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.
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.
We tend to think of our body as a permanent thing, yet when we consider this more carefully we have to accept that it is constantly changing. The change from birth to adulthood is immense, and even then there are ongoing changes as we age. Many of the body’s cells are programmed to die after a certain period of time. For some cells in the gut, this can be a short as a few days, whilst red blood cells may last 4 months. We only have to watch the inevitable fade of a summer tan to be reminded of the turnover of our skin cells.
In 2005, a Swedish research group led by Jonas Frisén used carbon-14 techniques to measure the lifespan of different cell types in the body by analysing their DNA. He found that whilst some cells in the brain are with us our whole life, many other cells have a much shorter life span. On average, cells in the intestine last just under 16 years and skeletal cells may last some 10 or more year. And whilst the cell and its DNA lasts this long, there is a constant exchange of molecules and even smaller particles, both between cells and between our body and the environment around us.
From this it’s clear that our precise physical nature changes moment by moment. Which makes things somewhat complicated if our sense of self is tied up in our physical being. If we become attached to our physical appearance we suffer varying degrees of dismay as these inevitable changes creep up on us. Old age may seem like a dream when we are young but eventually the wrinkles and gravity catch up with us, however much we still feel like a teenager inside. In some ways I find this turnover quite reassuring. It reinforces the idea that there is something enduring beyond the physical being and whilst my brain cells can benefit from the wisdom of age the rest of me is justified in acting my (youthful) age!
A mindful attitude to life helps us to become more aware of our habitual responses to situations in which we find ourselves. It allows us to notice our reactions and by adding a little distance from them, we can decide if the emotional response we have is a positive one. By and large, we tend to feel stressed when we are no longer in control of our situation. This can lead to all manner of negative emotions but the effect on the actual situation is likely to be minimal. In fact, it may just make things worse because on top of the (possibly imagined) slight we have suffered, we now spend the rest of the day being bad-tempered about it, spreading waves of negativity out to all those who cross our path.
This happened to me just this week, in Aldi. Anyone who has shopped there knows that there is an art to surviving the checkout process with all your goods intact and undamaged, due to the speed with which you are expected to get them back in the trolley. However, this week, it was the impatient customer behind me that was the problem. When he started voicing his complaints about me being too slow (I am a very experienced Aldi shopper and have it down to a fine art!) the checkout assistant actually apologised for this man’s rudeness! Perhaps something had happened to him that day and as a result he had allowed himself to be in a bad mood. Whatever it was, it was colouring his shopping experience and he was making sure everyone else’s day was worsened too.
Yet again I was reminded of how important it is to remember that we can control our responses but not always the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I didn’t ask for him to use the same checkout as me, but I was lumbered with his bad temper and could have ended up in a bad mood myself as a result of his bad vibes. In situations like this where we might fall into a typical bad response, being mindful allows us to catch the response and turn it around to one that is more positive. There was no need for me to have a bad day too!
As I took my trolley back to the store I noticed that karma was having the last laugh… the very same man who had been in such a hurry was puzzling over his receipt and then headed back inside with (I presume) a query. Perhaps his impatience had made him forget that faster is not always quicker. I hope he wasn’t too mean to the checkout guy!
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.
This week in the Tuesday class we talked about the third of the niyamas, or outer observances. In Sanskrit, this is tapas, and it’s usually translated as discipline, austerity, or enthusiasm. More strictly, tapas means fire or heat.
From a physical point of view, this can be seen as a commitment to keeping the body fit and healthy by paying attention to what we put into it. Food, drink, intoxicating substances! This aspect of tapas also includes exercise to maintain strength and flexibility, so our asana practice is perfect for that.
However, tapas can also be seen in the context of mental discipline. Swami Satchidananda suggested that our “mind too must be washed, squeezed, tossed, dried and ironed.” We will find out if we are successful as he points out that “if flowery words make us happy but insults upset us we know our minds are not yet strong.”
Tapas generates a positive attitude that gives us momentum and carries us towards our goals. It helps us make choices which are nourishing and provide opportunities for growth. Even everyday tasks become easier when done in this manner and this provides us with an opportunity to develop mindfulness at the same time, turning things the body must do into a meditation for the soul.
Yoga seems to have been in the news rather a lot recently, and not for very good reasons. First there was a married yogi who decided against wearing yoga pants because they made her too attractive to men. This then escalated into a full-blown yoga-pants-gate when a councillor in Montana stated that wearing yoga pants constitutes indecent exposure. It certainly sparked a furore of responses in the press and brought yoga to the attention of many more people!
Then there was the yoga teacher in Bristol who was banned from using a Church of England Hall to teach classes in, followed by the Irish priest who as good as told the world that practising yoga may set us on a body-obsessed collision course with the devil himself. Powerful stuff indeed!
I suspect that this sort of bad publicity is fuelled by the modern explosion of yoga styles, which strike me as being more about generating a hefty bank balance for the entrepreneur in question than in connecting to the underlying premises of yoga, giving a framework for lifestyle choices or just a way of living more happily in your body. And it certainly doesn’t when these peaceable messages are perverted by individuals wielding considerable power over potential vulnerable students, as has sadly happened in the Satyananda and Bikram schools of yoga recently.
In the face of this negativity, I find it helpful to revisit why I choose to live a life in yoga. I reflect on the huge benefits that it has brought to me mentally and spiritually as well as physically. I consider how it reflects the moral and ethical choices that provide me with a solid ground on which to stand, and to be proud to be who I am. We each find our own path and I hope that yours will be full of happiness, whichever way you choose to go.