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