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.