Monday, 31 October 2011

The Journey

Life is not a straight road from from birth to death; it is a random, wonderful journey full of surprises, detours, seeming wrong turns, dead ends, hills, unseen potholes and steep upward climbs.

The thing is that we think we have the map, don't we?  The result of a+b=c; if I do this thing/behave this way, I will end up in that place over there.  But we need only give the most cursory glance back along the path that we have trodden already to know that this is certainly not the case.  Things come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet, in good and bad ways, and you deal with them all the only way you can: in the moment, to the best of your ability.

If you already have an established yoga practice, then you are better equipped than some to stay true to yourself in the midst of life's ups and downs.

Staying centred and true to yourself is only one of the gifts that yoga practice brings to a life.  The other is the understanding that the journey is your life.  The fun bits, the painful bits, the excitement, the hardship, the sorrow, the luck, the pain, the loss, the love, the change.  All this is the fabric of your life; every thread and stitch, every snag and tear will make up the tapestry of your one life.

In the middle of important life-change or self-questioning; on embarking on a new way of life, or job; at the beginning or the end of a relationship, the tendency for some of us is to long to know the outcome; the end; the resolution.  Like people who read the end of the book before they begin it, we want to know that it's going to be worthwhile; that our new choices are good ones; that everything will be ok in the end.

We cling to the happy times, that they might last longer, and we shun the hard times, wishing they were over and done with.  And all the while, life keeps on happening and you are here, where you are and there is nothing for you, but to live it now with as much love, heart and openness as you can.

The only certain destination for all of us is our death (I am going to die one day, aren't you?)  To long for the end is to wish your life away and to miss the gifts of the present.  The journey is your friend; let it teach you.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
C.S. Lewis

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Time Enough for Yoga Practice

It took me ages to understand that not every asana practice has to be a 90 minute sweat-fest to be worth anything.  Looking back, I've always been the all or nothing kind - when I learnt how to play the violin if I made a mistake playing something, I would always have to go back to the beginning and start again, so that I could play the whole thing through perfectly.  I watch my son play his cello now and observe that if he makes a mistake, he just goes back a bar or two to repeat the bit that he got wrong until he gets it right.  Once he's mastered those tricky bits, the whole piece comes together naturally.

That's how you learn, not by aiming for perfection every time, but by patiently applying yourself to the task at hand, with whatever time and tools you have at your disposal.  I'm glad that he seems to have learnt already what it took me the best part of 35 years to realise.

I wonder why we dissuade ourselves from applying ourselves to something because we don't feel that we have time to do it properly, or as well as we could if all of our stars were aligned and everything went perfectly.  Is it a way of being hard on ourselves: if it doesn't hurt, it can't be working?  Or is it because we think that if we can't do it perfectly, then we shouldn't bother at all?  Or is it just an excuse - a way of letting ourselves off the hook, because in truth we can't find the motivation to do it?

Speaking for myself, I think I was sabotaging myself with my own mental image of what a 'good' asana practice looked like.  If it wasn't going to look like that, then I felt that it just wasn't worth doing it.  In addition, when I am warm and have worked for a long time, my muscles are gratifyingly long and my ego liked that I could get deeply into poses and stay there for a long time.  Harder to accept my creaky old self on a cold morning in Autumn when even a standing forward bend felt difficult.  Lastly, I think lack of focus was an issue: it used to take me a lot longer to get to that place that we're all seeking in our yoga practice: that peaceful, calm, centred state.  If it was going to take me half an hour to get anywhere near that feeling and I only had half an hour available for practice, that meant that my mind was scattered and fragmented for the whole thing.

So what's that?  Imagination; ego; self-criticism; lack of patience.  Ouch.  It turns out that it wasn't my asana practice that was at fault, it was my whole mental attitude to it.

This applies to asana in another way too.  There are always things that we can't do, either because we are not physically open or strong enough, or because we are not mentally ready.  Should we avoid handstands completely, because they make us feel afraid and we can't see ourselves ever being physically able to do it?  Of course not, we know from our efforts to learn simpler poses that improvement comes with time, effort, patience and humility.  So we apply ourselves diligently to each aspect of a pose, accepting our current limitation, knowing that with persistent effort we will move gradually, but inevitably towards being able to do it. 

Our asana practice waxes and wanes too: when the days get shorter and colder our bodies naturally contract and we have to face the fact that the expansiveness of the warmer months (that saw us attempting hanumanasana and challenging arm balances) are over.  This is when we learn to accept and love our bodies and our practice as they are - we work with whatever we find in ourselves in the moment, rather than trying to fit ourselves into a pre-set mould of expectation.

It is the small practices, when we find ourselves with half an hour and seize the opportunity to practice, that make all the difference - these practices lay the foundations for the greater focus, strength, confidence, flexibility and calm of our asana practice in general.

Nowadays, with a busy teaching schedule, two children, a dog and a house to look after my practice usually lasts half an hour.  I know that there are yogis out there who practise for 2 hours a day and good luck to them.  I know that my asana practice won't ever look like theirs - some of them can do amazing things.  But in terms of the true meaning of asana practice, and it's true purpose, I know that I am as focused, calm, humble and happy in my 30 minutes as they are in their 120

Your practice is beautiful and will only become more beautiful.  Don't throw blocks across your path by intimidating yourself or talking yourself out of yoga practice.  Talk yourself into it!  Whatever it is you do (this doesn't just apply to asana practice), the cumulative effect of little and often is of more benefit to you than a once a week marathon.  And if you miss your once a week marathon, you'll have done nothing.  How often does that happen to you?

Sit quietly.  Ask yourself why it is that you hold your particular attitude to practising at home with whatever space, time and body you have that day.  Once you have found the answer to that question, you can shift it out of the way and get on with your yoga.

"Nothing would be done at all if we waited until we could do it so well that no one could find fault with it."
John Henry Newman

Monday, 10 October 2011

The One You Are Looking For

"The One you are looking for is the One who is looking"  So wrote St Francis of Assisi.  I find this reassuring during those periods when I feel that I am not sure where I am going, or what the point is.  Those times when you feel that you have lost your way a little bit, or when you don't like yourself very much; when you start being hard on yourself or when you feel like giving up; when you have lost your clarity or you just feel low on energy.  Whatever your particular way of getting lost is.

What I think he means is that what you are looking for is already there; the peace of mind that you seek is within you.  It is not so much a finding of it, but a letting go of all the stuff that lies between you and it.

Here's how Rumi put it: "This longing you express is the return message."  In other words, your longing, your seeking for truth, your understanding that there is something else, is your answer; it is your calling.  Erich Schiffman writes: "The solution to anything is to slide into a feeling of peace instead of thrashing around to find the answer ... When you experience your essence, you will feel this natural lovingness within yourself without having to do anything

When we take these teachings (from those much wiser than us) to heart, what we realise is this: that we don't have to keep running so fast - either towards the things that we hope will prove our worth (to ourselves; to others) or away from the truth of who we really are and what we really need and want from this life.  Most of all, we don't need to waste energy on being who we are not; we should only work to reveal the beautiful truth of who we already are.  It takes courage to trust that you are already enough.  It takes faith to believe the path is rising to meet you.  Are you brave enough to let the world know exactly who you are and to trust that that which you are seeking is seeking you right back?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

On Feeling Overwhelmed

I suppose that we all know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by all that need to get done in our lives; to be snowed under by a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter; or swamped by the need to make important decisions that could alter our lives irrevocably, yet without the time to think them through properly.  Sometimes we are overwhelmed because we have positively chosen to add something to our lives (an evening class, a training course, voluntary work), at other times, we have situations thrust upon us.

In some of us this feeling might inspire anxiety (accompanied by shortness of breath, sleeplessness, tense muscles), others might fall into a kind of torpor (low mood, hopelessness, lethargy), or feel confused and unable to navigate through maze of things we have to do.  Perhaps we start to ignore the problems or things that need doing in the hope that they will magically disappear.

Whatever your response to feelings of being engulfed by problems or by the work you have to do and the stuff you need to get done, here's the thing that yoga has to teach us: the past and the future are your imagination.  Only the present is real.  All you can do is what you are doing now.  So do that one thing and do it well.  Try not to rush halfway through one thing, only to stop to begin something else and all the while your brain is on tomorrow's appointment or yesterday's meeting or that essay you need to get finished for the end of the week.  Engage fully in this moment - it's an exercise of mind and the more you practice, the more you are able to do it.

What else?  Try to keep things simple!  I can't tell you how many hours I wasted baking cakes into the night for school fetes; making sure that my house was immaculately clean for an in-law's visit, thinking everything had to be perfect.  Henry David Thoreau said: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail."  I couldn't agree more.  I wonder if my desire for perfection had more to do with my fear that others would find me lacking than anything else... and really, why stay up all hours making things look perfect only to arrive in the midst of that 'perfection' frazzled and lacklustre and unable to enjoy it fully?

That we don't need to do everything is a fact that some of us find hard to encompass.  I know people who can't sleep on aeroplanes because they need to keep concentrating on keeping the plane in the sky!  That we don't have to do everything ourselves is an equally important lesson to learn.  How does it feel to help someone out?  To give someone a hand when they really need it (without needing or wanting recompense or thanks)?  The truth is that it feels pretty good to be of service to someone.  Think about how you can empower others to share that feeling of generosity by asking them for help; do you dare to show them your vulnerability by telling them that it would really help you out if they took Johnny to school or sorted your laundry so you can catch up with yourself?  And if you have children, you can teach them to be the independent and generous souls that you hope they will become by asking them to help you when you need a hand.  Sometimes asking for help can be the hardest thing; rather than ask, we try to demonstrate our needs and then compound our pain when those needs are not met.  Try asking clearly for what you need (from your colleagues, your boss, your partner, your kids) and see what happens - if you're still disappointed, you might have some work to do with them, that's all!  For the mostpart, people don't know you're feeling swamped unless you tell them.

As for your yoga practice... you already know that the days when you feel like you have no time for yoga are the days that you need yoga the most.  You already know that yoga will give you what you most need when you are busy: serenity, a relaxed body, mental clarity.  You already know that if you practise being present, just living this one moment fully, that things go better for you.  I would add to this that yoga helps you to leave aside the stuff that doesn't matter and identify that which does, so that you have more time for the things you need to do and the people that need you to be around.

If you're overwhelmed just now, good luck.  Keep breathing.  Keep doing the things you need to do (in your heart, you know what they are) to stay sane. And do them every day.  Apart from that, do the only thing you can ever do: your best in this moment, right now.

“There is nothing perfect...only life.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Monday, 3 October 2011


It occurs to me, wandering through the fields near my home in the sunshine, how everything in nature ripens and then yields to something else, completely without struggle, in its own way and in its own right time. 

The leaves on the trees just now are such beautiful colours and vibrantly alive, but they are about to die, to drop from the trees, form carpets of leaves on the ground and then to yield once again to become the earth.  The hedgerows are ripe with bursting fruit, the trees full of apples, the last of the flowers around here are blowsy with life.  Animals make free with this richness, filling their stores, making the most of the last days of plenty before the winter comes.  At the tail-end of summer everything reaches its culmination.

How stark it is, at this time of year, to compare this natural, circular ripening and yielding to what we do as humans and how we live.

I feel that I have spent a lot of my life fighting.  When I was a mother to two small children, I was impatient with the little amount I felt I could achieve in a day; I felt held up by my duties as a mother and constrained by the things I had to do for them.  In retrospect that time was so brief (they are now much bigger and don't need me so much) and what I learned from them was so profound (how to live in the  moment, how to love, how to nurture and support) that I see I was a fool to ever have resented it.  Watching friends with small babies now, I realise how time-consuming looking after small children is - of course you don't get much else done!  But I also observe how mother and fatherhood mellows us; teaches us; leads us on into new experiences that make us better human beings.  What I mean to say is that it felt like I was achieving little, but in truth I was learning some of the most important lessons of my life.  My understanding of life was deepening without my even being aware of it, let alone fighting for it.  Things ripen in their own time.

We fight against our natures too, don't we?  Whether it's hardening ourselves against life's pain and the people who might hurt us; or toughening ourselves up to deal with corporate life; steeling ourselves against the possibility of failure lest people discover we are not perfect; or putting our vibrant selves away in order to fit into a mould of who we think we ought to be and what we think other people need from us.

And we battle too, when we are unable to see the way ahead clearly, when life gets difficult and the path ahead is obscured.  Hard then to trust that hiatus can be an important, meaningful and beneficial part of our lives.  Hard then to have faith that each period of our life has a purpose and a meaning that we might not be able to appreciate until a long time afterwards. 

I hope that the older I get, the more I will trust in the rhythm of my life.  That I will remember that, like the natural world around me, at times my life will burst forth, blossom and bloom.  I hope that when those times come, I have the courage to seize the opportunities presented and to make the most of them.  At other times, my life will seem to contract and I will feel a sense of withdrawal and hiatus.  I hope that in those times, I can find the faith to understand that sometimes we must draw back in order to take stock and consolidate, before moving forward again.  I hope that I can trust that the movement will return in its own time and in its own way. 

I hope that I can align more purely with my own nature; truly understand it and allow it to be; absolutely trust in who I am and that my life is exactly as it should be in any given moment.  I hope that I am able to confidently seize all the opportunities for growth and enlightenment that life offers me.  But I hope that I can also yield, as nature does, when the time is right and that in yielding, I can accept loss and change, in the knowledge that nothing stays the same and that sometimes one thing must give way to make space for another, better, more enriching experience.  As summer gives way to autumn, so let me give way to that which I do not know and cannot see.  And let me do it with faith, trust and courage.  As my life has taught me in the past, so let me trust that it will teach me in the future. 

All yoga asks of us is that we come to understand our true selves and to live honestly in alignment with that true self; to engage fully in this life and to give wholeheartedly of ourselves; to learn from life and to love it in all its forms.  I hope that I can yield more and fight less while staying true to that which I am.