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.