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?


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.


“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.