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Hangin’ with Raphan

Raphan Kebe has a special place in my heart. I will always remember him from my Jivamukti teacher training as being strong in mind and body; a nonconformist with a heart of gold and a hug that could calm the inconsolable. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Raphan as an amazing body therapist and yoga teacher, who combines in his classes his training in martial arts and interest in human anatomy and somatics with his experience with various Yoga/Pilates schools, the work of Edward Clark and that of his good friend Jonathan Monks.

FL: How long have you been practicing yoga?

RK: My very first class was at the Iyengar Yoga Institute South London in 1999, but I had an interest before that. I did gymnastics as a little boy and always had a physicality about me. I didn’t go to my first class needing to be ‘fixed’, but I wanted to try something different with my body. At the time I was going to Goldsmith college and the Iyengar Institute was close by. It was a big room with ropes with people hanging off them. It looked like and reminded of gymnastics but with props but the format, going for an hour, everyone doing the same thing…I didn’t know what it was supposed to be or what it was supposed to feel like or even the purpose…but it got my interest. I didn’t go back to the institute even though I kept thinking about it.

It was a couple of years after that first experience that I found myself going back to yoga because of injuries from playing the bass guitar- primarily back and wrist problems. I saw every type of therapist possible, and it was a chiropractor that turned me on to pilates which led me back to hatha yoga. I remember these weekly classes where I was the only man, and the only one under fifty for that matter. But I went back every week and liked the atmosphere. It was cool. Eventually I looked into teacher trainings and found myself on my first teacher training with Sun Power Yoga.

FL: Where did Asthanga fit into your background, and what’s your daily practice like now?

Well, I’ve actually never practiced Ashtanga. I’ve worked through some of the series with Jivamukti and some other Vinyasa schools, but I’ve never been interested in studying that method per se. Back then the Ashtangis I met were not really friendly, the guys seem to take it and themselves so seriously, I just didn’t like the vibe. The women whom I practiced general hatha & Iyengar yoga with, in contrast, created a real feeling of welcomeness and community. I can also get bored easily so doing the same thing all the time was just not for me.

My practice right now is about improvisation using principles from the Feldenkrais Method, martial arts and movement patterns that interest me. My daily practice changes, sometimes I will move and it looks like I am dancing, other times I will practice only 5-6 postures for 2 hours. Some days I just practice calisthenics.

What’s important for me is that I divide my Yoga practice between on-mat and off-the-mat, in the physical sense. I find that we tend to move according to what we stand on (eg. mats), but when we take away the mat we are left with simply the ground and ourselves. Practicing without a mat allows me to vary my practice, expand my concept of space, balance and movement and my understanding of dynamic equilibrium, or really our human ‘error management protocol’.

FL: How often do you attend classes of other teachers?

RK: I have to say that at this stage my asana practice is mostly on my own. I go see Jonathan (Monks) when he teaches and I used to visit Edward Clark and Tripsichore but otherwise I don’t really go anywhere these days. I guess things are probably gonna change with Indaba and you all teaching there, huh… I’m planning on doing everyone’s class at least once. (smile!!!)

FL: Who are your greatest sources of inspiration?

RK: Jonathan Monks is like a big brother, you know. He’s introduced me to Rolfing and Feldenkrais and to what I call a truly somatic way of practising Yoga. He’s helped me realise that the physical practise of Yoga is not only external but very much internal too; made me explore the connections between the centre and extremities, etc… Edward Clark (Tripsichore) who probably without even knowing it has helped me tremendously in staying myself by not conforming to what I sensed was simply wrong. They are certainly my most influential teachers.

After that I like the Shadow school, Budokon from Cameron Shayne is quite cool too and to be honest I’m inspired by any teacher who strive to respectfully bring more and not just stand there claiming big shoulders to sit on, if you know what I mean..

FL: Any yoga practices you’ve tried which you couldn’t stand?

RK: No, in that case I would put the blame not to the method but on the teachers – there aren’t any methods per say I don’t like.

I don’t like being taken through sequences or asanas that don’t reinforce a somatic understanding of movement and/or postures – To me only when we have this understanding of knowing where our limbs are in space, or whether or not our toes are clenched or relaxed and how it affect our breathing can I move inside to examine what is going on under the surface. I also find it upsetting when I hear talks of me not being ‘the body’ yet at the same time being told that I should be able to feel when to stop, where to push, whether to go further or not or even feed myself this way or that way. It’s contradictory and simply confusing. A bit like teachers coming from a Brahminic tradition teaching Tantric exercises or Tantric guides not asking for any innate sense of the body’s energy mechanics; I won’t say more on that…

Practice should make you feel better in your own skin. If you do the same practice every day without being aware of how your body feels, there isn’t much chance that your mind really knows where it is mentally or emotionally. And if that’s not understood then it really doesn’t matter what the chakras are or what I mean when I say ‘masculine and feminine energy’.

A big turn off for me is when schools teach yoga as if it’s a religion – dogmatically, consciously and subconsciously. When people expect you to live your life in a certain way whether you fully understand why or not, to me that is not yoga and that’s definitely not teaching. Now don’t get me wrong I get the relation between say Yoga and Hinduism but I’m talking here about understanding for example that a vegetarian diet might be the best for you at a certain point in your life but not necessarily for everyone at any given time, that’s it.

In terms of the physical practise there might not be ‘wrong’ methods as what I wanted 5 years ago might not be what I need now or what fits with where I am in my life today, as such there is no such thing as one way is the right and only way.

Look, at the end of the day, Yoga is about finding freedom – in your practice and in your life. There are different ways to get there, I think that’s what freedom is about.

FL: What makes and how long does it take to be a good yoga teacher? How long should one practice before considering doing a teacher training?

RK: How long does it take to be a good parent? How does one educate without forcing an experience onto someone. I don’t know what makes a good teacher but I think it has probably some to do with your ability to listen and also not listen, and that, it looks like, takes years of getting it wrong at times and getting right sometimes.

For teacher training, I actually don’t mind seeing young dancers and gymnasts with 10, 15 or 20 years of experience in the physical field doing teacher training as a lot of what is taught out there is purely physical and they sure have a lot of that practise; but I agree that Yoga is a ‘little’ more than that and as such a few years of relating Yogic practises to one’s life experience is probably going to be a good thing. But then I say we shouldn’t blame the new teachers, simply the way they’ve been trained to teach, but hey-don’t get me started on that … (smile!)

Raphan currently teaches around London and in the Twickenham area. He will be teaching several times a week at Indaba Yoga Studio as well as being on staff as a body therapist practicing Structural Bodywork (Integration) and also offering Positional Release Yoga Therapy. I’m looking forward to practicing with him more often!

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