As the days and nights get much colder, beach yoga a distant memory and Christmas adverts bombarding me in every direction, now seems the perfect opportunity to return to India for a third time.
I will return to Purple Valley, the Ashtanga yoga retreat in Goa, this December exactly a year on, to practice for a second time with John Scott, David Keil and Gretchen Suarez (see picture of me with them at the bottom of this post)
So in preparation I thought I'd ask myself some big questions and write a blog with the answers.. How do I feel? Am I any different to the me of a year ago? How does my yoga practice feel now?
For sure a lot has changed; the biggest change being a complete career overhaul, going from corporate life to teaching yoga full time since returning from India in April this year. I feel extremely privileged to be able to share the teachings I have received with my wonderful yoga students. In fact it is they who are always my biggest teachers - as I learn so much from them, their journeys and their experiences on the mat.
I reflect on how I approached my yoga practice a year ago; although this was my second visit to India I still felt pretty nervous those first few weeks in Goa. It was at the start of a long 5 months in India, which would culminate in Mysore with a return to my teacher Vinay Kumar.
I knew going back to India would help delve deeper into my Ashtanga practice; to dedicate time to understanding more of myself, the practice of yoga and why I do it. On reflection I began my month at Purple Valley with such a cluttered mind and a distinct lack of confidence. I would wake up, race down in the early morning dark, through the tropical garden, sit awkwardly in the pre-practice meditation, do my practice as fairly swiftly as possible and get out the Shala - usually heading immediately to the breakfast table utterly famished!
Honestly, I found practicing every morning full primary hard. My body hurt and most of all my head hurt with negative thoughts and stories. Some days I almost couldn't take some postures, approaching them with absolute dread, the sensations they created in my body and head just too much to handle. I felt distracted and irritable at times. I was also nursing a painful shoulder injury and I felt behind where I should be (whatever that is!) as I watched in awe the beautiful movement all around me that was quietly being played out on everyone mats. My negative stories and distraction were all part of the busy mind, the Chitta Vritti, meaning mind chatter or monkey mind. My mind I still hadn't yet learnt to quiet, I was in need of far more practice controlling and silencing my mind with meditation and yoga.
I would go in the room, keep my head down, avoid or push through the postures that stopped or caught my breath. It was Marichyasana D and back-bending that I mostly faced with a slight grimace each day. A long time being very unwell with my lungs as a teenager and early twenties has made back-bending my biggest challenge. The whole chest has to stretch and open to then bend back, which is the complete opposite of the hedgehog stance I adopted for a very long time to mentally protect myself from the discomfort.
However, during this time in Goa, deep down I knew to keep going, that I must stick to it and not skip a day; if I could get through the practice from start to finish at some point, the magic will happen. I never stopped having faith in the immense mental, physical and spiritual, healing benefits of the practice. My teacher Vinay Kumar told me to "trust the process" and trust I did.
I had some superb moments with these incredible teachers at Purple Valley in Goa who showed me a different way to move on the mat. John Scott's words stuck with me when he stopped me in my tracks one morning getting (or rather squeezing) myself into Marichyasana D. "Stop making it look so hard Pip" he said with a smile, "your students won't want to do yoga if they see how much you make it look like a struggle". He was absolutely right. Stop pushing, stop mindlessly forcing and pulling I told myself. Focus on Drishti, free breathing, soften the body, consciously move through the postures. These are words that now resonate with my practice.
One morning John Scott quietly during practice, told me that his teacher the late Derek Ireland "looked like Tarzan but moved like a panther" words that slowly over time resonated further and further - this image of connecting my mind and body, moving with absolute strength and grace.
So, the change had begun, my time in Goa had sowed the seeds for a journey of rediscovery and growth in my yoga practice - a journey that is constantly changing and evolving.
The next time I recognised a noticeable shift in my practice was my time at a summer practice week at Stillpoint, with David Keil.
What I noticed was I was almost the last one out of the room every morning. With my yoga friends I had met in Goa on their mats beside me, I started to deeply connect during my time practicing. That coupled with the support I receive from my wonderful teacher back in London, Scott Johnson (who is one of John Scott's senior teachers) feeling deeply connected to my practice has become the way I continue to feel at Stillpoint or when I'm at home on my mat.
The shift was being fully awake and feeling connected during my practice.
It was like I started to lift up my head from the start. I took extra breaths in my challenging postures, experimented at their approach. Taking my time to breath, to feel what felt uncomfortable, understand, feel it and ultimately let it pass. I no longer dreaded the approach to back-bending. I did the fantastic back-bending prep that David Kiel gave me and stopped trying to cut corners. "It won't feel better until you face it head on" I would tell myself. Feel it, stay with it and breath, stop trying to skip the hard bits or forcing them.
My teacher Scott tells me my body has opened up, he can see a real difference. It's one that a year later I can finally feel for myself.
As I prepare for my time at Purple Valley some fears and anxieties are there but it's all the logistical stuff. I know once I get on my mat in the Shala I'll be completely present, taking my time in every posture.
My yoga practice to me is an on going experiment, to deeply connect to my mind and body, to translate what I learn on my mat into my life and to pass this onto my students. To grow and to become aware, not running from the difficult parts of life, skipping over them, but looking at them, facing them head on, learning what serves me and what doesn't, developing compassion for myself and others, feeling alive, breathing deeply.
Moving through life with strength, but oh-so gracefully.