Saturday, 29 January 2011

Imagination

Imagination always precedes transformation.  We must imagine that things can or will be different in order to begin moving towards a new and better way of living.  Imagination precedes all great works of art and science.  Musicians and athletes imagine the perfect performance, that they might be better able to achieve it in reality.  Kalpanas is the Sanskrit term for these intentional mental creations.

We try to protect ourselves by keeping ourselves stuck - we can't fail if we don't try.  We might have put ourselves into a category and then closed the door behind us... 'I'll never be able to do that pose' ... 'I'm not that kind of person' ... 'I hate this asana/practice/meditation' ...

But imagination can help us to replace our internal patterns, especially ones that keep us limited or stuck - if we are able to imagine a bold, brave, strong way of living in freedom, then we are already inhabiting a more positive space.

And yoga practice gives us a place to have a go.  We think: 'My virabhadrasana III might not look like it does in the book, but it looks like the way I do it when I'm giving it my best shot'; or 'I might never master this pose, but it's interesting to try'.

I taught a lady who hated bakasana.  Every time we came to it in practice, she huffed and puffed and didn't want to do it.  But we persevered.  I'm sure she wondered why she was doing it; what possible benefit it could have to her mind, well-being or physique.  But we kept on coming back to it.  And you should have seen her face the first time she did it - how proud she was and how good it felt and how once she cracked it, she loved it and could always do it again.  The doubt had gone; the fear had gone; the negative image had gone.  She could do it and we moved on to other challenges.

We learn to have an open mind through these small break-throughs; when we replace a limited sense of ourselves with the possibility that there might be more.

Bring a sense of kalpana to your yoga practice: imagine yourself strong, flexible and capable of positively approaching even the most challenging asanas and practices.  Bring a sense of kalpana to your life: stay open to life's myriad opportunities.  We just smile and practice and try again and laugh when it doesn't go to plan.  It's all we can do. 

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back ...Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Goethe

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Effort and Surrender

Yoga practice is a balance between effort and surrender.  In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali tells us:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah
"Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness"
YS I.12 translated by BKS Iyengar

Abhyasa is repeated effort, or consistent practice and vairagya is detachment, or renunciation.  But how can we remain dedicated to earnest practice if we are detached?  Why would we try hard to do something if we didn't care about the outcome?  How can we combine these seemingly opposing attributes in one practice? 

The answer is that there is a balance between effort and surrender in all that we do.  Yoga teaches that we must fully engage in life, live wholeheartedly and try our best, but that this should be balanced by acceptance of the fact that none of us has control: the best laid plans can go wrong; nobody gets it right all the time; accidents happen.  It's not your fault; you did your honest best. 

Accepting that this is the case can be tough.  We might have learnt or been taught that if we work hard enough, then we can have whatever we desire.  We probably fear giving ourselves over to the natural ups and downs of life.  But good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people; there are car crashes and natural disasters; things go wrong.  None of us escapes the difficulties of life.  You are fooling yourself if you think that you can paddle fast enough to outrun the storms.

Asana teaches us a lot about effort and surrender: if we come to our mat with too much effort, there is a hardness to what we do, a sense of striving for something other than what we find in ourselves.  With too much effort we lose the fluidity of our practice and the joy of yoga.  If we come to our mat with too much surrender, then we might not bring enough fire to our practice; we might find ourselves giving up on poses instead of committing to our best version of them; there might be a passivity to our practice, a sense of not really giving it our all.

In life we all know examples of people who are all effort and striving: everything for them is a task of mammoth proportions requiring Herculean efforts of organisation, hard work and dedication.  Or those people who like to have control of every aspect of everything in an attempt to keep everything just so, and to avoid disaster or disappointment.  Conversely, we might know others who are all surrender: they let life float past them and find it hard to motivate themselves to act positively in the world, they might let people down consistently through their inability to commit to being there wholeheartedly at any time; they seem to think that since they have no power to change anything, they might as well not try. 

Of course what we are looking for is a balance between the two.

All asana practice; all yoga practice; all of life is a balance between effort and surrender.  Patanjali encourages us to work hard, dedicate ourselves to life and to living well, but to accept that ultimately we are not in control.  You do your best, but you are not always guaranteed the outcome you desire.  Moreover you learn how to do your best in spite of what the outcome will be; to detach yourself even from any mental image what a successful outcome looks like. 

When you let go of your mental image of how things will look when they are perfect, you are liberated; you are free to experience yourself as you are right now, with all of your wonderful perfections and imperfections.  You are free to enjoy the outcomes of your efforts for what they are, rather than what you thought they might have been.  You are released from the fear that you might not be able to do it, because you accept that it will be how it is, perhaps even better than you could have imagined. 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

One Thing at a Time

We seem to have got hung up on doing more than one thing at a time.  Everywhere you look there are people checking their e-mails while standing in queues; talking on the phone while walking the dog; texting while driving; checking their messages while having lunch with someone.  The technology that has brought us great freedom has also brought us the tyranny of always being available; always being able to keep in touch with everyone and everything.

Have we have forgotten the simple pleasure of doing one thing at a time?  It's sometimes referred to as 'being in the flow', being fully absorbed by whatever it is we are doing.  In yoga we call it mindfulness and it's what we practise on our mats all the time.  We come to our mat and we make it our intention to focus on just this one thing; this one body on this one mat at this one moment in time.  And it's such a relief!

You can bring that ease into more of your life when you commit to doing one thing at a time.  So when you're washing up, you're just standing at the sink doing the washing up, with care and attention.  The other stuff (the form you have to complete; the e-mail you have to send; the phone call you have to make) can all wait while you just complete this one task.

And it is such a gift to give 100% of your attention to another person.  They bask in the glow of it.  When you give a friend ALL of your attention, you are saying to them how much you value their company; how much you would like to listen to what they have to say; you are giving them your wholehearted self.  Nobody wants to feel that they aren't interesting or good enough to warrant your full attention.  Nobody wants to stop what they are saying while you check your phone for texts... again.  If you have children you will know how beautifully they respond to having all of you, even if for a short time - 10 minutes of all of you is so much more valuable than hours of half of you.

And besides, it's so good for your brain to relax into focusing on one thing.  Just doing that one thing really well.  Paying attention.  Giving your whole self to something. 

They aren't giving out awards to the person that can do the most stuff in any 24 hour period; you don't win any prizes, you just end up a bit frazzled, a bit depleted of energy, perhaps a little unhappy. 

Try doing one thing at a time.  Just for one day.  See what happens.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Few Words about Happiness

Practising happiness, or contentment, is fundamental to the practice of yoga. 

The Sanskrit word for contentment is santosha and it is presented in the second of the eight limbs of yoga given in the Yoga Sutras (it is one of the niyamas, or observances for living well):

YS II.42 'santosat anuttamah sukhalabhah'
'From contentment and benevolence of consciousness come supreme happiness'
translation by BKS Iyengar

Lord Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science demonstrates how decades of increased wealth and material comforts in the West have not made us happier.  So if having more money, more stuff, bigger houses and better health doesn't make us happy, then what will?

Our yoga practice has a lot to offer.  It is meaningful that santosha is a practice - we have to practice being content and grateful for everything we have.  The more you think about how lucky you are, the more you start to feel it.

Being present is another key factor in being happy and is another teaching from the Yoga Sutras.  Dwelling on past hurts and imagining future pain/difficulty are easy traps to get stuck in.  But the past has gone and can't be changed and you cannot accurately predict the future, as much as you might try.  In fact, both past and future are figments of your imagination.  The only thing that is real is the present.  So practise being present - how are you right now?  Right here? You can do this anywhere, whenever you remember about it.  I usually find that I'm feeling ok on a train, in the car, in a queue, cooking a meal... wherever I am.

Bad things do happen and life challenges us: we argue, feel sadness, go through bereavement, experience hurt and illness.  These things are universal; no one escapes them.  But your yoga practice, by helping you to stay content and present, can help you through the bad times.  Mattieu Ricard likens this to an ocean: a storm may rage on the surface of the sea, but the depths of the ocean remain still and unruffled.

On your mat, the practice of santosha comes in the form of being content with the body you have; with the way it feels today; and with the way it expresses the postures you are practising.  It also means keeping your mind focused on your practice (here's that imagination thing again - worries about the future and recriminations about the past have no place on your yoga mat).

Off your mat it comes in lots of different ways: keeping a gratitude diary for a few weeks can be helpful: every night before you go to sleep, write down three things that you are grateful for today.  Or practising finding everything 'enough' - my house is tidy enough, I already have enough, I am good enough.

The Yoga Sutras teach of the difference between temporary pleasure and deep, abiding contentment, but in truth I think we all know the things that really make us content.  Practising santosha just helps us to keep that in mind.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Seasons of Practice

Most people practise yoga in a group in a studio or hall, working through asanas, perhaps some chanting, mantra or meditation, often ending up with savasana and relaxation.  Most people who stick with the practice feel its benefits variously as better quality of sleep, release of tension, improved quality of breath, freedom from anxiety or depression, looser joints, stronger body.  An all-together more comfortable way of being.

But sometimes your life leads you away from your mat.  Sometimes it is hard to get to class and the habit of home practice has not yet taken hold.  Sometimes you're ill, or you're needed elsewhere.  Sometimes you feel like you're not doing any yoga at all.

But once a yoga student, always a yoga student.  Your yoga practice might not be taking place on your mat at the moment, but it is still taking place.  Every time you remember your breath; every time you notice the natural world around you and sense your connection to it; every time you stop for a moment.  The time you might take to read a book about yoga; or the five minutes you might take each day to sit quietly.  When you let go of trying to control everything and try to move with the flow of life.  When you pray.  When you are kind to yourself and to others.  When you find yourself absorbed by one thing, in the flow and totally focused.  When you notice how much your asana practice brought you as you feel physical pain and tension creep back into your body.

Your mat will always be there when you are free to return to it.  In the meantime find other ways to express your yoga. 

"Throughout our lives we cycle through times of expansion, times of contraction, and times of being suspended in a pause or plateau where we are assimilating our experience."
Donna Farhi, Bringing Yoga to Life p.143

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Franklin's 13 Virtues

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), founding father of the United States, scientist, abolitionist, author, politician, civic activist, politician, diplomat and publisher wrote his 13 virtues at the age of 20.  They were the principles by which he lived his life and he committed to focusing on one of his 13 virtues every week - just one at a time. 

Although he admitted not always having lived up to his virtues, he believed that just by trying to honour them he became a better, happier, more successful man and in his autobiography gave more space to discussing them than to any other single event of his (eventful) life.

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”
Benjamin Franklin

Franklin's 13 Virtues were...
Temperance
Silence
Order
Resolution
Frugality
Industry
Sincerity
Justice
Moderation
Cleanliness
Chastity
Tranquility
Humility

Here are mine...
Silence
Love
Restraint
Honesty
Devotion
Application
Hope
Generosity
Humility
Kindness
Balance
Contentment
Grace

What are yours?

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Barriers to Practice

So you have been going to yoga for a while and you know what the benefits are.  You have become more flexible and strong in body and mind, your 90 minutes weekly yoga practice might be the hour you carve out of your busy week for yourself, you might see it as your only hour of peace, stillness and quiet in an otherwise hectic week.  You might feel grumpy if you are prevented from practising by another engagement.  If you leave off practice for a couple of weeks or more, you might be aware of how your bad habits in body and mind creep up on you, perhaps your shoulders get tense, your back aches, you are more short-tempered.  Your body just doesn't feel so good as when you keep to your practice and your mind feels too full of stuff without respite.  So you try to keep to your regular weekly practice so that you can keep on enjoying its benefits.

The next step is to bring your yoga home.  It is amazing how difficult it is to start a regular home practice given how well you understand the good things it will do for you.  Here are some of the reasons I have given myself over the years for not coming to my yoga mat...
  • I don't have time
  • I'm hungry
  • I just ate
  • I'm tired
  • I don't feel very well
  • I need to do my online shopping/do the laundry
  • I want to finish that book/watch that tv programme
  • I made it the last thing on my list of things to do and now it's bedtime/too late
  • I don't feel like it
  • I can't be bothered today
  • I just got started and the phone rang/someone was at the door so I stopped
There are more, but those are the ones that spring to mind. 

Here's my advice: just go somewhere and roll out your mat.  Tell yourself you're only go to do one vinyasa/sunsalutation and see what happens.  Remind yourself even doing one sun salutation every day will bring real and tangible benefits to your day.  Some days you might find you naturally want to do a little bit more, other days you'll find you just want to set your timer for 5 minutes, close your eyes and sit quietly or lie in savasana.  It's all good; it's all a positive aspect of your yoga practice.

It's helpful to go to the same place every time, because you (and your family) get to know that place is your spot for doing yoga - you can keep it clean and free of clutter; over time you might make it more special by lighting a candle, or bringing fresh flowers there.  But it doesn't matter.  Likewise it's easier to go to a place where you can shut the door and have uninterrupted peace.  But if it's not possible, then it doesn't matter.  I have done my yoga practice in the living room while one child watched tv and the other did their cello practice.

If you get interrupted by your family, see if you can kindly tell them you will be free in 5/10/15 minutes and carry on with your practice.  If someone comes to the door, deal with it and return to your mat.  If the phone rings, ignore it; they'll leave a message or you can call them back.  Having overcome your own internal tendency to distraction, try not to let external factors keep you from your mat.

It's not just you that finds daily practice a tricky discipline to get into.  Over 2,000 years ago Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, wrote

"There are nine types of interruptions to developing mental clarity: illness, mental stagnation, doubts, lack of foresight, fatigue, overindulgence, illusions about one's true state of mind, lack of perserverance and regression.  They are obstacles because they create mental disturbances and encourage distractions."
Yoga Sutra I.30 translation by TKV Desikachar

We're still the same yoga students, with the same barriers to practice today.  So give yourself a break and don't make your life difficult by thinking you have to do some complicated sequence of postures.  Just roll out your mat every day and see what happens.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Winter

I'm usually ok in the run up to Christmas - it's my birthday and then the Christmas holiday, which I love.  There's something about everyone getting together and staying in the warm, decorating the house and bringing lights into your house that makes me very happy.  It doesn't seem to matter that it's dark, because there's no work to be done and we're all together and with the fire lit, the darkness just makes everything seem more cosy.

It's January and February that I find difficult.  The days are so short that sometimes I feel like I've only just got going and it's already dark again.  The weather is cold and my body never seems to warm up and that makes my yoga practice feel creaky and I have to work hard not to find that frustrating.  I find myself daydreaming of warm, sunny beaches and of lying in the heat, just soaking up sunshine.

But we live and learn and I have (gradually but inevitably) found ways to move positively through January and February, if not with the lightness of spring and summer, then at least without the dread heaviness that I used to suffer from.

It starts with feeling yourself as part of something bigger than you are and aligning yourself with the rhythms of nature: it's winter; it's cold and dark; it's time to slow down, conserve your energy and embrace a slower pace of life.  That's ok, we don't have to do everything at break-neck speed all the time.  Everything that needs doing still needs to be done, but at this time of year we can look at leaving aside the extra stuff - the dinner dates and trips to the theatre, the childrens' play-dates and day trips. Those things can wait until the Spring.  In terms of yoga practice, this might mean concentrating more on restorative poses, meditation and pranayama than on vigorous asana practice.

Being content with what is and not wishing it were otherwise is one of the basic teachings of yoga and it's true that we miss much by longing for the Spring to arrive... winter sunshine feels like such a gift and there is something dramatic and invigorating about winter weather: the rain, the wind and the snow.  Putting on the right clothes and getting out into it can be a joy.  And the countryside is beautiful now: amazing skies, stunning sunsets, skeleton trees brooding against the horizon, clear nights full of stars and beautiful seed-heads in the hedgerows.

Practising yoga in the cold of winter is a practice of acceptance: I am not going to crack any tricky postures in the winter, so I'll wait until the Spring before I try the splits again!  Part of my practice in winter is accepting my body as it is in this climate and tailoring my practice to suit it.  I don't know why I spent so much time fighting against this and pushing myself to carry on with challenging asana regardless of the season, but I do know that it left me feeling depleted of energy - the exact opposite of what my yoga practice should give me, so (eventually) I stopped pushing myself like that.  My yoga practice just now is full of deep breathwork and the standard poses that form the backbone of any asana practice.  I can stay strong and open without pushing myself too hard. 

Yoga in the winter is also about patience: there's a season for everything and for me, winter is the season for moving slowly and working deeply, but not too vigorously; keeping my energy moving without expending too much of it. 

It could be that we all need periods when we withdraw a bit from the world, take stock and nurture ourselves.  It's often from these quiet times that periods of great creativity grow.  Like a bulb in the soil, I'm going to try to accept the limitations of my winter self and be patient, knowing that the more expansive, creative days will come.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Sitting With What Is

We have a million ways to distract ourselves from ourselves.  What's your distraction of choice?  Television, film, music, being busy, talking, drinking, eating, shopping, working, reading.  Modern life seems to lead us ever-further from the skill of being quiet and still.  Nowadays we can use every spare moment we have to do something... to catch up with e-mails, to call or text a friend or to listen to music.

But there is much to be gained from being still and quiet: It gives us the opportunity to gather ourselves together.  Time to reflect.  Time to notice how we feel.  Time to gauge how high or low our energy levels are, so that we may tailor our day accordingly.  It helps us to live well.

It's not always easy to be still and quiet and to listen intently to the quality of our body and emotions.  There are some feelings that we might be trying to hide, or that we think we have successfully dealt with, but which rear their heads when we become quiet enough.  If there is unhappiness inside you, it doesn't matter how well you think you have hidden it, it will be there when you look.  Likewise if there is anger, disappointment, sadness or grief.  But there is also love, joy, peace and wonder.

We lose a great deal by ignoring the thoughts and feelings that disturb us.  Those feelings might manifest themselves in other ways... through lack of sleep, tension headaches, physical pain, or bad digestion.  We may feel depressed or anxious.  We may have an inkling that we are hurting ourselves or other people by not recognising and admitting feelings that we can't help but feel.  We may look outside ourselves to assuage our pain, using alcohol, drugs, self-help books, or medication.  If you want to be happy, how can you continue to shield yourself with fear and anxiety?

And here's the thing: you know already.  You know what is right and what is wrong for you.  You know the things that bring you joy and the things that bring you heartache.  If you become quiet enough and you listen very intently, you will be able to tune into the innate knowledge that exists inside you.  Once you start to hear it, you can start to live by that inner wisdom. 

Know that you are perfect.  Know that life is there to teach you.  Look at life with honesty, clarity and courage.  We all have our stuff to work on. Commit to living well.



"Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him."

Aldous Huxley

Practice 
You can start by setting aside 5 minutes every day just to sit quietly with yourself.  Everyone can find 5 minutes.  You don’t need to sit cross legged, or on a yoga mat, or in any particular way, but it does help if you can go to the same spot every day and know that you will not be disturbed for 5 minutes.  Set an alarm on a stopwatch or clock, so that you don't need to keep glancing at the time.  Close your eyes.  Sit with a straight spine.  And watch, listen, feel, notice yourself.  Sometimes you’ll fall asleep; sometimes you’ll feel impatient or frustrated; sometimes you’re head will be so full of thoughts it will give you a headache.  It’s all ok, it’s all good.  Your mind never stops; it’s job is to keep on going.  Your job is to watch it for 5 minutes without judgment.  Breathing in; breathing out.  Being still and watching.

© Sarah Raspin

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Difficult People

Chatting to a friend this week I remembered someone that I used to work with who I really disliked.  To my mind, he was everything that I find difficult in a human being: he was self-centred, dishonest, arrogant and unkind.  I had to work with this person for some time and although I tried to get along better with him, in the end he moved to another office and I think we were probably both relieved not to have to try to get along with each other in the face of our obvious conflicts any more.

When I think about this person I feel annoyed and disgruntled even now, five years later.

But this week, with the benefit of hindsight, I realised just how much this person had moved me along in my life... if he hadn't made my life so very intolerable and flagged up to me just what it was that I hated and found uncomfortable about corporate life, then it could have taken me many more years before I finally decided to quit that office life to seek another way of living: a way more in tune with my feelings, my strengths and the way I wanted to live.

In fact, I should be grateful to that person for everything he showed me and for how much he helped me move my life along.  I've been teaching yoga for five years now and in many ways I have that person to thank for it.

Life's not always going to be great.  There are going to be people and situations that press all of our buttons and challenge us.  There is going to be sadness and disappointment and anger.  But it could well be that the lessons we learn from the difficult times and the troublesome people teach us more about how to live well than the good times do.

So, I thank that person for everything he taught me.  I wish him well.  And in future I'll try to remember to embrace the people and situations that make my life difficult and to be open-minded to the lessons they might teach me.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Loving Kindness

There is a Buddhist practice called metta, or loving kindness.  It is the practise of sending feelings of loving kindness to the people you know, the people you don't know, the people you don't like, and to yourself. 

It's easy to direct love to those we care about.  They have features or characteristics that we already associate with love.  When we think of them we automatically feel warm at heart. 

And it's a simple matter to send loving kindness to those we don't know: most of us wish the best for all human beings in the world.  Strangers have never done us harm.

It gets trickier when we consider those who we find difficult or who we don't like.  When we bring them to mind, they do not naturally inspire feelings of love, kindness and generosity.  Thinking about those people might make us feel angry, frustrated, disgusted, jealous... a whole host of unpleasant feelings.  Buddhist teachings point out that it is only the person feeling these emotions that suffers from them: we are left feeling uptight, while the object of our dislike remains oblivious to the bad feelings raging in our heart.  Therefore practice sending them love for the sake of your own heart; for your own well-being.

It can be incredibly hard to send loving kindness to yourself.  Can you truly love yourself exactly as you are, here, now, today?  Can you see the faults and the weaknesses as well as the talents and positive attributes that you possess and love it all?  Do you know that you are good enough and are deserving of love?  Can you direct that loving kindness to yourself right now?  Not in a year's time, when you get your promotion.  Not next month, when you'll have lost some weight.  Not tomorrow, when you will have achieved more than you managed today.  But right now, with all your faults and failings and things you wish you weren't.

Learning to love and accept ourselves is not a selfish pursuit.  Think about how you feel when you are sad, upset, angry, full of bitterness.  Think about what your face looks like, how your body feels and how you interact with strangers when you are in that mindset.  Now think about a day when you felt great.  You got the girl/boy, you wore the right outfit, you were with your favourite people, the sun was shining. Whatever. Think about what your face looked like, how your body felt, how you interacted with friends and strangers alike.
Did you give more that was positive and good to the world on the bad day or the good one? 

In metta we are practising being kind.  To everyone.  We are learning how to approach the world with love and open-hearted trust, so that we respond better, act more kindly, feel more positive.  And it has to start with you.

"For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap.
It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light."
G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, 6 January 2011

New Year

New year resolutions aren't so important to those who practice yoga regularly, because in truth each time we come to our mat or meditation place we are making a resolution to clear away all the stuff that gets in the way of our living an honest, content and peaceful life. 

In the quiet of our yoga practice we get to watch ourselves with an increasingly clear and honest eye.  We contemplate our actions and reactions and observe our mistakes, without blame.  We notice which actions lead us to a peaceful mind and which to discontent.  Once we know that, we can choose to begin to live in the way that brings the most joy, the most happiness, the most balance to our life and therefore to the lives of those around us.

We all have our stuff to work on and yoga gives us a place and a method for working on it.  Daily, hourly, minute by minute.

Practising yoga in all its forms is like pressing alt/control/delete on the computer - and here we are again, with a blank page, a fresh view, a new beginning.

© Sarah Raspin