SO. MUCH. LOVE.

April 29, 2016

We’ve all been there – when life feels so full of negativity and bad stuff that you wonder what it’s all about. Well today I saw fellow yoga teacher trainee, Kate Robertson’s gofundme pot hit the £400,000 needed to get her husband Mike to the U.S.A. and enrol him in a treatment programme that might just save his life. And my heart felt full to burst with love for the people of this world.

The money has been raised in just over a week with donations flooding in from people all over the globe, some of whom know Kate and Mike but most of whom don’t. They had to be in the States next week or not at all and to see this huge community pulling together to help them in this way has been both astonishing and amazing.

And Kate…I still don’t know her that well in all honesty (and I’ve never met Mike) but her absolute positivity in the face of such difficulty and sheer refusal to acknowledge the impossibility of the task in hand is awe-inspiring.

There’s nothing more to say other than to send love and luck to the pair of them. And to urge you, if you can, to keep donating and sharing. They no doubt have a long (and expensive) road ahead of them now. But at least they’re on their way.

https://www.gofundme.com/donate4mike

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Volcanoes and lifeboats

April 26, 2016

Just as I sit down to start writing this post I realise I have a meeting starting in 10 minutes and the tears well up in my eyes. Because I’m angry. And upset. And though all I want to do is write it out, instead I have to put it all to one side and put the ‘everything’s great’ mask back on again.

Which, quite frankly, pisses me off even more (sorry Mum). I spend so much of my life worrying about other people. Putting them first. But when the hell am I supposed to make time for myself?

I’m fizzing like a volcano, ready to erupt and I have no idea of what to do. If I try and absorb it it’ll eat me up but if I let it out I’ll surely regret it later. And it’s clear I need to do something. Because right now, it’s just manifesting itself all over the place!

Over the weekend when the other half was beeping the car horn every time we came to a tight corner driving down to the beach.

Last night as I should have been enjoying my Skype call with a friend in Amsterdam.

Super early this morning when the cats would not stop banging the cupboard wanting to be fed. And when I saw one of the phones having been plugged in overnight to charge…again.

And now later this morning as I’m going about my day.

Coming back to last night for a minute, I was looking at my notes from the last training weekend for the first time in an age when I freaked out on realising there was a task there I’d forgotten about. A teeny, tiny task in truth, but it tipped me over the edge. I reached out to my fellow trainees for some love and support and within minutes was being calmed and soothed by their awesomeness (and a whole raft of boat emojis…).

We’re all in the same boat was the message (hence the emojis…). And we could rely on these friendSHIPs (pun shamelessly stolen from one of them!) to get us through. It made me feel better of course but one thing in particular got me thinking.

One of the group suggested that my panic might perhaps be stress from another area of life. Stress that was manifesting itself here because it was only here that I felt it to be acceptable. And yes, she’s absolutely right. Because, in fact, if I was left to my own devices to get on with it is I need to do I’d be perfectly calm and content.

Which leads me to the root of the stress. The cause behind my angst.

[Prepare yourselves!]

I’m angry with my brother who hasn’t spoken to me for years and who has suddenly decided that it’s time to turn the treatment he gave me on my Mum, the woman who’s done nothing but be there for him his entire life.

I’m angry that my Dad didn’t get a card in the post for my birthday this Friday just gone. And that despite him saying he’d call me about perhaps meeting up that afternoon he never did. Particularly because he had plenty of time to take my brother to London on the weekend and I’m now scrabbling around trying to find a convenient time for him to meet me – all for him to say happy birthday.

I’m angry following a contact update meeting yesterday that my other’s half’s kids continue to curtail our freedom in seeing each other whenever we’d like. That they insist on referring to me as a wicked witch and making out that I couldn’t be more horrid if I tried. That they seem to forget that it’s my car driving them around and my input that helps make sure they have good and fun weekends, Christmases and birthdays.

I’m annoyed with his ex, who is one of the most selfish people I’ve ever known and has dragged this situation out for over two years, playing manipulative and harmful little games with no thought to anyone else, kids included.

I’m mad at him for making me love him so that I simply cannot (and don’t want to) walk away.

And I’m mad at myself, for being mad at all these people and situations! Because it’s a shameful emotion isn’t it, anger? At least that’s the belief I seem to have picked up somewhere along the way. But even that aside, there’s almost always something worse going on in the world (another friend is trying to save her husband’s life!) and there’s also inevitably a flip side that means you shouldn’t actually be angry at all.

Talking of which…

My brother is controlled by his partner and I don’t think has much say in anything he does. Which means I can’t blame him can I?

My Dad has a lot on his mind and, regardless, is notoriously bad at remembering to call when he says he will. I know this – have always known this. So I simply shouldn’t expect anything else. Plus, it’s just a birthday, and I’m not a child!

The kids are all under 10, don’t know any better and, in truth, are being blindly led by their mother. They’re kids. What kind of awful person gets mad at kids?!

His ex’s feelings for me are entirely my/our fault. This is my cross to bear.

[Addendum 27/4/16: this is my cross to bear but not when the vitriol is channeled via three innocent children]

And him. He’s just lost his Mum. Is there anyone I should be getting less mad with right now? I’m sorry my love.

So. I have lots of friendSHIPs but I right now I need a lifeboat – before I lose it entirely and hurt someone along the way. Answers on a postcard (please)…

[I wrote previously that, as part of our YTT course, we’ve been asked to study an area of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and report back to the group. I decided on an experiment in living his yamas and niyamas (abstinences and observances – the building blocks of his yoga) and so here I am, taking on one of each every five days from the end of March to the beginning of May.]

I’m past the mid point now with this third instalment, but I’m sorry to report it’s been a bit of a challenge. There was the trip to London, the funeral, a gazillion class observations to write up (ok I exaggerate – four), the day job, my birthday, the list goes on and on.

Life took over is what I’m saying, and I feel I somewhat lost my way. I’ve had this week’s yama and niyama in the back of my mind throughout but how successful I’ve been at applying them I’m not sure. Let’s discuss… 

Asteya – “To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.”

Asteya is translated in my edition of the Sutras as non-stealing, which is a pretty easy concept to get your head around. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Thou shalt not steal. Share and share alike… It’s something that we’ve been told time and again, almost since the day we were born.

Not stealing seems like a no-brainer – and let’s be honest, it’s not really my bag – so to an extent it should be a case of box ticked and off we go. But is it really that straightforward? Of course not.

The idea of non-stealing extends way beyond not taking what isn’t yours. As I’m about to explain…

Firstly, Swami Satchidananda talks about this idea of doing ourselves a disservice by ‘imprisoning our possessions’ – locking them away in a desperate effort to hold on to them but, in the process, actually encouraging them to leave. It’s a bit esoteric perhaps but if you take a moment to reflect on the idea you can find some truth, can’t you, in the theory that the more you strive and strain for something, almost the harder it can become to achieve? And how, once you stop striving in this way, things somehow come right? Just think of the people you know who have been desperate for a relationship yet only find someone the very moment they stop looking…

The lesson I suppose is another in non-attachment or vairagya (as I touched upon last time) – letting things (whether money, possessions, friendship, love…) come and go as they please without desperately needing to cling onto them. That’s not to say don’t work hard or try of course, but rather do as such without any necessary expectation of reward.

On a personal level, I’m trying quite hard to make this work for me at the moment but it’s difficult. I’ve decided upon this new path in life and of course I want to make it a success but how do I balance that with not striving for, and clinging onto, success along the way? How do I facilitate making a living from this thing that I love without losing sight of what brought me here in the first place? I suppose I take each day as it comes, with all its ups and downs, and remember that what comes comes and what goes goes but ultimately satisfaction, and success, will be achieved by paying attention to something far more fundamental in life – the very core of my being, my Self.

That understood, we come to the second idea around ‘stealing’ – that it can be equally applied when you refuse to let others use the things that you have but that they have need of. Obvious examples are not sharing wealth with the needy and food with the starving but what about the unnecessary accumulation of clothes in your wardrobe, or that ever-increasing pile of unused electronics in the dumping ground of a drawer we all have at home?

There’s no changing the fact that we live in a consumerist society and that we are surrounded by hundreds of messages every day promoting exciting new stuff that will supposedly make our lives more fulfilling. But be aware that all of this drives you to identify with ‘needs’ that quite simply aren’t needs at all.

And I am no exception – on the contrary I’m as guilty as the next person of buying that new pair of shoes or jeans when I have an already overflowing stash at home! I have however found myself a little more discerning recently, choosing for example not to go out and buy a new dress for my birthday this week, even though I was sorely tempted. Faced with the familiar ‘I’ve got nothing to wear’ scenario, I remembered my yama for the week and took a critical look at my wardrobe realising pretty quickly that a) I had plenty and b) if I wasn’t going to be happy wearing something I already had it really had nothing to do with the clothes and everything to do something going on within myself.

[And as it was I had a superb evening – no new dress needed at all!]

Then, for a final interpretation of asteya, let’s think again about the idea of not taking from those around you, but in a somewhat less explicit way. Here of course I’m referring to the less tangible things in life – love time and patience for example, and of course joy. I think we can all become a bit guilty of this – taking for granted the support that surrounds us, and even putting people down for their successes, particularly when we’re feeling a bit down on our own achievements. It’s time though we became more conscious of this and made a concerted effort to redress the balance, giving back as much as we take.

My conclusions? Asteya is as much about not unnecessarily wanting as it is not taking. To want in this way is simply to breed anxiety and create a state of mind where we’re always chasing the next thing, accumulating stuff that we don’t need and robbing others of pleasure in the process.

And stuff of course doesn’t make us happy. Whereas health, love, compassion, generosity and giving do. Which means, for me, two things – firstly that sometime in the not too distance future a clear out is on the cards; and secondly that I’ll be moving on from this week with a newfound focus on abundance, being grateful for what I have and what I am given (both tangible and intangible), as well as being actively compassionate and generous with others, every chance that I can.

Tapas – “By austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed and occult powers gained.”

Literally speaking, tapas means ‘to burn’ or ‘to create heat’. Metaphorically though it refers to the purifying effects of such activity and could thus instead be thought of as discipline. Discipline in ridding oneself of impurities with proper nourishment and exercise, discipline in not reacting to pain inflicted by others, and discipline in having the courage to find the truth in ourselves.

Plus of course discipline in not running from all of this – even if it appears to be difficult or if with it, comes pain.

Ultimately then tapas is about ridding ourselves of that which is getting in the way of our yoga (yoga, of course, meaning the union of mind, body and soul or in Patanjali’s words “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff” ) and there are three main types – physical, mental and  verbal. Let’s take a look at each…

Physical tapas is straightforward I feel – eat well, don’t abuse your body with excess in any form (overeating, over imbibing, oversleeping, shortage of sleeping…) and make time in your day for physical practice (asana). Also commit to your asana – applying yourself fully in order to reap the most benefit, but at the same time being careful not to take this to the other extreme. After all, as Swami Satchidadanda says in Chapter 2, Verse 1, “Self-discipline is an aid to spiritual progress, whereas self-torture is an obstacle”.

Straightforward though it may be, I have unfortunately largely failed in this this week. It’s due to circumstance as much as anything but my asana has gone out of the window and there have been excesses of all sorts left, right and centre! Which means I enter the coming week with an intention to schedule blocks of time again, to enable my daily daily practice, and try and give myself space for everything else too, whether that be running, homework or chores!

Moving on, mental tapas is about control of the mind and I love Swami Satchidadanda’s analogy here:

“Normally the mind is like a wild horse tied to a chariot. Imagine the body is the chariot; the intelligence is the charioteer; the mind is the reins; and the horses are the senses. The Self, or true you, is the passenger. If the horses are allowed to gallop without reins and charioteer, the journey will not be safe for the passenger.”

Discipline and self-control of course are key here – having the courage NOT to listen to that negative voice in your head and to bear insult or injury WITHOUT absorbing the negativity it foists upon us. Easier said than done of course but worth it for the serenity of mind that ensues.

And how have I done at this? Difficult to say! With the explanation for tapas in my Sutras explaining that, “If flowery words make us happy but insults upset us, we know our minds are not yet strong”, clearly my mind is not yet strong but equally I don’t think discipline or self-control are about overnight results. Instead, just like marathon training, it’s about consistent and continuous training in pursuit of a goal which means that, again, I’m chalking this one up as a work in progress…

Finally then we come to verbal tapas – speaking only that which is true, pleasant and beneficial. But of course these aren’t all necessarily the same thing, as we saw quite clearly when working with satya. Indeed the truth is that it can really be quite challenging to know what to speak and when. Just as it can also be challenging to keep quiet the not so nice thoughts that, let’s be honest, we can all have from time to time.

There are a number of situations where I find this latter part particularly difficult – relating to the actions of some people that I can simply have no respect for – and I’ve probably failed in all this week. Coming back to that idea of discipline being for the long-term however, I’m going to accept this for what it is this week and move on. Perhaps going forward I can write these thoughts out (privately) in an effort to stop them from circulating around and around in my mind or maybe I need to pay heed to this (unfortunately unattributed) quote that I saw some time back on Instagram and work harder on understanding:

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.”

All in all, this week has been a challenge, and although I’m pretty sure it’s been circumstantial I think I’ll need to revisit these two in the future, just to make sure.

Next up then? Brahmacharya (celibacy?!) and svadhyaya (self-study), though in the meantime the other posts in the series are available here:
#1 – ahimsa and sauca
#2 – satya and samtosa
#4 – brahmacarya and svadhyaya
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana

[I wrote previously that, as part of our YTT course, we’ve been asked to study an area of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and report back to the group. I decided on an experiment in living his yamas and niyamas (abstinences and observances – the building blocks of his yoga) and so here I am, taking on one of each every five days from the end of March to the beginning of May.]

This second phase of the ‘experiment’ sees me taking on satya and samtosa – or, to take their English translations, truthfulness and contentment. I wrote a LOT last week on ahimsa and sauca and so there’s an intention behind this post to streamline a little…let’s see how successful that turns out to be!

Satya – “To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.”

Swami Satchidananda translates satya as truthfulness and discusses how, in establishing an honest mind, “the true Self reflects without disfigurement, and we realise the Truth in its own original nature”. He also tells us that “with establishment in honesty, the state of fearlessness comes”.

I have read other explanations of satya too though, not least the below where it’s defined as meaning somewhat more than just truth:

“The word ‘sat’ literally translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘true nature’. Sanskrit is a vibrational language and so each word is so much more than a label – it literally holds the very essence of the word. Because of this, ‘sat’ also holds the meanings; ‘unchangeable’, ‘that which has no distortion’, ‘that which is beyond distinctions of time, space and person’, and ‘reality’. Many Sanskrit words use the prefix ‘sat’ such as ‘satsang’ meaning ‘true company’ and ‘sattva’ meaning ‘pure’, which leads us to understand that ‘sat’ really means more than ‘truth’, it’s something that is unchanged and pure. When looking at the word ‘truth’ from this perspective, it’s easy to then understand how so much of our time is spent not actually seeing the truth or reality in any of our life situations…. Our thoughts, emotions and moods are extremely interchangeable, yet these are the things that create our own truth and our whole life experience. If ‘sat’ means ‘unchangeable’, then this can make us aware that much of our experience of life is brought about by paying more attention to that which changes, rather than the unchanging truth.”
Emma Newlyn, ekhartyoga.com

My take on satya then is that a) being truthful and honest in our actions we enable our own truth to be set free; b) the more truthful a life we lead, the less fear we will face; and c) the more we recognise what is transient in life (emotion, environment, circumstance), the more we are able to focus on what’s real.

In adhering to the principles of satya this week, I have experienced the following:

On Wednesday, while still feeling the effects of the low I touched on in my last article, instead of retreating under a rock as would be usual I reached out to the other half and asked if he’d be willing to forgo running that evening to be with me. Of course he was more than happy to do so and I realised that if I am to expect him to reach out to me in his own times of need, I must do the same.

[As an aside, it’s also been interesting to see how being honest on this blog has encouraged others to be honest with me – old friends, new friends and family alike. It seems that being truthful ourselves really does encourage this same behaviour in others.]

Also on Wednesday, in a classic sales/marketing face-off during a meeting at work, the truth was my friend as I calmly and rationally presented the facts (good and bad) about our performance. It’s a situation I’d normally find hugely intimidating but with the facts at my fingertips truth really did become freedom.

On Thursday I had a tough conversation with my Mum. I needed to voice my disagreement with some of her thinking, even though it was to be painful for her. It was a classic juxtaposition of two opposing yamas (ahimsa and satya) but in this instance the truth won out. It’s often said that you’re better saying nothing when what you’re about to say will cause harm but in this case what was painful was necessary, and only said with the very purest of intentions and love (though admittedly I don’t think I handled it as well as I could have done – the rawness I’m feeling translating into a lack of patience).

Teaching on Friday morning I encouraged my students to be truthful with themselves offering variations of poses for wherever they were at that moment. I also asked them to identify passing feelings as just that – passing – and check in with something deeper instead.

Then finally over the weekend, I had a number of truthful and very liberating conversations. The first was with a good friend of mine (over a VERY good coffee and some pastries!) where, as we talked, I came to realise more and more that the selfishness in my previous relationship had been the ex’s and not mine. Both freeing and enlightening, this is exactly the kind of revelation that talking all of this out is allowing me to see – enabling me to let go of a large number of untruths that I’ve unfortunately been holding on to in recent years.

The second conversation was with my other half, as we made our way up to London for his Mum’s funeral. We had such an honest chat about both of our prior relationships and the events that drove us together – all with the utmost of respect and love.

The truth of life is complicated and, without a conscious awareness of what is/isn’t true, we often simply don’t see it. I feel truly privileged today to be on this journey, learning these lessons and to know that not living my truth was exactly what brought my life crashing down around me those couple of years back – my gut knew exactly where I needed to be but it’s taken my brain all this time to catch up!

Samtosa –  “From contentment, supreme joy is gained.”

Moving on to the niyama for the week we come to samtosa, or contentment. Now a lot of us I think fixate on finding happiness, but after this week I’ve decided I’m settling for contentment. And I purposely use the word ‘settling’, as I think it’s what most of us would assume contentment to be.

However. The version of the Sutras that I have further explains this niyama as “to just be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness”. And there’s nothing in that that seems like settling to me.

I know it’s only week two (and I’m not even half way through!) but this has definitely been my favourite so far as, through its practice, I really have experienced moments of pure joy.

Back to that low Wednesday then and the walk that other half and I took around the park – bypassing all the main roads for a more peaceful and nourishing commute home. We talked through my fears of going back to the bad old days of feeling low all the time and I came to a place where I could accept what I was feeling for just that – a feeling – and become simply content with what was.

On Thursday during my yoga practice I struggled with postures that usually give me no issue at all. Remembering samtosa though I detached from any preconceived idea of what was ‘good’ and instead practised vairagya (or non-attachment), finding a place of acceptance and contentment in my practice that meant I left in a much better place at the end.

Then on Saturday, after getting a haircut, I walked and walked and walked feeling more peaceful than I had in an age! Yes the sun was shining and the clouds in the sky were just beautiful (pics below!) but I think the best thing about the day were my ruminations on contentment as I made my way up the river and around the parks. Happiness I concluded was something that you could experience in passing – perhaps on an evening out with friends was one example – but ultimately it was an ‘up’ in the myriad of ups and downs that life brings. Contentment however (which was absolutely what I felt while ambling back home) was utter peace and could never be replaced – it’s a feeling that you have the power to cultivate for yourself after all.

I continued to think about contentment as we got up to London on the Sunday. Staying with some friends of the other half’s brother, it would have been very easy to look at their beautiful flat and think ‘I wish I could do this/that/the other in my place’ starting a painful cycle of somehow not being good enough again. The reality is though that nothing/no-one is better – just different. And so, again, focusing on samtosa led me to liberation from the negative thoughts, and allowed me to be not only content with where I was, but also content with where I’d be going home to.

I read somewhere that “a different kind of internal spark alights when we practice contentment” and, even after just this short period of time, I really couldn’t agree more – this one’s a keeper!

Next up are asteya (non-stealing) and tapas (austerity) but, in the meantime, you can see  other posts in the series using the links below:
#1 – ahimsa and sauca
#3 – asteya and tapas
#4 – brahmacarya and svadhyaya
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana

[I wrote previously that, as part of our YTT course, we’ve been asked to study an area of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and report back to the group. I decided on an experiment in living his yamas and niyamas (abstinences and observances – the building blocks of his yoga) and so here I am, taking on one of each every five days from the end of March to the beginning of May.]

Up first are ahimsa and sauca but before we get started let me highlight one thing – the speed with which I’ve discovered five days is nowhere near enough time to get to grips with these new life rules! (Plus the way I have zero idea of how I’ll distil all of this into the required 1,500 word essay at the end…)

But then I think I always knew that would be the case. And although there’s certainly been no mastery these last five days, there have been gains in understanding with regards how to apply them. Which seems to fit well with one particular statement in the book’s preface:

“Let us slowly try to understand more and what little we understand, let us try to practice.”
-Swami Satchidananda (the translator of my edition of the Sutras)

Ahimsa 

Literally speaking, ahimsa can be translated as the absence (“a-“) of causing pain (“-himsa”) although it can also be interpreted as kindness, consideration and thoughtfulness too.

Now, as you may already know if you’re a regular reader, I’m pretty much the queen of being kind and considerate to others but often the very worst at applying this same treatment to myself. It is something that I’ve been consciously working on for some time though, so I’ll admit to thinking that this yama wasn’t a bad place to be starting out…

And in some ways that turned out to be true. I (mostly) successfully navigated the first wedding I’ve been to since my own divorce with very little negative self-talk, and I aced cooking dinner for my Dad and his partner – even when he disappeared off to ‘read the paper’ (aka have a nap) for the first couple of hours that I was in the house! I’ve refused to engage in gossipy conversations, instead actively trying to stop them in their tracks, and even as work has become a little overwhelming I’ve maintained this ‘ahimsic’ mindset…that is until a PR cold caller interrupted a particularly busy day with a very poorly executed pitch! Essentially though I’ve been living life with the minimum of trauma – both for myself and others.

I’ve also integrated the principles of ahimsa into my asana and teaching practices – not punishing myself when my hips simply wouldn’t comply in a particular sequence of triangle pose last Tuesday, and making a point of educating my students in not pushing themselves past their ‘edge’.

In sum then, it’s been largely achievable this week for me to recognise the appearance of any negative, violent or harmful thoughts and send them on their way. But has the result been that “all enmity ceases in [my] presence” as Swami Satchidananda suggests? Not quite, but it has helped defuse a number of tricky situations – at work and at home.

There’s been just one hiccup (isn’t there always?!)…

For a lot of the week I’ve found myself feeling quite sad and withdrawn, and it has been difficult not to beat myself up about it. As for why, I have a couple of theories: number one it’s because this week coincides with my period (although sadness is not normally my MO); number two, it’s fallout from the emotional shift I experienced at the last training weekend; or, number three, bringing my attention firmly back to my regard for both others and myself this week has highlighted quite how awful I (and others!) have been to me in the recent past, churning up lots of old pain.

In reality it’s probably a combination and, as I write this, I come to realise that actually any time someone has shown me compassion this week, it’s almost brought me to tears. It’s like I’ve been stripped of my armour, and am raw like an open wound. Everything I feel, I feel more than usual (and let’s be fair that’s a lot under normal circumstances!).

So really, there have been a LOT of tears just under the surface this last five days, though they haven’t fully manifested themselves. I’ve been trying my hardest to not judge it but it does take me back to that time two years ago when I could barely make it through a day without bawling my eyes out. Back then I would get so angry with myself, and give myself all kinds of grief about how useless and pathetic I was. This time though, with the focus on ahimsa, I’ve largely been able to intercept such painful thoughts and replace them with a favourite mantra of mine:

I have enough. I do enough. I am enough.

Not only has this allowed me to address the knee-jerk cruel and harmful self-talk, but it’s also created a bit of space within which I can remember that the goal of what I’m doing here is to make gradual improvements in the practice of ahimsa, rather than achieving immediate perfection!

Sauca 

From my first ‘not to do’ we come to my first ‘to do’, and the niyama for week one which was sauca. Usually translated as purity and/or cleanliness, it’s pretty easy to make an immediate association between this and the idea of keeping a clean body but it’s not really limited in this way, instead extending to having a clean mind and surroundings too.

Sauca is about being clean both inside and out – removing impurities, and supporting the proper functioning of our bodies and minds, so that we can truly benefit from the rest of our yoga practice and allow our prana (energy) to freely flow. A great analogy that I’m unable to source right now is that of cleaning a window – so that the light (aka the Self) can shine through.

But clean doesn’t always mean cleansed of course and there’s also a thread of sauca that’s about finding clarity of mind. In other words acting from a place of truth rather than fear, and not dwelling on transient feelings but digging beneath them to uncover your more permanent Self.

Coincidentally as I started this experiment I also began reading another of our book list, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This text (as you may know if you too are on this yogic path) details many different ways of cleansing yourself in the name of yoga, from the fairly mainstream practice of jala neti to the more extreme practice (amongst others) of vastra dhauti, aka swallowing and regurgitating 1-1.5 metres of cotton cloth in order to clean the stomach! Perhaps unsurprisingly, I decided that these weren’t for me at this stage of my journey, particularly when I only had five days to play with, and so instead I went about discovering some less extreme ways of achieving my goal…

First up – my surroundings. I set about cleaning my desk (and shredded a mound of unnecessary papers), my flat (deep cleaning the bathroom while I was at it) and, though it wasn’t really dirty, my yoga mat too.

I did the (enormous!) pile of ironing that’s been haunting me for weeks and I also had a sort through the overflowing box of dried herbs and spices that sits on top of the kitchen cupboard – getting rid of what was no longer fit for use so that the next time I go to use it its various contents won’t come plummeting down on top of my head…

Now none of this, it’s worth pointing out, was about creating any kind of pristine, almost untouchable environment. Particularly given that (for me at least) that level of cleanliness brings a mania that bears no resemblance to sauca at all! Instead the point of it all was enabling me to function in life with ease and efficiency, the by-product of which is quite naturally an increased clarity of mind.

Moving on to the body, I drank more water and backed off the coffee, moving instead to herbal tea. It was a gradual change I’ll admit but over the week I’ve drunk less and less of the black stuff (no milk in my coffee!) and more and more of my teas, reminding myself along the way of how I enjoy them.

Also, off the back of a conversation with a colleague, I began to start my day with a cup of hot water and lemon and, on top of this, put my eating habits back on track too – backing off from the gluten that had been creeping in, and cutting down the late night chocolate binges! Plus, instead of the usual comfort food when I was tired, I turned to more nutritious meals that actually helped nourish me and (thanks to some support from a fellow teacher trainee) I’m starting to build more protein into my diet – a task that is long overdue.

The truth is that although it’s been some effort, I do feel better for it, not just in my body but in my mind too. Which segues quite neatly…

Because in applying the principles of sauca to my mental habits, I furthered this feeling and created space in my mind where previously there was just noise. I prioritised better at work, not over-scheduling my task list for the day and starting to single- (rather than multi-) task; I put down my phone when I got home at night; and I didn’t automatically switch on the radio when I walked in through the front door. In my asana, I really tried hard to step onto the mat and practice just being there, in that moment, with whatever would arise.

Essentially I put myself (my Self?) back in control, and consciously created space to just ‘be’. Which meant that not only did I get a lot more done, but I also became more me.

So what have I learnt?

Let’s sum things up…

wordcloud (1)

I’ve learnt that ahimsa and sauca overlap – both require a certain level of self-acceptance and love, and not just of the capital ‘S’ Self but of the little ‘s’ self as well. Clearly being pure of mind and intention can also mean being considerate and non-violent, just as being considered in what you eat also promotes purity of the body. I suspect that I’ll find this kind of overlap in many of these yamas/niyamas but time of course will tell.

I’ve learnt that with practice you really can find pause to reflect on your thoughts before acting upon them.

I’ve learnt that in delving into all of this I’m baring a little more of my soul to the world. This can be disorientating and even somewhat painful, but it probably explains why that last ‘Seen on Instagram’ post resonated so much with me!

And finally, I’ve learnt that the practice of these rules is going to be a life-long task and, though my focus for the next week will move on, I won’t really be leaving these two behind.

Talking of which…next up are satya (the yama that means truthfulness) and samtosa (the niyama that means contentment). Watch this space…

(PS – this post is now longer than my essay can be…I’m going to need some help!)

Other posts in the series:
#2 – satya and samtosa
#3 – asteya and tapas
#4 –brahmacarya and svadhyaya
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana

An experiment in yoga

April 8, 2016

Although a large part of my 200 hour YTT course is practical (covering asana, anatomy and the various realities of being a teacher), a significant part of it is based in yoga philosophy. It’s a part that I love, and that I’m determined to bring into my teaching – there’s so much for all of us to learn from the yoga that isn’t physical practice and I’m convinced that it can significantly better both our lives and those of the people around us.

Our current focus of study is Patanjali. Often referred to as the father of modern yoga, it is he who is responsible (perhaps 1,700-2,000 years ago – though this attracts much debate) for putting into written form what had previously only been passed on via an oral tradition, distilling the practice of yoga into 195 verses (or, literally, threads) known as the Yoga Sutras.

You’ll most likely hear talk of the ‘Sutras’ when you enter into a discussion about defining what yoga is, particularly  Chapter 1 ,Verse 2: “Yogás Citta Vritti Nirodhah”. Translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda in my version of the book as “The restraint of the modification of the mind-stuff is Yoga”, this means to say that if you can still the activity of the mind and come to a realisation of the ‘Self’ you are in yoga, or ‘union’ (the literal translation of the word yoga).

Key to achieving this quietening or union, are Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga (Chapter 2, Verse 29). From the basic abstinences and observances (yamas and niyamas respectively) to be followed in daily life, to physical practice (asana) and breath practice (pranayama), to withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara) and concentration (dharana), to meditation (dhyana), and ultimately a spiritual state of consciousness sometimes known as enlightenment (samadhi).

Tasked with selecting an area of the Sutras to study and present back to the class next month I’ve decided on an experiment in actually living the very foundations of Patanjali’s yoga – the ten yamas and niyamas.

I have just about a month, so I’ll be working through one yama and niyama every five days, trying to ‘live’ them in every sense of the word for the whole of that time. At the end of it, I hope to not only have learnt something, but to have garnered a true understanding of their challenges and benefits along with their relevance in the world today, .

First up, starting today, ahimsa (non-harm or non-violence) and sauca (purity and cleanliness). Watch this space for updates…

Body image

April 7, 2016

I always knew that somewhere on this blogging journey I’d end up writing a post about body image. And then yesterday it got very naturally bumped up the priority list.

Wednesday is one of my teaching days and so I was up early yesterday morning, getting dressed in my leggings and (somewhat figure-hugging) vest in readiness for class. I remember catching sight of myself in the mirror and thinking how “I’d better remember to keep my belly tucked in today” but before I could really dwell on it I was out of the house, getting on with business.

rsz_img_1077So I get to the office, and I’m running around prepping mats and props and belts and the like, when I see someone who usually comes to class but who couldn’t make it this week. I was busy trying to persuade her to borrow my mat and come and join in when she gave me a bit of an ‘up and down’ look.

Instantly I remembered the earlier ‘belly’ thought and went to suck it in. A questioning look must have passed over my face though, as pretty much immediately she exclaimed “oooh, you’re so teeny!”. The exact opposite of what I’d assumed…

“Really?” I said, “But look at my belly!!”
“What are you talking about?!” she said
“Look at it” I insisted, “If you looked at me from the side you’d think I was pregnant!”
“Are you crazy?!” she responded
“I guess we’re all crazy” I said as I left to go and teach.

It was a funny exchange and we had a good laugh about it but it’s true, we are all crazy when it comes to body image, and we have a totally messed up way of looking at ourselves. But in spite of knowing it’s crazy, we all continue to do it – make these judgements about ourselves that really we ought to look like something, or someone else.

So how do we stop the crazy? How do we not pass it on? How do we help ourselves, and others, to think differently about it all?

We put all of this pressure on what we look like, but we don’t think about how we’re functioning. We don’t look to our bodies for example, and ask what they can tell us about what’s going on in our lives – even though the body is such a great indicator of how healthy, in the holistic sense of the word, our lives are.

It tells us pretty quickly if our lives aren’t in a good place, and can speak volumes about where our stress levels are at, how happy we are and how nourished we might be. For me, imbalance manifests itself in digestive issues, eczema, dizziness and exhaustion. It’s all symptomatic of other things going in my life, yet normally when I look at my body I’m not asking “How are you? What can I learn from you?”, but rather “Hmmm, how fat/thin are you looking today?”.

I know that since increasing the amount yoga I do, I’ve put on weight. I have a bigger bum (more junk in my trunk as a friend of mine would say!) and bigger legs and, all in all, I’m carrying around about 10lbs (4.5kg) of extra weight. Sometimes I get a bit miserable about it but the truth is I’m stronger, less prone to injury, less tired and less weak.

And as I’ve covered before, I’m also getting less crazy. Which means that, most of the time, I can recognise the extra ‘junk’ for what it is – muscle, not fat, and eminently healthy muscle at that.

Other times, I wake up in the morning thinking I’m the size of an elephant! Which I know is utterly ridiculous. Just as I know I can’t possibly be slim one day and overweight the next – whatever my mind might say! So if it’s not physical, if it’s in the mind, it has to be controllable or ‘let go-able’…

Which means it can be stopped. Stopped from being a measure of how capable, competent and successful we are. And stopped getting in the way of us doing things. We’ve got to put all of this to one side, and just get on with life!

I read an interview with Cameron Diaz earlier, about ageing and, though on a slightly different topic, she said one thing that I thought was really pertinent:

“We don’t have to do this to each other and we don’t have to do it to ourselves… We need to start honouring ourselves and honouring each other, instead of beating ourselves up and judging other women.”

And I have to say it’s been interesting to see how my own body image has evolved these last few months. Well these last couple of years really, but the shift has definitely sped up since I started YTT and began getting much more philosophical about everything in life. The old negativity and obsession about conforming to a certain ideal isn’t gone, definitely not (see the elephant thoughts above!), but I do have much more peace with it.

Again from Cameron Diaz:

“We, as individuals, are the only ones who can release ourselves from the burden of feeling like we need to be something that we can’t be.”

In ‘living’ yoga I find myself releasing from it all… But even in this community it can be a challenge. I use Instagram and as soon as I started tapping into the yoga community there, I saw all of these slim, beautiful people, in beautiful clothes, doing amazing yoga poses in amazing places. And because you follow these accounts, you get led to more… And before you know it you’re on a path where yoga has somehow become about aspiration, and desire. Which it is absolutely not.

There’s a whole host of talk and discussion about where this all stems from, and whether it’s teachers themselves that are driving it, with a level of irresponsibility in their teaching. But arguably it has as much to do with the people following this stuff as those who are being followed. Because there are actually inordinate numbers of people on Instagram posting about yoga (19,836,823 posts with the hashtag #yoga when I just checked) – not all of them skinny, in beautiful places, wearing beautiful clothes.

Perhaps then, if you’re already inclined to give yourself a hard time about your body, you somehow get led down this road of only seeing and engaging with the stuff that you think represents what you ‘should’ be. The stuff you (mistakenly -see this post from Rachel Brathen aka Yoga Girl) think represents happy, and successful.

I myself have added quite a lot of variety recently to my followers – from the (inspirational – read some of their posts) plus-sized @mynameisjessamyn and @glitterandlazers to a whole raft of ordinary people doing yoga at home in their PJs (@rudabagel_, @movewithjude, @aareeliitaa…)! I think once you understand (or more to the point are able to hold on to the understanding) that yoga isn’t about being beautiful, tall and toned but actually setting aside all that is not significant or not-‘Self’ (in the words of Patanjali, “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff”) you become open to other images and role models in life.

Which in turn helps you to back off a little, from all this crazy body image stuff. But it’s a work in progress, of course, as is everything!

I can’t be the only one thinking all of this – I’d love to hear your own stories below…

I’m sat in the sunshine, in a park looking down over Bristol, at the end of the third day of my second stint of yoga teacher training (YTT). There’s been a lot to process already and I find myself taking a moment of reflection, on what a privilege it is to be on this journey.

I wrote already about the first weekend of training, back at the end of February. It was both hugely intense and exhausting – not just because of the sheer amount of information that needed to be learned, but because of the newness of the situation, people and environment too.

And this weekend is again proving to be intense, educational and illuminating…but in a completely different way.

There have been plenty of truths and the most honest of sharing (I’m not sure I’ve ever been surrounded by so many wonderful and open people) but, as we’ve worked each day through asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing practice) and svadhyaya (study of the sacred yoga scriptures), there’s also been a shifting of prana (or energy) that’s resulted in outpourings of emotion from a number of the group. Myself included.

No-one else’s story is for me to tell of course; mine however is thus…

I travelled to Bristol as usual, but this time left behind my other half who has very recently lost his Mum. I was due to spend the three overnights here but, for the first evening, I travelled back to be with him. I could feel something brewing even as I drove home that evening – a rawness in my chest and throat that I could identify as emotion but that I was, as yet, unable to really define. As I arrived home and got into the flat it seemed to pass – only to resurface the next morning on the 45-minute drive back.

In our morning circle on day one, it turned out there’d been lots of ‘wobbles’ during our time apart – with doubts around capability and capacity creeping in. I however was feeling grounded, and shared with everyone how secure and firm I felt, and how certain I was about my choices and path.

By day two however, everyone seemed to have again found their feet. Apart from me who was apparently losing them! Even as I talked things through that morning, I sensed a stirring of the emotion I’d been carrying around – even though for now it still seemed rooted where it was. I explained the feelings to the group and warned of possible tears to come. Still, I had no idea of what it was.

Talking to Laura that morning I came to understand the feeling as a shifting of prana that had likely been ‘unlocked’ through practice (also known as a kriya, or physical manifestation of kundalini), something unresolved within me that was now releasing. It was ok, she told me, to be unable to identify its source – some of these locked-up energies are formed during very early experiences and might potentially never be named.

So with that I settled into the day…

That afternoon we began discussing Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga, in particular the ten yamas and niyamas (or restraints and observances) that should guide a yogis life. Splitting into pairs we each took a couple to discuss before feeding our thoughts back to the group. Then, as we worked around the group, each pair making their contribution, it came. A flood of tears that though not entirely unforeseen did still seem to erupt from nowhere -one minute I’d been absolutely fine, but then the next there were all these tears.

And as they came I slowly started to identify their source. We were discussing ten pieces of guidance about how to live (not at all dissimilar to the ten commandments): ten simple, basic principles of living that are core to yoga, and that I also identify with as core to my being.

[Very briefly – there’s a later series coming on these – we’re talking about things like not harming yourself or others, respect and self-respect, community, sharing, compassion…]

But not always, I realised, had these principles been applied to me. And, in particular, my marriage had been full of instances where they were rather flagrantly ignored. I was told by my husband that he simply didn’t like some parts of me. I was told that I was clumsy. Jokes were made at what I felt was the expense of others. And in other aspects of life I was judged too. My driving. My social life. My desire to spend time together…

It wasn’t like this to begin with I don’t think, but it’s definitely there in the latter years. And not just once in a blue moon either, but with a fair level of frequency. Enough that, as I look at it now, I know it was a large contribution to my leaving.

The not liking parts of me thing was repeated. And about more things than I care to remember or write down.

Then the clumsy thing – which at first was a bit of a joke. And if I’m honest I think that, as women, our periods can often be accompanied by a bit of general spaciness or loss of spatial awareness. So maybe in some instances it was true. But it became a ‘thing’. And I was just clumsy – always clumsy. I often thought (and objected) towards the end that this was a self-perpetuating statement – in telling me I was clumsy, he was making me clumsy – but by then the damage was done.

Any time we went somewhere and I drove, my driving would be scored out of 10 at the end (and I was criticised throughout for the slightest of errors). Unsurprisingly my driving became more nervous, and the errors more frequent. I asked for it to stop. Explained again that it was self-perpetuating, this repeated statement that I was a somehow lacking as a driver.

My social life wasn’t big enough. I didn’t pursue people for new friendships. I should go do things with this person, or that person. Be part of this club. Join that society…. I’ve written before about discovering I’m introverted but at this time in my life I simply had no idea – I just became accustomed to the idea that I was lacking again, albeit this time in social skills. And instead of being supported and assisted I was, in a way, told to sink or swim. Get on board or stay home alone. Which I often did.

I remember talking to my Mum about this, a number of times. About how I felt alone, and worried for our future. About how my husband didn’t understand my desire to spend time with him. He’s not an introvert of course and was out all the time, doing his thing while I languished at home living on a diet of TV.

The thing is though I knew nothing of this bigger picture at the time. Each instance of disregard for me was just a teeny tiny thing. But in time those teeny things become bigger noticeable things: a general lack of comprehension about who I was; a flagrant disregard for my wishes and feelings; an absolute offloading of responsibility onto me for the various ‘stuffs’ of life – washing, ironing, travel plans, groceries…

A number of situations I remember clearly:

His brother’s wedding. I was new to the family; he was the best man. I was hugely intimidated by the thought of a day meeting all these new people (there were so many guests, one of them collapsed and needed medical care!) without him by my side yet he couldn’t even bring himself to help me understand how (and with whom) I’d be travelling to get there. I protested; he said I was silly.

My brother. There’s been an ongoing issue between me and my brother for years (again, more on this another time!) and, to cut a very long story short, my then-husband simply never had my back once.

And sausages! This is a little silly, but strong relationships are built in the little things as well as the big ones. I was a most-time vegetarian, because I didn’t like the texture of meat, but I did have a penchant for the kinds of things that lots of proper carnivores scoff at – Big Macs, for example, and a particular brand of sausage. We’d go to stay with family members and he’d tell them I’d eat sausages but never explain the idiosyncrasies of it. I asked every time but nope. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions I’ve forced down a cooked breakfast that I couldn’t stand just so as not to appear rude. I couldn’t make a fuss – it’s an introvert’s worst nightmare being a figure of attention like that – and so I’d ask him to explain beforehand, to pave the way in advance of a visit. But he’d just brush it off. It was another thing he couldn’t understand and therefore just chose not to listen to my request.

So there it is – big things, and little things. But in the whole one massive thing that resulted in me leaving my relationship.

As I explained on Yoga Teacher Prep, I met someone else and hurt a lot of people, and of course I would go about things differently if I had the time again. I lost friends and family over it, I was called all kinds of names, and I was judged in all kinds of ways. But you know what I realised in that session yesterday? I was not being treated very well in that marriage and it had compromised me at my very core.

But I just didn’t understand any of this at the time. And it was the most confusing place.

I still don’t think I’m done understanding it if I’m honest, but for the first time in two years I feel a sense of peace, resolution and compassion towards myself in relation to it all. Carrying around guilt is exhausting – today I feel some of that lifting and I move forward with life cleansed of an awful lot of negativity.

There may be people reading this who know both me and him, and who perhaps question my telling of events (unfortunately, those who are no longer my friends will probably never read it!) . All I can say to that is imagine for a second that you are a building, remembering that buildings are only ever as strong as their foundations. Your foundations however have been chipped away at, piece by tiny piece, day after day. What do you think would happen in that situation?

I also ask that they take a minute to reflect on the person I am today – how peaceful and calm I am in comparison to what I was. Then perhaps they might see that something bigger than just my infidelity was going on.

Love is love is love. And you love all of someone or not at all. I know that now, I knew that then. But I’m stronger today – more self-aware, self-reflective and self-respecting.

Time to move onwards and upwards.

X

 

 

Yoga Teacher Prep

March 22, 2016

Exciting news on the blogging front – this week I’ve had a post featured on someone else’s site!

I first noticed Yoga Teacher Prep when I was setting up the social accounts for yogalustco and, as a “community for YTT preppers”, of course I was interested in what they had to say. Not least because I was just about to start this journey for myself.

In their own words, their mission is “to help you confidently move toward your training in the most rewarding way. [This community is] where information, love and support are generously shared. Whether you’re embarking on a new career, advancing your practice or anything in between, we’re all here to help you face the challenges ahead and beyond.” 

Great right?

On the site at the moment, you can find a series of 108 YTT Tips – short snippets of advice from qualified (and often renowned!) yoga teachers to prepare you for the teacher training journey (why 108?). But they’re about to start complementing this with another series of blog posts featuring people’s yoga journeys, of which mine is the first.

Titled ‘My yoga journey – from self-destruct to self-discovery‘, it’s the story of what happened in my life to bring me to where I am today. So hop over to the site, give it a read and let them (and me!) know what you think.

Oh, and thanks as ever for following :)

[PS – you can find my social accounts on both Twitter and Instagram. Yoga Teacher Prep are also on Twitter.]

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