This is the practice of using physical activity before acting on impulse, giving us space to put our inner urges into perspective. Attention to body posture,  eating habits and to breathing patterns are also tapas.

4. Svadhyaya – Self study
Svadhyaya is the practice of observing our own habits and realising our strengths and restrictions. It is important to recognise self destructive habits and to listen to that little voice in our head, if you were to speak your thoughts out loud for an hour and record them what would you change?

5. Isvarapranidhana – Celebration of the Spiritual
Another big lesson for me was how to accept God. I’ve always associated faith and God with the terrors of religion. I’m now OK with admitting the fact that there is a lot happening behind the scenes that I can’t see, and that science can’t yet explain. There is a force much bigger than myself. This Niyama is to do with setting time aside each day to ponder this fact, with the goal of reconnecting with the part of this force that is within all of us.

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This all sounds a bit abstract I know, but throughout the 3 weeks I realised these things all feed into each other and each one is open to personal interpretation. It’s crazy to think how much time and energy we all put into finding happiness when really, if we set aside time to practice being actively compassionate and kind to ourselves and others we couldn’t possibly feel blue.

So, after 3 weeks with Ana I have walked away with amazing posture, a structured way to improve myself as a human being and I feel I have found my purpose. She taught us how to weave all of this into our daily lives. She showed me how to properly align my body in order to find balance and strength in the postures. How to let go and breathe fully and how to correct my crooked knees. She taught me to adapt my practice to suit my ability on the day, if life was chaotic maintain regularity, if life was dull and repetitive introduce new challenges. Meditation could be attained over time with sitting eventually becoming easier through practicing the asana. Most importantly she taught me how to be still and to reach home.

I also gained 3 amazing new friends who, after taking this epic once in a life time journey with I will forever cherish. These gifts are priceless so everyday I will start my practice with thoughts of gratitude and never forget how lucky I am to have all the world’s treasures at my fingertips!

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