Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dharma 1

The Sanskrit word dharma is often translated as 'duty', this is correct, although the word duty brings with it, I think, certain connotations of things we have to do, but which we would rather not.  The word itself comes from the root dhri to hold, to establish, to support and I think this is more helpful in understanding dharma and how it relates to our lives. Dharma is that which we are meant to do; dharma is our work in this life, our purpose.  It is the link between the workings of your inner, spiritual purpose and the outward activities and intentions of your life.  Dharma therefore is holding/ establishing/ supporting a link between your inner soul-work and your outer life and livelihood.

In yogic terms, your individual soul chose to become manifest in your physical form for a reason.  Your job in your one life is to polish one facet of this beautiful soul that you have inside you.  Dharma is your soul’s purpose in this life. 

We can have more than one dharma and many different dharmas over a lifetime.  For example, if you have very young children, then your chief dharma is in dedicating yourself to nurturing them; if you have teenage children, your dharma is still to love and protect them, but also to let go a little, to give them the gift of independence.  So the role is the same, but the dharma has changed over time.  Being alert to how dharma changes over time helps us to stay awake, to stay in tune with what is best serving our personal development and those around us.  Being alert to how dharma changes over time helps us to choose courageously and not to cling to outdated, but comfortably familiar, ways of being.

Staying true to more than one dharma at a time might mean that we work in the city, but also dedicate ourselves to a local charity; we might be a parent, but go back to college to learn how to do something new.  Knowing that there is room in your life for more than one purpose can be very liberating.  You realise that you can nurture yourself in the ways that you need, while still fulfilling your role as Sales Assistant / Film Producer / Teacher / Parent / Child.

Your dharma is unique to you; only you can discern it and only you can learn how to fulfil it.  Aadil Palkhivala recommends tuning in with your dharma in the following way:

“… we must regularly step out of our frenzied routine and quietly ask, “Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  What is the reason for my existence?  Why did my spirit choose this body and what does it want to experience?”

You do not need to believe in reincarnation, soul, spirit and the Divine to benefit from this practice.  Simply asking yourself every morning, What is the purpose of this day? will help you to clarify your personal purpose and to live your life in its best and highest form; it will help you to stay on track; it will help you to be clear about what you need to do in your life and this will help you to be bold about clearing the unnecessary impediments out of your way in order that you fulfil this purpose to the best of your ability… Does drinking too much in the evening sap your energy the next day and make you less effective?  Get the drinking out of the way.  Do you have a friendship that seems to steal your energy and never replenish your sense of vitality?  Devote less time to that friendship and more time to those that help you to fulfil your purpose.  Does being unfit keep you from doing the things that you long to do?  Commit to building your level of fitness by taking a long walk every day.

Your longing is your cue – what is it that you really want to do?  Do you feel that you work all day every day only to feel unsatisfied at the end of it?  Why do you think that is?  Is there something else that you should be doing for yourself or for the world that would alleviate that sense of dissatisfaction?  Should you be doing that thing as well as or instead of what you currently do?  Only you know.  So ask yourself the question; and be prepared to acknowledge the answer.

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."
Mae West 

Friday, 25 November 2011

A letter to my friend 2

Don't push your feelings away or ignore them, be they physical, emotional or mental.  Watch them, feel them, listen to what they have to teach you about compassion (for yourself and for others) and about love and loving.

Your heart knows.  First learn to listen.  Then to hear.  Then to live according to it.  This takes great courage (from the old French, corage, meaning 'heart, innermost feelings, temper', this word itself from the Latin cor, meaning 'heart'*), but you can do it.  Look to others who have done so before you, or for people around you who are doing it right now; people who are making brave choices and living authentically.  Let them inspire you.  Don't deny the truth of your Self.

There is self-reliance and this is good (when it is based on a strong sense of self); and there is reliance on others and this is good (when it is based on a strong sense of self): we all need to receive love, care, attention and recognition.  We all need nurturing.  Let the people around you love you and take care of you, as you do for them.  Even children can give you the support you need, if you let them; sometimes the nourishment you need comes from the most surprising sources: let it.  There is strength in letting people love you and in admitting when you are in need of tenderness.

Let your beautiful heart be your guide.  Be brave.  Be happy.  Have fun.  And when feelings come, think of them as sign-posts along your path; allow them space and time in your life; know that alongside difficult emotions and physical pain, joy and love co-exist constantly.


*Thanks to Brene Brown for the etymology

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


I've been thinking about the concept of recognition for a long time. Someone asked me about it and I have been considering what it means to be recognised by another human being, by the world, for exactly who you are. I've been meditating on how it relates to yoga practice and what it means for the quality of your life.

I'd come to the conclusion that being recognised is a key element of yoga, but I was finding it hard to articulate why this is so.  I felt that it was related to the concept of darshan (to see and be seen by another), which is the treasure that Ram Dass, Krishna Das and others found in their gurus: that rare feeling of being seen by another, really seen, beyond the surface of what we say and do and all of the techniques that we have developed, consciously and unconsciously, for dealing with the world and being loved absolutely anyway, for who we are at heart.

Then this morning, I read the following from the book, True Love, by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn and it all suddenly feel into place in my mind and in my heart:

"To love is to recognize; to be loved is to be recognized by the other ... When we are loved we wish the other to recognize our presence, and this is a very important practice."

We have all developed our different ways to interact with a world that is unpredictable and which is always changing.  Some of us do too much for everyone else, perhaps too little for ourselves; some of us close off important, perhaps vulnerable parts of ourselves so that the world (we hope) cannot hurt us; some of us come out fighting, aggressively defending our space, our feelings, our softness; others fill the world with noise and bluster, talking all the time, filling all the silences, so as to never have to be truly seen or have to admit who we truly are; some show off, shouting 'look at how wonderful I am and all that I have achieved' in order to hide their weaknesses.  But beneath all of that, we are all vulnerable; we all need to be loved.

To be recognised by another is to be loved.  Through loving and recognising you, they are saying: I see all of your hurts and defences and foibles and weaknesses, the things that you do right and the things that you do wrong and I recognise that beneath all of that you are truly a unique and wonderful person; I see into the heart of you and the heart of you is beautiful and good.  They are saying that you do not have to be anything else, you do not have to act a certain way, prove yourself, change yourself, be someone else, they are saying that they recognise you and love you for exactly who you are now.  Imagine someone feeling that for you, or expressing those feelings for you, and you will understand what a gift it is.  The gift of recognition is the gift of true love and acceptance.

And recognising ourselves is just as important and just as much about love.  The idea of loving oneself has negative connotations: we talk about someone 'loving himself' as a way of saying they think too much of themselves, that they are big-headed.  This is unfortunate, because truly loving oneself is one the hardest, most subtle, most profound aspects of our yoga practice.  Can you look into your heart and see all that is beautiful there?  Can you appreciate your own self, behind and beyond all of the surface actions of your personality and ego?  Only when you can do this are you truly able to love others, for when we recognise ourselves as essentially good and true and made of love, then it follows logically that we recognise every other human being as essentially good and true and made of love too, no matter what traits they are projecting to the world.

Yoga practice asks us to look deeply into our own hearts, to be honest, and to recognise that we are each an expression of Divine love.  Then, having recognised it in yourself, to recognise it in everybody else, not just your family, or your friends, or the people that you have chosen to surround yourself with, but everyone.

Practising recognition is not easy, but it is a rare and wonderful gift to give and to receive.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

An Unfolding - Ishvara Pranidhana II

continued from An Unfolding: Ishvara Pranidhana...

Yoga practice is all about noticing our habits and tendencies: eliminating those that lead us towards suffering and cultivating those that lead us towards a peaceful, content, more wise way of living. 

One of my own tendencies has been my resistance to surrender - I find it hard to trust the unfolding.  My habit is to think that I can work it all out intellectually and then make a positive decision about what to do; that through sheer tenacity and the force of my will I can make things happen a certain way.  Of course I can't and I'm working on breaking that way of thinking!  The concept of ishvara pranidhana is helping me to do that.

After writing about ishvara pranidhana last week, from the point of view of one who seeks to control the world, one of my students asked, what if you are coming from the opposite direction?  What if the world feels permanently out of control and that you have nothing solid to cling to?  What if you often find yourself feeling fearful about the way the world tosses you about?  What if, instead of trying to control the river's flow (as I have done), you feel that you are at the mercy of it, with no ballast to keep you steady?

Ishvara pranidhana is as relevant to you as it is to me.  Whether you feel a victim of life's happenings, or you take up arms and fight against them, we are still all subject to the fact that life just happens and all we can do is to meet it where we find it, with as much strength and peace in our hearts as we can muster.  We know when we look back that life is random and curious: some of the best times of our lives came out of darkness; some of the saddest dropped from the clear blue of a sunny sky; still others are that bittersweet combination of bliss and pain.  With the wisdom that comes with time we see that sorrow is as crucial for our personal development as joy.  Ishvara pranidhana is accepting that life is there to teach us if we are willing to watch and to learn from it.

The key to the practice of ishvara pranidhana, whichever side of the control fence you are sitting on, is discovering your own centre; finding your essential core of peace and personal wisdom and resting within it.  Every human being has within them balance, the capacity for love, wisdom, peace and patience.  Yoga is called a practice for a reason: you have to do it yourself and you have to keep on doing it; learn how to centre yourself in the good times so that you have the tools ready to cope with the harder times.

This is also a question of personal power.  Some of us don't like the idea of power - it seems hard and strong and not at all like us.  But as Brene Brown points out, the opposite of being powerful is being powerless... and I don't know anyone who enjoys being powerless.  By personal power I mean the humble kind of personal power that is brave enough to admit one's own frailty and to seek the support of loved ones in times of crisis.  I mean the kind of personal power that makes you resilient, rather than come crashing down or go running from the slightest challenge to the status quo.  I mean the self-reliance that stops you from reaching out to others in the hope that they will save you or give you the answer, the magic pill to all of your questions and problems.  I mean the kind of power that lets you sit quietly with tough feelings rather than hiding them behind busyness and noise so that you don't have to think about them (they don't go away, you know).

So no, we cannot control the fates and life is surprising.  But neither are we powerless victims of life's vicissitudes.  Yoga helps us to locate and develop our sense of personal power; our steadiness; it helps us to stay loving, kind and resilient even in the face of life's most difficult challenges.  Through yoga practice we find we can maintain strength, integrity and equilibrium through the good, the bad and the indifferent times.  In our practice we seek our own wisdom and find the courage to take notice of it and to live by it.  And the next time you feel yourself blown about by life's storms, you find you have become your own anchor.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

An Unfolding - Ishvara Pranidhana

Patanjali tells us that ishvara pranidhana is one of the key routes to peace of mind; to your centre; to your heart/soul/God, whatever it is that you call it.  It is so important it is one of the few things that he mentions twice. 

Ishvara pranidhana: surrender to that which is bigger than you; feeling your connection to everyone else and to every other living thing; letting go of the idea that you can control anything at all and learning instead to meet life where you find it and how you find it; where you find yourself and how you find yourself.  If your life is a river, then invoking ishvara pranidhana is learning to go with the flow of it: staying steady through the choppy bits, learning to allow yourself to love and enjoy the easy-flowing bits, being patient through seeming stagnation, knowing that a river never truly stops moving.  It is understanding that you do not - cannot - control the way the river flows.  Ishvara pranidhana is feeling yourself as an inextricable part of something much bigger than your small individual self: you are simultaneously small and insignificant in the midst of its vastness and yet an absolutely crucial, invaluable part of it.

Your yoga practice is, and will continue to be, a conscious turning back to love; a deliberate move towards silence, that you might hear all that the universe, your heart and the love of God has to tell you.

Ishvara pranidhana.  Life unfolds.  Let it.  Don't push.  Learn how to wait, watch and be alert; learn to trust that unfolding.  There is a rightness to it that you, with all your intellect, effort and knowingness, could never have achieved.


And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular
Mary Oliver

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Here's an easy daily practice for anyone who would like to lengthen their hamstrings.

1. Get a yoga belt (or any belt you have)
2. Lie on your back on the floor
3. Raise one leg and put the belt around the heel end of your raised foot
4. Stretch the other leg out along the ground
5. Ensure that the back of both hips is in contact with the ground (the hip of the raised leg will want to curl up off the floor)
6. Hold for at least 2 minutes, each side

If you do this once a day, every day this month, you will see a great improvement in your hamstring length by December.

Do it to improve your asana practice, but also do it to improve your posture, mobility and your sense of comfort in your own body.