What is Yoga?

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As part of the RYT 200, we were all asked to write an essay as titled, ‘What is Yoga?’.
This is my take on it

What is Yoga?

I think it far easier to answer questions such as’ what is the sound of one hand clapping’ or ‘if a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a noise?’

(the answer to the latter at the end)

Forty years ago, yoga, to me, created visions of scandinavian men and women, all in leotards and all with thick moustaches, as I’m sure they were the images impressed on me when I picked up a magazine about Yoga as a child in a dentists waiting room. Initially yoga for me was a memory of painful fillings.

Now, four decades later, Yoga is the fastest growing activity in the world and the leotards have changed to designer spandex and the dentist’s assistant is an Ashtangi.

Of course most people confuse yoga with asana – the bendy, stretchy stuff.

For some, yoga is endless selfies posted on social media showing off circus act feats, from head stands to handstands wearing designer clothes adorned with Om and Lululemon symbols mostly done in exotic locations or in front of a candle lit mandala or an iconic Hindu or Buddhist deity.

However, are these amazing contortionist images, pictures of someone doing yoga?

Of course not.

They are simply pictures of people showing off circus act feats, from head stands to handstands wearing designer clothes adorned with Om and Lululemon symbols mostly done in exotic locations or in front of a candle lit mandala or an iconic Hindu or Buddhist deity.

You cannot, by definition take a photograph of yoga anymore than you can take a picture of a dream. And whether you have long or short hair or wear a Saddhu beard or are clean shaven or dress in woolly Ecuadorian coats (fleece lined or not), play the pan pipes, eat only gluten free, sport Ganesh tattoos or are able to do a turn on a didgeridoo whilst juggling flames does not make you more spiritual or yogic ‘than thou’.

* As a side note I am considering setting up a male yoga shorts empire which will be branded as BudgieSmugglers (© Kev Ollier 2016) *

Some of the earliest photos of a westerner doing Asana were of the eventually- presumed- murdered, Theos Bernard in the 1930’s. Bernard’s  intention wasn’t for admiration or instagram hits but to show how to execute (possibly a bad choice of word) a particular posture to get an inner result.



Bernard was of one of the most influential Western Yogis of the twentieth century, whose guiding light was to know the truth, free from the trappings and tapestries of illusion.

So is yoga, asana?

Yes but mostly no.

Yoga is said to have derived mostly from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali of which there are 196. Compiled 400 years BC/BCE/CE, depending on your preferred acronym, asana is only referred to three times and yet the whole world now assumes that yoga is asana when asana is, in truth, a very minor aspect.

In the sutras, Patanjali suggests, when practicing asana, for it to be “steady and comfortable”.
“The body is held poised with the practitioner experiencing *NO DISCOMFORT*. When control of the body is mastered, practitioners are believed to free themselves from the duality of heat/cold, hunger/satiety, joy/grief, which is the first step toward the non-attachment that relieves suffering”

Surely that’s the whole point. That paragraph just quoted is probably it –  what yoga is, though I think even that can be minimised and summed up in one word……..but we all like to read volumes and volumes of books saying exactly the same thing, from Buddhist philosophy to the Gita to get to that all encompassing and simple word, so continuing on…

Listed below are traditional rules for performing asanas:

  • The stomach should be empty which means not eating for at least 3 hours before asana
  • During asanas force or pressure should NOT be used, and the body should NOT tremble.
  • Lower the head and other parts of the body slowly; in particular, raised heels should be lowered slowly.
  • The breathing should be controlled. The benefits of asanas increase if the specific breathing to the yoga type is performed.Having practiced asanas for 20 years I have witnessed that very few people follow even these. Navasana makes me tremble. In fact if I want to feel like I have rickets, Navasana ticks the box.The heart of Patanjali’s teachings is the eightfold path of yoga of which asana is only one and with modern hatha yoga aka Ashtanga yoga, this is seen to be ‘what yoga is’

    In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows: Yama : Universal morality –

    Niyama : Personal observances
    Asanas : Body postures
    Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
    Pratyahara : Control of the senses
    Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
    Samadhi : Union with the Divine


    Anyone of us can experience something nearer to what yoga is whilst doing asana.

Many fingers point to the moon for us to experience yoga in asana, albeit with a different and revised set of distractions from the usual thoughts occupying our minds during our practice. Following and concentrating on one’s breath, having focus points within each pose (drishti), pulling in or up parts of the body rather than wondering what to make for dinner or being anxious of the day to follow or does my bum look big in this Lulelemon swimsuit?

An asana practitioner can spend a lifetime working out and feeling where the perineum is.
One can usually tell when someone is trying to find it as the face pulled is similar to that of a face that’s just eaten a non-agreeable Vindaloo – and there is someone in the loo.  (For the record, the perineum is  on the ‘bridge’ between the anus and the genital area/scrotum and trying to pull that centre up is akin to riding a see saw – you want the calming centre, not the ends)

The yogic distractions, if followed with meditative discipline, will bring you into your body and by default the postures will be deeper and more comfortable as your mind relaxes and lets go, but most modern classes, only having five breaths to work with in each posture, more often than not don’t allow time to get to those ‘spaces’ – for most people, and this could be why ‘Yin’ yoga is becoming more popular. There is fundamentally no difference between Ashtanga and Yin expect the length of time held in an individual posture. Yang is Ashtanga flow, Yin, Ashtanga slow. If we were to stay in each posture in a Hatha Ashtanga class for just one dedicated minute, it would do what Yin achieves, giving space and time for the mind and body to relax and be comfortable – apparently the whole point of Patanjali’s reference to asana.

This seems to be the whole point of asana. Without this aim, all we are all doing is stretching and bending. The mind has to be fully involved in the moment before becoming eventually uninvolved, which is nearing what yoga truly is, as far as my own understanding goes.

The book of books, the Bhagavad Gita concludes that yoga is simply doing what you do in everyday life without any attachment to ‘the fruit of your actions’

Donna Farhi – currently my very favourite ‘yogi’, once asked, in a workshop, what is yoga?. The usual stock answers were forthcoming of course but one girl said, and I paraphrase, that yoga is clearing up after a workshop, it’s helping the old lady across the road, it’s holding a door open for somebody. It’s doing RAOK (Random acts of kindness)

Currently it could be helping refugees in some way or it could even be feeling so much warmth and sorrow for Donald Trump. If you can do the latter, you’re nearly there.

So, what is Yoga? There are 7 billion people on Earth and therefore 7 billion correct answers but for me it comes down to one word.

Is that word, God? The problem with the word ‘God’ – a word I think should be banished from all language is that people perceive God as a person, a person to many in the west who looks a lot like Santa only with more sensible clothes and a longer, indeed eternal, Hell if you’re naughty, than just no presents on Christmas morning

The word ‘YOGA’, same as the word ‘GOD’ can be changed to another word and that is LOVE.

The ‘secret’ is seeing everyone as one of your own relatives or friends. The BIG ISSUE seller or the lady camping out every night in a doorway is your mum, sister, daughter, best friend. The abusive guy in the car that just cut you up is your son, brother, dad having a bad day. The refugees living in squalor in Calais are your family and friends but with all of these it very simply could be you. Compassion and Empathy is part of Love.

Practicing asana may eventually take you so deep into yourself that you can’t do anything else but to feel compassion and empathy, firstly for your own self and then, like gravitational waves from your own heart, to every being alive


To me that is what Yoga is.

As for the falling tree in the forest. No

Yoga. Why?

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I think my decision to do the teacher training has brought up a lot of questions, particularly the one that will I ever teach? I’m not sure I will. I have no intention to but then I hear so many teachers say that they said the same thing right up until they were qualified. But other questions that have been loitering in the back of my mind have come to the forefront and the questioning of yoga has begun; it reminds me of why we should question everything which was brought home to me by David Icke, no less, who’s conference I attended back in 1991, (which was his post turquoise/pre lizard period). He was giving an example of why we should question everything (and in yoga that means questioning the seemingly ‘they know best’ unquestionables).
David’s wife
was cooking something for dinner but before she added this whatever – it – was to a pan, she cut the corners off it and the conversation apparently went something like this:

‘Why do you cut the corners off that?’
‘Well that’s how it’s done, it’s always done like this’
‘Who says exactly?’
‘That’s how my mother has always done it’
‘Yes, but why? Could you ring her and ask her, right now?’
So Mrs Icke calls her mum and asks why she always cut the corners off to which came the reply,
‘We had to, it wouldn’t fit in the pan otherwise’ !

Kev Ollier - David Icke

How often do we leave a slug of tea in the bottom of a cup still? A memory from when there were tea leaves and I always leave a pool of tea and yet I’ve never had tea leaves!

It was at a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff – who is one of the original western students who studied yoga under Sri Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India – where I learnt why we ‘supposed to’ do a 6 day a week practice ( I say ‘we’, but I really mean ‘they’) and not a full 7 days. It was simply because Mrs Pattabhi wanted to go shopping with her husband and so it was changed from a 7 day to 6 day practice to placate her. This would then follow, that had she insisted on three days with her beloved, then the western Ashtangis would be doing a 4 days a week practice.  Who says it has to be so many days a week? Was it just Pattabhi or was it Krishnamachurya, Pattabhi’s teacher, who insisted, and if so, why? Was it because he had nothing better or more pressing to do?

Nancy Gilgoff practicing with Pattabhi Joisback in the day

At a Kino Macgregor workshop in London a couple of years ago, she explained that it is not essential to take your arms out to the side coming in to the first sun salutation in a crowded space, particularly if you’re likely to smack your neighbour in the face on the way up. Lifting the arms over the head and joining hands is all that apparently matters.
It was also Kino that expressed that there is so much dogma attached to yoga, especially with Ashtanga, in practices such as Nodi Shodhan (alternate nostril breathing) where she called the action of pressing the fingers into the third eye on the forehead as simply ego – it’s closing the nostrils alternately that matters.


It seems we all expect (without question) that Yoga, especially Ashtanga, has to have tropically heated rooms, so hot that if you close your eyes you could hear tree frogs. Gregor Maehle says that if you want to age prematurely in yoga then heat the room. I quote from a post he sent to Facebook about this very question

“I keep receiving questions regarding whether it’s important or good to heat the yoga shala and whether this aids in detoxing. I also hear people reasoning that the shala should be heated to emulate the heat of the gangetic plains in India, which is supposed to be the native environment of yogis. Now during the 1980 and 90’s I travelled extensively through the gangetic plains but I must say that I found them surprisingly bereft of yogis. On the other hand if you went up into the freezing Himalayas you found that the yogis were stacked up to the rafters. Surprising, isn’t it!
Do you remember that even Krishnamacharya went up into the Himalayas to practice tummo, yoga of inner fire, while sitting on the ice? You can’t practice that down in the gangetic plains.
Nowadays Western yogis are really emphatic about keeping the windows of the yoga shala closed. I remember that neither KP Jois old shala in Lakshmipuram nor the Parakala Matt in Mysore where T Krishnamacharya taught ever had any windows. And I remember that in January at 4.30 AM I always froze in those drafty windowless rooms. And nobody offered to turn on any heaters because there weren’t any!
People who practice in such a fashion usually age prematurely and if you look at them 10 years later they have a washed out and drained look to themselves because of all the prana they lost, by practicing too vigorously under too hot conditions.
Notice that the yogis were very concerned about loosing tejas (inner glow) and one of the ways of preventing that is to rub the sweat produced during pranayama back into the skin.
**This is a technique, however, that should ONLY be used in the context of pranayama and NOT during asana, during which excessive sweating should be avoided**
Hence, do not heat the room too much and if it’s warm outside keep the windows open. Many yogic texts (shastras) state that the shala should be well aired.”

Gregor Maehle

Then there was the time that I was at one of the Brian Cooper workshops in Glastonbury. I respect Brian immensely, particularly for his ability and total honesty and his very dry sense of humour (at least I think it is). He was asked by one student as to what is the point in getting a leg behind your head and his answer was “there is no point, what’s the point to any of the postures, fun? To show off at a party?”  I love Brian.

Brian Cooper

Of course, the BIG question is why do yoga? Usually you have to keep asking why to each answer you give yourself before you get to the crux of an answer and one that might surprise you. Was it really to be fitter? You could ruin your knees and go jogging to do that. Was it to try and stave off the inevitable, to look good, to feel young again-  or was it to go within, to your ‘true’ self? Maybe the first answers are what you think are honest ones yet maybe deep down it was the latter we seek. Eventually in yoga, to those that stay the distance, that turning inwards, will happen to everybody and surely that’s the idea? Yoga is a non-religious spiritual practice. It is not for atheists. If you’re an atheist and you’re practicing yoga then it’s simply not yoga – it could be exercise, it could be gymnastics but it certainly is not yoga, whatever the sign says above the door, and it really should go without having to keep reminding ourselves that there are eight limbs of yoga and the physical is just one, the lesser one at that, and more ‘yoga schools’ would be beneficial to teach, or to at least discuss, the heart of yoga – the other seven limbs.

Asana is by far the easiest limb to master. One’s self is the holy grail.


So 18 years on, to be a Yoga teacher……….

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Today, approximately 18 years after entering my first yoga class I am filling in the form to take the 200 hours teacher training. This, has been a difficult and soul-searching decision to say the least.

Kev Ollier acro yogic flying

It was all those years ago and being the owner of a security alarm business that stress got the better of me. Running a 24 hour business and having to respond at any time to a false alarm was trying at best and I lost my two best friends that year, one to cancer and one to suicide and I pretty much sort of flipped.

My very best friend was also my spiritual friend as we had both got on to that path together simultaneously a few years earlier getting quite heavily into Ram Dass and Buddhist teachings as well as dabbling in dowsing and visiting crop circles, stone circles, holy wells and ancient sites. Our choice of music changed from AC/DC and Motorhead to Enya. And when you go from Motorhead to Enya virtually overnight you know that something has shifted.
So his death was a terrible shock and was followed by my other great friend who having a poorly tummy that led him to go to the doctors also led him to his death just 6 weeks later, leaving two kids the same age as my own.

I spiraled into anxiety and depression.

Death was real. Loss was real. Fear was very real.

I went through months of thinking I was going mad, being outside of myself, avoiding crowds and supermarkets (though the latter I think is still advisable) and it was around this time that I was walking along Glastonbury High Street when I got talking to a hippy girl and found myself opening up to her – though this was normal at the time. I think I was so fearful of what was happening to me that I opened up to all and sundry. Anyway she advised I try yoga – which in my mind produced a picture of camp Scandinavian men in dodgy leotards and bad moustaches doing improbable body bending. (there are a lot of guys who, until very recently at least, hold some or all of those images of yoga guys- trust me on this).

Kev Ollier yoga .17

Besides this and having read the Celestine Prophecy I took this suggestion as a message and so I went along to a class with a wonderful teacher, published parapsychologist, Serena Roney Dougal. I was blown away. The class followed the teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati mostly from Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha – a renegade yogi apparently that shocked the yoga establishment at the time. (However Satyananda’s other significant move was to bring yoga into the domain of medical science, and explain esoteric techniques in terms of western anatomy and physiology). We did humming breath, stared at a candle for ages, nodi shodan, meditation and asanas and I left that class each week so calm, so clear yet as high as a kite, that lasted three days and seeing how Marijuana lasted only 4 hours and resulted in mostly talking bollocks, three days of renewed and organic clarity was literally a Godsend. I don’t think I missed a week and I never saw that girl who suggested the class again (and some of us may have a name for those beings).


In time Serena moved on, spending 6 months of each year in an ashram in India but I couldn’t stop the yoga so I went to various hatha yoga teachers, all very good, drifted into an Ashtanga class about 12 years ago going a few times but not keeping it up for more than 3 weeks thinking it missed the spiritual element too much but 8 years ago, aging as one does and seeing the futility of the ‘staving off the inevitable’ gym life, I revisited the Ashtanga and got hooked and have been practicing ever since with the odd Hatha here and there thrown in.

It is my own Glastonbury teacher, Jane Piddington, student of Brian Cooper, who is running the teacher training in Glastonbury over 10 months, rather than a month intensive and it’s at least 30% less cost than other teacher trainings and Brian will be there to teach over two weekends.

For those who haven’t (unbelievably) heard of Brian Cooper, he was hailed by legendary yogi David Williams as ‘the real deal’. Brian has also co-founded Harmony Publishing which publishes out of print yoga classics and he is the Honorary Secretary for Scotland for the International Yoga Federation, an Honorary Member of the World Yoga Council, a member of the Advisory Board for the World Yoga Council, and on the Advisory Board of Yoga Alliance UK.

Kev Ollier with Brian Cooper

And – there are about 6 or 7 places left on the training if you’re quick!

Now, currently in Bristol I’ve started to attend many types of classes and have fallen in love with a unique, strong and very ‘spiritual’ ‘Ashtanga Fusion’ class at BCY with Vinnette. Every yogi, especially teachers, would do well to attend some of Vinnette’s classes to see how yoga can be beautiful without it being anal, but what is drawing me back to my self, like a moth to a flame is the fastest growing style of yoga – yin yoga, which in line with a regular Ashtanga class is the perfect combination. Yin Yoga is huge in London and only just getting started in Bristol. It has a very strong spiritual element which feeds the soul and amazing holding postures which, for me, do as much for my body as the strongest Ashtanga practice – minus any ego involvement.


So, starts a new chapter of my life and practice and will report back here often.
Right, best fill the form in!


next blogs to come will be the birth of Pixie Twinkle, the back to back Ashtanga/Yin experience at Yoga Place, London and a day with Norman Blair

Still My Guitar Gently Weeps

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following on from Rishikesh. The Beatles

Rishikesh before the arrival of The Beatles in 1968 was pretty much unknown to Westerners but there is no doubting that it was indeed this visit by the Fab Four that put Rishikesh, Meditation and Yoga onto the current mainstream map.

The Beatles, simply put, is why Rishikesh is what it is today – the yoga capital of the world – and the number 1 spiritual backpacking destination on the planet – but – you wouldn’t know this when there. There are no shops selling Beatles memorabilia, and their songs from the White Album, which was mostly written in this town along with other of their tunes, are not blaring from every shop and coffee stop. There is a Beatles Cafe hidden away in an underground blaze of buildings outside of he main tourist zone but that’s it.

The greatest monument to The Beatles is not the Cavern Club in Liverpool nor is it the National Trust owned childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and neither is it Penny Lane or the zebra crossing in Abbey Road. It is the crumbling ashram that The Beatles briefly lived in with the Maharishi in Rishikesh. That’s the spot where the Beatles opened their hearts and minds and in the case of Harrison and Lennon, were never closed again. It is the must visit antiquity for any fan of the Beatles but it has to be done soon because in 5 years it will be likely be gone as the jungle is taking it over – and fast.

In the mid-1960s, the Beatles became interested in Indian culture after using drugs in an effort to expand their consciousness and in 1966 Harrison visited India for 6 weeks and took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar.
The band’s visit was one of the their most productive periods. Their interest in the Maharishi changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation to the rest of the world. They first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor Wales. They had planned to attend the entire 10-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching center located in Rishikesh.

Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968, and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers including musicians Donovan and Mike Love of The Beach Boys.

So today was an exciting day for me. We were going to find the ashram. Brought up on The Beatles – my mother tells me when I was born, and subsequently taken back to the ward, the first song I ever heard was ‘She Loves You’ as that was playing on the hospital ‘wireless’. I was even born on September 19th, the same day as Brian Epstein (and Twiggy as it happens but that has no relevance) and I have known every word of every song, verbatim, since I was 7.

We had to ask where the ashram was, as it isn’t signed or mentioned anywhere yet every resident knows where it is. It is a mile down from the Swarg Ashram village, within Rishikesh, beyond where the path ends and forays into the edge of the jungle, or actually where the jungle forays towards town. Even 100 yards away, we had to ask some westerners where it was..

The Ashram entrance

We were met at the gate by a local guide who was recommended by a departing scouse Indian couple. Then there was an entrance fee, of 5op each. The guide was invaluable. The first thing we learnt was that there were 121 two storey meditation pods circumnavigating the huge ashram where people were left to lose their minds. The Beatles had, wait for it….pod number 9 (explains a lot doesn’t it?)

Number 9

We were taken to the levitation hall which looks like it was made from Chesil Beach and our guide assured us that levitation was a regular occurrence


Taken on to the roof of a mediation room




and into the collapsing and fascinating Yoga Hall which has been left to the graffiti artists and apparently the odd visiting Tiger…











The weird thing was that if anywhere had a lingering spirit or ghost of the past then this was the place. The whole atmosphere of the ashram was haunting, a crumbling statue in time of the minds of people who were desperately  trying to get out of them and although I debated why it was that the local tourist trade were missing a trick by not opening this up and publicising, what is, such a culturally historic place, the part of the Earth where the Beatles went in search of God/Love/ Self, I also got the beautiful impermanence of it all, the earth itself grabbing back what is its from the footsteps of the greatest celebrities to have ever walked its soil.

Then going to the accommodation building which was that of the Beatles, and of course Prudence who simply wouldn’t come out to play, added a spine shiver. I swear if you were still enough, you could get back and be there, maybe, to where you once belonged

if you look carefully, you might see Lennon peeping out






all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see

Rishikesh! Yoga capital of the world

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following on from

yoga rishikesh

The bus from hell pulled in at Dehra Dun at 5 in the morning and still being 10 miles from Rishikesh allowed taxi drivers to take advantage, or try to at least. They should understand that after the last 14 hours my inner yogi had gone awry and I was left with a strong case of the fuck it attitude. The greedy smiles of the drivers saying that ‘there is no other choice than to take our taxi as the first bus is 5 hours away’  found my yogi free body waving a finger at my face and saying ‘do I look bothered ?’ which was lost on them as I can’t imagine they knew who Vicky Pollard was. In fact, nobody we asked, and we asked a few after the shock of the first blank face, had ever even heard of Madonna, so Vicky had no chance.
Standing our ground the fare halved when all the other passengers had gone on their way and soon we arrived at our hotel in Rishikesh, waking the receptionist asleep on the floor behind the counter who, bless him, rounded up some sleepy staff and got our rooms ready.


A few hours later we were up and out and immediately the senses were assaulted by more yoga posters than you could ever imagine. I confidently think that you could stay in Rishikesh a whole year going to a different yoga class each day without repeating one. The yoga posters though had stiff competition from the meditation posters. And it is a honey pot for westerners – most on month long courses and nearly all on a long term world hippy travel adventure – and of all ages – in fact the over 50’s were as abundant as the under 30’s.

We wandered down the narrow alleys to the first cafe – a chilled cushion seated affair called the Happy Buddha Cafe which afforded the first views of the Ganges. It maybe only a river in the same way the Himalayas are only a mountain range but breath is stripped from your body just the same.



I struck up a conversation with an English threesome who were at the back end of a Sivananda yoga course, one I’ve never tried but their recommendation to do so will be acted upon. They told us of a circular walk that takes in all of Rishikesh so that’s what we decided to do. Heading off we soon came to the defining Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge but spotting, what truly has to be, one of the best sited people watching cafes in the world, the Devraj Coffee Corner and Bookshop hovering above it, we decided to have another rest – this time a Honey Lemon Ginger tea was the order of the moment to watch the constant drama unfold below.




To say this is a pedestrian bridge is pushing it to say the least. The only thing not allowed on it, and only because it isn’t wide enough, are cars and trucks.  Motorbikes and scooters cross it and it seems as long as you ‘peep’ it’s ok to kill a pedestrian. I assume a death resulting from no peeping results in prosecution.  But ‘peep’ doesn’t adequately describe the murder inducing sound that is emitted. Along with the motorbikes and scooters, also jostling to cross are cows, buffalos, dogs, the odd donkey and every sort of human alive, and constantly, the very naughty monkeys, who, looking all cute at first glance, are jumping down on to the bridge and then literally stalking and then grabbing and ripping any bags not held against a chest. There is no movie worth watching that is as enthralling and dramatic as the live action of Lakshman Jhula bridge.








Once one runs the gauntlet of this crossing you come into the area that is itself Lakshman Jhula. To picture this imagine the Green Fields’ cafes of Glastonbury Festival crossed with the High Street of Glastonbury town with a splattering of ashrams to a backdrop of Himalayan foothills and a turbulent Ganges running through it all, accompanied by scents of Patchouli, Sandalwood and Hashish with yoga and meditation being the main stay of business.
One word.



more posts on Rishikesh to follow…..

all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see


Why the yoga mat is undermining your practice – Brian Cooper

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Brian Cooper. Probably the most down to Earth, un-fluffy, says it how it is, yoga teacher on the planet ruffles feathers with the yoga science of the non – mat.

copied directly from


By Brian Cooper PhD and Chris Norris PhD

Much could be written about the psychological significance of rolling out your mat, with its implications of marking out your territory, creating your own space and perhaps saying something about your personality by the size and thickness of your mat. We will leave this for another article and focus on the anatomical error of mat-dependence.

If you are taking a yoga class and the teacher asks to put all props aside, away fly all the bricks, blocks, belts, bolsters and the whole paraphernalia of many yoga classes. But not quite all the props: Few would dream of also removing their mat. And yet they are the biggest, and in some ways, the most pernicious props of them all. They are both anatomical and psychological props, and they are pernicious because few students recognise the role they play in their practice. The general consensus is that props are useful for assisting in approaching a posture, but they should be discarded when it is recognised they are no longer useful and could even be holding a student back. But have you ever heard a student say ‘now I can finally discard my mat, I no longer need it’?

NO! Because students don’t consider the yoga mat as a prop, but a vital piece of equipment to, among other things, protect them from a hard floor, or an unclean or cold floor. Fair enough, but the trend over the last twenty years has been towards the STICKY MAT. Originally produced from carpet underlay to prevent whatever was being used from slipping on the floor, its purpose has shifted to preventing the student from slipping on the mat. One of the most frequent complaints of students who purchase a mat is that they are not sticky enough, and many mats come with instructions on how to get the optimal grip.

Let’s take a look at Adho Mukha Svanasana

Most dogs do this without rolling out a sticky mat. Humans using a sticky mat push their feet away until they are held by the mat, and use the reaction from this to lift the hips and straighten the legs. At the same time, they push their hands into the mat and exploit the hands being held by the mat to lift the hips and draw the head closer to the legs. Hence the typical upside down v shape much admired by humans but not so much by dogs.


The photo above shows the usual posture on a sticky mat. The arrows show the overall direction of horizontal force applied to the mat. This combined with a downward force of compression results in a ground reaction force which lifts the hips and provides the stability necessary to move deeper into the posture. The muscles stretched are the extensors which include the calves, hamstrings, gluteals and latissimus dorsi. The muscles contracted are the flexors which include the quadriceps, psoas and part of the deltoids. When you practice on a sticky mat, you use the reaction of the feet and hands to lift into the posture, and do not have to engage the flexors. You can hang out with very little work being done to contract them.


The effect of the sticky mat is amplified in the above photo by pressing the heels into a wall, a prop commonly used to move deeper into the forward bend. Again, the arrows illustrate the forces acting at the heel, which produce an equal and opposite reaction directed towards the hips.

So what happens if we take away the mat or the wall?


To make it clearer, let’s turn the posture upside down to give Navasana. Here we see that it is a mild forward bend where the anterior muscles need to be contracted to lift the trunk and legs against gravity. The arrows show the direction of action of the anterior muscles used to maintain the posture.


The same applies to the above posture being practiced without a mat. The arrows show the overall direction of the forces required to prevent the feet and hands from sliding. The flexors are now fully engaged. In addition, the slipping action of your hands and feet on a floor rather than a mat creates instability. Removing your sticky mat challenges your body’s proprioception to make it ‘feel’ the movement more. The result is a far more active and mindful movement. To prove this yourself, practice Adho Mukha Svanasana on a sticky mat, and then on a wooden floor. Initially you will find your hands and feet slip. Keep practicing however, and you will find they no longer slip as much. Your hands have not suddenly become sticky of course, all that has happened is that you have learnt to adjust your body subtly to produce the exact amount of muscle force to stop slipping.

By discarding the sticky mat, the extensors and flexors are working together in a coordinated and balanced action which teaches the body useful and healthy movement patterns. The sticky mat over emphasises one set of muscles and encourages a loss of truly integrated movement.

Prasarita Padottanasana


With the feet apart there is a natural tendency for the feet to slide further, shown by the arrows in the above photo, an action which is resisted by the sticky mat. In this asana we are stretching the hamstrings as we bend forwards and the hip adductor muscles because the legs are apart. We also use the quads and hamstrings to stabilise the knee. As we reach forwards our lats are lengthened and as we allow the body to draw down to the floor for the final pose our back extensor muscles lengthen. Many students, particularly beginners, use the advantage of the sticky mat to relax their adductors and take the weight onto the inside edges of the feet. The following variation-Baddha Padottanasana-helps us to explore the action of the feet and the adductors in a very stable position.


The mat is now replaced by clasping the hands behind the legs so the feet cannot slip apart. First push the legs strongly into the arms as you move into the forward bend which can be achieved with confidence. Go to your limit and now lift and activate the arches of your feet-you can do this by pressing the ball of the foot and big toe firmly downwards, and observe how much firmer your feet feel on the ground. At this stage, gently move your legs away from the arms as if you want to draw your feet together. This is the action we want to cultivate in the final posture without a mat. The adductors are now contracting, and the feet firmly planted.

Before moving to the final posture without a mat, let’s try one more variation to really feel the work the adductors should be doing in this posture.

Urdhva Prasarita Padottanasana


To move into a deep forward bend, you will have to engage the flexors and the adductors very strongly. It is these muscles which are being neglected in the usual posture done on a mat. Hold this position for 10 breaths, making sure the back is not rounding and you are lifting through the sternum.

We are now ready to take the final posture without the sticky mat.


The arrows in the above photo show the action required to hold the posture without the feet slipping. Again, as in Adho Mukha Svanasana, discarding the sticky mat will increase proprioception and enable muscles to work in a more balanced way. It teaches us to become more mindful or our body movement and limitations. If the above is not challenging enough for you, try it with socks!

Virabhadrasana 1


Practicing this posture with a sticky mat encourages the front thigh to be pushed forward, and the weight taken onto the inside edge of the back foot, often with the result of bending the back leg. The posture can be explored further using the wall as a prop. This encourages grounding the outside edge of the foot with a resulting strengthening of the back leg. Again, these movements have to be cultivated if working without the mat.


The photo below shows the posture without a mat. Now there is a tendency for the feet to slip apart (increasing hip abduction) and so the adductors must work more, especially on the back leg. On the front there will be more emphasis on the hip extensors to resist sliding into hip flexion. The feet must grip more without a mat and so the feet need a greater contact area which is achieved as above by activating the arch and grounding the outside edge of the back foot. The front femur feels as if it is being sucked into the hip socket. The overall effect is that of drawing the feet together.


From the above descriptions we can draw some important conclusions highly relevant to the use of a sticky mat.

Essentially we are looking at synergistic actions which we learn as a motor program during walking and running. That is, hip and knee extension combined with plantar flexion of the foot / ankle. Although each muscle is working individually, the action is programmed into a single sequence (an engram) which is familiar to us and so requires less neural activity. Driving the heel down and lifting the arch of the foot combined with pressing the pelvis forwards to rotate the hip locks the lower limb joints more precisely – a sequence called ‘close pack’. During childhood we learn movement sequences such as lying, rolling, crawling, high kneeling, standing, side walk, forward walk, running etc. If we can lock into these sequences it becomes easier for a person to learn the action because the brain is familiar with the way the muscle groups and joints work together. What yoga is doing is to tap into these sequences and allow the body to function in an integrated fashion. If however we place too much emphasis on the use of a sticky mat, these sequences are blocked, leading to potentially harmful movement patterns which encourage unnatural movement combinations.

See also ‘Yoga Mat Death’ at


Brian Cooper

Brian Cooper

Brian has been practicing yoga for a long time and is mainly self-taught. He completed the Primary and Intermediate Series with Sri K.P. Jois In 1990. He is currently working on Kechari Mudra without a razor. He holds a PhD in Biophysics and loves researching yogic practices from a western perspective.
His book ‘the Art of Adjusting’ was published in 2006 and is used in training programs world-wide.
He is the founder of Harmony Publishing which publishes out of print Yoga Classics including ‘Hatha Yoga’ by Theos Bernard and ‘Pranayama’ by Andre van Lysbeth, an early student of K.P. Jois in the 1950s.
Visit Brian’s website:
Find out about the trainings Brian is involved with:

Christopher Norris

Chris Norris
Chris is a Chartered Physiotherapist (MCSP). He holds a Masters degree (MSc) in Exercise Science and a Doctorate (PhD) investigating spinal rehabilitation. Chris is the author of twelve books on physiotherapy and exercise, including textbooks on sport injuries (Elsevier) Back Stability (Human Kinetics), stretching, and exercise therapy (Bloomsbury). He is director of Norris Associates, a private clinic in Northwest England.
Visit Christopher’s website:

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I am not a Buddhist – McLeod Ganj

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‘I am not a Buddhist’ were words I heard myself uttering at the end of our three day stay in the home of the Dalai Lama – the town of Mcleod Ganj not the big man’s house itself of course.


We dropped our backpacks into the Pink House Hotel, had a hearty breakfast of Mango Lassi, Chocolate and Banana pancakes and a Tulsi Tea and then went off to discover the town. After just 100 yards I was approached by a woman with a baby who told me that she didn’t want money, just food, for her starving child. How could one possibly refuse? –  so I was led back the way I’d come, to a shop. It was at this time I realised that I’d become part of a scam I hadn’t come across before. The shopkeeper was well prepared for me as I assume the woman must do this as many times a day as she can get away with. The choice offered was rice or/and milk and I decided to pay my dumb dues and pick rice – at 400 rupees a bag which I later found was about 350 rupees too much. I guess that she gets a small commission and the shop owner, Mr Robin Bastard, gets the rest. I left muttering inner ffs’s and started back up the road only to met by another woman and a baby. I couldn’t tell if it was the same woman and baby and I entertained the prospect that today might actually be groundhog day. This time I said No. I learn fast.


Apart from gangs of babies clutched by women, McLeod is brimming with purple robed Buddhist monks and nuns and a hefty mix of dreadlocked Ohm wearers who fill the many groovy cafes and funky restaurants.


Most of the population are Tibetan non-monk refugees fleeing the on-going Obama and Cameron ignored  atrocities of the Chinese which has been on-going since 1960 when the first refugees came and still do to this day.


Tibetans outnumber the Indians by at least 5 to 1



All of the buildings are built in Tibetan style which include the residence of the Dalai, the Tibetan Childrens Village, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute and hundreds more. I wasn’t sure about the Astrological one as I’m a Virgo and it’s a known Virgo trait not to believe in Astrology. There is the Library of Tibetan Works and countless yoga and meditation centres. It was in Mcleod Ganj that I discovered what I assume must be a Tibetan delicacy – French Toast. Everywhere does it and they all compete for taste. This is not Eggy bread, this is French Toast – the names don’t even sound similar.


What surprised me here was being in a restaurant and monks ordering chicken. I was always under the impression that sentient beings weren’t supposed to be eaten and apparently the Buddha himself died choking on pork which might have been his very last lesson on the pitfalls of eating a fellow sentient. But more than that, from what I understand, a monk dons his robes to renounce the world, but I didn’t encounter one who wasn’t holding a smartphone or an ipad where, rather than renounce the world, you can access all of it, 24/7 which makes becoming a monk bloody easy in my opinion.

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I always wonder what Christ would think, if he came back, and allegedly he’s supposed to, of all the churches built in his name, each one with his murder hanging from every arch and alter and I do wonder what Buddha would think of all the golden statues of him, some small with holes in his head to hold joss sticks, some so big to rival a cathedral.
At least the Buddhists don’t have his everlasting image as a guy trying to cough up some bacon, so he got a better deal than Jesus.
And where does it say that to understand the teachings of the big B one has to shave one’s heads or don robes or prostate?
It doesn’t.
The philosophy and teachings of a tuned in being, once again, have been lost or side stepped into a religion of ritual – yet another case of fingers pointing at the moon.



The Dalai Lama was in residence when we were there, though I think he was having a lie-in and indeed the temples are certainly very  impressive – as buildings and as symbols of devotion, and all of it with the majestic and mystical snowy peaks of the Himalayas as a back drop. It is a magical town.