Antarayas in everyday life

Sometimes you might wonder how ancient teachings have any relevance to modern lives.  In fact, I find it almost uncanny how the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written several hundred years BCE, can seem to be iterating the exact same issues that we face today…with the bonus that he also offers some suggestions of how to help deal with them.

In the Tuesday class this week, we looked at the antarayas, a set of blocks to following the path of yoga.  Remember, yoga is defined as the settling of the mind into silence, so we are talking here about things that stop us from moving towards that place of greater calm.  Modern life can be so busy that this might feel pretty elusive!

What surprises me is that this list of blocks, written so long ago, is pretty much what you might come up with today, if you tried to identify the real reasons that you weren’t making progress towards your goals.  And this list of blocks could be applied to just about any situation where you might be feeling a bit stuck.

The antarayas are attitudes or feelings that come from inside, rather than external pressures, so they are the perfect subject for a mindful meditation on your situation.  Many of them link to a lack of energy, stopping us from making the changes we need.  It can be much easier to stay in your ‘comfort zone’ and grumble, rather than initiate changes that may seem scary.  What we tend to find though, is that if we can make a start we can soon create new and more positive habits, such that we wonder why we didn’t do it much sooner!

Although many people make New Year resolutions, I find I am still caught up in the chill of winter at that time. It’s the arrival of spring that prompts me to start planning and moving forward.  So with the arrival of March and the departure of the snow, what better time to start something new?

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Tick tock! Body clock!

The changing of the clocks for the winter brings a sharp reminder that summer is long gone and winter is just round the corner.  I always struggle to adjust, as there is no public service announcement for dogs, to inform them that we will be getting up later each morning. As a result, my days start an hour earlier and as I work evenings, bedtime cannot come any sooner.

I don’t think I am alone in this, it is recognised that the body is quite finely tuned to the time of day and this sudden change can take a while to adjust to. In 2017, scientists researching the genetic basis for the body clock were awarded a Nobel prize. Their research explored “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”

We experience problems if our internal body clock is misaligned with the environment, most classically in the case of jetlag but on a smaller scale we can feel it when the clocks change.    All living organisms are aligned to the cycle of day and night created by our planet’s movement around the sun, even to the extent that the timing of a surgical intervention or taking a drug can be affected by the time of day.  IT should come as no surprise that people working strange shift patterns or at night can experience higher levels of ill-health, which could be linked to the disruption to their body clock.

At times like this it is more important than ever to listen to our body.  A mindful yoga practice is the perfect way to learn to recognise how we feel on a physical and emotional level.  Maybe we need a more restorative practice for a few weeks, perhaps we need to do more relaxation and fewer asanas. Yoga is about honouring the needs of all parts of our being, so that we can be as well as possible.

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Making yoga work for you: Part 2

Following on from my last post, on the yamas in the context of work, this time I will be looking at the niyamas.  These 5 values are about our relationship with our self, and the attitudes we bring to all that we do.  They can be seen as influencing our success and satisfaction in the working environment, so they will affect the attitude with which we approach our work.

  1. Saucha. Purity or cleanliness is the overriding principle of the niyamas, just as ahimsa is the keystone of the yamas. Adopting a ‘clean-living’ approach to your own health may (hopefully!) mean that you are in a better physical and mental state to manage your business or carry out your duties at work.  Perhaps considering your body is a temple is a step too far, but I think as a yoga teacher, there is an element of practising what I preach – this is the key niyama where I can set a good example for my students to follow.
  2. Santosha. Contentment comes in many forms. Here we are referring to being content with things as they are now, yet at the same time avoiding stagnation.  Here is where the annual review comes in.  Adopting this attitude towards our current situation should help us to make a realistic assessment of our work achievements and at the same time we can be planning for growth and changes in the future.
  3. Tapas. Discipline is vital if we want to succeed in any career, and none more so than in self-employment, where we truly do succeed or fail on our own efforts. There is the discipline required to impose a work pattern on your own life, to set hours and complete tasks even when no one is looking over your shoulder.  Furthermore, paid holidays and sick leave seem to be a distant luxury I remember vaguely from the past. Now, the show must go on regardless of the majority of personal circumstances, if the business is not to get a reputation for being unreliable. Such is the lot of so many people these days, both self-employed and on zero-hours contracts.
  4. Svadhyaya. This niyama is used in two ways, to mean the study of oneself and also independent study. The first of these will be familiar to anyone in a job with annual performance reviews which might consider how to develop personal qualities which will improve our success at work.  In yoga terms it may go much deeper than these traits which litter so many CVs, to gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves through the medium of the workplace.  The second demonstrates a commitment to learning which may be monitored through a requirement to attend professional training, or go beyond this to an inner curiosity that spurs us on to research and reflect on knowledge relevant to our work.  I full admit to being a ‘yoga nerd’ who finds pretty much anything relevant to be of interest – as many of those who come to my classes may attest!
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana. Finding spirituality in what we do as a job can be a tricky task. This niyama is about recognising that there is something greater than our individual selves and making everything we do about honouring this higher power represented as humanity as a whole.  I certainly didn’t feel this way about previous jobs, perhaps because they didn’t support the previous yamas and niyamas well enough for me to feel it was possible. However, whatever our role at work, if we do our best in the situations that present themselves and we can rest in the awareness that our actions will in some small way lead to a better future.

This is just the briefest overview of yoga in the context of work.  Having started, it now seems to be just the tip of the iceberg! In these two posts, I have focused on my own experience in teaching yoga, but you could as easily apply these concepts to your own working situation.  Perhaps you will decide you have the perfect job that meets all your needs…or maybe it’s time to start planning to make some changes!

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Making yoga work for you: Part 1

In the past I have held a variety of paid jobs, and one of the things that prompted me to become a yoga teacher was to find work which I felt was more closely aligned to my values and personal needs.  Yoga gives us a framework for how we interact with the world and with ourselves, and I thought it might be interesting to consider these ethical and moral values in the context of my work.  Self-employment gives us perhaps greater control in some ways, yet more constraints in others.  This week we will take a brief look at the 5 yamas, which focus on our interactions with others.

  1. Ahimsa. Translated from the Sanskrit as non-harming, I could really devote the entire blog post to this one. It over-arches everything else and is the prime motivating factor in all we do.  We could talk about the environmental and people impact of every business purchase you make, the premises you use, your method of transport etc.  The list is huge!  For example, I choose to work relatively close to home.  This minimises travel time and also environmental impact.  There are also issues such as attending to health and safety in class and ensuring that participants work in a safe yet beneficial manner.
  2. Satya. Truthfulness is something that may be in short supply in these days of misinformation and fake news. Honesty towards students is essential when it comes to building a good business relationship. Promoting yoga through false claims of its ability to transform lives may not lead to a great deal of repeat business! Honesty and objectiveness also come into play when it comes to reviewing your business each year. If it’s not working, it needs changing.
  3. Asteya. This yama of non-stealing can be taken in the literal sense of not taking what is not ours to take, but we can also be reminded that everything we need is actually inside us already – we begin from a place of abundance. It is only natural to want to have enough to be comfortable, but there is a limit to how much we can actually use.  Taking more than a fair share may mean others have less e.g. if the class prices is higher, fewer people can afford it.  Some businesses may be run with the intention of making the biggest profit possible, but rewards are not always tangible and profit comes in many forms.
  4. Bramacharya. Originally used to mean celibacy, bramacharya is now more commonly taken to mean sustaining energy or vitality. Here we can consider the emotional and physical impact of our work on our personal well-being.  Work life-balance is important for all of us and my schedule is planned with that in mind.
  5. Aparigrapha. This one translates as non-grasping, or non-possessiveness. The flip-side of this yama is potentially negative emotions such as greed or jealousy, which lead us to become hoarders or just miserable about what we don’t have for ourselves. In a teaching setting, we might think about the information we choose to share, and that which we hold back.  Others cannot learn if we are possessive about knowledge.

So that’s it for the first limb of ashtanga yoga, the yamas, Next time we will look at the niyamas, which focus on our attitudes towards our self.

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A day in the life of a yoga teacher

Yoga teachers are a funny breed. For some it’s a full time job, others teach alongside working in a second job and yet more do maybe one class a week, almost like a hobby.  I fall most definitely in the first category, and the time I spend teaching is just the tip of the iceberg of the various other tasks that need completing in order to deliver the sessions.

Each of my weekdays are different, but there is a pattern over the week and I try to keep my work out of the weekends; when you are self-employed it’s very easy for the job to become a 24/7 activity that is extremely bad for your work-life balance!  So here is an attempt to tell you what might happen on a typical weekday.

I tend to get up about 7.30am. Between then and 9am I feed the dogs, do a few chores and do my own yoga practice, before I get washed and dressed.  I might also use this time to try out some postures I had been thinking about, or a variation on something to do in class.  Yes, I do my yoga in my pyjamas! After all, they are loose, stretchy and no one is watching!  I might also respond to any urgent text messages, although I prefer to leave this til after 9am if possible.

Most days, next on the list is dog walking, then breakfast.  Over breakfast I scan the news and Facebook to see if there is anything to share on my yoga page or to get ideas for blog posts.  If I am teaching a morning class, I also check I have everything I need and run through the lesson plan for the session. On those days, teaching takes care of the rest of the morning.  Otherwise it’s time to get on with the dreaded admin.  Responding to emails come first, and then things like updating or writing lesson themes, accounts and banking, taking or processing photographs, printing off forms, writing blog posts and updating my two websites.

At some times of the year there are other bigger jobs to fit in as well, and I try to do these when there is less teaching.  This means the nature of the work changes, but overall I try to work the equivalent of a split shift, working mornings and evenings with time off in the afternoon.  So, after lunch I aim to take an hour to myself – usually spent painting – and then the dogs need another walk and it’s soon time to think about the evening’s teaching.

I need to have either a snack or a meal at least an hour before I am due to leave, so I have time to digest before the class.  I make sure I have everything I need in my bag and run through the lesson plan and theme.  As I usually teach from four different lesson plans and two themes in one week, it can become pretty confusing if I’m not careful!

After class I will again have either a meal or a snack, depending on the day of the week, and then sort out my bag for the next day. I may need to respond to some text messages, check I have enough change available, sort out some class swaps, or make a few amendments to the lesson plan depending on how the session went.  I then need to have some quiet time to wind down before bed at 11pm or so.  And then it all starts again the next day!

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Time to get moving

Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with what is best to eat if you want to stay healthy.  It now seems that the perceived wisdom on what to eat is changing yet again.  Apparently eating saturated fat doesn’t lead to atherosclerosis after all, but eating carbohydrate could well do.  Of course, the food industry is now making big money out of products promoted as ‘low fat’ and may well be no more enthusiastic about changing their messages than they are about addressing the issue of sugar content in processed food.  I read just this week that a popular cereal company has spent a lot of money trying to dispute the evidence that eating a diet high in processed sugar is unhealthy.  It really becomes very hard to know who to trust!

However, one thing seems to stay constant in this ever changing sea of alternative facts.  Moving more is beneficial.  In fact, according to a recent review of research, it was noted that “in sedentary middle-aged adults, just 30 minutes of moderate activity in a day, more than three times per week, significantly improves insulin sensitivity and helps reverse insulin resistance within months”.

So, with the warmer weather arriving and spring well and truly on its way, now is the ideal time to get moving.  With the lighter evenings is perfect for taking a walk, and even better if that walk is en route to a yoga class!  While yoga might not be a high intensity work out (as least not the way I teach it!), a yoga class will still aim to move all your joints and quite possibly exercise muscles you didn’t know you had.  If you have done yoga before, why not try my Tuesday evening class in Weoley Hill Village Hall, or else there are still a few spaces left in some of my other classes for the summer term, suited to all levels including beginners.

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Learning from your leisure time

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!

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Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

I have recently spent a week in week at the Northumberland coast and now I am back I am driven to extol the virtues of the seaside.  This area has the most stunning of coastlines, and although it is a long drive from Birmingham it’s well worth the visit.  I am in love with the vast expanses of sandy beach and the amazing sense of space it conveys after being in an urban environment for so long.

20160605_160724Spending time at the seaside as a tonic for the health and spirits is not a new idea.  Many railways were built as a result of the Victorian desire to visit the coast and in novels of the period a sojourn at the coast to take the air was seen as a way to bring convalescents back to full health.  Here are three good reasons to visit the seaside:

  1. Negative ions. Being beside the sea is invigorating because the action of the waves produces negative ions, which help us to make better use of the oxygen in the air we breathe. It has been suggested that negative ions may be (or form part of) the life energy or prana so frequently referred to in the ancient yoga texts.  Certainly without them we become listless and lethargic.  A brisk walk along the beach really does blow away the cobwebs!
  2. Blue.  The colour blue often predominates at the coast. Blue sea, blue sky, all different shades. The colour blue is often used in healing mediations for good reason, and at the seaside we get a healthy dose.  According to colour theory, blue is a calming, relaxing colour.  Pale blue is associated with tranquillity and health, whilst darker shades represent knowledge and integrity.
  3. Yellow.  The other colour that often predominates at the coast is yellow, with golden sand shining in the sun.  Yellow is associated with happiness and energy.  Pale yellows, as we see on a sandy beach, make us more cheerful and energetic, perfect for lifting the spirits.

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You are what you eat

One of the principles of yoga philosophy is ahimsa, which means to avoid causing harm.  This might be in what we say, think or do.  If we become serious about yoga, a topic that tends to come up sooner or later is what we eat.  It’s quite common for yoga events to advertise that catering will be vegetarian, as many extend the principle of ahimsa to their diet.  Of course, there are plenty of arguments both for and against the consumption of meat and the environmental impact of different diets, alongside the whole issue of animal welfare.  Without wishing to get into these emotive debates, we can bring the subject closer to home and consider the effect of a vegetarian or vegan diet on our own health.

A diet with higher levels of plant-based foods tends to increase the amount of fibre we consume, promoting good bowel health, and raise of levels of important nutrients such as folic acid and vitamins A, C and E.  Vegetarians are often found to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with reduced risk of heart disease.  A vegetarian diet can also reduce the risk of developing diabetes, or help manage the effects in those with the disease.  Just the act of thinking more about what is in your food can prompt you to make healthier choices, and vegetarians may be less likely to suffer from obesity and its related health risks.

It now seems to be accepted that processed meat can increase the likelihood of developing cancer, and recent studies have shown that eating dairy products may actually reduce bone calcium rather than improving it, as previously thought. All in all, there are now many reasons to become more savvy about our intake of animal products for our own health.  We are then applying the principle of ahimsa to our own body and taking more conscious decisions about the impact of our own consumerism on other living creatures and the wider environment.

With organisations like America’s FDA now advocating a greater reliance on plant-based food products, there has to be something in adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet.  Of course, anyone can eat a junk food diet, whether it is animal or plant-based; swapping your beefburger for a veggie one won’t necessarily help your health much (although it’s good news for the cow!).  While you might not want to completely renounce meat (or dairy and fish as well), even cutting back on some days of the week can make way for a greater range of vegetables in your diet and ultimately pave the way to improved health.

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Making the effort

Most weeks, I teach 5 evenings a week and so when it gets to half term it’s a real treat to only teach one class, on a Tuesday evening.  There is a simple pleasure in knowing that after I walk the dogs I don’t need to leave the house again and venture out into the cold.  It’s at times like this that I truly appreciate the effort that my students make to come out to class when the evenings are damp and dark.  Thank you!

This discipline is known as tapas.  It comes from the Sanskrit root word tap, which means fire, heat or to burn.  It is used in the yoga philosophy to describe the commitment we need to pursue our own development through yoga.  It might be on a physical level, improving the flexibility and strength of the body, or it could be on a mental levels, seeking to reduce stress and learn how to use the breath or to find a more peaceful way of living in the world.

Whatever our goal, this inner fire or energy is needed to push us onwards.  It gives us the consistency of a regular physical practice, whether this is once a day or once a week. We can aim for this consistency in other aspects too, seeking to live yoga every day in our thoughts and deeds rather than do it just once in a while.  Our practice doesn’t have to be hard, the hard part is in doing it in the first place.

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