“It’s so good when it stops”

When I hear this phrase in one of my classes, at the end of working into a fairly taxing main posture, it sets me to wondering why we go to a class to do something we could equally well accomplish at home.  Practising in the comfort of your own home means you can do yoga at any time that suits.  You can do exactly which postures you like and in the colder months you don’t have to brave the wind and rain to get there.  It’s cheaper and you don’t miss out if you can’t attend a session.  Hmmm. It’s starting to sound like I am trying to do myself out of a job!

Despite all the benefits of practising at home, so many of us (myself included!) prefer to attend a regular class instead.  So what is it that makes a yoga class special?  Although yoga is essentially a personal and individual experience, there is something more enjoyable about participating in a group.  Of course, there is the social aspect; you may attend the class with a friend, or get to know others who regularly go to that session.  There is a united camaraderie in working together in postures you are like or are less keen on (but know are good for you!) and motivation to be had in seeing the efforts of others.  Personally, I enjoy abdicating responsibility for the structure of the session to someone else.  In a group class, you are guided through a series of postures that have been planned to work and stretch all parts of the body as you move towards the pinnacle of the main posture for that session.  The mind doesn’t need to worry about what to do next and you can really let go, just focussing on the breath and coming into each moment as it unfolds.

Tempted? There are still spaces for after the break, starting from 4th November.  So if you are dithering about joining a class, why not give it a try?

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10 uses for your old yoga mat

Yoga mats can last a surprisingly long time, which is fantastic given the potentially negative environmental impact of your mat.  Sadly, the more affordable mats generally contain PVC, which is not the most environmentally-friendly substance to manufacture or dispose of.  The alternatives tend to be quite expensive and may not be so easy to keep clean.  In the case of rubber mats, they also come with a rather overpowering smell.  However, when the time finally comes to say good bye, your mat doesn’t have to end up at the landfill site.  I really dislike throwing things away if I can find a use for them, so here are some ideas for reducing the environmental impact of your unwanted mat by recycling it into new uses around the house and garden.  Some are ways to use the whole mat, others will require a pair of sharp scissors and perhaps some glue or tape.

  1. Keep using it, underneath your new mat, to provide extra padding in class
  2. Line the boot of your car to keep it clean or as padding for pets
  3. Line your cat or dog’s bed to provide extra insulation and padding
  4. Cut out pieces to line terracotta plant pots in the garden.  It will help reduce water loss in the summer and increase protection from frost in the winter.
  5. Keep in the car as an impromptu picnic ‘rug’
  6. Cut a piece to stick on a step stool for extra grip
  7. Fold up the mat into quarters (or less) and tape or stick in place to create a kneeling mat
  8. In the garden lay it over bare soil on new flower beds as a weed suppressant before you plant them up
  9. Use small pieces to protect wooden floors from table legs
  10. Pass it on; sell it on Ebay to make some money, advertise it on Freecycle or donate it to charity.  You might be able to help out someone who can’t afford to buy a new mat.

If you have more ideas please share them!

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Letting go again

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!

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The vagaries of time

When you are waiting for a bus in the pouring rain, how endless can each minute seem? Yet when we go to the fairground, the rides are always over too quickly.  In the past I have attended aerobics classes which have seemed agonisingly endless, yet when I am doing or teaching yoga the time flies by.  Our perception of time seems to bear an inverse relationship to the pleasure gained from it; the worst experiences seem to last forever and the best ones are over ‘in no time at all’.

It can be easy to succumb to the habit of spending much of our time on autopilot when doing routine activities.  If you have ever got half way to work and wondered if the door is locked, you were probably on autopilot when you turned the key!  We can tend to fill our time with activities that may numb rather than stimulate.  How many hours spent are browsing online/watching sitcoms/eating or drinking too much as a way of passing time? These things can all be distractions from the reality of each moment.  We all need time out, but sliding automatically into these activities on a regular basis is not always restorative for body or mind.

When we become totally engrossed in whatever we are doing or watching, time appears to stand still.  This is the experience of time I hope to encounter when practising photography as a meditation.  I become so involved with my subject that time is no longer of any importance, far away from the restrictions of minutes and hours, days and weeks, times to be places and times to leave.  It is these moments out of time that become recorded in my images and these moments that give the practice meaning for me.  This sense of spaciousness is remarkably calming.  This feeling can be found in any hobby or interest that absorbs your full attention. Whatever it may be, try it out today!

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The perils of the prevarication habit

There is a lot of truth in Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted saying, ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ And while I am in favour of approaching life with a pretty relaxed attitude, sometimes we can become so relaxed about it that nothing actually gets done.  While it may not be wise to have so much ‘discipline’ that we fill all our time with activities, neither is becoming too laid back about things a good way to go either.

I’m thinking here about all the excuses that pop into our minds when we are thinking about starting something new, or doing something our mind has decided will be unpleasant.  I am the world’s worst prevaricator; I have never baked so many cakes or cleaned the house as much as when I was a student approaching exam time, with piles of revision to work through.  My logic was that there was plenty of time for culinary experimentation before I knuckled down to re-reading tedious revision notes.  In reality I was putting off the evil moment when I had no excuses left to avoid opening my books.  Welcome to Prevarication 101!

It’s so easy to do.  You know you should make the effort, but the comfy sofa is calling loudly.  When it comes to any activity (not just yoga!) that takes us out of our comfort zone, there is always an excuse to put it off.  It’s raining, I’ll wait another week, til the nights are lighter, til the weather is warmer, til the barbecue season is over, til after the holiday, til the kids have settled back into school, til after Christmas…Oops, where did the year go? And now it’s cold outside so I’ll wait til…and here we go again.

Yet when we make the effort to go out and do whatever it is we have been mentally avoiding, we often find that its really quite fun, and before long we can’t imagine how we managed without it.  It’s become a habit, and discipline has become a pleasure.  Why not make this the year of building new and better habits for a new and better you?

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Happy New Year!

New year, new start, new beginnings.  In just a few days we will be in the presence of 365 days of the blank canvas that is 2019, brimming with space to be filled with our new year resolutions.  So…how’s it coming along so far?

There can be a temptation to be somewhat ambitious with our resolutions; ‘I shall go to the gym every day’, ‘No more alcohol for me’, ‘I am going to lose 3 stone by Easter.’  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when we fall at the first hurdle.  Sticking to major lifestyle changes like this can be daunting and can be quite a shock to the system after our Christmas indulgences.

And when we do fall off our New Year wagon before the end of January, it’s as if we don’t need to try again because that whole New Year thing is over now and it may as well wait til next year.  That’s when I remind myself that each week, each day can be seen as a new start and there is never a bad time to try again.  On any road paved with good intentions, there are bound to be a few potholes to fall into on the way!

It’s been suggested that resolutions based around giving something up for January are not really very worthwhile, because a month is not long enough to make a difference in the body.  That doesn’t seem very encouraging to me.  Maybe it’s not long enough to change our physiology, but it is long enough to break a habit.  Saying you are making a permanent change can be quite scary.  Why not ease yourself into it gradually by starting with a month? Already during that month you are getting into the new way of doing things, building better habits for the future.

If you can manage a month, then you can have a sense of achievement in making it so far.  Perhaps a month will become three months, will become a year.  There may be other beneficial effects too.  I find that once I make one change, however small, I find myself considering other changes and before I know it, all manner of aspects of my life are having a spring-clean. Change becomes the habit, growth becomes the habit.  And with a habit like that, the world is your proverbial oyster!

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A trip to Scotland

Last weekend I was at Kagyu Samye Ling, north of Lockerbie, for the first meeting of a course I am doing with the Mindfulness Association entitled “Mindfulness Level 2: Responding with Compassion”.  Although based in a secular approach, the teaching suggests an analogy with the Mahayana Buddhist metaphor of the lotus in the mud, compassion being the beautiful lotus that grows from the ‘mud’ of our lives.  Much time was spent listening to theory and practising meditation

I did the first level course last year, quite near to home, and decided to venture further afield this time.  Samye Ling is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Europe and it sits in beautiful gardens alongside the river Esk.

As a venue it is perfect for this course, offering as it does a whole world away from everyday life. The place has an overwhelming sense of peace.  The sound of water is never far away, with the river forming a boundary to the gardens and several pools and water features.

Although I didn’t take a proper camera, I found myself drawn to practise mindful photography in the time I had free around the sessions.  The setting encourages peaceful reflection and there is a sense of timelessness.  Although it was a busy weekend, I seem to have absorbed some of that slowing-down energy and feel less inclined to bustle around daily life now I am back.  I hope the spell lasts a while longer!

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Embody your yoga pose!

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.

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Braving the elements

Well, what a winter it’s been already, with Birmingham finally seeing some pretty heavy snow…followed, of course, by treacherous icy pavements to test our balance in the extreme!  I have quite a dilemma at the start of an icy winter blast like this; do I cancel everything or, unwilling to be beaten by the weather, do we forge ahead with classes as planned?  This time it seemed prudent to give into the weather, so 3 classes were cancelled when the heaviest snow came down in December.

Having spent a considerable amount of time attempting to read between the lines of the weather forecasts, I decided it really depended on how far people had to come – would they be able to get to class safely? So I got out my student records and checked out the addresses.  This is a section I don’t usually pay much attention to, but it turned out to be quite revealing!  I discovered that the majority of students live remarkably close to the class venue; for some classes, almost everyone was within a half mile radius!  This confirmed for me that it’s reasonable to go ahead as planned in all but the most extreme weather Birmingham offers.

And turn up you did!  Boots, wellies, scarves and hats adorned our venues and there were many tales of the challenges faced even on a short journey.  Each winter I am humbled by the number of people who made the effort to come along despite the harsh conditions.  It’s really great to see how many have chosen a class that’s within walking distance, helping to reduce the traffic on already-busy roads and my yoga classes’ ‘carbon footprint’, in turn helping to reduce our impact on the planet’s stretched resources

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Think like a frog…

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.

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