If you’re in Chiang Mai, Thailand over the holidays, go study Ashtanga with Liz Derow!
Three weeks of ashtanga yoga in the style of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, taught by authorised Level 2 teacher, Liz Derow. All students are welcome whether they have experience in this style of yoga are not. For more information about ashtanga yoga please see http://kpjayi.org/the-practice
The classes are every morning at 7.45am. No class on Saturdays or on the 1st of January. The instruction will be ‘Mysore style’ — each student in the small classes will receive individual instruction and attention from the teacher. This is how this style of asana is traditionally taught. When taught this way, ashtanga is suitable for everyone with each practitioner developing an individual practice suitable for them at that particular point in time.
Practical: Mats are available to use at the studio if you need one, and you should bring a towel or yoga rug if you have one. Please try not to eat anything for at least two hours before class.
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If you are in Denver anytime in the next few months, do yourself a favour and go see this extraordinary art exhibit by master glass blower Dale Chihuly.
One of my favorite places for a meditation retreat is Wat Suan Mok, in the Surat Thani province of Thailand. Just an hour’s drive from the planet’s oldest rainforest and Khao Sok National Forest, this gorgeous retreat center holds a monthly 10 day vipassana retreat for westerners from the 1st to the 10th of each month. You can’t make reservations–just show up the last day of the month and you can spend the night for free at the monastery next door. Registration happens early morning on the 1st.
The living situation is simple, but there’s everything you need: private rooms, natural hot springs, lots of nature to walk around in, afternoon teachings with a seasoned western monk– he guides you step by step through the approach to shamatha and vipassana meditation–and some of the best vegetarian meals I’ve had in Thailand, created with organics from the garden.
Oh, and it’s the only meditation retreat I’ve ever found where you have two full free hours dedicated to yoga practice each and every morning. There are led classes for beginners, one for men, one for women; and there are also two open spaces reserved if you have your own practice: one for men, and one for women. At the time I was there, I was the only one practicing in the women’s hall, so I had glorious silence (punctuated by crickets) as I practiced each dawn. So inspiring.
After the retreat you can make your way south to the pier and hop on the ferry to Koh Phangan for some transition time on the beach.
These days, you see references to sitting meditation everywhere. People sell cars now sitting in lotus posture, eyes closed with wind gently tousling their hair.
It’s enough to make you gag.
But if you truly want to learn to meditate, check out this practical guide to learn to meditate from one of Tibet’s great yogis, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
20 years ago this month, I had the good luck to find myself in an Ashtanga yoga class taught by Richard Freeman. It was my first yoga class. Richard’s specialty was (and is) his Level 1 class for beginners. We never did more than one or 2 sun salutations, a few standing postures and perhaps 3 seated postures over a 2 hour period. We learned how to breathe deep into the core and to explore sensations in previously uncharted areas of the body. It was exhausting. I’m sure that when added up, the total time I have spent in trikonasana is well over 12 years.
Sometimes I hear people apologize that they are “only beginners.” I love beginners. I always want to be a beginner. One sure way to stop learning is to become an expert.
Suzuki Roshi wrote about “beginner’s mind” being the place where mind is fresh, and you are open to possibilities, in other words, in the present moment.
Some students have passed the time of life when they will be able to develop the strength or stamina to do an entire series, or they have other limitations that inhibit a strenuous asana practice. But a beginners practice? Anyone can incorporate. And to be honest, I have found that a more gentle practice allows me to settle more deeply in meditation.
What originally drew me to this Ashtanga practice was Richard’s constant reminder to keep coming back to the beginning. So that’s what I keep doing. Back to the beginning: back to the mat, back to breath and bandhas, back to my ideas about how things should look. Over and over I keep reinventing myself to reflect the truth of the moment as I evolve. And it is never as I think it should be. I keep thinking I should be more of this and less of that, somewhere else on the spectrum. But I’m not. Being a beginner is humbling. But humility can be a profound teaching, if you are brave enough to face it.
As a beginner, you have a complete absence of preconception; you have no idea what you are in for! Openness is the most important tool you have when learning something new (like how to live your life). It is also how to keep practice fresh. If you lose this, you lose the whole point of practice. Openness is not just about flexible hips or shoulder joints. Openness means acceptance, curiosity. If I cannot do a posture as a beginner, I can accept that; after all, I have only just begun. But if, after 20 years I can still not do that posture, (or maintain that ideal relationship or the perfect teaching situation) I might encounter embarrassment or vulnerability, and THAT is powerful medicine.
The way forward is not always linear. Sometimes we take 2 steps ahead and then 8 steps back. Sometimes you have to get creative to make your way through to the next stage. And creativity rarely follows convention, if ever.
The most important teaching Richard ever gave me was to listen to myself, even if everyone else was doing something different and telling me to do the same. I love him for saying this. You know yourself better than anyone else ever will. Your innate wisdom will develop its voice, and at the same time, you will learn to hear it. And the more you practice, the more you will come to know this voice. It is with you always–it is the voice of your heart. But to hear it, sometimes you might need to become a beginner again—to keep coming back to the breath, and to not knowing, again and again. And again.
It is all too easy to think of art as something we aspire to, an ideal by which to measure our efforts and find them falling woefully short.
Well, that is one way to think of art, and God knows we have bludgeoned ourselves with it pretty thoroughly. Our concepts of “great art” and “great artists” are often less something we aspire to than something we use to denigrate our own effort. We might want to try thinking about art a little differently.
Art is less about what we could be, and more about what we are, than we normally acknowledge. When we are fixated on getting better, we miss what it is we already are. And this is dangerous, because we, as we are, are the origin of our art. We are what makes our art original. If we are always striving to be something more and something different, we dilute the power of what it is we actually are. Doing that, we dilute our art.