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!
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?
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.
This week in the Tuesday evening class we completed our tour of Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga, with a look at the final three stages, of inner practice.
The first of these is Dharana, typically translated from the Sanskrit as ‘concentration’. Here the mind is asked to focus on an object, such that the wanderings, chatter and random thoughts subside. The object might be external to the body, such as a picture or something from nature, or it might be internal, as in the case of the breath. This practice is akin to mindfulness, where we ask the awareness to rest in the present moment.
The next stage is Dhyana, which is generally translated as ‘meditation’. Patanjali characterises Dhyana as “A steady flow of attention directed towards the same point or region.” It follows on naturally from Dharana as our ability to direct our awareness increases and the distractions lessen.
If this continues to its natural conclusion, we experience the final stage of Samadhi, which Iyengar defines as a state where “awareness of place vanishes and one ceases to experience space and time.” Sounds wonderful!
Our much of your waking time would you say you spend with a purpose? I suspect it might be quite a lot. With our long-hours culture and the pressure to achieve in whatever we do, I know I certainly hear a little voice whispering ‘But’s that’s rather lazy!’ if I consider taking some time out to do precisely nothing for a while. To spend time as a human being instead of a human doing.
Much of our striving to achieve is associated with two words; should and ought. I would like to ban them from my vocabulary, delete them from the dictionary. “I should take more exercise” “I should have tried harder” “I ought to clean the house”. Should and ought imply that something will be better if we do it. It implies we didn’t do enough, that something needs fixing. This might lead to feeling guilty, lazy, or all sorts of other negative emotions that arise when we ought to do something and we don’t.
When we are constantly striving to achieve these things we ought to do, there can be a tendency to focus on the end result, on what will be achieved and our plans to move onto the next project. The present moment is lost in the need to get to the goal. This might arise in a yoga class as a need to get onto the next posture, or to fill the time between postures with extra activity. Maybe a few more repetitions. Perhaps a quick spinal twist while you’re waiting. Or perhaps you do the posture a particular way because that’s how it’s done, how everyone else does it, because you feel you should. Even though it hurts and maybe an adjustment would help.
But what if we experience the present on the way? We stay with the breath and allow the mind to rest? We are mindful of the body and thoughts as they arise. We still achieve just as much but by paying attention to what is happening now suddenly the pressure is lifted and the self-induced stress beings to fade. We enjoy the journey as well as the destination, whatever that might be.
Regulars to my classes will know that I often encourage them to smile. Often when we are concentrating, or doing something challenging, our faces can become set and tension creeps in. Smiling is one way to release that tension and open us up to the experience.
Smiling is believed to use more facial muscles than frowning. Of course, this is going to depend on how seriously you take these expressions. A slight curve of the lips will use few muscles than an unfettered expression of joy. Likewise, frowning might range from a small pucker of the forehead to all out disgust. If you smile a lot those muscles get more exercise and smiling becomes easier; now there’s a good reason to smile your way through the day!
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” Thich Nhat Hanh
There can be a knock on effect too; frowning more can fool our bodies into thinking we are stressed and unhappy. As a result, we can experience symptoms associated with stress, such as increased heart rate and sweating. Conversely, smiling more persuades our bodies we are happy and we feel happier as a result. Actively smiling can even speed up our recovery from stressful situations, as the endorphins and serotonin released when we smile can lift our mood as well as lowering heart rate and blood pressure
Whichever expression you favour, a lot of unnoticed tension can be carried in the face. The key in our yoga practice is to become aware of that tension so that we can release it. Many years ago now I read that the best facial expression for yoga is that of a Mona Lisa smile. I forget where I read it but the comment has stayed with me. The elusive, mysterious smile that Leonardo da Vinci painted has been the subject of intensive study; as a species we are so determined to understand things! To, me, her enigmatic smile shows a face that is relaxed, but happy. Think of the Mona Lisa when you are doing your yoga practice. Release tension in the forehead, cheeks and jaw. Soften your gaze. Raise a gentle smile as you inhale and thank the Universe for the energy in this breath.
The room I teach in at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) is rarely quiet. There is so much going on in the building and this week was no exception. A short clip of music was played repeatedly during our one-and-a-half-hour session. With no opportunity to do anything about this, I found it interesting to observe the sequence of thoughts unfolding in my mind as I was involuntarily serenaded in this manner.
My initial urge was to identify the source of the music. Who was playing it? Where were they? This might have been the point where the urge to take a surreptitious peep out of the window became irresistible…if the windows weren’t so high it would need a step ladder to achieve. No success there, back to listening. Why was the piece so short? Just a few bars, repeated over and over. Why keep repeating it? Ohhh, it’s stopped! Uh oh! Off we go again. The snippet was quite haunting in its own way. It reminded me of the tune from the film ‘The Piano’. At this point the actual music was obliged to compete with the imaginary music in my head and my brain became even more crowded.
It’s pretty rare these days to be in an environment where there is total peace and quiet. In fact, if we are, we can find it a bit weird! The only thing that changes is the type of sound that we hear. Cities, countryside, indoors and outdoors all have their own peculiar theme tunes. Even indoor without any music playing there may still be the hum of the computer, the gurgle of the refrigerator and an intermittent grumble from the central heating. Outdoor sounds penetrate our solitude; children playing, neighbours mowing the lawn, and, on my street at least, a frequent clamour for ‘Any old iron?’ from the modern day rag and bone man.
If we can only practise when the conditions are perfect, then we will struggle to practise at all. Whilst peace and quiet can be desirable, the ability to distance yourself from the all-enveloping commotion that is life is far more useful. Practice then can become your ally wherever or whenever you wish.