Yoga Manchester Weird Weekend - Part 1 - An evening with a Zen Master

Manchester’s chief yogi Matt Ryan sends me a text at 8am on a Thursday morning asking if Brad Warner can stay at my house for a couple of hours that evening. ”Erm, what? Ok… ”. It was hard to believe and a bit of a surreal experience. For those who don’t know Brad Warner is a Zen Priest and all round cool guy. Punk Rock Bass player, Monster movie fanatic and author of Hardcore Zen. He was on the last leg of his European tour hosting Zen retreats and meditation workshops while promoting his latest book, Don't Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master. I have been a fan of Brad Warner for several years, read all of his books and have mad respect for the guy. The person Brad was staying with is out and Matt is busy teaching, and Brad can’t be wandering the streets of Chorlton on his own now can he? Suddenly this world famous Zen priest is coming to my house for tea. Tonight! Matt asked me to write a blog about it. But fair warning, I am no Louis Theroux, unfortunately. It sounded like the set up to a sit-com. Like an episode of Father Ted (second best priest). Bishop Brennan was coming round and I have to hide all the rabbits. Thankfully I didn’t have to kick Brad up the arse for a bet. Though it was probably more like that episode of I'm Alan Partridge, where Alan ends up captive in the home of a deranged superfan! I felt an enormous responsibility. I am the most socially awkward person there is. Basically I am anxious enough around people I know, let alone famous strangers I admire. It had been a bit of a crap week as well, you know. Just a bit miserable. I’m currently working at the Yoga Manchester 200 hour teacher training and had been feeling a bit stressed. A chance to meet a personal hero and have tea with a Zen master sounded like just what the doctor ordered. Matt dropped Brad off and waved goodbye. Brad said "See you next fall!". As I am sure scenes from Stephen King’s Misery flashed through his head and his ankles started to hurt, I said "I promise not to kidnap you". Then I put the kettle on. Potential Kidnapper I may or may not be, but a monster I am not. He noticed my Rush t-shirt and my girlfriend’s Rush tattoos and we started talking about our favourite Rush albums. Traditionally, punk rocker and prog rockers are two different beasts. It was a test and he passed! After scanning my bookshelf and checking out the old sci-fi novels (ignoring the collection of his own books that were definitely not put there to impress him), THE Brad Warner was sat on my couch drinking peppermint tea. He was tired and confessed to falling asleep during an afternoon trip to the cinema. Brad Warner does not recommend Blade Runner 2049, I bring that to you as a world exclusive. We got talking about Blade Runner, the book and the original film. While Brad scanned my living room and my film collection, we got talking about my Doctor Who action figures and more old sci-fi/horror films. We discussed the ace special effects in old films like Star Wars, The Blob, and John Carpenter's The Thing. We sat complaining about how CGI looks rubbish and old practical effects are the best. Like a pair of hipsters.  Not surprising considering Brad used to work in Japan making old Power Rangers-style TV shows and Godzilla-esque monster movies. Special effects are like his specialist subject, next to Buddhism obviously. It was cool to find common ground and just talk rubbish about nerdy stuff. He recounted a story of how he saw the original Star Wars as a kid at a test screening while it was completely unknown, months before it came out. He was saying how he was blown away by it and raving about it at school to one of his friends. This guy was not interested because Brad is into all 'weird' stuff. Later when Star Wars was released this guy was all over it like everyone else. "What a phony! I lost respect for that guy", Brad said. "We are still friends on Facebook though. He was an asshole". I laughed at the idea of this Zen priest who is still Facebook friends with someone from highschool, but remembers that disagreement they had about Star Wars 40 years ago. Maybe not the most Zen thing ever but funny all the same. Brad became excited when he saw the cat's food bowl in the kitchen. Like, really excited! Brad Warner is a cat person. Another world exclusive. My girlfriend summoned the cat from outside. Little Loki, all black, queen of the castle came strolling in to see who was trespassing in her living room. She took a shine to Brad as he engaged her in combat. Loki loves a bit of a wrestle and relished the appearance of a new challenger, settling in for strokes and fusses afterwards. It was cute because Loki is a beast and is wary of strangers. Is the power to commune with animals a Buddhist thing? I dunno. Maybe just with cats. Cats are pretty Zen about things aren't they. Maybe cats are like Klingons and respect a true warrior. Brad had the Loki seal of approval. I could tell Brad had been eyeing up my bass guitar since he came in and asked if he could have a go on it. He had been on tour for weeks doing meditation workshops and silent retreats and he really missed playing. I gave him my guitar and we talked about bass. He noodled around on it trying to remember basslines from his band Zero Defex. Slapping out some funky licks and even chugging out the riff to Working Man by Rush. He really seemed to chill out a bit more with a guitar in his hands. Brad was telling me about another punk rock Buddhist author (I forget his name, probably for the best as not to call them out). Brad said that one time his own book Hardcore Zen was printed with a picture of this other guy in it. Pretty awkward... “He is more punk looking than me, with the skinhead and everything”, said Brad. Apparently this chap was a hardcore biker and drug addict, who found Buddhism and turned his life around. Which is the typical narrative of the self-help guru that seems kind of cynical these days. Brad was saying that his publisher tried to get him to spin his story in a similar way, to spice it up with tales of addiction and redemption. "But that isn’t my story" said Brad. His is a kind of everyday Buddhism that anyone can relate to, and his whole thing is that he's a relatable guy. Brad laughed telling me how he was doing a talk/retreat type event and the promoters had done a poster showing Brad on stage bringing the noise with Zero Defex in one picture, and another picture of Brad in robes, saying something like "He went from Punk rocker to Zen priest". Brad told them "It's not really like that. I am still in the band. There was no transformation or turning my life around. I do both of those things". I thought that summed up Brad pretty well. We chatted some more about music, bands and cats. Brad eventually getting his phone out to show us some of the celebrity animals he likes on instagram. Him and my girlfriend trading recommendations on who to follow for the best animal pictures. On reflection we didn’t talk about Zen at all really. It was all just normal stuff. Nerdy sci-fi and horror. Cool bands. Quoting episodes of Seinfeld at each other. It was kind of demystifying the Zen Master, I guess. The man, the myth and the legend. Getting past that title of 'priest', that Brad frequently tends to renounce. He ignored my obvious fanboy awkwardness and adoration and just shrugged it off. I expect he is used to it with his students and meeting fans. Really he is just a normal guy. For all his insight, wisdom and knowledge, he is a regular dude and a nerd. You could almost say that he is just a nerd about Buddhism as well.  

Weird Weekend - Part 2 - The workshop.

Saturday rolled around for the weekend workshop with Brad Warner at One Yoga in sunny Chorlton (I jest, obviously it was raining…). It was a pretty good turn out. There were about 20 people, and Brad joked that he is never sure if even one person will come and thanked everyone for being there. We were all gathered round and Brad sat at the front of the room on his little cushion. He was surrounded by books and had a digital recorder by his side. The leader, teacher and scholar. The Zen Master. Except he wasn’t in robes. He was wearing jeans and a Godzilla T-shirt. Yup. Still the same Brad I met on Thursday. Brad asked everyone around the room what they knew about Zen and why they were here. Everyone had a different story. Some knew about Zen. Some had read other authors, from other disciplines and had come for a different perspective. Others were complete newbies and were dipping their toe in. It was a nice mix of people from different backgrounds. Intellectuals, spiritual types, and just curious dudes off the street. All had come to hear Brad talk about Zen. It is awesome to listen to Brad speak. Once he gets going he is so enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable. Giving a brief history of Buddhism and Zen mixed with some of his life story. He is a fantastic storyteller and has a way of explaining things in a fun manner. He frequently references pop-culture, like The Simpson's and Seinfeld. Explaining Buddhist koans with reference to the dimension jumping adventures of Rick and Morty. Relating Buddhist philosophy of ethics and concepts of the self, to a dilemma of Captain Kirk in an episode of Star Trek The Original series. Even comparing himself to Pee Wee Herman; He’s a loner, Dottie. A Rebel. It makes things fun and entertaining. All the while he exhibits a detailed knowledge of ancient history in India, Japan and China. Quoting texts in Sanskrit, Japanese and English, he explains translations in historical context with his own commentary, which I think really helps make these things applicable to the modern world. Knowing what the words meant in their time and how they apply today. His method of teaching is seamless. It is hard to see where nerdy sci-fi Brad ends and where wise scholarly Zen Master Brad begins. They are one in the same. Brad is a nerd about everything he likes and he really likes Zen Buddhism.   We were instructed in how to sit Zazen and had a couple of practice sessions. The first was for 30 minutes and another 20 minute session at the end. I think one of the things that attracts me to Zen and zazen is it’s accessibility. It requires very little ritual and few props. It is open to anyone. As Brad says “it doesn’t care what you believe”. It is the practice of Just sitting. I think that Brad represents this egalitarian nature of the practice. He opens up the practice, the ideas and philosophy to everyone and presents it in a way that doesn’t scare people off. He is a very wise dude. Down to earth and approachable, but with an amazing knowledge and insight that he can convey in a common sense way and make relevant to modern life. During the short break Brad came up to me and asked “Is it everything you hoped for?”. I was like “Yeah man, its great”. Was Brad asking for my approval? He was like “I never really know how people will take it”. I said “It is just fun to listen to you geek out about this stuff. It is really interesting!”. He confesses that he doesn’t really plan things too much. But I think it works. I can’t speak for others obviously, but for me it is fun to listen to him ramble and he has a natural way of stringing subjects together. Brad stuck around for a bit after the event to take photos with people and sign their books. I remembered that I didn’t get him to sign any of my books when he was round my house! D’oh. Oh well. I got to hang out with the guy which was an honour. It didn’t end there though. Matt invited me and my girlfriend out to dinner with Brad and a few friends afterwards. I awkwardly accepted. It was a cool end to the week and in a way completed the Brad Warner ‘Weird Weekend’ experience. I got to see him alone in my house like a hostage. I got to see him doing his wise Zen Master thing on the zufu preaching to his pupils. Now I got to break bread with him in a more socialable group setting. It was a fun evening, talking rubbish, joking around, putting the world to rights with good company and eating a tonne of food. I think we were all way more relaxed by this point and I had a ruddy bloody good end to the week. Brad was heading back to LA the next day but he seemed to have enjoyed his tour and his visit to Manchester. We loved having you Brad. Be seeing you.  
Did you see what I did there with the title of the blog ? No ? Didn't get it ? Ok I'm making a statement that the item in the photo is the best yoga mat in the world , except it ain't no yoga mat - you dig? It is in fact a zafu more commonly known as a meditation cushion. And not a rectangular shaped piece of fabric that one would use to bust out some yoga postures on. So what gives I hear you say - what on earth am I on about ... Well I guess I'm having a little fun mainly at the expense of the interpretation of a famous yoga scripture 'The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali'. The Yoga Sutras is the bible for Ashtanga Yoga students like myself - I've read it a bunch of times , never quite grasped it but persevered with it - mainly due to the fact that when I stated practicing Ashtanga all my peers would wax lyrical endlessly about it. Anyway I don't want to open the can of worms debate about The Sutras having naff all to do with physical yoga postures -and is actually an esoteric instruction manual for meditation allegedly written by some bloke called Patanjali in the second century  - I'll leave that to the yoga academics and their pals. What actually interests me a lot more these days is why there aren't more people practicing meditation. It kind of dawned on me that folk are either lazy or impatient or perhaps a little of both - I know I'm both. The late great Ashtanga Yoga Guru Sri K Pattabhi Jois would say that all types of people could practice Yoga - fat, thin, tall, small, old, young even poorly people ! The only folk who couldn't practice Yoga he would say are 'lazy people'. But what about meditation - coz basically all one has to do is 'sit down and shut up' ( as my Zen teacher Brad Warner would say) that might be a bit of a struggle if you're a chatterbox or you've got a boil on your backside but other than that it's a sinch ! So why can't people do it ? It can change your life for the better - it changed my life immeasurably. I think the problem lies in my above statement about people being impatient. When you start practicing yoga the benefits are so much more tangible - you might not even be able to see your toes when you start. But after a few short weeks of practicing the postures you are able to start touching your knees, then shins then 'hallelujah' toe touching happens ! With meditation you can be practicing for like ages and it feels like absolutely nothing is happening , impatience sets in and the next thing you are putting the following advert on eBay...
For Sale 1 Zafu like new - might be broken as my life didn't get better after a ten minute meditation session.
But the thing is , things are happening - but very subtly. It's hard to see it at first it's a bit like one of those puzzles where you have a picture hidden in lots of dots and you have to adjust your eyesight to see the picture- well same same ( but different !). Meditation is a practice that has to be done every day - like brushing your teeth. So don't delay sit down and shut up and meditate today !   If you're interested in starting meditation Yoga Manchester is now hosting '1 day introduction to meditation' workshops - the next one is on Saturday 18th March - click this link for more information.   Matt Ryan teaches Yoga and Meditation at Yoga London Club.      
My Zen teacher Brad Warner (whose brilliant book Sit Down and Shut Up inspired the title of this blog) said once that he’s noticed that when he gives a talk about Zen loads of people show up , yet when he’s leading a ‘zazen’ meditation he’s main companions are tumble weeds. It feels a little like it’s going the same way with Yoga. Every day I’m reading yet another story on Facebook ( not that I go on Facebook) ( Ok well maybe I do but not that much) (aarrgh ok I go on it every day ok !! ) about how this teacher said this and another teacher said that – contradictions and cyber back biting aplenty. Every Woman ,Man and dog have an opinion on what Yoga is or supposed to be and if you don’t fall in with their opinion then you’re either wrong or stupid or both! It feels like there could be a 21st Century re-writing of Patanjali’s second sutra ‘Yoga is the cessation of actually doing yoga and just talking about it on Facebook instead’! What I’m loving at the moment though is this current trend of some teachers talking about how yoga is so , so much more than postures and there’s a real spiritual profundity about it that is being missed by students. Oh and the photo of the article? Why of course it’s of the said teacher in some fancy smancy toe up asana – a lovely contradiction eh. It’s funny how most of the teachers who can rock all the advanced postures bang on about how it’s not all about doing the advanced postures and yet at any photo opportunity they get they will rock an advanced posture. Then the flip side to that particular coin is the less physically able yoga folk will then get on their high-horse about how outraged they are that Yoga is being turned into a circus art. It’s pretty funny to watch from the side lines as an innocent bystander. I spent what seemed like 3 days reading one particular article recently, I don’t think I even finished it as it became a little like pulling teeth and also life’s too short and of course I had to go and do my practice. In the article one teacher was calling out another teacher for basically doing something they didn’t agree with – well rather not doing something which the writer thought that they should be doing. I was like eh ? Really? This is something that annoys me a lot, I guess we all do it to some extent (myself included). We make judgements on other people and their actions, and usually that judgement is based on the fact that we wouldn’t act like that so the person must be wrong. Which is just plain daft. Then there’s the cyber jousting he said / she said , my teacher says it’s this , well my teachers says that. It can be a real minefield for new yoga students trying to understand what they should be doing what they shouldn’t. I think it’s good to listen to opinions, points of views, and even contradictions too. But the trick is to not get too caught up in them. I’ve learnt over time that just getting on my mat answers any questions that I might have.   I came across this quote the other day
The first time I played a bass, I was successful. Success is not a goal. Success is in the doing. Always.
- Ian MacKaye owner of Dischord Records, Which I thought was absolutely brilliant – the same philosophy could and should be applied to a yoga practice. In fact I’ll go as far to say that this should be lesson #1 for ALL yoga students getting on the mat for the first time. A very similar message can be found in this cartoon… digging for the bone is the reward   Which I also love – I found this on yes you guessed it Facebook a few months back and I’ve used the message in class plenty of times – it’s another beauty for anyone who practices yoga. But I must admit as much as it’s about ‘the doing’ it’s only human nature to get a sense of accomplishment when we’ve finished our practice , or perhaps the first time you touch your toes or bind the hands in Marichyasana A. That very same part of our DNA that says ‘YES’ when that happens is also the very same thing that actually gets us to class in the first place , without it we’d be staying at home eating chips , looking at Facebook.   Save
So the more spiritually minded folk will of spotted that I’ve taken a small liberty of rebranding the famous Zen quote (Before enlightenment chop wood carry water , after enlightenment chop wood carry water) for the Yoga posse out there. But it’s the same thing, or maybe it isn’t. As Van Morrison sung ‘Enlightenment, don’t know what it is’ Neither do I Van my friend and neither do I know what Samadhi is either – and judging by the amount of folk I’ve met along the well-trodden dusty Avenue of Ashtanga Yoga neither does anybody else. So what is Samadhi? What is Enlightenment – do they exist – are they like a magical place or a magical state of mind. My Zen teacher Brad Warner who has had such an experience insists Enlightenment is for ‘sissies’. I don’t want to get too bogged down into the definition and etymologies of either Samadhi or Enlightenment I’m not clever enough for a start. But sticking to Ashtanga Yoga for now ( as I know slightly more about Yoga than I do Zen – and when I say know I mean you could write all of this knowledge on a postage stamp – and still have room left for the shopping list) I stumbled into this practice by default rather than design and was swept along with the promise of the illusive 8th limb. Guruji would make the statement that we would have to create strong bodies before we could consider our minds and therefore we are to practice the 3rd limb of  Ashtanga Yoga . And then some. So I’ve practiced and practiced and practiced some more, I have good days and bad with practice just like I have good days and bad days with life. When I do practice I feel better so I’m more inclined to get on my mat rather than make excuses not to. I don’t even think about the 8 limbs anymore – nor do I even think about where the practice came from. And without wanting to offend anyone – the physical practice does not come from Patanjali’ s Yoga Sutras - how do I know? I did the math… Any to be brutally honest I think if you’re still clinging to the belief that the practice is 5,000 years old you’re missing the point – we should take a leaf out of the Buddha’s book when someone asked him ‘Is there a God or is there not a God’. Buddha’s reply was to remain silent. The silence was a demonstration of the ridiculousness of the question. There’s a great quote from Matthew Sweeney who said the only reason that people get their knickers in a twist about The Yoga Sutras is because it has the word ‘Yoga’ in it (ok he probably didn’t say knickers in a twist but you get my drift). Have a think about that quote for a moment – go with this thought … imagine if they had been called ‘the deep absorptions of Patanjali’ would we (we as in yoga students) have ever read the bloody thing? Me thinks not. And please please any Yoga scholars / practitioners out there thinking about a new angle on a Sutra commentary do some asana instead. Do something that you can actually experience rather than writing about something you can only intellectually understand. Put it this way , would you trust a book  about the qualities of sugar written by someone who has NEVER tasted sugar? But if you like it read it ,chant it – go for it! I don’t have time for it personally, I think people are trying to put square pegs in round holes. In the words (or lyrics should I say) of Stephen Patrick Morrisey from the hit single Panic with his beat combo The Smiths...
'It says nothing to me about my life'
What does resonate with me is when I see quotes like this one.. zen quotes Yes I know this can be construed as another ‘pithy’ Zen statement but when I read it my brain re-interprets this for my yoga asana sensibility as another way of saying when you’ve done Surya Namaskar do it again. The Samadhi is in the doing not in the achieving. Let us not get carried away by thoughts of Samadhi or indeed being enlightened - and certainly let us not get carried away by our physical prowess or gymnastic ability. Here's yet another (pithy) Zen quote from the late great Alan Watts..
Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen is just peeling potatoes.
I think we could rephrase that beauty to , maybe to something like this
Ashtanga Yoga is not in the pontification of the Yoga Sutras or even in the boring laborious debate about how old the practice is. Ashtanga Yoga is Ekam inhale Dve exhale etc
Perhaps we can also take a leaf out the book of Dogen the 12th century Japanese Zen Monk. Dogen basically said taking the posture of Zazen was enlightenment itself i.e. the practice of zazen  and the experience of enlightenment were one. And so maybe to take (asana) practice is Samadhi. I read somewhere that one Zen teacher on entering a Zendo (a place where people practice Zazen meditation) full of his students remarked ‘what a silly thing to do’ and then proceeded to join them. And I must say this thought (what a silly thing to do) crosses my mind a few dozen times during practice – usually in postures like Garbha Pindasana or Tittibhasana B when I’m looking up my own backside, I mean WTF …. But I do it and I do it again. So keep climbing the mountain and keep digging for that bone Yoga warriors.. Samadhi is for sissies . Ps and if you want a FREE cheat sheet click here.  
My Zen teacher Brad Warner (whose brilliant book Sit Down and Shut Up inspired the title of this blog) said once that he’s noticed when he gives a talk about Zen loads of people show up , yet when he’s leading a ‘zazen’ meditation his main companions are tumble weeds. It feels a little like it’s going the same way with Yoga. Every day I’m reading yet another story on Facebook ( not that I go on Facebook) ( Ok well maybe I do but not that much) (aarrgh ok I go on it every day ok !! ) about how this teacher said this and another teacher said that – contradictions and cyber back biting aplenty. Every Woman ,Man and dog have an opinion on what Yoga is or supposed to be and if you don’t fall in with their opinion then you’re either wrong or stupid or both! It feels like there could be a 21st Century re-writing of Patanjali’s second sutra ‘Yoga is the cessation of actually doing yoga and just talking about it on Facebook instead’! What I’m loving at the moment though is this current trend of some teachers talking about how yoga is so , so much more than postures and there’s a real spiritual profundity about it that is being missed by students. Oh and the photo of the article? Why of course it’s of the said teacher in some fancy smancy toe up asana – a lovely contradiction eh. It’s funny how most of the teachers who can rock all the advanced postures bang on about how it’s not all about doing the advanced postures and yet at any photo opportunity they get they will rock an advanced posture. Then the flip side to that particular coin is the less physically able yoga folk will then get on their high-horse about how outraged they are that Yoga is being turned into a circus art. It’s pretty funny to watch from the side lines as an innocent bystander. I spent what seemed like 3 days reading one particular article recently, I don’t think I even finished it as it became a little like pulling teeth and also life’s too short and of course I had to go and do my practice. In the article one teacher was calling out another teacher for basically doing something they didn’t agree with – well rather not doing something which the writer thought that they should be doing. I was like eh ? Really? This is something that annoys me a lot, I guess we all do it to some extent (myself included). We make judgements on other people and their actions, and usually that judgement is based on the fact that we wouldn’t act like that so the person must be wrong. Which is just plain daft. Then there’s the cyber jousting he said / she said , my teacher says it’s this , well my teacher says it's that. It can be a real minefield for new yoga students trying to understand what they should be doing and what they shouldn’t. I think it’s good to listen to opinions, points of views, and even contradictions too. But the trick is to not get too caught up in them. I’ve learnt over time that just getting on my mat answers any questions that I might have.   I came across this quote the other day
The first time I played a bass, I was successful. Success is not a goal. Success is in the doing. Always.
- Ian MacKaye owner of Dischord Records, Which I thought was absolutely brilliant – the same philosophy could and should be applied to a yoga practice. In fact I’ll go as far to say that this should be lesson #1 for ALL yoga students getting on the mat for the first time. A very similar message can be found in this cartoon… digging for the bone is the reward   Which I also love – I found this on yes you guessed it Facebook a few months back and I’ve used the message in class plenty of times – it’s another beauty for anyone who practices yoga. But I must admit as much as it’s about ‘the doing’ it’s only human nature to get a sense of accomplishment when we’ve finished our practice , or perhaps the first time you touch your toes or bind the hands in Marichyasana A. That very same part of our DNA that says ‘YES’ when that happens is also the very same thing that actually gets us to class in the first place , without it we’d be staying at home eating chips , looking at Facebook.  

Addendum ....

  yoga quiters   Baby, life’s (and Yoga is) what YOU make it… So carrying on from the above about this new Facebook phenomenon of venting one’s Yoga spleen on Social Media I seem to be reading a sudden increase in yet another new angle on FB… the yoga quitters .. Usually the piece is titled something like this ‘Why I quit yoga’ or ‘Yoga is no good’ etc. with the writer blaming the practice for burning them out or one particular post claimed that other students were not being spiritual enough . I’ve seen ‘burn out’ happen quite a lot over the few years I’ve been teaching. A new student comes to class falls in love with the practice and then for the next few weeks / months they go hell for leather into it without being able to moderate themselves, and after a while I never see them again. It happens , no biggie – people are people we are all different and usually folk will gravitate quite naturally towards a yoga practice that fits with their personality ( a friend of mine used to joke that Ashtanga Yoga was a practice for obsessive westerners – cheers for that Dan !!) N.B. Yoga will not burn you out , YOU will burn yourself out. And for the folk who quit yoga because other students don't live up to your spiritual expectations I'll leave you with yet another quote ..

The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Robert M.Pirsig. We can quite easily re-calibrate the quote to the following..
The only Shanti you can find in a Yoga Shala , is the Shanti that you take in with you.
Matt Ryan : )  

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
I started meditating a little bit before I started practicing yoga over 15 years ago although my first couple of attempts didn’t go according to plan. I remember after I’d finished one session I went into the kitchen and lifted the lid up of the bin thinking it was the toilet – I did realise my schoolboy error before ‘anything’ happened but it freaked me out a little so I gave meditation a really wide berth until about 5 years ago. ( I think it hindsight this potential toilet disaster had more to do with my state of mind at the time rather than anything else!) Anyway I got back on the cushion around 5 years ago after reading this book called Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner. I had bought something on Amazon and I got caught up (like everyone does) in the ‘if you liked that book you might like this one’ section and Brad’s book was shouting at me ‘buy me buy me buy me’ So I bought it and I’m glad I did. Like Yoga , Meditation comes in various guises and it just so happened that this practice was the ‘Zen Buddhist’ method and it promised absolutely nothing which I thought intriguing to say the least. Most if not all meditation & yoga practices are promising something, be it a healthy body or a quiet mind but zazen ( zazen is the zen practice of meditation) promised ‘nowt! Yikes – so I jumped in. So fast forward 5 years , no in fact let’s just fast forward 3 years to 2013. By this time I’d gotten in touch with Brad via email and 83 emails later I finally persuaded him to come over to Manchester to teach a couple of workshops (this year will be his 5th visit to our beloved rainy city). In 2014 I really went the whole hog and took the ‘precepts’ with Brad to become a fully paid up member of the Zen Buddhist society. Brad is a complete dude. No joke. He’s not your average Zen Master , he also happens to play bass with US hardcore punk band zero defx – he’s also written 5 books on zen and a couple of novels too – this guy is no slouch. He’s also got his own documentary – which features yours truly. Last April I took myself all the way over to Mount Baldy Zen Center on the outskirts of L.A. for a 3 day Sesshin with Brad. A Sesshin is an extended meditation that includes sitting meditation, walking meditation, chanting, oryoki (a formal, meditative way of eating), Dharma talks by the sesshin leader and a meditative work period. Mount Baldy is absolutely stunning it’s full of rocks and trees and I love love love rocks and trees – the views aint too shabby either. It’s interesting for me to see how this zazen practice that promises nothing is slowly moving ahead of my yoga asana practice which gives me an all singing all dancing flexible body. I guess the yoga laid the foundation for the zazen - they work with and for each other. These days with little Agnes Boo my 20 month old daughter keeping me busy sometimes I don't have time to fit both zazen & yoga into my schedule of Peppa Pig, going to the park and preventing Boo from writing on the walls of her bedroom , so I'll skip the asana and just do the zazen. In the words of Kodo Sawaki (Brad’s teacher’s teacher) ‘Because zazen takes you out of the world of loss and gain, it should be practiced'. And so I do it.

The kids are alright

I was recently asked by my Zen teacher Brad Warner if I would contribute to a book he is currently writing on the practice of meditation. The specific chapter he wanted my input to was about how to practice meditation when you have children. I started to practice zazen ( the zen form of meditation ) seriously about 3 years ago and consider it to be an integral part of my life , so when Agnes Boo came along a little over 14 months ago I knew I would have to adapt the way I practiced both zazen and Ashtanga Yoga. imageThe first 3 months were easy as Agnes would be sleeping a lot so there were no real interruptions , and when she needed a little comforting I was able to get creative with my zazen practice – see photo . Over the past 12 months or so both my practices have seen the yo-yo effect – sometimes I practice a lot and sometimes I practice very little. If Agnes needs looking after that is my priority and everything else takes a back seat. Brad had mentioned in one of his books that his first zen teacher would always advise getting on the cushion – even if it was for ’10 lousy minutes'. So I always try to keep that teaching in mind for both the mat and zafu (meditation cushion). Indeed the Ashtanga guru Sri K Pattabhi Jois advocated that if time was short then 3 A , 3 B sun salutation sequences and the last 3 finishing postures of the Ashtanga practices was sufficient –which will take you about 10 minutes – try it for yourself. I see both the practices of zazen and yoga postures as tools to help live a more healthy life – both mentally and physically. My greatest ever teaching was to my sister a few years back when she asked me if Yoga could help get rid of the lines around her eyes , I responded with ‘Yoga will not get rid of those lines but will surely help you to live them’ When children enter our lives we have to be both creative and realistic with our ‘tools’. Sometimes our practice might amount to 10 lousy minutes, sometimes we might get longer. I think if you’re getting angry that you can’t do your practice one day due to childcare duties you’re losing sight of what the practices are there for. The practice will help you understand and accept that sometimes you can’t do the practice. Those of us who do have kids (Agnes is my third) all know that they know better than anyone (even ourselves) which buttons to press to get our attention and to drive us round the bend. They give us all the more reason to make that special effort to practice– even if that effort means getting up early in the morning before they do, to get on the mat. Agnes’s current favourite game is picking up her water cup and throwing on the floor over and over and over again. Oh the joy to be my 14 month old child’s personal slave – I can’t wait to get up at 5am in the morning to practice after a few games of that.  

 The Sacred Triangle

A friend told me recently that she’d had read a blog post by a respected Ashtanga Yoga teacher who was castigating students for adding in so called ‘advanced’ postures. Apparently this teacher made a point of saying that only certain people (i.e. like him) could do these ‘advanced’ postures. This kind of thinking always saddens me as it really does set up this ‘holier than thou’ attitude about postures and sequences – almost setting them up as ‘sacred cows’. For me the only potentially scared thing about yoga postures is the person that is doing them.

Part 1: Steady breath, steady body, steady gaze, steadier mind.

The year 2014 marks my 15th year of practising and experimenting with Ashtanga Yoga. This practice has had such a profound impact on me that I can honestly say it saved my life. Teaching Ashtanga Yoga to other people has become a true passion for me, it is like an extension of my own practice proclaiming 'Here's what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, and I can try to demonstrate how it can help transform you into a better you'. Every time I teach it is like I am practising too. I sense each student’s movement, each bead of sweat, each stumble in leg lift – I feel it, I know it, I’ve been there countless times; I know the feelings, the frustrations, the elations, the emotions . There’s a beautiful saying, I think it’s from the Thai Massage discipline: 'On the floor we are all the same’, this is the same in a Yoga shala. There may be people doing Primary, Intermediate, or Advanced series, but there are truly NO advanced students and there are NO beginners. We are all the same – that’s all. When you first start a physical Yoga practice, you can't touch your toes in the sun salutation so you just grab your shins or ankles, then after some time you are able to place your hands on the floor but has your life improved as a result? Are you a better person? Of course not, you are just the same. The more you practise, the more your flexibility and strength increases. You do Primary Series, then maybe Intermediate, ultimately though it’s just the same; As Sharath Jois says, 'You are not practising to have a good practice but to ground yourself.' You don’t become a better, more grounded person because you can get your leg behind your head or because you’ve got a very deep back bend - what does it actually mean that you can do these things anyway? Who really cares besides you and your Facebook and Instagram friends? Practising yoga postures can transform you, but the physical transformations are merely a side effect – don’t get attached to what you can do on a yoga mat. The transformation that occurs through a steady breath, steady body and steady gaze is a steadier mind, and this is why we practise. We use this transformation to do things that are far more worthwhile and ultimately more challenging than fancy smancy yoga postures. My list of worthwhile ‘things’ include making my wife breakfast, telling my kids I love them as often as possible, calling my mum every other day, picking up the litter in front of my house even though it’s not mine (yes it does sometimes annoy me!) - it’s quite a long list. And this isn’t about 'my list is more worthy than your list' as if you start doing that you are back on the ‘check my fat asana out’ road to nowhere. The starting point of Ashtanga Yoga is the breath although it seems we are not to call it Ujjayi breathing anymore (I don’t want to get involved with that particular storm in a chai cup) so now we call it breathing with sound. Whatever. You lift your arms up in Surya Namaskar A, if your shoulders are tight keep your hands apart,  if it hurts your neck to look up then keep your gaze forwards. Any sense of physical stiffness and tension you may feel is reflected in the breath. If you can’t breathe deeply you need to change the way you are doing your posture to accommodate a full smooth deep breath. Let the breath be your guide to the whole practice, quite simply the breath activates the asana: if you overstretch, your body tightens and as a result your breath becomes tight and short and the posture won’t work. If we add into the mix that the mind is a mirror of the body then your mind becomes tight too. This kind of practice becomes mindless-ness and not mindfulness. In the words of Zen master Jakusho Kwong, 'The posture of the body is the posture of the mind' - how’s about that for your starting point of Ashtanga Yoga? When I first read that line it really floored me as it contains (for me) the whole essence of the practice.  There’s no steadiness of mind if there’s no steadiness of breath. Slowly we begin to learn how to do the postures, how to apply the correct breathing and gaze points to make the posture steady. We start to detect that the quality of the posture is determined by the quality of the breath. This is the practice. Slowly we learn the sequence, beginning with the sun salutations then moving into the standing postures. Body and mind being grounded by a deep, resonant  and steady breath. Each posture is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the whole practice, ultimately we do one posture wrong, or perhaps in an inappropriate way, then this is reflected in the whole practice. Fixing the gaze helps the whole process along. One of the first pitfalls we may encounter when practising with a group is allowing the gaze to become unsteady as we begin to observe the person practising alongside us, perhaps doing a slightly different variation to what we're doing. So rather than checking in with our breath as a reference point to whether or not we are doing the posture the right way, the tiger is let out of the cage and the ego takes over - quite simply we get ‘asana envy’. [caption id="attachment_1236" align="alignnone" width="135"]matt ryan trikonasana triangle ashtanga yoga manchester Fig A[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1237" align="alignnone" width="135"]matt ryan trikonasana triangle variation ashtanga yoga Fig B[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1238" align="alignnone" width="135"]Matt Ryan trikonasana triangle wrong form ashtanga yoga Fig C[/caption] A great example of asana envy is when the sequence gets to Trikonasana A. Now for some people reaching across and grabbing the toe (see fig A) might be the appropriate variation,  for others it might be the grabbing of the ankle or the even shin (see fig B) – remember folks no beginners no advanced, just variations. But always, some people see others grabbing the toe and that then becomes their reference point for the posture and not their own breath, and the tiger is loose (see fig c). We get enticed with the external aesthetic of the posture and forget all about the internal form. Look at the form of the posture in fig c in comparison with fig a & b, see how the shoulders tighten up and close down the space in the chest - how are we to find a deep breath if there isn't the space to expand the lungs? And if there isn't deep breathing, it simply ain't working it really is as simple as that. [caption id="attachment_1239" align="alignleft" width="135"]matt ryan parshvakonasana b ashtanga yoga manchester Fig D[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1241" align="alignnone" width="135"]matt ryan parshvakonasana b variation ashtanga yoga manchester Fig E[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1242" align="alignnone" width="135"]matt ryan parshvakonasana b wrong variation ashtanga yoga manchester Fig F[/caption] When I say it’s not working what I mean by that is that each posture has a physiological function i.e. it serves a purpose, so if you don’t do the posture in such a way that is suitable for your body then it won’t work, or certainly won’t have the desired effect it’s meant to. Another posture which highlights the asana envy in students is the revolved  Parshvakonasana B – boy oh boy, is this posture a particular bugbear of mine. See fig d & fig e above:  in both cases the shoulder (fig d) and elbow (fig e) act as levers to press against the bent knee to support a deep twist of the spine. Cue asana envy, or maybe we can call it asana seduction, students think that getting the hand down to the floor like fig d is the be all and end all of yoga – forgetting all about the function of the elbow/shoulder and the purpose of the posture (twist of the spine) and end up in the variation in fig f which quite frankly isn’t doing much at all. Daft eh? But we've all done it. I remember reading somewhere that Guruji Sri K Pattbhi Jois had said that there are thousands of variations of all the postures. When I read this it was with a wry smile as I have my own variation on Guruji’s quote which is there are as many variations of Trikonasana as there are people. Part of the whole journey of the practice is for us to choose the right variation of each posture for our own bodies, it’s our responsibility to ourselves to do this. If we aren’t sure we can check in with the breath and body: are we comfortable, can we breathe deeply ? If we can’t tick the mental boxes that say ‘I am comfortable and I am breathing deeply’ then we need to do something about that. We don’t rush, we don’t hurry and succumb to asana envy/seduction. My ever lasting memory of my first trip to Mysore was Guruji’s voice booming around the shala castigating all our Western egos with 'Why you hurry?!' As a teacher, it is easy to spot different personality types in a group. People who are impatient and head-strong are usually in down dog an age before the rest of group are moving into up dog. Absent minded people stand Charlie Chaplin-style with feet ten-to-two in samastitihi instead of having the feet together and parallel. But Yoga is not about completing the jigsaw, rather it's the opposite as we start to unpick at our physical and mental imbalances. The combination of posture and counter posture, lengthening and loosening the muscles is the way we help to readdress the imbalances in our skeletal system. These physical imbalances could start the moment we learn to crawl as babies, as we favour one hand first over the other. These preferences to right and left are then taken into childhood then adulthood, from the way we brush our teeth to the way we get in and out of the car, always in a particular way that we don’t even think about. We normally associate tension in our shoulders as the physical manifestation of stress, but this tension goes much further than the shoulders. It gets everywhere and tightens the body, shortens the muscles rounds the spine. Much harder to address are the mental imbalances, our deep rooted attitudes and opinions that we’ve spent a lifetime cultivating and change just doesn’t happen overnight. But the chance to change physically and mentally is available in every yoga practice you do. Every posture with a deep steady breath marks the the opportunity to deepen the process of taming the tiger to create a strong, flexible body and mind. Footnote There’s a lovely story from the actor Jeff Bridges. During the filming of The Big Lebowski there was a bowling master on set who was hired to teach him and his colleagues how to bowl. Jeff Bridges was asking for advice on how the bowling master thought his character, ‘The Dude’, might bowl. 'Does he prepare for a long time? Does he have to get his mind set?', he asked. The bowling master laughed and told them all a short story. A few years back the bowling master had read the book Zen in the Art of Archery which teaches the student to completely let go of the ego in order to hit the bulls-eye, and so the master started to have this routine before bowling of (what he thought was) ego-releasing tics and jerks and little stress relieving dances which went on for 5 -10 minutes – all in the middle of a tournament. But rather than help the bowling, this routine started to hinder it and things got so bad he couldn’t throw the ball at all before finally seeing a psychiatrist. At the end of the story Jeff Bridges asked what the master does now. 'I just throw the f**king ball, I don’t think!' came the master’s reply. Maybe there’s something in that answer for us all. Let’s not think about whether we are beginners or advanced, or if we can get our hand down to the floor in Parshvakonasana B. And let’s not get carried away with our little routines which can be disguised in all kinds of methods from yoga procrastination (not tonight Josephine it’s raining, I’m just going to have another cup of tea/piece of cake/make a phone call before I do my practice) to self-elevation ‘I’m doing second series now baby, check me out’.  Our routines can also include getting the latest trendiest Lululemon shorts to look fabulous in class, or getting that Shiva tattoo coz ‘that’s like gonna make me well spiritual init’. Let’s try not to think, let's just try to do our f*%$£king practice.