Monday, 16 December 2013

Hide and Seek

What is that particular thing that you are running away from?
Or are you a hider?  Hiding behind any number of reasons why you must stay put and never get those things you dream of.

The runners keep on moving so fast, so fast, that they only just sense the presence of a shadow over their lives, they run so fast and talk so much that they are deaf to its whisperings.  There are some things we know that we don't want to know; there are some things we have to do to be whole that we don't wish to enact.  How fast do you need to run to stop that whispering shadow from catching up with you?  And what happens when you stop all that noise and fuss?  Are you afraid of that?  Of course you are and rightly so.  A whole life is not an easy life.

The hiders stay quietly in their designated place (somewhere that the seeker within can't find them) and they keep very, very still.  They might ponder from time to time, why people treat them a certain way, they might feel stuck and unable to change, they might feel thwarted every time they try to turn towards something new.  But nobody else can stop you from living a whole life; only you have that power.  Difficult, isn't it?  I am afraid it is completely impossible to hide from yourself, although we may become adept at denial, the great enemy of truth.

The path is given to you, but the way you make your journey is all yours.  It is your responsibility and nobody else's, likewise nobody can forestall you but yourself.

Some of us fight against our destiny tooth and nail; we try too hard consistently and without let up.  We think we are in charge.  We stamp our feet and yell that we don't want this path and the reply which rises is always the same: "Nevertheless this path is yours alone, for reasons which you can only glimpse through a glass darkly.  Look how much it has taught you, about life and about loving."

We are seekers and we must seek. 
That's all.

How fast do you need to run to outpace yourself?  That is an impossible race. 
How loudly do you need to hum to fool yourself that no monster could ever disturb you in your safe hiding place?

Stop.  Unwrap yourself like the gift that you are, carefully and with grace.  You are here for a reason.  That's good.  But you don't get to choose the reason.  That's good too, for what you would choose would be so limited, whereas what is intended for you is wondrous indeed.

Namaste
 

Friday, 13 December 2013

Yoga to Heal Depression

Healing depression takes a long time.  It takes commitment and patience, self-understanding and courage.  Depression is an insidious illness, capable of being hidden, suffered by the most surprising people (successful, popular, intelligent people).

I am healing myself through yoga.  It has been the practice of many years.  But I have now been depression free for three years (through three winters) and am hopeful that this will be my fourth.

For me, depression came down from time to time like a black lid on my life, leeching all the colour and joy out of my world; my natural gratitude and appreciation for the beauty of the world would desert me and I would be overtaken by feelings of self-hatred and an almost overwhelming sense of pointlessness.

It has taken time, yoga and the reading of many books written by people far wiser than I, but here comes my fourth winter of using certain practices and habits to free myself of depression and everything that goes with it.  I might still trip up, but it is easier now to catch myself before I fall.  What I offer you here is a recipe; these are the things that have worked for me and continue to work; perhaps they will work for you too; perhaps you will take some things away and add some extra bits that you know you need to keep you well (as we do with all good recipes in the process of making them our own).

1.)  Walk.  Depressed people need light.  Especially in the depths of winter when there is so little of it about.  We need to go out and get whatever there is and let it shine on our faces.  There is light out there, even on the greyest days. 
Walking is my cure for the seeking of the light. 
Depressed people need to move, but we are often so damn tired we cannot begin to imagine getting to the pool or the gym, doing an asana practice or similar.  So walk.  Just walk.  Walk without music, without calling anyone on the phone, walk with your eyes on the streets around you or the countryside you are in, or on the faces of the people you pass.  Look for the beauty.  If you are lucky enough to have a dog, that dog will bring you joy.
Walking gets you moving; it gets you out of the house, or the walls that confine you; it brings you light; it allows you time to reconnect with the world, to have a glimpse, however fleeting, of your valid and true place within it; it reminds you that you belong here; that you are of worth.

2.) Be mindful.  Consider how you feel, right now in this moment.  Not how you wish you felt, or how you ought to feel, but how you actually do feel.  Then do what you need to do.  You cannot make yourself well if you insist on blustering through your emotions, feelings and energy levels.  Pay attention.  Your body knows what you need.  Listen well and respond appropriately.  If you are low on energy and feeling down, an early night might do you more good than the party you promised to go to.  If you are lonely, low and feeling blue, maybe you need to boot yourself out of the house and get to the theatre or an art gallery or into the company of a friend who loves you.

3.) Eat well.  It's so hard sometimes to eat well when you are ill.  But it doesn't need to be much food, just the right food.  Some vitamins, some protein, some fibre, plenty of fluids.  Fuel your recovery through choosing food wisely.

4.) Work out what vitamins and minerals help you.  For me?  Evening Primrose Oil, Vitamin B, iron.  I've tried other things (St John's Wort, Iodine), but these are the ones that help me.

5.) If you are a woman, pay attention to your monthly cycle and to how it makes you feel.  Get to know the ebb and flow of your energy levels during the month and ensure that you care for yourself during those sensitive (or angry, or inconsolable) days around when your period starts.

6.) Meditate.  Sit quietly with yourself every day, even if it is only for five minutes.  Part of depression comes from alienating yourself from your true self and your true needs; the only way to hear those needs within yourself is to sit in silence and listen out for them. 

7.) Reach out to someone.  Find the ones you trust.  Be brave and let them know when you are sad.  They will not judge you as harshly as you judge yourself.  Let them love you and they will help you.  It's as simple as that.  Remind yourself that however alone you might feel, there is someone out there who knows who, where and how you are.

8.) Remind yourself every day that it is not what you do that causes your pain, but how you think about what you do.  It is not who you are that causes your pain, but what you think about who you are.  This is crucial.  You are beautiful.  You just forgot.  Those voices in your head that take you away from your understanding of your own beauty are not helping.  Thank them kindly for their input.  Listen out for other, kinder voices, or find the external voices that help you to remember: I find these voices in the poetry of Mary Oliver, of Rumi and Hafiz, or in watching things that make me laugh on the television.  When I let those voices guide me, it is easier to find the kinder voice within myself that helps me to stay well.

9.) Be true to yourself.  There is no higher practice.  This is not being selfish, it is being honest.

10.) Love.  Love yourself, love the people around you, love your home, your work, the space you occupy in the world.  If you don't love it, ask yourself quite seriously, why you are doing it.  Love is the answer to everything. 

11.) Be kind.  You are probably being kind to other people; depressed people are often naturally kind and open to other people's needs.  Being kind to yourself is harder, but a crucial element of your practice and a major factor in helping you stay well.
 
"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived"
Susan Rose Blauner
 
 
I wish you well with your practice and your efforts to stay well.  I don't know if these things work for anxiety and phobias, or other disturbances of a person's peace, but perhaps they will help all of those things... perhaps you will write and tell me about it if you find that they do.
 
Namaste.
 
 
oOo


Further Reading
The Mindful Way Through Your Depression, Professor Mark Williams
Dorothy Rowe's Guide to Life
Depression: The Way out of Your Prison, Dorothy Rowe
The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner
Life Unlocked, Dr S Pillay
The work of Brene Brown
 
 
oOo
 
Postscript
Depression thrives in secret.  This blog is dedicated to the lady on my last course who was very brave and spoke out about how she has been feeling and the things she struggles with.  Hari OM 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Not-Knowing

I have nothing to tell you that you don't already know.  I am a beginner too on this path, and always will be. 

I think we spend a lot of time thinking and devote a lot of energy to working things out.  I think we would be a lot better off if we just accepted things and moved on.  Like children do.  There is a strange kind of arrogance to being human; we think we know, even when life shows us, over and over again, that we don't know anything really. 

We like to protect ourselves against the not-knowing, because not-knowing makes us feel insecure and at the mercy of life.  So we make plans and develop ways of living that we think insures us against chaos: a tidy house, some money in the bank, a safe place to live, a good education; and yet, at some point, inevitably, life sweeps us off our feet and we are revealed in some way, we experience vulnerability; it doesn't feel good and sometimes it is frightening. 

If we are lucky, we ask what the fall has to teach us and we begin to learn; if we are unlucky, we cobble together an excuse, a recovery, and we carry on how we did before.  We don't know then that each time we meet this lesson it will become harder and harder to ignore; that life is here to teach us and if we refuse to learn, then it will go on trying in more and more blatant ways to strip us of our comfort so that we might learn.

The wonder of it is that there is so much time to peel away the layers of understanding in ourselves; so don't panic, because we have time. 

The gift is that there are so many people who have trodden the path before us and who shine their heart-torches on us to inspire and to draw us ever-onwards and inwards.

Keep your eyes on the ones you know have something to teach you and don't be distracted by the glittering world that tempts you off the path with promises of short-cuts to contentment.  Of course there are no short-cuts to self-understanding, how could there be?  Who on earth could give you understanding of yourself? 

Take care as you travel forwards and pay attention.

Shine as much light on yourself as you do onto others; take hold of the hands that are held out to you and let them help you through; don't be stubborn. 

Know this: you do not know, you do not know, but sometimes you might hear the whispers of those who do; if you become very quiet and peaceful and give up thinking you know anything, then and only then, you open the door and they come in.

Om Shanti

Thursday, 24 October 2013

You are more than your intelligence

You are more than your intelligence
You are more than a mind that thinks
You are not limited by time and space, although you might believe that you are.

Who put the blinkers on your eyes?
Why don't you want to see?
Who helped you to build the wall around your heart?
Do you think that the wall will keep pain out of your life?
The pain will make it through, but love might not.
Pain will find the cracks and crevices in that wall and will make a mockery of your defences.
You will certainly feel sorrow, you are human,
But you can choose whether or not you suffer.

Strange that we seek to protect ourselves from hurt,
Yet hurt transforms us more than any other emotion, even love.
Sometimes the sticking plaster has to be ripped from the wound, so that through hurting we might heal.
Pity those people without the courage to experience their pain; they are doomed to sit with that sorrow obfuscating their every attempt at happiness. 

There is no way but through,
And who wants to sit forever in the waiting room of life?
Burst through the door, feel what is to be felt, know that after you have felt it, you will be able to grow.

You are blessed with a mind that thinks, a heart that loves and accepts love, a will that can make things manifest.

What are you waiting for?
Why do you let fear hold you back?
Have you noticed how much you have to live with fear if you let it make your decisions?
Wouldn't you rather be moving on,
Holding your fear by the hand
("Thank you very much, I know you are trying to protect me")
Rather than letting it hold you back?

Look your fear in the face,
Smile at it and let it in, don't hide it,
Fear might sometimes be your companion,
But it need not hold you back.

 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Climbing Mountains 2

This week I climbed the highest mountain in England; it is the first mountain I have climbed alone, having always had a guide with me before.  I don't wish to emulate one of the Romantic poets, standing beside a Lakeland waterfall allegorising about life and eulogising about the beauty of nature, but... well it is true that you can learn a lot about yourself and about life when you're climbing up a great big hill.

I set off with map in hand, but soon lost the path (on the way back I couldn't understand how this could have happened, it's ridiculous!  The path is obvious and right there, about four feet wide and scattered with stones by the National Trust so that we travellers don't get lost), so I found myself scrambling up a lush, green, wet and flower-strewn hillside very much on my own.  I had already decided to climb the mountain from Wasdale Head, by no means a hidden track, but certainly not so populated as if you climb from Langdale.  This is what I call finding your own path, the one less travelled, and what I think my mother would call, 'making life difficult.'  I was following a stream, expecting it to originate from two separate streams at some point (it never did); it was very steep and on a warm day, quite hard going.  The dog at least was happy on this route, plunging in and out of the rushing water to keep himself cool. 

I looked up; I couldn't see the way.  I was expecting a path and other people to be there with me, I had been told by friends that you are never alone on Scafell, but I was completely alone and hadn't seen anyone else since the very lowest part of my climb.  I was worried, benign as the day was, I was brought up by my father with enough knowledge to know that you should never take your safety on a mountain for granted and nobody knew where I was.  I couldn't know if I was going the right way except to say that I was definitely going up. 

It was the crags that had first got me spooked; from Wasdale Head Pulpit Rock and Pikes Crag loom terrifyingly black and sinister at the top of the first ascent, intimidating even on a lush summer's day, perhaps more so then, when they stand in such stark contrast to the wealth of green at the foot of the mountain.  I knew from my map that I would have to go round those crags to reach the summit.  It did seem such a long and unnerving way to go.

I kept thinking I saw a path, but in truth those were just the pathways of the sheep.  I became disheartened: I was tired, I had been walking steeply uphill for an hour or so and I didn't know the way.  Why hadn't I just walked up from a nice pub in Langdale on the well-walked and obvious path?  I could turn back and call it a nice little walk on the hill (when you are climbing up a hill, you always have the option of going down again the way you came), I would have to admit that I hadn't made it, but who would know if I said I did?  I would know; I knew that I wouldn't lie about it.  Make it, or don't, but don't fib about what happened.  I stopped.  I had a drink and admired the view.  Looking back I could see how far I had come and how beautiful it was.  The rain that had been forecast showed no sign of coming, the skies were white with cloud, but bright with the sun behind them; occasionally it broke through and we were bathed in a yellow warmth that cheered everything.  Wast Water gleamed in the foot of the valley, strange but from that height the lake seemed reassuringly solid and dependable.  It would be there and I could always navigate my way back to it if I wanted to.

Of course I went on.  I thought about life and how you don't always have the map, or if you do you read it wrong and end up going a different way.  Sometimes the roads marked there (the ones with the obvious landmarks: health, home, work, family) disappear into nothing and you are left without a guide, often at the most difficult parts of your climb.  I thought about being alone and having the courage to carry on, even when you can't see the way and you are not sure how or why you ended up here; of the trust that is required of you during those moments, the faith you need to carry on putting one foot in front of the other when all sense of a definite outcome has slipped from your reach.  I thought about standing at the foot of a mountain and feeling daunted by the huge task ahead of you, but how each accomplishment in life is achieved the same way, by taking one small step at a time, and that if you keep your mind focussed on each small step, on the here and the now, then each step is a step taken in confidence and with a sense of joy.  I thought about learning to rely on yourself and to trust yourself; how hard it can be to believe that you have it in you to achieve and that your own thoughts and beliefs are valid and true.  I thought about the impossibility of turning back, how you can never again walk a path that you have already travelled, because the path is never the same and the view this time is different.

It is faith, of course, that keeps us going, a sense that somehow we will be able to do it.  We can look back and see the way that we have walked and how it is filled with beauty and love and sometimes difficult things; how even hard times make sense in retrospect and we can be sure that even the times of illness or heartbreak taught us something essential and contributed to our lives in positive ways that we could never have foreseen.

Sometimes we are climbing mountains just for the fun of it, other times it takes all of our vim just to get up out of bed in the morning, have a shower and face the day (I am sorry if that is where you are just now). 

Oh, we are human and don't respond well to traversing those same old roads, time and time again, wondering why nothing ever changes.  Even rats go mad in those conditions.  We are born to roam and to discover and to adapt to new circumstances and this we do, better than any other creature on earth.  It is our birthright to seek and to expand, to set ourselves challenges and to meet them, or at least to glory in the attempt and not to hurt ourselves wilfully in our failures (because if you fail it means that you have tried and so even this is a success).

I shared some flapjack with the dog; I sat on a rock and looked down into the valley and up to the crest of the next hill, wondering what was beyond it; I put on my backpack and went onwards and upwards.  Eventually there was a path, for which I was grateful because I was tired by now and the path meant that I could relax a little, and there were a few other people from time to time and I considered how we all sometimes choose the well-frequented path, for company and because it is easy.  But not good to choose it out of trepidation or because we think that is all we are capable of.  I rounded those bleak crags and made my way up to the rocky summit of the mountain.  It was cold and blowy, I was higher than the birds and touching the sky, looking down upon the vast and beautiful fells spread out in all directions at my feet.  I took a photograph of myself and my dog up there and my smile is true, my eyes are clear.  I was proud and satisfied to be there.

The day after next I climbed a second mountain.  Skiddaw is a wonderful mountain and a pleasure to climb; there are silent parts of the walk, where you are sheltered from the wind and all you can hear are the birds and the sheep and other parts that are wildly exposed to the elements, a biting wind rushes at you, the cloud is so low it curls around your body and it is very cold.  You can see everything from Skiddaw and Little Man, it's slightly smaller brother: Keswick, where people live, the roads and shops, noise and busyness of the lives that humans have made for themselves; you can see the sea, stretching out into seeming nothingness and miles and miles of undulating fells laid out like a promise.  It was my fourth day of camping and walking alone and I decided to make my way up the path from Latrigg; it's the way everyone goes (this path was made by the Victorians and is impossible to lose!).  I set off early and spent most of the walk on my own.  It was very steep in parts and challenging.  But... well... travelling the well-worn path just isn't quite the same... there is no fear to face, no challenge other than the resolve required to walk that high and that far.  It's not that I am a daredevil (I shared the summit with three little boys of 7, 5 and 3 - I am hardly Bear Grylls), it's just that I like to see a bit inside myself while I am travelling.  And if you are a yogi, then so do you.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Making like Dory

Dory is Marlin's friend on his journey across the oceans to find his missing son in the movie, Finding Nemo.  She has short-term memory loss; she is hopelessly optimistic, open, kind; when things go wrong, she sings, 'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.'

Making like Dory is keeping on swimming through life even when it feels complicated or tiring or tough; making like Dory means letting go of old stuff that's weighing you down so that you can swim more lightly through life; making like Dory means staying open-hearted, no matter how many times that proves painful.  We swim on through it all.  Even when we are ill, or held up, or worried about those we love.  As Isabel Allende said of learning to live after her daughter died, "one day you get up and you want some chocolate, you meet a friend for a coffee; life goes on"  We just keep swimming.

It is important, though, that we learn how to swim with life and not against it.  Life has a flow to it and if we learn to accept that flow, then we find we can more easily swim.  All the great teachings tell us this is so: ideas of acceptance, surrender, love for what we have, appreciation of our small but important place in the universe permeate writing from many (if not all) of the great gurus and poets of the world, past and present, from Rumi to Eckhart Tolle, Julian of Norwich to William Blake.  They tell us that if we would only give up the struggle and see how the river flows (not always the way we want, but always with the opportunity for growth and deeper understanding), then life will be easier.  It is easier when you let go.

The theory is most beautifully elucidated in the teachings of The Dao, the ancient Chinese philosophy of Lao Tze; in The Dao de Jing Lao Tze tells us that there is a universal rightness, the way of nature.  Rather like the existence of gravity, this is simply the way the universe operates and if you go with that flow, then you can achieve almost anything, if however you resist it, or go against it, then you will surely hit a brick wall.  As Martin Palmer puts it: there's a boulder in the way - you can strive to remove it, but the Daoist approach would be to go round it, to go underneath it, to accept its presence and flow around it, adapt and over time water and weather will wear it away until it is a pebble and gets washed away.

Eckhart Tolle says: "What could be more futile, more insane, than to fight something that already is?  It means that you're opposing life itself, which is now and  always now.  Say yes to life and see how things start working for you rather than against you."

If you feel exhausted, low, conflicted, unsettled, unhappy, then the chances are that you are swimming against the flow; yet we have all experienced those moments when everything seems to come together at the right time and all doors seem to open for us without effort.  Flow is available to us all.

I think a good place to start learning how to flow with life, how to become a surfer on its seas rather than a discarded bottle subject to every roll and crash of each wave until we get smashed somewhere against some rock or other, is to begin with hope.  What do you hope for?  Don't be afraid of what you hope for.  Write it down.  Let it live somewhere in black and white on a piece of paper or in a notebook.  Look at it often.  Allow that hope to become something real, but not by striving, pushing, arguing, feeling annoyed or disenchanted, but by staying open to its possibility and true to yourself.

Marlin: How do you know that nothing bad won't happen?
Dory: I don't ... Just keep swimming, just keep swimming

Namaste.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Yes

When you learn how to say no, you learn how to say yes.  And when you have your sights set on a great big yes within, saying no to things that get in the way of that becomes easier.

Then you say no with kindness, in friendship, with confidence and you find that other people do not mind.  Sometimes that is a surprise.

So if you have a big week coming up and you know you need a quiet weekend with your family, your yoga mat and your book, then you might have to say no to drinks after work on Friday, or coffee with friends on Saturday morning.  Only you know how that quiet time will set you up for a generous-hearted, vivid, energetic week ahead.  A week in which it is more possible to say yes to life.

Of course, the flip-side of this is respecting when other people say no.  I have always admired other people's ability to say no, for example, "You go ahead, have a wonderful time, but I am going home now."  I was always so busy worrying about not upsetting anyone that I forgot to wonder what it was that I actually wanted/needed to do.

A friend said, "But what about when people need to be persuaded into doing something, or when you yourself need a nudge to do something positive?"  Use your discernment; you know when you are doing something that is constructive, empowering, fulfilling and when you are doing something because you were afraid to say no.  Learn from this time and apply it to next time.

It's not about being selfish; it's about choosing wisely so that you become more selfless.  It's not about using no to hide from the world and the things in it that make you nervous, it's about setting free a gigantic yes! to every opportunity that grabs you.

So, if you have a great project in mind: you want to climb Everest, say, or to write a novel, or to commit to a daily, hour-long meditation practice, and even if what you want is something smaller and quieter: to read to your children every night, or to spend more quiet time with the one you love, then you are going to have to clear a space in your life for that and you are going to have to say no to something in order that you can say yes to something else.

Some people say yes to so many things that all they have left after all of that is a big, fat no.  No fun, no conversation, nothing new, no patience, no intimacy.  When we say yes to all the wrong things, when we fail to find our friendly no, we lose out.  Sometimes this has disastrous consequences for our health, for our future, for our relationships.

I am not advocating saying no to your nephew's christening because you don't fancy it, or letting people down because you can't be bothered to turn up, but I am saying that half the things you think you have to do, you don't.  Nobody is harmed by you protecting your own energy and you will have a lot more time and enthusiasm for the things that you do choose to do.

It's a lot easier when you know what it is that you want to say yes to.  And of course, like everything else worth having, you have to have courage sometimes to say no, the courage to live your life without trying all the time to be everything for everyone and to make sure everyone likes you.

When you learn how to say no to the things that don't matter, you find you have the time and the energy to say yes to the things that do.  Simple.

"My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style"
Maya Angelou

Monday, 15 July 2013

Growing Old and Growing Up

Barely a week goes by without the thorny issue of age cropping up in the media.  A movie star or singer turns up at an awards ceremony with strangely puffy cheeks or lips; someone is said to be having a relationship with someone older or younger; an article on the radio or in the newspaper bemoans the fact that women of a certain age are invisible in the media.  Somebody dies young.  Someone else lives to a magnificent age.  We can't go long before confronting the aging process and how we, as humans, handle it.  To listen to the dominant culture in the West (and perhaps elsewhere, I have only ever lived here), age is a slow decline into less: less physical capacity, less value in the workplace, less mental dexterity.

That's another reason that I love yoga.  I can do things now with my mind and my body that would have been impossible for me at 17, or 30, or even 35.  I can sit to meditate for an hour or more, with patience, curiosity, perseverance and commitment and quite without impatience; I hold my handstand for longer every time I practice it; I couldn't do ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) until a few years ago; I am more aware of the strengths and weaknesses in my body and have the quiet diligence to notice that and to work on those places to make them strong; I am more attuned to the way I feel and what I need to do to keep myself well and whole and more prepared to make sure that I give my body and mind what it needs.

Recently I watched my sister do her first solo headstand, in the middle of the room on her mat - on her 40th birthday.

In yoga we just keep on learning, no matter what our age: we learn how to succeed and to grow in physical and mental strength and flexibility by virtue of simply doing the work; we learn how to flow more with the ups and downs of life and how to accept the things we cannot change by learning fortitude through meditation; we learn how to deal with adversity with grace when we are injured and have to alter the way we work, or when we bring the lessons of mindfulness to times of great life-change.  We get wiser and steadier and calmer (or else we ask ourselves why we are not getting wiser, steadier and calmer and seek practical solutions to achieve those states).

And we have such wonderful role models: Vanda Scaravelli, Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar, Patthabi Jois, Mr Desikachar all vital and emphatic, teaching and learning until their 70s, 80s, even 90s.  These are positive, cheerful, strong people, who inspire with their wisdom, their vigour and their contentment; they call to us from our own futures, telling us: this is the way it can be through yoga.

There is no age limitation in yoga, there is no physical constraint that can keep one from this philosophy, because there is a practice for everyone and each of us has a unique and individual path: we all have our own road map, yet every one of us is travelling together towards the same destination.  In yoga, we positively seek out those who have been on this path for a long time, because they are the ones with wisdom and knowledge to share, they are the ones with advanced levels of compassion, gained over years of practice, with which to guide us.  My own three teachers are 66, 65 and 62.

In yoga we don't fear growing old, because we know that it is only through growing old that we get to grow up; it is only with age that we attain the insight, kindness and empathy that we see in our own teachers; and only after a good deal of practice do we learn to share those blessings with everyone we come across.  Yoga is slow.  We're not meant to do this quickly.  That's what our whole lifetime is for.
 
'We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'
TS Eliot

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Climbing Mountains

I climbed a mountain last weekend.  I climbed it with my dog.  There are lots of references to mountains in yoga practice: you can meditate like a mountain, solid and still, rooted in the earth, yet rising to the heavens, or visualise a mountain when you sit; some of our greatest teachers spent time living in caves in mountains, as did Ramana Maharishi on Arunachala; there are sacred mountains all over India, and even here in the UK there are mountains where saints and mystics went to pray or to spend time alone.  There is a cave in the hillside on Holy Isle where the 6th Century mystic Saint Molaise lived and I recently climbed Carningli (Mountain of the Angels) in Wales, which Saint Brynach (5th Century) climbed when he wanted to commune with the angels.

The thing that strikes you when you reach the top of a mountain is how peaceful it is up there.  As I remarked to my mountain-guide friend last weekend, when you are at the top of a mountain, you can completely understand why some people climb them to talk with the angels.  It is quiet on top of a mountain, no matter how many other climbers you are sharing the space with, the wind howls in your ears even on the finest of days and you really can't hear anything but the roar of it in your head.  It is a place to clear your head, to blow away the cobwebs of your mind, to seek answers to the questions that have been travelling with you.  Up there, you feel so close to something elemental, it seems that an answer might manifest itself from the sky which seems so near.

The view wraps around you and instills you with awe whichever way you turn to look; in this case, on the summit of Helvellyn on a sunny day in July, the green carpets of the Lake District rolled out in all their glory in all directions.  It is exciting to stand so high and to see so much, to feel so small and simultaneously so far above the workaday world, it is easy to believe as you stand there, that one of the siddhis (mystical powers) of the yogis that Patanjali spoke of might be true: that you can make yourself both as small as an atom and as huge as a universe.  You feel both as you stand there, a tiny element on a great big hill, but somehow elevated, encompassing everything you see, one with all that surrounds you.

When you walk down into the valley on a sunny day, you are struck by the silence, more arresting for having been up at the summit for a while with that roaring wind in your face.  There are no words here, no sign-boards, no pictures, no advertisements, no roads, no concrete paths, no houses, no cars, not even any aeroplanes to mar the sky.  And you realise how noisy this life is and how easy it is to become so filled with all of that noise, those words, with the images and the stories, that you can't very easily hear the sound of your own heart, of the little voice inside you that knows what it wants and needs, and which is so easily squashed by the more brazen sounds of the world.  And it's already hard enough hearing it through the noise of other people's opinions.

In yoga we are blessed to have a method for seeking and finding that small voice, no matter where we live and what we do with our days; withdrawing into unstimulated silence is what we make time to do.  But I urge you to find some bigger space for your silence this summer (or winter/spring/autumn whenever you are reading this), because what you find there will inspire you.  And when you get there, see if you can just be quiet for a time and let what is wash over you without the need for comment, or reaching out for others to share your experience, or pointing out to them what it is that you are finding so very moving about where you find yourself.

Indeed, the bigger space for your silence could be right there in your every day life: can you spend an evening without turning on the television or the radio?  Can you commute to work without reading any of those adverts that line the walls?  Can you spend a minute or two just in the outside air, on your own, in silence - like a cigarette-break for the soul?

Ramana Maharishi, who made his lifelong home alongside the sacred mountain of Arnuachala, told the thousands of devotees who came to him that silence was the purest teaching.  For him, it was that simple.

Here is what I wrote in my journal when I got home from climbing that mountain, tired and famished, sitting in my garden:

I climbed another mountain
Helvellyn
Striding Edge
18km hike
1km ascent
7-8 hours
Found a waterfall in Grisedale
Found a cave
Found peace there
And beauty
And I can do it!
And the dog came and he was amazing and now he is tired.

And what is there in life, but seeking that beauty everywhere and knowing it for what it is.

And everything must lead to this.

And now I am in my garden, crying for the beauty of it all
.
And this is the quote from a poem by Stanley Kunitz that I found as I sat there and thumbed through a book that I am travelling with just now:

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

Namaste


 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Don't Try to Figure This Out

"Don't try to figure this out," said Bhagavan Das on a visit to London in 2005, "No one's that smart."

It was strange, coming as it did at the end of a week when I had been struggling with my meditation practice and had found myself at the end of class, sitting quietly, with tears running down my face.  I felt full of joy and I didn't understand it: I wanted to know where it came from and what it meant; how I could hold on to it for longer; and what it meant for me in my life if I could touch this deep well of joy whilst deep in meditation, but never in my workaday life.

My teacher, Andrew, came over to me, gently laid a hand on mine and told me: "You can't think you're way through this."  He told me it would all be ok.  So when Bhagavan Das said something very similar, in his own inimitable style, that very same week, I took it as a sign and trusted that it was true.  Time and yoga practice have shown me that they were right and I was right to trust them; I never have worked it out, but I have, over the years, moved deeper into my meditation practice and found such energy, wisdom and solace there that it fills me with gratitude; moreover, the joy I was experiencing, or love, or whatever you call it, has permeated my life, so that it is not now something I only experience on my mat.  Nowadays, not understanding it seems obvious: how did I ever think I could explain the inexplicable?  And why did I want to?

I was reminded of all this last week when a student asked for some advice.  He has begun a regular meditation practice and is finding all sorts of curious things coming up (images, emotions, memories long-buried) as well as new experiences (the feeling that the truth is inside, but is obscured by a layer of something, he doesn't know what).  He was asking for some guidance; he was pondering how to break though that layer; he was wondering what it all meant.  I could only tell him that I was intrigued and excited by his experiences and that the only thing for him to do was to carry on with his practice and to wait and see.  As my teachers once told me, some things you can't work out; some things you just have to wait for; and it is possible to learn how to become comfortable with not-knowing.

I have spent a lifetime trying to figure everything out and I can tell you that it's a hard habit to lose, even in the face of its obvious impossibility (I can't figure out why some people are starving in the world while others waste food; I can't work out why my friend's sister died of cancer, leaving behind three children, when she wasn't yet 40 years old; I can't figure out why sometimes I don't feel happy in spite of the obvious plenitude of everything that is positive in my life).

In recent years scientists have sought to explain why those with a regular meditation practice are happier, kinder, healthier and have more energy than their friends who do not; they have put Buddhist Monks through MRI scanners and wired meditators up to machines to see what is going on in their brains.  This is brilliant, for it may well convince the cynical, or those who require a scientific basis for their choices to come to a practice that yogis have long known is beneficial for each individual psyche and also for society at large.  But the truth is that there are some things that we will never work out, but that we roll with anyway: we roll with it because it feels right; we roll with it because its benefits are tangible; and in the end we don't really need to know why.  It's very like falling in love, can you explain it?  But when it hits you, can you deny it?

2,000 years ago Patanjali told us:

sradda virya smrti samadhiprajna purvakah itaresam
Practice must be pursued with trust/faith, energy/courage, recollection of past practice, intense contemplation (from BKS Iyengar's translation)

tivrasamveganam asannah
The goal is near for those who ardently desire it
Yoga Sutras 1:20-21

It is faith in the practice and in our teachers that brings us to meditation and keeps us practising; it is the energy and conviction that we bring to the discipline of practising that keeps our meditation practice buoyant; it is the memory of past breakthroughs that help us to make it through challenging periods of practice or times when our meditation feels blocked, or becomes dry; but our goal is never far away.

Ramakrishna advised his students not to "become distracted by attempting to analyse Divine Mystery ... A few sips of the precious wine of Love will thoroughly intoxicate you.  Why leave the glass untouched on the table while enquiring how the wine was produced or estimating how many gallons may exist in the infinite wine cellar?"

Ultimately it doesn't matter that I cannot understand where the joy comes from, how the love grows, how the empathy keeps on spreading wider and wider.  It. Just. Does.

It doesn't matter that I don't have words to describe my experience, that I don't know how it can be that the discipline of my yoga practice brings me freedom, or that the more regularly I dip into that ocean of peace, the closer it gets.  It. Just. Is.

And I'm ok with that.  I wasn't always, but I am now.  Your meditation practice will take you to places you never dreamed of and will help you to see and understand things more clearly; it will help you to slough off behaviours and attitudes that do not serve you to reveal instead your vibrant self.  All you have to do is let it.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Right to be Well

Sometimes I teach people whose bodies are so broken, or so tight, or so painful to them that they are, without knowing or acknowledging it, physically handicapped.  They live alongside the pain in their bodies as some people live with a noisy neighbour or a troublesome colleague; it's annoying, distracting, but ultimately they begrudgingly accept that there are some things you just have to put up with in life. 

Pain in your body is a sign that something is not right.  It is a signal that you are free to ignore, but at your own risk, for small twinges and stabbing infrequent pains over time become chronic problems with effects that knock on to other parts of your body.  Yogis are not immune to the habit of ignoring pain.  I've been in classes where moving ever more deeply into a pose has, in that moment, seemed more important to me than the niggle in my psoas, or the slight compression in my lower back.

I teach a woman whose body is so chronically tight that it must be like living in a suit of armour, and a painful one at that.  She decided that she was finally going to do something consistent and serious about this (having dabbled with various treatments and therapies over the years, but having given up on all of them without having given them much commitment) and so she found me and came to yoga.

She told me that her back was painful, a kind of chronic dull ache and the occasional stab of shooting pain; she told me that she loved to sew, but could not sit for long any more and had to leave most of the work in her beloved garden to her husband, as she is physically unable to do much bending and lifting.  Everything else was, she told me, absolutely fine.

We started to work and I noticed that her shoulders were out of line and that her arm movements were therefore severely restricted; I enquired as to whether she suffered from shoulder pain.  "Oh yes," she replied, "I had a frozen shoulder on the left and the doctor wants to operate on the right shoulder to release an impingement there."

We continued.  Her neck seemed very tight to me, her shoulders slightly raised and the movements of her neck limited; I asked her if she suffered from tightness in her neck: "Oh yes, sometimes it really hurts and I wake up once in a while unable to move my neck at all."

Onwards.  Your knees?  "Well, I can't bend down in a squat because my knees hurt too much and they ache if I've walked the dog up and down the hill near my house."

We had a lot of work to do.  More than this lady understood or necessarily needed to know about on that first day.  We started with her shoulders, gentle movements to begin to unlock the tight muscles around her upper arms and shoulders and to begin to ease the bones and muscles back into the correct places in her body; to loosen some muscles, stretch and strengthen others.  These are not complicated exercises, but she was committed and sure enough after three weeks she came to see me marvelling at how comfortable her neck felt, showing off her new found ability to roll her shoulders around without pain, to raise her arms slightly above shoulder height in all directions.  She thought it was a miracle.  I told her it was her commitment and approach - she had been gentle, she had done the exercises every day, she had shown patience.

There are many blessings of being a yoga teacher, but this is one of the best ones.  Watching somebody's body unfold, seeing them come to respect and care for their bodies in a way which might be new to them, but which, once started, brings startling rewards relatively quickly.  Working one to one with someone so that we can together come to understand what is really going on in body and mind and how one can be free of pain if one is wise and committed and undertakes to do the simple work of yoga.

I don't know how it is that in the west we view our bodies either as wild creatures to be tamed with diets and sit-ups, weights and punishing exercise regimes, or as annoying encumbrances to be disregarded and taken for granted and occasionally fed with pain-killers when it rebels with pain.  For those of us with the most to learn, it is a combination of the two.

The beauty of yoga is that it serves each individual where and as they find themselves.  With the right teacher and the correct attitude, it works your body against gravity in such a way as to bring grace and vitality to your whole life.  Simple and effective.

The beauty of yoga is that it teaches us about our whole selves.  Through yoga you can begin to decipher the messages your body is giving you instead of overriding them, dulling them with pain-killers, or ignoring them.  Those messages are usually very important on both a psychological and physical level.  What I have witnessed is that if you ignore those messages, you will end up in more pain, more injured, more ill.  Sometimes disastrously and painfully so. 

You are a whole being from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.  You can ignore back pain, sciatic pain, headaches, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, etc. or you can regard them as love letters from your body to your self: they tell you that something about what you are doing needs to change a little; that your approach needs to be different; that you are hurting yourself and that you have it within your power to stop.

Please don't ignore pain.  Please seek to understand it and to uncover its origins, either with the help of a trusted body-worker or a good book.  Tell your teacher if something hurts; if they can't help you, then ask someone else.

Ahimsa is the first of Patanjali's ten guidelines for living well and it means, first do no harm.  It is essential if you are going to live well that you do not harm your body by ignoring what it is trying to tell you.  I have lost count of the number of people that I have met who tell me that they are very well and then, when asked again more deeply this time, admit that yes, well they don't sleep very well, or they have had back pain since their twenties, or that sometimes their migraine headaches are so bad they have to withdraw to a darkened room.

Everyone has the right to be as well and healthy as possible; even those dealing with intractable injuries and chronic pain can improve the circumstances of their daily life in their own body by bringing attention to what needs to change in their body or in their life to bring vitality and free flowing energy to everything that they do.  But it is a right that you have to claim for yourself; nobody can do it for you.  What's stopping you?

Namaste

Monday, 3 June 2013

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it all over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety -

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light -
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver

I wake early most days to meditate.  I have floor to ceiling windows in my third storey bedroom that look out over fields and then on into the woods beyond.  I have a puja table* (a brightly painted Indian dowry tin chest) upon which I collect together things that inspire me (pictures of my teachers, stones from my favourite beach, shells from Holy Isle, notes from my children) and where I light a candle and come to meditate.  It's how I start most mornings: roll out of bed grumbling a little bit and move straight to my cushion to sit for an hour or so.  Easier in the summer when the sun is reaching across the fields touching everything with warmth and light, harder in the winter, rising in the dark and the cold and wrapping my creaky winter self in blankets. 

Meditating sets me up for the day; it reminds me to live from my heart and not my head (my head gets too caught up with stuff I know doesn't really matter if I let it); it helps me to set a positive intention for the day and to set forth on each new day mindfully; it helps me to remember what is important; it reminds me to stay grateful.  It's not always easy, meditating, but it is always beneficial.  It is so important to me that I set my alarm to go off an hour before I have to get up so that I have time to sit (and I am someone who really likes and needs a lot of sleep!).  Over the years I have found that, without doubt, meditating in the morning is more important to me and brings more good things to each day than an extra hour in bed ever could or would.

The morning is traditionally the most auspicious time for meditation and it has always proven the best time for me.  My mind is fresh and free from the troubles or to do lists of the day, I haven't yet begun to fill up the hours with work and caring for my children, with friends and talking, with clearing up and tidying away and laundry and all the stuff of a full life.  And my mind is at its most silent, nobody has engaged me yet in conversation and I haven't yet begun the internal dialogue with myself that is the backdrop to my days. 

If I leave it until later on, it is too easy for me to let it slip (there are always more pressing things to get done), or else I procrastinate and leave it so late that I find myself squeezing it into a time just before a deadline, or I try and sit before bedtime, but I am never at my best just before I go to bed (too sleepy, too keen for the warmth of my bed).

I have a well-established daily meditation practise of many years and it is part of who and what I am now, but your practice does not need to take this form or last so long.  There are lots of ways for you to affirm your commitment to living from your highest sense of self, to meeting each day with positivity and gratitude, and to moving through life with an open heart.

It can begin before your feet even hit the ground: in those first moments when your alarm goes off, or your child comes into your room, you can (silently or out loud) repeat to your self a mantra or positive affirmation that speaks to you of everything you hope to be and achieve in your day.  Or you might write down something that means a lot to you on a slip of paper which you keep by your bed and read on waking.  Only you know what you need and what works for you, but here are some suggestions:

  • I want to be good to myself today
  • I am thankful for this day
  • I want to be kind to others
  • Om namah shivayah (I honour Shiva, or the wisdom within me)
  • “Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” (Meister Eckhart)
  • “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot
  • “Every morning [is] a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”   Henry David Thoreau
  • “When you rise in the morning, form a resolution to make the day a happy one for a fellow creature.”  Sydney Smith
  • “The morning wind spreads its fresh smell. We must get up and take that in, that wind that lets us live. Breathe before it's gone.” Rumi

Placing your feet on the ground as you rise from your bed, you might be inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh's suggestion: “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Or you might want to touch each finger tip mindfully with the pads of your thumbs and repeat four meaningful words to yourself as you do so:

  • Live, laugh, love, forgive
  • Move forward with gratitude
  • Let go, move on
  • Peace, kindness, love, compassion
  • Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you

If you have made a commitment to yourself (to lose weight, stop drinking or smoking, to take up a new hobby or an attitude, etc.), then each morning before you move out into the day is a good time to reaffirm that commitment and remind yourself of the reasons for it.

If you are someone with a particular faith, then you may wish to say a prayer, or to bring to mind your guru or teacher and dedicate your day to living by a specific teaching of theirs that feels particularly pertinent to you at present.

There are a thousand different ways to start your day in something other than a grump, a scowl and a race to the coffee pot and the train; there are a million ways to set out each day in a more positive frame of mind; there are dozens of ways in which you might offer a simple acknowledgement of all that you have to be grateful for each morning and all that you wish to do, be and say. 

And even if somewhere between getting up from your moment of affirmation each morning and arriving at your place of work there has been an argument with a surly teenager, an unholy scramble for the last seats on the train, spilt tea, a broken heel, a forgotten breakfast, I firmly believe that the effects of that morning affirmation percolate through your day in a resolutely positive way.  More than this even, it has a cumulative effect, so that the more you do it, the more that quiet, early morning commitment imbues your day with your highest intentions for yourself and the way you wish to move through your life.

I recommend that you start with something simple. 
I recommend that you stick with one saying/quote/mantra for at least a week or two before you change it so that its potency might be fully unleashed. 
I recommend that you don't beat yourself up about it on the days that you forget. 
I recommend you start first thing tomorrow morning.

Namaste

“Have you ever seen the dawn? Not a dawn groggy with lack of sleep or hectic with mindless obligations and you about to rush off on an early adventure or business, but full of deep silence and absolute clarity of perception? A dawning which you truly observe, degree by degree. It is the most amazing moment of birth. And more than anything it can spur you to action. Have a burning day.”  
Vera Nazarian



*puja table - puja is a ritual offering or ceremony intended to honour or express appreciation for the Divine, while affirming or developing one's own Divinity.  A puja table is a small table dedicated to this practice, often decorated with photos of teachers, flowers, candles, etc.  Like a small shrine.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Seeds of Wisdom

The seeds that I planted with my daughter this Spring have germinated and begun to grow.  We have protected them from the interest of slugs and snails and an inquisitive baby blackbird and they have mostly survived.  We had almost given up on our chilli plants (we got the seeds free from a Mexican restaurant, so things didn't seem hopeful), but even they have now begun to grow, weeks now since we pressed the seeds into the soil.  We have noticed how some of our seeds came up perky and strong quite quickly after planting, but that others have taken longer to emerge, so that we are still, more than two months later, surprised to arrive in the garden with our watering cans to find an extra sunflower, or a new swathe of lupin seedlings.

This is how my yoga practice has always been with me.  Some seeds bloom straight away: the right word from a teacher, the right book at the right time and the teaching falls straight into my life, ready to be encompassed immediately.  I well remember how a beloved teacher came over to me once while I was in a supine twist, put her hand on my low ribs and simply said, "Less pressure."  That was all, but it shot straight into the heart and soul of someone who had been so used to trying too hard that she didn't even know she was doing it.  That one small observation from a perceptive teacher deflated all that strong effort, like a small hole in a balloon, and I could feel my whole self soften and relax as I understood that it was ok, I was ok and I didn't (don't) have to try so hard.

Other seeds have taken longer to germinate, but spring up quickly when the time is right, so that I might be meditating, reading, or practising asana and am suddenly able to embrace a teaching that might have been given to me years previously.  This latter kind of growth is the type that is accompanied by a smile of recognition, "Oh, that's what he meant" and could be physical, mental or spiritual; it's a kind of rush of insight, like a blush, accompanied by a humble acknowledgement of the time it has taken me to get it and gratitude for the teacher that offered the message with the generosity of spirit which allowed me to find my own slow way to it.

Some I have deliberately resisted, throwing books that later became touchstones back on the shelf, half-read, unsure of their benefit and doubtful of their validity at the time when I first found them.  Often these teachings are the most life-changing and in retrospect it feels almost as though, when first given, they were too much too soon, that the ground needed to be worked over and over before the soil was clear enough and rich enough to enable the teachings to root and grow.

Occasionally I have known even as I was with a teacher that I did not understand everything that I was being told, but that it was important.  I sat for three days once with Mukunda Stiles as he spoke to us about yoga philosophy and therapy and I wrote down as many of his words as I could, as if they were in a foreign language, so little did I understand of them.  Sure enough when I return to that notebook from time to time, I find new gems to incorporate into my practice years after we met.

So in the course of my years of yoga practice I have been my own pest, nibbling at the tender stems of growth and understanding, setting myself back, not understanding, refusing to acknowledge and sometimes rejecting what I had been shown by those who loved me, or who had gone along the path before me and were gracious enough to pass their teachings back to me.  I have been a gardener, constantly and consciously working the soil of my soul so that the seeds of knowledge and understanding might find room to flourish. 

But after all these years of seeking and learning, I can honestly say that as in nature, so it is in yoga: things want to grow.  Like the plants that grow miraculously (optimistically) in the cracks of the pavement in the middle of the city, the seeds of the lessons given to us by our teachers will grow.  They might take years, or they might fall into our hearts just at the moment when we are ready; they might need careful and tender nurturing over years, or they might rush up in a moment of epiphany and be so obvious as to be impossible to ignore.  The thing that we have done, by turning up on our mats / studying our books / opening our hearts / listening, is to make of ourselves a rich bed in which the seeds of wisdom might germinate, grow strong roots, take hold and grow; we have consciously cleared our soul-beds of the unwanted weeds of doubt and distraction and turned our faces to the sun, so that we can grow into stronger, more radiant human beings.

 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Fit for Life

Your yoga practice should make you fit for life, that's all.  It's not complicated. 

It's not elongating your muscles until you can get your foot behind your head; nor is it leaping about in a beautiful studio looking wonderful and striking a pose; it's neither putting yourself on display, nor hiding yourself at the back of the class, but arriving at the station called Yourself and being content to bide there a while.  Meditating is not about assuming an uncomfortable physical position and forcing yourself to stay there; nor is it about submitting your mind to a cruel regime of restraint, followed by the idea that you have failed.

Yoga is all about finding comfort in your body, peace in your mind and love in your soul.  That is all.  So if you think you are failing at yoga, if you think you are unable to meditate, if you find your yoga practice all strain and no ease, then it could be that you have brought the wrong expectation to your mat and that it is the expectation that needs to change, not your body, your mind or your soul.  It could be that you need to find a new approach.

When people tell me that they have no time to do the practices their physiotherapist gave them for their back pain; no time for Pilates, no time for yoga, I wonder what they are making time for in their lives and why they are prepared to settle for a life of pain without enquiring into it.

When people say that they have no time for a ten minute daily yoga practice, I wonder why they don't ask themselves what exactly they mean when they say this.  Who is it who doesn't have time for their own yoga practice if the president of the Unites States has time for tennis?  What do they really mean when they say they don't have time?  Do they mean they don't know how?  Do they mean they don't really want it?  Do they mean they are afraid?

Sometimes people ask me what the point of being able to touch my toes is, or why I do backbends, or what I get out of meditation.  I tell them that in yoga, we move between our individual extremes of movement, so that we can find balance between them.  I tell them that meditation brings insight and understanding and helps me to live kinder.  When your body is strong and lithe and your mind is flexible and open, it is easier to walk lightly on the earth and to act with grace.

That is all.  Be well.  Understand that pain is not something to be endured or killed with drugs, but something to be learnt from.  Come to know what it is to be comfortable in your own skin, able to move with ease through your life, to be healthy and well and full of vitality.  Why would you not wish these things for yourself?

Namaste x

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Small Things

As if to prove my point about silence, I was walking quietly in the woods last week when I heard a rustling in the undergrowth - I stopped to listen and to look, expecting to see a bird, which is what I usually find when I peer into bushes to find out who is there.  But this time, underneath a piece of rotten wood, there was a vole, a tiny, shiny-backed, quivering creature trying to keep extremely still to avoid being seen.  It was a wonderful thing to behold and I stood rooted to the spot and hardly breathing so as not to disturb him so that I could watch him for a little longer.  He was so close to me!  It was thrilling.  But then I must have moved, I can't remember now, but I looked away and when I looked back again he had gone, although I was quite sure that he was still watching me.

It's often the tiny things that inspire the greatest wonder in us.  I know a lady who marvels at the cobwebs on her box hedges and won't have anyone trim them, so as not to disturb the beautiful webs, which glisten with dew in the mornings even in the summer.  Personally, I am disproportionately delighted when I glimpse a long-tailed tit in the trees around where I live, beyond the joy of their little pink bodies and long black tails, it's their sweet, chattering calls to each other which please me.  Seeing them lifts my spirits and fills me with gratitude.

Swami Muktananda tells us that if we start to practise wonder at the small things, then with time we find that we are full of awe for all of life; that if we can appreciate the beauty of a spider's web, then in time we will learn how to see the beauty in even the most curmudgeonly and difficult human beings and beyond that, in ourselves.  Gurumayi, his student, writes that our intention should be "toward heightening the general level of our sensitivity to beauty.  In that way, every bit of beauty that you encounter will bring you a little closer to a sustained sense of wonder."

And you don't have to be in the woods to experience beauty.  I used to commute daily into London to work in an office job - it's a grinding journey of late trains, too few seats and grey concrete platforms.  But there are Buddleias growing in the sidings and there is perhaps a warm cup of tea to drink, there is the over-hearing of a mother's conversation with her child, or the smile that passes between one stranger and another as they pass each other on a busy platform.  There is one end of the platform at Paddington tube station where you can stand underground but in the sun and glimpse a square of sky, high overhead.  Beauty is everywhere, as long as we are looking in the right direction and with the correct quality of attention. 

That day in the woods, the day I saw the vole, just after he had moved on and I couldn't see him any more, a man came running past.  As he sped by he grinned and without stopping asked me for directions.  He was a nice man, but as he thundered off down the path, red in the face and panting, enjoying himself no doubt and fulfilling a personal challenge, I thought to myself (and remarked to my dog) that he was certainly not going to see any voles charging through the world like that.  And that's a shame I think.

Namaste

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

In Praise of Silence

I love silence.  Silence is the oil that lubricates my wheels, the store from which all my love comes, the well from which my inspiration springs.

The noisy world never stops shouting out, calling, making us laugh or cry, seducing us with its messages and the apparent comforts of company.  All that hullabaloo, which is wonderful and part of life, but not all there is.  And our minds chatter away, giving us a constant commentary on how we are doing / what that person really meant when they said that / how things are going / how they might be better / how they might be worse / things we have to do / things we have already done, but haven't left behind.  Such a lot of noise.

We used to know silence; we used to live without phones ringing and televisions entertaining, without cars roaring, aeroplanes rumbling and even the wireless had its silent times.  Not so long ago... In our grandparents' childhoods this was.

We used to walk in the hills and be able to hear the small things: the rustle of a creature in the undergrowth, the birds calling to each other in their busyness, bees humming, leaves whispering in the wind, our own footsteps on the ground, our hearts beating, the sound of our breath constantly touching the rest of the world, the murmur of our souls.

In those days we didn't have to consciously decide to leave our phones behind, because there was no phone to take, we were out there alone and nobody that wasn't alongside us could reach us, but God could.  God as I see it, what the Upanishads call That - That beauty, That air, That which is everywhere, That which we are made of, although we might forget.  That which is easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of a busy life, That which is drowned out by the louder, harsher noises in the world.

Nowadays silence is not gifted to us and we have to choose it deliberately.  We have to seek it; ask for it; find it; make space for it in our lives. 

Silence is your friend.  In silence is where you find out who you are and what you want/think/feel.  How can you learn to listen to the rhythms of your soul if you are always drowning it out with other noise?  In silence is where your peace of mind lives.  In silence is where you find that you can say, 'YES' to the world and everything in it.  In silence you will find your own true voice, the things that you think are important, the places you want to be, the stuff you want to do; freed from the clamouring voices of other people's opinions and ideas (be they from loved ones, foes or advertising billboards), in silence is where you meet yourself face to face.

I entreat you to seek out silence in your life; to make for yourself a space for quietude.  Some of you are going to find it difficult, that gentle unwinding of yourself: those of you who have forgotten how to be still will have to relearn the skill; those of you who think that not doing anything but being quiet is a waste of time, will have to find a way to be kinder to yourselves; those whose minds are loud with thoughts will need to find a way to watch those thoughts with a gentle attitude (the silence will help you to find a way to settle them, given time); those who have been using noise as a way to run away from yourselves, will have to take heart and meet yourself with as much tenderness as you can muster.

Silence is a gift that we have forgotten about; it is where all the great spiritual teachers found their inspiration and their solace.  The quieter you become, the more you hear.  Listen; your life is trying to tell you something.

Namaste

Further Reading
A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland




 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Respect for Change

You are tired, you are injured or you are stressed.  The way you have been living of late, even the way you have been practising yoga, is no longer serving you.  You keep coming at things from the same angle as has always worked for you, but now it is like banging your head against a brick wall and the wall will not give.  Your asana practice, which used to nourish you, has become dry and difficult, or else it niggles your injury in spite of your best efforts to work carefully around it; your meditation practice no longer feels alive; you are frustrated, or perhaps you feel low.  It feels as though the solution to your difficulty is just out of reach, so in the meantime you carry on doing what you have always done.  It has always worked for you before, so why not now?

But you are lucky, because part of your yoga practise is about insight: the self-awareness and understanding that comes from sitting quietly with yourself and observing your patterns of behaviour, both positive and negative.  You are blessed that you have the means, first for noticing that you are stuck and second for working out what on earth to do about it.

So, with time (but often not without having exacerbated your injury / fallen further into depression or anxiety / bruised your head from all that banging against the brick wall) you realise that you are attached to the way you have been living and practising and that you are finding it hard to let go of an old way of doing things and move on to a new approach.  You are coming up against the need for change and you are resisting it.

Who can say why this is?  Where and why our resistance to change, even positive change, comes from?  Life is constant change, but human beings find this hard to accept, we like to keep ourselves safe and therefore make our lives predictable; that way we know where we are and can trust that we're not going to be thrown into a situation that we will find hard to handle.  We know, intellectually, that there is no halting change and that some of it is positive, but when it comes to letting go of the old and embracing the new we come up against some pretty basic fears.

We are afraid of the unknown.  What if things get worse before they get better?  What if things get worse and stay worse!  We cannot possibly know what implications changing our lives will have and so it can take us a long time (and a lot of suffering) before we get round to changing things.  Sometimes it feels easier to hold on to old patterns that aren't working any more than to trust that change could make the future better. 

We are afraid of loss.  What might we have to let go of in order to encompass the changes we need?  What might have to die in order for our new choices to emerge?  These losses are not always tangible; for example, you might lose your role of always being the reliable one in your family - you've always liked being that person, it makes you feel wanted and secure; but always being the one that everyone turns to in a crisis might be making you ill, or might be impractical now that you have children of your own, or you might simply have realised that the more you go around saving everyone else, the less likely your loved ones are to be responsible for themselves. 

We are attached to what we have had.  You might long for a less hectic and stressful working life, but be attached to the financial status that you have in your current career.  You might associate having a fast car, a big house or a sharp suit with success; you might even use that outward show of material success to hide inner insecurities.  There are often quite profound reasons why we are unable to let go of things - it can cause is to reflect on some deeply held beliefs and vulnerabilities.

I know yogis who have to go to the chiropractor every month to have their backs put back into line, but are so attached to their traditional practice that they prefer constantly harming themselves to seeking new ways of working with asana.

I know people who are stuck in the rut of repeating old patterns in relationships that lead to unhappiness and loneliness, who need to find a way to give a valid voice to their needs and make themselves heard.

I know people whose jobs make them ill, yet who carry on day in day out, as if they did not have a choice, as if there is no way of ever being content and happy in your working life.

I know myself and how I have done variations of all those things for fear of change.

It is true that when we turn over a new leaf in our lives, we lose forever that page on which some of our happiest times and greatest achievements are written; but it is also true that we cannot write the full story of our lives within the confines of one little page.  Our lives deserve to be writ large and this means being brave enough to turn the page when necessary. 

When things that have been good for us fall apart, it is often so that something better can fall into place.  You just have to be brave and (depending on your disposition and the seriousness of your situation) put a big toe in the water of change / close your eyes, take a breath and jump / or dive in head first and see what happens.

One thing is for certain, if you are injured, stressed, or otherwise at a low ebb and have been for some time, your life is trying to tell you something .  First listen, then follow.  You know what to do and you will do it all in good time, because once you are on this path the only way is forward.

Namaste

Thank you to Helen for writing about her injury so perceptively and for inspiring this blog x

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Yoga Holiday

I'm running a yoga holiday this September near the coast on a farm in the Suffolk countryside
 
If you love yoga, meditation, pranayama and relaxation,
 
If you like good vegetarian food, good company and walks on the beach,
 
Then join us for a beautiful weekend of mindfulness and yoga
 
More details here
 
Namaste,
Sarah

Thursday, 4 April 2013

I Choose Growth

When it comes to life, I choose growth.

I choose growth over stagnating in a job or way of life that doesn't fulfil me.

I choose growth over limiting ideas about who I am and what I will be able to achieve in my life.

In the face of my own fear and lack of self-confidence, I choose growth.

Ignoring the call of Safety entreating me to stay where it is quiet and safe and where I know what to expect from life, I choose growth.

Knowing full well that some of the things I do and feel and say will not be understood by the people who love me most and know me best (let alone the ones who don't even like me), I choose growth.

Taking responsibility for the mistakes I have made and the pain I have caused others, I choose growth.

Promising to listen to myself and stay true to my own belief system, I choose growth.

Committing to take action and not stand idly by, I choose growth.

Finding the courage to do the things I know I have to do, face the pain I have to face, have the conversations (real or imagined) that I need to have, I choose growth.

Being brave enough to look, listen, understand and forgive, forgive, forgive everyone (including myself), I choose growth.

One life. 
Not so long a time to work all this stuff out. 
And we waste so much time, don't we, trying to pretend things aren't happening, that everything will be ok if we just knuckle down/keep on swimming/pull our socks up/grit our teeth/buy new shoes/have another drink/eat. more. cake.

Did any of that work for you?
Nor me

So in the face of it all, I still choose growth. 
Growth is living, learning, loving better.
It's finding and abiding with the peace in my heart.

And when I get to death's door, I hope I look back and feel confident that in my life I was out in the car on the rollercoaster of life, not in the waiting room waiting for someone to give me permission to ride, or thinking I should stay where I am because it might rain, or that it looks like fun, but a bit too fast and lot too scary. 

I want look back with gratitude on the people who held my hand, gave me a push, or held my coat while I took the ride of my life.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Yoga for Children with Special Needs

I could not tell you why I have always wanted to teach yoga to children with special needs; there is no reason for it, other than I just want to do it. 

Three years ago I took a course with Jo Manuel at the Special Yoga Centre in London, where she taught us how to teach yoga to children (she taught us a lot more besides, but that was the essence of the training).  Last year I took a course with her again, this time to learn how to bring yoga to children with special needs.

Now I am teaching children with special needs every week.  It is the most joy I have ever had on a yoga mat.  And the children teach me more than I could ever hope to teach them.  All of the lessons they show me are at the heart of yoga philosophy, it's just that when you bring yoga to children with special needs, those lessons are all out loud and upfront.

Let me explain.  The Bhagavad Gita tells us to forget attachment to the outcome of what we do:

'You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work.  You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction.  Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established in himself - without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.  For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.'

II:47 translated by Eknath Easwaran
 

You can forget about expectation when you teach yoga to children with special needs and you can forget about plans and controlling the future.  What is success when you are on a yoga mat with a child with special needs is simply meeting them exactly where they are at that moment on that day.  Success for one child might be sitting on their mat.  That's all.  Just coming into that space and sitting down, just for a moment.  For that child, on that day, this might be more momentous than you doing the handstand you have always longed to do, but been afraid of. 

In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali explains that avidya is the source of all suffering; avidya is the mistaken belief that we are all separate, when the opposite is true.

'Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows...'
YS II.4 translated by BKS Iyengar

When you meet a child on a yoga mat, you find that you are looking beyond their bodies, their faces, their behaviour, the way they express themselves, to the spark in them which is the same spark that animates you.  You look for the light.  That is all.  And the light in these children is astonishingly bright and clear.

For many of these children, their diagnosis walks beside them like a dominating older sibling; it is the thing that is at first apparent.  But when you teach yoga to these children, the child comes first, shining with their particular skills and talents, joys and gifts. 

And then there is the love. If you have read this blog before, then you know that yoga is all about love.  I was astounded and deeply moved, when I watched Jo Manuel teach children (some of them severely disabled), by the quality of the love she gives: open, full of humour and joy, complete acceptance.

When you teach yoga to children with special needs you must get yourself completely out of the way.  The little story of your likes and dislikes, the things you want and don't want, the way you feel today will get in the way of this work. 

Rumi puts it best:

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

We all have them, these barriers, but when you take them away (as you will know if you have ever dared to fall in love) then there is nothing between us but love and we meet in yoga as perfect equals. 

And here is the thing: without those barriers, when you go looking for the light you will find it.  Here is something that Dawn French said on Desert Island Discs:

'My dad's faith in me was such sunshiny warmth that I grew towards it like a tomato plant.'

May we all grow towards each other like tomato plants, basking in the joy of uncomplicated love.  But may we also learn to take up the responsibility of being like the sun, shining our warmth onto others.  Love is not out there; love is in here.

Non-attachment, love, seeking the light in oneself and others, respecting every living thing for its own unique attributes and beauty, finding our true self and letting it shine out in humble honesty, loving others such that they are confident to show their light to us... these are the lessons inherent in any yoga practice.  These are the things I learn every week when I meet these children on their yoga mats.

Namaste.



 

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Silence

When you get really quiet you can listen to the love-filled voice of your own heart, which knows you so well, your darkness and your light, and wants nothing - nothing at all - but to love and care for you in the way that best serves you.

That voice will guide and protect you.  But it will not necessarily bring you what you want.  Your life will not necessarily look how you expected it to look, you might not have the things you expected to have, and other people might not understand your choices.  It could lead you to some lonely places, because sometimes we forget that we are never alone.

The voice of your own heart is gentle and easily trampled by those who think they know better and by the clanging abrasiveness of modern life.  It is easily drowned out by the noise of your mind shouting to you about who you should and shouldn't be.  That is why we need to practice; to practice listening to the silence and to what emerges from it.

When you learn how to listen to your inner voice your life might take some surprising turns; but it is certain to bring you the one thing that you really want and need: your own true life.

And it always begins with silence.

Namaste.

 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Yoga Sutra 1.33 - Growing Kindness

The teachings of the Yoga Sutras were given by Patanjali some 2,000 years ago in the form of 196 sutras (threads) of wisdom. Each sutra contains a wealth of wisdom and taken all together, the Yoga Sutras present for the student of yoga the means, the goals, the obstacles and the joys of yoga practice.  It is all there in succinct form, what Mr Iyengar calls the threads upon which the pearls of yoga wisdom are strung.

Each sutra contains a teaching, which may be studied with your teacher, and extrapolated to uncover its full meaning.

Yoga Sutra 1.33 reads

maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya
visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam

The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness toward the joyful, compassion toward the suffering, happiness toward the pure, and impartiality toward the impure.

Translated by Alistair Shearer
 
'The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated.'  What a beautiful idea: that we all have loving kindness, peace and generosity within us and that it can be cultivated, like a flowering plant, that it might grow stronger and shine forth and become the lens through which we view the world.
  
Patanjali goes on to assert that we should be friendly toward the joyful, which seems obvious enough, yet we can all recall times when we have felt a little jealous of someone else's good fortune; a little miffed when someone else gets praise and we don't; disappointed when someone else gets the thing that we have secretly longed for.  It's human nature to respond in such a way, but Patanjali offers an alternative: he suggests that we cultivate friendliness and positivity toward the joyful, thereby transcending our feeling of separateness. Seen in this way, we can embrace someone else's joy as if it it were our own, aligning ourselves with what is positive in the world.
 
'Compassion toward the suffering' - not just those who we know and love who are suffering, but those that we have never met and never will; compassion for those we find hard to love; compassion for those who are experiencing problems that we might think are self-inflicted or who we don't understand.  Patanjali asks that we move beyond judgement of another's situation and cultivate compassion towards them instead.  This might also include compassion towards ourselves if we are suffering; so many people are their own worst critics. 
 
'Happiness towards the pure' - how wonderful simply to be happy in the presence of someone who is virtuous, someone who is happy, someone who knows how to show love; to appreciate them for what they have and what they do and what they show us; to learn from those people by opening our hearts to them and letting them teach us what they have already understood.
 
'Impartiality toward the impure.'  Mukunda Stiles translates this as: equanimity toward vice.  I think this might be the most difficult part of the sutra.  It is very difficult not to judge and complain about people, to gossip, to deride, to blame.  The Dalai Lama writes in his book, How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life of his friend who was imprisoned in a Chinese Communist gulag for almost eighteen years:
 
'He told me ... he faced danger on a few occasions. I thought he was referencing a threat to his own life. But when I asked, "What danger?" he answered, "Losing compassion toward the Chinese.” 
 
To view with compassion our foes, our opponents, the people we disagree with or whose decisions we do not approve of, to have compassion for those who fight us, or hate us, or who do terrible things... that takes grace and practice.  That takes a lot of love.  But here is the thing about love: it has to be given wholeheartedly and unreservedly, for if you are rationing it, you have not yet learnt how to love.  It is that simple.  So fight for what is right, argue your point, abhor violence and those who do harm, but view each human with whom we disagree, or who has done a terrible thing with as much kindness as a human who is on our side and only does good.  Until we accept that our foes are as human as we are, with the same fallibility and frailties, that they have been hurt and they have suffered too, we will not learn how to live in peace.  If the Dalai Lama's friend can feel compassion for the Chinese who imprisoned him for 18 years, we can find it for the man that jumped ahead of us in the traffic queue.
 
There is another way of interpreting this Sutra.  Mr Iyengar translates Sutra 1.33 as follows:
 
'Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent.'
 
Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita advises: 'those ... who are the same in pleasure and pain, are truly wise' (2:14) and Kipling wrote: "meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same." 
 
When we can maintain our equanimity and humility in the face of pleasure and pain, success and failure, then our hearts will be at peace.  We cease then to require praise or success to feel content; and when days are difficult and things go wrong, we are not thrown into despair; without the barometers of success/failure to measure us, we are free simply to notice that here we are, engaged in life and living and doing ok.
 
Another way of reading this Sutra and applying it to our lives is that when we find ourselves experiencing an emotion that we do not enjoy (fear, anger, dislike) it dissipates if we deliberately practice the opposite:  so where we find meanness within, we can cultivate kindness to counteract it; where we find sorrow, seek joy; where we discover anger, work at patience.  By practising its opposite, we may diminish those negative feelings and bring peace to our hearts and minds.
 
The teachings held within the Yoga Sutras are like the tiny seeds from which great banyan trees of knowledge and understanding grow.  With the help of teachers and our own practice, we can bring to our lives the wise counsel of those who have trodden the path before us.
 
Sutra 1:33 is one that I return to time and again, because it is about kindness and love.  It is about the possibility of increasing our capacity for compassion, expanding the breadth of our love, strengthening our capability for understanding and connection.  The world needs more of all of those things.
 
Namaste.