Friday, 21 February 2014


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.


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