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.