Friday, 26 August 2011

Unconditional Love - Satchitananda

There are many different types of love, but the only kind that really matters is unconditional love. 

When Ram Dass first met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, he saw in Ram Dass all of the good and all of the bad; the shameful secrets; the deepest, darkest hidden things that Ram Dass would never have revealed to anyone.  Neem Karoli Baba saw all this and he loved Ram Dass anyway.  More than this: he loved Ram Dass absolutely and completely, needing absolutely nothing in return.  This is how Larry Brilliant describes the wonder of Neem Karoli Baba's love: “what ... staggered me (was) not that he loved everybody, but that when I was sitting in front of him, I loved everybody.” 

It’s what a mother and father’s love should be for a child, but too often isn’t.

It’s the kind of love that says: here, in this moment, exactly as you are, you are good enough, you are loved for being exactly this.  Regardless of your dark bits, your spiky bits, your goofs and missteps, the things you do wrong, the things you do right, the days that you are dark and the days that you are light.  Those things change on a daily basis, but unconditional love does not. 

This is the love, I think, that Jesus spoke of. 
It is the love that is written of here by St John of the Cross:

How peacefully, how lovingly
You awaken my heart,
The secret place where you alone dwell within me!
Your breath on my face is delicious,
Calming and galvanising at once.
How delicately, how lucidly
You make me crazy with love for you!

Or in this passage from Rumi:

Be certain
In the religion of love
There are no
Believers or unbelievers.
Love embraces all.

This love is satchitananda (sat=truth/existence chit=consciousness/ananda=bliss).  As Georg Feuerstein writes, “this bliss is not a state of mind, but the condition that remains when all psycho-mental phenomena have been transcended”.  Yogis speak of this unconditional love lying behind everything; always there.  We do not need to ‘find’ it, only to remove the things that stand between us and it; that is the work that we are doing.

We might find this love in another human being... our spiritual teacher, perhaps, or in someone we know who embodies all that we value in humanity and who gives us something strong, yet intangible and asks for nothing in return; we might find it in prayer or during meditation; we might read of it in books from teachers and poets alive or dead; we might see it in the example of people who do good in the world and who ask for no recompense.  So many paths to the same source.

The work of yoga is to find it, connect with it, and let it run through us so that we may express it in our lives.

Ram Dass writes, “once you have experienced unconditional love, you have nowhere to go.  You can run, but you can’t hide.  The seed is planted, and it will grow in its own time.  You can only grow into who you truly are.”

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Renunciation (Vairagya)

The idea of renunciation doesn't feel particularly modern or attractive.  When I think of renunciation, I think of personal sacrifice.  When I think of renunciants I think of the ash-covered saddhus who wander around India on their spiritual quest, having given up all their belongings and human friendships.  I suppose that the word also makes me think of giving things up for a good reason, but having that renunciation backfire on you - in other words, that you end up wanting the thing you have given up more than you ever wanted it when you were allowed it!
There is a more positive way to think of renunciation.  Renunciation as the taking away of whatever is standing between you and whoever/whatever it is that you want to be.  So, if you want to be healthy, then you might renounce cigarettes or your afternoon cake; if you want to maintain your energy and clarity, you might give up that nightly glass/half bottle of wine; if you want to be peaceful you might commit more deeply to your meditation practice.  Only you know what's in your way at any given time. 
It might be said that most major religions incorporate the idea of renunciation into the spiritual year; that there are specific periods given over to playing with the idea and practice of renouncing things (fasting prior to Yom Kippur, for example, or giving up something for Lent).  
An important part of yoga practice is deepening our understanding of our attachments to things and loosening the grip of those attachments.  Put simply, the philosophy is as follows: we ourselves and all of our possessions are entirely impermanent, we will live our lives and then we will die and be gone and all of our belongings will be lost to us.  Yet, for yogis there is something beyond this temporal world, something enduring and lasting with which we seek connection.  Understanding the impermanence of our bodies and possessions and loosening our grip on our ego (sense of individuality) and sense of ownership facilitates this connection.  An investigation into our attachments by playing with renunciation can therefore be an enlightening element of our yoga practice. 
I once gave up buying anything (except for food) for 30 days, that was a good test!  Bargains had to go unpurchased, no new books for a month (that was hard) and then the concern that once the month was over I might go on some crazy spending spree to over-compensate (I didn't)!  It was a thought-provoking month and it was a challenge sometimes to stay mindful and committed to it.  The great thing about that month, though, was that what began as a restriction ended up feeling like freedom.  It was a bit like the feeling that I got when I gave up smoking: at first it is terribly difficult and your body and mind scream out for the thing you want, but cannot have.  Once that initial stage is over, however, my overwhelming sense was of being free of cigarettes and I've been free of them ever since.
We don't renounce because it's holy, or because it's the right thing to do, or because it's been imposed on us.  In truth, when we renounce for those reasons, it backfires and we either end up wanting that thing more (to the point of obsession?), failing (and then beating ourselves up for it?), or being miserable about it.  We renounce because in doing so we make ourselves free; we renounce because we want to explore our attachment (to coffee, to buying things, to seeing someone) to find out where the attachment comes from, what we can learn from it and the ways in which we might be free of it; we renounce to get lighter (as Ram Dass puts it) and to help ourselves move towards our best version of ourselves.  If you reflect over your months or years of yoga practice, you might realise that there are things that you have quite naturally renounced as you have progressed along your way - attachment to proving yourself through asana, for example, or attachment to talking too much (you are quiet more; you listen more).  Chances are you didn't think of it as renunciation and that it just became part of your path; sometimes you are just ready for it and it happens, without you needing to make any effort at all.
"Vairagya is a practice through which the sadhaka (seeker) learns to be free from desires and passions and to cultivate non-attachment to things which hinder his pursuit of union with the soul"
BKS Iyengar

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Emotional Awareness

In yoga we practice mindfulness and self-awareness.  We seek to maintain clarity in our everyday activities so that we don't get swept away by emotion or wrong-thinking; so that we can make wiser, kinder choices; and so that we can be honest with ourselves about why we have behaved in certain ways.  If we understand what lead us to shout at that person/eat or drink too much/ignore our needs, then when we are in that situation again, we can make a more prudent and positive choice about how we react to it.  In this way, gradually and with regular practice, we get to live happier, calmer, healthier lives.

Yogis do this by making time to reflect every day.  It's as simple as being quiet and being still.  It is very difficult to hide from yourself when you are being very still and very quiet (that's why so many of us spend so much time being noisy and rushing around). 

This practice doesn't make you free of anxiety, pain, grief, jealousy, fear or frustration - these things are all part of being human; we can't live without them any more than we could live without love, joy, serenity, hope or amusement.  It gives you the capacity for self-awareness; the ability to stand slightly aside from your emotions and to observe yourself honestly and clearly in any given situation; it's the gift of perspective...  You notice an emotion; you feel it; you watch where it came from and how it manifests itself in you; and a natural pause finds its way into your life; the pause before you act.  That pause is the difference between flying off the handle and being able to explain yourself lucidly; it's the difference between noticing the source of your jealousy and allowing it to consume you; it's that pause that allows you to be the best version of yourself, instead of the one that gets the same thing wrong, over and over again.    

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Keep Moving Forward

It is said that yoga is the oldest form of self-improvement in the world; it has certainly been a form of self-improvement for me.  People sometimes tell me that I am looking very well, or that they like my air of calm, that my eyes are radiant or else they are surprised by the flexibility and strength that I have (even at my age!).  It's very nice when people say such things, but I know that it is not me, Sarah, that they are complimenting, but yoga.

Regular and dedicated yoga practice has brought more peace, more energy, more joy and more good health into my life; it has enabled me to be more of the person I want to be (strong, calm, loving and kind), more of the time.  Regular asana, meditation and pranayama practice will do this for absolutely everyone who practices it with faith, strength and love.  Patanjali knew this 2,000 years ago 

sraddha virya smrti samadhiprajna purvakah itaresam
Samadhi is preceded by trust, faith, memory and wisdom
                                                                                                                 YS I:20

There were other reasons that the ancient yogis practised yoga, the attainment of magical powers, for example.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from around the 15th Century, talks of yoga adepts being able to levitate, the ability to shrink, the ability to move instantly across great distances; the Yoga Sutras speak of perfected yogis being able to understand the minds of others and attain knowledge of past lives, among other things.

However the ancient texts also talk of more familiar and less esoteric benefits of yoga, more in line with the ones I have described in myself.  The Svetasvatara Upanishad describes how asana brings: "Lightness, freedom from disease, steadiness, clarity of complexion, sweetness of voice" II,13  The Bhagavad Gita tells us that yoga practice brings "nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace" VI,15 and this, from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: "one gets steadiness of body and mind; diseaselessness and lightness of limbs" I,17

So yoga practice brings profound personal change and helps us to live well.

But yoga practice also brings us to deeper self-awareness, and that awareness can at times be deeply uncomfortable.  In my own practice, and in observing the dedicated practice of others, I have experienced and witnessed difficult times, when something that has lain buried within, sometimes for many years, rears its head and cannot be ignored.  It is said that yoga either transforms you, or else you stop doing it.  In other words, it is impossible not to be transformed by yoga.  But of course, we are human and we always have the choice of turning back; of turning away from painful transformation.

Ignoring personal difficulties, unresolved problems and old hurts that have not thoroughly been dealt with takes up a lot of energy.  Energy that could more positively and usefully be used in living your life fully, vibrantly and for the benefit of others; for those you love.  Therefore moving through pain and difficulty, resolving it and being able to move on from it is part of your yoga practice.  In addition to this, pain within you that is being ignored does not go away; it is always there and can raise its head when you are at a low ebb, or when life is difficult - you'll know how your unresolved inner demons manifest themselves in you: in jealousy? in anger? in being judgmental? in weakness? in tears and self-pity?

I have written before of these moments of profound transformation as of standing at the threshold of a door.  Sometimes these doors are heavy and old and the hinges are rusted and it takes an awful lot of energy, practice, faith and courage to open them and once opened to step over the threshold.  But here's what I can tell you about my own practice: once you step across that threshold, you are free of whatever it was that was blocking your path and you can move forward unencumbered by it.  Life feels lighter and you end up having more to give (to yourself and the world) because you are no longer carrying that weight of pain and problem around with you.

As always, we can look to Patanjali for guidance, and he tells us that during these troubling times you need three things: faith, memory and strength.  Faith in the practice: it has worked for you before and it will work for you again; and faith in your teachers, who have gone before you and who can report back that the view from higher up the hill is freer and more beautiful than where you are standing now.  Memory of your practice: when you feel that it's just too difficult; when the process hurts; when you would like to turn away from the pain and put it back in the box in which it has been stored, sometimes for years, remember previous transformations and how they have had a positive effect on your life.  This might be something physical, such as reduced back pain, or something more subtle, like the ability to maintain calm clarity in stressful situations.  Use this memory to bolster yourself through whatever it is you are experiencing in your practice and your life right now; remember that the process has worked for you before and it will do again.  And know your strength: don't turn back; don't hide; don't settle for what your life has been when you could have so much more; when you can be so much more. 

Right now, this moment, I am going through a period of difficulty.  I look to my teachers, from Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, to friends and fellow yogis for help and encouragement during this time.  This a pretty solid old door and it's a tough one to budge; in fact, this door has been holding up a part of myself for many years, so when it opens, I feel that some of the plaster's going to fly from the walls.  But it's ok.  I trust the process; I'm tired of this door being in my way; I wish to be free of it.  I'll keep moving forward, because going back is not an option for me. 

I hope that you find the teachings to help you when you come up against doors like this; I hope that you can ask for the solace of having somebody hold your hand while you work on it.  It's your journey.  Have the courage to free yourself from the things that are holding you back.  Keep moving forward through your life. 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Marianne Williamson  

Monday, 8 August 2011

Practising Gratitude

Just a quickie before I go away for a week and might not be able to write... gratitude is a practice.  It doesn't necessarily come naturally or spontaneously, but you can commit to making sure you make time to be grateful for the good stuff in your life.  Even when your life isn't feeling very positive.  And it will make you feel better.

Today I am grateful to a friend who listened to me talk about myself, for what felt like ages, without getting bored with me/judging me/asking me to hurry up; I am grateful for the excitement of my children, packing their things for a beach holiday; I am grateful for my dog, who I love, and who I had to drop off at the dog hotel today (I'll miss him!).

It's not much, but it's the 'not much' that ends up being everything, isn't it?  The cups of tea with friends; the quiet moment with a book; a comfortable bed; a hot bath; a sunny morning. 

You can make a space in your yoga practice, or in your journal, to think of three things that you are grateful for every day.  You don't need to do this for long before you notice that the same things come up time and again, and that they are not the big things, but the small, quiet happinesses of love and friendship and an ordinary life.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The God Question

Surrender is an important, but challenging, part of all yoga practice.  We are many of us familiar with the idea that yoga is (or should be) a combination of effort and surrender and I have written about it before in this blog. But what or whom we are surrendering to is an important question.  Yogis are lucky, I think, in that the word God is never used; we have no prescribed image of a deity or anthropomorphised figure issuing judgment or calling the shots.  Patanjali entreats us only to surrender to that which is greater than us: ishvara pranidhana. 

I think it is important that we find a definition of spirituality that works for us.  For some of us, spirituality involves belief in a specific religion and in the idea of God as omniscient, omnipresent creator of the universe in whom we find refuge; others might find this notion of God judgmental or threatening in some way; still others reject the idea of God entirely.  

Whether or not you hold with a specific religion, whether you are an atheist or agnostic, whether you find the idea of God appealing or threatening, in yoga we all need to find a way to connect.  Connection with that part of ourselves which is beautiful and eternal; connection with other people, in whom we recognise an essential sameness, beyond elements of personality, race, gender or upbringing; and connection with the whole universe, in which we are simply a small part of the whole.

I don't think it matters how you describe this connection, but I do think that cultivating humility before it is crucial to our practice.  When humans believe that they are greater, or more important, or more powerful than the rest of the natural world; when they forget that they are just one small part of the whole, then they forget to respect it; they forget to replenish what they take from it; they forget to look after it.  When humans think they can control life, or nature, they are misguided and they run into trouble.  Nature shows us time and again that it is more powerful than we are and that even the smallest creatures will spell the end of so much, if they cannot survive.

Surrender is a potent word.  It inspires strong reactions.  But I am not suggesting that we become passive; on the contrary, a life lived through yoga is an active life, it is an exuberant grasping of life and all the opportunities it presents us with.  I am thinking of surrender, not as giving in, but as going with... go with life; try not to fight it.  Accept that you cannot control everything; be grateful for your little place in the great scheme of things; remember your sense of wonder at the world on a daily basis.

This idea of surrender; this humility before something greater than you are; this wonder, love and joy at the world is something that we can cultivate in our yoga practice and in our life.  This idea of surrender, for me, is spirituality. 

What works for me is being in nature; what works for me is getting very quiet during yoga practice; what works for me is being in the sea: I never quite feel so strongly the glory and power of the world, my connection to it, and my small, but perfect place in it, as when I am in the ocean. 

The way spirituality feels for me is the sensation of being very small and very big at the same time; perfectly insignificant and yet absolutely essential.  It is sensing my place in the world with certainty, and an utter connection to every other thing; each of which has its place too.  The way I express this spirituality is through love, that's all.

In finding a definition of spirituality that works for you, you are finding for yourself a pathway to this sense of connection and your place in the order of things.  You belong here.  Your definition doesn't have to look like anyone else's and nobody has to validate it for you.  Call it God, or don't.  It's not so important what label you give it; you know it's right for you when it feels right; this is something you feel in your heart, rather than understand or know in your mind.           

'what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.'
From Bone, by Mary Oliver

Saturday, 6 August 2011


Somebody asked me to write about pranayama, because they don't get it.  So, with pleasure, here it is. 

The word pranayama consists of two words: prana, meaning vital energy or life-force (similar to chi in Chinese medicine) and ayama, meaning stretch or extend.  It is the practice by which prana may be maximised, contained and channelled within the body by various breathing and breath retention practices.  Pranayama involves the regulation of the inhalation, the exhalation and retention (holding) of the breath, after both the inhale and the exhale.  This regulation is achieved by modulating the length of the breath and breath retention for a period of time as well as directing the mind into the process.  Each component of the breath should be long and uniform.

Desikachar describes pranayama thus: "Pranayama is the conscious, deliberate regulation of the breath replacing unconscious patterns of breathing.  It is possible only after a reasonable mastery of asana practice."

Pranayama is therefore the practice of focusing the mind on the breath, thereby increasing our sensitivity to the movement of breath within us.  It is the practice of controlling the inhalation, exhalation and retention of breath so as to steady the mind, clear energy channels and to maximise and contain prana (energy) within.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us

"When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady. When the breath is steady, the mind is steady and the yogi becomes steady.  Therefore one should restrain the breath." II,2

In truth, we know this instinctively.  We know that when we are angry or anxious our breath shortens and is shallow; we know that when we are relaxed our breath is longer and tends to move more deeply within our body.  Through yoga practice we learn how to manipulate our breath, so that when we are angry and anxious we can replace short breathing patterns with deeper ones which calm our body and mind and help us to maintain clarity even in the most difficult situations.  Patanjali writes that "calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath" Yoga Sutras I,34

One of the aims of yoga is to retain energy, rather than allowing it to dissipate; breath control (pranayama) helps us to achieve this.

Pranayama practice also encourages stillness of mind and prepares us for meditation (raja yoga).  The goal of yoga is the attainment of a serene mind; pranayama helps us to prepare for that and to retain it once we have achieved it.

There are many different pranayama techniques, which all promise different effects and outcomes.  It's worth remembering, before we get too involved in complicated pranayama practices, that one of its chief purposes is simply to give us techniques for following the breath and that this can be achieved with the most basic of breathing practices. 

Pranayama is the subtle practice of using time-honoured techniques to deepen our awareness; because it is subtle and because its effects are cumulative it is not often taught in classes in any deep or meaningful way; it is therefore probably necessary to take a course, to ask your teacher to advise you, or to buy a good book to help you to begin your pranayama practice.  Pranayama practice is also deeply personal - everyone's experience (even of the same practice) is markedly different - and you may therefore find that you need the support of a good teacher to guide you through what can be a profoundly transformative practice.

Pranayama practice interrupts the disorderly flow of the breath, bringing steadiness to the mind and reducing our susceptibility to distractions, thus leading us on to meditative practices.  It is the practice of retaining and maximising our energy so that we may use and direct it in a more positive way and so that we can move through daily life with more clarity and wisdom.

Because finding an appropriate pranayama practice for each individual is important, I am loathe to give a general practice here.
If you are my student and would like to embark upon a personal pranayama practice, please ask me and I will happily advise you. 
If you are not my student and you do not have a teacher that you can ask, then I can recommend Swami Satyananda Saraswati's book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha or Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga, you could also click here for instruction on how to do nadi shodhana, one of the more generally beneficial pranayama practices.

Don't underestimate the power of pranayama; it is a subtle, but powerful practice and can transform the way you practice yoga, the way you think and feel, and the way you act in the world.

Friday, 5 August 2011

How to Meditate 2 - Mantra

The word mantra means a thought or intention expressed as sound; it might also be understood as prayer, hymn, plan or counsel.  We talk nowadays of having a mantra, as of having a phrase or set of words which are meaningful and which motivate and inspire us.  In truth, a mantra might have a meaning, or no meaning at all; it might be a word, a sentence, a sound, or a set of sounds with no meaning.  And it's purpose is not to spur us on to action, but to draw us inward.   

Ram Dass describes a mantra as "something that protects the mind from itself ... by giving it some fodder other than the thinking process."  Carlos Pomeda describes it as something that unifies your thought waves, so that instead of myriad thoughts, you find one continuous thought wave going through your mind. 

When I sit to meditate, I tend to go through several typical stages.  The first stage, for me, is usually thinkingthinkingthinkingthinkingthinking thoughts.  Thoughts about people; thoughts about myself; memory; things I've just remembered I've forgotten; things I think I might forget; things I have to do.... on it goes.  Some of the thoughts are particularly seductive, so if I remember that I have to buy someone a birthday present, I might follow that thought along the line, planning what I'm going to get and where I'm going to get it from, until I notice what I'm doing and come back to what I'm sitting here for and return to watching the thoughts pass by, rather than following them anywhere.

I use a mantra almost every time I sit to meditate, because I have a very busy brain and it helps me to concentrate.  I was also given a mantra by a teacher who is important to me and I find that this mantra in particular has a profound effect on my meditation practice. 

The mantra I usually use is Om Namah Shivayah.  As with all translations from Sanskrit, there are many ways to translate this... adoration to Shiva; I bow to Shiva; I bow to God/the Divine (of which Shiva is a manifestation).  There are other mantras, from the simplest Om, to things like the Gayatri Mantra, spoken daily for centuries...

tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah pracodayat

let us contemplate the beautiful splendour of the divine Savitri (sun God) that he may inspire our visions

But your mantra might be as simple as thinking love with the inhalation; peace with the exhalation.  Or any other words or invocations that feel good to you.

Mantras repeated silently are more powerful than those spoken aloud.  Eventually, when you have practised with a mantra for a while, you end up feeling like you are hearing the mantra from inside yourself, rather than consciously thinking it.  It's a very peaceful and beautiful feeling when you get to that point.

Choose a mantra that feels good to you.  If you are not sure, then choose Om namah Shivayah. It's a simple and beautiful mantra that works for everybody.
Set your timer (if you use one)
Close your eyes; find your usual comfortable position for meditation.
If you have any mala beads, you can hold them and move your fingers along them with every time you repeat your mantra (I find this helps me to concentrate).
Settle your breath.
If you are not too shy, you can repeat your mantra aloud three times, before beginning to silently repeat your mantra, once with every inhale; once with every exhale.
Every time you realise that you have stopped repeating your mantra, simply notice (without judgment) and return to it.
See if you can allow the beauty of the sound of the words to fill your mind and body and thereby lull you into ever deeper meditation.

"The mantra and the reciter of the mantra are not separate from one another, and the power and effect of the mantra depend on the readiness and the openness and the faith of the one who's doing it"
Ram Dass