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.