Tuesday, 29 March 2011

A Simple Meditation

Meditation doesn't have to be difficult.  You don't have to find hours every day for it; you don't need to have a mind that is quiet, live like a monk or bring a huge set of skills and understanding to it.  You don't need to sit cross-legged on the floor and you don't need to know complicated techniques or use any fancy props. 

In its simplest form meditation is just a way to quiet a busy mind and to allow a tired body to be still; it's a way to find clarity when life is crowding you out with things that need doing and decisions that need making; it's a way to find peace in your life, whatever it brings you each day. 

Once you start meditating, you will find your own way, but here are some things that might help to get you started:-

  • Sit comfortably with a straight spine.  You could be on the floor; on a cushion; leaning against a wall or sitting in a straight backed chair.
  • Find a place and time when you will not be disturbed by pets/family members/phone calls/beeping computers, etc.
  • Set a timer for however much time you have to give, then you can close your eyes and relax, knowing that your alarm will tell you when your time is up.
  • Make it your intention to ignore the door/telephone/other demands on your attention.  (If you are unavoidably interrupted, move slowly and steadily, trying not to break the mood of your meditation and return to your meditation as soon as possible)
  • Do your meditation at about the same time every day.
  • Commit to meditate every day for at least 10 days, so that you start to get some idea of what benefits meditation might bring you.  5 minutes a day is better than an hour once a week.

There are lots of different methods available and some wonderful teachers around, but if you're looking for a simple meditation to get you started, then I can recommend this one which is based on a Zen practice.  It's really easy, gives your mind just enough to do to keep you focused and can last for as long as you have available.

Sit in your chosen position, spine straight and close your eyes/soften and lower your gaze
Invite your entire body to relax and to feel steady
Take a moment to deepen your breathing

Count each exhalation down from 5 to 1, when you get down to 1, go back to 5 and count down again.

That's it. Simple.

Your mind may wander - never mind - as soon as you notice that it has, bring your attention back to counting down each exhalation starting from 5 (or from where you were when your attention wandered, if you can remember).

You might like to keep a notebook beside you to jot down any thoughts or insights that arise during your meditation.

When your alarm goes off, finish the round that you are on and get ready to move on with your day.  Try not to rush too quickly from your meditation. 

"Meditation brings wisdom, lack of meditation leaves ignorance.
Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back,
and choose the path that leads to wisdom."

Friday, 25 March 2011

When yoga doesn't feel good

Doing yoga feels pretty good.  Whether it's stretching the tension out of your muscles, or finding deep calm and peace in your meditation; deepening your breathing, moving your body, or lying still in savasana.  You arrive at your mat feeling stressy, tight and hunched and absorbed by your own thoughts and you leave feeling refreshed, stretched out, more generous and content.  All this goodness that we get from our yoga practice is the reason why we keep on coming back to it, day after day, week after week, year after year. 

But there are times when your yoga practice doesn't feel quite so right.  Your body might feel tight, or you might be cranky and no amount of sun salutations seem to shift your mood.  You might be injured and frustrated that your body has 'let you down', so that you are unable to practice some of your favourite poses or in your usual way.  You might be annoyed by your teacher, or bored by your practice.  You might feel like you've hit a brick wall and that you are failing to take your practice deeper, because your body or your mind won't seem to open up any more than it already has.  Or perhaps you feel like you're going backwards!  You used to be able to do this pose in comfort, now it's pulling you about in an uncomfortable way; yesterday's meditation was a smooth journey into yourself, today's is a bumpy ride to nowhere....

It's easy when these things happen to become cross and impatient, perhaps to step away from your practice for a time.  But when you're having a hard time with yoga, take a moment or two to ask yourself what the difficult days might teach you.

They teach you to be resilient and to bear discomfort with good grace.  You don't want to turn away from your yoga practice, so instead you have to learn to endure the hard times with patience and kindliness towards yourself.  So too in life.  Sometimes it's going to be difficult.  If you can learn to endure those times with patience and a good heart, then you will be able to minimise your own pain and distress when the hard times inevitably come.

You may find that it's your expectations that spoil your enjoyment of your practice.  If you come to your practice with a picture in your head about how it's going to be, you have fallen into the trap of using your imagination to project into the future instead of arriving on your mat with a fresh mind, a beginner's attitude and the desire to simply be in the present and experience what is.

And even in the hardest practice, when nothing's going right, or when you are confronting things in yourself that you'd rather not consider, there are glimpses of the sweet gifts of yoga.  However fleeting, they are enough to remind you that it's worth it - being here on your mat, doing your practice in whatever form it takes today.

Working through the challenging times teaches you to trust in the process and to be patient while you wait for things to move on in a more positive way.  Once you've worked through your first difficult time, you realise that on the other side of a troubling set of practices or meditations, lie deeper experiences that you would have missed if you had turned away.  Everything moves along in it's own time.  And your practice deepens according to its own rules, regardless of your personal desires and hopes.  The process carries on, even though it might not feel like it and it is often the biggest blocks that bring the greatest breakthroughs.

I think of yoga practice as an opening of doors.  As you practice, in your own patient and persistent way, doors open for you along the way... your body gets stronger and more flexible; your mind seems to drop more readily into deep focus when you come to your mat; you notice and understand more about yourself.  The doors to self-awareness, peace and contentment just keep on opening.  But sometimes we feel blocked.  The doors stop opening.  In fact it feels as though where there should be a door, there is a brick wall instead.  What to do?  You might end up frustrated; angry; disappointed or cross with yourself or your teacher.  You might back off, or try to push through, or walk away from practice for a short time or forever...  But if you carry on, you realise that what felt like a brick wall was just a very big door with particularly strong hinges and a rusty lock.  As you continue to practice, this big old door eventually bursts open and you cross the threshold with a new perspective or a new understanding of yourself or your practice. 

These are what one of my students calls 'eureka moments' - when a problem or block that you felt was intractable suddenly becomes clear and makes sense.  And each 'eureka moment' is the result of all the steady hard work and perseverance that you have brought to your yoga practice in the preceding weeks, months or years. 

So take heart when your practice feels uncomfortable or wrong - you could be on the verge of something brilliant.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - The Niyamas - Ishvara Pranidhana

The word ishvara translates as foremost ruler, or that which is greater than we are.  Pranidhana means devotion or dedication.  So this niyama means surrender to that which is greater than we are. 

In the modern west we tend to think of ourselves as individual entities and masters of our own fate and we are therefore attracted to the tapas element of the niyamas.  The idea of effort, discipline, increasing mastery over our bodies and minds appeals to us, while the idea of surrender is a more alien concept.  We might equate surrender with the idea of giving in, or giving up, or not making much of an effort.

As modern technology brings us ever more control over the natural world and our communications with others, we might be fooled into thinking that we have more control over our lives these days than those in Patanjali's time (c.200BC).  Perhaps, with the existence of modern vaccinations, fertilisers to enhance and protect food crops, efficient transport systems to get us from place to place, we feel insulated and protected from the bad things that can happen in a life.

But the truth is more difficult than this.  Life is random.  Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people and a life that seemed to be travelling with certainty in one direction can be turned on its axis in a heartbeat. 

There is simply nothing we can do about this, other than get better at accepting it.  Ishvara pranidhana, then, is the practice of going with the flow of life; learning how to relinquish our false sense of control and to become more resilient, flexible and adept at surfing the waves of life.

Through yoga practice; by staying present in each moment; by learning to maintain clarity even under the utmost pressure; we stay open to new opportunities and adventures; we remain open-hearted towards others; we continue to live life fully and with courage.

This is not a passive practice.  Yoga practice is all about being fully engaged in the world; living your fullest version of your life.  There is effort and discipline (tapas), we make plans and move our lives on in new ways.  But we accept that we don't have control over outcomes.  It's like the way you plan a party and you work hard to make sure everyone has fun, food and plenty to drink, and that they are comfortable and that the place looks good.  But when it rains and everyone has to run inside and the food is ruined, you still have a great time, because although it doesn't look how you thought it would, it's still great to be surrounded by your friends and family.  Those of us who can't let go of the way the party looked in our head and who can't accept that in reality it turned out differently suffer as a result.  They miss the party!

Ishvara pranidhana brings to life the strength, flexibility and openness that our yoga practice brings us on the mat.  So that our gratitude for the times when life is on an even keel is matched by our resilience when the waters are more choppy. 

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - The Niyamas - Svadhyaya

svadhyayat istadevata samprayogah
self-study leads towards the realisation of God or communion with one's chosen deity
YS II,44 translation by BKS Iyengar

The fourth of the niyamas (the second limb of Patanjali's eightfold yoga path) is svadhyaya.  Svadhyaya means self-study - literally sva one's own / adhyaya going into.

Svadhyaya has two meanings - the first is study of sacred scriptures such as the Upanishads, or the Yoga Sutras, the Bible, the Torah... (wherever your heart and interests lie), and the second meaning is the study of yourself.

From the earliest times of the Vedas, teachings were passed down orally from teacher to student.  As Georg Feuerstein describes it "in Vedic times, study meant the memorisation of the sacred tradition through repeated recitation."  This is another reason why many yoga texts take the form of sutras (sutra means thread and each of the Yoga Sutras represents a perfectly succinct teaching, which can be extrapolated to infinity by teacher and student).  In a climate where paper rotted quickly, oral transmission was practical; making teachings short and pithy enabled easy memorisation.  Ultimately the chanting of sacred texts became a spiritual practice in itself, leading to deeper states of meditation and understanding.

In this sense then, svadhyaya means personal study.  Going deeply into the texts that inspire you.  For some people this could be Bible study, for others it will be daily reading or recitation of the Yoga Sutras.  But this might also mean reading books or poetry by people whose view of the world and the human condition resonates with you, or whose writing or teachings inspire you. 

You could try this... read something every day that inspires you.  You could try poetry, or read a paragraph a day of a book by a teacher you admire, you might have one of those diaries or calendars with a daily meditation from the Buddhist tradition, or you might have a set of angel cards and choose just one word a day to consider.  You might want to frame each day with a particular piece of writing, so that you read it in the morning (as you brush your teeth or wait for the kettle to boil), then let it percolate throughout the day and come back to it in the evening, last thing before you go to sleep.  You might be surprised by how much it has subconsciously absorbed you during the day and how much more meaning you bring to the same passage when you come back to it in the evening.

I consider reading a book by a teacher that I admire to be travelling along with that teacher for a short time.  It's a great luxury.

The second meaning of svadhyaya is the study of oneself.  Yoga practice of all kinds brings us greater clarity about our motivations, passions and behaviours.  We learn to regard ourselves with a clear eye and to approach ourselves with honesty and compassion. 

So, for example, we might face up to the fact that we have not behaved well.  The first step is in admitting this to ourselves (difficult sometimes, when we have felt justified in our anger or selfishness, our greed or bad temper); the next step is to delve deeper and ask why.  What was it about that situation or person that caused you to behave that way.  The answers to this can sometimes surprise us.  More importantly the answers to this deep self-enquiry can help us to do better next time.  Through this practice we move away from patterns of behaviour that lead us towards pain and suffering and away from habitual responses to certain situations or people.  Through this practice we move towards being able to remain calm and compassionate in the face of stressful or trying situations.

And of course, we can work through the same process with positive feelings and actions too,  thus deepening our understanding of what makes us happy and why.  If the Dalai Lama is right and the key to happiness is simply finding what makes you truly happy and doing it, then svadhyaya is the method. 

  • Bring yourself to a quiet place where you are comfortable and set your timer for 5/10/15 minutes - however long you think you have.
  • Sit on a chair or on the floor or against a wall (anywhere you are comfortable), but make sure that your spine is straight.
  • Take your mind on a journey from your toes to the top of your head (and everything in between) and invite each part of your body in turn to relax.
  • Feel your body heavy, relaxed and still.
  • Calm your breathing and ensure that your exhalation is long and smooth (this calms your nervous system)
  • Once you are happy and quiet, bring to mind a time when you felt really happy.  remember how it felt in your mind and in your body to feel happy and content.  Allow those good feelings to radiate throughout your body.
  • After a short time, bring your mind to a time when you have been troubled by your response to something (perhaps you regret shouting at your child or your partner; perhaps your found yourself jealous of a colleague or angry with someone in a traffic jam).  Avoid berating yourself for what is natural human behaviour and remind yourself that you are not here to judge yourself or to find yourself lacking.  Be kind.
  • Ask yourself why.  Why? 
  • If you're a visual person you might find yourself confronted by images.  Or you might find that (from somewhere deep within) you answer yourself.  When that vision or answer come to you, simply ask yourself again.  Why?
  • You can go deeper and deeper and create more and more self-understanding just by following this line of questioning - why? - with patience and kindness and by delving into yourself from a quiet calm place of peace.
Ram Dass has a wonderful phrase for this kind of process, he calls it "wisdom distance" - it's the difference between wallowing in bad feelings or self-justification and getting stuck there, and watching those feelings, emotions and actions from a non-judgmental, calm and peaceful state of mind, so that they can pass by and you can move on. 

The world exists to teach you, svadhyaya is the technique.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - The Niyamas - Tapas

Kaya indriya siddhih asuddhiksayat
Through the intensity of self-discipline and purification comes the dwindling of all impurities and the perfection of the body and the senses.
YS II,43 translation by Mukunda Stiles

From the root to burn, tapas means self-discipline, effort, purification.  It is the discipline you bring to your practice, it is the turning up on your mat every day/week to practice, it’s the effort and the work and the dedication that you put into your yoga practice.  Tapas is the passion you feel for your yoga practice and the commitment that you bring to it.

The word tapas also implies purification - the elimination of impurities, blocks and barriers that stop us from deepening our practice.  These may be physical barriers, such as an inability to sit comfortably for meditation; mental barriers, such as a resistance to allowing the mind to be still during practice; or spiritual barriers, such as our inability to accept ourselves as we truly are. 

Tapas may also be translated as asceticism and in some scriptures it means the kind of extreme emaciation and practice that we sometimes see performed by saddhus in India (the yogis who hold their arms above their heads for decades; those who deny themselves food).  However, in Patanjali's sytem of yoga, extreme asceticism is not prescribed.

On an esoteric physical level, the Hatha Yogis expounded the belief that there are thousands of energy channels within the human body that get blocked and knotted and which stop the good circulation of energy and spirit within us.  It is tapas that burns through these knots and blocks, releasing them and their associated tensions and thereby freeing us to move along with our practice.  Strange things can happen during a yoga practice... we might feel tearful after a deep backbending practice, or fizzy with energy after a tough hip opening sequence, meditation can leave us feeling light and spacious.  These (often) unexpected results of practice can affect us powerfully and may be said to be the effect of tapas clearing through the blocks and knots within us, so that our energy can move freely.

Without tapas, nothing happens... yoga cannot be given to us by someone else, or understood through any intellectual process.  You must do the work yourself; experience your yoga in your own totally unique and individual way.  This is of course true of anything that requires effort: learning a language, or an instrument, exercising the body or motivating oneself to do something new.  If you want to learn how to meditate, start meditating; if you want to strengthen your asana practice, then practice.  Yoga teaches yoga.  Only through practice can the fruits of yoga be attained.  If we tend towards laziness and to falling into habitual ways of living, it is tapas that gets us moving, seeing, learning, doing and improving our lives in myriad ways.

Your body is your vehicle for the duration of your life.  It is the only one that you are going to get in this life.  It behoves you to respect it, to look after it and to keep it well.  Admiring your body for what it can do; taking care of it and nurturing it is important and it's an ongoing process.  We might say that modern humans spend rather too much time worrying about the bits we don't like about our bodies: the weaknesses, the body parts that are too big or too small or too pale or too dark, rather than rejoicing in the miracle of it all.
Sattvasuddhi saumanasya aikagrya indriyajaya atmadarsana yogyatvani ca
When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, the joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes.
YSII,41 translation by BKS Iyengar

Friday, 4 March 2011

Freewheeling Yoga

Can you remember what is was like to be at the top of a hill on your bicycle and about to set off.  No brakes.  Flying down the hill at top speed.  Exhilarating.

Or maybe roller-skates were more your thing - I remember the fear and excitement of starting the roll down the steep hill beside our house, knowing that I could fall (that I had fallen in the past), but doing it anyway.  Just for the fun of it.

I'm not sure when we start to put our brakes on (metaphorically speaking); when we stop doing handstands and being confident in our bodies and cycling down hills without touching the brakes.  Puberty maybe, when we don't want to stand out from the crowd and our bodies become more often an awkward embarrassment than something to be gloried in.

But imagine riding a bicycle with the brakes on a little bit, imagine how much harder you will have to work to propel yourself forward; how frustrating it will be; how much more energy it will take you to get anywhere; how you will hamper your own progress.  Putting our brakes on like this holds us back in life, as in our yoga practice.

You might want to spend some time thinking about what form your brakes take: it could be fear, or an internal voice that tells you that you can't, or shouldn't.  Or it might be an intellectual thing, a doubt that something will work, or a suspicion that as there is no scientific proof for an experience, then it can't be viable (but in yoga all sorts of things come up that are powerful and transformative, but are an affront to science).  You might have lost your confidence somewhere along the line.  You might hide behind your conviction that you have to do everything for everybody else before you attend to yourself.  So many different ways to hold ourselves back.

Consider your asana practice and the things you think you can and can't do... the postures that you will never be brave enough to attempt, the ones that are for other, stronger, braver people.  Notice how this mindset limits you.

Next time you practice, come to your mat with the intention of freewheeling through it.  Ignore your inner critic.  Every time a doubt comes up - throw it in the long grass.  Every time you feel impatience, fear, irritation, hesitation, uncertainty, scepticism, whatever your thing is - consciously set it aside.  Take your brakes off.  Bring the boldness and the courage you brought to freewheeling down the hill on your bicycle to your yoga practice.  See what happens.

A good way to tune into this feeling is to practice with your eyes closed.  Invoke kalpana (imagination) and visualise your perfect pose; feel it as perfect from the inside, rather than looking at it critically from the outside.  It's not someone else's body or someone else's pose - it's wholly yours and your version of it is wholly perfect in that moment.  Give yourself the freedom to fully commit to each pose and see what that feels like.

In meditation, just dive right in.  Notice as you do this what form your 'brakes' take... it might be doubting the point of what you are doing; it might be the feeling that there are other more important things you should be doing; it might be that you are impatient to finish up and get on with the day; it might be your never-ending thoughts that keep you stuck.  These are the ways that you limit yourself and your potential.

As you continue to deepen your meditation practice, you'll notice them more readily ('Hello, old friend') and perhaps you'll find a place to put them - somewhere out of the way while you get on with the business of meditating.  Here are some things that work for me...
  • Imagining a drawer or jar in your mind's eye where you store distracting feelings when they come up.  You could have one labelled for each distraction... fear, for example, or impatience.  When those feelings come up you mentally scoop them up and store them away.  Put a cork in the jar; push the drawer shut.
  • Consciously moving the distracting thoughts out of your mind and down into your body where you can let them melt away, or soften into nothing.  An effective place to move painful thoughts is the the space behind your breastbone in the centre of your chest (your heart-centre).  You can breathe the thoughts there and feel them warm and melt.
  • Visualise thoughts; see the sentences and the letters and take them down into your body and visualise them melting away... they might be ice melting in warm water, or sugar dissolving.
  • If you are confronted by images or scenarios that are unpleasant (and all sorts of things come up during yoga practice, be it asana, or meditation) you could try welcoming those images or thoughts and enquiring into them to see where they come from and where they need to go.  Try not to get intellectually involved with them; just feel how they feel and notice where in your body they are.  Once you have noticed, you can let them go.
However you manage it, see if you can move those distractions out of the way so that you can get on with the work of your yoga practice.

This is also an opportunity to ask yourself how you limit yourself in your life.  Have you become someone who doesn't do this or that?  Have you become set in a certain way of doing things that makes you resistant to change?  You might have become a certain person for friends and family - the one who's always available?  The one who's reliable?  The one who is disorganised?  Do you embrace these definitions, or do they restrict you?

So, try taking your brakes off.  Like freewheeling down a steep hill it will be thrilling, dangerous, enlivening and inspiring.  Imagine what your unlimited self might look like and how vibrant and powerful that self could be.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - the Niyamas - Santosha

santosat anuttamah sukhalabhah
From contentment, unsurpassed happiness is gained
YS II, 42 translation by Alistair Shearer

Santosha.  Contentment.  How do we get to be happy in a lasting and meaningful way?  Patanjali draws a distinction between lasting happiness and temporary pleasure.  The yogis believe that we are unhappy because we are ignorant of our true nature, which is unbounded joy.  The practice of yoga therefore is not so much the attainment of contentment from somewhere else, but rather the rediscovery of the abiding contentment that already exists within you.  The peace and calm that you find in your yoga practice is always there – you have just forgotten how to access it.

Your yoga practice is therefore merely an unwrapping of yourself.  It’s getting back to that part of yourself that is essentially you.  The more you practice, the more you find that you are able to stay with that uncovered and content version of yourself for more of your day. 

Santosha feels like a calm and quiet happiness; it feels like peace.  For some people it means connection with God or spirit, for others it is love, gratitude or satisfaction with what is.   Whatever words you use to describe it, it is a deep and abiding contentment which surpasses fleeting flashes of pleasure.  So if pleasure is the happiness gained from a new pair of shoes or eating something good, then santosha is that wonderful feeling of being in exactly the right place at the right time, with everything is in its right place and nothing left wanting.

You can bring a sense of santosha to your yoga practice by practising being content with what is – yes there is effort, there is commitment and work, but there is also a sense of gratitude for that which you already have and that which you can already do.  We’ve probably all had days when we feel creaky and out of sorts, when we wish that we could perform a full back bend as apparently easily as someone else in class, or that our hips were more open, or that our mind would shut up and be still during meditation...  Bringing the concept of santosha to your practice means consciously bringing your mind back to what you have and being grateful for it.  Some days it might just be that you are grateful for finding the time/having the money/living somewhere that you can practice yoga; other days it will be that you are grateful for having had the courage to try that thing you never thought you’d do; or for finding a way in to a posture you have found challenging; or for finding the patience to sit quietly with your self in meditation.

Santosha means hoping only to uncover the best of yourself, not striving to be a different person than the one you are.  Somewhere between the start and the end of your practice, you will find it and although it might slip away from you occasionally, with consistent focus you can spend more of your time with a sense of santosha.

At the end of your practice, when you come round from savasana, or from meditation, it’s important not to rush back into the world.  Take your time so that you can blur the line between your practice and your life off your mat.  We use mudras (such as anjali mudra – placing the palms together at the heart) to symbolically seal in the good effects of our practice.  So when you finish your yoga practice, bring a sense of consciously keeping yourself open to the good feelings you have found in your practice - resist the putting back on of the tense, unsatisfied, impatient layers of being. 

Imagine it like a heavy, many layered coat that you shed during your practice – while we’re not paying attention life puts each layer back on, one at a time, so that we are soon walking around carrying a heavy load and feeling disconnected to the joy inside again.  But with conscious effort and by regularly returning to your practice, you can spend more time with fewer layers weighing you down.  Eventually, Patanjali promises us, you can spend your entire life in a state of joy.

"Joy is not in things; it is in us"