November 2022: On cardamom pods

Do you have to take a practice whole? Can you remove certain things and still be faithful to the intention?

Puja with Sudhir Tiwari on the last day of our prānāyāma course in Condette, 4 November 2022.

On the last day of the ten-day Vipassana retreat, SN Goenka tells the story of a child whose mother lovingly makes her kheel, a delicious, sweet, rice pudding. But the child won’t eat it. First, it is not in her plate, but that is easily remedied. Then, the child sees these black stones and refuses to eat the dish. The mother tries to convince the child, asking her to try, that those are not stones, but cardamom, which adds a beautiful flavour. But the child will not eat it, missing all the joy the dessert would give her. Goenka says, if you find cardamom on your path, take it out and eat the kheel.

I like this story very much – and the teaching which is somewhat different from what I am used to. In English, there is the expression ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ but to me, the idea of the rice pudding is more universal and visceral. Have you ever thrown away a whole delicious dish because of a few cardamom pods? Is the dish less whole without the cardamom? Would you swap cardamom for cumin? Would you add both? At what point you throw away the dish?

I have been pondering all of this in relation to ashtanga yoga, considering what in the practice is a cardamom pod and what are the essential ingredients. It is a problematic practice (the abuse, the hardness, the rules, the hierarchy, the dogma, the ego …), sometimes yielding problematic results too (striving, dryness, injury, rigidity, competition, more ego …) Yet, it is also medicine, and I know this deep inside, because it has worked for me for the last 10 years.

As a cook, I never follow recipes (that’s why I cannot bake!). I have no cookery books in my home and I improvise and learn on the job. I’d like to think I have a reasonable level of result and

often says he prefers to eat my food than go out to restaurants. I think I have a similar approach to my practices, be that yoga or art making. Yet, when I was doing my doctorate, one of my pet hates was ‘applied psychoanalysis’, where people would pick up concepts that seemed interesting to them (desire or the uncanny were favourites), dropping them into another context without considering the tenets of psychoanalysis, what it stood for – pleasure and reality as the principles of psychic functioning and the existence of the unconscious, for example.

I still stand by both positions: no recipes but attention to the foundations. My foundations in the complex practice that is ashtanga yoga are two: the continuous breath-movement (broadly respecting the stages and underpinnings of the sequences), and and a sincere practice anchored in the yoga sūtras, that is, a practice through the body, but for the mind. Outside of that, I use my own flavourings: sometimes, I spice the sequence with extra poses (the heresy!), I often use props (shhhh!), and I practice with care on Moon days (don’t tell the ashtanga police).

I get joy out of my practice and, when I don’t, I know I am doing something wrong which needs adjustment: maybe do less, do more or do something different. But always breathing and moving with awareness, from that centre that tells me whether it is nourishing me or not.

May you have a beautiful practice this month, with or without cardamom.

Laura x

What I have been reading

In our reading group, we are discussing Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by Helen Thompson. When Ian suggested it, he introduced it as a history of energy and, being a prānāyāma practitioner, I got very excited. ‘No’ he said, ‘not that energy, but oil and gas’. Thompson structures the book in three parts: geopolitics, monetary policy (to me the most baffling and mesmerising section) and democracy. In the last, she writes about how both aristocratic and democratic excess can destroy democracy. This idea is really interesting. Can too much cardamom destroy the rice pudding? Can excess destroy yoga or art? Some might argue that at certain levels – too much emphasis on the body, too much money circulating – it already has.

What I have been watching

I am a big fan of Adam Curtis so when a new series is released, it is a cause of celebration, as well as consideration. We are half way through the seven-part Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone What it felt like to live through the collapse of communism and democracy. With this series, I have discovered that Curtis’s own narrative voice is a cardamom pod. TraumaZone has no narrator, just his trademark editing of BBC archive footage, which is the anchor of his practice. Without him telling us the story, it still unfolds as clearly and unapologetically as any of his other works.

What I have been watching too

This month, I went to see a screening and discussion of The Lion and The Unicorn, by Scottish artist Rachel Maclean. The film is wonderful even 10 years later (and ever more prescient). The ensuing conversation between her and Dominic Paterson centred around how her work includes what should not be there: the voices of politicians, the figure of the hag. Something is familiar in her imagery, and at the same time, deeply disturbing. Partly this is because she plays most of the roles in her films. Somehow, the familiar and the disturbing coexist, with friction, but without conflict.

Next week I will go to Perth to see her work Mimi, which challenges binaries such as up and down, young and old, beautiful and grotesque, through a fully immersive installation.


My Yoga Moves Glasgow classes run at the Arlington Baths until 8 December:

Yoga (Mysore) | LIVE |
Tuesdays, 07.15 – 09.00
Thursdays, 07.15 – 09.00

Last led Led Primary of 2022! | LIVE |
Thursday 08 December, 07.15 – 09.00

Last Pranayama class of 2022! | LIVE AND ONLINE |
Tuesday 06 December, 07.15 – 08.30, optional Q&A until 09.00

All classes are open for booking here. New timetable for 2023 will be available soon.

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland classes for students are LIVE on Fridays 1-2pm. Get in touch with Meg Baker at RCS Sports for details.