I have always been a hoarder. Whether it is shells on the beach, interesting pebbles or clothes that still have some wear in them, I find it hard to let these things go. I have been pondering the reasons why I hang on to stuff like this and came up with quite a list. I then pondered my list and realised that all my reasons actually stem from the same source; in the end it all comes down to fear.
Whenever I consider rationalising my wardrobe there is always a cautious little voice whispering in my ear, “You are bound to need it if you throw it away, put it back!” And this has at times been true; perhaps I haven’t needed it as such, but it would have come in handy. So often I decide to clear out some ornaments or kitchen equipment and the little voice nudges me again: “It would make a great prop for some photos”, or ”Maybe you haven’t used that baking tin in years but it would come in handy”. This little voice is so often the reason that things are pushed back into the cupboard.
This cautious little voice is instilling in me the fear of needing these possessions if I no longer have them. Storing these things in my cupboards puts me back in my comfort zone. It’s all there if I need it, you never know, one day…
But I think it’s time to listen to the little voice that says “Wouldn’t it be nice to have more space? You don’t need all this stuff. Maybe someone else could use it.” This little voice is frequently drowned out by the cautious voice, but I say, “Shout louder, little voice!” Having possessions brings not only the fear of letting them go but also the fear of the inadvertent letting go of losing them. It can also bring the ideal opportunity to practise letting go. To be able to relinquish ‘stuff’ without regret or recriminations, to move forward into the future with hope and anticipation. Think of the freedom that a life without a need for so many possessions would bring! Trust in the Universe to provide and get ready for some spring cleaning!
Yoga is very much a personal practice, even when we are working in a group in class. But don’t we all find ourselves looking round the room at times? It’s so easy to make judgements about ourselves based on how good or bad we appear to be at something relative to the others in the room.
It would be easy to be put off if we found that we were regularly struggling to do things that others seemed to find a breeze. This is when it’s good to remind ourselves that yoga is about more than making a series of physical contortions, it’s about our attitude of mindful awareness to the practice, our breathing, and our ability to focus on the matter at hand. And I would like to suggest that there can be more to learn – and more to gain – when things don’t come that easily, when we need to dig into our reserves of dedication and persevere, to keep coming back and trying again.
At this point I could also say that the only person you are competing with is yourself, but I am not sure that this is true either. When you see yoga practice as a competition, even with yourself, you can be tempted to push too hard, to ignore the messages from your body and your breath, to lose sight of what is realistic or even desirable at that moment in time.
The idea of discipline in yoga is referred to as tapas. And no, this doesn’t involve little plates of yummy nibbles that you snack on whilst sipping a glass of wine in a Spanish bar! The tapas we are talking about here comes from a Sanskrit verb with the meaning ‘to burn’. It refers to the discipline and commitment to overcome the obstacles that prevent you reaching that inner calm and connection that is yoga.
This could be the discipline of attending class each week or undertaking a regular home practice, of taking time each day for yourself in mindful meditation, of reading something educational instead of randomly surfing the net. These achievements are much more about your inner world than the outer world of appearances. It is these little steps of commitment that move us closer to finding our goal of wholeness through yoga.
Mindfulness through yoga and meditation bring us in touch with the inherent wholeness that is within and assist us in aligning our life to this wholeness. What does that mean, exactly? Yoga as a word means union, and union implies a coming together or wholeness of our being.
Wholeness is about being comfortable with your beliefs and role in life such that you do not feel the need to challenge it or compare it negatively to that of others. To be content with who you are, right now. In Sanskrit this contentment is referred to as santosha, and is one the key characteristics that Patanjali suggested we should cultivate in our journey towards achieving yoga.
Seeing ourselves as imperfect or ‘broken’ is a major cause of suffering, recognized in Buddhism, yoga and also in Christianity, as the need to be healed or saved in some way. If we focus on the brokenness we end up seeking outside of ourselves for a perfection that doesn’t exist. Modern western society encourages this behavior through setting impossible ideals and telling us that there is something wrong with us if we don’t achieve them.
You only have to glance through a glossy magazine at the supermarket checkout to be bombarded with messages regarding the importance of being slim, fit and wrinkle-free whilst owning the latest smartphone and wearing up-to-the minute fashion. All, of course, in the name of increasing sales revenue, but the insidious messages about what is considered ‘normal’ are there all the same.
Whilst we measure our contentment in these terms, we are likely to find it elusive. As fast as we acquire what is needed, so the manufacturers and advertisers move the goalposts by coming up with another new trend or a miraculous anti-wrinkle cream that will restore the appearance of youth in an instant. However, it is only when we stop buying into the idea that perfection is wrinkle-free that we will have a chance of finding contentment. Just as beauty is not skin-deep, so our wholeness is about more than our physical being, our achievements or our employment situation, wrinkles and all.
In yoga tradition, the various asanas are all named in Sanskrit. Unfortunately this can sound like so much gobbledy-gook to students who are not familiar with these names, just the same as any language we have not learned to speak. Sometimes different traditions give different Sanskrit names to the same posture, which can make it even more complicated. And then of course there are the English translations, which may or may not reflect the meaning of the original Sanskrit.
I think of the names as falling into one of 4 categories. First we have the obvious descriptive names. Here, the name is a description of the pose and can be directly translated eg Utthita Hasta Padangustasana translates roughly Outstretched Hand to Big Toe Pose. And not surprisingly, that’s what the pose involves.
The second category is postures named after a person. Examples here are Matsyendrasana, named after the sage Matsyendra, and Virabhdrasana, after the warrior of the same name. Next we have postures named after things that they involve or look like. For instance, Malasana is garland pose (mala is garland) and Navasana is boat pose (Nava is boat).
The fourth category are postures named after animals. Here we might think of Adho Mukha Svanasana, literally Down Face Dog Pose, or Bhujangasana, cobra pose. In fact, there are quite a lot of animal poses!
If we can see beyond the confusion, the names originally given to the postures can bring our experience of the postures to a new level. For each of these latter categories, consider the name and the qualities that might be associated with that person, thing or animal as you do the posture. Practising cobra pose, think of the qualities of the snake, its sinuous-ness and the amazing light support that the body can create for the head to lift it off the ground. Embody its strength and its poise as you perform the posture. See if those qualities might shine through to enhance your experience of the posture, bringing your practice to a whole new level.
This summer, as last, I have spent a considerable amount of time observing the frogs in my pond. By pond I actually mean half a dustbin, dug into a corner of the garden. Just in case you were imagining some expansive stretch of still water, with koi carp swimming idly amongst the water lilies, dragonflies skimming the surface in an endless aerial display. Perhaps a little stream running in at one end and a curving Japanese-style bridge over…nope, those are only in my dreams, the reality is half a dustbin.
This has set me to wondering, in recent weeks, what can we learn from a frog? My froggy residents demonstrate a number of qualities that yoga holds in high esteem. The first thing that springs to mind is acceptance. My resident frogs appear to be very accepting of the premises I have created, despite their humble nature. There are plants for shade, stones alongside for basking in the sun and easy access in and out of the water. I presume food is plentiful as they keep growing! It may not be luxury but it fulfils their needs. My frogs are not proud. Acceptance of our situation or making do with what we already have doesn’t need to mean we no longer strive to improve things, but rather that we can be content with the here and now, accepting each moment as it is.
My resident frogs are not early risers, but come to rest around the edges of the pond or on the surrounding stones from mid-morning. I guess they wait for the sun to come round and warm the surface. Unless they are disturbed, they will sit for hours in the same position, unmoving apart from the occasional blink of an eyelid. Are they deep in meditation, I wonder? Or waiting for something tasty to move within range? Maybe their capacity for stillness is an essential survival trait, but nevertheless it is a quality that can help bring space into our busy lives as well. Even if there is a need to be physically busy we can cultivate the stillness within that allows us to recognise the busyness and work through it.
I am also drawn to their ability to co-exist peacefully. From just one frog to begin with, I have now spotted up to 7 individuals any one time. They sometimes sit huddled up together, sometimes spaced out around the pond, occasionally one is spotted out on safari around the garden. If a newcomer arrives, they just make themselves at home. No-one gets upset or territorial. Living in harmony is something humankind seems to struggle with on our overcrowded planet, both on a local and a global scale. Perhaps we all need to think more like a frog.
I am often asked ‘How often should I do yoga?’ Of course, there are many for whom coming to class once a week is enough but others are keen to do more. They wonder how many classes a week they should attend, is it better to practice at home in between, what exactly should they be doing?
Coming to class just once a week can feel like one step forwards, one step back. Twice a week seems to give a greater sense of making progress, with strength, with flexibility, with remembering some postures you can practise in your own time. If you have the time and inclination, you can put together a short sequence of moves that you have learned in class and work on these in your own space. So the answer to the question of how often you should practice really depends on your circumstances, and how much you want to do.
Of course, perhaps the question should really be, ‘How often should I be yoga?’ Yoga is about much more than performing a set of postures on a regular basis and the most important thing here is staying open to ‘being’ yoga as often as possible. If you are struggling to fit in a formal practice in between class, accept that this is how life is right now. For me, as soon as the practice becomes a chore, the benefit is lost and it becomes one more thing on my ‘to do’ list.
Naturally, you may want to spend some time reflecting on this situation and how it might be remedied! If time is of the essence, and even if it is not, take a few moments here and there during your day to be with your breath, to be fully aware of yourself in that moment. Stand in mountain pose in the supermarket queue, explore hip mobility as you watch TV, observe your breath for a few moments before you leave the car park or as you wait for the bus. You can ‘be’ yoga at any time, and eventually it just becomes a way of life.
Towards the end of August I taught on a 3 day workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak. Our topic this year was “Looking, seeing; Doing, being.” The intention was to explore how the different ways in which we approach life and the world around us can have a significant impact on our experience.
After several weeks of mixed weather, we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine. This made our enjoyment of Woodbrooke’s beautiful gardens even more delightful. We spent our time on a mixture of yoga, meditation and photography. We explored the gardens, walked the labyrinth and enjoyed plentiful and scrumptious food.
We will be there again next August, with a similar course entitled ‘Sense and Perception’. Details will be on my workshops page nearer the time, and places can be booked directly with Woodbrooke from April 2018.
This term in the beginners/returners classes we are looking at different aspects of creating balance and inner space. Mindfulness is central to this, as it allows us to become more aware of how things are now and whether we might want to change this. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, without judgement. We frequently act on autopilot, as we are busy with thoughts of either the future or the past at the time. This often happens when we are preoccupied with something and doing activities that we do every day, or many times a day. Practising being mindful of small activities can help with your memory as well. If you find yourself regularly hunting for your car keys/ chequebook/ reading glasses then you may improve your chances of remembering when and where you put them down!
On a larger scale, mindfulness allows us to experience life more fully as it unfolds, one breath at a time. Try noting the topics you think about over a set period to get an idea of how much time you actually spend in the present. It can be surprising how much your flow of thoughts concerns plans for the future or reliving past events. If you are bored, ask yourself how much of the present experience you are actually aware of. It is easy to belittle the everyday and long for the unusual – but when it arrives it can be over before you know it, leaving you already planning the next big event as your everyday moments flash by unnoticed. If life comprises only the wonderful bits it is very short indeed!
With mindfulness we are more aware of the messages brought to us by the senses, such as touch, taste, smell and sight. We can fully appreciate simple pleasures; the smell of cut grass, an ice cream on a summers day, a fantastic sunset. We can also increase our awareness of the impact of our lifestyle on our health. Early recognition of changes in the body gives us more opportunity to address a health issue before a problem develops. Reflecting on the impact of both our actions and our inaction can break a cycle of habitual behaviour, potentially opening doors to future actions that can help live our lives more as we would like to.
All this mindfulness can be hard work! The mind likes to ramble and daydream, it may not be used to the discipline you demand of it. Start small, for a few minutes at a time, by giving your full attention to something you are doing or to the breath. You can gradually increase the length of your practice until being mindful becomes the habit rather than the exception.
Every so often i am confounded by the complexity of modern appliances. Kettles that will vary the temperature they heat water to, tumble dryers that vary the dryness of the clothes and a fridge with a built in radio. As one of those people who uses just 2 of the 15 wash cycles my washing machine has to offer, I find this complexity bewildering. Modern appliances are intended to be labour saving, but I wonder if while we save time and effort on the physical work, the amount of time spent scratching our heads is increased. Sadly, marketing methods encourage us to feel we must dash out and buy the latest model, as our current device is sadly lacking in unnecessary functions. The result? Our perfectly functional but out-dated appliances are relegated to the scrap heap, adding to the environmental toll we exact on the planet both in the costs of producing new goods and in disposing of the unwanted ones. I read recently that the average householder replaces their kitchen every 4 years; just think of all those unwanted kitchens mouldering in a landfill site somewhere, because the fashion for cupboards and worktops has changed.
As for me? I am the appliance manufacturer’s nightmare. I squeeze every last ounce of use out of an item before I feel ready to dispose of it. My last vacuum was held together for many months with duct tape and string before I admitted it was time to consign it to the scrap heap. OK, maybe I go a bit far, but by making better use of the items we buy we can both reduce our impact on the environment, part of the yoga principle of ‘non-harming’ (ahimsa), and simplify our lifestyles at the same time. Do we really need so many gadgets that can do so many things?
This move to complexity is insidious. Even choosing a yoga class is complicated; when I list classes on the directory site ‘Yoga Nearby’ I have to choose a style of yoga to create the listing under. At my last count, there were 49 types of yoga in the drop-down menu for teachers to select from. Mind boggling! To me, these are the yoga equivalent of the brand names that litter our high streets (or the Internet, if you are an online shopper), each promising its own benefits. Are they that different? Or does the urge amongst teachers to create and market their own ‘brand’ of yoga just serve to confuse matters and distract us from the real purpose of the practice? You tell me.
In the Tuesday class since Christmas we have been looking at the niyamas, which are 5 tenets for our attitude towards ourselves which support a calmer, quieter mind. They offer us a way of being with ourselves which leads to less internal chatter, an eternal cause of anguish.
One of these is svadhyaya, or self-study. This might be about taking time to devote to education and learning. It can also be about self-reflection, using everything we do as an opportunity for learning about ourselves. Everything we do is an insight into what makes us tick, right down to our choices of leisure activities.
Since carpal tunnel syndrome required me to give up many of my previous activities (that can be done in Birmingham!) I have taken up watercolour painting. Completely self-taught from books and videos, I realise I needed to have started a good 30 years ago if I ever hoped to achieve some mastery over this challenging medium! But still, I press on. That in itself demonstrates to me my attitude to a challenge – do I persevere in the face of adversity, or hide my head to avoid the problem? When my painting goes badly, what is my response? Everything I do teaches me more about myself if I am prepared to listen.
The way I approach the task also reflects my natural tendencies. I have always liked working with small things – beads, stitching, fine details. And that comes out in my painting. It is proving really difficult to move to a looser style of painting and resist the draw of recreating each fine detail. On the other hand, do I have the patience required for that painstaking work? Again, more is revealed if I am open to seeing it.
Yoga gives us a framework for life far beyond the performance of a set of complex asanas on a mat once a week. The niyamas are that blueprint for learning to live with yourself…and ultimately that is one person you cannot live without. Our only hope is to ensure that person is someone we really want to spend time with!