Friday, September 17, 2010

The simple life

In her forthcoming book Unsung Ordinary Men, Sally Dingo seeks to understand the lives of her father, Max Butler, and grandfather, Mort Butler. Both men, like Sally, grew up in the small town of Penguin, in the north of Tasmania. Mort was gassed on the Western Front during World War I; Max was a prisoner of war of the Japanese during World War II and suffered the indescribable torment of the Thai–Burma Railway and Mergui Road. Both men returned to Penguin at war’s end, married, had children and led simple lives. In all the world, after all they’d been through, this was what they wanted. They wanted to have families; they wanted to see their friends; they wanted community and connection. They did not want great riches or to see more of the world than they’d already seen. They did not, it seems, long to be different people – they did not want to be anyone other than Max and Mort. And, above all, what they gave and received, without expectation or demand, was love.

Sally’s book is extraordinarily moving, and it’s also a powerful testament to the joys of a simple life. It reminded me how much we can overcomplicate our lives – we think we should live a certain way, be a certain person, have certain things, go to certain places. In truth, we don’t need a lot to make us happy – often we just need to learn to appreciate what we already have. These tortured men found contentment in the simplest things. Their craving for a life in which catching fish with their children was the definition of bliss will remind any of us who have ever thought that our lives are lacking – and that’s most of us at one stage or another – that they are, actually, abundant. Recognising this fact doesn’t mean that we won’t still struggle with trying to define our lives and ourselves, working out where we fit and who we fit with. But it should mean that the struggle is less, and less frequent. And while the practice of yoga already puts many of us on this path, having a non-yogic reminder of it – especially one as unforgettable as this – only reinforces what we already know, but sometimes forget.

Unsung Ordinary Men by Sally Dingo will be published by Hachette Australia in October 2010. (And full disclosure: I have already read this book because I’m Sally’s literary agent.)

- Sophie Hamley

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Masculine practice, female body

The modern asana practice was originally developed by men, for men. The ‘father’ of the practice, Krishnamacharya, had three main acolytes who, in turn, spawned many more. Those acolytes –not the right word, but it will do – were BKS Iyengar, the late K Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son). Largely, when people talk about practising yoga, they are talking about practising in the Krishnmacharaya lineage. This is a masculine lineage, despite Indra Devi – another of Krishnmacharaya’s prominent students.

My teacher, Judy Krupp, was trained in the Iyengar lineage but she is not an ‘Iyengar teacher’. She has been my teacher since 1993 and for that entire time she has been tinkering with the practice. It only occurred to me a few years ago that she was tinkering with it to make it more suitable for women’s bodies. Women, after all, were the majority of her students and she is also, obviously, a woman. We have never had a conversation about this – in that way that teacher-student relationships can be intense and murky at the same time - but it’s clear that she was adjusting the asanas and the practice as a whole according to what she thought was needed. Less emphasis on building upper body strength beyond what’s appropriate for women; more emphasis on building core strength. No encouragement for women to hang in joints that are more likely to be hypermobile than men’s, no matter how much deeper in a posture that floppiness may seem to get them (hypermobility can be as big a problem as stiffness). I still wonder at my good fortune in finding this tinkerer.

In recent years I’ve played with different forms of the practice. I still went to class with Judy, of course, but my curiosity took me elsewhere too, mainly to the work of Shiva Rea. And, funnily enough, it’s taken me onto Judy’s path: I’ve now arrived at the point of doing my own tinkering. I’ve felt in my own body what’s lacking and what’s been overdone – the bulky shoulder muscles that made an old injury worse; the larger-than-needed hamstrings and quadriceps; the abdominal strength that could have been better. What was also overdone was the fire element – too much of the practice created heat in a body that needed more water, earth and air.

However, what really put me on this path was having pregnant women in the class and realising how much of the asana practice I’d have to modify in order for them to not miss out. Surely, I thought, this practice should not need to be adjusted around normal womanly things like menstruation and childbearing? Surely if we’re women we should be working in a feminine paradigm, not a masculine paradigm? The difficulty, of course, is that it is an inherently masculine paradigm and adjusting it doesn’t make it any less so. There’s also the fact that the asana practice is largely beneficial and beautiful and it’s sustained many of us for decades.

But now I’m curious as to what else is possible, and curious about what a feminine paradigm of practice will look like. I’m not the only one, obviously, who’s thinking about this, but I had to really feel it in my own body before I could join in. Perhaps it’s the work of a lifetime; perhaps it’s just a natural extension of my apprenticeship with Judy. I can say for sure that it is the flow and freedom of yoga itself that inspires me to inquire and change. The practice itself – not just the asanas, all of it – is solid, constant and amazing. Now, back to the tinkering.

- Sophie Hamley

Monday, May 3, 2010

As the weather changes ...

... So does the human body. Recently Sydney has experienced very warm autumn days instead of the cooling down we're meant to have, and I've definitely seen some 'confusion' in my students' bodies. On Easter weekend and the recent Anzac Day weekend people seemed to be particularly tired - not necessarily because they've had more than usual to do in their daily lives, but because their bodies were not responding well to the unseasonal weather.

Everything around us has an affect on our asana practice and, by extension, our yoga practice. The moon (particularly full and new moons) and the weather all affect the ecosystem of the human body. I always encourage my students to listen to their bodies over and above what I'm asking them to do in class, and the same goes for their home practice: listen to the body over the head.

With the weather now appearing to be turning at last towards cooler days, muscles will get a little tighter and the greater inclination to curl up on the couch will have its effect on hips and lower backs. These subtle changes can have a big impact on your practice, so the key is to always practise mindfully and not be too focused on the form of the asana - go with the feeling instead. While ever you're aware of how you're feeling, how your prana is flowing or not flowing, you will have a wonderful practice. That includes the days when you feel like you just want to sit and meditate for a while, rather than practise postures. It's always worth reminding yourself that yoga is not just asana.

- Sophie Hamley

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Our beautiful studio

At the Co-op we are very lucky to have the use of two different buildings which formed the rehabilitation hospital for the army during and after World War I. Building 21 contains one studio (Studio 4) which means it's nice and quiet! Building 23 has three studios (Studios 1 to 3) and a wonderful verandah. Above are some photos showing both the verandah and the view we have out to South Head and the ocean beyond. We've had some amazing shows of sunsets, sunrises, storms and the moon over the time we've been at this studio - not to mention the local fauna! We are often serenaded by magpies and witness rabbits hopping by, which is a little surreal when we can see the Sydney skyline very clearly from the car park!