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.



Wednesday, 20 March 2013


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.



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.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Winter and Me

I used to think that I was like a bear in the winter, that all I wanted was a warm cave and a pile of leaves to snuggle up in, so that I might hunker down and sleep until the daffodils push their optimistic little selves up through the ground.

I struggled with the dark months.  I railed against the slowing down of my body, I became angry with my low energy levels, I fought the inertia I felt.  It will be no surprise to you to know that this only made things worse.  In the end I would fall into a depression (and I mean that in the true sense of the word) and would sit in that dark place until something shifted and I was able to move out from underneath that black umbrella of solitude.

It took a long time and my commitment to yoga practice to understand more about myself and the things I said and did to myself that took me away from peace and towards sadness and tiredness.  I noticed, for example, that I am very sensitive to light, that when the sun shines in the winter I must get out and turn my face to it and that even when the sun is not shining, the light is out there and I need to be in it.  I have my dog to thank for that realisation.  I take the right vitamins (which I discovered through trial and error).  I understand now that when I have done something that exhausts me, I can counterpose and replenish myself with rest and quiet, and I give myself that time.  Latterly I have even begun taking a nap in the afternoon when/if I can:- miracle!  Far from making me feel like a slacker, it rejuvenates me and I have some energy with which to proceed with my day, freed from that fug of tiredness. 

I credit yoga with this insight because it teaches us how to notice.  To notice what brings us health and peace, what brings us discontent and illness.  And if the first step is noticing, then the next step is doing something about it, because we all want to be well and we all know what happens when we are not (we are cross, we are short-tempered, we have no time for anyone). 

Thus yoga provides us with both the context for understanding ourselves and the cure for what ails us - it gives us the silence in which to observe our habits and tendencies; it gives us healthful movement; it reminds us that we are connected, that we each have a place in the world.

So now I think I might be less of a hibernating bear (battling against my desire to shut down completely) and more like the daffodil. 

All winter I have been like a buried daffodil bulb, silent, dry, seemingly inert, and yet all winter I have been quietly alive, living simply and quietly, saving my energy and storing it up for when the sun starts shining again.  I have filled myself with food, books, yoga and being with friends.  I have nurtured that quiet sap that pulses deep in the heart of myself.  And now that Spring has begun in earnest I find myself reaching up, moving out and looking for the sun in which to bloom.  I baked a cake last weekend and I have started pulling the recipe books down from the shelves, my asana practice has become more expansive, and here I am writing again.  I feel like the head of a daffodil, bobbing in the sunshine, alert to the possibility and promise of life. 

I can congratulate myself on my third winter without depression.  I am grateful for my yoga practice for giving me the patience to understand what lead me there, the fortitude to do the things that keep me well and the patience to move compassionately through the tough days.  We all have tough days.

However you find the winter months, whatever you feel about the arrival of Spring, I hope that yoga brings you the space in which to watch yourself closely, to allow yourself the times when you need to move slowly, to embrace the times when your creative juices flow and your energy rises and everything in between.  Truly this is how you learn to swim in the river of life, instead of wasting your time and energy fighting against the flow of who and what you are.