Wednesday, 29 February 2012

What your body is trying to tell you

Here is what my body is trying to tell me today:

"Slow down.  Have a soothing hot drink.  Take it easy today because you are tired and I wonder if you might be coming down with something.  Take that book and curl up in the corner of a teashop with it.  Do some asana, please, these muscles are tight and your shoulders are not where they are supposed to be today, why are you holding them up around your ears?  But please could you work in a fluid and gentle way, because this body doesn't feel like jumping through hoops today.  This body feels that it needs to move, to be warm and to loosen up in a very simple and natural way, so can we leave the gymnastics for another day?  And this brain is that unfortunate combination of wired and tired, so perhaps we could do some extra meditation later, just to quieten everything down and perhaps we should turn the radio off... there is more than enough noise in your head already."

I suppose it has taken me a long time to be able to hear the voice of my body and to pay attention to it.  Obviously, there are times when I hear it and ignore it and there are times when I don't listen at all, because I know that what it will be telling me is something that I do not want to hear/am not ready to hear.  Looking around me, I think I see a lot of people who live most of life ignoring the calls of their body when it wants to be cared for, when it wants to be allowed to heal.

Pain is an indicator that there is something wrong with the way that you are living, moving or thinking (all three?).  Pop a pill if you like.  Carry on regardless if you like.  Deny it, or ignore it, or pretend it isn't there.  Or you could pay attention.  You could listen.  You could care for yourself as you would care for your dearest love.

I remember feeling so much pressure to Get Stuff Done after the birth of my first child; I bludgeoned myself with mean thoughts about how little I was achieving in my day.  Looking back from the vantage point of 11 years of motherhood, I see how hard it was to do anything at all on a few hours sleep a night, whilst going through the biggest life-change that I had ever experienced.  I would like to go back in time and give myself a hug, make me a nice warm, milky drink and bring me a magazine to mindlessly flick through while I had a little sit down.

Of course, if you feel that your body is telling you to kick back, crack open a beer, smoke a cigarette and eat some more chocolate all the time, then it could be that you are listening to the wrong voice.  Don't fool yourself into thinking that listening to your body's voice is a way of constantly letting yourself of the hook.  Your body needs to move and be still, to be stimulated and to be encouraged to relax, to stretch and be open and to curl up and be hugged.  It needs all of this and more and sometimes you'll need a little self-discipline to respond appropriately to what your body is telling you. 

Choose well so that you can live well.  Accept yourself as yourself, whoever you are right now, in this moment and seek to stay free of cumbersome and intransigent ways of being.  Some days are for climbing mountains and some are for strolls through the woods and both are good... and there is an order to it, even if you don't know it. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Strong Centre

Life can be very difficult.  I don't believe that there was ever a life without sorrow and challenge; loss and grief; doubt and insecurity.  That there is joy too, and that joy provides the constant backdrop to the vicissitudes of a normal life, is our gift.  This abiding joy/love/peace is what we connect to, with practice, even through our deepest sadnesses.

I admit that I have had dark and doubting moments where I have wondered, what is the point of yoga?  What is the point of breathing deeply and moving up and down your mat and sitting very still, when life feels as though it is falling down around your ears and when the people that you thought would always be there are lost to you, or when the things you thought were certain suddenly seem very fragile and perilous, or when you have tried your best, but feel that you have failed, in spite of those best efforts.  Sometimes life feels as though it is slipping through your fingers; it seems to be rushing away from you as you desperately seek for something to hold on to, some rock to rest on.

Here is what yoga has given to me in my darkest moments, and what I hope it will give to you when you go through them. 

Yoga has given me the strength to feel my place on the earth and in the scheme of things; it has helped me to stay grounded and sure-footed, even as the ground has seemed to shift beneath my feet.  It has given me flexibility and the understanding that change is inevitable and that nobody can hold back the tides of life.  Yoga has helped me to ride the waves of life, as huge and frightening as they may have been, rather than have them drag me under.  Yoga has given me the capacity for perspective: to see my troubles set against the backdrop of beauty and joy that I see around me.  My life will come and go, but that beauty will remain.  Yoga has given me the growing gift of self-compassion and love and compassion for others, no matter how they might have hurt me or themselves.  Yoga has given me insight and clarity; I make mistakes, don't you?  I am human, aren't you?  I only seek to learn from those mistakes and to make my way through life with kindness, not judgement.

When you find yourself at a low ebb, don't forget your practice and how much you can depend on it.  Trust it to bring you strength, flexibility, self-understanding, compassion, resilience and perspective.  Know that you can drink from that deep well of peace and love that exists at the centre of yourself whenever you choose; that the only thing that stands between you and it, is your resistance to it.  Have faith in your practice and in yourself.

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekov 

Dreaming of Ashrams

Ah, but it's hard keeping up your yoga practice (not just on your mat, but out in the world where it's supposed to be) in your ordinary life where children forget to give you letters from school and then you must rustle up a project on Victorian Toys in an evening and out of what you can find lying around the house; and someone who is probably late for work (or just cross) sits on your tail all the way to school and you drive all the way there trying to find compassion for them and resisting the temptation to drive  v e r y  s l o w l y  so that they back off and leave you alone, or overtake you and get on their way; and there are distractions everywhere you look; and people can be... well, just annoying sometimes, and hard to love!

I've been thinking about ashrams and retreats and how wonderful it would be just to practice all day long and to have time for your little break-downs and moments of self-doubt, without trying to have them while you're cooking fish fingers for supper and listening to the simultaneous stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a 9 year old girl and an 11 year old boy. How wonderful it would be to find your way to your yoga mat for meditation every morning to practice without feeling remotely conflicted (I ought to do some laundry). Or to get down to some asana practice that lasts as long as you want it to and is not curtailed by the need to be somewhere at some time.

But life is here to teach us and it is in the fire of life that we test our beliefs and convictions. And I am here on this earth as a mother and my children are a gift to me (some gifts are challenges too) and the times that I find myself wishing I were somewhere else, somewhere peaceful are very human moments.  I am reminded of Leonard Cohen, who spent some time as a monk, and who said that all monks know that they have failed because they are unable to live in the real world and I think I know what he meant (although I don't know if I agree with him - I have never been a monk), but it is easier to find peace and stay with it when there is less of the world around to bother you.

When I have been on retreat I have been focused and at peace and undisturbed from my practice and it has been joyous.  It is a gift to myself to feel this way and I will make sure that I give myself this gift more often in my life.  But this body is where I live and this practice is what I have.  It is what it is and what it is is wonderful and positive and transformative and clarifying and it has helped me in ways that I might have expected and ways that I haven't.  It is better to live your dharma badly, than to live someone else's dharma well, says the Bhagavad Gita, and the futility of wishing your life were (just a little bit) different is obvious.

We find our peace where we can. We aim to give our love continually to everyone.  We make a corner of our bedroom a little sacred ashram space and we commit ourselves to going to that place every day, for as long as we have, to renew that vital connection, to refresh that centred peace.  We turn a dog walk or the baking of a cake into a mindful practice of grace and gratitude.  It's life.  It's what we can do.  And we make ourselves into yogis and yoginis both on and off our mats, rather than thinking things have to be or look a certain way before we practice.  In this way we set ourselves up to succeed, rather than to fail and we take the gift of yoga as we find it and how it really is.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why Meditate? Part 2

There are many scientifically proven and physically measurable benefits to meditating, some of which I described here last month.  But there are also more esoteric, spiritual reasons to meditate.  The idea of being on a spiritual path may not be your cup of tea, but for me, it's the reason that I go to my mat every day; it's the reason that I immerse myself in the study of yoga; it provides the deeper meaning to my life, describes it's purpose and brings comfort in the form of the teachers, students, yogis who have gone before me.  I am in the foothills; their view from the mountaintop continues to inspire and motivate me to continue to deepen my yoga practice.

I meditate to connect.  When I meditate, when I move deeply into a state of peace, for some reason that I am not sure of, but which mystics from all major religions and modern and ancient yogis have described, I feel absolutely connected with the world around me.  This feeling of connection reinforces my sense of belonging in the world and is at once both humbling and emboldening: I am just one small being, almost completely insignificant, yet I am me, with my own unique talents, capacities and gifts.  In a forest of trees, I am only one tree (just the same as all the others) and yet I occupy this particular space and, if you look closely, I am entirely unique.  What I have and who I am is something to be shown to the world and shared, not limited by my own self-doubt and shyness.

When we feel/know/understand that we are connected and that we are all the same/different, we can more easily reach out to others.  We can connect with them: the grumpy, the judgemental, the brave, the sad, the cowardly, the annoying, the quiet, the loud, for we know that we too are all of these things to a greater or lesser degree; that there is nothing that any other human does that we do not have the capacity for too.  If I reach out to you, then you are more likely to reach out to me, and then we are more likely to understand our connection and how deeply it runs.  If I reach out to you and you refuse me, then I still know that our connection is unbreakable, and so I continue to move towards you no matter what.  And humans need to connect; increasingly science proves what we have long suspected, that connecting with other human beings, animals and nature is crucial for human health.

Connection brings me contentment, because when I am connected I know that I already have everything that I need; that I don't lack anything.  How could I lack anything, when I am here in this right place at this right time doing this particular life?

When I meditate I connect with something greater and much more beautiful than me, but I acknowledge that I am a small and insignificantly beautiful part of that great whole.  All I need to do is to carry on carrying on with my life.

Without meditation and yoga practice that sense of connection comes (that feeling of being in the right place at the right time; the realisation that when I stop fighting, the answer comes; my wonder at the beauty of the world), but it is more elusive; it comes and goes.  When I meditate, then every morning I consciously reconnect with life, so that I feel, know and love my place in it for more of my day.

'Only connect' wrote EM Forster in Howard's End: connect with others, that you might understand more and judge less; connect with everything that you might find humility even as you come to honour your own brilliant uniqueness. 

If I connect with the world and with everything on the world, then I am humble because the world is astounding in its glory; if I connect with the world then I look after it, because nothing in it belongs to me, and yet I am profoundly grateful for it; if I connect with the world then I am not afraid to show it my love, or to receive love back from it.  I am it; it is me.  Only connect.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Everyday Mindfulness

It's been a busy week.  It's February and it's cold and I have felt a little low on energy.  The place where I sit to meditate in the morning is FREEZING... I've been wrapping up in blankets and wearing a hat to keep warm (which I find strangely heartening, as it reminds me of meditating in the Shrine Room on Holy Isle).  I can see my breath when I breathe.

So at 6.30 in the morning my warm bed is so very much more appealing than a cold mat in a cold room.  I've been making it there still, but only for 20-30 minutes, and I've been missing out on my usual 60 minute meditation.

When I don't meditate/meditate less I remember what life was like before I started meditating ... my emotions start to have me in their clutches and I feel at their mercy instead of being able to observe them more dispassionately for the temporary sensations that they are.  My sense of connection with the rest of the world (be it human, animal or plant) seems to lessen and I miss it, that deep sense of peace and of being an essential, yet insignificant, part of a beautiful and grand whole.  I find myself feeling a little more impatient, a little less grounded, a little more disturbed by noise, arguments, traffic, adverts... by all the things around us that constantly demand that we take our attention away from the heart of ourselves and out towards them.

It's good sometimes, to have a short time away from your practice, or to reduce it - it helps you to remember why you do it.

There is no dead end on a spiritual path.  We are walking it all the time; it doesn't have to take any particular shape or form, or include any particular method or technique.

Having less time to come to my mat this week, I remembered that everything I do is my practice.  Brushing my teeth, I am simply brushing my teeth, not planning dinner; walking the dog I am feeling my feet on the floor, the sun in my face, watching the joy of my dog, not thinking of that evening's class.  Baking a cake, I am absorbed, full of enjoyment, in that one particular task. 

Simple mindfulness.  Being here now.  All of me.  Not my body in one place and my head in another.  The whole of me fully engaged in each thing. 

With this as my intention, even loading the dishwasher becomes part of my practice and my mind and heart feel at ease.  With this as my intention, I don't miss out on the experience that I am actually having by my letting my head run away to the future or the past.  With this as my intention, I find that in any given moment, I am ok; there is peace; there is joy; there is love.  With this as my intention, I don't steal myself away from myself: I am complete.

As Swami Rama put it:
"People are caught in their self-created misery.  First they build a high, thick wall separating daily life from what they consider spiritual, then they exhaust themselves trying to demolish it."

This week, I have been dissolving that wall and in the process have been remembering that everything I do, say, think and feel is my practice and my path.