Eight months of Shadow Yoga

This is a long rambling story about me and yoga. Primarily written so I can reflect back on it when I'm older, I suppose. Feel free to pass it by if you tire of people with blogs egotistically writing about themselves.

Early yoga

My first experience with yoga was around 2005, when I went steady at Hatha Yoga Shala for I forget how long but let's say six months of weekly or perhaps twice-weekly sessions. This was the fittest time in my life, when I was running and working in hospitality at Chocolate Bean; I weighed on the order of 52kg–53kg. I was advised at the time by my teacher there that running was not appropriate for either my hamstrings or my ‘yoga breath’, so yoga replaced running as my form of exercise.

Despite very much enjoying the practise, I wasn't able to maintain it—at one point it slipped out of my life (supposedly temporarily) and didn't return. Looking back I think this time of my life was fairly experimental and transitory, without much stability or consistency in terms of my lifestyle choices. However, I credit my teacher there Gary Mills with planting the seed of yoga philosophy in my mind even if I wasn't ready to commit myself to it at that time.

Yoga Mukti

Fast-forward some five or six years to 2011 and I've ceased any sort of exercise (besides walking to work each day), gained around six or seven kilograms, and I'm feeling older and out of shape. (Although any neck and back complaints are far less pronounced after leaving Chocolate Bean.) My partner Toni—due I think to her both tiring of hearing my complaints on the matter and wanting us to spend time together—signed us up for a beginner's course at a local yoga studio, Yoga Mukti, based purely on the convenience of their schedule fitting in with ours. The idea of her going to a beginner's class is fairly laughable considering her experience here, and I'm deeply thankful she was willing to do that for and with me.

Now, at the time I had no real understanding of the fact that my original yoga classes were in the Shadow Yoga style, and I was similarly clueless that Yoga Mukti was—surprisingly—in the same style. Why surprising? The teachers of Shadow yoga are trained personally by its founder, Shandor Remete, and there are simply not that many of them! Given that Shandor Remete is from Adelaide might explain the presence here of two Shadow yoga schools literally around the corner from each other, though. Imagine my surprise to learn that a world-famous yoga teacher comes from our li'l city.

Anyway, I naively kinda thought yoga was all the same—although I'd heard of various varieties, that fact hadn't really clicked—and I was gratified to find that I slipped quite easily into this new yoga school. That Shadow yoga and its teachers suited me so well has certainly been a happy coincidence.

Brief summary of Shadow yoga

I don't feel qualified to explain Shadow yoga for a couple of reasons. Primarily, it's the only style of yoga I've done so I can't put it into context against any other school. (And even if I had been to other yoga teachers, I suspect they would vary just as much as the schools themselves, whereas I gather that Shadow yoga teachers are relatively consistent between each other.)

As I've only been practising Shadow yoga for a little while, I also can't comment on where it eventually leads, but I've done enough now that I think I can at least adequately describe it.

You can read the official description of Shadow yoga on its website but I think a more prosaic description is warranted here. But consider the following a heavily skewed interpretation of yoga in general based on my limited reading and experience.

Like all branches of the yoga system, hatha yoga—the yoga of the body, as compared to the various yogas of meditation, breathing, etc.—aims at stilling the mind to create inner calm and reach enlightenment, whatever that means. Grossly speaking, it achieves this by putting the body into difficult positions requiring the full attention of the mind to concentrate on achieving, holding, and practising those positions.

[ Digression. Us westerners can then consider hatha yoga from a physical or philosophical point of view, or both. Physically, yoga is a good way to strengthen the body and make it supple, and is a lifelong exercise program to keep us healthy; philosophically, yoga keeps our mind clear and happy. On this last point, there's probably an endorphin addiction element as well, as anyone who has known a gym junkie can attest to the addictive quality of exercise in general. Additionally, this makes the physical side of hatha yoga a gateway to the philosophical, where people like me who started yoga for the exercise might stay for the spiritual side of things. ]

These yoga positions are known as asanas (stress on the ass, contrary to my Adelaide accent—or is this english in the general?—which tends to stress the second syllable) and these are how yoga is known in our society. Most people I know consider yoga as a means for ‘stretching’, and I'm sure the images of people doing, say, downward facing dog are well-known to many.

But Shadow yoga is more than just moving between asanas which are found and held. Indeed, most asanas—there are eighty-four ‘standard’ ones of which a subset are used in various practises—are simply inaccessible to people like me who work in an office and sit all day, lacking strength, flexibility, and body awareness to even attempt them sensibly.

Instead, as a bridge to reach a level appropriate for asana practise, Shadow yoga contains what it terms three ‘preludes’, which have certain features to aid the yoga student in this progression. Each prelude consists of a fluid set of movements, some of which coming from a yoga tradition and others inspired from elsewhere such as other martial/dance disciples. An idea of the style of these preludes can been seen from the Shadow yoga videos that are extracts from their DVD.

The preludes progress in their level of availability or difficulty, and Shadow yoga classes are tied to learning these forms in series. Having now practised for eight months, I would say that I'm quite familiar with the first form, reasonably familiar with the second, and somewhat familiar with the third; on my own I only practise the first, so far.

The preludes have a number of common themes, involving:

  • A variety of movement types (twisting, bending, turning, etc.)
  • Building strength in the thighs, hips, and core
  • Finding flexibility (or lack of tension) in the major joints of the body
  • A rhythmic progression or flow, promoting a strong degree of breath control as the breath is linked to the prelude movements

The working of the breath also involves using uddiyana bandha during many poses, which exercises the diaphragm and (I assume) leads into the practise of nauli. Many of the prelude poses are also aided by the application of mula bandha. I believe the early introduction of these important yoga techniques and their inclusion in dynamic movements is quite a unique component of Shadow yoga, but I could be wrong about this.

In their advanced or complete form, the preludes culminate with a series of Shadow-themed sun salutations, forward and side splits (samakonasana and hanumanasana, resp.), a twisting backbend (atikrantam), and the peacock pose, all of which can take years of practise to perfect (and are asanas in a more traditional sense). And so the complete preludes on their own are a formidable series in their own right.

The arc of a Shadow yoga class (each is 90 minutes) follows a consistent formula:

  • Warm up
  • Prelude work
  • Asana practise
  • Inversion
  • Pranayama (breath exercises)
  • Warm down

(Sometimes time runs short to include all the last three.) My understanding is that at least in the school I attend, the inversion work goes no further than viparita karani mudra, which is kind of a supported shoulderstand, and halasana, its natural (more difficult) companion. One day I am interested in practising shouldstand and headstand proper, but I'm in no rush at this stage—in my whole life I've never been able to hold myself upsidedown, and I recognise this will be a difficult challenge for me.

It's interesting to me to view the variation of prelude work and asana practise over the course of several months and across a range of classes (from beginner to advanced). Asana practise in our school tends to follow a theme across several weeks, focussing on twisting at one time then folding, say, another. And in many cases, these asanas will feed back to aspects of prelude work—twisting leads back to atikrantam and folding to halasana, for example. An almost guaranteed asana we perform is supta padangusthasana, which directly stretches the hamstrings and opens the hips for samakonasana and hanumanasana. As someone with ridiculously immobile hips, the feeling of performing these vary for me from intolerable to extraordinarily gratifying, week to week.

Personal practise

I've made measurable progress since I begun yoga eight months ago. Every week I tend to be sore in a different (and unusual) place. The discovery of being able to consciously control the diaphram and intercostal muscles of the rigs was rather startling, to be honest.

While I started originally at one class per week and seemingly needed the whole week to recover, that quickly built up to two classes per week and then three. Each time, it suddenly felt like the gap between lessons was too long, and slotting in another class just ‘felt right’.

So right now I'm usually attending three sessions of Shadow yoga per week, and attempting on my own to at least perform the warm-up exercises most mornings, if not a run-through of the first prelude if time and energy permit. This self-practise started maybe two months ago, and running through a prelude under my own steam is significantly different to doing so in a class. For one thing, it changed the way I viewed the class—after memorising the sequence the class became more fluid as I knew without thinking what was coming next. Secondly, the classes tend to push me further in a practise than I would manage on my own; there's nothing like someone else telling you what to do.

I have an addictive personality, and there's no doubt I've latched onto Shadow yoga as my latest obsession. As always with such things, while in the midst of it I feel like I'll never give it up, but I probably thought that when I first tried yoga five or six years ago. For the moment I feel stronger and more flexible than I've ever been, and yet there's still so many aspects of our classes in which it seems like I'm completely hopeless.

I'll be so busy next year I like to think I'll need yoga to keep myself sane, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.