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!


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!


It’s not a competition

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.


Looking for contentment

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.


Yoga and mindfulness at Woodbrooke

One of the highlights of my summer is teaching at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.  This year the course is slightly earlier, running Wednesday, 15 August 2018 – Friday, 17 August 2018.  Our title this time is “Sense and Perception: Bringing Together Yoga, Mindfulness & Photography.”

The yoga sessions will be gentle and suitable for beginners, with an emphasis on mindful practice rather than physical ability. Mats and blankets will be provided, but you will need to bring a digital camera you are comfortable using – your phone camera will be perfect.

The course costs £170.00 non-residential or £245.00 residential and places can be booked online with Woodbrooke by following this link.

I hope to see you in August!


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!


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.


How is photography a meditation?

If you look up ‘meditation’ online you will find myriad methods, all claiming to provide you with great benefits;  find peace of mind, relax, de-stress, solve all your problems.  All this choice is hardly calming; where on earth to start?

Essentially, meditation involves paying attention.  In the yoga tradition set out by Patanjali, there are there are two inward-looking practices.  The first of these is dharana or concentration and the second is dhyana, meditation.  Dharana is binding the consciousness to a single spot, whilst in dhyana there is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity.

These qualities can be found in a formal meditation practice, usually sitting, but also whenever we are totally immersed in an activity to the exclusion of everything else.  Meditation is a non-doing.  We are training the mind to be less reactive and more stable, developing patience and practising being non-judgmental.  The Buddhist tradition has the wonderful idea of the ‘monkey mind’, bouncing all over the place and never still.  Meditation is taming the monkey.

Some people take easily to a seated practice and find it easy to focus the mind.  For many of us however, the moment we sit still and aim to focus on one thing, such as the breath, the mind seems to become more active than ever.  It may just be we are now noticing the thoughts, but whatever the reason it can be very frustrating!

For this reason, it can be helpful to have a stronger ‘anchor’ to keep the mind from wandering.  More to engage the mind, to draw it into the present and give it less opportunity to wander elsewhere.  The complete absorption in the subject at hand frees the mind of unwanted thoughts by providing a more attractive alternative.

And this is where photography comes in.  Photography becomes meditative when our whole being is immersed in the practice and we take the time to observe carefully, to align body and mind before receiving the image onto the camera’s sensor by pressing the shutter button.  It helps us to cultivate the habit of seeing more clearly, becoming more awake to each moment and really exist in the here and now.


Doing yoga every day

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.


Bring balance to your posture

Hatha yoga is all about bringing balance to the pairs of opposites within us; the name itself brings together the opposites of sun (ha) and moon (tha), the warmth, energy and fire of the sun balanced by the cool calm of the moon.  We aim to balance strength with flexibility and bring the mind to a calmer, quieter place.  Many of the postures in our physical practice of hatha yoga are asymmetrical, and need to be ‘done’ on either side.  These postures can serve to highlight the asymmetry inherent in our physical body and offer a way to improve balance between the two sides.

We all have a dominant eye, one ear higher than the other (though a surgeon may be required to change that one!), we are left- or right-handed, we tend to lead with one leg in favour of the other when moving down awkwardly spaced steps.  Our posture can be affected by these tendencies; using a particular hand to write with will affect our seated posture as we write, perhaps we will lean to one side, holding the other shoulder a little higher. Slinging a bag over the same shoulder each time can cause a similar change in the way you stand, how you hold your shoulders, neck and head.

When you sit, on a chair or on the floor, you may have a preferred way to cross your legs, leading to differences in the movement required in each hip.  The chances are you tend to cross your arms a particular way, link your fingers a particular way.  We do these things without thinking, guided by our subconscious mind which gets things done while we are busy thinking about other things.  And after a while these patterns in the body become literally set in, as the body adapts to these positions and ways of carry weight.

Our asymmetrical yoga postures offer a chance to recognise where these patterns of movement and preference exist, and working each side of the body separately allows us to explore each side in turn, to feel the differences, to allow each side to have its full range of movement in the posture.  We become more aware of our posture, how the body feels and moves.  Perhaps this awareness may then extend outside the class, as we start to make simple changes that can re-balance our posture.

These days, if I carry a shoulder bag I move it from one side to the other regularly.  Carrying shopping I always opt for two bags even when one would do, so the weight is even on each side.  Sitting cross-legged I make sure each leg takes its turn to be in front and even linking fingers I alternate which thumb goes on top.  In these little ways we can become more mindful of our physical self in a positive way, perhaps realising the root causes of discomfort or imbalance and taking steps that will help to reduce it in the future.