I have had the pleasure of meeting Baiba Sustere since my return to Galway this year. Baiba is another wonderful teacher and part of the Galway yoga community and I loved hearing how yoga came to her life and the journey that she has had with this practice.
What brought you to yoga?
It depends on the perspective.
Looking back, in some ways you could say that I started practicing yoga with ahimsa or non-violence when I became vegetarian at the age of 16. That could have been one of the choices started the ball rolling and perhaps in some way led me to meditation, pranayama and asana (yoga posture) practice later in my life.
My older sister started practicing yoga long before me, so there were some yoga books around me and she continually tried to encourage me to start my own practice. I kept refusing and didn’t see yoga as something that I would like to try.
However, just after starting my MA degree I developed really strong migraines and other health issues – most likely due to stress and lack of movement. I started to google things and read a few articles and eventually stumbled upon some breathing techniques and meditation. So, I started to practice both and it helped me a lot and continues to help me.
I never put two and two together – that yoga is meditation and that yoga is also conscious breathing. I always associated meditation with Buddhism and not yoga.
Later on, after I finished my MA degree and started working as a translator, I was spending hours upon hours sitting in all kinds of positions and staring at a computer screen, as a result I developed lower back pain. I had heard that pilates was great for helping lower back issues, so I signed up for some classes. My back pain went away fairly quickly and I started to feel that I wanted something more, not just a physical practice.
I finally gave yoga a try at my local gym in Cardiff in 2013. I wasn’t sure about it after the first class, but I gave it a try again and something inside me kept telling me that I have to go back, so I started to practice 2 – 3 times a week.
How did you discover meditation then?
I read some articles online and discovered that meditation is great for people who suffer from anxiety, stress and panic attacks.
After I experienced my first migraine attack in 2010, the doctor prescribed me really strong painkillers but I was reluctant to take them.
I wanted to not only deal with pain, but to find the cause for it as well and so I looked for alternatives and found that meditation really helped me.
Now I meditate every day for at least ten minutes, if I have more time then I try to meditate for half an hour or so. As part of this practice I try to incorporate some breath-work before sitting for meditation practice as it helps to calm and ground my mind and body.
Did you have an idea of what yoga was before you started to practice?
Not really, maybe I had a vague idea.
I had heard that pilates exercises were built on yoga but I didn’t know anything about the philosophical aspect of yoga or how deep the practice actually is.
When I started my asana practice, it was purely physical – my breath wasn’t there, my mind wasn’t there and so I kind of just did different asanas and that was it.
It wasn’t until I moved back to Galway that I started to look into the philosophy of yoga and I started practicing Ashtanga vinyasa yoga with Eilis O’Regan.
I was fascinated with the silence in the class, the movement, the ujjayi breath, the concept of bandhas (body locks), chanting at the start and at the end of the class. I felt the whole practice of Ashtanga yoga as a form of meditation, because you repeat the same asanas every time and for me it is really meditative.
How long have you been practicing yoga?
I have been practicing meditation since 2010 and asana practice since 2013.
How did your idea of yoga change when you started to practice?
Well, firstly I realised that yoga isn’t an exercise in its original sense. It is important that you bring to your mat not just your body, but also your mind and your breath. I realised that yoga practice involves a lot of work with your mind and your breath, a lot more than with your body. Through this work with your mind and your breath you gain deeper understanding and awareness of your body. As a result of all this you feel a lot more gratitude towards your mind and body, and that is when you start reaping the benefits of yoga.
Now I see that everything is connected within us and within the world, much like Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious.
What is your background in yoga?
I have tried different types of yoga; vinyasa, hatha, kundalini, ashtanga, restorative and yin. I started with vinyasa, but I never really connected with this style. I then moved to hatha, which is probably my favourite style of yoga after ashtanga. From time to time I also enjoy kundalini yoga, which I find really challenging. I absolutely love restorative and yin yoga, especially now during the rehabilitation process of my knee injury.
After practicing for roughly three years I felt the need for a change in my life. One day while walking along the Salthill prom in Galway, I decided that I should try and do a teacher training for myself, to deepen my knowledge and understanding of yoga. I started researching; I knew I wanted to do it in India and around Himalayas. After a couple of months of research and contacting different schools I settled for Trimurti yoga school in Dharamkot. Then last year at the start of June I finished my 200 h YTT, it was probably one of the best months in my life, it was such an amazing experience.
Did your lifestyle change when you got into yoga?
Yes, I enjoy early mornings and enjoy going to sleep earlier in the evenings. I appreciate what I have a lot more, the people in my life and the nature around me.
I make sure that every day my body gets to move in different ways, that my mind has time to settle and be quiet. I now understand how important it is to find time away from any distractions, to take a walk outside, to listen and to look around. I have started to set my weekly intentions and affirmations, which help me focus a lot better.
Thanks to a regular physical practice, meditation and pranayama my wellbeing has improved immensely, I don’t think I have ever felt this good in my life. Plus, I have better control of that little nagging voice in the back of my head, I know that it is possible to step away from it and to look at stressful situations or overwhelming emotions from a different perspective.
So in a way my lifestyle has slowed down a lot.
How did you find your teacher training in India and practicing there?
It was magical!
As I said it was one of the best months of my life. I loved being in this yoga bubble – breathing, sleeping and eating yoga all day and night. Being surrounded by the breathtaking Himalayas and truly feeling humble at the footsteps of this mountain range. Getting to wake up at 5:20 am and hear the birds singing, it was an adventure I will never forget.
Of course, it was also a massive challenge for me, mentally; it was my first trip to India or Asia. I am a really particular person and I like everything in a certain way and specific order, whereas India is the complete opposite of that. In India everything turns into this big massive chaos and you just have to let go of yourself and any expectations you might have, because if you are going to try to work against this chaos you are just going to get flustered and frustrated. I worked really hard to keep my mind open and just go with this chaos.
I undertook my teacher training with Trimurti yoga school in Dharamkot, Himachal Pradesh, India. The teachers there were amazing and really supportive. Our philosophy teacher, Bhaskar, was amazing and really dedicated, he had this great way of telling different stories about Hindu gods and goddesses’ by using different voices and facial expressions, so the story would really stay with you.
The classes throughout the day were really well organised, we would start with kriyas or pranayama, continue with asana practice and after all that we would finally have breakfast! Afterwards we would have theory classes; philosophy, anatomy, teaching methodology and then later on adjustments and alignment.
We finished every evening with asana practice, a little less intense than the morning practice, usually yin or restorative or sometimes dancing, singing or chanting, a great way to finish the day.
It was truly great to be so deeply immersed in yoga!
Did you notice a difference in yoga in India in comparison to here in Ireland?
Yes, but so much depends on the teacher and the students.
In India we always started our classes with breathing exercises and pranayama, sometimes we would do kriyas before continuing with asana practice and finish with relaxation or yoga nidra. We would also, depending on the type of yoga, chant together at the start and at the end of the practice.
There was also time for meditation, which I found great. Whereas in Ireland, of course, depending on the teacher, if you go to a Hatha class it will most likely be just asana practice with a short Savasana at the end. That is probably why I enjoy Ashtanga classes so much, because there is a set way of how the class should look, you start with an opening chant, during the class you use ujjayi breath and at the end you have the closing chant and relaxation, so everything is there.
The western approach to yoga in general is more physical, but I see more and more that teachers try to incorporate meditation and breath-work in their classes. So a lot depends on the teacher and the students, because if students walk out of Savasana, which I have seen happen, off course the teacher will adjust the class accordingly, so that students would come back.
I give private classes and usually in the first class I include everything, but more often than not a student would ask me to only teach the asana part of yoga and to leave out the breath-wrok and Savasana. However, I always insist on doing even a short Savasana at the end, since this is the time when your body settles back after the physical practice and when you actually reap the benefits of the class.
From a healthy living perspective, how has being into yoga helped that?
I grew up with home grown vegetables from my family’s garden; I still try to get back home for the harvest season every year, so now when I buy my food I question everything a lot more. I read the small print on food items, I won’t just buy something because I like the taste – it matters more where it is coming from. There is more mindfulness about what I eat and put into and onto my body. This, for me, is also a part of my yoga journey.
As a result of practicing at least four days a week, my body has never felt better. It has helped my migraines, which I haven’t had for roughly two years now and my sleep has improved thanks to meditation. I don’t think I have ever been fitter and I feel a lot happier in my own body. I appreciate it a lot more, instead of looking in the mirror and scrutinizing this and that, I have learned to love my body.
I also tend to look for alternative ways to stay healthy, so that I can avoid using medicine. During the winter months I drink golden or turmeric milk, to keep flu and colds away. To keep my belly happy I eat a lot more fermented foods and drink apple cider vinegar and honey tonic.
However, my absolute life saver during spring and summer when hay fever season is here, is the neti pot. My sister introduced me to that around 6 years ago. The neti pot combined with a teaspoon of bee pollen and a teaspoon of local raw honey every day and I don’t need to use hay fever medicine at all anymore.
Every week I make sure that I have enough time for myself -to recharge and rest, you can’t pour from an empty cup, as they say.
You mentioned a knee injury, did yoga help improve that?
So my knee injury was a result of a fall a long time ago, but it was diagnosed as a runner’s knee. In India I went to a Bone and Body clinic, where I had my knee checked out and it turned out that I had a ligament and patella displacement. Once these were clicked back where they belonged I could actually start working on healing my knee.
Firstly I had to strengthen my knee with different exercises which meant I couldn’t practice yoga for two months. Now during my rehabilitation, yoga has helped a lot in strengthening and stabilising my knee and bringing balance back into my body between the left and right side.
What is it that keeps you practicing yoga?
I think that once you start practicing regularly, you can’t go back because your body just starts feeling bad, slouchy and lazy if you don’t practice.
If I haven’t practiced yoga for three or four days, I can really feel it both physically and mentally. Your head works a lot better when you take time for meditation and your body feels immensely better when you find time for some movement.
So really, what keeps me returning to my mat is the way that I feel during and after the practice.
Anything else you would like to say about yoga?
Practice and explore what yoga is for you.