Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Learning Late

Here is something that I have only just understood. 

The fact that I have been practising yoga since 1995; have studied with some amazing teachers from all over the world; have read and studied many of the key texts of yoga philosophy and have chosen to spend my life practising and teaching and writing about yoga, demonstrates how much we have to learn, how far yoga practice can bring us along and how it's never too late to learn some really fundamental things, which can change the way we live forever.

What I realised is this: that I don't need to be perfect to be loved.  In fact, it is for my imperfections that the people who love me love me.
It's such a relief!  Not just to know this intellectually, but to feel it too.

Did you ever have one of those breakthrough moments when you realise that the answer was just staring you right in the face all along?  Did you ever realise something momentous and wonder to yourself how you could have missed something so obvious for so long and yet at the same time, feel that you found out at just the right time; just when you were ready and needed to learn it?  Well, then you'll know how I felt when I realised this small, simple thing, insignificant to most people, probably, but very important to me... I can make mistakes and say the wrong thing and forget stuff and all the other things that I regularly do that make me feel like a plum... and the people who love me, will still love me.  And in spite of all that silliness, I still deserve (like everyone does) to be loved.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

What is it that You're Looking For?

What is it that you are looking for in your yoga practice, your spiritual practice or in your life in general?  Where do you think your practice, whatever form it takes, is going to take you?  Where do you want to be?

Our mistake, too often, is that we feel that we need to be moving towards some other place in order to be getting anywhere.  We're hooked on the deferment of happiness... when I have that job, I'll be happy; when I move into that house I'll be content; when that person is out of my life, things will be better; when I've finished that project, things will be easier...

The truth is, that any spiritual practice should be a journey home; a trip into the heart of yourself.  In your heart, you already have everything that you will ever need. 

This can be difficult.  If we believe that we already have in our hearts everything that we will ever need, then we must accept and love who we are now, not some idealised future version of ourselves.  It might also make us face up to some serious questions about the way we live now, because if there are things in our lives now that are making us deeply unsettled, or unhappy, or unhealthy, then we need to address them; not ignore them on the basis that in some imagined future, things will be better. 

In your yoga practice, you are not adding to yourself, or taking yourself to any new place; you are stripping away all the stuff that you fill your mind with, so that you can look honestly and quietly at what is.  This can be very uncomfortable, but ignoring the things that make you uncomfortable does not make them go away.  It can also be emboldening: you don't have to hide!  You don't have to be afraid!  Who you are today is just right, so go out and do stuff on that basis - not because of what you'll get, or what you'll earn, or who'll be watching, but just because you can and are living your life to the full.

Here's something by Maya Angelou that I saw from a bus in San Francisco; it was written on a school building, built into the brickwork:

 "I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself." 

This is the work of our practice: to be at home in this one body, in this one life.  It is simply not possible to be anyone but who you are, anywhere but where you are right now.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Tips for Meditation

Here are some things that have helped me to find peace in my meditation practice...

1. Go to the same place every time for your meditation practice.  Over time, just being in the right place helps you to fall more quickly into meditation.

2. Meditate at more or less the same time every day.  Mornings are best (your mind is much fresher, you won't fall asleep and it's great to start the day with a clear mind).  If you have a lie in at the weekend, but usually practice in the morning, go to your mat as soon as you are up, so that even though it's not at the same hour of day, it's still the first thing you do.

3. If you need to loosen up before you sit so that you can be comfortable, then do a few twists/forward bends/back bends/hip opening poses before you sit.  Whatever you feel your body needs.  Make it part of your meditation.

4. Be comfortable.  It's just no good if all you're thinking about is how much your hips ache and your legs hurt.  Use cushions, sit on a chair, lean against a wall, but be comfortable.

5. Once you've found a comfortable way to sit, try to keep still and resist the urge to fidget.  Only move if you are positively uncomfortable.

6. Find a path that works for you... you could bring a leaf or a beautiful stone to contemplate; you could use a mantra; you could meditate on your chakras or on your breath.  It's good to find something to help your mind grow steady - it's very difficult to find that steadiness without using some kind of prop.  However, try not to chop and change technique too often - try something for a week or so before leaving it aside and moving on to a new method. 

7. Let your family know that this is where you meditate and that you'll need some quiet time.  Very young children can't be expected to leave you alone, but older children can certainly do without you for 10 minutes or more and partners need to know to leave you alone if you are meditating.

8. Light candles and incense, wear a special shawl or jumper, sit on your favourite blanket or mat.  Make the whole experience of meditating pleasurable and restorative and create a positive atmosphere for yourself each time you come to practice.

9. Use CDs and YouTube for meditation scripts and inspiration.  There are lots of wonderful meditation teachers around and tons of resources to help you to deepen your experience of meditation and to help you on your way.

10. Be nice to yourself.  Your mind is going to think.  Your mind is not like a light bulb that can be turned off every time you come to meditate.  The fact that you are still thinking does not mean that you are failing.  Watch your mind move like you watch your breath move, then try to fall behind the thoughts at the top of your mind to see/feel/touch what lies within.  Watch what is; don't imagine what might be.  Like all yoga practice, meditation takes time, patience and perseverance.

11. Be patient.  Sometimes you won't like what your mind brings you; you might be feeling things that you would rather not think about.  When things are difficult, see if you can find a way to sit calmly through it.  See if you can wait and watch and perhaps find what is at the other side of a strong/painful/uncomfortable emotion or thought.  Think of it as a part of the process.

12. If you need to move (to talk to a child/free a fly from the room/answer the door) try to do so mindfully (don't instantly snap out of your practice and rush off).  When you have dealt with what has come up, return to your practice for however much of your allotted time you have left.  If you are agitated by whatever it was that disturbed you, notice that and see if you can watch and wait for the feeling to pass, or trace it to its source.

13. Have a notebook handy so that if you have any urgent thoughts (something you need to do, but might forget) you can make a note of it and leave it aside for the duration of your meditation.  A notebook is also handy for writing down any insights that might come to you during your practice.

14. Find a meaningful way to conclude your practice.  You might want to make a resolution for the rest of your day; you might bring your palms together in front of your heart and bow your head; you might take a moment to be grateful for the time you've had to practice or to thank the teachers that have helped to bring you on your way.

15. Don't rush back to the world when you are done.  Try to take your meditation with you as you move on through your day.

These are just some things that have worked for me.  They work just as well for asana practice too.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi

The last three of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga represent the true purpose of any yoga practice: the ability to sit quietly in meditation and to achieve the calm state of total equilibrium known as samadhi.

The first stage is dharana, or concentration (from the root dhri, to hold or retain).  The Yoga Sutras define this as the binding of consciousness to a single point.  Dharana is the practice of continuously holding your attention to a single focus; it is this single-pointed focus that precedes meditation.  A variety of objects may be used in the practice of dharana - mantra, for example, or concentration on a chosen deity; you might focus on your breath, or an object that inspires you.  Through this focus of attention, the functions of the mind are controlled and brought to one focal point.  The more you practice, the more you find that you are able to maintain this steady focus for a longer time without becoming distracted. 

The deepening of dharana leads naturally to dhyana, or meditation.  Dhyana is the practise of an uninterrupted, constant flow of intense focus and concentration; it is total absorption; it is the maintenance of a steady and profound contemplative observation.  Meditation is a fundamental technique common to all yoga paths and it takes practice and patience.  Recent scientific research demonstrates the manifold physical and mental benefits of meditation, but it's main benefit is an abiding sense of calm peacefulness.
Both dharana and dhyana may be experienced during yoga asana practice: dharana is found in that one-pointed concentration on breath and movement that you bring to your mat, when you deliberately focus your mind and your efforts on your yoga practice to the exclusion of all else.  Dhyana is experienced when you find yourself in that wonderful state of being completely absorbed in your practice, with your mind clear and focused; when you are 100% in the flow. 


Samadhi is the final stage of Patanjali's eightfold yoga path - achieving lasting samadhi is the ultimate goal.  In dharana or dhyana we may find ourselves back in our own minds, or distracted from what we are doing.  In samadhi, we have blended seamlessly into the experience, so that we have no sense of ourselves as separate beings 'meditating' or 'doing' yoga; rather, we have become our practice and it has become us.  The Brahmana-Upanishad calls it the "perfect forgetting" of the state of meditation that precedes it.  It is the dissolution of our sense of separateness and union with the divine/the perfect centre.  It is connection; it is a feeling unbounded by our physical selves; it is bliss.  It is love.

The teacher and former monk Carlos Pomeda explains that samadhi is our natural state.  Viewed in this way, Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga provide a process for getting yourself out of the way so that you can experience the essential beauty of who you already are.  Thus, by practising the yamas and niyamas, you develop emotional stability; by practising asana you maintain physical health and vitality; through pranayama practice you learn to conserve your energy and to maintain your equilibrium; through pratyahara you develop willpower and learn to detach from worldly distractions...  Dhyana, dharana and samadhi form the last few steps (each of them intimately linked with each other) to the peaceful, calm centre of ourselves, which is always there, waiting to be rediscovered.

"Samadhi is your very nature in its absolute clarity, in its absolute purity, in its absolute awareness.  Samadhi is your natural home."
Swami Rajneesh