The other week I found myself doing yoga on a horse. Yes. Me standing on a horse on a Saturday afternoon! How did that happen? Obviously I love yoga, and do a fair amount every week, but on a horse with the gymnastic vaulters? I used to horse ride as a kid, loved it, but in adulthood, it just hasn’t worked out. Maybe I have not met the right horse! I visited an in-laws horse with eager anticipation, to meet the most arrogant and aggressive horse in my life. The wild rangy power of this horse and maybe more significantly the relationship to the owner really shook me. I’d never disliked or wanted to get away from a horse in my life. But there it was. I went to a riding stable but the poor souls were just beasts of burden. I gave up.
Then the local vaulting team asked me to get involved to help them develop their vaulting through yoga. I was of course very curious – what is vaulting? Why do they want my help? At first, I was excited and then rapidly became concerned about the horses and whether I would be able to be involved. How the horses experience it? And the vaulters? How do they treat their animals? Maybe they would be whipped? Downtrodden? Enslaved?
What is vaulting?
Vaulting is a highly competitive sport where people do creative gymnastic sequences on a moving horse. The horse is on a leash and canters at a steady pace. The vaulters perform a sequence of dance like gymnastics to music and attain points for their skill, poses shown, interpretation and creativity.
So why do they want a yoga teacher?
They are stronger than I am, more flexible than I am and they know horses better too. They want a yoga teacher to bring a new angle to their practice. There are basic commonalities: strength and flexibility. There are some other things that are personal yoga loves of mine – the way I practice yoga is freer and more soft than many. With vaulting this is extremely important. To stand on a moving horse you can’t be hard, tight and rigid, you have to have fluidity. If you do an Ashtanga triangle you’ll be off in a second. It’s just too rigid. You need softness in the knees and hips to meet the movement of a cantering horse beneath your feet. You need flexibility, but the flexibility needs to be changeable, highly dynamic – not just stick person up, down, left, right – it needs to be 360 degrees of awareness and possible aliveness.
And how did you end up doing yoga on a horse’s back?
So back to my worry about the horses. This was my non-negotiable. The horses certainly work but I needn’t have worried. I met their stud, healing after an injury. A soul with deep warm eyes, some pain, but such a loving horse. Then I went to the training ground to see the practice session. The kids were on task, running in step with the horses, jumping on, showing their routines. I loved watching their spines move, the rhythm, the interaction. I watched a beautiful limber vaulter jump, slide and twirl over her horses back.
And then they asked if I’d like a go. My sensible me would say ‘maybe next time’, but sensible me was not to be seen, so ‘yes’ it was. I was nervy, wondering how the horse would react to me, what would he feel? We, the horse and I, had a chat before I got up. He was such a steady, rock-solid dependable boy, and so tender, I fell in love immediately. I got up and of course found myself way higher up than I’d imagined and vertigo threatened to set in, but I found my feet and I began to trust him. All fours, tadasana, forward bend, squat. The most phenomenal was tadasana, because as he walked his pelvis rocked profoundly. Under me wasn’t on a sticky mat, not the floor, not undulating sand, not even a flightly surfboard but a glorious stallion. One who is alive, moving, breathing, who although utterly reliable is ‘human’ just like me. He might stumble, start. It could go wrong. It didn’t. I felt such gratitude to him, for supporting me. I loved his movement, and my movement, and the way we had to work together. At one point I startled and caused him to startle too – just an ear prick, but in that proximity, we shared each other’s experience. We had to work together and trust was vital. I could hurt him if I slipped or fell, he could hurt me if he was unpredictable.
Of course, you can reread the above paragraph and apply it to other relationships, how we are with others, when and how we blindside them, shock them, how we react when someone else does the same and ultimately how we choose to be with others, how far can we go. But let’s come back to traditional yoga.
How can we learn to trust our bodies?
When you start to do yoga you can hear so many stories, or such stories of pain and inflexibility that it can make you want to run away. People sometimes come to class and feel so much remorse for what their body is now compared to what it was and could do. Other days it’s an injury that is overwhelming their experience, and sometimes it’s the anxiety of living. A pose can turn into a stream of self-deprecating thoughts. We meet our stuff when we come to yoga. We meet it, and in time we learn to meet it kindly. We learn to trust that our bodies have a wisdom and that if we listen kindly we can get on really well together.
Mind, body and spirit
In the Bhagavad Gita there is an analogy. A god directing a chariot. The horses are the senses, what we observe, the reins is the mind, the charioteer as the intellect. The horses can distract, the reins try to control, the charioteer sometimes off course. I’ve decided to make my analogy simpler.
Often people have a separation between their mind and body. Their mind decides what they want to do, can do and their body is told to complete the action. The body can be treated like a slave – ‘Just do it. Just do it or I will resent you and punish you’. This is normal, and insidious if left unchecked. We age, time passes and things we could blast through are no longer possible. The increasing circles start to decrease and with it, a sense of loss can occur. I took one woman into a headstand at a workshop. She was terribly nervous as shed not done one in 20 years. Afterwards she was crying happily, as she had re-found a part of herself that she thought was gone. She found her mental constrictions and went beyond them. She learned that she could trust her body to be more than she had imagined, safely.
If you hear yourself castigating your body or you know this pattern in yourself try to think of your body a horse, a stunning, strong and beautiful horse. I can hear your thoughts, about your body is going to be an old gnarly nag, or a broken dilapidated one. A workhorse ready for the dump and other over-dramatic stories. Nope. See your body as a wonderful healthy horse, but one who you must work rather carefully with. As much as you trust them they are separate from you and need a massive amount of respect, care and observing. Watch the horse’s shoulder shudder, the flick of his tail, the twitch of his ear, the slight movement of his head. When doing pigeon pose listen to your knee joint, the inside of your hip joint, the spine and sensations of energy, feel your breath, notice its flow. Listen really carefully. Not like you’re sitting on a horse, strapped in, saddled, helmet on, horse on a leash. Listen like your standing on a horse bareback, no helmet, no safety net What is happening behind your eyes? To their focus? How is your mind moving now? Now? And this moment? Listen so carefully.
If you and your body are very much in unison and you find the above paragraph confusing: celebrate it. You still need to listen, but maybe the attention to what is happening in your body has become easier. If so, start to notice just beyond your body, the energy space around you. If you practice with too much intention what happens to your energy field? If you lose focus what happens to the space around you?
When you practice yoga or hop onto a horse, listen and listen well. Open out to what is possible whilst coming back to being safe: mind, body, and spirit. Every moment is precious and every moment offers the possibility for transformation. So that is how I ended up doing yoga on the back of a horse. Doing yoga on horseback was some of the most exhilarating yoga I’ve done in my life. I can’t wait to go back! But until I do, I will listen carefully and focus on this moment, now this moment, now this moment.
Where For me yoga mats are like surfboards. The stretches of yoga help me surf. Surfing and yoga both require a mixture of control and going with the flow. An idea of where you want to go, an ability to let go of that, and a lot of practice. Yoga mats are like surf boards, or more particularly where and how we do yoga. When I’m standing in the water, wobbling on a board, being bashed around by waves I’m also often thinking about yoga – the connection in my feet, my body, my breath. I’m thinking anatomy, philosophy and the meaning of life. So for me the connection is quite natural.
The surf boards
We have a delightful old soft-top which I couldn’t take with me so used a range of boards. For those of you who don’t know anything about surfing this is a big deal. It means I’ve moved from absolute beginner to beginner. My sister and her husband have a quiver (the collective noun for surfboards) so I got to try a range. The more boards I tried the more I thought of how I practice yoga and how our connection to the ground changes the sort of yoga we do. Now reading this you might be mistaken into thinking I know what I’m talking about. Really, I promise you I don’t. I’m just learning and having fun along the way. If you have done some surfing, a lot of surfing, I encourage you to enjoy how much of the below I have wrong. I know that a long board ridden well can be a delectable beast – it’s just that I’m not there yet.
My old soft-top
Normally I have a soft-top – a very old one, which is light enough but doesn’t move much – meaning turning is tricky.
A rental… I thought it’d be like my own but it was a brick. Heavy, immobile, horrible, it was stable but that was not enough to make up for the boredom. Too cumbersome to allow any freedom or joy.
This was another rental and actually pretty good, it could move a bit and had stability.
this is the longest sort of board and is good for when there are less waves, its length means it catches waves more easily. I thought it would be pretty boring, but it was a very smooth ride and still moveable. Its dangers are that it is so long that it is more vulnerable to snapping than shorter boards.
9” mini mal – this is a longish soft nosed thing – it was light, moveable and smooth. A real surfboard, and often one for novices.
My daughters 7” fishtail – now this is a nippy number, before when I tried it Id slide like a maniac (not waxed properly), hit my face of the board and other glamorous things like that. This Summer I made it up for a moment, and with it came a fluid moment of joy. A moment of being able to dance on a wave. The problem is for me, that Im not in control. To be fair I am rarely in control, but not usually out of control. The danger is that if it goes wrong with this board it has a pointy nose hat can take eyes out, cut and damage.
The yoga mats
How many yoga mats do I have? Let me think: a eco Jade one, a light travelling one, a 5mm padded one, 2 turquoise ones that are filthy, a yellow and orange funky dude, a cheapo pink one. A bright blue travelling one that is too blue for its own good.
Each yoga mat is different. There’s short ones, fat ones, ones with lines to guide you, round ones. My choice of yoga mat goes along the lines of: healthy eco material, a little bit of tack and most importantly colour. Why? Because I look at my mat and colour affects me. Why don’t I care about the amount of tackiness more? I just don’t. I’m very mindful of safety, but the way I practice means I will learn to be safe on every surface, not just a favourite mat. I practice on the floor without a mat, the carpet. I’ve done yoga at the beach, at the airport, on a train, on a horse, in bed and in a field.
Mat and a chair
Right now, doing yoga with a chair beside me at home feels constricting. It feels as if it weighs me down and I can’t move freely. It makes me feel dull and bored. At some point in my life I will need the chair. I may injury my ankle and need to support myself to heal or I might be in the later stages of my life and need a more supported practice. Right now the heavy foamy is dulling, one day it may be heavenly. There is no right or wrong, just right for this or that time. When the day comes when I need a chair beside my mat I hope to celebrate that time, different to this time, but no less precious.
It’s easy to think of yoga on a mat in class. 3mm of sticky padding beneath a nice flat floor. This is my soft-top. It’s stable, predictable, good for learning on and gaining confidence. Tried and tested… but not quite as alive as other experiences.
Last year I did so much house building on my knees I ended up with a knee problem and needed a puffy 5mm fat mat when I started to rehabilitate. This is the nice soft-top, it offers challenge as it can move and it also has security. The nice soft-top can turn, the fat mat is super cushioned. It brings challenge as you can move one the board and balance is trickier on a 5mm mat due to the amount of padding.
What about grass outside – flat garden grass. Its warm, soft, and largely predictable in the way you meet the ground. You might get a wee visit form a bug. There might be a little undulation in the lawn, but over all you can feel what’s going on and feel confident that your changes are more profound than the floor beneath you. This is the longboard, its predictable, a nice ride, and enlivening.
Over Summer I went to the Angela & Victor yoga retreat, and had the pleasure of yoga in a field. The grass was high, the surface of the ground soft and smooth in places, stony and bumpy with unpredictable sensations in others. One minute you would know what was going on and feel stable, the next minute not. Nestle back into the grass, into the nest like clearing, and then stone under the elbow. Feet moulding round the shapes of the earth to balance, and then as you come into tree pose and the weight changes you find the stone under your foot more challenging than 2 seconds ago. It was wonderful, very refreshing, just like the minimal.
I was working with a photographer recently. It was beach yoga and I was doing a headstand. It was phenomenal and precarious. The sand when soft gives way. So I was settling my elbows down, but as soon as I lifted up the transfer of weight the sand give way and my elbows would slide wider. It was a whole load of fun, but it was very challenging. For me this is like the fishtail. Doing a headstand on dry sand gives you loads of movement and change, lots of fun filled precarious moments, and also the danger of getting it rather wrong.
The funniest place I think I’ve done yoga was on the train to London. I met a woman who was saying how she just couldn’t do head stand, so I showed her the simple steps I use so she could try them at home. The train was lurching, it was in the corridor and people we passing, so not my usual quiet zen like yoga place. But it was real, fun and a good teacher. I’ve been doing yoga for 30 years now, and most days, so I can handle a headstand on a train…. But I’m still a beginner at surfing, so for me head stands on a train is the surf board I’ve not tried yet and to be fair am unlikely to ever be good enough to get on well with.
What sort of mat is right for me? Where should I practice?
It doesn’t matter where you do yoga, or what you do it on, but it does change your practice. It can be good to wobble as it helps your muscles to strengthen and work together, on the proviso that it feels fun and is safe. It can be good to feel very grounded and stable – it helps you consolidate your practice and build on safely. You want to think of how much newness, exploration, rediscovery you want in balance with how much routine, known and stability you want. Explore what you really want from your practice. How much predictability do you have? How much stability from the ground? How much enlivening? How much challenge?
Yoga should be about fun, self-development and growth. So if you think you’ve got it nailed, and find yourself lack lustre; try something new. If you are feeling flighty and nervous go get the chair! Find a new surface, a new sensation. Stay alive, stay alert and find your learning place – with enough challenge to keep you sparkly and enough security to keep you content. Explore the floor beneath you, explore the ground and learn to grow.
I love singing in the car, dancing and listening to music, however quite often I get irate at the lyrics that are normalised. My kids now just know if the following song comes on there will be a maternal rant:
I’ll take a bullet for you – Davy Suicide
What more can I do?
What more can I say?I’ll take the bullet
For the right to save the pure
I’ll fall down to my knees
I’ll give you anything you need
I’ll hold you close to me before the bomb explodes
And when our ashes turn to stone
I’ll be there for you. For you
I have the feeling that when I sing along somehow the lyrics seep in even if we consciously dont invite them to. Even profoundly lovely songs can surreptitiously slide into co-dependancy. Loving is important, but there are many ways it can become tricky. I love ‘Someone you loved’ but the idea of someone not being there as you need them to be there to support you brings me questions.
Someone you loved – Lewis Capadli
Now the day bleeds into nightfall
And you’re not here to get me through it all
I let my guard down and then you pulled the rug
I was getting kinda used to being someone you loved
So here are some songs that I’ve found that have a positive message of love, peace and non-attachment. The pyrics are philosophical, kind and sustainable. Its an ecclectic mix! If you are one of the young ones – please please send me some more modern stuff as it tends to be older folks music I’m finding!
I’ve made this into a youtube playlist (click to go straight there) so you can find them easily. Theyre in a different order to below. On the playlist they go from calmer and sensitive, through grittier and openhearted, to joyful and danceable!
- Anthem – Leonard Cohen
- Death with Dignity – Sufjan Stevens
- Thank U – Alanis Morrissette
- Resilient – Apalachia Rising
- Constant Craving – KD Laing
- Wonderful World, Beautiful People – Jimmy Cliff
- Imagine – John Lennon
- Where is the Love – Black Eyed Peas
- Keep Loving – Nimo
- Beautiful – Nimo
- Graduation – Nimo
- Galileo – Indigo Girls
- The Chain of Love – Clay Walker
- A Love Song to the World – Grateful
- Universal Love – Edward Maya
- All Together Now – The Farm
- Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
- Caravan of Love – The House Martins
- Harvest for the World – The Isley Brothers
- What the World Needs Now – Dionne Warwick
- It Aint What You Do – Fun Boy Three
- I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing – New Seekers
- Morning Has Broken – Cat Stevens
- Bad Day – Daniel Powter
- Little Wonders – Rob Thomas
- Gardener – Rebecca Riots
- Refuge of the Road – Joni Mitchell
- Call it Dreaming – Iron & Wine
- All We Are – Matt Nathanson
- Dream – Forest of the Trees
- Waterfall – James
- Do You Realize – Flaming Lips
- Feeling Yourself Disintegrate – Flaming Lips
Didn’t make it to youtube:
- I’m Yours – Jason Mraz: it’s lovely but seems a bit conflicted in lyrics
- From a Distance – Bette Midler: artistic differences!
- Love Shine A Light – Katrina & The Waves: artistic differences!
I’m thinking music for yoga and a free spine is up next!
I have been wanting to learn yoga with Angela Farmer for 15 years. In my teacher training we watched The Feminine Unfolding. I fell in love with the movement in the spine and Angela’s quiet, wise way. When you’ve been waiting that long you wonder if you will be disappointed. I wasn’t.
Angela is strong, out-there, gentle and wise. Victor is loving, deep and offers wonderful visual tools. Together they offer a feeling of support, freedom and challenge. Angela spoke of how she had been trained by Iyengar, the rigors and rules, and the pain. How he would come and adjust strongly, his way. In those days there was no consent, being in the room was consent and agreement to what he thought was best. I found this fascinating as it’s so different to today. This has been part of their journey into a freer style of yoga.
The rule is that there are no rules
The rules were that there were no rules. I love structure and rules and once I’ve learned them I love the freedom to play and be. You could join in, do your own thing, completely ignore the teaching or follow it carefully. What a delight. I did both. Sometimes I was concentrating on what was being taught, sometimes I was completely somewhere else – attending to a moment more precious than the teaching. Sometimes I was drawing, sometimes I was daydreaming. Being given permission to follow our own rhythm is important.
One of the poses we did was dying warrior. It’s one of those poses where your body is moving in all directions at once, you feel strung out, twisted round, washed up and energised all in one. This picture is poor, but it gives an idea of what’s going on. Right leg extended under the body, and over to the left. Left leg alert and stretched back. And then right shoulder wraps in towards the left so the kidneys and legs get a phenomenal zing.
Your rules, your mat
When you come to class it’s so important that you always have self-empowerment to be you in that moment. Not you from last week, but you today, this day, now. You will sometimes see that people stay in child’s pose and ‘miss’ some of the class. This is because they’re attending to their needs. Sometimes people will be in significantly different poses to each other – this is good. This is listening to what your body is saying and giving what you really need.
So when you come to class, come as you, and enjoy the space to adapt and listen to yourself.