Category: Yoga

Yoga with Candoco

Candoco were the first professional dance company in the UK to focus on the integration of disabled and non-disabled dancers. It is a company that I have followed since the start of my own dance career back in the early 1990s, so I was absolutely thrilled when they recently asked me to come in and teach company yoga class.

With this post I would like to share my experience and some reflections.

The first thing I noticed  a couple of days before starting, was that the thrill of being asked was beginning to transform into some kind of angst bordering on terror. In fact it even crossed my mind that I should cancel I was worried I might not be up to the job!

My fear was borne out of some concerns and questions, which I was struggling to reconcile.  How could I possibly stick to the given brief of getting all of the dancers warm and prepared for a day of dance rehearsal when there would appear to be the need for so many individual adaptations? How does an able bodied teacher begin to presume how yoga postures or sun salutation sequences might be best experienced by people who use wheelchairs, wear prosthetic arms, or those who would appear to have only one leg? How ethical is it for an ‘able’ bodied person to make presumptions about what is or is not possible for those who are deemed to be ‘disabled’? Even if different sequences of yoga might be prepared for each individual, how do you deliver those sequences concurrently to everybody at once? What language does one use when the ‘normal’, “put you left foot here and the right foot there” might not be applicable? And how does one do all this, whilst simultaneously meeting the needs of the ‘able bodied’ dancers who should be prevented from waiting around and getting cold?

I felt a little stuck between going in with planned sequences based on ignorant assumptions of what might or might not be possible for bodies I had no first-person experience of, and going in without adequate preparation and the fear of being exposed without a clue on the day!

So here’s what happened. I acknowledged the fear and did it anyway. Much better to dive in with the hope that I would come out the other side a little wiser, rather than cancel. There’d be no prospect of growth with the latter!

On ‘having enough’

In my last post, I wrote a critical piece about yoga teachers and the culture of ‘gratitude preaching’, a phenomenon that frankly makes me wince. I did acknowledge though, that it would be quite wrong to be against the practice of gratitude per se, which would surely be an untenable position. I do actually think though, that somehow, I managed to dwell in that untenable position for a number of years. When I was a younger (less reflective; more stupid?) man I actually hated the word content. I put it in the same bracket as settling (for less). And that wasn’t for me. I was aiming for amazing, perfection and more than. Only a loser would settle for content.

What I have realised, and sadly only relatively recently, is that this quest for perfection or more than is actually something of a thief. ‘Not good enough’ can rob you of feelings of satisfaction, achievement and happiness. Shame is a word I thought I knew, but I actually didn’t;  I never knew that it captured feelings connected to ‘not good enough’.

Paradoxically though ‘not good enough’ for many years acted as a kind of fuel. I was stoked up and propelled by it. I suspect many who have a background in professional dance know it quite well. It is part of our job description to not go wrong and do things right; to perfect movement through constant polishing and refining. More than this, a dance career is brutally competitive and an extremely difficult and gruelling career to do well in and sustain. I wasn’t even that naturally talented at it compared to a great many people I met along the way (in terms of bodily facility and technique), but as a result of being driven to do and be better I probably had a more successful career, based solely on the number of dance companies and projects I was involved in, compared to the vast majority of all the people I trained with at undergraduate level. There is no doubt that being a male helped too.  My ultimate dream was to dance for Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater. Very few dancers get to talk their way into doing company dance class with ‘the world’s finest dance company’. I did. The week I spent with them; doing company class, learning the ins and outs of how the company works and getting to know some of the dancers, was a priceless experience. That week ended though with me being informed I wasn’t strong enough to be put in front of Pina for a private audition. For a number of years, this experience tainted my entire dance career. I felt that all of the other very considerable achievements I had attained were clouded. I wasn’t good enough to reach the pinnacle. How terribly sad. What a shame.

Learning to feel that you are enough or have enough can be a very powerful and liberating thing. But it takes practice. One element of yoga that recurs throughout the ages is the steeping of the microcosm in the macrocosm.  Taking the individual out of their normal ways of interacting with their mundane world and placing them into the larger framework of something bigger. There are a gazillion ways of doing this, which many people would not necessarily equate with yoga practice. An example in popular culture is portrayed in the 90s film Grand Canyon when one of the characters (Danny Glover?) tells us that he goes to sit in the Grand Canyon when he is low to get some perspective on his life. Becoming a part of something bigger made him feel better. For me, that experience can be called yoga. I go for walks in a beautiful local park for the same reason. It gets me out of myself. The feeling of connection (might one say communing?) with something larger makes me feel qualitatively better. Walking in the park is a lovely form of yoga.

On ‘Gratitude’ in Yoga: A Critical Perspective

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the USA (and may all my US friends have a joyful one). This post is not about that though, it just seems like an opportune moment to blog about some thoughts I have had for a while now on the subject of ‘gratitude’. No person could surely ‘be against gratitude’ right? That would be an untenable position. But here’s the thing; I sometimes have to work hard at not audibly groaning when yoga teachers mention the word ‘gratitude’. Does that make me a bad person?!

Let me explain myself; I do actually believe gratitude is a wonderful thing to practice. In my second blog post on this subject, ‘On Having Enough’, I will talk about how I do just that. But today I want to probe into why it is that the word is so seemingly omnipresent wherever yoga teachers congregate. I would happily be corrected, but to the best of my knowledge there is no ancient Indian yogic text that specifically describes a process for the practice of gratitude per se. Equanimity and contentment yes, but gratitude? So perhaps something else is going on. Something sociological. Perhaps like street talk? It seems many yoga teachers like to use the word ‘gratitude’ a lot. Almost as frequently as they use that other word ‘abundance’. It’s part of the lingo. A lingo that others have felt compelled to question and poke fun at with tongue in cheek. Hang around in a yoga studio long enough and you’ll perhaps pick it up too. You’re quite likely to become unconsciously conditioned. And that is surely an irony for a practitioner of yoga.

I came across a great word about the process of this unconscious conditioning last year at Uni. That word is ‘habitus’. For anyone interested in a more academic take on it, (all two of) you might be interested in reading an essay I wrote on the subject in relation to my yoga practice.  The basic gist of habitus is this; in all social contexts one operates there are unwritten and invisible ways of behaving and speaking that individuals pick up and take on. You might look at Prime Minister’s Question Time at the House of Commons in the UK Parliament and think why on earth do they behave and speak like that? Chances are though that if you became an MP, you too would be saying ‘Hear Hear’ when one of your party speaks and be ‘Yah Booing’ the other side within a matter of weeks. Not because any one would tell you to do it, but because that context would pervade you and act upon you. If you want to ‘fit in’ and gain ‘social capital’ you have to play by the invisible rules. Another example would be the taking on of a certain way of walking down the street within a tough neighbourhood. The ‘neighbourhood’ of the yoga sangha (community) is no different. Certain phrases and ways of being get picked up, overused and can become stereotypical. The genesis of my inner groan, I think, might be stirred by an encounter with cliche. It might not be the most elegant response on my part, but I am working on it.

What is yoga?

An answer to the perennial question (without a single reference to postures)

Most yoga teachers, on being asked ‘What is yoga?’, will probably pause for a moment  to think about who is asking the question and how best to answer it, because the truth is there is more than one definition and the answer does require some reflection.

When asked, many teachers will perhaps refer to the etymology/root of the sanskrit word yuj, which is often translated as meaning ‘to yoke, join or unite’. It can then be implied that yoga means a union of mind, body and spirit. This is certainly not wrong, but it is only part of a much larger picture.

Across thousands of years the meaning of yoga has meant different things at different times. Even more confusingly it is a word that has been used differently in the same period of time across different communities.

Perhaps it is more helpful to think of the word yoga as an empty vessel, into which whoever uses the word fills the vessel with meaning. In short yoga means different things in different contexts. For dualists like Patanjali and for Buddhists yoga is not ‘union’, but some Buddhists do maintain yoga is ‘union’ and some commentators think Patanjali’s yoga is not dualist! In the Vedanta philosophy yoga is union; as is the case with Tantra later on. Those seeking the answer to the question ‘What is yoga?’ discover that there is active competition for the word’s ownership.

So in attempting to define what yoga is, where best to start? Perhaps a good place to start would be by reframing the question and asking what the goal of yoga is in the system it is practiced.  At the considerable risk of falling into the trap of being too reductive; throughout the ages, the fundamental goals of yoga have been two-fold:

  1. Spiritual liberation – transcending one’s given circumstances
  2. The attainment of powers – heightened abilities to control one’s worldly environment  and circumstances

There are various techniques of discipline and methodologies of practice that are said to lead to the above attainments and spiritual liberation is often cited as being by far the most superior goal of the two. The techniques of yoga ultimately equip and empower the human individual with a technology that helps them navigate their worldly circumstances more skillfully, which perhaps helps us better understand what people mean when they say, ‘Doing yoga makes me feel better’.

The 5:2 diet

A Yoga Teacher’s Perspective

I never thought in a million years that I would ever embark on a fast. I’d previously placed fasting in the category ‘not for me’, alongside things like marathon running.

It is then a testament to the power of the BBC Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer presented by Dr Michael Mosley that I was immediately persuaded enough by the health benefits to give it a try.

For any readers curious enough about the programme, it is still available to watch as a series of clips on Youtube. Since it was aired there has been a lot of media coverage including an excellent article in The Sunday Times magazine (behind paywall) and the following article in the The Telegraph by Dr Mosley himself. And since first writing this post Dr Mosley and Mimi Spencer have released a new book and website called The Fast Diet.

The 5/2 diet is essentially an intermittent fasting (IF) routine which means you eat as you normally would for 5 days of the week and for the two other days of the week eat a maximum of 600 calories.

After doing a little more research I settled on Brad Pilon’s version of the diet: Eat, Stop, Eat (ESE). Via this version of IF you consume all 600 calories of your allocated daily allowance in one meal and then go for 24 hours until the next meal. i.e breakfast to breakfast or dinner to dinner. I found his argument to be quite persuasive on physiological grounds as to why this is a more beneficial way of IF, compared to splitting the 600 calories into two meals over the day, but of course it is a matter of personal choice. 

After a bit of a false start; I succeeded with the first attempt but folded on the next two attempts, I cracked it. I am now able to do it relatively easily and have been doing it for 3 weeks.

The results have been quite pleasing and surprising. The pleasing aspect is that I have lost 7 lbs and have gone down a good couple of belt notches. I was not exactly porky to begin with, but since ahem turning 40 it is almost like my stomach was waiting for that number to begin noticeably expanding! It is quite amazing how quickly this has been turned around.

There are two things that have surprised me quite a lot. The first is the lack of hunger that I encountered. I imagined that I would be famished and perhaps a bit light headed and wobbly. I have felt hungry, but it passes relatively quickly and herbal teas can be surprisingly filling. The second big surprise is an increase in energy levels. I guess it wasn’t until I tried fasting that I could have experienced just how much energy is expended simply digesting meals. This was a real eye opener.

Memories of Dr. Marion North

A Student’s Tribute

In May of last year, Dr. Marion North, the former Principal of The Laban Centre sadly passed away. There were a few obituaries at the time, a couple of which I have linked to below, that do a much better job than I ever could of describing her work and listing her many considerable achievements in the dance world. The spectacular ‘new’ Laban Centre on Creekside is a truly fitting legacy that she leaves behind. This post is written from the personal perspective of a thankful former student who remembers her fondly.

Like she was with many students, Marion was very generous to me whilst I was studying at what was then, The Laban Centre for Movement & Dance. Pretty much the entire trajectory of my life changed when I met her in an interview whilst auditioning for a place at the school in 1994. She looked at me over her glasses that day and said, ‘You’re not quite as ferocious in the flesh as you are in this photograph, are you? [I had a shaved head on my application form photo]’. A few minutes later I think she had pretty much decided that she was going to give me a scholarship, which was absolutely crucial at the time as the Conservative government in the mid-90s would not provide any funding, at all, for students who gained places at reputable dance or drama schools.

Over the next couple of years we often met whilst passing in the long and winding corridors of the old Laban Centre in Laurie Grove and I, along with others, sometimes got called in to her office to talk about how things were going.

As a third year student things got difficult for me. My father died and I was evicted from the family home I had lived in for most of my life. In the last term of the third year my overdraft ran dry and with no parental support (my mother had died a few years before) and very little chance of finding other work (a typical Laban weekday in the third year is 8:45am-9pm with rehearsals for graduate pieces at weekends), I was in a pretty perilous position.

I went to see Marion in her office, she picked up her phone and summoned the caretaker and the buildings manager (Charlie & Lewis)  and informed them the building was looking shabby and that they could do with an extra pair of hands. She basically put me on the payroll; and for the final 12 weeks or so until graduation I did the early morning caretaker rounds and other general odd jobs. She really saved my bacon that day and I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one that she helped like that, often out of her own pocket.

One such job, she also gave me was a ‘furniture moving job’ at her home just off Tottenham Court Road. I went round one Sunday and she asked me to move a chair from her living room to her kitchen. After I had done so, she told me to sit down, gave me £60 and poured us both a dram of whisky. We had a lovely chat about what Rudolph Laban was like – “A proper Austro-Hungarian gentleman”, her background, “I’m a Yorkshire lass you know” and Riverdance, “Ghastly. But it just shows you how much people like patterns”. Her husband, Mac, then turned up and he started reciting W.H Auden poems from memory – All in all it was quite a memorable day!

After our third year graduation shows I found out that I had been shortlisted for the Student Choreography Award, which I was pretty chuffed about. Marion called me into her office to talk about it, “Adam, I know the choreography staff like it, but I’m telling you, your piece is boring! You must stop doing all of this improvisation stuff and start crafting dance properly!’.

Marion was infamously direct, but I didn’t mind her ‘firm kind of nurturing’ as it was coming from the heart and she really cared.

After graduating we still kept in touch and I think the last time we met was around 2008 when I went to visit her. She had started to become affected by Parkinson’s disease, which must have been devastating for someone who has spent their entire working life analysing movement. As we were talking she moved her arm and there was a tiny tremor. “Did you see it?!”. I told her it was barely noticeable, which was the truth. But to her it was massive and I think upsetting. After meeting her that time I’ve heard since that she and Marina Benini, who she was very fond of, set up Musical Moving, a dance group for people with Parkinson’s at various locations in London.

I know Marion’s work was incredibly important to her, which is perhaps why she pushed so many people around her to go further and deeper into the fields of performance, dance education, choreological studies, dance movement therapy, Ph.D. research, etc. On reflection I think she might have been knowingly trying to do her part to build a community that would ensure the continued health of the discipline she was such a pioneer in.

Now that the baton has been passed on, I hope those of us who were influenced by her or directly touched by her life might continue to be advocates for movement and dance.


Trinity Laban Obituary

The Telegraph

* Thank you to Mark Whitfield for permission to use the photograph