Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What do you need today?

What is your yoga practice for?  This is a good question to ask yourself as you come to your mat to practice at home.  This simple question, when considered quietly and with focus will lead you to understand and to give yourself exactly what you need from your asana/pranayama/meditation practice on any given day.

Sometimes, it will be right to push yourself beyond your previous boundaries, to test your courage, your strength and your flexibility, to attempt asana/breathing practices/meditations that you have previously found challenging.  On other days, it will be more appropriate to move slowly and mindfully, or to sit quietly to meditate on something familiar.  The trick is in understanding your differing needs; over time, you will learn how to respond to them appropriately.

Some people find it hard to motivate themselves to get to their mat at all, and once there the feeling that they don't really know what they are supposed to be doing and can't remember any of the poses leads them to give up easily.  But some cat stretches, a standing forward bend, savasana, or some simple breathing practice (of the 'I am breathing in; I am breathing out' kind) is sufficient and could lead you to your intended outcome.

Other people find it hard to believe that 10 minutes of gentle stretches constitutes a worthwhile yoga asana practice; that yoga should be 90 minutes of sweat and hard work, or nothing at all.

But I have come to my mat for 90 minutes of hard work and for 10 minutes of very gentle stretches and emerged feeling more whole, more happy and more centred from both.

Every yoga practice should draw you nearer to kindness, focus, gentleness, strength, serenity, peace and joy.  It should always bring more ease to your body and mind.  But how you get there will differ from day to day.  Sometimes you will find your centre by working hard; sometimes you will find it by giving yourself gentleness.  And it might not even happen on your mat. Sometimes it's enough to take a walk in the countryside (having left your phone at home); sometimes it's curling up with a good book; going for a swim; knitting a jumper... In your heart, you know what does it for you.

No yoga practice is ever a waste of time.  If you start with that premise, then you can't go wrong.

"On this path effort never goes to waste and there is no failure.  Even a little effort towards spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear."
Bhagavad Gita 2:40

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Life without a Plan

Here's an easy trap to get caught in: the sham security offered by always having a plan.  Plans for your career, plans for how your house is going to look one day, or where you are going to live, plans for what you are going to be like when you've lost weight/got fit/run that marathon, plans for your relationship or for your children.

What do you think is the real reason for all the plans that you have for yourself and for your life?  What do you think you are protecting yourself from?  What do you think you are missing out on?

It is true that we need to make some plans - if I don't go to the supermarket, then I won't have anything to cook for dinner later.  But I wonder if sometimes we don't make plans to protect ourselves from the fear of not-knowing.  In truth, not-knowing is an ever-present state.  We don't know where we will be tomorrow - we think we might be at work, sitting at our desks with a coffee and this might well be the case; but we could fall ill, or need to be somewhere else with someone who needs us, or any number of other things that might come to us out of nowhere.  When they do, we will have to respond to them in the moment - the only way we ever truly get to respond to anything.

I wonder also about how making plans for the future gives us a way of avoiding the truth of situations in which we find ourselves now.  If we are unhappy, or stressed, or living in ways that aren't making and keeping us well, then in many ways it is easier not to think of that (and what changes we might have to make to create a new way of living), but rather to project our imaginations into a rosy future, where the promotion, increased salary, new relationship, world trip makes everything ok.  Of course, what we need to do is to look at our lives how they are today. If something is wrong, we need to put it right, not by making sunny plans for the future, but by honestly assessing where we are here, now, this moment.

There might also be things that we miss out on because we have been so invested in a plan; in an idea of who we are, where we are going and how our lives are going to be, that we inadvertently close ourselves off to the many opportunities that present themselves to us out of nowhere.

Being without a plan can feel vertiginous, scary.  We might feel that we are floundering in nothingness, without direction; we might panic because we have nothing to hold on to; we might lose ourselves, because we had so much invested in a plan that we had let it define us.  This is when you practise presence.  Go and meditate; go and practice asana; go for a walk.  Give yourself some peace and time not to be flummoxed by the directionless state you find yourself in.  Wonder to yourself if it might actually be an opportunity, a necessary hiatus.  Be brave, have patience, wait and see.

There is a spiritual element to not-knowingness, summed up by the term ishvara-pranidhana - surrender.  When you look back on your life, you see that some of your best-laid plans came to naught, but that everything worked itself out somehow; that you have learnt even from the periods of sorrow, pain and grief.  In this way we are able to make sense of our past, and yet we don't trust that future has the same rightness to it.  If only we could trust that much; have that much faith; surrender to the idea that there is a wisdom inherent in our life-path, and one day we will be able to see it.

Try to trust in the rightness of where you find yourself in the world, however discombobulating it might feel to not have a plan for what's next.  Stop fighting so much; try letting go a little bit; try having faith in the path you're walking on, even as you realise that you will never truly know what exactly is coming round the next bend.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Four Brahmavihara - Loving Kindness

The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness toward the joyful, compassion toward the suffering, happiness toward the pure, and impartiality toward the impure.
Yoga Sutra I,33 Translated by Alistair Shearer

The first practical instruction that Patanjali gives to a yoga aspirant comes in chapter one, verse 33 of the Sutras and it is to do with our social relationships. It is obvious really, that our spiritual fitness should be tested first in the fire of our relationships with others, since it is in our interactions with others that we demonstrate our personality, our capacity for kindness and love and our propensity towards judgement and condemnation of other people's behaviour.

Ram Dass writes that if you want to test how well you are doing on your spiritual path, you should go and visit your family. It is they who will press all of your buttons, reignite all of your childhood petulance and stir up long-cherished grievances. He recounts how his father always wondered aloud when he was going to get a proper job (he was by this time a world famous spiritual teacher and author of many books), but his father was an East Coast lawyer and having a hippy for a son wasn't ever going to cut it. 

In Sanskrit, this sutra reads as follows:

maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha dukha punya apunya visyanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam

Maitri means friendliness, kindness, love. It is one of the highest virtues in yoga and is a quality inherent in all enlightened beings and bodhisattvas. Later in the sutras, Patanjali advises maitriyadisu balani (YS III,24): that by practising friendliness and other such virtues towards all others, not only does our capacity for friendliness and love grow, but our moral and emotional strength is increased.

Karuna is compassion. The giving of our time and our empathy to another human being, animal, or living thing that needs it. It is taking time to understand another person's pain, suffering, or point of view and relinquishing the idea of personal ownership of misery. It's holding someone's hand while they work through their stuff and just being there for them. We all know what we need from other people when we are at a low ebb: we don't need anyone to take the suffering away from us; we don't need to be told what to do to make it better; we don't need it pointed out to us how foolish we are to have gotten into this situation; or how we've had it easy, because they've had it so much worse; and we certainly don't need that kind of sympathy that leaves us feeling patronised. Compassion is that brand of kindness that gives you a hug, talks and is silent, listens and seeks to understand and which is entirely accepting and loving of you in your hour of need.

Mudita is gladness, a positive state of mind to be consciously radiated. How nice it is to be with someone who radiates gladness: someone who can make you smile while you're waiting in the rain for a late bus; someone who can see and point out the beauty in a somewhat desolate city landscape; someone who helps you to remember the simple joys of life (a nice sit down and a cup of tea); or who shares with you the things that make them happy and wants to know all about yours. Learning to be this person; becoming this person, is part of yoga practice. It's connected to the practice of gratitude: we've all been in the presence of those who drain the life-blood from us with their complaints about the things they never had; the things they'll never get and the way life has been so hard. It's easy to be down on the world; the hard work is to remember to look for the beauty and to keep on being glad for it and to carry on sharing that gladness with everyone that you meet and know.  Happy people aren't luckier than anyone else (all humans suffer), they just work harder at being cheerful.

Upeksha is equanimity. I think this might be the hardest of the lot. To regard with equanimity those people who constantly make mistakes; who repeatedly make damaging life-choices; or live in ways that differ from the path we have made for ourselves.  Upeksha is about remaining open-minded and balanced in the face of other people's faults and imperfections, rather than rushing to judge and condemn them for their weaknesses.  The flipside of upeksha is realising that we all have our shortcomings; we all say and do things (known or unknown to us) that annoy or challenge others. Our way of living is not perfect; it's just our way.  Other people have their ways of doing things based on their best efforts and it is not for us to judge or condemn, nor to congratulate and encourage.  According to Patanjali, it is our job only to remain peaceful and calm in the face of this and to attempt to see through people's foibles to the beauty that we know to be present in everyone.

It's worth noting here, that I do not believe that maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha mean that yogis should be passive in the face of injustice. Anyone who thinks this is the case should look to the life of Mohandas Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Aung San Suu Kyi - these are peaceful, non-judgmental people with the fortitude to take on repressive regimes and to continue to fight for what they believe in the face of extreme repression and hardship. However, these concepts do feed into protest, as Ram Dass wrote: "You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself."  Protest and movement for change comes not because we hate the person against whom we are fighting, but because we hate what they do and believe wholeheartedly in a different way.

The projection or conscious radiation of friendliness and compassion is taught in the Yoga Sutras as a method of pacifying the mind. Pacifying the mind is the true purpose of all yoga practice. Thus yoga is love and love is yoga.  The practice of kindness and compassion is your yoga practice. It is a tangible, constant testing of your progress in yoga. In time, kindness and compassion become less something you practise and more something that you are.  And it can only run in circles... you must allow this love and kindness into your heart and soul as well as projecting it outwards, or else you will be forever limited in the amount of kindness, even-handedness, love and acceptance you can give. Be generous enough to give it to yourself and to receive it from others; for some of us, that's the hardest part of all. 

"A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave."
Mohandas Gandhi

Saturday, 10 September 2011

20 Minutes to Change your Day

I once met a man called Hugh who did a lot of yoga.  We were on a yoga weekend and ended up sitting next to each other at lunch; apropos of nothing I commented that on the days I practised yoga, the day seemed then to roll out more evenly and beautifully afterwards, as if there was all the time in the world for everything (as opposed to that horrible, I'm-never-going-to-have-enough-time-for-all-I-need-to-get-done-today feeling that has become the default setting for too many of us).  Without missing a beat he replied that yoga makes you realise the things that matter and the things that don't, so that after you have practised, you don't waste time on the small stuff.  You breathe more deeply, you take more time, you trust more that everything will get done in its own right time.  I'm not sure that I had put two and two together before and made this realisation, but it was so obvious when he said it and of course, he is absolutely right.  Yoga reframes your day, and when you have practised regularly for long enough, it reframes your life.  Yoga helps you to acknowledge what is important and to leave aside the other stuff.  It teaches you to live with your brain fully engaged with whatever it is you are doing and that helps you to do things better, more successfully, more easily.  You rush less and make less silly mistakes.  You improve the quality of your attention to any given situation and action and this improves both the way you perform that action and your experience of it.

Try to remember that the days when you feel that you have no time for yoga, are likely to be the days that you need yoga the most.

Try to remember that you have it within your power to take 20 minutes out of your day for yoga and thereby to make your whole day better.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How to Meditate 3 - Sitting with Yourself

Try not to turn your meditation into a battle, or to make it into another thing to beat yourself up with (I can't do this, I'm too impatient, there's something wrong with me because my brain just won't stop thinking).

When you sit to meditate, you inevitably find that you are sitting with yourself.  This can be uncomfortable and/or frustrating.  It might be that you are a planner, or a dreamer; that you relive the story of your past life, or that you imagine your future.  You might get stuck on a person, or a conversation, or a thought you've had.  You might feel something (pleasant or unpleasant) that you can't let go of: reliving a romantic encounter, for example, or going over an argument or past hurt.

Whatever it is that you find in yourself, know that at least the first stage of your meditation will often be a period of reconciling yourself to whatever it is that has been occupying your mind of late (consciously or subconsciously).  This is an important and valid part of the meditation process.  If our yoga practice is about observing ourselves and assessing our actions with clarity, then it is important that we do not flinch from the things that occupy our thinking minds.  Moreover, learning to sit quietly with whatever is present in us, can be the most challenging thing of all.  Sometimes I have longed to lose myself in my mantra, because it is SO much more settling than sitting with me, me, me, for the duration of my practice.

The proportion of your allotted meditation time that is taken up with thinking, will vary each time you sit.  Some days I have spent 50 minutes with thoughts buzzing around my head, finding only 10 minutes of peace at the end of my practice.  Very rarely (beautiful days), I sit and almost immediately fall into that deep, quiet space that exists behind everything.  Other times it comes and goes.  And the curious thing is, that sitting with beauty, joy and peace can be as challenging as sitting with your thoughts.  Sometimes I feel so unbounded, energetic and free that I can barely stand it!

But it is important not to judge.  There is a kind of wisdom to meditation that we cannot understand, but that we must trust.  The days that I sit with my thinking brain are as instructional, as motivational and move me along as much as the days when I fall into instant peace.

Accepting your practice as it comes to you is part of the practice.  That's faith.  That's trusting the process and trusting yourself.

If you continue to come up against blocks; if you find yourself forever mired in painful thoughts or lost in reveries, then you may wish to consider the amount of time that you are giving to your meditation practice.  In the past, I would sometimes emerge from meditation feeling irritable.  It turned out that I wasn't giving myself time to get beyond the busy brain part of my practice to the untroubled, dissolution into peace that comes after it.  Or you could ask your teacher or reach for a good book on meditation; sometimes a kind word and some advice from someone who's been there is all you need to help you along.

Meditation is a practice that moves along in its own sweet time.  We're not used to having to wait for things; we're used to getting what we want as and when we desire it; or else we work harder to get it.  Meditation is the opposite of this: try less, wait more, trust, and watch what happens without judgment.
"You can't always get what you want,
but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need."
The Rolling Stones