Philippa teaching Mysore-style Ashtanga ‘guided-self practice’
Philippa practising ‘Advanced B Series’ Ashtanga yoga
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m Philippa Asher. I’m English and have been playing with yoga asanas and movement since I was child. I trained as a dancer at a vocational ballet school in England and taught for couple of ballet companies (after gaining a BA hons and two post graduate degrees at university). I then worked in media for twelve years (working on film and music), found Ashtanga yoga in the tradition of Sri K Pattabhi Jois and have been practising the traditional method ever since. I started sharing the practice with others, over ten years ago and in 2008 was Certified by Guruji to teach through to the Advanced B series. I set up a busy traditional Ashtanga yoga programme in Soho, London in 2006 and taught there for several years before moving to India to work on an exciting project to bring Ashtanga yoga to all levels of practitioner, in nature. I now teach in India, the UK and on retreats and workshops worldwide. I miss London and Englishness very much and love going home for the summers, but India has an incredible pull and the project which my husband and I are working on is very exciting. We hope to have people staying with us on our little coffee estate very soon and I’ll teach in the veranda, overlooking the Western Ghats’ tropical rainforest.
Describe your story with Ashtanga yoga …
I started learning formal Ashtanga yoga in the late nineties, but have been playing with yoga asanas and ‘sitting quietly’, since childhood. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I became serious about yoga. It was as simple as a chance encounter with a free Ashtanga taster-class in London, which changed my life. The Ashtanga practice found me, all I had to do was to keep turning up to class. I was working in media at the time, so my life was pretty colourful and I was out every night going to gigs and movies. Great fun, but not sustainable. For the first few years I was still leading a full life, coming home after midnight and getting up at 5am, catching the night bus to class, practising from 6.30am-8.30am, working all day and going out every night. When I hit my mid thirties, I found that something had to give and that’s when I started teaching in the mornings and cutting down on the day job. A year later I was teaching full time. I should also say that it was only because I had a good job in media and an amazing boss that I was able to take numerous sabbaticals to study for 6 month stretches at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, in Mysore. It’s an incredible investment both physically and financially and I spent all my savings on heaps of trips, to learn the traditional Ashtanga yoga method. Now that I live in India I still practise at KPJAYI every year and enjoy the connection with the source and my teacher. I’ve been studying with Sharath for over 15 years now (and his grandfather Pattabhi Jois until his passing). It’s fascinating to see the changes and explosion of the Ashtanga scene. I truly believe in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga vinyasa method and it’s absolutely perfect, if practised and taught exactly how he intended.
What does Ashtanga yoga represent to you?
Ashtanga yoga is a tool for making life a bit easier. I’m a much happier person when I practise asana and the other aspects of Ashtanga yoga. The Eight Limbs described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, form a practical guide on how to lead a more simple and meaningful life. Practising yoga in all its aspects, allows one to feel connected and joyful. Ashtanga yoga makes me happy, healthy and calm, it’s as simple as that!
Tell us about your teachers …
Well Pattabhi Jois (affectionately known as Guruji), was a remarkable man. Always steady, calm, kind, joyful and had an incredible energy that made you feel so honoured to be in his presence. He was also very generous with his teaching and kept the shala open virtually all year round and had his daughter Saraswathi and her son Sharath helping (which meant that the shala wasn’t over crowded and we all had plenty of assistance). Now when I’m practising at KPJAYI, I like to glance at a particular photo of him, which makes me happy. His English was quite limited, but he had a few choice phrases that made everyone smile.
Saraswathi is a wonderful lady and is still teaching in her seventies. She reminds me a lot of Guruji and has his stamina, consistency, strength and joy. It’s nice to have some female energy around too!
Sharath is the same age as me and it’s been very interesting seeing him change roles from Guruji’s young assistant to the director of KPJAYI, after his grandfather’s passing. It must have been a massive undertaking, not to mention dealing with the loss of his grandfather, guru and leader. Today there are literally hundreds of students practising at KPJAYI, so I think Sharath must be some kind of a superhero, to manage so many students and personalities!
How does your personal yoga practice look (on and off the mat) …
I mentioned before that the Eight Limbs described in Patanjali’s Yoga Stutras, gives us a practical guide on how to live a happy and simple life. The yoga practice lasts all day and if we can try to be responsible, pragmatic, driven, kind, compassionate, healthy and calm, it’s a good thing. I try to live by Patanjali’s dharmic principles, but life sometimes life throws us unexpected challenges, so it’s not always easy!
The asana practice is luxury time: two or three hours of feeling fully connected and watching the prana, breath, movements and gaze points unite. The beauty of Ashtanga self practice is that you can just switch off and enjoy the moving meditation. I love where I am in my practise now (I practice the first four series, but on different days). When one has mastered the asanas with grace, strength and perfect alignment, that’s when the yoga starts to happen and you can feel the joy.
Sharing the Ashtanga practice is also part of my sadhana and I truly love teaching. I began teaching ballet when I was 17 and went on to do a post gradate degree in the education of adults at university, so teaching has been in my blood for a long time. I feel very privileged to be Certified by Guruji to teach this system. It is role that I take very seriously!
What tips would you give to a new practitioner of Ashtanga yoga?
Finding a talented, experienced, down-to-earth and qualified teacher (who is skilled at reading bodies, patient, an excellent communicator, gifted asana practitioner, demonstrator and adjuster) is paramount. Being an advanced asana practitioner does not necessarily equal ‘talented teacher’. They are two very different skills. If you can learn from someone who has these skills and is also a strong technique and alignment technician, you should be in safe hands. Learn slowly and consistently and be receptive and open. Dedication, determination and discipline are key. The Ashtanga method is a work in progress and takes years to understand. Many people start the practice simply to feel more healthy. After a few months you start to notice physical and mental changes. After a few years, your life changes!
Please share your favourites with us – books, sites, resources…
I love watching old footage and reading about Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, Desikachar etc. It’s so fascinating learning about the history and development of modern yoga. Mr Iyengar has written several interesting books and academics such as Mark Singleton and James Mallinson too. Richard Freeman has published and recorded some very sound and useful Ashtanga yoga resources. Obviously Pattabhi Jois’ Yoga Mala and Krishnamacharya’s Yogasanagalu are delightful and anyone keen to learn about the Ashtanga system will also enjoy reading Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (although we must consider the context and time in which they were written). The work of intelligent and understated practitioners and teachers, tends to be the most genuine and powerful.
Any Closing thoughts …
Anyone who stumbles upon the Ashtanga yoga practice is very lucky. I genuinely believe that even if you just practise the correct method for an hour a day, four or five times a week, it’s enough to make a difference …
Interview with Supersoul Yoga, January 2015 www.supersoul.yoga
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Now incredibly popular worldwide, Ashtanga yoga is a powerful discipline that creates a calm and healthy mind, body and nervous system.
Ashtanga means Eight Limbs in Sanskrit. Each limb (aspect) is a method by which one can achieve a deep state of conscious awareness and thus live in harmony with the universe.
Asana (posture) is the third limb and its aim is to purify the body and prepare it for meditation. The mind has to be cleaned also, as do speech and behaviour. The other limbs invite us to do this via our: moral, ethical and social conduct (yamas); personal behaviour (niyamas); breath control (pranayama); sensory control (pratyahara); concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). With mastery of the aforementioned limbs, the superconscious state of final limb (samadhi) may be experienced.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Around 2000 years ago the great Indian sage Patanjali, wrote about Ashtanga yoga in a collection of 196 aphorisms called Yoga Sutras. As well as reciting the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, he describes the nature of human suffering and guides us to understand the root of consciousness and gifts to be gained through the practise of yoga and having a balanced approach to life.
Patanjali outlines five human afflictions called kleshas, that must be overcome in order to achieve absolute liberation. These are: attachment; aversion; egoism; ignorance and fear of death. Also cited are six poisons known as arisha dvargas, that cover the light in our hearts or ‘soul’. These are: desire; anger; greed; delusion; arrogance and jealousy. Patanjali claims that through the practise of Ashtanga yoga, these debilitating traits may dissipate and true peace can then be attained.
It is the yamas (ahimsa: non-violence; satya: truth; asteya: not stealing; brahmacarya: appropriate sexual conduct; aparigraha: non-greed); niyamas (sauca: cleanliness of body and mind; santosa: contentment with what one has; tapas: austerities and disciplines; svadhyaya: self study; isvara pranidhana: surrender and acceptance without expectation); asana (postural practice, to detoxify and open the body and mind); pranayama (life force, or breath control and expansion); pratyhara (withdrawal of the senses from external stimulation); dharana (concentration of the mind); dhyana (meditation: focusing the mind on a single entity); samadhi (a higher state of conscious awareness, where the mind goes beyond the object of meditation and the individual self) and concepts of Samkhya philosophy that are described in the Yoga Sutras, that form the basic principles of the dharmic way of life, for an Ashtanga yoga practitioner. The aim is to connect with pure consciousness (purusha) and to be free from the delusion (maya) that the nature of our mind (prakriti) causes.
Ashtanga Asana System
The asana (posture) system is characterised by powerful, synchronised ‘breathing and movement’ (vinyasa); gaze points (dristi) and internal energy locks (bandhas). The aim of the Ashtanga asana practice is to attain the perfect alignment of the breath, looking place and movement (tristhana) and through doing so, to develop a moving meditation. Throughout the practice, very slow inhalations and exhalations through the nose, allow prana (vital energy) to be carried around the subtle body. Coupled with the correct execution of tristhana, stagnant energy in the nadis (energy channels) and around the chakras (energy centres) may be unblocked. In turn, this allows prana to flow freely around the body, dissolving any physical or mental disturbances.
Through regular practise of a precise sequence of flowing asanas, the body becomes flexible, strong and light, toxins are removed and the blood is cleaned. Many aliments can be improved. Slow controlled breathing and deep concentration create incredible focus and a quiet mind, resulting in a feeling of calmness and peace.
Today, there are six ‘series’ of Ashtanga yoga asanas: Primary (Yoga Chikitsa) to detoxify, balance, open and strengthen the body; Intermediate (Nadi Sodhana) to purify the nervous system; Advanced A, B, C and D (Sthira Bhaga Samapta) to demonstrate high levels of strength, flexibility, grace and humility . When one asana is mastered in a controlled manner (with calm deep breathing), the next is added until a complete ‘series’ is practised regularly. With time (as the body and mind purify, grow stronger and become more open), the other aspects of Ashtanga yoga transpire organically, allowing us to find our true nature and connection with the universe.
Ashtanga Yoga Lineage
The Ashtanga yoga system is said to have been first illustrated by Vamana Rishi, in an ancient text called Yoga Korunta. Early last century Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari shared many ancient teachings of yoga and concepts described in this work, with his student Sri K Krishnamacharya.
From the early 1930s – 1950s, the Maharaja of Mysore sponsored Krishnamacharya and gave him a yoga space (shala) in the Mysore Jaganmohan Palace grounds. His remit was to popularise yoga. One of his students was our esteemed guru, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, whom he taught for over twenty years. In 1937 the Maharaja of Mysore asked Jois to open a yoga department at the Sanskrit College in Mysore. He was made Professor of Yoga nineteen years later and taught there until 1973.
Affectionally know as Guruji, Pattabhi Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948 and has since then, has shared his extensive knowledge of Ashtanga yoga, with thousands of students all over the world.
He passed away in 2009 (at the age of 93) and is succeeded as Director of the renamed Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI), by his highly proficient grandson Sharath Jois.
For more information about Ashtanga yoga, check out the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute’s website: KPJAYI.org
‘Do you not know that your body is a temple where the Holy Spirit resides
and is a gift from God? You are not your own’
– Corinthians (6:19)
‘By practising all eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga, the impurities of the body and mind will be destroyed. These impurities are obstacles that prevent us from realising the true nature of the soul’
– Yoga Sutras (2:28)
Philippa teaches Ashtanga yoga in the tradition of Sri K Pattabhi Jois in India, London and Europe. Beginners through to Advanced B practitioners are welcome.
To be kept up to date with details of classes, workshops and retreats please email: email@example.com
From October to May, Philippa teaches at ASHTANGA NIRVRTA in the Western Ghats of South India (not far from where both Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and Sri K Pattabhi Jois once lived and is 100 miles from Mysore).
Nestled in a stunning coffee estate in Sakleshpur, Hassan district ASHTANGA NIRVRTA and is an environmentally friendly ‘homestay yoga retreat’, that brings Ashtanga yoga to all levels of practitioners, in nature. Numbers are limited for optimum attention and guests are welcome to join our bespoke Ashtanga yoga retreats from October to May each year:
Philippa teaches the Ashtanga Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A and Advanced B Series, as learned directly from Sri K Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois at KPJAYI in Mysore, India.
The method is Mysore-style guided self-practice (where students of all levels are taught individually, in the same room and practise at their own pace) and weekly Sanskrit-counted led classes (where everyone practises together, following the same breath and vinyasas, as counted by the teacher).
Philippa also teaches workshops, to share other aspects of the Ashtanga method. In special circumstances (and subject to availability), she may offer private tuition. Please click here for rates.
‘The guru is vital in the learning of yoga. Learning yoga without a gifted teacher may harm the student, instead of elevating him’
– Yoga Rahasya (1:8)
‘Whether young, old, sick or debilitated, one who discards laziness, attains success in yoga, if they actively practise’
– Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Philippa teaches at ASHTANGA NIRVṚTA in India from October – May. The rest of the year, she leads Ashtanga yoga residencies, workshops and retreats in London and Europe.
Please click here to see all UK workshop and retreat dates for 2016. See below for highlights of longer 2016 events.
|DORSET July 2016||LONDON July – Sep 2016|
|HIGHLANDS RETREAT Sep 2016||CROATIA RETREAT Sep/Oct 2016|
Downloadable Ashtanga Yoga Asana Practise Sheets for the Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A and Advanced B Series, as learned by Philippa Asher directly from Guruji Sri K Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois, over 15 consecutive years of study at KPJAYI:
STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM
‘Asana is steadiness and ease’ (of posture and mind)
– Yoga Sutras (II,46)
‘One who has control over the mind:
is tranquil in heat and cold,
in pleasure and pain, in honour and dishonour
and is ever steadfast with the Supreme Self’
– Bhagavad Gita (VI,7)
To be kept up to date with information about classes, workshops and retreats, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘A person who has given up all need for sensory gratification,
who lives free from desires, has surrendered all sense of ownership
and is devoid of false ego, can then attain real peace’
– Bhagavad Gita (II:71)
‘Yoga Mala’ by Sri K Pattabhi Jois www.amazon.co.uk
‘Astanga Yoga Anusthana’ by Sharath Jois http://kpjayi.org
‘Light on Yoga’ by BKS Iyengar www.amazon.co.uk
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali www.amazon.co.uk
Hatha Yoga Pradipika www.amazon.co.uk
Bhagavad Gita www.amazon.co.uk
contemporary philosophy interpretations
‘The Mirror of Yoga’ by Richard Freeman www.amazon.co.uk
‘Light on the Yoga Sutras’ by BKS Iyengar www.amazon.co.uk
‘The Yoga Tradition’ by Georg Feuerstein www.amazon.co.uk
‘Yoga Body’ by Mark Singleton www.amazon.co.uk
‘Roots of Yoga’ by M Singleton & J Mallinson coming soon
‘Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series with R. Sharath’ http://kpjayi.org
‘Intermediate Series with Sri. K Pattabhi Jois’ https://www.youtube.com
‘Maui Yoga’ Guruji instructing Advanced A & B http://www.mauiyoga.com
‘The Yoga Matrix’ by Richard Freeman http://www.yogaworkshop.com
‘Chants of India’ by Ravi Shankar www.amazon.co.uk
Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute http://kpjayi.org
KPJAYI Certified Ashtanga Teachers List http://kpjayi.org
Supersoul Yoga http://www.supersoul.yoga
Philippa practising asanas from the Ashtanga Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, B & C Series. Photos by Mahesh Nandeesh & Tom Rosenthal
Guruji & Sharath counting a ‘Led Intermediate Series’ class, at KPJAYI in Mysore (Philippa is in blue). Asana photos by Itay Dollinger
THE WAY OF THE DRILL
a true account of creating a homestay yoga retreat in India
LONDON TO INDIA
It took a whole year after we were married, before Mahesh was granted a settlement visa to the UK. His tourist visa was denied too, which resulted in us having a full-on Hindu wedding in Bangalore, without any of my family present. The astrologer said that the most auspicious day to tie the knot, was on Friday (the day of Venus). I happened to be sitting at my desk in London when I heard the news and couldn’t expect my family and university mates to drop everything and fly five thousand miles to join me. My fabulous Dutch friend did though and managed to keep me calm when several Indian ladies were vociferously arguing in the temple’s side room, about how to fold the pleats in my sari. I’d never worn a sari before, nor in fact attended an Indian wedding. Nothing can really prepare you for the unexpected and baffling journey that India will take you on. My sister calls it ‘the way of drill’, but more about that later.
I had no idea that the Ashtanga practice would eventually draw me away from my fabulous Soho media job (which entailed going to several gigs and movies a week, after-show parties, working hard and generally having a lot of fun with creative hedonists). I didn’t expect to have to sell my North London flat either, but when I changed careers (to become a full-time Ashtanga yoga teacher), my salary wasn’t enough to cover my mortgage and living expenses. One idea was to use the money from the sale of my only asset, to buy land in India and construct a fabulous homestay yoga retreat.
I had been exposed to classical Indian dance, music, art, architecture, food and yoga postures since childhood, but Mahesh had warned me that life in India would be hard. Even though I’d spent many years studying at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, the culture shock of actually moving there was massive. It’s one thing to hang out with Westerners in an upmarket neighbourhood that panders to foreigners’ needs; it is quite something else living in India full-time, working on a project with locals and trying to get things done. There are two Indias residing in one country: Traditional India (happily rooted in the 19th century, with antiquated values, beliefs and practices) and Modern India, where anything is possible. The complication is that they are intertwined, dichotomous and contradictory.
We arrived in Bangalore in 2011. I wanted to see a lot more of the country, before deciding upon where to build our Ashtanga yoga homestay retreat. We spent a few jolly weeks exploring North India, lappingup the cultural diversity and noticing significant differences from the South. Rajasthan was particularly beautiful with its remarkable architecture, forts and palaces. We did find North India quite aggressive though and Mahesh began to realise that his proficiency in several South Indian languages and his understanding of how things work in South India, might make the South a better choice for us. He was particularly irked when presented with a glass of instant Nescafé, after having ordered a South Indian filter coffee. “Sir, this is what they drink in South India.”
South India feels a lot softer and more easy-going than the North and of course the food and climate are amazing. We’d both explored the South over numerous road trips, so had a pretty good idea of what each State was like and how difficult it might be to set up a business. There are twenty-nine States in India and each has its own language, customs and rules. Being from Karnataka and knowing the landscape, language, laws, locals’ mindsets and how everything works, Mahesh felt that it would undoubtedly be the smartest place to create our business.
Over the next six months he visited numerous plots of land all over Karnataka. I wasn’t allowed to go, because if the agent saw a gori, then the land price would be quadrupled. Mahesh filmed and photographed each location and reported back. Our criteria was that we needed fertile land with a water source, that is easily accessible, not too far from a town, that is in stunning hill land, has the ‘wow’ factor, breathtaking views and hundreds of trees and plants. We’d almost given up the search when Mahesh telephoned one morning and said “I’ve found it.”
BRICKS AND MORTAR
The Western Ghats are spectacular. We drove through Sakleshpur as the sun was rising and Mahesh made me wear a blindfold as we meandered up the track towards our soon-to-be land. I removed my eye-wear as the car stopped. ’Wow!” It was truly magnificent. The panoramic views of the Western Ghats and bustle of life from the surrounding coffee estates took my breath away. We were in paradise. There were hundreds of trees, flowers, birds, butterflies, plants, coffee bushes, black pepper creepers, fruit trees and vegetable crops surrounding a small lake!
We’d both fallen in love with the place, but of course acquiring any land in India is a very complicated and drawn-out process and even more so when it is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, we decided to press on with construction. Our vision was to create a beautiful rustic farmhouse (in keeping with rural India), using local materials, reclaimed pillars, window frames, doors and crafted artefacts. Because so many wonderful old buildings are being pulled down in India (due to family disputes and people wanting to sell-up to properly developers), it’s possible to pick up charming wooden doors, carved pillars, fabulous shuttered window frames and terracotta roof tiles for next to nothing. We both agreed that we wanted to design the buildings ourselves, rather than paying a haughty architect lots of money to come up with something unbefitting. I loved the idea of having a sweeping veranda all around the house and enormous bedrooms with heaps of natural light. Mahesh wanted a spacious kitchen and sizeable ensuite bathrooms. We both agreed that a church-like living room would be fun. So that’s what we built. The old farmhouse that was already on the land became our living room and the walls were raised to over twenty feet, allowing us to create a picturesque tiled-roof, which slopes over our fifteen foot terrace. Around the living room we added three large bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and a huge veranda (part of which is now a dining area with a fireplace). My yoga shala looks out over the Western Ghats and next to Mahesh’s outdoor kitchen is a fabulous wood-fired oven. We built a lovely cottage for guests and plan to construct a couple more. We have named our coffee estate NIRVṚTA (which means ‘joyful’ in Sanskrit) and designed our homestay yoga retreat with the intention of creating an idyllic space in nature for free-spirited, like-minded individuals, to escape from urban living, practise Ashtanga yoga, feel connected and to revitalise the body, mind and spirit. The next phase will be to make a wonderful swimming pool at the top of the hill, which looks out over the Western Ghats.
One of the most striking aspects of the Western Ghats, is its lush vegetation. For three months of the year there is torrential rain, so no construction work can happen. The other major challenge in South India is to find reliable, skilled workers, who will actually show up. We realised pretty early on that local construction labourers aren’t dependable. They’d promise to come, but never appear. In the end we had to ferry a team of guys from Bangalore to Sakleshpur, but they would only stay for two weeks at a time and then need at least a month off. As a result, it took several years to build the house, cottage, outdoor kitchen, auxiliary buildings and to design the landscaping. The work ethic can be quite lackadaisical in India, with an overwhelming sense of self-deserving, without actually making any effort to do anything. If Mahesh was not project-managing every moment, our workers would literally sit and do nothing and if he was not overseeing them they would magnificently manage to do the job wrong. One day I explained to the mason that the shala floor must to be level. I took my Stanley tape measure and gave him the exact specs. I had to pop back to Mysore for a few days and when I returned the shala floor was dramatically sloping. “Ramesh! The floor is sloping, it must be level!” “Madam, for water drainage.” “What water drainage, Ramesh?” It took another three days to re-do the floor. The plumber fitted the waste-water-pipe outlet along an upward slope, so the water couldn’t drain away. The shower heads were fitted eight feet high, so only a giant could reach them. The electrician’s make-shift wiring, blew up my lovely flat-screen TV and the painters splattered so much paint on our beautiful grey-stone veranda pillars and walls, that we ended up having to paint them too. The plumber dropped a hammer in my bathtub and cracked it and the workers forgot to remove the enormous water tank (that was being stored in the house), before building the final wall around it … These are just a few examples of jobs that had to be re-done under constant supervision. Of course construction workers like to be paid by the day, rather than the project! After the carpenters put up more wonky selves and I rolled an orange from one end to the other, I had a bit of a meltdown. Miraculously Mahesh’s uncle had been working with two very talented carpenters from Bihar and they agreed to help us out. They looked at the two kitchens that needed fitting, under-bed drawers and bathroom cupboards that needed making and gave us a quote for the whole project. Two weeks later they had finished and their craftsmanship was impeccable.
The workers did seem to enjoy themselves though. Being in nature in such a stunning part of India, must have been a welcome escape from overpopulated, polluted and noisy Bangalore. On the first day of each monsoon the team would stop everything, run around in the rain and bury each other in the muddy earth. It’s quite wonderful to watch people embracing the natural rhythm of nature with such care-free aplomb. Thankfully we have a beautiful lawn now, so the Glastonbury antics can’t be replicated by our guests!
My parents agreed to visit us in India, once the house was almost completed. I was keen to drive them around, so decided to embark upon Indian driving lessons and a test. I had to take my ‘provisional test’, before I was allowed to sign up for lessons, so went along to the Road Traffic Office in Mysore. Upon asking for a copy of the Highway Code, I was swiftly ushered into a room, where a uniformed man starting pointing at a medley of pictures on the wall, expecting me to know what they symbolised. I proffered a few guesses: warning, bullock carts; order, tongas prohibited; warning, unguarded level crossing ahead; warning, deers crossing etc. The portly man started flapping his right arm, which baffled me somewhat. He told me to copy him, so I obediently flapped too. He helpfully explained that these were the hand signals for slowing down, turning right, turning left and over-taking. “But what are the car’s indicators and brake lights for?” I naively asked. He clearly wasn’t happy about my insolence and grunted indignantly. Miraculously I passed my provisional test and booked my first driving lesson. I was allowed ten, one-hour classes before my exam. I learned to drive in India, in a Maruti 800. There were no rear-view or wing mirrors in the car. This made me very nervous, but my instructor assured me that it was safer this way. “Focus only on what is ahead of you” he advised. He also made me turn right, way before the actual turnings; prohibited me from stopping at roundabouts; encouraged me to crawl along at a snail’s pace in the fast lanes and reverse into main roads. When I refused to go through a red light, he yelled “Madam, this is India!” The day of my test came and Mahesh and I arrived at the RTO at 9am. We joined an already enormous queue and waited for several hours in the sun. Around lunchtime a voice shouted “You foreigner, simulated test.” I was appalled. I hadn’t sat in a tiny car for ten hours with my incongruous driving instructor, only to take a pretend test. After a heated conversation in Kannada, I was led to another queue, where there were over a hundred people waiting by a dozen learner-driver vehicles. We were standing on a busy main road in Mysore accompanied by cows, lorries, bikes and rickshaws. The cars were parked in a line by the side of the road and each examinee, had to elbow their way into a driver’s seat. It took me a long time to summon the confidence to barge my way into a car and when I did I was told to sit down and fold my arms. There was a hefty Indian man in the passenger seat, who had his own set of foot pedals. Although this car did actually have rear view and wing mirrors, they were angled for the passenger’s use. I didn’t even get to start the car as the engine was already running when I clambered in. Our vehicle pulled out and the hefty man drove me around the block and then reversed parked into the space from whence we began. All twelve cars were following the same procedure. Over the road, underneath a large tree sat a gruff examiner, whom none of us personally met. He would occasionally look up to assess the chaos. Three months later, a driving licence arrived in the post for me. Mahesh decided that he would be my parents’ chauffeur.
So a few days before Christmas my Mum, Dad, sister and her husband arrived. They were our first guests at NIRVṚTA, so we saw their visit as a trial run for the retreat. The journey from the airport to Sakleshpur gave my family a lively welcome to the country. They were greeted by a cacophony of persistent horn-hoots, cows languidly walking along the road, helmet-less families precariously balancing on flimsy scooters and drivers demonstrating their prowess in reckless abandon. Luckily we only had to have one loo stop, but nevertheless my Mum managed to chance upon the most ghastly squat lavatory in the whole of India and had already bolted the door before I could show her the fabulous Western potty in the adjacent cubicle.
We happily arrived at NIRVṚTA in one piece and any colourful events from the journey were soon forgotten, when my family saw the splendour of our homestay yoga retreat. It was so heart-warming to see the expressions on their faces as the images from the photos that I had sent them became real. We had actually built an enormous farmhouse, a cottage, an outdoor kitchen, a workshop and had transformed five acres of wilderness into a working coffee and black pepper estate, with a wonderful garden, fruit trees, organic vegetable patch, lawn and lily pond. They were truly impressed and began to adjust to a leisurely life of sitting on the boundless veranda reading, going for fabulous walks across the neighbouring coffee estates, chasing friendly spiders around the bathtub and having dinner on our banquet table, next to a roaring log fire. On one of our walks my Mum excitedly discovered an enormous scorpion and stood proudly next to it for a photoshoot. This must have been an auspicious day, as moments later we chanced upon two eight foot rat snakes mating. Paying no attention to their bewitched spectators, they elegantly danced and writhed around in perfect unison, demonstrating the mesmerising magnificence of nature. We planted new trees around the estate and dropped coins by each root, for good luck. Mahesh became a whizz at IT support, as my octogenarian parents played with their MacBook Pro, iPhone 6s and iPad. We even enjoyed a few Kingfishers around a full-moon bonfire and miraculously missed (by minutes), the parading of a trumpeting male elephant, as he walked past our house from the forest. There’s never a dull moment in India!
Naturally our fancy Aga-style cooking range decided to stop working the day before Christmas Eve and no one could fix it until the new year. Not wanting to miss having our traditional English Christmas lunch, we decided to venture to Mysore feed our faces and celebrate the birth of Christ. My Dad suggested that it might be a good idea to get Mahesh’s electric drill fixed in Mysore (as he was rather perturbed that not much work had been happening since their arrival and wanted my brother-in-law to put up more shelves). We loaded the car with Christmas crackers, presents, a tree, decorations, wine, cranberry sauce, mince pies and party clothes and merrily drove off to Mysore, leaving the electric drill in the veranda.
Mahesh phoned Rajana (the owner of the coffee estate next to ours) and in exchange for a bottle of rum, asked him to pop the drill in a box and hand it (along with our name and phone number) to the driver of the next bus to Mysore. This should have been an ingenious plan, except that Rajana didn’t write our name on the box, nor did he take down the driver’s mobile number, or the bus’s registration number. So … our drill went back and forth to Mysore and Sakleshpur for three days, before Rajana managed to locate the driver at Sakleshpur bus station and gave him Mahesh’s phone number. On December 28th Mahesh successfully met up with the driver at Mysore bus station, who happily reunited him with our drill. “The way of the drill” soon became an affectionate metaphor to describe anything whose destiny is out of our hands (but will hopefully be alright, in the end)! When we arrived back in Sakleshpur after our Christmas and New Year celebrations, two people from the cooking range company (who had traveled since 5am to be at our place by 9am), were waiting for us in the veranda. They leapt up to greet us and happily repaired the oven.
CREATING A YOGA RETREAT
The months flew by as we worked against the clock to get the retreat ready for our first guests in May. The workers came back and forth from Bangalore (taking off heaps of time for the numerous Indian festivals that occur every month), but worked from sunrise until nightfall, to finish the remaining masonry and electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, painting, landscaping and clearing of the land. We had countless power cuts, which meant that anything that required an electrical current could only be done in short bursts, but magically the retreat began to take shape. We planted grass for the lawn, heaps of bougainvilleas and colourful flowers and filled the pond with lilies and reeds. We even took a trip to Mahesh’s grandfather’s village, where he commandeered an enormous clay grain-pot, which would not look out of place in the British Museum. Curious as to why a Modern Indian would have use for an ancient village storage receptacle, several of his granny’s neighbours appeared and offered him their clay pots too. We gingerly loaded the van with their gifts and drove back to NIRVṚTA.
One of the most exciting aspects of building your own homestay retreat, is that you can design it exactly as you wish. We have been acquiring a collection of interesting antiques and rustic curiosities from all over the world for several years, but it was as if the house was specifically created to accommodate our treasures. We couldn’t have known this as it took over three years before the contents of my North London flat, finally arrived in Sakleshpur. We had to go over to Chennai to meet the crate (containing our beloved possessions), deal with customs and check that everything was there. Three boxes were missing and of course they were the only ones that I particularly cared about. They contained my antique furniture. After numerous phone calls and a lot of detective work, we established that two boxes were in Delhi and the other one was in Mumbai. No one could quite understand why. Six weeks later our eighty seven boxes (coming from Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai) arrived together. We then had to keep them in storage for a couple of years, whilst we finished building the house. Eventually a van carrying our goodies arrived in Sakleshpur and Mahesh and I turned into small children, as we eagerly ripped open packaging and discovered belongings that we had long since forgotten about. Miraculously everything fitted into our homestay perfectly and nothing looked out of place. Artefacts from all over the world now adorn our living room and even the black clay grain-pot stands magnificently next to the majestic wooden front door (which has distressed-brass handles, that resemble two figures in Setu Bandhasana). The other eight clay pots are scattered around the retreat and feel quite at home next to old wooden pillars, benches and sculptures the we have acquired.
A week before the guests arrived, the cook that we had organised to come from Mysore, rang Mahesh to tell us that his boss wanted him to dog-sit for the next three weeks. I couldn’t believe it. We had visitors coming from all over the world and there was no cook. Mahesh said that he could do it, but we needed him to mange the retreat and to over-see everything. I went to bed in tears. At seven o’clock the next morning there was a knock at the front door and a tiny woman in a large shirt said “I think you need some help.” She had already cleared a huge area of flat land half way up the hill, which was carpeted with weeds. “Meditation area” she informed us. She had gathered all the leaves from the lawn and created a compost heap at one end of the organic vegetable garden. She then asked us if she could clean the house and after doing an immaculate job, cooked us dinner. Who was this Fairy Godmother and who had sent her? She was a widow named Saroja, whose children had left home and who had a gift for using her initiative. Saroja came every day, helping us clean, tidy, cook and organise the kitchen, guest rooms and shala. She made heaps of suggestions about how things should be run and had basically taken us under her wing.
Obviously we needed to increase the size of the team during the retreat and Saroja took it upon herself to recruit appropriate helpers. The community spirit was wonderful, as everyone mucked in and pulled together to ensure that our soft launch retreat at ASHTANGA NIRVṚTA was a joyful success. What we had created was not only a fabulous sanctuary in nature (for Ashtanga practitioners to immerse themselves in every aspect of yoga), but also a traditional-style Indian homestay yoga retreat that the locals were proud of.
Sunrise on the first day of the retreat was upon us and Mahesh’s father appeared in a dazzling white dhoti, to offer puja to our magnificent hand-carved stone Ganesha statue. We laid down beautiful jamkhana rugs in the yoga shala and the aroma of sandalwood incense infused the air. After several hours of chanting soothing Sanskrit mantras and thoughtfully offering flowers and puja to our idol, ASHTANGA NIRVṚTA was ready for the arrival of our guests.
One of the things that I am most proud of as an Ashtanga yoga teacher, is the students who choose to study with me. So far I have been blessed with wonderful, easy-going, receptive, fun, intelligent, hard working and unassuming adults, who are a joy to work with. The guests at our launch retreat were no exception. We had delightful visitors from North and South India, Europe, North Africa and North America, all of whom Saroja happily welcomed with a garland of flowers.
The concept of a homestay yoga retreat is quite different from the big commercial retreats, where heaps of practitioners receive little personal attention. Guests stay in our home and treat it as their home. I like to teach small groups and give students as much individual guidance as possible (similar to how Guruji worked with us, at the old Laxmipuram Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute). Being in stunning nature means that guests can feel truly connected and free themselves from the clutches of urban living. It is an idyllic way to practise yoga.
Every morning Saroja would create rangoli patterns outside the main doors and put fresh flowers on the Ganesha statue in the yoga shala. The group would leisurely arrive (often with fresh coffee in hand), ready for asana class. From Sundays to Thursdays I would lead guided self-practice and on Fridays we enjoyed a Sanskrit-counted led Primary class. Although we worked incredibly hard, we managed to have plenty of laughter. My accidentally saying “sat, exhale, backward dog” was a particular favourite, as was Avi’s “my legs have fallen off.” Every afternoon we would indulge in workshops on asana technique and enjoy long walks when we would discuss yoga philosophy, history and have ‘conference’. On clear evenings (as the sun set), we would sit on the hill where Saroja had cleared the land, for pranayama, chanting and meditation. Following Guruji’s tradition of taking Saturday (the day of Saturn) as a holiday, we embarked on a spot of sight-seeing. The 12th Century Hoysala stone temples of Belur and Halebid, are not only enthralling but demonstrate a feat of architectural and sculptural magnificence. Exquisite and intricate carvings of Hindu gods, entwined bodies, emblems, creatures and symbols, cover every inch of the temples which took over one hundred years to complete. Our journey back to the retreat was rather memorable too. One of the guests wasn’t quite ready to leave the restaurant where we were devouring delicious chats, so we didn’t depart until dark. A huge storm blew up and the howling winds, rain and thunder bolts caused a tree to fall across the main road back to Sakleshpur. Traffic was diverted via a small country lane (which had no street lighting) and of course a tree had fallen there too. We would have been stuck for hours, had the driver of our jeep not known about a farmland short cut. We arrived back at NIRVṚTA Estate later than expected and ravenous.
One of the reasons that I was so upset that the cook from Mysore couldn’t come, was that I thought the guests would want Western food (which he could create). I couldn’t have been more wrong. “You’re a homestay retreat. We want to eat what you eat” the guests told me. This was music to my ears as we feasted on mangoes, papayas, bananas, pomelos, melons, pineapples and granola after practice each morning and delved into a spectacular offering of South Indian breakfasts every lunchtime. Avi charmed the ladies who prepared food for us, into creating delectable treats reminiscent of his mother’s cooking. After dark we indulged in South Indian vegetarian thali-style dishes such as local vegetable curries, thoran, salads, red rice, akki rotis, dal, channa, rajma, sambar and papad. I can’t pretend that our secret stash of beer wasn’t discovered by our razor-sharp guests and enjoyed by all, with roasted ground nuts and banana chips on Friday evenings!
Before the guests departed they asked for bags of our freshly ground coffee to take home. We were sad to say goodbye, but I’m happy that they will keep coming back to ASHTANGA NIRVṚTA. The launch was a wonderful success and we eagerly await our future retreats from October to May each year.
I have come to expect the unexpected in India and have surrendered to the fact that yes usually means no, nothing is as it seems and if there is a complicated way of doing something, it will be embraced (often with no outcome at all). I do not claim to understand Incredible India, or the logic which determines many people’s actions, but the light, the colours, the exotic aromas, the smiles, the delicious fruit, cuisine, stunning nature and constant assault on the senses, perpetually captivate me and make the Magical Motherland a place to behold.
India is extraordinary and is the perfect place for our Ashtanga yoga homestay retreat. England is my home and it is important for me to connect with my family, friends and English culture. I miss all that is familiar, the way people speak, our humour, rhyming slang, banter, irony, English newspapers, Sunday lunch, country pubs, walks on Hampstead Heath, the architecture in the City of London, the Thames, the café culture, stately homes, art galleries, museums, theatre, concerts, gigs, cinema, the variety of shops, selection of products, customer service, church bells and satirical British television and radio. Coming home every summer to teach in Europe, not only keeps me clear-headed, but has also paid for our living expenses in India these last five years. The yoga practice is about feeling connected, having a balanced life and being happy, healthy and peaceful. Spending half my time teaching Ashtanga yoga at our joyful retreat in the hills of South India and the rest of the year sharing the practice in England and Europe, not only allows me to stay connected to my roots, but (when the nights draw in and the sky turns grey) enables me to keep going back to the motherland of yoga, where everything is exotic, vibrant and mysterious. www.nirvrta.com © 2016 Philippa Asher
Musings About an Ashtanga Asana Practice from Twenty-something to Forty-something
by Philippa Asher
The Ashtanga yoga system can spark a magical period in one’s twenties and thirties. Without even noticing, our lifestyle can change and the courage to rework aspects of our life that are no longer us, can manifest.
I discovered the Ashtanga practice in my late twenties. It was incredible. It still is. For me, the asana limb was a healthy replacement for dance. I trained as a ballet dancer and taught for the education departments of a couple of British ballet companies, after completing my post graduate degree in teaching adults, at university.
What I loved most about the asana system, was that in the 1990s, it didn’t seem to be at all competitive and you could be any shape, size or age to enjoy it. You just had to make an effort to show up to class (which for a twenty-something in London back then, wasn’t easy). It was the euphoria that I felt when taking rest, that was so amazing. I started off going to led-classes. I decided that if I could ever master Supta Kurmasana, I would stop. It seemed like such an unachievable goal, but gave my mind something to aspire to. It wasn’t long before I got the bug and one class a week, turned into two and then ‘guided self-practice’. I was was fairly supple from having been a dancer, but lacked adequate shoulder and arm strength. I worked hard to correct the imbalance in my body and my mind discovered a whole new level of determination and drive.
Guruji spoke about learning the practice slowly and with good reason. I moved through the Primary and Intermediate Series fairly quickly and it wasn’t long before I encountered the Advanced A Series arm balances. The way my body dealt with the additional weight-bearing on a non weight-bearing joint, was to increase the bone density in my wrists. This sounds great, but the extra jagged bone managed to saw through the tendon that works the thumb, in my left hand. I had a tendon graft and then two years later, snapped the same tendon in my right wrist. A wise person would have taken a decent about of time off the asana practice, to allow the graft to settle and for the trauma to recover. I was young and foolish and was swinging around on my plaster of Paris cast, the next day. I had my second graft in Mysore and managed to bust my stitches during practice (no cast, just a bandage this time). The surgeon sewed me up with no aesthetic, to teach me a lesson. It took another decade for me to actually learn from the experience.
It is well documented that when Krishnamacharya was teaching at the Jaganmohan Palace in the 1930s, most of his students were young, agile males. The asanas and vinyasas that he shared, were athletic and almost gymnastic. In those days, Krishnamacharya said that his classes were not for women. It was only when Indra Devi persuaded the Maharaja of Mysore to intervene, that Krishnamacharya had his first female Western student. Devi was said to have been taught in a more gentle fashion to the men and subsequently shared asana in the West, without vinyasa.
Guruji of course, was one of those young agile boys and went on to become a long-term student of Krishnamacharya’s. If he was still with us, I would ask Guruji how the Ashtanga asana practice felt in his body, as he progressed in years and whether he continued with the Advanced sequences, until he gave up his postural practice in the 1970s.
We know that the ‘series’ learned by Guruji’s first groups of Western students, developed into what they are today. His Laxmipuram shala was called the ‘Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute’, which suggests that the practice was still evolving. Women were (and still are) taught the same demanding sequences as men, despite having smaller frames and muscles. It would be interesting to know if Guruji’s long-term students (from over twenty to forty years ago), are still practising in the same way, or whether they have refined their practice, to adapt to their bodies maturing.
Learning asanas on a feminine body, is probably different to learning them on a masculine one. The quintessentially Indian male frame with its broad shoulders, long back and narrow hips, is perfect for the Ashtanga asana practice. I have narrow shoulders, substantial hips, long limbs and a small upper back. This is great for leg behind the head work, but not so beneficial for hand balancing (where shorter limbs, wide shoulders and a long trunk, are helpful). In order to build strength, I have had to practise, practise, practise.
I enjoyed many years of feeling invincible after my tendon grafts, but ‘overdoing it’ eventually caught up with me. Osteoarthritis is not uncommon for athletic women, when they reach their mid-forties. Worst affected are my wrists, from excessive weight-bearing; neck, from placing my feet on the floor in Ganda Bherundasana and big toe joints, from years of landing heavily in Chaturanga, on unsprung floors. I now work more intelligently with the practice. Swift Suryanamaskaras and vinyasas between sides and postures, compound my joint pain. Elongated breaths and steadiness of mind and body, are key to my staying healthy. Regular exercise is good for my osteoarthritis, but I have to be smart when assessing which asanas have become too extreme. Ahimsa (non-harming), is the first yama of the Ashtanga practice after all.
Also, the length of my practice in my late thirties was rather long. Before I was ‘spilt’ between Advanced A and B, it took nearly three hours and I did not have a ladies’ day in three years. I should have told my teacher, obviously. Ladies’ holidays are important and if women are not menstruating, they need to explore why and then address the problem. The practice is all about finding optimum spiritual, physical and mental well being. This is hard to achieve if the body is under nourished, or over driven. I now practise Ashtanga asana five days a week, for around two hours. If I push for a sixth day, my ladies’ days stop and my joints hurt. The traditional one rest day a week is fine for some people, but part of the practice is being able to listen to the body and to intuitively act intelligently.
Without question, the asana practice is extremely valuable and each sequence in the Ashtanga system, brings its own fascinating challenges. Some students go through an intense or aggressive phase when learning the Primary Series and others may become tearful during the Intermediate Series (body opening and nerve cleansing respectively). Advanced A is great, because by the time you have completed the Primary and Intermediate Series, you should have the strength, stamina, flexibility, concentration and emotional maturity, to explore the more lyrical and demanding poses. You just need a lot of energy and time in your day, to master them.
And then there’s Advanced B. This inspiring and strenuous series requires a whole new level of mind-power, one-pointed focus, determination, dedication, flexibility, strength and technique, to conquer the unachievable. It took me ten years to learn from Guruji and Sharath and I’ve never worked so hard to accomplish asana before. I would spend hours on my own, analysing the movement, breath and drishti of these complex postures, until I could make a semblance of the shape that I was aiming for. Then of course the asana has to be placed correctly within the context of the vinyasa sequence. The one saving grace is that the arrangement of Advanced B is more sustainable than A, as the postures are so varied in their order. Advanced A can be exhausting for someone with tiny shoulders, achy wrists and women’s hips, with its ten consecutive arm balances. The task is to find the equilibrium between the strong masculine, powerful athleticism that is needed and the graceful feminine, humble determination (the ‘ha’ and the ‘tha’, or sun and moon qualities).
Growing older makes the asana practice even more interesting. On the one hand you become easy going and experienced, yet on the other you have to strive twice as hard, because everything requires more effort. For me, there’s the added challenge of working with osteoarthritis. I now have a thick mat, which acts as a shock absorber and I’m learning to be more mindful and gentle in my practice. I don’t put my feet on the floor in Ganda Bherundasana anymore. I could, but I choose not too. My ego still entices me to push to the limit, but wisdom now says ‘go to the point where you are steady and calm, you want your body to last a lifetime’.
It may be possible to sustain an Advanced B practice throughout one’s forties (when not teaching for several hours a day), but I’m guessing that with each subsequent half decade, one might be inclined to drop a series. That way, when we pass sixty, Yoga Chikitsa becomes the primary focus again. Of course our bodies, stamina, lifestyles and asana practices are all quite different, so it’s unlikely that there’s one answer for everyone.
I practise Ashtanga asana, because it makes me happy (as do the other limbs). The ‘series’ doesn’t matter. Ultimately it’s quality of intention, rather than quantity of poses that count. The asana practice is simply to lead us towards the higher aspects of yoga philosophy, so that we can access our true Self and be purified from the afflictions of our human condition. We’re aiming to radiate joy, modesty, generosity, honesty, wisdom, humility, contentment, peace and kindness – to be free from the clutches of material and emotional life. For some of us, traveling through several asana series and back again, might be requisite for our spiritual journey. Guruji shared however, that others might attain samadhi, by simply practising half Primary Series.
~ abridged version appeared in Pushpam magazine, Summer 2016
An adventure to Hampi, South India
Bollywood dance for Guruji’s birthday
Logo that Jonathan Asher designed
Caricature that my brother drew, when I was 21
Practising ballet, aged 10 and 12
Yoga Sadhana For Mothers
How long were you practising before trying to conceive?
Five or six days a week for over twelve years. Then, after nearly a year of not having conceived, I started cutting back on my asana practice, just in case the amount of exercise I was doing, was having an impact on my fertility. It’s been over two years now, since trying to conceive.
Was it a daily practice observant of moon days and ladies holidays?
Yes and also if I’m tired, I try to respect my body and only take a gentle asana practice.
Was it easy to conceive?
My doctor in the UK said that it’s probably the stress of living in London and working too hard, that was making my body less receptive to conceiving. She was confident that when my husband and I moved to India, I’d be pregnant within six months. We had all the regular fertility tests in London and everything seemed fine. I now know that the NHS tests are pretty basic and don’t pick up on all fertility problems.
After moving to India, I mentioned to one of my teachers that I was trying to start a family and asked what she recommended in terms of the yoga practice. She told me to carry on with my regular practice, so I did just that for a few more months.
Still no pregnancy, so my husband and I decided that as treatments are move affordable in India, it couldn’t do any harm to seek fertility advice here. I think when seeking medical help, it’s important to do your research and to get a second opinion. Medical Tourism is a growing industry in India, so there are doctors here whose aim is to make money from patients (so may not offer the most cost efficient and pragmatic treatment plan).
First of all I saw an Ayurvedic doctor who assured me that a month of panchakarma and various herbal remedies would ‘cure’ me. I dutifully followed his instructions and embarked on several unctuous treatments, but I really didn’t notice any positive change at all. The oil and herbs that I had to ingest made be pretty nauseated. One thing that did resonate with me though, is that is whatever you imbibe, has a profound effect on the body. I’ve been vegan for about fifteen years and vegetarian before that, so have been aware of the effects of food on my body for quite a while. The main thing that I took away from the panchakarma was to not drink coffee (about the only sin I had left) and to be really mindful about what one puts in one’s system. Many people believe that caffeine can reduce your chances of conceiving and sustaining a pregnancy.
So after exploring traditional Indian medicine, I did the polar opposite and sought the advice from two different allopathic fertility specialists in Mysore. The first one a lady, told me off for being old and said that given my age, my only hope would be to have IVF with a donor egg. This route is incredibly costly, so I felt that it might be prudent to explore other options. I had heaps of tests to check hormone levels and to identify whether there were any internal problems that were causing infertility. My hormone levels were low, but everything else was fine, so she then suggested that I should give IUI a try (the most affordable method of assisted fertility). Intrauterine Insemination is an aided fertility procedure, where you are given hormones to encourage follicles in the ovaries to grow and to help prepare the body for ovulation and implantation. Internal ultrasound scans are performed every other day, to monitor the development of the dominant follicle (that contains an egg). When the follicle is a good size, injectable drugs are given to rupture it (so that the egg is released) and then the insemination procedure happens with the aid of a catheter. It’s not very pleasant. It was around this time that I had a word with my main teacher in Mysore and he told me to practise Suryanamaskar only. The complete opposite of what I had been doing. I think he may have suggested this, as he knows that I have a tendency to over-heat during my practice and of course, this can be detrimental to conceiving and sustaining a pregnancy. Maybe he just wanted me to slow down and to give my body a chance to be still. Interestingly, my hormone levels started rising to a more normal level, so it’s quite possible that my intense asana practice, was effecting my hormone levels and making it difficult for me to conceive. We tried IUI for four or five cycles, but still no pregnancy.
Not having any success with IUI, my husband and I agreed that maybe we should explore other options. In Vitro Fertilisation is a form of deeply aggressive allopathic medial intervention, with the aim of growing several eggs in the ovaries, surgically removing them, creating an embryo in the lab with the husband’s sperm and then surgically placing the embryo back into the womb, in the hope that it will keep growing and implant into the uterine lining. For this, we went to a different IVF specialist in Mysore. The doctor made me have a hysteroscopy, a hysterosalpingogram and many more blood and other tests, to see whether I would be a suitable candidate for IVF. They encouraged healthy eating and being a sensible weight. Apparently it’s difficult to conceive if your fat / muscle ratio is extreme (ie if you’re too fat or too lean). His clinic was busy and very impersonal, but the doctors seemed to be professional, articulate and knowledgeable. Nevertheless I felt like a number, rather than a women who was going through an emotionally challenging time. The nurses were aggressive and bulling, which put me on edge and made the process of IVF extremely traumatic. In the OT room before the egg removal procedures, I felt violated and traumatised. I can hardly believe that I put myself through such an ordeal, so many times, but the motivation of course for undergoing IVF, is the chance that it might work. The potential result could outweigh the adversity of the journey, even though it isn’t the most joyful way of creating a new life. It’s possible that had I undergone IVF in London, my experience might have been less brutal, given that I would have felt culturally more at ease.
The IVF procedure for me, involved having four hormone injections into my belly every day for the first two weeks of each cycle, plus many drugs and internal scans (and that was even before the egg retrievals and embryo transfers). Several months of medical intervention had made me very emotional and quite honestly, I needed to get back to my asana practice. Only taking Suryanamaska wasn’t lifting my spirits and I needed to feel the grace and flow of of the Ashtanga practice again. With hindsight, the asana practice was keeping me balanced and steady. Taking the practice away completely, resulted in my feeling anxious and tense, which is obviously not what you want for IVF to work.
During the first two weeks of each cycle (whist having the injections), I practised the Primary and Intermediate series, but after the embryo transfers, I eased off the asana practice and just focused on meditation, breathing and a few hip and heart opening asanas. Even so, the IVFs didn’t work.
Interestingly the girl on the reception desk at the clinic, was concerned that after the failed IVFs, my ladies’ days only lasted for a day and half. I explained that this was normal for me, but she felt that I should probably have an iron test. It turned out that I was seriously anaemic and was immediately put on an iron drip. It’s conceivable that this could have contributed to the embryos not implanting properly.
After several failed IVF attempts I was pretty deflated and just wanted to get back to my regular daily asana practice and to feel like ‘myself’ again. A year of Assisted Reproductive Technology really took its toll on me physically and emotionally; the drugs caused me to gain over five kilograms in weight and the doctors made me feel like a disappointment. Children are everything in India, so not being able to do the most natural thing for a woman, resulted in my hitting rock bottom.
I spent a couple of months getting my practice back to what I deemed to be a ‘reasonable’ level and came back to the shala. In under a month I was practising the four series that I have been taught. This was quite an epiphany, as it suddenly dawned on me that the asanas don’t go anywhere and it’s OK to relax them for a while (to try to start a family), because they do come back. Guruji used to talk about ‘keeping the faith’. It’s good advice.
Feeling pretty good and healthy again, I felt ready to explore another system of non allopathic medicine to help with getting pregnant. Traditional Chinese Medicine for me, took the form of three months of acupuncture and twice daily concoctions of odd looking boiled herbs. The aim was to cleanse and strengthen my liver, spleen and kidneys, after filling my body with toxic IVF drugs for a year. Although the tea was utterly disgusting, I did feel pretty energised and healthy after just a few days. It was whilst I was researching TCM, that I discovered the potentially harmful side effects of certain allopathic medicines on ovulation. I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my big toe joints, about three years ago and saw a couple of specialists in London, who suggested that diclofenac would help manage the pain. I mentioned that I was taking diclofenac to both of my fertility doctors in Mysore, but neither one told me to stop taking the drug. I have now learned that NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), can actually stop ovulation from occurring, resulting in something called Luteinized Unruptured Follicle Syndrome. That’s when the egg isn’t released from the dominant follicle and the follicle keeps growing into a cyst. I wonder why the fertility specialists, didn’t tell me about the side effects of the drug that I had been prescribed …
Did you have to make any adjustments in your practice/diet/daily life?
During the last two years I have explored all manner of combinations of asana practice and I think for me, whilst I’m trying to conceive, the middle path is probably the right one. I have a regular practice, but I’m not demanding extreme feats from my body at the moment, neither am I over-heating. My attitude is more relaxed now and I’m experimenting with practising as though I’m pregnant. I’m trusting that if I am meant to conceive, it will happen naturally and it’s up to me to create an encouraging environment for this to flourish.
To cure the Luteinized Unruptured Follicle Syndrome I’m using homeopathic medicine and when possible, I eat organic fresh food. I now take maca root, spirulina, vitamin B complex, calcium and iron supplements. I haven’t taken any allopathic medicine for over six months and hope to stay clear as much as possible.
Did you seek any other forms of spiritual practice and in what way are they helpful?
One thing that my main teacher did tell me to do, was to visit an ancient stone temple called Kukke Subrahmanya (famous for helping women to conceive). My husband and I have been there a couple of times, to do puja and offer a little prayer. Let’s hope the gods smile on us one day! Now that I’m bit older, I’m much more into meditation and can appreciate sitting quietly and being still. Going through IVF is incredibly stressful and the emotions that it evokes, can be quite unsettling. Meditation is very helpful in terms of centreing oneself and focusing the mind. I also enjoy chanting simple mantras and I find pranayama very calming. I read yoga philosophy books, to help me keep the faith and spend as much time in nature as possible. We’ve bought some land in the Western Ghats, which I find incredibly spiritual. Being surrounded by tropical trees, birds, hills, flowers, waterfalls, sunrises and sunsets, fills me with reverence and makes me feel alive and content. There’s nothing like going for walks and practising yoga in nature, to make you feel connected and part of the Universe.
What motivated/ inspired you to keep practising?
Observing my emotional state when I was only practising Suryanamaska, was a catalyst in itself to inspire me to get back to a regular practice. The asana practice makes me happy and without it, life seems a bit harder. Yoga helps me to control my mind, stay focused and it fills me with joy. Having said that, if I’m ever blessed to be with-child, I’d like to think that I’ll trust my instincts with the practice and look forward to relaxing completely, during the first trimester. Surrendering ones practice when you’re not even pregnant is both deflating and perplexing. I imagine that if one becomes blessed with pregnancy, it would be a joyous and selfless act to not practise for three months, knowing that you’re giving the little one inside you, the best chance of developing normally in the womb.
What have you learned?
I think in the end, you have to trust your instincts and believe in your ability to make sensible choices. It’s very challenging to let go of the practice, especially when you’re not even pregnant. Ever since my husband and I began thinking about starting a family, I became really torn in my head about what to do with the asanas. On the one hand it made no sense to continue with the first four series if I wanted to get pregnant, but like so many Ashtangis, I was too attached to the asana practice and got deeply stressed by the idea of not practising to my normal level. Rather than focusing on what yoga is really about and why we do it, I would obsess about the asanas and believed that if I stopped doing the more challenging ones, I’d lose the ability to do them. It’s not true. If I had only trusted my instincts about being relaxed with practice, without berating myself with my conflicting fears, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache and agitation. The yoga practice is about controlling the mind, feeling connected and not letting those nagging demons get the better of you! Now I am older and wiser, my relationship with the yoga practice is very different. It’s a tool for making life a bit easier. The asanas are all equal and you don’t have to practise the Advanced series in order to be peaceful, calm and content. It’s just a state of mind. At the moment, I’m happy as long as I’m doing something.
One very relevant thing to mention is that throughout my life I’ve had long stretches of athletic amenorrhea (that’s when menstruation stops due to excessive exercising / over-heating and having too little body fat). Most recently this happened to me from age thirty seven, until I was nearly forty. I was practising Advanced A and B together and my practice was taking three hours. Although I was exhausted and I hadn’t had a ladies’ day in nearly three years, I ignored the problem. I don’t know what was going through my head. Perhaps I felt that the asana practice was some kind of endurance test and if I gave in, I would be weak. Eventually my teacher allowed me practice Advanced A and B on different days (and my practice became a more manageable two hours in length). Thankfully my ladies’ days came back a couple of months later. It was only then that my husband and I could begin trying to conceive. It’s obvious now that I should have told my teacher about the amenorrhea, soon after it occurred. Women are built very differently from men, so how can a male teacher intuitively know what’s going on in a female student’s body. I think it’s imperative and our responsibility to communicate with our teachers, when something abnormal is occurring physically. The Yoga Sutras do talk about ‘supernatural powers’ in the third pada, but we can’t assume that our yoga teachers are psychic and it’s foolish to suffer in silence.
I mentioned that during the IVF procedures, I discovered that I was seriously anaemic. I still have to watch my iron levels and need to be very mindful about not over-heating. When I practised in the shala after my year of assisted fertility treatment, I eventually had to stop going to the counted Intermediate and Primary classes. This was simply due to the amount of people in the room causing the humidity levels to rocket and thus making me over-heat, feel nauseated and ultimately faint. I find that when I practise on my own, I can control my over-heating problem and from what I have understood from women who have managed to conceive and sustain a pregnancy, keeping the body cool is pretty important.
Obviously I’m very wary of allopathic medicine now, its potential effects on conceiving and indeed on an unborn child. I’d say that if you truly need to take allopathic medicine whilst trying for a baby, during pregnancy and beyond, do heaps of research into potential side effects.
You were given contrasting advice about the asana practice, whilst trying to conceive. What guidance did you receive about what you should / shouldn’t do in your situation?
I have enormous respect for both of my teachers. One of them may have seen me as strong, flexible and healthy and probably thought that I was a bit younger than I actually was. The other knew that I’m about his age and has seen me over-heating for years. It’s a case of horses for courses, I think. We are all different and so are our bodies. What is right for one person might be inappropriate for the next. In my case I experimented with a range of practices from my regular four series practice, down to two series, Primary and half Primary. A friend suggested that I might explore practising as if I’m pregnant, which I’m doing now and am really enjoying. The truth is, we can’t see what’s happening inside our bodies, so it’s hard to know what effect the asanas are having on fertility and every woman is different anyway.
How do you feel about your practice in retrospect and the difficulty to conceive? Do you feel there is a relationship or not?
Well I know that the length and extremity of my practice when it was three hours long, caused my ladies’ days to stop for three years. This was during the time that we would have started trying for a baby, so that caused a considerable delay. I should have been less selfish and thought about creating a welcoming environment for a pregnancy, rather than pushing my body to its physical limit. I do hear about women who managed to get pregnant really easily, whilst practising the Advanced asanas, but maybe they were younger, didn’t have an over-heating problem and had luck on their side. I think it’s important to enjoy a sensible practice though, in order to keep the body fit and the mind calm. I’m indulging myself in a more relaxed practice now and am wallowing in the moving meditation, which certainly feels like the right thing to be doing!
If a woman practising Ashtanga yoga as part of her daily life over many years is having difficulty to conceive what advice would you offer her given your own personal experience?
First of all if her menstrual cycle isn’t regular, that needs to be addressed. It’s probably a good idea to have a few tests to check that there aren’t any medical reasons why she’s not conceiving (low hormone levels, blocked fallopian tubes, or lack of ovulation for example). Her significant other should probably get checked out too. Work out which are her fertile days and plan accordingly. Gain a little weight, if she’s skinny. I’ve read that low body fat to muscle ratio and exercise-related chemicals, can disrupt the functioning of oestrogen and progesterone, which in turn can make it difficult to conceive. I can say that when I first started having tests at the fertility clinic (whilst I was practising through to the fourth series), my hormone levels were too low for conception to occur. Reducing the extremity of my practice and gaining weight, saw my hormone levels rise. I’d say try to adopt a relaxed approach to the asana practice. The asanas come back, so it’s OK to give oneself permission to be more open-minded and free for a few months. During the time when implantation could occur, I think that being gentle with the body and not jumping is a smart idea. Eat a healthy balanced diet with lots of organic fresh food and if any vitamins and minerals aren’t being adequately provided, look at possible supplements. Cut out coffee and if allopathic medicine needs to be taken, find out its effects on ovulation and pregnancy. Try to spend time in nature, meditating, breathing slowly and feeling connected to the Universe. Be positive and happy and if things don’t happen for a while, don’t lose the faith!
Within four months of detoxing with TCM to cure the LUFS and practising Ashtanga as if she was pregnant, Philippa did manage to conceive. It was a twin pregnancy, but sadly she miscarried both babies at ten weeks. On a positive note (despite what the doctors said), it was a natural pregnancy, so maybe it could happen again …
Written for ‘Yoga Sadhana For Mothers’ published 2014 yogasadhanaformothers.com