How Yoga Teachers Stay with their Practices in Real Life
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The Samahita Retreat team in Koh Samui recently shared their insights based on decades of combined experience practicing and traveling. Their stories are each different yet all reflect one thing: Making a steady state of mind and centeredness a priority.
The hotel phone rings, a car honks on a foreign street outside, muffled voices reach your ears through a guest bedroom door—you’re awake, and you’re not at home. What happens next? How do you start the day? Do you get up and mill around? Tell yourself “well, since I’m here, I’ll do something new”?
Truth: Thinking like this can easily lead to indulging in the same old distractions, like checking emails and Facebook, taking a shower, watching bad TV, with a cup of instant coffee, or starting groggy conversations with anyone awake. Another truth: People are now dealing with an unprecedented wave of digital info and mental stress that has found its antithesis in a mass movement toward yoga and centering practices. When you travel, you often face more stress. Positive or negative, it’s still stress.
Whatever form it takes, and however much time you have, staying with your practice can make a big difference in how you experience what you traveled to do. We hope these insights help you see how so you can make the best time out of wherever you roam.
Samahita Retreat Founder, Paul Dallaghan:
For me, it’s about understanding what you are doing and why. The point of staying in touch and keeping up with yoga practice is its energetic aspect. I make a point of never being disconnected from practice. And by not being disconnected, I mean mentally tuned in, energetically tuned in … I mean feeling the breath, the awareness, what I’m doing. I don’t start any day without some type of practice. Even if it’s the 4 a.m. flight and I have to be in the taxi at 2 a.m., even that, on the taxi and on the plane, it can be calm breathing with contemplation.
So even if your practice is reduced to five minutes, tune in, on the breath, sit for a short contemplation, meditation, mantra or similar. So it’s just like you have a travel toiletry bag, different to what’s in your bathroom. If you are stuck to the physical form, the routine, the things you do, it will be very hard to break that down for your travel.
I learned early on not to put pressure on myself or have high expectations when I travel. If you understand it, practice is about internal connection; one sun salute, one trikonasana, one baddha konasana, an inversion or a light backbend, and a shavasana is like: Wow! I’m in it. I’ve kept that flow. When it comes to pranayama, I’d leave out much of the pranayama with retention and focus either on kriyas, especially kapalabhati. For that day it could be kapalabhati and shitali that I’m working on. So if that’s well, it should impact the day. Absolutely.
Well, when I travel I’m usually traveling with angels—my two young daughters. It’s very rare that I go somewhere without them.
“I see my whole life as practice, and being able to maintain and manage my energy for my children, my work and for my life is my practice. So my whole view of practice is that it is to support life. It’s not yoga for more yoga.”
So in terms of traveling, I try to be realistic about my intentions for practice during that time. If I’ve traveled across the world to be with my mother—my children’s grandmother—then it’s not all about me and my practice. So it becomes shorter, more compact, a sustainable, mini practice.
Usually, I would take a travel-light yoga mat and I would just try to get some time between it all. Sometimes it would end up being a really long practice because the kids are happy and I have a couple of hours. Other times I would have a half an hour and be grateful for it. For the shorter periods, I just have a minimum asana practice—sun salutations and a few standing poses and some backbends. The change in temperature between Thailand and England shifts the body so much that just keeping that connection with the back bending feels really energizing. I find pranayama very grounding and by taking a little bit of time away from everything and everyone to sit helps me stay centered and ready to face all of the ups and downs that naturally arise when you travel and spend time with family!
It’s really fun to practice in different places. I went on a hen weekend to a beautiful house in Norfolk, and I woke up early and practiced outside in the garden next to the geese and the lambs on the grass … it’s so fun to be out in nature. I didn’t need to do a two-hour practice, just some supportive poses and to feel the atmosphere and the fresh English, countryside air.
The seated practice shouldn’t change too much if you are traveling. Maybe you need to shorten it a bit. But the seated practice, it’s good to be able to keep that thread of practice going. It depends what’s the purpose of your travel. Say you are doing a workshop somewhere and you’re in a new place, and maybe you want to do less to keep the thread of practice going … you cut back a little bit. But the main thing is that it supports you, it keeps you happy, it keeps you healthy. The practice does the same thing for you that it does when you are traveling as when you are not traveling. Things are easier, you feel better, you sleep better, your digestion is better.
I mean there are times you have to modify, you might even be at home and you might have to modify. It’s knowing that fine line between I’m modifying because it’s healthy and supportive or is it because I’m getting a bit lazy or whatever it is—or avoiding … also, with practice, you are with family—how do you treat your family?
“So it’s not just about the work you are doing on your mat, the work you are doing on your meditation cushion, but it’s also how you interact with people throughout the day.”
How are you treating yourself throughout the day. If the yamas and niyamas are at the backbone of all of this, then we just have to be mindful as we go through our lives and our daily interactions. So that’s as much a part of the practice as jumping around on the mat, or pumping your belly. And in some ways it’s more important. It has more to do with our overall growth and our emotional reactions to things. Being mindful of that.
Image courtesy: Samahita Retreat—(left to right) Ellie Brickell, Manuel Molina de la Torre and Dave Tilston
Recently, my yoga mat is where I do most of my fitness. So if there is a pull-up bar, gymnastic rings or a tree, I can go to a tree and do pull-up movements. If there is a decent floor, I can chuck a yoga mat down anywhere. My body-weight calisthenics, 80 percent of that is done on the mat anyway. So I can do yoga or calisthenics. It’s fun, because I love training wherever I go. So by going to a new environment, I enjoy it just as much. If I go on holiday, I enjoy training—it’s a new environment; it’s just part of my life there.
I used to do a lot of rescue technician courses and courses for the fire service. Take a yoga mat with me, chuck it on the floor before work, do my work. If the intention is there, you find a way of doing it.
“If you look for excuses, then you will stop yourself—because you’ll be like “I’m in a new place, or it’s too hot, or the food’s not right, I’m feeling low.” But I find if you don’t do something, then you feel worse. [Staying with your practice on the road] keeps you grounded.”
It’s like you’ve uprooted yourself. You’ve set yourself in a different pot. So establishing that builds structure, because the rest of the day is diverse anyway. You’re going to see new things, try new things, but your training is done. And that, I find, that builds clarity.
One of the things I would say is that I try to take my yoga mat with me. For the last six/seven years, I was looking for an ashtanga place where I can do my practice. But now it’s getting tricky, because my practice is changing. I like to do modifications, and if you go to an ashtanga place, they might be very traditional, and they might tell me: “Don’t do that.” So if I find a place that allows modifications, that’s better. I bring my mat with me, because, if I go to a place, maybe there is a center and they are very strict, and in that case I have my mat with me and I can practice in my hotel room, a friend’s house, anytime I can find. I think you can always find the time or the moment or the space to practice. You might do shorter practices, like sun salutes or some of the postures.
“Sometimes when I am traveling I like to do yin yoga. I think it is really, really helpful because I find travel is very yang energy—there is a lot going on.”
And you don’t need much space for that. Somehow when you travel, especially when you are flying, your mind can be as if you haven’t arrived at the place 100 percent. So I think [my practice] helps me to process that and arrive at the place
I always take a travel mat. It depends, I’ll role the mat out there, just for 15-20 minutes. It’s about hip stuff if you’re sat down a long time.
“I’ll sit there on the plane in double pigeon … get up and walk around if it’s a longer flight. If it’s more restorative, it won’t be a full-on hour practice, maybe 20 minutes, half an hour. But I always try to do it and fit it in a little part of the day.”
When we were in NY, we walked so much that when we got home I was like “my legs are tired. Then if it was a holiday here, I’d feel like doing the full practice, every day. So it just depends on where. When we get home in July for the wedding, it will be four weeks at home, away. It’s like a vacation, although I will be running around planning the rest of the wedding. It’s still that practice, but it might not be as full-on as here, because we’re in different surroundings. When we move back for good, then the practice becomes full-on again. But you need to give yourself a break. You can’t keep a practice up all day and every day.
A few last tips
When traveling, you’ll want to reduce basic digestive and sleep stress too. Mind your nutrition and hydration on flights and in new climates. Fasting and challenging yourself to stay awake can be tricky, but they will help you arrive in your new time zone faster than if you eat and sleep too often. Finally, it can be really exciting to be in a new place! I personally find I get so excited that my mind becomes super busy—I become impatient to go out and explore. So chanting mantras or pranava japa are great practices to help settle it in. Even using chant as a count during pranayama—one chant inhale, two exhale, etc.—can help you focus and tune in, steady the mind. You’re in a fresh place, when you practice, you can make the most of what it brings out in you!