Thursday, 28 April 2011

Keep on Growing

I was once on a surfing course with a kindly, warm, plump, 60-something year old grandmother called Barbara.  The youngest person on the course that day was in his late teens; Barbara was the oldest.  She'd been surfing before and loved it - she was the only person to stand up on her board that day.  She did it over and over again, riding the surf into the shore with a big grin on her face.

In the Land Rover on the way home at the end of the day someone congratulated Barbara on her surfing skills.  She told us that her interest in surfing had begun when she'd brought her grandsons to the beach and watched them body-boarding.  She thought it looked fun and wanted to join them, but she couldn't swim and was afraid of the water.  Watching her grandsons that day, she realised she was missing out.  They inspired her.  The following Monday she found a swimming course and booked herself onto it; 9 months later she could swim, so she booked herself onto her first surfing course; 6 months after that she was merrily telling a truck full of wannabe surfers how to do it!

Obviously this is inspiring stuff and we all hope to stay as open-minded and courageous as Barbara.  It's great to think that we'll continue to embrace new challenges, put ourselves in new and potentially uncomfortable situations and keep on pushing the boundaries of who we think we are and what we think we are able to achieve. 

What Barbara taught me is that the joy of anything is in the doing of it.  She didn't want to be a world-champion surfer, she just wanted to have a go at something that looked like fun; something that made her feel vibrant and alive.  Nor did she hold herself back with self-restricting thoughts, along the lines of "Grannies don't surf", or "I'll never be able to do it", or "Old dogs can't learn new tricks". 

Barbara didn't get stuck.  And through not getting stuck she found that she had the capacity to continue to grow and to learn, and the courage to embrace new and fulfilling experiences.

Every week when I teach yoga, I see people come up against their own ideas about the things that they can't do.  The faces that express fear, surprise or doubt when a certain pose is mentioned.  And I regularly get to see the joy people experience when they find that they can do it.  The joy is not in the performance of a perfect magazine-shoot yoga pose, but in the realisation that you can attempt poses that you thought were beyond you, and learn something from them, and gain something from them, and even do them, if you approach them with confidence, humility and commitment.  It doesn't mean that it's easy - it can take hard work to achieve something new.  It doesn't mean that it's without risk - Barbara will have fallen off her board a lot of times before she was able to stand up on it.  But I bet that each time she pulled herself up from the seabed, with sand in her hair and water in her eyes, there was a big grin on her face.

Yoga helps us to keep our idea of what our lives can encompass as broad and positive as possible.  We confront the self-limiting ideas we have about ourselves every time we come to our mat...  by attempting yoga poses that we thought were for other people; and by meditating on the myriad ways in which we hold ourselves back and then tell ourselves it's for the best.

We tend to find it perfectly ordinary for those in their late teens and early twenties to be experimenting with who they are and finding out what it is in life that invigorates them; there is really no reason why this should ever stop. 

"Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing nor that, but simply growth.
We are happy when we are growing."
WB Yeats

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Meditation and the 8 Limbs of Yoga - Pratyahara

The foundation for the practice of meditation according to Patanjali's system of yoga is pratyahara, or the drawing inward of your senses.

For so much of our time our senses are directed outwards.  The world is a distracting place – there is nature, there are other people, there are conversations and plans to be made and there are the projections of the human mind (books, tv, movies, radio stations, music) to distract us.

Meditation begins with the simple desire to recoup your energy and focus by drawing your senses inward.  It makes sense when you think about it – you cannot meditate while your focus is directed to the outside world; you can’t be peaceful in the midst of all of the activities of the world without first learning how to maintain your inner focus no matter what is going on around you.

There are many techniques and methods for drawing your senses inwards.  The simplest way is to follow your breath.  This works on a number of levels.  If you take some time to focus on your breath, then it naturally follows that your breath slows down and this in itself promotes a feeling of inner calm.  Your breath is a very subtle thing and bringing all of your attention to it requires concentration, absorption and attentiveness - following it with your mind literally leads you inwards.  Taking time to appreciate the uncomplicated miracle of your breath is a simple, quiet pleasure far removed from the myriad distractions of modern life, but ultimately more deeply fulfilling and restorative. 

Here is an easy three-step practice to help you to experience pratyahara.

Sit comfortably with your spine straight and your chin level.
Begin to deepen your breath.
Close your eyes, or soften and lower your gaze.

1) Place a palm on your belly.  Breathe into your palm.  Feel your belly move to meet your palm as you inhale; feel your belly draw back towards your spine as you exhale.  Count 20 deep and even breaths and watch the movement of your breath and your body as you breathe.  This is the way your body moves when you breathe, but you don’t ordinarily notice it.  You are not in the habit of noticing yourself.
Bring your raised palm back onto your lap.
2) Now imagine your breath travelling with your inhale from the base of your spine, up your body to the top of your spine and beyond that up to the top of your head.  Imagine with your exhale the breath travelling back down your spine to the base of it.  Count 20 deep and even breaths.
3) Lastly, bring your attention to the bridge of your nose.  Notice the movement of your breath across the bridge of your nose; across this small, but sensitive part of your body.  Feel your breath, cool on your inhalation, warmer on the exhalation.  Listen to the sound of your breath in your ear.  Enjoy the sensation of your breath as it moves effortlessly in and out of your body.  Continue for 20 breaths.


I was waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s surgery and he was running late.  I watched a man opposite become increasingly irritated by having to wait for his doctor to call him through.  He huffed and puffed; he muttered under his breath; once in a while he got up and stalked impatiently across the room and back to his seat again.  I sat and waited. My breath was deep and calm.  His breath was short and fast.  My body was still and calm.  His body was tense and contracted.  We were both waiting.  We both had other places to be.   We were in the same situation exactly, but our mental and physical experience of it was totally different. 

You can transform your experience of life by understanding how your tendencies lead you towards suffering and pain.  You can improve your experience of life by learning how to wait, remembering how to enjoy the simple things, and how to stay calm in the face of frustrating situations.

"Wherever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the self. Abiding joy comes to those who still the mind."
The Bhagavad Gita 6:26-27