Where's your head at ?

‘Samastitihiii’ Guruji would bellow from the depths of his soul at the start of class, this mountainous sound reverberating around the shala in Mysore and into our hearts and minds. Just remembering being witness to this instruction from the Ashtanga Yoga Guru makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. For me Guruji’s whole personality & teachings are embodied in this simple Sanskrit phrase. The word samastitihi just means same or equal (sama) standing (stitihi) but it goes much deeper than standing up straight on your mat. I can remember going to my first couple of yoga classes and the teacher regularly castigating me for not having my feet perfectly (big toes and heels touching) together. At the time I thought he was just being a little bit anal retentive and boy oh boy I so wanted to tell him to take the bug out of his ass and leave me alone. But thankfully I never did and it was only when I started teaching yoga myself did I truly understand exactly what he meant. These days when I’m teaching I can be far, far more tetchy than my first teacher ever was with me when I see regular offenders with their feet apart. (So beware if you ever come to my class – I’ll be on your feet.) When teaching a ‘led’ class the samastitihi instruction is used plenty of times, it’s usually the first thing an Ashtanga teacher would announce –even before the opening chant. And as mentioned above the meaning goes way deeper than the physical. Once the body is in samastitihi we can then move into the realms of the mind by allowing both the inhale and exhale to express the instruction. The resonance of the inhale becoming equal to the exhale, even permitting for the pauses at the ends of the breath to do the same. When a student first comes into the class room their minds can be jumping around buzzing with thoughts about what they’ve been up to that day or what to have for dinner after class and if there’s nothing in place to for them to help drop these ‘fluctuations of the mind’ their practice becomes unfocussed from the word go. Once the body and breath are equal, all is good we are ready for practice. At the end of each sun salutation and also at the finish of each standing posture the student returns to samastitihi, making sure each time that the feet are together and the breath is equal. Sometimes in class I like to make a comparison between the cosmic mudra (the positioning of the hands) in zazen (the Zen form of meditation) and samastitihi. When sitting zazen the student places the left hand in the right hand and allows for the tips of the thumbs to touch to make an oval shape – see photo. cosmic mudra zazen zen ashtanga yoga If the thumbs ever become separate from each other it’s a good indication that the mind has drifted off into dreamland territory. Similarly if a student ever steps back to samastitihi with their feet apart to me it’s a sign that their focus has drifted off somewhere else. I remember reading about a Zen monk asking his teacher what the essence of the (zazen) practice was. ‘Attention’ came the terse reply from the teacher. Again the student asks the same question expecting perhaps a slightly more informed answer, this time the teacher ferociously repeats the same word three times ‘ATTENTION ATTENTION ATTENTION’! I.M.H.O. (yep I’m down with the social media acronyms kids) samastitihi is the yoga version of attention. The whole practice can be contained within its simplicity: the asanas are the physical expression, the breath the mind counterpart. Samastitihi is attention to a steady body, a steady breath, a steady gaze. Once we get these 3 working in union with each other we can hope for a steadier mind. A steady mind means an open mind and if you want me to get really cosmic (man) , the mind and body are mirrors for each other , so an open mind is an open heart.   Read Matt's other Experiments with Ashtanga Yoga Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4  

A mind & body practice

I read a blog last year by some Ashtanga dude who was admitting that he was getting too old to practice the advanced series postures. At the time I kind of laughed to myself thinking I’ve got plenty left in the tank to keep busting through the postures of 3rd and 4th series. Literally a year later and after a 2 month cold ( I kid you not) at the start of this year that was bordering on a serious bout of man flu which meant my practice consisted of blowing my nose and a very heavy dose of lying down, I was ready to throw in the advanced posture towel too. I’m 46 now and over the last sixteen or so years of practicing Ashtanga Yoga I’ve had my fair share of physical & mental ups and downs. A tweaked hamstring here and a sore shoulder there – my injury roll call is quite an impressive list. Added to the physical aspect of practice I also still suffer daily with a complaining/mithering mind – usually when I’m watching football or driving. I always joked that if any of my students saw me at a football match they would never come to one of my classes again. (So I stopped going to matches just in case!) One thought that continually bugs me is ‘why is my mind so crazy when I do all this yoga & meditation’. I’d like to highlight the plight of the mind and body journey with two (real) stories – both featuring the wit and wisdom of the East.
 ‘As long as you have a body Matthew…’ Dr.Su
A few years back a friend recommended I go see a Chinese acupuncturist called Dr.Su after I was complaining about a tight hamstring. My friend had told me that the footballer Ryan Giggs had credited Dr.Su with sorting out his own hamstring problem that had plagued him for most of his career. So I booked an appointment and off I went to Dr.Su’s tiny office / treatment room in Nothenden in South Manchester. It was the start of a beautiful relationship. After a couple of visits the hamstring problem had cleared up and he was now treating me for my sore wrist. Each time I went I was always complaining about one physical problem or another and Dr.Su would smile at me and offer the most simple but powerful advice on the body that I’ve ever had… ’As long as you have a body Matthew, you will always have problems’ There endeth the lesson. So get this boyfriend /girlfriend if you’ve got a body then something will go wrong at some point. The main problem is that we set up in our minds about the level of practice we need to maintain to make the whole thing worthwhile and if we get an injury of some sort which means we can’t stick to the same level of practice then that somehow invalidates what we do. Which if you sit down and think about it, is just (mind) bullshit. However we practice whether it’s all singing all dancing 10th series or maybe it’s just one measly 1 sun salutation (because your body is knackered) it’s all good, it’s all valid, it’s all practice.  
‘I see , I see , I see’ Dalai Lama  
This is my favourite ever true Dalai Lama story, and maybe I’m a little biased because it happened to a mate of mine. Once upon a time in the seventies Albert (name changed to protect identity) was enjoying the good life a little too much. Both legal and illegal substances were being taken on a daily basis which resulted in the good life turning into well, not so good. Determined to sort himself out, Albert ( a practicing Buddhist) decided he would make a pilgrimage to Dharamsala in Northern India where the 14th Dalai Lama was living. Now in the 70’s Mr.D.L. was not as famous as he is now and a personal appointment with him was not outside the realms of possibility. So our friend Albert rocked up at Mr D’s gaff and asked if he could organise a private audience with the top man. After a 3 day wait he got his chance and was ushered into Mr. D’s front room. For the next hour or so Albert went into explicit detail about how messed up he was and how his life was a complete mess. Each time he finished a sentence the Dalai Lama would comment ‘I see , I see , I see’ . Finally after a couple of hours young Albert finished his tales of woe and sat back slumped in his chair, the Dalai Lama looked straight at him and said ‘ You know , my mind is crazy too’. KER BOOM – how’s about that for a curve ball of an answer. In that moment Albert realised that he was not alone in feeling crazy , granted the illegal stuff hadn’t helped but the fact that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama also had a ‘crazy mind’ made him feel ok. I love this story, I tell it a lot in class. We think sometimes our mind is out of control and maybe sometimes it is but the mind certainly has a mind of its own – there’s no on or off switch. Put it this way the heart beats, the lungs breathe and the mind ‘thinks’. We would think that the Dalai Lama would have a mind that was completely peaceful and serene but this isn’t the case – his mind is crazy too. And so is mine and so is yours. But I find that when I do my Ashtanga practice my mind feels a little less crazy so I practice most days so I can enjoy being a little less bananas - it’s a no brainer. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so one day I decided I would do my practice first and then watch football after to see what happened – a little experiment on myself. And do you know what, I managed to get through the whole game without annoying anyone least myself. Read the other parts of Matt Ryan's Experiments with Ashtanga Yoga .. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
June 21 was declared as the International Day of Yoga by the United Nations General Assembly after Indian Prime Minister, addressed the United Nations General Assembly last year.  What’s App Doc ponders the potential impact of this intervention.  Casually surfing through calendars of national events reveals a perplexing mix of days to be celebrated. For instance Diabetes week and National Picnic Week take place in the run up to our inaugural International Yoga Day on the summer Solstice, which is shared with Fathers’ Day. Following this we have Wrong Trousers Day. So much to enthuse about here but I will try not to lose focus. What interests me is that India is embracing yoga again in a way that celebrates and promotes it in a social and holistic manner. "Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being", says Narendra Modi when addressing the UN.  Shripad Yesso Naik has become India's first minister for yoga, with plans to reclaim the practice as "India's gift to the West". Indian officials plan to reintroduce yoga into all facets of civic life, including more than 600,000 schools, thousands of hospitals and police training centres. This demonstrates that yoga is so much more than just a physical practice and has potential to improve well-being at a societal and population level as well as for individuals. Sometimes the old solutions are the best and most elegant. Our current technological revolution purports to enhance our lives in so many ways, but let’s look a little more closely at that assumption. Tablet computers, smart phones, internet TVs and now watches facilitate instant gratification. We can shop, chat, watch movies and work on the hoof twenty four hours a day. Agreed this is convenient, but does it make us happier and healthier? In my professional experience this is not the case; many people come through my consulting room struggling with the demands of modern living. They experience stress, anxiety, insomnia and physical ill health as a result of technological advances rather than these advances offering solutions. The ancient practice of Yoga is arguably a perfect counter balance to the intensity and pace of the silicon age. It encourages us to slow down, be mindful and seek grounding and balance. The goals are the journey itself and will be achieved over a lifetime of practice rather than at the click of a mouse. I am no Luddite. I embrace smartphones, Apps and internet shopping. But Yoga helps me find a balance so that I am not overwhelmed by the pressure to move to 24 hour access to everything. I value the rhythm of the days, weeks, months and years. Yoga is my companion through these cycles. So I for one will celebrate International Yoga day. For time management purposes I will have a healthy picnic on hand and dedicate my sun salutations to all yoga dads. I may need to borrow Matt Ryan’s fabulous trousers to cover all bases.   Matt Joslin
I am proud to be a GP settled in Manchester city centre after having trained and worked in Cambridge, London and Brussels. Being a family doctor is one of the best and most varied jobs. The world with all its problems can walk through my office door and I am invited to collaborate in helping out. In recent years yoga has become an increasingly significant feature of my life. As well as getting me in the best physical shape it has helped me through stresses and depression. I attend several Yoga Manchester classes on a weekly basis. More and more I share my experience of yoga with colleagues and patients. It has become a lifelong friend.