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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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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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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Smile!

Smiling is infectious,
you catch it like the flu,
When someone smiled at me today,
I started smiling too.

I passed around the corner
and someone saw my grin.
When he smiled I realized
I’d passed it on to him.

I thought about that smile,
then I realized its worth.
A single smile, just like mine
could travel round the earth.

So, if you feel a smile begin,
don’t leave it undetected.
Let’s start an epidemic quick,
and get the world infected!*

I came across this poem recently and just had to share it here.  It seems to me that we increasingly live in a society where casual social interactions with others who share our local environment are frowned upon.  How much time do we spend in a world of our own, too busy to even see passers-by, let alone smile at them?

Sometimes that world is one of social media, other times it is an isolation of our own making. Even if we are not looking to strike up a lifetime friendship, it seems that the art of small talk is being lost as we hide in our mobile devices to avoid even any potential for eye contact.  Some act like you don’t exist.  Others make eye contact then deliberately look away with a grimace.

We are all human and we all live on the same planet.  Everyone has their problems, their good days and bad ones.  Yet how much does a smile cost? By actively cultivating a more positive frame of mind, I wonder if it might actually make our own day better, as well as brighten someone else’s? What if we chose to smile instead of frown when we pass someone on the pavement? Go on, experiment! Instead of sharing your bad mood, share a little sunshine today!

* As I attempted to discover the author of this poem, I found I had delved into a can of worms, with many people saying it was theirs.  It has been attributed to Spike Milligan, but I haven’t found any evidence for this.

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Earth laughs in flowers

“Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.”

The first line of this poem from Hamatreya, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is often quoted to create a warm, happy feeling that a garden full of summer flowers might bring.  At this time of the year, we may well feel that way as the perennial border works its way through a rainbow of colours and our pots and tubs are bursting with blooms.

Yet if we read on, there is a deeper context here, as Emerson reminds us that nature is a mighty ruler and although we might think we dominate her with our motorways, cities and suburbs, she is a force that stretched across the millennia.  Sometimes she needs a devastating force to wipe the slate clean, as in the wildfires that spread across dry ground in the summer, purifying all before them and leaving a clean state on which nature starts afresh.  Sometimes she has a little help.  Reports from the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor show that in the absence of man and despite the high levels of radiation released, wildlife is flourishing and regaining the natural hierarchy since the imposed top predator, humankind, has been removed.

Perhaps a little humility can be in order in the face of nature’s might.  We might think small, to our own garden, our own city or our own country.  We might think it doesn’t matter, we can’t make a difference or it won’t make a difference.  But yoga teaches to start at home, with our own self, in the hope that the changes there may radiate outwards and benefit those around us too.  I am reminded of the story of the boy throwing starfish back into the sea.  “But there are so many,” he is told, “What difference does it make?”  His reply? “It makes a world of difference to that one.  And that one…”  Live each moment. And make it count.

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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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A meditative walk along the beach

Well, it seems that we had plenty of lovely days this summer but I am sure I don’t know where they went.  Sometimes I get so caught up in what needs to be done that there is little time for what it would be nice to do.  For most of August, that meant communing with my computer so that my admin work was in place for the autumn classes to go smoothly.

However, as some of you will know, at the start of September I had a week away.  I really enjoy spending time away from technology so going somewhere with poor phone signal and limited wifi is ideal for me.  In this case, it was a cottage in Dorset for a week of self-enforced screen-free time.

After all those glorious days, the summer seemed to have worn itself out and the weather did not smile on us.  I discovered that I prefer sunshine for lazy days and dull weather prompts me to do more, hence it ended up being quite a busy week!  Living in landlocked Birmingham, a focus of my time away is always the coast and as the weather was not really up to sitting around and admiring the sea, several days were devoted to wandering along the beach in search of fossils.

Charmouth is something of a mecca for fossil hunting, and you would be hard-pressed to come back completely empty-handed once you know what you’re looking for. If you need to let off some steam, then breaking open limestone rocks to reveal crystal ammonites may be your thing.  Alternatively you can sift through the tiny stones and debris around the larger rocks to reveal hidden treasures.  At other times, they hide in plain sight, like the tiny ammonite fragment I found under my bag after a lunch stop.

For me, there is something strangely meditative about walking slowly and carefully along the rocky foreshore with eyes peeled for the tell-tale shapes and signs of fossils.  The complete focus of attention on the ground beneath your feet combines with the gentle whispering of the sea to cut out all distractions.  Its very all-encompassing and time flies quickly by.

If you choose to walk along the beach from Charmouth to Lyme Regis you may spot these much larger fossils in the rocks along the way, waiting to be pored over by passing tourists.

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It fascinates me to consider these remains of ancient creatures and imagine them living in this very place so long ago.  And of course, there are also more modern historical reminders, from the tiny pieces of sea-smoothed glass and pottery to more distinctive evidence of man’s influence on that which remains, as in this chunk of brickwork now at the mercy of the sea’s power.

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The way the man-made material was eroding alongside nature’s creations spoke to me of endless change and inevitability. I also liked the colours!

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