The Greatest Battle

   All yoga practice involves an ego battle, to some extent. It could be a minor tiff or a full-blown battle, interspersed with periods of love-making, tender and at times passionate. Without wanting to wade too deeply into the intricacies of yoga's rich philosophical tapestry, after all 'who am I' to even attempt such a thing? I nevertheless dare to point out that this ego battle is a battle between one's self and one's Self.  

 

   The case for 'getting out of your own way' has never been more urgent. Confronting the ego on the mat can open up the space that's needed to fight the battles that really matter. However, when we become fixated with fighting ourselves (true 'Self') not our egos, the practice becomes self-serving (as in 'small self') and if all this talk of egos and selves is confusing, don't worry, these terms are part of the sophisticated act that props up the illusion that we are somehow in control. Practice allows one to drop away the effort required to sustain the illusion (maya), thereby glimpsing the true nature of reality.

 

    What do I mean by fighting ourselves? If you have ever found yourself holding your breath and gritting your teeth, hardening your eyes and muscling your way through the asanas, chances are you are not hearing that very quiet voice that coaxes you down a different path altogether. Chances are you believe this effort to be somehow necessary, be it because it's something you're used to, or because this level of interaction with the body is unfamiliar and therefore you know no other way to endure it. The principles of peace and love are replaced by struggle and pain. I am not here to say that this is wrong, it is what it is what it is. But there is something here to be learnt, something that differentiates yoga from a muscle binding enterprise that strengthens our resolve and endurance. Our practice on the mat is our rehearsal for how we practice our humanity off the mat. After all, does the planet need more self-serving iron men or peaceful warriors engaged in non-violent resistance?

 

’ Can we let go of struggle in asana?’

Can we let go of struggle in asana?’

    Many school of yoga place enormous emphasis on seva or self-service, the wisdom teachings hark lyrical about compassion. However, if we have not confronted our egos, if we are fighting ourselves, holding our breath and enduring the inevitable pain of existence, won't we be handing out rotting banana skins instead of nourishing fruits? Unless we quieten down and listen to that subterranean pulse, life-sustaining, tender and utterly beautiful, following what we really love, connecting with the intimacy of each breath that rises and falls outside of the net of our controlling grip, unless we get out of our own way, the world will keep bringing us back, face to face with our foes. Our small selves will keep yakking on, pretending to know what life is all about. Confusion will abound, and we will be of little use to anyone.

 

    If on the other hand we take that other path, the quiet one, we ally with spontaneity, we open our eyes, literally and metaphorically, to what is really needed. In the words of Jonathan Kozol we learn to 'pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.' Our victories over our egos may be the most important ones to win, they teach us a different way of fighting

The Power of How

  If only we could all agree that life is too short to churn over the past or put so much energy into the future; our projects, dreams and plans. But what else do we have? The jolting realization of presence is hard to come by; haphazard rather than earned.

   How are we treat our past and future in our present? Things that have already happened cannot come undone, but how we feel about them now is a different story. Things that are yet to pass hold no keys, only the present does. The future-in-the-making. Take the following quote from the Upanishads:

That is perfect. This is perfect. Perfect comes from perfect. Take perfect from perfect, and the remainder is perfect. May peace, and peace, and peace be everywhere.

   And what has all of this to do with yoga? Well, as long as we feel that there is a great body of yoga wisdom crafted by the ancients somewhere, and waiting for us to unlock its secrets at some future point, we are laboring under an illusion.

   One cannot do anything in the future, only now. We can think of doing in the future, achieving a certain pose, attaining a certain calm, but this is a distraction from the only secret ever worth knowing, the most precious secret of all. We are enough because we can only ever be enough.

   That graceful, perfect asana, that blissful, sage meditation, its never going to happen, it will last for a blink of a memory of what was. How about that for enlightenment.  

   We’re all in this together, right here, right now.

'Un-rushing'

In the sessions I lead I often talk about ‘unrushing’, or undoing the effects of rushing. The fact is that rushing has become the default mode of our age. We are not even aware we are doing it. But our bodies keep the score.

The problem seems to be that it is hard to recognize one’s own tendencies. Of course it is, otherwise we wouldn’t do it right? We wouldn’t rush around like headless chickens if we could see what we looked like. But our brains are blind and quick like quicksilver. We place all the demands of the racehorse onto a body that itself has a complex collection of different rhythms to regulate and expect things to be dandy.

IMG_0093.JPG

So how can we set about noticing when we are doing it? When we are rushing? These are some of the cues I mention in asana practice also:

-      Is your breath compromised?

-      Are you walking into rooms forgetting why you came into them? Just because we all do it doesn’t make it normal!

-      Do you struggle to keep your attention focused on what you are doing?

-      Do you rely on an excessive use of stimulants?

-      Are you rushing through the important things? Reading your children a bedtime story, watching the sun rise or set, listening to a song…

 

When I put out my lower back for the first time I wondered how could this have happened? I practice yoga daily for an hour at least, most of which is slow, conscious movement and breath. I meditate daily, observing my thoughts and regulating my emotions. How did I get into such a state of agony? Could it be that I was stressed? I didn’t think I was. But that is just it. Our thoughts don’t register the half of it. When relating the ream of lists I was juggling at the time it was scarcely surprising to the outsider that perhaps, possibly I was biting off a bit more than I had time to chew.

      We are living at a time when multitasking is seen as a desirable super power rather than as the non-sequituur it is. It is not possible to multitask, there is simply no such thing. We may be doing many things at once but our attention can only possibly be on one. Does this mean that we have to give up on our lives and their busy schedules? Not necessarily, but can we bring in that all enhancing quality of slowness that is so desperately needed? I won’t call it mindfulness, consciousness or awareness. These buzzwords are buzzing with a clutter of expectations. Call it what you will, I call it ‘unrushing’.

 

Read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk M.D

come to my upcoming workshop at Yoga Akasha on the gunas and their role in our yoga practice

The Real from the Unreal

  We are an irreligious lot.

   Rudderless, it is hard not to end up exhausted by the frantic, self-serving confusion of activity. When we lose direction, action is imperative. Orienting to our centre, we embrace the practices of yoga; yoking our attention to the breath, studying the wisdom of scripture, being truthful about what is real and what is not.

DSCF2619.jpg

  In this world of ticker tape gurus, we need to beware of who we follow. When the heart is dimmed or contracted, we need to listen. This is not the way of truth. Truth is blissful, clear and enormous. We are embraced by truth in a giant embrace that holds us all. There is no one left behind, not a single being, not a single soul. If your practice leaves anyone out, beware.

Always practicing balance, cultivating discernment and looking for the taste of one-ness in everything, the yogi abides. Not sallowed by gloom, not excited by hype nor swayed by the judgement of the masses, the yogi sees through to the core of life. Unscathed by one million breathless arguments, small, pulsating, yet immensely strong, is the song of eternal bliss.

   Blink, and you’ll miss it. Smile and you’ll come face to face.

Ecstasy or Cessation?

Yogis have followed one of two paths; the ecstatic or that of cessation. Are they necessarily distinct? Does it mean that in our practice we are guided either by that which uplifts us, pursuing our bliss or by creating rules that ensure we don’t go down the rabbit hole of desire?

 What then is the role of desire for the yogi? Kāma is a choice in itself. Have faith in your desire and cessation itself will be desirable.

1.jpg

 

I would like to share a selected passage from the Kumārasambhava that describes Śiva in meditation. It is taken from James Mallinson’s book ‘The Roots of Yoga’

 

“Kāma, the god of love, his body about to fall,

Saw Three-Eyed Śiva in meditation,

Seated on a cedarwood dais covered by a tiger skin;

His upper body held steady by his yogic posture,

Straight and erect, his shoulders rounded,

Seeming, from the placing of his upturned hands,

To have an open lotus in his lap;

His crown of dreadlocks bound up by a snake,

A double-stringed rudrāksa rosary hanging from his hand,

He was wearing a knotted deerskin made a bluer black

By the glow cast from his neck;

With his eyes gazing downwards,

Their fierce pupils dimmed and stilled,

Holding the brows steady, lashes unflickering,

He was focusing on his nose;

As a result of restraining his inner winds

He was like a cloud without the rage of rain,

Like a pot of water without a ripple,

Like an unflickering lamp in a place without wind;

With the beams of light from his head,

Which had found a way out of the eyes

Of the skull in his crest,

He was dulling the splendor,

More delicate than a lotus thread,

Of the young moon;

Controlling his mind in a samādhi,

Checking its motion through the nine doors

And fixing it in his heart,

He was gazing on the self in the self,

Which the sages know to be imperishable.”

 

So much to love

 

how far is too far?

A question arose during the Asana focus workshop I taught last weekend that encapsulated a key consideration for those of us who practice yoga. A student asked: ‘for how long should I hold in virabhadrāsana II?’ simple enough, yet the implications go deep. As an instructor, I like to give clear guidance and so, taking a leaf from B.K.S Iyengar’s book, I answered: 30 seconds to a minute.

I was very happy when another student took the line of questioning further: ‘I’m curious,” she said ‘about when a long hold, which we may feel compelled to practice, gets in the way of the ever-important value of ahimsa or non-violence.’ What I believe is that it is this curiosity that keeps the yogi present. This very process of inquiry into whether we are pushing too hard or breaking down restrictive barriers; embodying self-compassion by coming out of a posture sooner or retracting from a necessary process of purification through intensity.

IMG_3413.JPG

When we practice discernment in our asana we are working out from whence comes the motivation to withdraw or remain. Discernment is discriminating wisdom, separating truth from non-truth, that which is conducive toward our liberation from that which is not. Are we being driven by the ego with its pursuit of measurable goals or by our higher self that so relishes the present moment? This sensation, is it pain or intensity?

Highly evolved yogis have endured excruciating intensity to overcome their identification with the physical body, the mere mortal shell that transports us on this finite journey. From the other side of their mortifications they report on what is really true, really real. The true self, they say, discriminates not. The true self, they say, is beyond good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. So, while we measure the seconds in our warrior II pose, please let’s remember that none of this is real, just the remembering is. And in our remembering we travel closer.

don't diss the asana

It peeves me, it does, the dismissive tone that can be adopted by people when referring to the physical emphasis of yoga practice.

Those lofty intellectuals view the yoga world as full of strutting Amazonians, balancing on one finger tip, mainlining green smoothies and taking nothing but their smooth rippled musculature as sacred.

Now, of course, I exaggerate, but there is something in this tendency to view things as good or bad, right or wrong, black or white that I find deeply unsettling. In part it is due to this polarizing human habit that I find the physical aspect of yoga so relevant. If there’s something that we all share, it is our physicality. Beyond our views and our percentage of “spirituality” vs. “rationality”, our body is, in a sense, where we meet.

virabhadrasana II.png

Recently I have been re-discovering the work of Peter Levine. His insight into how humans cope with trauma presents a very interesting take on our seeming intelligence. The way our physical bodies store the imprint of stressful situations seems so outdated. Our frontal brains, driven by speed and constantly chasing after things, do little to consider the body’s own rhythm. Through the prism of the gunas this is clearly an imbalance of rajas. We see for example incredibly articulate, clever and sophisticated individuals paying scarce attention to their physical health. Our entire culture seems built on this precedent. It is only when we slow down that we begin to notice the body’s own intelligence as something quite otherworldly.

Sensation has a lot to say.

Āsana, the physical branch of yoga practice, the most widely practiced, the great storehouse of postures, is deeply beneficial. Āsana goes beyond words, it begins to introduce the medicine of meditation. In āsana the subtle shifts of attitude and mood transform one’s very consciousness. Beyond the gymnastic façade of certain āsanas is a very real encounter with our deepest attachments and fears. The tension we visit and steep in throughout our physical practice allows us to uncover that version of ourselves that is unfettered, that is beyond body. We go through body to go beyond body.

Don’t diss the āsanas, but do please slow down. 

Asana focus: virabhadrāsana II workshop, at Yoga Akasha, 29th September, 12-2. Book through shop.

Sukham

This summer, I thought in the earlier months of the year, I will have the hours in the day to write. Writing is a process that, like yoga, requires both structure and creativity. I have indeed been writing, but the hours are not as unblemished as I anticipated. There is the lure of fun and games with the children, splashing in bodies of water, catching up with old friends, absolutely nothing to complain about! Meditating on the urgency of returning to my practice I wrote this piece which suddenly seemed useful to share. This summer period so mercurial is when we can finally allow structure to slip and new ideas to bubble up.

Practice benefits from structure, there are no two ways about it: To have a space set aside for your sadhana, to practice at a set time each day, to structure the sequence you practice with more or less precision, all of these are practicalities that aid progress.

IMG_2938.jpg

In the Yoga Sūtras the key qualities of asana are sthiram and sukham: steadiness and ease. Sthiram embodies the stability of structure and sukham the fluidity that can then be allowed to express itself.

The summer holidays are usually peak sukham time. If you are lucky enought to take this time out, it may be hard to keep to your yoga practice. Many people travel, are in unfamiliar surroundings, pass through different time zones... even the sheer excitement of breaking from our routine can make it impossible to stay focused on our sadhana.

Coming back to this balance of sthiram and sukham let us see where it is that we can cultivate stability. Where our usual routine provides us with structure, we need to find structure elsewhere. I would like to suggest looking to the practices themselves for stability. Practice a sequence you are familiar with, a few rounds of a familiar strengthening vinyasa perhaps. Surya namaskar or a sequence that befits your energy levels.

Take a piece of paper and jot down a practice that suits your setting. If your space is more restricted than usual perhaps it is a good opportunity to practice seated postures, or if there are features such as furniture that you can use as props, incorporate them. You can learn a lot from this exercise and become more involved in the architecture of your sadhana. Which asanas build stability? Tadasana (mountain pose), dandasana & urdhva dandasana (staff & inverted staff or plank pose), virabhadrasana I, II & III (warriors I, II & III), ardho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog)... are all postures that work on aligning and strengthening the legs, your body's powerful foundations.

If you do find yourself lazing on your sunbed, mildly disturbed by a missed yoga practice, rest your palms on your belly and connect to the source of your breath. Notice the gentle rise of the belly beneath the hands as you breathe in, the belly sinking as you exhale deeper into your sunbed.

Summer holidays are a time to unwind, break from the usual, notice where you become mechanical in your usual life. If you miss out on practice time remember that yoga keeps giving, come back, keep coming back and remember yoga is a place to which you can always return.

be your own yogi(n)

Studying and reflecting on the history of yoga is an interesting way to ‘feel up’ your own relationship to the practice.

By traditional standards, I’m a complete lightweight. My average daily sadhana lasts between 45 minutes and 3 hours and is really dictated by exactly how I feel. I barely practice pranayama, I like to feel and muse and daydream, I have long ago given up the intention of stomach churning or nostril cleansing or enemas.

In fact it would seem like I am totally caught up in the realm of languor, one of the afflicted states that is an obstacle on the spiritual path, except that merely the thought that I might be will get me practicing kapalabhati, complicated inversions, backbends and fasting like there’s no tomorrow. Complacency is not my game either.

headstand prep.jpg

This piece is a reflection on the modern yogi. How it could be possible to coolly navigate the cultural, societal differences that set apart our world from the world of the Vedic seers who first came up with the notion of yogic sadhana, without losing that fiery heart that burns through the thicket of distraction that keeps us from awakening.

Yoga is a warrior path. You have just to think: B.K.S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois. That most revered yogi Krishnamacharya is said at times to have been so stern as to put students off practicing yoga altogether. The qualities of perseverance, consistency, relentless dedication... on inspection are essential. But so is the moral practice (niyama) of Ishvara pranidhana; surrendering the fruits of our practice to the creative source Ishvara. This is a foundational consideration in the yoga sutras of Patanjali. Are not the qualities of yielding, listening, opening softly, also aligned with this all-important niyama?

The Middle Way is a snail thread, it glistens and disappears depending how the light hits it. In our yoga practice we are attuned to our midline, our central axis, our sushumna nadi, grasping at the very principle of balance in our own being. The Middle Way is the way to illumination, clarity and all that is pure and light. I would say it takes a little grace to align, we can't do it alone alone. 

Sometimes however, we are attracted by the dark and stormy. We slide into the murky subsect of our inner world and consciously take joy in lingering there. How as yogis can we integrate the shadow into our spiritual journey?

Study. Learn from the sources that surround you. Learn about how the yogis lived before you. There are so many assumptions about the yogic path; the blissful yogi, untouched by the sharp stabs of emotional pain that afflict us mere mortals. If you read a bit further you will find that yogis in the past and now too, have chosen to make the stab wound deeper and feel what it’s like in there. You will also learn that the creative source is triadic by nature. One needs to recruit the destructive forces of nature in order to not be overcome by them. You will learn and in learning there is great joy, great bliss, and yet ultimately: Ishvara pranidhana

Yoga is yours, no one else’s. 

Don’t let anyone tell you what to do with your heart.

holding it all

We are good at reading. We may have forgotten but it took us years to learn, initially not even marrying the meaning to the words, eventually delighting in the richness of content.

When it comes to the descriptions of spiritual states, language is an interesting thing. It is both a gateway and an obstacle. We all know that reading about the experience of meditation, for example, is not the same as experiencing it. The instance where this is most heightened is when it comes to the experience of bliss.

Bliss, sat-chit-ananda, is a concatenation of so much more than intellect and physicality. We may read of it but there is very little we can do from that point.

IMG_1956.JPG

Another of our tendencies, you see, is to categorize things as good or bad. This sets in at a very early stage, and though it is a graduated evaluation we can pretty much always determine which side of the spectrum an experience is on: the good or the bad. The pleasant, the slightly pleasant, the unpleasant, or the not-so-pleasant.
What we are not so good at, or at least, not when we are on the level of deciphering language, is accepting that an experience can be both good and bad. It doesn’t fit with our brains’ neat way of categorizing. The thing about sat-chit-ananda is that it encompasses all everything. It is what we have read about and it is what we have not read about, it is the argument and the counterargument. It holds in the same space: the understanding, the not quite understanding and the not understanding at all. That is the point. This is it.

This moment is translucent, uncoloured. The colours we choose to paint it will necessarily be limited by our choice. The spiritual path is one of simultaneously emptying while realizing that true fullness can be emptied indefinitely.

There is no place to go to find this, wherever you are, there you are. There is no moment more precious than this one, that much we know. But can we know this and hold the possibility of there being no moment at all?

Greater minds have puzzled these questions and more elaborate explanations have been presented. The restless mind demands these things but really, actually, there could be nothing more beautifully complex than the pure simplicity of it all.