Sunday, 30 December 2012

On Love

It is curious that there is only one word for the most crucial emotion humans possess; that we have more words for mud than we do for love.

We use that one word to describe the passionate feelings that we have for a lover, the protective, nurturing, complete love that we have for our children, for the companionship of our pets, for the abiding friendship we have with our oldest and best friends, for our parents, for our siblings, for our neighbours... it's all the same word: love.  Love is also the word that many teachers, ancient and modern, have used to describe the sense of connectedness and unity that we feel within when we practice yoga; that transcendent joy that rises from the peace of practice, that deep feeling of love which might sometimes be elusive, but which is always present, always there, waiting to be touched.  It feels in those moments as though someone or something vast and undefined loves us absolutely and without caveat or restraint.  It feels as though we are nothing but love.

That love is all there is
Is all we know of love

So wrote Emily Dickinson with characteristic succinctness.  She is of course right: it is love that we seek and love is all we have to give anyone; all of the great poets and teachers have spoken of it from Jesus Christ to the Bhagavad Gita to the loving kindness practised in Buddhism to the Koran; love is the essence of being alive.

It's easy enough to love the people you treasure; to forgive them their mistakes as they forgive yours; to care more for their well-being than you care for your own.   Harder to love the recalcitrant, the difficult, the ones who don't live how we live, who don't communicate well, or worse still, the ones who have hurt us.

There is a Hafiz poem that I have been thinking about this Christmas in which he asks us to admit that all we want is to be loved; he describes how we ask everyone we meet, in so many ways, but without words, to love us and to think kindly of us.  Then he writes:

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to

There is a beautiful challenge in this poem: Hafiz is asking us if we can cease asking for what we need (love) and instead turn around and offer that very thing to others instead, to radiate it outwards rather than ask for it to be directed towards us.  Everyone of us has the capacity to fulfil that need in others; not just for our friends or our relatives, not just for the kind ones and the funny ones and the ones we like, but also for the grumpy ones, the mean ones, the rude ones, the unkind ones.  Their actions are only human and who can say that they have not themselves ever been grumpy, mean, rude and unkind. 

Buddha's last instruction was 'make of yourselves a light'  After all those years of wandering, learning at the feet of masters, meditating, teaching, being alive, he boiled it all down to this one small instruction: shine out your light to others; show your love to the world and don't be afraid.

As with all yoga practice, this is not a passive act; becoming 'the one who lives with a full moon in each eye' is challenging work, difficult; sometimes you open your heart and your heart gets squashed a little bit; that's where you need the courage to keep it open nonetheless - so many people close their hearts, but you don't have to.

This reminds me of a Roald Dahl quote that I have always liked, it's from The Twits:

'A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.'

Wouldn't it be nice if we all practised giving more love than we are looking to get; if we all made of ourselves a light; if we all had love shining out of our faces like sunbeams.  Mightn't that be a wonderful new year's resolution for each of us.  And isn't it funny that if we all did just that, then everyone one of us would have more love than we could ever have hoped for.

Happy New Year x

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Presence

Christmas is a hard time of year to be a yogi.  There is so much to do: so much planning, shopping, baking, wrapping presents and writing cards; there are parties to go to and late nights to be had and things to get done in the office before you leave for the holiday. 

The thing that gets squeezed out of your day - well, the thing that gets squeezed out of my day - is my yoga practice.  Somehow at the end of every day I remember that I have forgotten to find time for practice.

If you're like me then you might try to build yoga into everything you do and to remember that yoga is not something that you do on your mat, but something that you do everywhere and all the time.  So five deep breaths while you wait for a kettle boil is yoga; being mindful as you roll out the marzipan or peel the potatoes (as opposed to flashing forward in your mind to the next ten tasks you have to do) is yoga; practicing gratitude for the food you will eat, for the warmth of your home and for the people you love is yoga; listening to a meditation on your ipod as you travel, or to some inspring music is yoga. 

There are a million little ways to practice all Christmas and what it all boils down to is mindfulness, breath, awareness and making space for yourself and your loved ones.

If Christmas sometimes feels like a challenge: a race to create the best food and the most fun atmosphere, if you have a long way to travel so that your feet don't seem to touch the ground, if it feels as though it is more about the presents than about the joy and particularly if this Christmas life is a bit tough (if someone is ill, if money is tight, if relationships are strained), then it might help to recall the pagan origins of the way we celebrate Christmas.  The Babylonians partied raucously in celebration of the Isis, Goddess of nature; likewise the Romans honoured Saturn, God of Agriculture, calling the whole season Dies Natalis Invicti Solis: Birthday of the Unconcquered Sun.  In Northern Europe there was Yule when candles were lit to mark the lengthening of the days and when evergreen trees and branches were brought into the house as a reminder that growth would come again and that the plenitude of Spring, Summer and Autumn would return.  Add to this the later Christian addition of celebrating the birth of Christ with his simple teaching, love one another, and you have a beautiful festival, not at all about consumer goods and producing the best roast dinner.

So enjoy the food, have a drink, be joyful and exchange gifts; and remember to pause, be still and be thankful.  It's hardwired in our dna, wherever we come from and whatever our faith, to celebrate the turning from dark to light, the coming return of the months of plenty, of surviving our darkest moments and moving forward towards the light; to commemorate the survival of the sun and all it symbolises: growth, warmth and our own inner light.

Happy Christmas. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Yoga for a Lifetime: Yoga Sutra 3:6

Yogena yogo jnatavyo
Yogo yogat pravartate
Yo prama tastu yogena
Sa yoga ramate ciram

Only through yoga, yoga is known,
Only through yoga, yoga progresses,
One who is patient with yoga,
Bears the fruits for a long time.

The teacher that taught me to teach gave me this chant and I have always loved it.  It is from Vyasa's fifth century commentary (the first that we know about) on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. 

The point of a sutra (literally a thread), is that it states a teaching in the most succinct way possible; with the guidance of your teacher, you extrapolate that sutra to uncover its depth of meaning and to apply it to your life-practice.  Vyasa was one of those teachers and the above is from his commentary on Yoga Sutra 3:6, which reads:

tasya bhumisu viniyogah
Samyama must be developed gradually

Samyama means constraint and describes the self-restraint that ensues when one practices meditation (specifically, the last three of the eight limbs of yoga: dharana, dhyana and samadhi).

In its essence it describes the patience that is required when one practices yoga.  Yoga is a practice that benefits from slow and steady progress, commitment and the willingness to wait and see.  One of the joys of yoga is how (to paraphrase the words of TKV Desikachar) we simply begin where we are and let whatever happens happen. 

The strength in the path of yoga lies in part in its slowness; the lessons that you will learn on your mat are the lessons of a lifetime, not a few months.  This is not a quick fix, a cure-all, a handy package that will pick you up, make you strong, calm you down and set you rolling; it is a gradual unfolding of awareness and understanding that will enrich your life and everything you do in your life.  This is why yogis need not fear growing older, for there is always something new that will be learnt, a new view, a different way of being that changes, improves, teaches... it never stops; we never get 'there', we only learn how to learn from everything that comes to us in life.

Moreover, it is often the case that we are wrong about what we think we are doing when we start to practise yoga and where we think we are headed with it.  I know scientists who have become yoga teachers, accountants who are training to be school-teachers, athletes whose main practice now is meditation and mothers who have become midwives, all of whom express surprise at where they have ended up at the same time as they acknowledge that where they are now is exactly where they feel they are supposed to be.  Transformation is mysterious: you just don't know where you are going.  Better to put your faith in your practice and let it guide you, rather than push it around, trying to make it look like you think it should.

The only thing that yoga asks of you is that you do it, and this is encapsulated in this sutra and in Vyasa's beautiful explanation of it.  You can't read about it in a book; you can't have someone tell you about it; you can't dip in and out of it; if you want to be a yoga student and to discover all its riches, then you have to turn up, you have to do it (and remember that leaping about on a yoga mat was never the apogee of yoga practice that some yoga studios and students would have us believe - asana is the means, not the goal).

Yoga requires patience and teaches patience, it's wealth lies in the way its lessons open to us gradually, giving us time to acknowledge, understand and assimilate the things that we are learning, seeing and encompassing in our lives as we continue with our practice.  You start where you are every single time you practice, with a beginner's mind and a humble heart and these techniques, handed down, refined and shared over generations, help you towards a healthier, more whole, more established and simple way of being. 

Your practice is like the ripening of fruit over a summer, which happens quite naturally and in its own time, you are simply ripening over a lifetime. 


Friday, 23 November 2012

Yoga Mind

Here's how we are taught to think: if you try hard, you will get better; if you work hard, you will go further; if you strive for more, then you will achieve it.

Yoga doesn't work like that.  It's one of the hardest adjustments to make, as you turn yourself towards yoga practice and dedicate yourself to it.

In all of those entreaties to work hard in order to improve ourselves is the assumption that there is a gap between what we are now and who we might become one day, with luck, hard work and a prevailing wind.

As if you could be any more perfect then than you are now; as if you have anything to prove about the value of your existence or the validity of your presence on earth.  You don't.  Everything is as it should be.

Yoga draws itself from a place of fullness: you already have everything you need; you already are as you are supposed to be; your task is only to find your talents, your compassion, your love and sense of unity and to share them.  The work is simply to trust that this is so.

An entire industry has sprung up which is dedicated to reminding us what we lack (never more active than in the run-up to Christmas).  If we have this or that, change ourselves in this or that way, drive this car, carry that handbag, then - only then - will be perfect/worthy/at peace.  But those messages telling us that we are missing something are only intended to help people who have made things sell things - which is fine; I just wish they didn't have to sell us things by telling us that without those things we are not complete.  I hope that we all know that we are already complete and that if we do not feel so, then we must journey inside with the help of a good teacher or friend; I hope that we all know that buying something to fix the outside, when it is the inside that is broken does not work. 

Your asana practice is the perfect place to practice living from a place of fullness, not a place of lack: on your mat you learn to love the things your body can do rather than to fixate on the things it can't.  That you are here at all, a living, breathing, sentient human being is a miracle all of its own.  And some of the most important lessons that you will learn on your mat have nothing to do with pigeon pose or longer hamstrings.

Over time, with patience and dedication, your body shows you that it can be stronger, more flexible and more resilient; and more importantly, you begin to feel more, to notice more and to respect yourself more.  This requires commitment and regular practice for sure, but it also requires that you set aside your goal-orientated, sportsmanlike, 'if I push myself harder I can do this' mindset.  In yoga, you are not engaged in the process of making yourself into something different - you are simply uncovering your essential self and encouraging it to bloom.


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Space for Yoga - Home Practice

Finding a space in which to practice yoga at home can be difficult.  Space in which to physically roll out your mat, space in time when you can practice and space in your life when you can allow yourself to be free of other distractions and the endless list of things you need to do.

We don't just bring expectation of what a 'proper' yoga sequence looks like to our efforts at home practice, we also bring our expectation of what a yoga practice feels like: we hope for a clear and quiet space in which to practice; having granted ourselves the time in our day to practice, we hope that children and partners will leave us alone for the duration; we'd like to light some incense and take some time around our practice.  And if we can't get all that together, then the yoga just doesn't happen.

Sometimes I practice in a quiet house, where I have no interruptions, where peace reigns, where I have no deadlines looming and no urgent things to do with my time.  The house is warm, the candles lit, the dog snoozes at the end of my mat.  Wonderful.

But I have also practised in the living room while the kids sat on the sofa watching tv (it was a cold day and that was the warmest room in the house); I have let my daughter roll her mat out alongside me and practise with me (chatting all the time obviously - she is nine and although she understands how nice it is to be quiet sometimes, the chat gene usually wins); I have practised in tiny hotel rooms and outside on balconies and verandas, in other people's gardens and on the beach.  I have practised at festivals while bemused strangers looked on while they cooked their breakfasts on camping stoves.  And it was all good.  All of it.

In terms of physical space, all you need is the room to roll out your mat and the height to reach up - but you could practice kneeling and seated postures in an even smaller space than this.

In terms of space in time, well I can't put it better than Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote 'the hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters'  We know it's good for us, we know it helps us live well, but we still find it hard to make for ourselves the time to actually do it.  Don't worry.  Make your practice small; make it simple; make it happen in a little way, rather than deferring until a time when you have more time (which might never come).

In terms of space in your life, children/partners/parents/pets... they will get in the way of your practice!  You find the space and roll out your mat, you find the time, you get there... and they won't leave you alone.  All I can tell you is that this happens to everyone and there are two manifestations of it:-

  • One is (for example) that the phone rings as you practice and you stop practising to answer it.  As if your caller won't leave you a message; as if you cannot wait for ten minutes to hear that message and call them back.  This interruption is within yourself and only you can persuade yourself to wait and finish up your yoga before you take the call. 
  • The other is that your beloved come and interrupt you while you practice and you let them take you away from your mat.  Look, it takes a long time for everyone else in your life to understand that you need/love/deserve your quiet time on your mat (how long did it take you to know this?) - it takes almost as long as it will take you to gently insist on having that time for yourself. 
You will be as distracted as you allow yourself to be.  Well, that was how it was/is how it is with me and in my life.  I realised that a lot of the distraction was within me... if my son wants a drink as I settle down for ten minutes on my mat, what was it in me that couldn't say, I will get you a drink in ten minutes?  Why do we find it so hard to prioritise ourselves and to do for ourselves the things that make us better (and nicer to live with, I might add).  I don't know, but I do know that I practise around my children and my dog and my life and my friends and my work every day and that nobody has yet died of thirst or malnutrition as a result.

In the end, after all of your procrastination, you just have to do it.  In fact, the only thing that yoga requires of you is that you do it.  Move, breathe, be at one with yourself and the world, feel your feet on the ground, spend some time in quiet solitude.  Enjoy it.  Don't make it into another thing to beat yourself up with or bring high ideals and expectation to it.  It is as simple as rolling out your mat and placing your feet purposefully on it.  It is as easy as kneeling on your mat and moving mindfully between cat and cow pose.  It is as straightforward as you allow it to be.  Do it for the love of it.


Friday, 16 November 2012

Just Do It - Home Practice

Just do some yoga. 

I know that for a long time, when you practice at home, it doesn't feel the same as when you practice with your teacher; it's not as deeply satisfying, you're not sure that you're doing it right, you can't remember any of the poses or sequences, and you don't find that same sense of being at ease that you get at the end of a class with your teacher. 

I know because that is how it was for me: periods of regular home practice punctuated by weeks when I just didn't get to my mat; frustration with myself for not getting there and for not 'getting it right' when I was there.  And which poses to choose?  We are all different, but my thing was an attitude of it having to be all or nothing - I felt it had to be an hour long practice of strong poses, or it wasn't worth it.  The trouble was that with two young children and a husband and a full time job I couldn't find an hour for yoga and was often too tired (no wonder!) to embark on a vigorous sequence.  So I didn't practice.  And then I felt bad.

The truth is that whatever yoga you do is good for you; that no matter how short the practice, as long as it is regular, it will have a cumulative effect which is profound and transformative; in addition, whatever you do at home, however seemingly insignificant, however gentle the poses, will feed into your weekly practice with your teacher and make it stronger and deeper and more satisfying to you.

If you tend to procrastination, self-doubt or laziness, then just roll out your mat and do some cat/cow stretches, with a focus on your breath; just ten or so, no more.  It's enough.  Enough to bring you back to your breath and back to your body; enough to reset your day.

If you tend towards the inclination to work too hard/try too hard/if you feel somehow that what you do is not enough, do the same.  Let yourself off the hook and choose those two gentle movements so that you can move with your breath and come back into your body, so that you can take a moment's pause.  It's more than enough.

That will take less than five minutes: everybody has five minutes.

Sometimes you might find yourself adding a little more to your practice and other days you will not; either way is fine.  Take it for what it is and enjoy the benefits it will undoubtedly bring you.

'A year from now you may wish you had started today.'
Karen Lamb

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Here and Now

The funny thing about the here and now is that there really is nothing else that exists.  We can imagine a future, or ruminate over our past, but the only thing that is real is this.  Me writing this now.  You reading it.  How are you doing?  I mean really doing?

The trouble is that, in any given moment, we might be aware of something that we would rather not be aware of and we become very good at running away from the things we know in the here and now. 

The trouble is that we might have to do something about that thing that we know and we might not want to, so we can persuade ourselves that everything will be alright and we start living in the future - I can put up with this job that I hate because in two months time I will be on a Caribbean beach in the sunshine and I wouldn't be able to afford to be there if I didn't do this job.  And we forget to ask if we would need the Caribbean beach if we were more honest and accepting about the here and now and did something about the daily job that we can barely stand. 

The trouble is that sometimes in the here and now we hear the call of something new, but we don't know what it is; or we feel the tug of something dragging us down, but we can't identify it.  So sometimes we know there's something there, but we don't know what, or why.  And it can be so hard to sit with that knowledge - the "something must change, but I don't know what and I'm going to have to wait to find out" kind of knowledge. 

The trouble is that sometimes it is the joy in the here and now that we are afraid of.  Think about that: the strange contradiction of being scared of the joy you discover in your self in the here and now.  Is it the feeling of being a little guilty about being joyful?  As though there were something intrinsically more worthy about being not-joyful.

Learning how to feel what we are feeling, know what we know, hear what we hear and think what we think when we sit in the here and now is what yoga practice is all about.  It's being able to meet ourselves in the here and now with an open and accepting heart, in the full knowledge that we will never be able to get away from our own self, no matter how fast we run, no matter where we go, no matter what walls we hide behind.

So here's a little thing that you can do right now.  Stop reading, turn the sound off your phone/gadgets for a second, sit with a good posture.  Breathe a few breaths; if you're alone then you might wish to close your eyes; come to settle in yourself.  And into that quiet moment (no matter where you are or how noisy it is around you) ask yourself, with the sincere love that you would offer to the ones you love the most in the world, with the pure attention and kind understanding you would give to your best friend: how am I?

Well?  How are you?

However you find yourself in the here and now is fine - how could it be any different since it is what it is?  Just pay attention, don't beat yourself up; understand that there is no other version of you that is not feeling the way you are feeling right now.  Know yourself.  Be kind.

Here is what what of my students said about a low spot he has just been through:

"I felt it coming on and it used to frighten me; I used to think that I shouldn't feel that way, that I had nothing to be sad about so I should snap out of it.  But this time, I listened to it and I tried not to reject those sad feelings.  I used my energy instead to give myself what I need when this happens to me.  So I withdrew a little; I got quiet; I looked after myself.  And later, I reached out to the people that I knew could help me.  And the strange thing is that the mood shifted in its own time and I felt a lot better allowing it, rather than rejecting it.  And I learnt something from that.  And now I am back."

Here's Ram Dass, summing it all up perfectly “As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be you can't see how it is.” 

I hope you are well, but I know that there are times when you won't be.  So I hope that you can accept yourself in all of your complicated glory; I hope you can know yourself and be patient and see the lessons to be learnt in everything, and even in suffering and sorrow.  I hope that your practice gives you the fortitude to be in the here and now with yourself and not to turn away.




Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Letting Go

I think I'm going to be wondering about and working on letting go for the rest of my life.  It seems to me a process of relinquishing the mistaken idea that we have control of anything at all. 

There are some people who give up everything in an instant: to join an ashram, for example, is to give up your sense of self, to dedicate yourself instead to serving others and to meditation/prayer, to let go of any individual ideas about getting anything or going anywhere.  But I am quite a slow, considering person and it takes me a long time to quietly mull over things; grand gestures of letting go are not my thing, it would seem.  I regularly ask myself if I could give up my home, my clothes, my writing, my life here, my self-determining freedom in the service of something much bigger and more important than I am.  I think that the answer to most of those questions is yes, but give me time.

The Buddhist nun I met on Holy Isle embodied an extreme version of letting go when she told me that after her three month retreat, her teacher (Lama Yeshe Rinpoche) had asked her to come back to the monastery at Eskdalemuir and that he had plans for her, but she had no idea at all what those plans were.  Can you imagine trusting your teacher so much, having given yourself to something so much, that you would do that without question (where? how? when? for how long? what about me and what I want?). She was a feisty, opinionated woman, this is not some passive giving up on life we are discussing here, but she had dedicated her life to something which she considered to be more important than any concerns she might have about her individual self.

One of my students refers to this as the call.  The call is the thing that is pulling you in a certain direction - sometimes you are aware of it, sometimes not.  I love being a yoga teacher, it is no effort for me to want to do my best at it, because it is what I love to do, it feels like what I am here for; every time I teach, whoever I teach, I have a deep sense of rightness, of being in my element, of being in the flow of life exactly as it was intended.  But I only started yoga because my friend told me it was great, and when I began I only wanted to do super-bendy Astanga yoga and push myself to the limit in every practice, whilst working in my office-based creative and (as I saw it then) glamorous day-job.  I was moving in the right direction, but I certainly didn't know it.  If you had told my 20 year old self that I was going to be a yoga teacher one day I would have snorted in your face; it would have sounded ridiculous to me.

What have I let go of in the process so far?  The idea of impressing my parents/grandparents/extended family with my high-flying career and how much money I can earn; reliance on my intellect to prove that I am worthy and important, I didn't lose my intelligence by becoming a yoga teacher, but I did have to face people who thought I had wasted my talents or who assume that the path I have chosen is for not very clever people (cf my nan: 'I don't know, our Sarah, all that education and you've ended up a yoga teacher); wealth; I've let go of living in someone else's daily routine - commuting to work, staying there from 9-5, coming home again, weekends off - that might sound like nothing, but ask yourself how much those routines underpin your life; or look at what people who lose their jobs say about how fearful they are of the days that stretch out before them. 

There are more things I could tell you about, but you understand the point I hope.  A lot of life is letting go of one thing, so that we can have something else that serves us and those around us better; and a lot of holding on is actually based in fear - fear of change, fear of the new, fear of doing something different that will challenge us in new ways, fear of making oursleves vulnerable. 

The truth, as we all know, is that life is anarchic and chaotic and we can never protect ourselves against the changes that we can't predict, but which are definitely coming.  Life is nothing but change.  We can hide away as much as we like, we can fill our days with whatever we want and we can persuade ourselves to stay in one spot because it is sensible, or safe, or because we don't have a choice.

Or we can work at not holding on so tightly, so that we become willing to uncurl our bodies and our hearts and to allow our lives to evolve naturally as those inevitable changes come upon us.  If you look back on your life, you will be able to discern the unexpected turns it took which led you to places of value and deeper understanding; the hard work is to look forward and to trust to that same unfolding, to let go so that you can continue to grow and to move forward, and hopefully to give more to the world than you have previously been able to.  A bud doesn't stay determinedly shut in fear of what being a flower might feel like, and nor should you.


Friday, 5 October 2012

Inconvenient Truths

Some of what we hear when we practise yoga, meditate and generally quieten down our lives is very inconvenient indeed.  That is probably why we spend so much time creating the hullabaloo in our lives: so that we don't need to listen to the inconvenient truths that we know inside.

It's hard to discern between the things you can have in your life and the things you need, or think you do, but can't have.  For instance, sometimes I long to go to an ashram I know in India, so that I can spend my days in service and meditation and devote myself to my practice.  The call is sometimes very strong.  But I am a mother and my children need me and are a blessing to me, so that is one call that will have to wait... when they are both settled at university/in their adult lives I'll be there, but right now, my responsibilities lie here at home and I am thankful for that and for them and for everything they are teaching me.  I think of that call therefore as one that is from far away in my life, one that I hope my life's path will lead me to.  I am patient.  It's not meant for me right now.

Other things are plain inconvenient.  We might realise that what we do for a living is diminishing our capacity for joy, for example.  Our rational mind tells us that we need to pay the bills/we should be glad to have a job in these uncertain times/we are not qualified for anything else.  In this sense, our rational minds are like a sensible older sibling telling us to be careful and wanting to keep us safe.  But in your quiet moments it doesn't matter what your rational mind tells you: if you hate your job, you hate your job.  If it doesn't feed your soul, then it just doesn't.

Or you might be behaving in ways that don't serve you.  Drinking too much for example, or eating too much; spending too much time with people that you don't really want to be with out of politeness or a sense of duty; procrastinating and never achieving the goals that you have set yourself.  It is hard to break out of ingrained habits, particularly if the people around you indulge in them too, or are used to you being a certain way and conducting yourself in a certain manner... you might be the family's sensible one for example, the one on whom everyone else relies to get everything done - great, but what you are seeking just now is to break free/do something different/take a risk; or perhaps people see you as the quiet, safe one, when you have been working to build your skills and confidence and are ambitious to prove yourself in new ways.  It is even harder to change when those around you resist that change - you can prove yourself by living the life you wish to live, but this will inevitably force others to question their lives and some of them might wish that you would get back to where you have always been and stop making everything so awkward!

When you get quiet, there might be pain: the pain of ongoing or historical hurts that are demanding to be looked at and heard, accepted and understood.  It can be very uncomfortable sitting quietly with painful feelings that you have managed so far in your life to ignore, bury and tuck secretly away for another day.

I am grateful to the psychoanalyst Shawn Smith for suggesting the concept of values.  Our values are the ideals we hope to live up to; they are ideas about ourselves and the way we live.  They are not specific to the facts of our life (what we do for a living, how many children we have, whether we are single or married, etc.), rather they transcend those specifics to form a sense of identity over and beyond the relative trivialities.  So for example, one of my values might be to help others.  Knowing this, I might look at my life afresh and consider how well I am living up to this value.  I might see how I help my family every day, that I am positive and helpful at work and this might be enough.  Or it might not.  On consideration I might see that the job that I am doing helps nobody in any way that I find constructive.  I might decide therefore that I can no longer spend my time doing that job, regardless of what my sensible, rational brain tells me.  Or I might seek to find ways to fulfil my value of being of service in my spare time, or by setting up and being involved with charity through work.

I hope you see my point.  If you take a pen and some paper now you can write down your four core values: what are they telling you about the way you want to live your life versus the way you are living your life?  What changes might you make to accommodate those values?  Not all of us have the opportunity of throwing everything to the wind and moving on in drastic ways, so how might we begin to bring more fulfilment of our core values into our lives than we have been experiencing to date?

Facing up to how much your life is being lived in accordance to your core values is part of what you will come up against in your practice.  You cannot ignore discrepancies between the life you are living and the life you want to live when you are engaged in a consistent yoga practice. 

I once taught a man who came to yoga relatively late in life, but who fell for it immediately.  He had no children and a job that he did not enjoy; he had loved it once, but more recently it had become soulless to him.  He came to me one night and told me that he was going to India to learn how to teach yoga, he'd bought his flight, handed in his notice and was leaving in three weeks.  He promised to keep in touch, but he didn't and I have no idea what became of him, although I hope it was all good.

This is not how it looks for most of us though, and nor should it.  But you can ask yourself what changes you need to make to live in accordance with your values, so that your soul can be at peace, so that you can experience more joy in your life and serve the world more.  You can start small.  Cutting out that glass of wine and seeing the effect it has on you and whether it is for the good; getting up early and walking to the train slowly instead of dashing out every day in a panic, driving or taking a taxi.  When you start doing this, you will find the resistances in yourself (never mind anyone else's) and that can be informative too: how have you been holding yourself back? what fears will you have to confront in becoming more of the person you would like to be?

Yoga transforms you, or you stop practising yoga.  It is only when we consider the inconvenient truths that come up in our practice that we can begin to make changes for the good.  It doesn't need to look radically different from the outside: some of the most fundamental changes go on quietly inside and are more profound than anything that would be discernable to our friends and neighbours.  The longest journeys begin with one step.

Thanks to Sam for asking the question xx


Monday, 1 October 2012

Dancing in the Woods

I was at a festival this summer and went to a talk by Tom Hodgkinson, founder of The Idler magazine.  He was describing how it was traditional in Britain right up until the 17th Century to have parties in the woods... drinking, dancing, singing, telling stories... essentially going a little bit wild.  Cromwell put an end to this, as it was all too pagan (and too much fun) for his liking and although we reinstated Christmas (which he also banned) after his demise, we never reinstated our regular withdrawal to the woods to party and laugh and dance and let off steam.

That is a shame, because I think that we all need a time to withdraw from our usual lives and to throw away our boundaries sometimes.  It helps us to see what's left when all of the roles we play are removed; it helps to remind us what is really important to us, perhaps to redouble our efforts in certain directions, or to draw back from others.  I think it is a shame when humans have no outlet for their exuberance, when their lust for life is dimmed by daily rigmarole and responsibility and a sense of behaving appropriately.  The party in the woods was permission to behave innappropriately.  It was also a chance to meet new people, and to learn from them; it is too easy for our lives to get smaller, safer and more confined, to party in the woods is to throw open the gates and invite in new experience and a different perspective.

One of my students told me that when she was at a festival this summer, she was in absolute heaven; she found that dancing in a field brought out something wonderful in herself that she had forgotten all about, she said she thought floating around in fields was her natural habitat.  I could just picture her, a flame-haired wood nymph with the biggest smile you've ever seen, dancing in a field, free to express herself in the moment as she wished.

Yoga teaches us how to be quiet and how to focus and how to listen to our innner voices and follow their lead.  But part of our practice should be about getting wild, getting noisy and losing our inhibitions, what Zola called living out loud.  If we spend too much time being 'good', the chances are that we forget who we are underneath; and if we spend too much time being safe and quiet, we might lose the skill of evolving and remaining open to new opportunities.


Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part V Ananda kosha

The five koshas, or layers of being, are an ancient way of thinking about the human condition, first elucidated in the Taittirya Upanishad (5/6th C BC).  The fifth and most profound layer is ananda kosha. 

Ananda kosha is the most subtle core of our being.  Ananda means absolute bliss, complete joy, delight. 

There are moments in life when you feel yourself transformed into something much greater and more insignificant than your own self.  That sounds like a contradiction, but it is not: it is possible to feel both utterly unique (in the entire existence of life on earth, there is only and only ever will be one of you in the whole world) and entirely commonplace (it is true that you are one tiny element in the scheme of life and time).  As the poet Mary Oliver would have it: "I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular"

There are moments when you feel yourself to blend into that which is much bigger than you are.  When you are alive to the wonder of life and to its possibility; when you understand instinctively the undeniable connection between yourself and everything else that lives, moves, exists.

There are moments when you feel yourself unequivocally in the right place at the right time; there is no division within you, you have arrived in a perfect moment and you know with absolute certainty that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.

Who knows when these moments might rise?  You might be sitting on a park bench watching your child at play; or standing before something awesome in nature, a waterfall, a mountain, the sea.  You might be walking in the woods on a crisp autumn day, or standing at your own sink doing the washing up.  You might be on your yoga mat.

This is ananda kosha, the deepest and most subtle level layer of being and one which, as yogis, we seek to uncover more and more readily.  I write uncover deliberately, because all yoga philosophy is very clear in asserting that this state is constantly within you; your task is not to get anywhere, or to find anything, rather it is to remove all that stands between you and ananda kosha (bliss, peace, contentment), so that you can know it and feel it more of the time.

Tantra yogis call this transcendence; the Yoga Sutras describe how avidya (our mistaken belief that our minds and bodies are what we are) obfuscates the bliss that is constantly within us and gives us methods to remove the misunderstanding in order to reach the bliss; Richard Dawkins explains, "Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you.  Whatever you are therefore, you are not stuff of which you are made"; the Bhagavad Gita tells us "He lives in wisdom who sees himself in all and all in him"; Christians might call it the Holy Spirit. 

The experience is not specific to yoga; the yogis of old simply observed the subtleties of the human condition and found beautiful ways of explaining it.  Everywhere we are told (indeed I believe that we each already know): there is something more; there is absolute peace and profound and humble understanding, there is unity and a sense of rightness to your experience of life and the circumstances in which you find yourself.  All you have to do is uncover it, reveal it, live it and be at peace with it.  It's the work of a lifetime; but what else are you going to spend your time doing?

"Your task is not seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the
barriers within yourself that you have built."   


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part IV Vijnana Kosha

The five koshas, introduced in the Taittirya Upanishad describe humans as having five layers of being, each overlapping the next.  The concept is useful for those with a regular yoga or spiritual practice of some kind.  The fourth layer is vijnana kosha.

Vijnana kosha corresponds to consciousness, or reason; it is the sheath of your inner wisdom, that part of you which knows, your instinctive self, it is expressed through observation or awareness.  It is the ability to stand outside yourself and watch yourself objectively without judgement; it the state in which you observe without attachment and without judgement.  It is what we are always working towards in our yoga practice, however that practice manifests itself.

It is the nature of your brain to move.  That is the job of your mind.  If it stops, my friend, then you are dead.  But what we do in yoga, indeed what we do in all mindfulness practice, is to learn how to dissociate ourselves from the never-ending cascade of thoughts that pass through our mind.  We learn to watch, not too get involved, not to judge.  And this helps us to live better.  It creates a space between what is happening in our lives and our response to it, so that when we feel rage, for example, instead of instantly fighting/shouting/attacking, we discover that we have a moment to notice the feeling of rage, to assess whether it is appropriate given the situation and to choose our response to that stimulus rather than reacting in an automatic, time-honoured way which may not be in our own, or others', best interests.

Working with vijnana kosha is akin to finding compassion for yourself, for when we can observe the story of our lives played out without attachment or judgement, we see ourselves in a kinder light; we observe that the all of the 'stuff' that happens doesn't effect the core of our being, which remains its same, steady self.  When we connect with our essential nature, then we can surf more easily the sometimes tumultuous waves of life; we don't drown in them or find ourselves constantly upturned by the vicissitudes of living.

We begin working with vijnana kosha by observing ourselves kindly while we practice; we watch and we are gentle with ourselves, we let go of expectation and give ourselves only what we need in that moment, we don't look outside ourselves for validation, instead we seek inside for the steady core of our own selves, we don't compare ourselves with other people, we come to appreciate and accept ourselves.  Try to practise from the inside out, feel your way through your asana or meditation practice; drop into your body and leave aside the constant commentary of your brain for the duration.  Don't expect this to be easy, you have spent your whole life living in your head and judging yourself and comparing yourself to other people and/or to an ideal version of yourself that you keep hidden somewhere inside you.  Start by knowing that you are enough and give yourself time to learn how to watch and feel, rather than comment and judge.  This is the work of a lifetime and you move towards it in the same way that you move towards anything worth having: patiently, persistently, hopefully.  If you practise it, you will increase your capacity for achieving it.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part III Manas Kosha

The concept of the five koshas describes the layers of our being, from the grossest physical level to our innermost, subtle core. The third layer of being is manas kosha.

Manas kosha corresponds to the mind, encompasses the nervous system and is expressed through thought patterns.  Here is an excellent example of how the koshas overlap and effect each other: if the mind is disturbed and overloaded, the body becomes stressed and the sympathetic nervous system begins its work preparing the body for fight or flight - the breath becomes short, the heart rate speeds up, the throat dries, digestion slows, the body releases glucose to the muscles.  When stressed, the body becomes tense, muscles seize up, we may find our sleeping patterns disturbed, or find it difficult to switch off; we may end up in a vicious circle of stress and disturbance. 

It is a very busy world and we often struggle under increased workloads, we commute long distances, the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier has ended up meaning that we are never left alone, that we are always available, our stressors can reach us at any time of day or night.

We were not supposed to live like this; our brains aren't built for the speed and relentlessness of the 21st century.  Our stress response was designed to fill us with hormones to make us fast and strong if we were hunting or about to be hunted (to eat lunch or be lunch) and then drain away once we were at rest again.  But for many of us, being at true rest has become a rare event, it is a skill that we have lost, it is a place we don't allow ourselves to visit very often.  Or perhaps we forgot the way.

This is the way that manas kosha effects anna kosha and prana kosha.  It is apt that prana kosha comes between anna kosha and manas kosha, as the breath is the bridge between body and mind.  Deepening and settling the breath can settle the mind, slow the heart rate and cause the parasympathetic nervous system to begin its work (digesting food efficiently, letting the body relax, counterbalancing the stress response).  By working with the other koshas we get to soothe and calm manas kosha, to bring ourselves peace of mind. 

The concept of the five koshas, the idea of five interleaved layers of being that cannot be separated out, but which are inextricably linked, helps to demonstrate that we are an organism whose physical fitness, mental health, stress levels and breathing patterns all contribute to our well-being and that we cannot have sickness, or under-performance in one without it having a knock on effect on the other levels of our being.  Peace of mind follows well-regulated breath, breath works best in a fit and supple body and vice versa; if we wish to be whole, then we must work at all levels.  It's no use being fit and strong if we suffer from insomnia, or high stress levels; it's not easy to be relaxed if our body is giving us pain.  The concept of the koshas, as old as it is, sheds light on our modern condition, reminds us that we must take care of our whole selves if we are truly to be well, gives us a road map to follow for our journey.


Monday, 20 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part II Prana Kosha

The concept of the five koshas describes the layers of our being, from the grossest physical level to our innermost, subtle core.  The second layer of being is Prana Kosha.

The five koshas are linked together like the petals of a rosebud, each one overlapping the next.  It is impossible therefore, to work on one layer of being in your yoga practice without touching other, more subtle layers.  Typically, once we have begun to work on the anna kosha level, we experience a natural move towards working at the level of prana kosha.  Prana is not breath, so much as subtle energy, but it is closely linked to the breath and working with the breath is the most obvious way in which we work at the level of prana kosha (click here for a more detailed description of prana).

When we begin practising yoga it is not unusual to find that we are disconnected from our breath; we know that need to breathe to live, but we are rarely aware of the fluctuations in our breath, how our breath changes with our moods and the circumstances in which we find ourselves and conversely, how we can alter the way we think, feel and act when we change the way we breathe.  We may already have discovered how body and breath are connected by considering the concept of anna kosha while we practice, for we cannot breathe fully if our shoulders are constricted, our respiratory muscles atrophied, or our breathing patterns unnaturally disrupted.

Prana is life-force, or energy, somewhat like Qi in Chinese medicine.  It is what we are working with in yoga every time we come to practice.  Through controlling our bodies, improving our fitness, learning how to observe our feelings and keep track of them and how to be well, we improve our energy levels and this has a positive impact on our well-being and on the way we move through life.  When we work at prana kosha level, we are learning how to become more aware of the things that conserve our energy (the things that nourish us) and the things that leach our energy (the things that drain us); by paying close attention to our breath, body and energy levels we thus learn how to care for ourselves in a more subtle, individualistic and effective way.

Working with prana kosha can bring about great changes in body, mind and spirit and thinking about our yoga practice in these terms helps us to focus our minds on what we choose to do with our energy, how our breath effects our health and well-being and what (often very simple) things we can do, in our lives and in our practice to conserve and respect our own energy levels.  Be aware of the way you use your energy, focus on your breath and be careful where you place the focus of your mind when you practice; think about what you need from your practice each time you come to your mat, rather than doing what you always do; let an awareness of your prana kosha deepen your practice and make it more effective.


The simplest way to work with prana kosha is to meditate on the rhythm of your breath.  Set aside 10 or 15 minutes to sit quietly and to bring all of your attention to your breathing.  Listen to the sound of it, feel the way it moves inside your body, savour each and every breath.  The chances are that the quality of your breath (its depth and evenness) improves as your focus on it and it is probable that the physical benefits of this are apparent to you very quickly.  When you breathe evenly and deeply, your mind settles a little, your body relaxes a little, your nervous system responds by sending messages to your body that it is safe to relax.  When you sit in quietude, you notice things about yourself that might otherwise have been hidden: you might be tired, you might be full of beans, you might be sad, you might naturally connect with the deep well of contentment that resides within us all.  Noticing these things will help you to choose wisely for yourself.

If you wish, once you have had time to concentrate on your breathing patterns, you could move on to your usual asana practice, but make your breath and not your body you focus, so that you continue to deepen your understanding of yourself and your breathing habits throughout your asana practice.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Layers of Being - The Five Koshas - Part I Anna Kosha

The concept of the five koshas (panca kosa) originates in Vedanta* and is first described in the Taittirya Upanishad, from the 6th or 5th Century BC.  The word itself is formed from the root kus, which means to unfold/sheath/layer; the concept of koshas is a beautiful way of describing the layers of our being, from the grossest physical manifestation, to our innermost, subtle core.  Like the petals of a rose, the different koshas overlap each other, so that it is almost impossible to work only on one level of our being; this is why we are sometimes surprised in our yoga practice to discover that we experience emotional release when we open our hips or arch our backs, or physical ease from deepening our breath.   

This esoteric description of our physical existence both explains and deepens our experience of yoga; if yoga is the word we use for our journey inward; then the concept of the five koshas are our road map.

The five koshas are as follow:

  • Anna Kosha    The physical body, or food sheath, the level of the gross body.
  • Prana Kosha    The vital body, or breath sheath; the level of Prana, or life-force.
  • Manas Kosha    The mental body, or the sheath of the mind.
  • Vijnana Kosha    Consciousness, reason, wisdom, or the sheath of the intellect.
  • Ananda Kosha    The subtle core, the sheath of bliss and joy.

Modern life encourages us to disconnect from our bodies and live only in our thinking mind.  We eat on the move, throwing food down while we work, we sit for long hours hunched over our work stations, or squashed on trains and buses.  We neglect our physical self;  we forget to nourish it, to notice it, to respect it and to give it what it needs to be healthy. Even those who might say that they care for their bodies often push their bodies to physical limits in gyms, work to targets set by personal trainers, or by themselves, harden and strengthen their bodies without compassion; or use diets to achieve a body shape that conforms to socially perceived ideals. 

Learning how to observe our physical self, how to nourish it appropriately in each moment with food, drink, and appropriate physical exercise is exploring Anna Kosha. Through paying attention to Anna Kosha we learn to let go of physical ideals and embrace ourselves as we are; we are more able to accept our present physical limitations with humour and kindness and thereby to discover an ease in our bodies and in our asana practice.

Many of us begin our yoga practice through the door marked Asana: we come to yoga because we wish to be more flexible, or stronger, or because we are experiencing pain in our body and we hope to relieve it.  In our yoga practice we begin to explore how really is to feel the body from top to toe, and by paying attention to our bodies, we develop a more intelligent way of living with our physical self.  Over time we strengthen our body, lengthen muscles, release tight joints and relieve tension, perhaps we notice parts of the body long-neglected.  We learn how to become more aware of ourselves: how do our feet feel on the ground?  Does our posture create comfort or pain?  Where does our breath move freely and where is it restricted?  What might be the reasons for this?  As our ability to focus increases, we begin to notice how the body changes from day to day and from week to week; we start to appreciate and be grateful for this physical vessel for our spirit and to honour it as something entirely unique and worth taking care of. 

This process constitutes an exploration of Anna Kosha, bringing us a sense of reconnection with and an appreciation of our bodily selves; it helps us to work positively with our physical self, rather than fighting against it, hurting or neglecting it.  This is the only body that you will get in your lifetime; this body is a miracle of science; this body is worth looking after; when this body is comfortable, so are you.

*In Vedanta, the koshas are known as maya-koshas, maya meaning that which causes the illusory nature of the universe; yoga does not believe that the world is illusion, therefore in yoga they are referred to simply as koshas

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The People We Want to Be

I was on a course last week taught by a woman whose compassion, strength, energy and forthright commitment both to yoga and to her charity work is an inspiration to everyone who is fortunate enough to cross her path.  Many of the people on the course (myself included) were in awe of her, inspired by her and aspired to be like her... but believed in their hearts that they never would be; never could be.  We thought that she was special.  She just smiled that open-hearted smile of hers when somebody gave her a compliment along those lines; she knew what is hard for us to comprehend: that we can all achieve her level of honesty, strength and wholeheartedness and that the only thing she has that we don't is 30 years of dedicated yoga practice behind her.

We all have people who inspire us, from a favourite teacher to a beloved relative, we can all think of someone who is everything that we admire in humanity and wish to embody ourselves.

Matthieu Ricard calls this being inspired by another "being in resonance with the basic goodness lying at our core."  These people show us what it is possible for a human to achieve and we recognise in them the goodness instrinsic to all human-beings; ourselves included.  The people who inspire us show us how to live, not by telling us, or by showing us, or by pointing us in the right direction; they show us by living it...  all the time...  they embody their beliefs in the things they say, the way they behave and the choices they make, every single day.

So don't be cowed by their brilliance, their capacity for love or their strength; be inspired by it and understand that it is in you too. Your teachers are not different; they are not special; they too have their allotted human frailties and weaknesses; they are just a little further along the road than you from where they look back and encourage you with a smile as you come bumbling along behind them.

Different teachers mean different things to me.  If I am getting bogged down by thinking that yogis should accept everything that comes their way passively, without objection, then I recall Gandhi fighting for the rights of his countrymen.  If I am feeling lost and alone, I bring Ram Dass to mind, because to me he embodies all that is loving in a person.   If I am full of joy, then I look to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is always laughing.  If I am feeling flawed, I turn to Krishna Dass, whose humility in acknowledging his weaknesses encourages me that not every yogi comes fully formed and faultless, indeed it is our faults that so often show us the way.

Patanjali tells us that it is our false sense of separateness that causes us pain; the Bhagavad Gita reminds us that the light of the divine shines within us all; we are no different to the ones we most admire, so let your teacher, your guru, your guide inspire you, let them encourage you, move you on, help you to become the kind of person that you undoubtedly have the potential to be.

Good teachers, ones who are filled with humility and love, know that it is within each of us to manifest our own version of that rich, good, essence of humanity. Good teachers teach by being.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Fire of Life

Illness, loss, sadness, endings, unwanted change, arguments, working with people who think differently to us, bereavement… the list goes on.  Things that no life is without.  My Iyengar, the famed yoga teacher, says that when life is good we should know that there is sadness just around the corner and when there is sadness, we should know that there is joy just around the corner.  I don’t believe that anyone gets to the end of life without experiencing sorrow of one kind or another.

Last week I had a transformation of sorts.  I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that I came to my meditation mat, as I always do, and that something tremendous lifted out of me and was gone; something I have been carrying around with me for most of my life; something that was weighing me down, although I didn't know it.  It felt so physically significant (although it was an emotional/spiritual shift) that I felt that if I stood on some scales I would certainly weigh less than before.  I emerged feeling lighter, more myself, less encumbered and with much more energy.

I had an instinct afterwards that I needed to have a bonfire.  I wanted to have a fire in the garden in honour of this shift that had taken place within and as a sign of gratitude to the universe (God/universal energy/whatever name you choose for it) for what I felt it had willingly taken back from me; for being able to encompass and absorb the thing that I had been able to let go of.

The etymology of the word ‘bonfire’ is interesting.  It is usually taken to mean fire of bones, from the 15th century, but Tom Hodgkinson in last Sunday’s Independent newspaper posited three other sources of the word: that ‘bon’ may come from the word boon, meaning a mark of neighbourly goodwill, from the Norse ‘baun’ meaning beacon, or from the word ‘banefire’ meaning the bane of evil things.  He goes on to explain that bonfires were thought to purify and protect and cites the 16th century historian John Stow thus:
“they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for His benefits bestowed upon them.”
As I watched our bonfire burn, wood and garden cuttings changed into the warmth and light of fire and then into carbon dioxide, ash and water vapour, I thought about transformation.  I considered the practice whereby farmers burn off the stubble in their fields in order to plough the goodness that is left back into the soil.  I thought of those flowers that wait in Australia for the bush fires to come and only then, from that scarred and black land, come to flower.  I thought about friends who are going through hard times and the pain that they endure in the process, but how (if they are alert to the process) they emerge with more wisdom and humility than they had before.  I remembered a book I read about research done into survivors of great trauma and tragedy and how many of them report that, although they would never have chosen to go through such terrible experiences, those experiences nevertheless left them more compassionate, more grateful, more generous and more certain that they should live their lives wholeheartedly and to the full, casting aside fear.  I wondered about how human beings are transformed in the fire of life and how illness, sadness, injury and pain can teach us so much if we turn to face the flames instead of running in the opposite direction, or pretending that they don’t exist.
I want to tell you that there is no life without sorrow, but what we do with that sorrow and how we behave in the midst of it is important.  Yogis far wiser than me have told us that we are given these events for a reason; that everything is so that we may learn.  It is a simple matter of asking what you are being invited to learn in any given moment, or as you endure any given event, and then staying long enough both to hear the answer and to incorporate it into your life.
My transformation was deeply significant to me.  I offer thanks to the teacher that I met many years ago who planted the seeds of this transformation in me; like one of those Australian flowers, it has been waiting for the fire of life to burn away what was obscuring it so that it could come into full flower.  I move on from it feeling lighter and more energised, full of amazement at how something I didn’t consciously know was there can have been so heavy and required so much energy to carry around.  I feel profoundly grateful for having the time and the method to travel that deeply inside myself to release this thing.  And I move forward knowing that there are more transformations to come, that life has more to teach me, and with a renewed conviction that I am dedicated to the process of yoga, because it works, it helps, it makes us more conscious, it makes us better. 
Whatever you are learning in the fire of life, I wish you well with it, I hope you know that you can rely on your yoga practice throughout it, I hope you have some friend or teacher (in the flesh or through the written word) who encourages you, helps you find faith in yourself and understands why you are doing what you do.
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Making time to practice

Making time to practice is one of the greatest challenges of yoga.  All yoga teachers hope that they can teach their students not to need them eventually, or at least to have the confidence in themselves and in their practice to be able to practice at home in a beneficial way and come to class for the challenge, for the company, to move along and into new and deeper poses and places.

But it's hard.  It's hard to confront a mindset (ingrained in most of us) that making time to nurture ourselves is not a selfish act.  I prefer to think of it as 'selfness' (not a word, but it should be).  When we practice 'selfness', it is about nurturing ourselves, re-energising, finding the calm place within, reconnecting with the love that is always immanent in us, but which is easily lost/trampled in the course of our busy days.  When we reach our Self through the practice of 'selfness' we emerge with more to give; with more patience; with more hope and optimism for the world and those around us.  When we don't, it is too easy to get bogged down in our little lives, with their inevitable difficulties, challenges and problems.  So a small time connecting to ourselves, means a greater and more expansive energy and more time to be with others.

And focus requires practice.  We like to think that we spend quality time with our children/ friends/ parents, but if we are cooking a meal/ reading our e-mails/ tidying up/ flicking through a magazine while we do it, then we are not giving of ourselves wholly.  Sitting with someone and giving them your whole self (your ease, your attention, your focus) is not something that happens that often unless you commit to doing it.  But it is only when you give this focus to someone that you are truly present with them, listening to them, watching the things they say and the things they don't say and learning to empathise with it all.  In addition, when you have given someone this honest time, dedicated to communicating with them, you feel more comfortable saying, when you need to, now I need some time for myself.  In other words, I have given you all of myself for this time, not a little bit of me and now I need some time to give that same generosity of spirit to myself.

We are all busy.  There is not enough time.  There is not enough life for us to achieve all of the goals that we have set ourselves.  There is no time for yoga.

There is time.  There is time for it all.  And deciding that there is time for you to give yourself the space and strength and flexibility of body and mind that you get from your practice is a question of making the decision to have faith in it; to trust what you know already about how yoga works for you; to make it happen in your life.

The questions that plague you will jump up to bite you on your mat - that is partly what your practice is for, being able to regard your demons from within a clear space.  So you might find you are judgemental, that you lack faith, that you think you are no good, that you get easily distracted, that you are overly ambitious, you feel you should be doing something else, perhaps for someone else.  But I wonder if you already know that loading the dishwasher does not have the intrinsic value of your yoga practice.  Who will judge you for your dirty plates?  Yourself?  Your mother?  Your partner?  Why?  What difference does it make?

The question is not if you can afford the time for your yoga practice, but if you can afford not to.  Can you afford to be short-tempered, harried, stressed, anxious, depressed...?  Are you seeking instead a more even life, where you have more time to give, where you can learn to observe your emotions and challenges with love and patience, rather than being thrown around by the constant equivocations of a busy mind and the strain of trying to work everything out all time.

You could meditate on the notion of time itself.  Time, which seems always to be compressing in on itself, can be viewed as expanding out from this moment infinitely.  You could focus on your breath and each time you exhale you can repeat the word 'release' and as you do so, release the mental chatter, the quest for the 'right' decision, the tension in your body, the tightness in your heart.

My hour of meditation is the silence from which all of the activity of the rest of my day comes.  It is the peaceful hub around which all of my inspiration, work and daily life rotates.  My asana practice brings ease to my body and lightness to my day.

It doesn't happen quickly.  It took me a long time to practice asana on my own and to lose the concept that it wasn't 'good enough'; it took me even longer to discover the riches of meditation.  But one thing is certain: if we don't start somewhere it will never happen; if we don't begin finding time to practice, we will never learn; if we don't find our own strength and stability, we won't be able to help out much.  As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.  If you are tired, stressed, over-worked; if you snapped at your family this morning and wish you hadn't; if you haven't talked to your friend in weeks and wish you had; if you are anxious, upset, depressed; then you could stop doing the things you always do (work harder, run faster, sleep less) and try something new.  It might just be the answer that you have been looking for.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Perhaps the World

Perhaps the world,
That you love with all your heart,
Does not need so much from you?

What if it simply
Longs for you to lie back
And rest into that which you really are.
No more than that,
And no less.

Your sadness let's you know
That you are doing too little
Or too much of something
That is not you.
It is your clue.

Let go.
Give yourself
Permission to be who you are,
To take what you need,
To love and be loved.
By yourself.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

You Are Dying

Here is something that you might not like to think about; something that we don’t tend to talk about in general, something that we avoid as much as possible: you are dying, right now, and there is nothing you can do about it.  You might be very healthy, eat well, exercise regularly, not smoke or drink alcohol, but you are still dying.  You don’t know when it is going to happen to you (tomorrow? In twenty years?), but you can be sure that it is going to happen.

There is a meditation technique where you imagine your own death.  You imagine your body breathless and lifeless and completely dead.  Most people think it sounds morbid, some people find the very idea of doing this frightening.

I have practised a Tantric technique of meditation where you imagine your body (from your right big toe) being burnt away, dissolving and disappearing, then you imagine the same thing happening to the room around you, to the town in which you live, to the people you know and love, to the world, to the universe.  What does it make you feel to disintegrate like this?  How is it to watch those you love burn into the ether in your imagination?

You need to be a little brave to practise these meditations on death, but they will show you some very interesting things… they will show you what you most identify with (the man who said he could easily imagine dissolving everything away except for his genitals, for example!).  In my own experience, I have no problem with the idea of dissolving away, I feel that I am after all just a bundle of energy and full of life spirit, so my sense of boundaries between the universe and this little bit of it called Sarah are non-existent, but I did realise how attached I am to my voice, more specifically to my words and this made me think about my need to communicate and to be understood and to meditate on that and what it really means to me.

I wonder, in these days where we can buy younger faces, have parts of our bodies that are showing signs of age injected and sanded and smoothed by knives and needles and chemicals, and where people talk of the medical possibility of living forever, if we are missing the point completely.  Surely it is not about the quantity of years, but the quality of life that we put into those years.  Clearly our fear of death is all pervasive, we ignore it, we deny it and we try to beat it.  In addition, we have lost most of our rituals around death, the ways in which previous generations shared the journey of someone from life to death and the ways in which that journey was revered and respected, the way a dead body might be treated in death, might be bathed or sat with overnight.  The way death used to be placed firmly where it should be, as a part of life.

I am no expert on funeral rites, but it seems to me that there is a striking difference between a modern British crematorium where an unseen, coffined body, disappears behind a curtain to be industrially incinerated and the way an Indian body is dressed and perfumed and surrounded by friends and family as it is burnt on a perfumed ghat bedecked with flowers.  The former speaks to me of things hidden and denied, why does it make me feel that we are slightly ashamed of death?  The latter seems to me more about celebration and life and light and releasing a loved one back into the atmosphere, watching their bodies follow their souls into the universe.

Recently I heard Mark Gatiss talk about the death of his mother.  How terribly sad, yet how wonderful it was and how close the family became during the last days of her life.  He described how he and his family sat around her bed, drinking tea and talking and laughing at old family stories.  Sometimes someone would leave to make a plate of sandwiches or another pot of tea, but there they all were, revolving around this woman that they loved, sharing love and laughter with her.  She was unconscious, they did not know if she could hear them, but they hoped that at some level she was aware of their presence and their love.  It sounded very beautiful to me.  It sounded like a wonderful way to die.

I think it is a very interesting practise to imagine that you are about to die.  What might you do differently?  What would you want?  What would you want to say and to whom?  Once you have taken some time to consider this, you could ask yourself what it is that is stopping you doing all of those things right now?

Here is the last poem that Raymond Carver wrote before he died:

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

It’s very simple isn’t it and what most of us want.  Funny how we go about making it all so complicated and difficult and finding ways of proving ourselves to those that we love or that we want to love us, rather than being brave enough to tell them, or to ask them.

I suppose that if I were dying and would not be here next week I would want to say thank you to my mum and dad; I would want my sister to know that I love her and think she is amazing; I would want to tell my children that they are to me the most precious jewels and wonderful in every way; I would want the people that I love to know about my love and admiration of them, to be sure of it and to know that it does not falter.  I would hope to hear from them that they love me too and to be brave enough to ask those who find it hard to reveal such things, ‘Have you loved me?’  Love, not for what I do, or what I have, or the things I have achieved, but just because I am me and always have been.  I would want to not be so shy, I would want to be braver, write more, talk more, open my heart wider and wider. 

I suppose that if I were dying and would not be here next week, I wouldn’t waste so much time on things that my heart knows don't matter, I wouldn’t procrastinate so often and I wouldn’t do so very much... I would sit in the garden with the sun on my face and lie in the long grass in a field in the rain and I would go to be near the sea; I might consider reading poems instead of novels and spend my time allowing my mind and body absorb all the things I have learnt and read already, without feeling the need to cram more in.

I suppose that if I were dying and would not be here next week, I would hope for peace and acceptance and to be both surrounded by and radiate love.

But when I come to think of it like this, why wait?  These are all the things that I want and am hoping for in my life as well as for my death.  As Ram Dass says, ‘Don’t waste time waiting’, the time is now and we know what is important to us, it only behoves us to put those things at the top of our list and to deal with the real issues of life – love, loving and using our talents to be who we are truly – today, in this moment, which is the only thing we really ever have.

This Is What I Wanted To Sign Off With

You know what I’m
like when I’m sick: I’d sooner
curse than cry.  And people don’t often
know what they’re saying in the end.
Or I could die in my sleep.
So I’ll say it now.  Here it is.
Don’t pay any attention
If I don’t get it right
When it’s for real.  Blame that
On terror and pain
Or the stuff they’re shooting
Into my veins. This is what I wanted to
sign off with.  Bend
closer, listen, I love you.
Alden Nowlan

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Suffering League Table

A lot of how you choose to live depends upon where you put yourself on the Suffering League Table.  The Suffering League Table is that place where we compare and contrast our woes with other people's.

Simply put: there is no life without suffering.  The older you get, the more you come to understand that we have all experienced (and will continue to experience) sorrow and pain and difficulty.  When we are young we tend to think that everybody else is so sorted, so together, so confident and shiny; we think, 'It is only me who is doubtful, insecure and unconfident.'  But as we grow older and wiser we observe that not only does everyone carry around their own particular brand of insecurity, but that everybody has their own trials and tribulations to go through too.

Sure, we don't all suffer in the same way, because our pain, like our joys are unique to us.  Neither do we all deal with our troubles in the same way (but don't be fooled, sometimes it is those who seem to coping the best, that are struggling the most).  But we all have our stuff to deal with.  Nobody escapes that fact and nor should they, for it is the midst of strife that we find out who we really are and what we are capable of. 

The Suffering League Table doesn't help.  It's the process whereby we assign a value to levels of suffering and then use it to determine whether or not we should be allowed to suffer ourselves, or whether anyone else should be allowed to suffer.

The first scenario is where we say to ourselves that we don't deserve to feel bad, sad, or mad because our troubles are nothing compared to those of our friend or acquaintance who has had to deal with so much terrible sorrow.  There are lots of shoulds and shouldn'ts involved on this side of the coin: 'I should be able to cope with my new baby: everyone else can' ... 'I shouldn't find life so difficult: everybody else can cope' ... 'I should be able to handle my relationship with my brother better, why do I let him make me so angry all of the time?'  But in truth, when life is difficult, wasting your energy on being cross with yourself for being human and being who you are is the last thing you need to do.  You need all of your resources for getting through a tough time.  Besides which, your difficulties are yours, true, but we are all different and other people will struggle with things that you do with ease.

The other side of the coin is when we believe that we have had more than our fair share of terrible sorrow and that if the world knew this everyone would understand why we are so insecure, worried and unhappy.  So we wear our troubles like a t-shirt with the statements of our life's worst moments writ large upon the front: My Husband Left Me!  My Sister has Cancer!  My Mother Didn't Care For Me!  But our troubles are things to be experienced, learnt from and moved through, not clung onto and used to excuse every short-tempered moment, every mean thought or act, every one of our weaknesses. 

Neither option really serves us.  The first puts us at the bottom of the Suffering League Table, from where we cannot do the vital work we need to do to transform ourselves into the wholehearted, compassionate people we know we can be.  Without caring for our own needs we cannot best care for those of others.  The second puts us at the top of the league table, from where we cannot reach out to others with humility and acceptance and touch them with our love, for we separate ourselves off from other's struggles by positing ourselves in a special place called 'only I have suffered'.  It is useful to learn that understanding someone else's difficulty does not detract from the empathy you will receive from others for your own.

We all hurt sometimes and yet we move forward.  Our commitment to yoga practice and meditation, and to observing ourselves and the world around us clearly, helps us to move forward with courage and with our hearts wide open.  We learn how to accept our sorrows in order that we might heal, not because we want to suffer, but because we understand that everything in our life is there to teach us and sometimes the most beautiful gifts come from the saddest places and that positive transformations can come from profound sorrows.

In his book, What Doesn't Kill Us, Professor Stephen Joseph writes of people who have suffered the most appalling trauma, things that we hope we will never have to face: assault, natural disasters, terrorist attacks.  In his studies Professor Joseph has discovered a phenomenon, which he calls post-traumatic growth, whereby people affected by these terrible life-events learn from them how to reset their priorities in order to live more fulfilling lives, become acquainted with their own inner strength, and deepen their relationships with others.  One man cited in the book explains that after the heart-attack that nearly killed him, 'I don't waste time worrying about the little things any more.  You get a new perspective.  You don't need to have a lot of things that you thought you needed.'  He goes on to say that before his heart-attack this was 'true in my head, but I didn't live it in my heart.'

Not everyone transforms positively through trauma or pain, but the keys to that growth are strikingly familiar for yogis: reach out to others and appreciate our connections with them; notice your emotions; practise compassion; learn to relax; observe your reactions without judging; practise hope; look to the future; practise gratitude; accept change; learn how to let go.

So, we are blessed to have found this practice that can help us to turn everything that we do and experience in our lives into lessons that will make us more humane, more open, more loving, more understanding, stronger, kinder, more appreciative and content.  Viewed in this way our suffering becomes a kind of gift - a painful and troublesome gift for sure, but a gift nonetheless.
'The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.'
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross