Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Voices

Valuing yourself as much as you value others is a tricky subject for many yogis.  In my experience most yogis are kind and humble people, apt to put others before themselves; indeed, doing so is part of our practice.

But we cannot give wholly if we are not ourselves whole, as the Dalai Lama puts it:
"One must be compassionate to oneself before external compassion".

Let's begin with the way you talk to yourself: sometimes the playlist we have running in our heads is not kind; I know that the voices in my head have sometimes been downright mean and destructive; what's more, because those voices in our head stay in our head and are never openly expressed or challenged, we tend to think that those internal voices speak the truth.  I recently found out that one of my dearest friends believes that if everyone knew what she was really like, then nobody would love her - life for her is therefore a continuous struggle to hide those aspects of herself that perceives to be unacceptable in order to avoid being rejected by those she loves.

I sometimes see people in class struggling with voices that tell them, with utter conviction, that they are rubbish at yoga and will never be able to do it (I salute them, those brave ones, who keep turning up anyway).

Recently a new student asked me what you do about the voices in your head.  You wouldn't believe how beautiful this person is: a gentle spirit, kind, friendly and gifted.

Here is my answer:

Listen to the voices in your head.  Make friends with them.  Get to know who they are and what their purpose is: in my experience they want to keep you safe - they want to save you from being embarrassed, so they tell you that you can't start yoga until you've lost a few pounds; they want to save you from showing yourself up, so they keep you small and in safe places that you are familiar with; they want to circumvent any harsh judgement, so they tell you that your painting/writing/vocal (fill in the blank) skills are no good, that way nobody will ever see or hear you; that way, nobody will be able to hurt you with their criticism.  But I'm afraid that listening to those voices and following that road leads to a small, frightened life, when what we are seeking as yogis is an expansive, generous life of constant growth and growing understanding.

Make befriending yourself part of your practice; meet with the voices in your head, so that you can contend with them and find ways to rewrite your internal script, making it more kindly and positive and thereby freeing yourself from the negativity that hurts you.

Start with this: you are beautiful; you are here for a reason and you serve the world by finding out that reason and using it for good.  Learn how to overcome your internal naysayers and confidently be who you are.

Try this: when one of your negative inner recordings starts rolling, stop it short, thank it kindly for trying to keep you safe, but remind it that it is not needed and move forward with your day.

Think about this: if you are someone who gives all of their time and energy to other people, but who is regularly unwell, or low on energy - why is it that you think that other people deserve your attention and care, but you yourself do not?  Learn what you need to be well, then learn both how to ask for it and how to give it to yourself.

There is so much that you have to learn about yourself and there are so many things in the way of your own sense of peace, as Rumi wrote:

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

Love is a given; it's clearing all of the stuff that we put in the way of love that is our life's work.

One place in which you can begin your journey towards peace is to meet, greet and get to know all of those voices inside yourself, to encourage the kind ones and to leave aside the unkind; to nurture yourself as if you were your own child, for whom the only thing you wish is a life filled with peace and love. 

You were made this way for a reason and you are supposed to be this way, so please stop fighting it and let yourself be who you are in all of your glory without letting those harsh, judgemental, fearful voices within rule you.

Namaste x

Friday, 17 October 2014

Coming Home - Yoga Sutra II,4

When we practise yoga we are engaged in the process of coming home to ourselves, committing constantly to keep our life's focus on what really matters. 

What really matters is having a kind and forgiving outlook on life, both towards others and to ourselves.  What really matters is acting wisely and creating enough energy within to be able to be available when other people need us. 

The events of our lives - the story - is just the surface matter - in yoga we dive beyond that choppy ocean's surface into the deep and abiding stillness that we always find within.  It's inside that stillness that we discover that we are nothing but peace and love. 

More than this: when we plumb the depths of peace and love consistently in yoga practice, we discover that all of our responses and decisions begin to come from that place and that we cannot help but become more loving and peaceful people as a result, people who are slow to judge and quick to ask instead what we can offer.

Yoga brings us home to who we really are - not mothers, fathers, children, workers, lovers, friends, providers, or any of the other labels we could give ourselves - but just this: human beings living a short life and finding meaning in it through the giving and receiving of love, through an appreciation of beauty, through simplicity and kindness.

Patanjali told us thousands of years ago that our suffering comes from our forgetting that love and peace is who we really are.  He called it avidya, lack of understanding, or ignorance.  And he explained that the way through that wrong-thinking is to practise yoga

Samadhi bhavanarthah klesa tanukaranartasca
The practise of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to peace

Yoga is a simple practice; we use it to strip away the distractions that engross us; and then we set up camp within our hearts and live for it and from it, to the best of our ability and always.

Om shanti x
 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Fall

My teacher told me that life is full of circles, that we go round and round in ever more subtle circles, further and further inward, ever more profound; she told me that we fall and are crushed, that we emerge from the fall into something like a renewal, that we live for a time in that honeymoon period of new understanding, deeper compassion and growth and that then, once again, we begin to become troubled, confused, the path ahead obscured by weeds, perilous with potholes and befuddled by switchbacks and seeming wrong turns.  Off we go again towards a fall.  The falls can really hurt.

My teacher is a wise lady, considerably older than me; as old as my mother; my teacher stands humbly before a crowd and leads us into the quiet and personal depths of meditation; my teacher shines through the darkness of a fall, sharing the compassion grown in the falling and letting us know that all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, as another great woman told us.

Before the fall there is confusion and disappointment, or anger and dissatisfaction, or loss on a sometimes great scale; the period running up to a fall is characterised in my life by the feeling of struggling against a rip in the sea, battling for all I am worth against the pull, when everybody who knows the sea knows that you don't fight a rip, you let it take you where it wants to take you.  I know that too, and I have seen enough stumbles in my life to know not to be afraid of the falling, yet still I struggle.  Ishavara pranidhana - surrender - so very difficult; so hard to let go of the illusion of control.

In the midst of a fall I have known people to leave off their practise, I don't know why, for I have found meditation during periods of loss and pain to be revelatory; how else do we understand that alongside great suffering there is always, always joy; a deep and abiding joy; how else would we learn that if not by sitting quietly with that which we call Divine moving through us during those dark, dark days.

Then, afterwards, when the ashes of whatever has been lost or has had to change have settled around us and we are ready to begin again, always beginning again, over and over renewing our faith in the process, our trust in our teachers who show us that this must be the way, a sense of clarity and purpose renewed; a conviction that although there has been loss, it has been a kind of scorching of the earth, clearing the way for new and subtler understanding and an ever-widening openness of heart; the kind of heart that welcomes in other people's pain without judgement; the kind of heart that brings forgiveness to others, but also, importantly, to ourselves.

We step forward from blackened earth into colour with our newly cracked-open hearts on our sleeves, our bodies open up and become softer and more yielding, we understand now that only brittle things break: things which are soft remain solid in spite of everything and only softness can comfort those who are in pain.

We have a better understanding now of who we are and what we are here for; we resolve again to stay true to that knowledge.  It is not always easy and we have learnt this by now: people do not always understand, some things must be left behind if we are to move on and there will be parts of ourselves that we have to let go.  But once this is done, we can breathe again, there is space and possibility and we are reassured by our own clarity of mind and by how the road seems to rise to meet us in our new endeavours.

If you understand this blog; if you are on your own journey and this makes sense to, then I hope you find encouragement here.  None of it is in vain.  We are walking up a mountain together, each of us is following a different trail, but all paths lead to the top.  If you are roaming the foothills lost, know that others have been there before you and have made it through; I am sorry for your trouble, but I would not rob you of it, because I know what it has to teach you if you are willing to learn.  If you are reading this, then you are willing.

Namaste x





 

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Reciprocity

She booked herself a one to one with me out of the blue and arrived on my doorstep perfectly on time one cold winter's morning.  She sat on my sofa before we practised and I asked her about her health and why she had come to yoga; like many people that I have taught, she had been thinking about trying yoga for a number of years, but beyond a couple of classes here and there, had never found the right teacher.  She had suffered, a couple of years before our meeting, a catastrophic car accident that had nearly killed her and left her handicapped, although you would not know it on meeting her, such is her indomitable spirit.  She is Amazonian, intelligent, self-determining and through hard work, dedication and bloody-minded will power she had saved her body from the story that the doctors had written for her (you won't walk again, you will need a wheelchair and you will never have a child).  When she arrived at my door, she didn't even have crutches with her.

She gave a great show of being in control; I think she might even have thought for a time that she was; but when I acknowledged what she had told me, when I said to her, 'You are in pain' her face crumpled like a child's and she wept and couldn't stop.

I think that my doorstep was the end of one particular road for this woman and she knew it.  For many years she had battled against the femininity of her body, she had trained it to be strong and tough and had rejected the soft lines of herself, scraping her long hair back into the severest of ponytails; I'll hazard a guess that she liked to think that she could take on any man at any task and whip his butt at it (in fact, I'll bet that this was more than often true).  But in living this way, she had been in denial of an essential part of herself - her femininity, her mothering spirit, her emotional self - and it is impossible to be whole and healthy if you are at war with any part of yourself; if there is something of yourself that you refuse to accept and love.

I well remember the day I asked her, as she lay on her back on her mat, How do you feel about the word acceptance?  She snorted with laughter, instinctively rejecting it, her habit was to change through willpower that which she did not want or like, not learn how to accept it.

Yoga transforms everyone who approaches it, but teaching this woman was like watching a plant emerge in seconds from seed to flower in one of those time-lapse photography clips from a nature show, it was so quick and so clear that she was growing, changing, blooming.  She did all this herself, as all yoga students do, my teaching was just the water she used to tend the germ of a better life that was already within her.  So I showed her how to move, how to bend and stretch, how to strengthen and protect, and I recommended books, Sanskrit chants and meditations and she took them away with her and made them into something of her own.

It was hard for her to lose her habit of going for everything at full throttle, she would move too far forward too quickly and her body would hurt for a while, or she'd have a set-back and would have to stop for a time.  She had always lived this tough way, it was the story of her life, only now, through yoga and her commitment to it, she began to learn how to listen, how to notice the messages her body was sending her and how to acknowledge them and take pause, rather than ploughing on regardless, or worse, forcing her way through them and hurting herself even more.

One time she came to practise here and I was astounded to watch her; she had become graceful, tender, almost balletic in the way she moved her body; it takes great strength to move in such a fluid and gentle way and I told her so; she smiled at me, because I believe she had already felt this in herself, I was simply voicing something that she already knew.

She practised regularly, both with me and at home; she meditated - can you imagine?  This woman who had battled through life armed with her intellect and her determination, sitting still for long periods of time in compliant silence.  It was on her meditation mat that she truly met herself in kindness; it was here that she found the wisdom to choose differently, to cease habitual, harmful patterns and replace them with a new way of living which was true to her authentic self; it was here that she discovered her vulnerability and learnt not to be afraid of it.  Over and over again I watched her renew her commitment to this simple method that worked. 

And, as is so often the case, things started to change for her in life as on her mat: she met a man good enough to deserve her, she found a way to leave the job that had robbed her of so much of her vitality and freedom, she fulfilled her dream of moving away from the city to live in the countryside; and she has time now for the simple things that she hadn't realised were so very important to her well-being.

I have seen such transformations too often now to doubt that yoga plays a huge part in it, as my teacher says, 'These things might well happen without yoga, but they take longer.'  This beautiful woman had reached the furthest point of living in a way that broke her body, tortured her mind and rejected a significant part of her natural self.  She simply could not continue that way any longer, because it would have killed her; and in the face of that knowledge, she was brave enough to find her way to yoga and then to do the hard work that yoga demanded of her if she was to stay true to it, the hardest of which is the silent inner work that must occur if we are to progress.

Hers is a story of extremes; not all of us must reach the pain in which she was living before we find a new way to move through the world, yet all of us will inevitably meet those moments when we realise that we have been living in a way that doesn't serve us, that there is another way of being, one which encompasses more of who we really are and allows us to express not only our strength and knowledge, but also our vulnerability and kindness.  Sometimes we turn away from those transitions and sometimes we run towards them, sometimes we are patient and can wait for life to unfold, and others we feel we simply cannot go on this way for another second and things have to change immediately.

It sounds trite to say that every student teaches me more than I could ever hope to teach them, but it is true.  Teaching this woman lead me to understand more about pain and how the brain processes it, more about the structure of the body, the nerves of the spine, the human form.  She taught me about accepting unacceptable things, that we might move forward with sensitivity to our own limitations, not wage war on ourselves by fighting them.  She taught me about how much we can grow from being broken.  She showed me how it is possible to understand and accept one's whole self and in so doing find an authentic way of life, full of vitality and enthusiasm and become the human that we are meant to be, doing the things that we love.  In this era where the concept of self-determination and individual will predominates, she demonstrated to me that none of this is possible if we do not learn how to reach out to others and allow them to see our vulnerability; none of this possible if we don't know how to ask people for help and let them love us.  And she taught me that fear will keep you small and stuck; that if we are to embrace our whole self and live a full life, we have to let go of fear of loss, fear of change, fear of pain, fear of being different: her life now is so unlike the one she had before and she herself is a renewed person, the things she wants and needs now are so simple and so few; she left behind a fast-paced, high-pressure, well-paid environment for somewhere entirely new and unexpected, and she has never, not once, regretted it; her only wonder is that it took her so long to get there.

Namaste

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Kintsukuroi - Yoga Sutra II, 37

My friend is about to set sail on her boat.  She is planning on a visit to the Channel Islands, then on to France and down to Italy.  She has a plan; she has her qualifications; she knows how to sail and where she hopes to go, but it is not she who will decide where she actually ends up: That will depend on things she cannot control: the wind, the tides, the weather. 

I am watching my grandmother come to terms with the end of her life; seeing her struggle with the difference between the life she actually had and the one she'd hoped for; I think that the difference between the two makes her quite angry.

I am sent a blog from someone who writes with candour and humility about her depression: She has had to learn the difference between her dream of a perfect self and the reality of a human life, which is sculpted into beauty from the mess and scrappiness of the everyday, not surgically cut from the cloth of our plans and our will to see them become reality.

Patanjali tells us in Yoga Sutra II, 37:

"By abiding in freedom from desire of other people's possessions that which is precious is revealed and all that is beneficial is freely given."

Translated by Mukunda Stiles

I am struck by my teacher's translation of this sutra: "that which is precious is revealed and all that is beneficial is freely given." 

We often read or hear someone posit that although they would not have chosen to have a certain event happen to them, in retrospect neither would they alter a single thing; it is a kind of accommodation, an acceptance that we don't always know what is in our best interests, what is going to break open our hearts that we might live forever with more wisdom and compassion.

We don't get what we want in life, we get what is beneficial to us and this is what helps us to uncover the rich tapestry of our own life stories.  We set off like my friend in her boat, with a plan of action and an idea of what we are going to achieve.  Things naturally beyond our control throw us off course and take us to places we did not want to visit: the uncharted waters of bereavement, disappointment, sadness, disagreement and uncertainty.  What are we to do?  Often we ask ourselves, Why me?  Or even, What is wrong with me that this should happen (and sometimes, keep on happening).

Why me? is the right question, but we need to ask it in a different tone: We need to ask with curiosity, so that it becomes, Why me?  What do I have to learn?  Why me?  Which of my weaknesses and blind spots are being revealed?  Why me?  How am I going to grow where I need to grow?  What do I need to move towards?  What do I need to let go of? 

When we ask this way, we avoid victimhood and anger and fill our lives with meaning and purpose.  When we ask this way, we make something beautiful and full of love out of difficulty and strife.

You have probably heard the Japanese word kintsukuroi: it is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. 

Knowing that we have the capacity to become more beautiful from the cracks in our veneer, stronger from the things that might have shattered us, we cannot sit for long in the kind of self-pity that bleats, Why me?  Poor me.  Knowing this to be the case leads us to embrace the light and the dark in our day and to know that we are complete.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Creating Time - Yoga Sutra 1.30

My good friend is reading a book; it's called Mindfulness for Busy People, or Meditation for People Who Don't Have Time to Meditate, or Peace for People with Hectic Lives.  Or something like that.

And I wonder, where are the people who are not busy and who have so much free time in their day that they have no difficulty in finding time for meditation, mindfulness and yoga (sadhana)?

They don't exist.

Everybody I know is busy.  My friends, colleagues and loved ones are busy with work, busy with babies, busy doing the things they love to do, they are busy with laundry, busy washing the car, busy at the supermarket.

It's not the case that we don't practise because we don't have time is it;  because busy people we know practise every day.

So there must be another reason. 

It's not easy, this work.  The work of looking closely inwards and discovering that some of the things that we find there could do with some improvement (we are cross, we are fearful, we are judgmental, impatient, unconfident... we don't want to be, but we are). 

This sitting still is not easy.  We want to move.  We can think of a million things we ought to be doing; we are plagued by a hundred thoughts.  It's not peaceful!  We want to give up.

This quietly moving with (increasing) grace and working on the weaknesses in your body; the discipline required to roll out your mat and give yourself over to yoga for a few minutes a day.  This uncertainty over what we should do and for how long; this doubt over whether or not we are doing it correctly, or whether there is in fact any point in a practice that lasts five minutes.

Patanjali already told us all about the obstacles that we put in the way of our sadhana:

"There are nine types of interruptions to developing mental clarity:
illness, mental stagnation, doubts, lack of foresight, fatigue, over-indulgence, illusions about one's true state of mind, lack of perseverance and regression.  They are obstacles because they create mental disturbances and encourage distractions."

Yoga Sutra I.31
translated by TKV Desikachar

In twenty years of yoga practice, I think I have met them all.

It's ok, it's ok.  Whatever you do and however you do it, is ok.  Just as long as you are doing it. 

You already know that these simple methods work, because your teachers have demonstrated this to you in what they teach and how it makes you feel; in how they themselves live. 

Having time to practise is a discipline and a choice, not luck.  Nobody is going to come to you and carve out for you a ten minute space in every day and demand that you use it for practice.

Only you have the power to say to yourself, simply and without fanfare, 'Yes, this is good.  Yes, I want to live in peace.  This yoga works and I am going to do it every day.'  Only you can find the humility to sit with the uncertainty and the fear and do it anyway.

In Patanjali's list of obstacles he doesn't mention being busy.  I suggest that being busy is the disguise we use for all of the other things that get in our way.  So this summer, perhaps you will stop yourself every time you think of your practice, but tell yourself you are too busy.  Ignore yourself!  Roll out your mat, or sit on your cushion, set your timer for five minutes and in spite of all of the other things that you are going to do that day, perhaps because of them, practice.

"Practice and all is coming"
Sri K Pattabhi Jois
 
 
Namaste x


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Be a Warrior for Love

"You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery.  Be a warrior for love."
Cheryl Strayed

We don't always get what we want from life or from our relationships with others. 

I am friends with a man whose father is dying, he only has a few months left to live.  There is so much that has been unsaid between them; the son feels that his father has never really understood him or appreciated him for what he has achieved in his life; there are things he wants to say, but they are angry things and there are things that he wants to explain or to understand, but he doesn't know if now is the time, they have so little of that left, is it worth spending it on going over old slights and hurts and trying to get to the bottom of things?

I am friends with a woman whose relationship is faltering; she doesn't know if she loves her partner any more, or whether or not he can give her the things she needs, the recognition and the support that she feels that she lacks.

These things are difficult.  These stories are significant and the difficulties they present are substantial, but I only use them as examples, because every day and in every relationship, we find ourselves wondering how much we should say if someone hurts us; how much we are allowed to expect from another person; every day we hope to be recognised for who we really are and to be understood.

But if I ask you how well you understand yourself, and if you give me the honest answer, then it is probably that you are just learning to understand yourself and that sometimes you don't understand yourself at all.  I ask you then, how easy you think it must be for someone else, even a loved one or a parent, to understand you.  How well do we truly understand anyone?

Here is what I have found: that if in the face of your very real need for understanding from someone, you reach out and seek to understand them instead, then something inside you will shift, something within you will make way for peace, that in giving what you most require, by some strange chemistry, you get that very thing back. 

When you do this, when you tell someone that which you most need to hear (You did that well, You look wonderful, I love you), you experience an inner softening towards them; you realise that they are as vulnerable as you are.  Sometimes you will discover that the thing you most need to hear is the very thing that they most need to hear; and the one thing they cannot say.

I am suggesting that you always seek to be the bigger person; not because you'll get some reward or recompense, but because you love people and you understand that we are complicated creatures and that nobody has had it easy; because you forgive them. 

I came to this lesson late in life, and not soon enough to mend my broken relationship with my father, whom I haven't seen or heard from in over a decade.  I would have liked to learn this lesson sooner, so that I could have sought to understand him more than I sought for him to understand me.

Loving people more than they appear to love you; giving comfort and cheer to the very person from whom you most expect it; encouraging someone to whom you went for encouragement; this is a very courageous way to live.  It reminds me of the Victor Frankl quote:

"It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us"

When we approach our human relationships by asking more what we can offer that person and less what we ourselves need, then our relationships are deepened and our hearts are opened to the possibility of love and understanding.  Truly, when we give to others that which we most need, we find those needs of ours transmuted into something much more magnanimous and fulfilling than this little compliment or that symbol of love.

This generosity of spirit, this rising above our own particular requirements, this makes you a warrior for love.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Inbetween Times

I was asked a great question this week by a student brand new to yoga: how do we maintain a yoga practice in the time between our yoga class?  It's a good question, particularly as most of us begin yoga with the idea that yoga asana (physical postures) is what it's all about.

Patanjali, of course, has already given us the answer: yoga is not a practice for an hour and a half, twice a week in the studio of your choice with a teacher you love, although you may well find your inspiration there and a sense of community amongst your fellow yogis; no, yoga is a practice for all of your life, on and off your mat, for every age and stage.

That's why the first two limbs of yoga are the Yamas and Niyamas - guidance on how to live well.  Patanjali advises that if we are peaceful, honest, do not steal, have self-restraint and are not greedy, then we will find our burdens lifted and our path cleared of many complications; if we stay healthy, content, commit to our path, study and let go into the mystery, then we'll find ourselves moving forward with faith and living more skilfully.

These tenets provide the basis for all classical yoga practice, and appear in the Yoga Sutras before asana, breathing practice, or meditation.  They are that important.  And we practice them everywhere and all the time.

So, when you move in peace through your day, being grateful for what you have and mindful of how your actions and words impact the world; when you abstain from habits that take you away from feeling your physical best; when you remember all through your week that you are not in control of your life, but feel instead humble before the greatness of a world in which you are just one small part; when you constantly renew your commitment to your faith and its teachings and when you seek to live by those teachings and to delve into their deeper meaning; when you are forever grateful for the things you have in your life; when you take just enough and not one thing more and you consider the impact of everything you buy, consume and do on yourself, your wider community and the environment; when you do all of these things throughout every day, week, year...  Then you are practising yoga and allowing your practice to mature in the fire of everyday life.

Being mindful of the commitment you have made to be your own most generous and vibrant self in the world is something that you can do all of the time, from the moment you get up to the second you fall asleep at night (even while you are asleep). 

A weekly formal practise with your teacher is an opportunity to be stretched, to question, to receive comfort and be reassured - it is a wonderful thing to come together and be reminded of all the good things yoga has to offer.  But in truth, there is nowhere that you need to go to do your practice; it is working its way into your life all of the time, as Patanjali says:

"For those who have an intense urge for Spirit and wisdom, it sits near them, waiting."
Yoga Sutra I:21
Translated by Mukunda Stiles
 
 

It's in the inbetween times that the real work is done.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

An Undoing

Undo all of the tension.  Come to your mat, every day, every week; move and meditate and breathe in the way that you always should but rarely do.  Be alive inside your body and luxuriate in that.    Undo all of the tales you have told, all of the times you got angry or upset, the times you gossiped and were unkind, the hurts that still sting, the day that went wrong.  Unwind all of the tightness that developed within, as your body and mind responded to your days.

Undo the tiredness, use your practice to refresh yourself, as though you could pop a descaling tablet in side yourself and watch it fizz away all those late nights, all that too-much stress, all that rushing, rushing, rushing about.

Undo the harshness, the struggle and the striving.  The world can be a difficult place, you have had a lot to bear and you have done it with as much grace as possible.  Your teenagers will harangue you, your toddlers press all of your buttons, your daily commute will test every ounce of patience you have, you have tried so hard to keep up.  On your mat rediscover your gentleness, that inner softness which radiates outwards if you let it.  In your practice vow not to let the hardness of the world work its way into how you live your life.  Stay soft; stay true to that gentle heart of yours.  There is such strength in gentleness.

Undo the limitations in your body and mind.  You set your own restrictions - nobody else can do that - and if you are setting them, then you can expand them too.  Broaden your ideas of who you are and what you can achieve and you will surprise yourself, every day, every week, on your mat and in your life.

Undo the tightness in your body and brain; stretch out your muscles, flex your mind, remember, as you move through your asana practice how strong you really are, in heart and in body.  Move with grace and power, always a combination of those two elements, the surrender and the will; the acceptance and the dedication to move forward with your life, with your practice, in love.  Leave aside the thoughts you might have about the way your body is - too fat, too ill, too injured, too stiff, too weak - you are you, here is your body, it works!  There is a practice for every moment, for every season of living and there is a way of accepting it all, with gratitude.

Undo the sadness, the disappointment, the little knocks that life will give you.  Release your own infinite sense of joy.  Your feet on your mat, your arms stretching upwards, the way you can move this way and that; no, not like someone on YouTube or in a magazine, but just like you, how you are here, today and there is beauty in that simple thing, both inner and outer expressions of it.  Sitting in meditation, you breathe and you watch your busy mind doing its busy thing and you remember that you are part of something much bigger, perfectly small and absolutely integral to that great and wonderful whole.  You remember that your sadness will pass into that whole and that it will swallow it up gladly and let you move on.

Every day you do.
And in yoga you undo.
You undo all that you have done that stands in the way of true understanding: of your own beauty and rightness, your wholeness, your natural sense of peace, your love for yourself and for everything else.  Yoga restores you to yourself and reminds you what is really important; it moves you towards confidence in and contentment with who you really are. 

Yoga stops you from getting caught up in the net of who, why, when and how; it brings you, with gratitude, to the great, It Just Is.

The world doesn't need outstanding people doing brilliant things, although those people do exist and how wonderful they are; the world needs ordinary people doing ordinary things, but who smile and are quick to laugh, who see the good in other folk and who give their time to talk with strangers, who know how to care for themselves and therefore have so much to give.  The world needs mothers and fathers, businessmen and waiters, shop-keepers and doctors, accountants and cab-drivers, nurses and office-workers who smile, who know how to show love, who are patient and kind. 

The world needs people who know how to undo all of the difficulty and hurt, so that they don't get caught up in those things or let them dictate the way they move through the world.  The world needs people who have the self-awareness to be kind in the face of another's impatience and generous in the face of someone else's bad mood.

If you ask me what humans are like, I answer that they are intrinsically kind, good, full of heart, but that some of them have been hurt and are afraid.  Some of them don't know about yoga, so they stay hurt and afraid; they live their lives looking through the lens of hurt and afraid.  In yoga we learn to process hurt and afraid and move on through to love and courage.

Yoga is the great undoing of all that stands between you and your best self.
Yoga is a reminder, a blessing, a return. 
Yoga is a coming together and an understanding: it unites, even as it shows you how to stand your ground and be true to what you believe.
Yoga gives you the strength to live your own life, unsullied by anyone else's ideas of what that should look like.  It gives you the flexibility to adapt and recover when you meet trouble. 
Yoga brings courage - heart-strength.

Yoga is not magic - it does not give you things that you don't already have.  All of these things existed within you on the day that you were born: you are peace; you have courage; you know joy; you are love.  Yoga is simply a method for unpicking the web that you have stitched across your mind and heart that keeps you from knowing and believing this truth. 

You are racing all over the hillside searching for a treasure that is buried in your own garden.  Stop running and looking everywhere else; stand still and dig deep; everything you wish for is there.

Namaste.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

How to Listen to your Soul

Go somewhere you find beautiful - the beach, an art gallery, the woods, your favourite part of your favourite city.  You do not have to be alone; you can be with others, of course you can, but it might serve you to be alone.  If the idea of being on your own frightens or discomfits you, you should definitely be on your own.

Walk and walk and look about you; stand for as long as you want to and stare at whatever catches your attention: a crack in the pavement, an image or piece of art that moves you, the sky, other people.  It is important that you do not rush.  And nobody should be expecting you.  You must not put a deadline on your wanderings, nor should you have someone waiting for you at the other end of your journey - hearing your soul speak takes time and patience, so give yourself time.  Listening to your soul move inside you takes silence and courage, so don't fool yourself that you are listening fully if you know that at your journey's end you will fill your mind with other people's voices.

Walk.  Sit.  Look.  Eat.  Drink.  Write if you want to, but do not read; books are just inanimate versions of other people's voices and you will not hear your own voice if you continually overlay it with other people's words, thoughts and feelings.

Don't actively seek your soul's voice; it cannot be hunted down and found.  Your soul's voice emerges when you are doing something else, when you are looking at the sky, or walking across the sand with the wind blowing in your face.  Just put yourself in the right place with a certain level of quiet and wait.  Make of yourself a blank canvas upon which your soul's voice will draw the colour and image.

All of us know for ourselves.  The answers to our own questions are always waiting within.  The rest of your life has already been planted within you, like a seed.

If there is fear, let there be fear - you are safe in your favourite place, let it be.  There might be joy, or excitement, sadness or pain, just let it be.  Your soul's voice cannot be heard above mental struggle, or above your efforts not to feel what you feel.  Just walk, stop, look around, absorb what is.

Do it once.
Do it again.
Turn your ear inward as often as you can.  Turn every dog walk into an opportunity to listen, every train journey, every delay.  Learn how to live alongside your own true voice.  It won't ever pretend you are what you are not; it won't ever be unkind to you.  Which is not to say that your soul's voice will always be an easy listen - the truth you already know is not always comfortable to hear.

If you stop trampling all over your own soul with your intellect, your struggling, your self-judgment, then you will find it there waiting for you, saying, 'My dear, what took you so long?'

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Trouble with Yoga

"The trouble with yoga," she said, "Is that you see things clearly, you become calm, but then you notice the anger and the difficulty much more." 

She has been practising for many years, a gentle, subtle and patient practice including pranayama, meditation, asana and yoga nidra; she hasn't fiddled around the edges of practice, like many of us do, leaping about like gymnasts for years until we finally get an inkling that something much more amazing and life-changing is going on than mere physical contortion, no, she has always been a serious and humble yoga student, dedicated and committed to a regular practice.  But she is facing some difficulties in her life and when you have a serious yoga practice there's no escaping them, because in the stillness of yoga we see ourselves clearly.  That's the trouble with yoga, she's right.

Yoga transforms people; it is alchemical.  As a teacher it is my privilege to watch people reach the point of transformation and to bravely step towards it.  If you practice yoga it will change you; always for the better, but not always without troubles.  I have watched people learn to accommodate serious physical illness and injury; come to terms with mental illness; learn to accept themselves and therefore find love; move through relationship break-ups.  I have watched people stumble towards self-understanding and make their first tentative moves towards truly valuing themselves and thus changing their lives. 

People move towards transformation slowly and falteringly, periods of denial punctuated by moments of sometimes painful clarity; and when transformation seems to happen quickly, it is only that what is being observed is years of stored up transformative energy bursting forth in a blinding flash: suddenly someone changes job, alters their priorities, ends a relationship, or starts a new one, moves house,  etc., etc., but in truth 'sudden' transformation has its basis in years of slowly moving towards understanding.

Patanjali tells us that our view of the world is coloured by our subjectivity, as the old Talmud saying has it, "We do not see the world as it is, but how we are", he counsels that we must clear our minds and our hearts so that we might see clearly and live better.  He assures us that once we have cleared our minds, we will realise the truth of human life: all is one, separation is an illusion.  Once we know this, we live better lives, we are happier, more fulfilled, kinder, more eager to serve.

I have a friend who says that yoga is "too quick" and I think I understand what she means; sometimes we don't feel ready to sit quietly with the maelstrom that whirls inside us; with the damage, the love, the joy and the hurt that we hold inside (it is a strange fact that sometimes it is as hard to sit with our own joy and sense of freedom as it is to sit with our pain).  But we cannot live full lives if we do not learn to sit with the dark and light within, to encompass them both as part of ourselves and through doing so forgive ourselves for our weaknesses and know our strengths.  Forgiveness and compassion must begin within our own hearts, for it is absolutely impossible to give those things to other people when we are unable to give them to ourselves.

When we delay the transformation that beckons, and all of us do this sometimes to a greater or lesser extent, then we live for that time within a false sense of comfort, as the Bhagavad Gita says, with pleasure that later brings pain; refusing to remove the sticking-plaster that we know must be pulled off at some point.  But everybody does this sometimes.  Transformation is very rarely easy.

Easter is a good time for considering transformation, whether or not you are a Christian, because the story of Easter tells us that we can all be born again and again, that this is one of the gifts of being human.  I heard a Bishop's letter this weekend and in it he said, "Resurrection is not for the faint-hearted", I loved that phrase for the encouragement it gives (you are finding it difficult because it is difficult, don't blame yourself for that) and because it implies an immediacy to the story of Christ: resurrection is not just what happened in Christ's life, it is happening to you too.

This is the other trouble with yoga: transformation happens constantly and will continue throughout your life and your yoga practice; there will be no defining moment when everything becomes clear and you get it all right.  It is more akin to stumbling towards the light on an uneven path with steep inclines, the occasional exhilarating summit (look how far you have come!) and moments of great loss, when you stand by the road lamenting that not so long ago the path was clear and you knew the direction in which you were headed.  Sometimes a strong hand will draw you forward, at others you will be inching forward alone and in darkness.

So she is right, my student, this is the trouble with yoga: once you have experienced the peace that lives inside you as a naturally arising state, you ask why it is that you do not feel at peace more often.  It is in seeking the answers to that question that the way rolls out beneath your feet and your own ever-evolving transformation begins.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Self Care

I have a student who is quite ill at present, she has been suffering for some time now, but recently her illness has become more severe and it has begun to effect her life, what she is able to do with her time, her sleeping patterns and her mood.  She is in a bad way.

"You are going to have to learn to look after yourself," I counselled, "And this can be very hard indeed for some people."
"You mean be more selfish," she replied.

It was not what I meant at all, but it is not the first time that someone I teach has conflated selfishness with self care.

Being selfish is being egocentric, self-seeking, self-obsessed, self-serving and self-absorbed.  Selfish people have nothing to give anybody, unless it in their own interest.

Self care is looking after yourself so that you can be vibrantly well, full of energy and good cheer.  The consequence of being positively bursting with good health?  Contentment certainly, freedom from pain, a more optimistic attitude and pursuant to this: patience, generosity, kindness.  The world needs more of those things.

Self care, true self-care, is not getting yourself a manicure, or treating yourself to a bar of chocolate, it is not going to your favourite coffee shop for a cappuccino, or having an extra glass of wine.  These things all have their place and may well be ways in which you treat yourself, but self care is something entirely different from a treat.

Self care is taking the time to truly understand what makes you tick; knowing which things keep you well and choosing them, so that you feel better, behave better and become a positive force in the world.

I'm not going to discuss here the reasons why we have learnt that self care is selfish, although I have some theories, as, no doubt, have you.  What I care about more than understanding how and why we got into this sorry state, is ending it.

In many ways yoga is all about self care: Patanjali counsels us to purify and cleanse our bodies, to surround ourselves with positive people, to practice yoga regularly, diligently and with commitment, to learn how to breathe properly and how to be patient, how to have balance, how to be at peace.

The first stages of deep meditation (by which I mean an established and formal meditation practice) are all about learning discrimination.  When you come to your yoga mat every day and sit in the same way and the same place at the same time, then you inevitably begin to notice yourself in much more subtle ways than you are used to.  You begin to ask, Why are my shoulders tight today?  Why is my breathing calmer than yesterday?  What have I done in the last 24 hours to make myself so constricted inside?  These questions lead you to self-discovery and transformation. 

Even if you do not have a formal meditation practice (please keep trying), there are questions that you can ask yourself to help yourself along:
  • what things in life fill you with joy?
  • what leeches you of energy?
  • which people make you feel better about yourself and more buoyant about life, which ones weigh you down?
  • what foods suit your constitution the best?  How can you choose those foods more often?
  • why do you fall in to bad habits (smoking, using alcohol as a relaxant, using food for comfort rather than nourishment) and what can you do to spot these harmful patterns in advance?
  • have you been outside today?  How does spending time outside improve your life?
  • what did you learn today?  What was new?
  • do you sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed?  Or do you sleep fitfully and wake up as tired as when you laid your head on your pillow the night before?
We all know crotchety people, short-tempered people, intolerant people, pessimistic people, if you are reading this blog and you practise yoga I'm guessing you don't want to be one of those.  But it's hard to be generous and forgiving, kind and patient, to smile and share happiness when you feel ill, tense, tired and out of sorts.  It is easier to be the person you hope to be when you are well, when you have slept a full 8 hours in peace, when you are physically fit and free of pain.

I'm not sure that we can ever hope to look after anyone else well and consistently, if we do not know how to look after ourselves; nor can we teach our children to treat themselves kindly if we do not show them that we are doing just that for ourselves ('Do as I say, not as I do' was never an effective way of teaching anybody anything).

My teacher, Mukunda, said that everywhere you look there are leaky buckets, people who are empty of energy and vigour, but that if you fill your bucket up, then your overflow goes into the buckets of those in need; thus when you fill your bucket up, you simultaneously help others to plug the holes in theirs.  He said that you can positively change somebody's life forever by being kind to them.

This is how self care becomes an act of altruism, for it enables you unfailingly to give more generously of yourself, to more people, more often.  It is time to unlearn the habit of not listening to what we need; it is time to rebrand self care in our minds, so that we do not allow negative associations with selfishness to interfere with our attempts to be more whole, more peaceful and more giving.

“Nobody can teach me who I am. You can describe parts of me, but who I am - and what I need - is something I have to find out myself.”
Chinua Achebe

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Light

"Let nothing dim the light that shines within"
Maya Angelou

I have been looking at this quote for a few months now; I wrote it up on a blackboard that I have in my kitchen.  At first it appealed to me because Maya Angelou is such an inspiring person: ambitious, determined and full of heart, she has achieved so much with her life.  I also liked it because the world can be such a difficult place in which to be bravely yourself; to believe in your own worth; and there are so many ways we have of hiding away, of feeling shy or unconfident, that is easy to lose a sense of ourselves as having an inner light, something within us that shines.  More recently I have understood that the greatest risk to that inner light is not the world or other people, but ourselves.

How often have you drawn back from smiling at a stranger in the street because you were afraid that they would think you were mad, or would not return your friendliness?  Have you ever thought twice about approaching someone you thought was in need because you worried that their response might not be positive?  Did you ever stay home instead of going out somewhere because you were too shy, or nervous to attend an event?  Have you talked yourself out of something, anything, because it wasn't really worth it, or it was too expensive, or difficult, when the truth was that you didn't think you were worthy of it?  I know that I have done all of these things.

Life gets complicated and words are such a blunt tool; people hurt us and sometimes we have been embarrassed or ashamed by the things that we have done and other people's response to them.  We don't feel good enough or brave enough; it is always easier to believe the bad stuff we hear about ourselves than the good.  Perhaps in response to all this we find a way to turn our light a little lower that we might not elicit the approbation of anyone, so that we don't stand out. 

But you know how good it is when you come across someone whose inner light radiates freely; how nice it is when they shine their light on you.  And your yoga practice, which helps you to remember you own beauty, is not complete unless you share it.

So I entreat you to turn on your lights full beam and to shine in the world and for everyone you meet.  I tell you that it matters not one bit if people do not reciprocate, or even if they think you are a bit bonkers for going round with the light shining out of your face.  Reciprocation is not the reason why we do it; the sun doesn't ask the moon to shine back on it, it just goes shining on regardless. 

Friday, 21 February 2014

Birth

Living a mindful life is like sailing a boat - we cannot simply chart our course for the opposite shore and set off in a straight line from A to B; we must set our sails according to the prevailing winds, work our way through storms, find a way to be at ease when there is no wind, adjusting constantly to an ever-changing environment.

We were born to evolve, the whole point of our existence, according to yoga scripture is to evolve.  As Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes, 'human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, ... life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.'  Time and time again, we shuck off the worn out ideals and aims of our former selves, adapt to new situations and create new futures. 
 
Ask any mother: giving birth is sometimes very painful; giving birth to ourselves is no different.  A mindful life requires honesty and an unflinching regard for our own actions, decisions and behaviour.  It requires us to take responsibility for our lives, since we create our own world.  This is not always a comfortable process.  But in birth there is euphoria too and a sense of purpose, of our own true nature emerging, magnificent.

We are not here to stagnate; to become attached to methods and ways of life and practice that served us well once, but might not do so any more; we are not here to remain frozen in one place, always on the cusp of something, our potential just beyond the reach of our fingertips.  We are vessels for a spirit that wants to be born at last into its own fullness; each rebirth bringing us closer to who and what we may be.

Only in this way do we fulfil the promise of our own unique set of skills, talents and personality and seize each day.  Only in this way do we end the habit of bemoaning our fate, choosing instead to boldly play the cards we have been dealt with confidence, kindness and optimism.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Yoga Sutra II.33 - Cultivating Opposites

I read a book over Christmas by Susie Pearl.  In it she gives simple and effective advice on changing your mindset in order to create for yourself a positive and fulfilling life.  One of her tips, and one which I have been busy implementing in my life, is the idea that you can change the way you think about things; you can even change your own emotions; by cultivating the opposite sentiment.  So in the face of fear, you cultivate a sense of your own courage; in the face of anger, you cultivate peace; when nervous, you remind yourself of your own abilities and thereby increase your confidence, and so on.

It is similar to a book I read by Dr S Pillay on overcoming fear; his advice (using the latest neuro-science to validate his thesis) is that we can overcome fear by cultivating hope (it's opposite).

I've been calling this, Flipping It.  So if I've been nervous of something or afraid, then instead of playing my inner record which reminds me of all the times I've failed and lists all of the many reasons why my newest venture might fail, I say to myself (sometimes out loud), Flip it. 

Flipping it, for me, involves turning the record over, so that instead of playing those old tracks that keep me stuck and make me nervous of change, I play a different tune, one that brings to mind other times when I have made changes that have worked and have improved my life, my work or the way I do things.

This technique is quite amazing in its effectiveness!  You have to be disciplined (it is easy to become addicted to the negative side of the LP, because that's what keeps you where you feel safe and comfortable) and you have to be aware (of your tendencies and habits), but it is quite astonishing how quickly you can learn to view things from a completely different perspective within your own head.

Last night I picked up my copy of the Yoga Sutras and read chapter 2.  I have a lovely translation by Alistair Shearer, which I find scholarly, but readable, and this is how he translates sutra II.33
 
When negative feelings restrict us, the opposite should be cultivated. 

I almost laughed out loud when I read that.  I thought about how it had taken me the purchase and reading of another book, published just last year, to implement this concept; I thought about how often I have come back to the Yoga Sutras and found there something essential, something that has dropped into my life or my yoga practice over time, which I realise was there in the Sutras all along, waiting to be uncovered, understood and lived. 

In yoga practice we are always playing with balance and moving towards better understanding of  our own light and shade: through asanas we discover how wonky our bodies are (even after years of practice), where are our weak spots, where is our strength; in pranayama we see how our breathing patterns reflect our state of mind and we seek equilibrium there; in meditation we confront ourselves in all honesty and without distraction and look for the insight with which we might live a life more whole. 

In addition to this, there is of course, a balance to be struck in our extremes of feeling and thought: if I think to myself that I am bound to fail and that all of my ideas are rubbish, then it is just as possible for me to see that sometimes I succeed and that some of my ideas are good ones.  This changes the way in which I view just about everything. 

My short experience of 'flipping it' has brought a new kind of courage and freedom to the way I live which I am enjoying very much.  So I am grateful to Susie Pearl for putting the idea in a way that I understood and was able to work into my everyday life; but most of all I am full of respect for Patanjali for, once again, having got there first by some two thousand years.

Namaste.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Uncovering Peace

My beloved teacher, Sivakami, told me that if you are uncertain about what to do, where to go or how best to move forward, then choose the option that brings you peace.  This works the other way around too: if you are feeling unsettled and unsure, if you do not feel peace in your heart and mind, then ask yourself where and how you can find it.  Ask what you need to let go of or move towards in order to feel it.

Where do you look for peace?  I look for it in the woods, on mountains and in the ocean.  I look for it on my yoga mat and on my meditation cushion; I seek it in my breath and in the movement of my body; I see it in my teachers and hear it in the tone of their books; I watch for it in my students, young and old, and I observe it blooming within them when they practice. 

Peace is nowhere else.  I do not climb mountains to look for it there; peace lives in my heart, being alone on a mountain just reminds me of that fact.  Peace is always within us; it is our natural state.  Yoga is a way that we turn to the peace in our hearts, over and over again.

I attended a workshop last week in London; it was Friday night and I waited outside a busy studio for the class to finish and the room to empty before my session began; I was surprised to see the faces of the people streaming out of that yoga studio after 90 minutes of yoga; it was not peace that I saw shining there, but ruddiness, annoyance and tired short-temperedness.  I wondered what they had spent the previous hour and a half looking for in that yoga studio, if not for peace.

I know that there are lots of things that people gain from a yoga practice and I understand that there are many reasons why people come to their mats.  I know it makes you fit, increases your flexibility, improves lung-capacity and good-health.  I know it makes you feel good, challenges you and increases your sense of yourself and your capacities.  I am a recipient of all of these benefits.  I know that there is Hot Yoga and Laughter Yoga, Yin Yoga and Yang; there is Vinyasa Flow and Astanga, there is Kundalini and Sivananda.  Yoga styles are as various as the people who practice yoga and this has always been its beauty and its strength - yoga does not make you conform to it (be straight, be male, be rich, be poor); it moulds to suit you; you create your own path and within the course of your long life-time there is time and scope for you to evolve and to change according to what you are learning and what lessons you still need to learn. 

But a fit body is only a vessel for the peace inside and a comfortable and healthy body and mind is simply a better place for a peaceful soul to live.  That's all.  It doesn't matter what we do on our mat or how we do it; whether we sit, or stand, or leap or dance, whether it be in silence or with music, whether we chant or pray, or meditate or not; none of that matters.  The only thing that matters; the one thing that makes yoga different, is that yoga is always, always about seeking and finding peace.

“We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing?"
 
Swami Satchidananda

 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Working Out

I was teaching a woman last week who referred to her yoga practice as a work-out.  She likes to work hard, to get hot and sweaty and, I think, to feel that she has achieved something in her practice; that it has been physically worthwhile; that she will emerge with something measurable: stronger abdominals, more defined biceps, better posture.

I was aggrieved to hear my beloved yoga reduced to no more than a work out and have been considering the idea ever since; yoga is a work out, she is right, it's just that in my life and in my teaching what I see going on in yoga is a more a work out for your soul than for your body.

I have another student who likes to do strong yoga asana and enjoys the challenge of physically demanding poses.  Asana was his way into yoga and I can't judge this, because it was mine too.

He is naturally strong and powerful and I have been teaching him for years now, but the beauty in his practice is only just becoming manifest; he moves still with his characteristic strength and guts, but there is a new ease in him, a softness in his body and mind which he is only just beginning to explore; is only just ready to allow in himself.  There is less tension in his practice these days and more grace, more acceptance and openness.  It is an honour to witness such an unfolding.  I always suspected that he had a gentle heart; perhaps he will become strong enough now to let it show.

All of this brings us back to the beginning and to Patanjali, who set out the eight limbs of a yoga path thousands of years ago and whose teachings we have been following ever since.  True, asana is only third on his list, one of the soonest adopted methods of yoga, but this is necessarily so: we cannot find peace if our body is uncomfortable, we cannot be kind if we are struggling with pain, we cannot love the world if it hurts us to be in it. 

In those early days when we are simply leaping about on our mats and twisting our bodies into amazing and beautiful shapes and believing that this is an end in itself, what we are actually doing is preparing the ground for the journey to come.  Asana practice makes your body a happier place for your soul to live.  And in that sense, it is a worthwhile and rewarding work out.

Namaste

Friday, 10 January 2014

Life & Letting Go

Sometimes I think that life was made to teach us how to let go; it seems to me one of the hardest things to do in life.  And in the end we have to learn to let go of life itself; how will we come to that time and be able to let go of it with gratitude and grace?

I read a list this week of the most stressful things that can happen in a lifetime in order of impact on the human psyche, the list was compiled in 1967 by two doctors, Holmes and Rahe.  What struck me about it was that each and every item on the list could be summed up with one word: change.  Not the going on holiday type of change, or the getting a promotion change, but the unwanted, unforeseen, difficult kind.  Change, even positive change, is stressful and it always involves loss.  The bigger the change, the more we loved and had invested in that which we have lost, the more stressful it is. 

I do understand it, of course.  Ancient man develops safe ways of walking through a forest, this path avoids surprises that might be dangerous or even deadly, a river to cross, a wild animal's home, an exposed place with no shelter.  Ancient man comes to rely on the sameness of this path to keep the tribe safe and secure; he learns to rely on the safety of the path, perhaps he becomes confident about traversing it, even complacent.  It is a joy to be this relaxed about a route.  Then, as now, man enjoys predictability, it allows him to feel confident.

But one day there is a landslide and people are injured, or an animal that would normally be higher up the mountain comes hunting lower down and threatens the tribe, ancient man has to confront a difference, has to be alert again, has to be wary.  All his good planning could not have avoided this crisis.  He has to confront change and forge a new path.

I wonder if we used to be better at dealing with change, perhaps we were more subject to it (to illness, disease and danger) and therefore had a finer way of processing change publically and in a healthy way.  It occurs to me that today most of the commuters at my local train station find it very difficult indeed to respond in a healthy and practical way even to a change in the running of a train, becoming angry and stressed, sometimes out of all proportion to the seeming import of a cancelled or delayed train.

How do we move forward when something terrible happens to us for no reason?  How do we process loss and sadness?  What methods can we rely on to help us move with poise through difficulty? 

Not through blame, although it is a popular choice.  Not through anger, although it is natural response to things not turning out how we thought they would.  Not by getting stuck in pain and languishing there either, although there is a time when simply feeling your pain is part of the process of healing.

The ancients have told us for hundreds of years that the way we move with grace through life-change, the flip-side of change, the bit that modern man seems to find difficult, is acceptance. 

The word acceptance has come to be seen as weak-willed in some way, passive or pathetic, meek and mild.  I believe that acceptance is wild and powerful, transformative and positive.  I want to rebrand the word, so that we might appreciate it for the difficult and demanding process it is.  Accepting life as it has come to you is letting go of what you wanted, letting go of how you thought it would be and letting go of how it might have been different if only...  Acceptance and letting go in this way is one of the bravest and hardest things that we can do, and one of the best.

To lose our job or source of income, to move through divorce or separation from a partner, to become ill or to face the serious illness of one that we love; all of this is not only to lose something that we had, but to lose also the image of the future that we had come to rely on, the safe path we had plotted through our life so that we could stay safe and healthy and provide well for ourselves and those we love.

We think we have worked everything out, don't we?  That we're so clever, being human.  But rivers rise, winds blow, seas move and there is very little that we can do about it.  On the radio this week, a farmer from Greenland described how she lives on the edge of the world, how she has seen how powerless we are against nature and this is why she respects it, knows her place in it, this is why she loves it so much.  Tell this to every control freak in your life: no human is immune to change, no matter how much we might like to think so.  In fact, life is nothing but change and it is life itself that teaches us this.

Sometimes on the radio I hear someone who has suffered a great loss, yet seems to be able to discuss their loss with great dignity and beauty; it seems to me that these people have accepted that their life has changed irrevocably and moved forward with it, full of gratitude for having had whatever they have now lost, and for being here to talk about it.

Other times I hear someone who seems stuck at anger, or rage, or blame, as if they could go back and change the thing that was done that resulted in their pain, as if they could take the person that they believe is responsible for their pain and, through making them pay, somehow assuage it.

The former are filled with grace, the latter are filled with pain.  It is a terrible thing to hear or see someone who cannot process their feelings and move forward from their tragedy.

I long to be like a fish, slipping in and out of the weeds of change with grace and agility, processing my thoughts and feelings efficiently with the help of my loved ones, my practice and my teachers; but I fear that I am often more like a heavy goods vehicle at the end of a dead end road, beeping and reversing and gradually (with difficulty) manoeuvring myself out of the tight spot until I'm back on the open road again.

Once we are out on the open road again, we look back with joy at those we have had to let go of and we understand that the love we had for them doesn't ever move out of our hearts, the stories we tell about them continue to be told, they live on.  We realise (sometimes with surprise) that we can survive loss.  Or else we come to a deeper understanding over time of how endings and changes that were difficult were somehow necessary; how much we have learnt, how much we have seen that we wouldn't have otherwise seen.

Sometimes we get stuck, don't we, or we know people who get stuck, in that dead end road and every beep of the truck is a complaint about not wanting to be down this road, perhaps we think it's someone else's fault that we came this way and we blame them, or perhaps we are so afraid of moving off into the open road that we actually choose to stay in the dead end, permanently moving in small increments, back and forth, back and forth and going nowhere.

No matter.  We are all on our own journeys and we all must find our way.  Part of the art of letting go is allowing other people their own decisions and being free of the idea that you know best for anyone else.  Most of us have a hard enough time just working out what is best for ourselves!

This year, I'll try and keep that image of the fish in my mind as changes come to me, as they certainly will.  I'm going to try not to get stuck thinking that my plan would have been great if only that thing hadn't got in the way.  My life is not the perfect version that I might have planned in my head, where A leads to B and when added to C makes D.  Voila!  My life is all the messy stuff that comes along.  And it is easier and more full of joy and ease when I let go.

Namaste