Hey friends! It’s been a while since I had the time to write much since I have started a new job in London and have been moving house etc. etc. Been a super busy bee!
But I did manage to squeeze in a quick trip to Paris in August to see my hero, Gregor Maehle, and I simply must tell you about my experience! Many of you will know that I am a huge fan of Gregor’s books and his teaching/practice approach to Ashtanga yoga so it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
The workshop was hosted at a studio called Yoga Colibri in Saint Denis. We had 5 days with Gregor to enjoy, 8-11 in the mornings and then 2:30 – 5 in the afternoons. I got into a nice little routine: kriya, asana and pranayama in our morning class, followed by brunch with my boyfriend somewhere in Paris at around 11:30. Then a stroll around a museum or a garden before heading back to the studio for our afternoon philosophy class…it’s a tough life you guys but someone’s gotta do it!
I could truly bang on forever about the things I have learned from Gregor but here are some of my highlights from this workshop in particular.
1) De-mystifying pratyahara
One of the lesser-discussed limbs of Ashtanga yoga is pratyahara. Until I started studying Gregor’s books I couldn’t really tell you how to practise this – it was pretty much just an abstract idea. The textbook definition is “gaining mastery over your senses” and although it might sound a bit fluffy, there’s actually a very scientific method behind it…
Out of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, pratyahara, is limb number 5. It acts as the gateway between the “outer” aspects of yoga (yamas, niyamas, asana and pranayama) and the “inner” aspects (dharana, dhyana and samadhi). Without mastering pratyahara it will be impossible to fully experience and practise those higher limbs. I don’t know about you but I’m all about that higher-limbed life! So let me explain how this works in my own words…
Your senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing) are designed to constantly search for external stimuli to help you navigate the world. Your ears are constantly listening for sounds and your nose is always on standby to detect new smells. Even when you close your eyes your eyeballs twitch around in their sockets and your tongue subconsciously flicks around your mouth searching for tastes! And I’m sure you’ve experienced fidgety hands before – our hand love to explore the textures of different objects even when we’re not aware of it.
This means precious prana (our life force energy) is constantly being scattered out into the external world, which will prevent success in meditation. How can we make sure that all our attention, energy and prana is being directed towards the inner world when we are trying to access the higher limbs?
Turns out there are a set of simple mudras that can be incorporated into meditation that will help to “bind” your senses and do just that! For more detail on these mudras, Gregor’s book “Yoga Meditation” is the place to go.
2) Samadhi is your birth right
I was listening to the Ashtanga Dispatch podcast recently (which is amazing by the way) and heard something that made me stop and think. It was in an episode with Peg Mulqueen (the host of the podcast) and Sharath Jois and the conversation went something like this:
Sharath: When Jnana comes in you, you can go different levels, your thought process will change actually and you can go to higher levels of yoga and realise the true nature of your birth, your existence here, what is the purpose of your existence here, why you are here. So all these thoughts will come and all this realisation will happen. That is called the self-realisation. And self-realisation you can’t get it from outside, it has to come from within you.
Peg: Megan just looked at me and she said “But how do you get to those levels!” [I think Megan is Peg’s daughter]
Sharath: Sadhana – sadhana is not regular just practice- your thought process has to change in you…your perception towards this life, all this has to change.
I found this interesting because I used to ask that question all the time “But how do you get there?”, meaning those elusive higher limbs of yoga and self-realisation. I just assumed that they must be reserved for someone much more spiritual than me as I could never understand the responses I got from gurus like Sharath.
When you hear Sharath speak, I bet sometimes you feel like he is privy to something you aren’t? I believe that’s because he was brought up in Indian culture and therefore it’s difficult for him to comprehend life without a relationship with God. So his instructions on “how to get to those levels” won’t be overly helpful unless you are already close to God – the rest of us have a little more work to do if we want to “realise our true nature”.
We have to practise, practise, practise. Asanas, pranayama, kriyas, Kundalini and Samadhi meditations. We are told this in every ancient yogic text but we have a hard time translating it into useable instructions because the context in which it’s written is so far from how we live today.
Thankfully somebody familiar with our Western shortcomings was dedicated enough to trawl through all of these ancient texts and put together a manual for us to follow! Yes you guessed it, Gregor Maehle. Pick up his book on Samadhi first and then read backwards through Yoga Meditation, Pranayama and then the asana books last. You’ll see how neatly each of the 8 limbs fit neatly into the others like “Russian dolls” and exactly how to practise them every day. The answer to Meg’s question is now in the front of my mind all the time: my practice has focus and clarity.
It turns out Samadhi is not reserved for Indian sadhus or Tibetan monks. It can be practised and experienced by anyone willing to put in the effort to practise with commitment and devotion for a long long time.
3) Pranayama is powerful and needs to be approached with care
The purpose of practising pranayama goes way beyond its health benefits. A daily practice of exercises like nadi shodhana, kumbhaka and bhastrika can (and should!) be used to raise Kundalini energy. This is an important step in working your way towards practising Samadhi.
But go too fast too soon and pranayama can do more harm than good. If you have energy blockages in some of your chakras (most of us do) then you have to address these first before trying to raise Kundalini. This is far from an abstract instruction – just read Gregor’s Meditation book as he explains how you do this step by step.
If you force Kundalini energy to awaken quickly without working up to it, then you may encounter adverse effects. I experienced this first hand when I overdid it with kumbhakas. I thought I was being super conservative with my timings but one session of pranayama triggered quite a severe period of anxiety for me. It was the first time I had ever experienced panic attacks and it happened after I had increased the length of my kumbhaka when I clearly wasn’t ready.
Gregor talks about a similar experience after a holotropic breathwork session that led him into a severe depression. Holotropic breathwork is like doing bhastrika continuously until you experience a mystical state, which seems like a typical impatient Western approach to mysticism! It’s clear that pranayama is not to be taken lightly and we should be careful to build up our practice over time to avoid overdoing it.
4) Don’t resist Ishvara pranidhana
If you’ve read any of Gregor’s books you’ll know just how much emphasis he puts on the importance of “Ishvara pranidhana” or “surrendering/dedicating yourself to the Divine” in yoga. I know that the modern yogi tends to recoil in horror at this concept (isn’t yoga supposed to be non-religious?) but if we set aside our conditioning and preconceptions about what this means (aka approach it with the open mind that yoga teaches us to have!) there’s a lot more to it than you might think.
“The Divine” doesn’t have to mean “bearded man in the sky” (although if that what it means to you then that’s just fine). It means whatever force you view as powering the universe; Allah, energy, Gaia…
Each time Gregor begins teaching, he picks up an image of his chosen Ishta devata (image of the divine that resonates most with him) and devotes whatever he is doing at the time to that image. Each of us is meant to find our own personal Ishta devata in order to devote ourselves to it to ensure our pursuits are noble and pure. Many people (Gregor included) swear that their spiritual practice took off remarkably once they had identified the right Ishta devata and began this ritual.
You may need to spend some time studying some ancient texts (known as svadhyaya in Sanskrit) in order to find your Ishta devata but when you do find the right one, you’ll know it.
There are many different practices that can deepen your bond with your Ishta devata e.g. you can pray to them for guidance, chant their Ishta mantra or practise trataka (gazing) on their image. Have a read of Gregor’s book Yoga Meditation – he goes into a lot of detail on this in chapter 13.
[Don’t worry if this completely turns you off right now. Just focus on the other parts of your practice and perhaps your Ishta devata will reveal itself to you naturally in time…]
5) Paris is always a good idea
Okay so Gregor didn’t teach me this one but it’s true! I’ve been to Paris a few times before but what a treat it was to be there for the first time with my beloved Adrian! Whilst I ran off to practise with Gregor, Ade was merrily exploring Paris’ finest photography spots. Then we’d meet up for a wonderful evening meal and wander around the usual spots together – Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre. Here are a few snaps from our meanderings through the city of love 🙂
Exciting times ahead
My attitude to practice has changed so much since I started studying with Gregor. I put more of an equal emphasis on asana, pranayama and meditation and even see it as a treat when I can spend longer on my pranayama exercises than my asana. His scientific teaching style of the higher limbs (which tend to remain a mystery to even students who have been practising asana for many years) gives my practice focus and structure and it’s something I try to cultivate in my teaching too.
So I am super excited to be heading off to the hinterlands of Byron Bay, Australia, this week to spend a few weeks with Gregor and his wife, Monica! They own a nature reserve high up in the hills and we are going to be studying and practising in their magical shala there.
I’ve never been to Australia before but everyone tells me Byron Bay is the place to be for crystals, dreadlocks and downward dogs, which as you know is all I want in life! If anyone has any travel tips/places to see/eat/ activities for while I’m there please send them my way.
I can’t wait to let you all know how it goes – check my Insta for some more regular updates. Lots of love xxx