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.

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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.

the relationship with relationships

I got myself all into a proverbial flap over the weekend after trying to write a coherent piece on the value of asanas, one that only now I will try to untangle.

The thing is I get very overexcited about language, I get so overexcited in fact that the words can spill out and by the time I’ve finished what I’m writing, the writing itself has become so convoluted that I have a hard time reminding myself what it was I was trying to say. Point in fact.

So, I was all set to write an interesting piece on the value of āsanas and ended up confusing myself utterly in the process. I identified the ultimate meaning of yoga as being one’s relationship with relationships and having reached this aha! Moment in my mind, had to rewind and try to remember how I’d got there. So then I gave up, which is why I’ve never dared go that far as a writer.

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Anyway, NOW dear reader, I have finally remembered what it was I was getting at with this cryptic definition of yoga.

Yoga is my relationship with relationships. I have reached this understanding because I know in my heart of hearts that my relationship to yoga is the most important relationship in my life. Gasp, shock horror, sorry kids and family. But its not as heartless as it sounds. In fact, without yoga I would not be able to relate to my loved ones in the way that I do. I am so grateful to my practice for being the one that keeps me attuned, present, alive and loving. I am grateful to my yoga for granting me gratitude, compassion, joy, sukha. My relationship with yoga, that practice to which I return time and time again defines my relationship with all other areas of my life. It is my relationship to relationships.

I think this question; what is yoga to you? Is of so much value. It is not a selfish musing, a navel-gazing preoccupation with your inner dancing fairies, it is not indulgence or escapism, in fact it is the complete opposite. It is harnessing your inner resources, looking at the phenomena that are presented to you in your daily life straight in the eye and engaging wholeheartedly in the relationship with your ‘life’, the moment-to-moment electricity of it.

Asana is your way in, for what more intimate relationship than that with your own body? Let the ‘work’ that you do on the mat, to call it something, teach you something about that which you encounter off the mat.

There is an excitement to progressing further in an asana, be it through slowing down to take the time to really feel the recruitment of all your various synapses, or be it through finally taking that leap into a handstand. Is it not the same in your day to day?

But also, there are difficulties, challenges; the days where you realize you will never get into that shape, where your mind has been distracted by gibberish throughout or when you keep getting interrupted in meditation. What are you doing all this for anyway?

I don’t know, I just wanted to ask that question.

Namaste.

the true guru

Are our minds too distracted for the true practice of yoga?

The sheer volume of communication we participate in makes it necessary to create new mind ‘filters’ for the information we receive. The valuable teachings of yoga run the risk of becoming dissipated, equated with the one hundred thousand other meaningless, self-serving messages we encounter in the course of a day.

How do we keep our mind honed? The physical practices of yoga keep us sensitive and discerning. For more and more modern practitioners, yoga is not about cultivating taut muscles and toned abdomens but cultivating a supple mind and sophisticated discernment; to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Receiving clear guidance is refreshing and liberating, not confusing and obfuscating. To channel the wisdom of ancients is no easy task. Seek for a teacher who elucidates. Remember the true meaning of the word guru; one who sheds light on the darkness. Accept nothing less. To become aware of your own darkness is to take a step towards liberation. Where do we find such a guru?

As one of my great teachers once said: the most valuable journey you will ever make is the shortest; from head to heart. This is where we hear the voice of truth; the greatest guru of all.

I have started work on my book on Self-Practice. It is aimed to inspire you to work with your own guru. I hope to be free from distraction so it won’t take too long!

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How Yoga can Change the World. Part 1

There is an inner and an outer world. For yogis there’s not much to say about how the practice of yoga transforms ones’ inner state, and how by extension transforms the world, one person at a time.

But is there a way to engage further in our activism through our practice? The yamas and niyamas are core, practical guidelines for a conscious life that can inform not just our own decisions but how we share our values with others. Michael Stone’s book: The Inner Tradition of Yoga is a wonderful introduction to these.

On a more basic level though, I would offer the act of listening. The body knows exactly the response to each situation, enjoyment or injustice, pleasure or pain, yet so often our mind interferes. Be it by hassling us at times of peace with reminders of suffering, or by haranguing us with messages of defeat when we fight our battles worth fighting. 

Last week I had the privilege of attending a day of talks and workshops hosted by Advaya Initiative in which we listened to a range of talkers from various fields of activism. The introductory talk by the co-hosts Ulex Project encouraged us from the outset to not listen only with the mind but with the whole being. To check in with oneself, the practice of which is a constant for the yogi, saves the activist from burnout.

It seems we are living at exciting times when the activists are not pitted against the spiritual seekers as they may have been in the past; the navel gazing narcissists who view the world from afar against the railing angry protesters who have bees in their bonnet about all planetary issues.

No, it seems there is a settling into our shared humanity. And by settling I don’t mean a complacency. The activists are being more active than ever before, but there is a peacefulness to these warriors that gives them renewed energy. As one speaker put it; the energy comes from the victories that have been won already.

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The final speaker on this day of ‘Regenerative Activism’ was less a speaker than an ‘embodier’. Pat McCabe represents Indigenous Truth, and as she herself says: there is no such thing as many truths. We are not many beings, we are one, we are, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘Inter-Being’, and to tune into this is nothing less than to tune into every scream, every tear, every smile, every victory, every thing that makes us human.

The word human means Divine Mind: (‘Hu’ Divine ‘Mana’ Mind), let us not drift too far from our shared Divinity.

So how do we do activism? By listening, by continuing to align with the Truth. By our actions, by our words, by our thoughts, by our intentions. We do activism in everything we do and everything we choose not to do. We do activism by being at one with each other.

Hare Om.

sattva - effortless strength

What approach do you take to your practice? It is in the nature of the body to find creative new ways to feel alive. 

Can you be hard and soft at the same time? what does that even mean? We all know our attention, when focused, can be powerful beyond measure. It can be compared to a rushing river than damned creates a pool. If we open the flood gates the water rushes out, it rushes in every direction it can and pours itself freely over the landscape. But if we were to pierce just the one hole in the damn wall, the pressure of the water would be immense, it would cut through space a long distance. There are plenty of metaphors for this.

And yet from the above example we can see there is nothing forced about this intensity. Neither do we need to force our focus in practice. Gentle, but persistent, keep bringing the awareness back. There is no other 'hole' we need to look for but we need to keep finding new ways out, that the 'silt' of our mental constructs doesn't plug it up.

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In your yoga practice, focus; laser awareness on exactly what it is you are doing. This, like so many things, is easier said than done. But keep checking; are you thinking about what posture you are going to do next? how much longer you have to go? keep bringing your awareness back to that timelessness that arises at this moment; the experience you are currently having... and then again! 

Of course it is possible to practice without focus, but your approach will determine your rewards. With distraction how can we truly notice the changes in ourselves? and until we notice this, how can we be of help to others? Your true value is in serving yourself and others. Sadhana to be gentle and strong, soft and hard, continuously aware of what is arising; then share it. 

our attitude or our nature

One of the words my teacher Ruth often uses to describe asana is ‘attitude’, a definition I often borrow.

It is through our practice of āsana that we explore all those attitudes that keep us in a state of conditioned response to life.

Yoga being such a creative practice means that we get to explore a whole range of ‘attitudes’ other than our habitual ones: we explore the attitude of the tree in vrksāsana, of the warrior in virabhadrāsana, of the corpse in savāsana, we explore the ‘attitude’ of ‘tad’ in tadāsana; the attitude of here, of now.

All these attitudes obstruct our true nature that according to those sage old yogis is nothing short of ‘ananda’ or Bliss.

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In our exploration we take a journey through the koshas or layers of our being. We notice where the physical body may struggle, where it is more or less supple. We notice our breath, its rhythm and how it sustains our awareness. We notice the thoughts; some uplifting, some less so. We notice the wisdom that guides us in our own adjustments.

Bliss is not an indulgent affair, one where our senses are for a moment suspended on the upswing of the pendulum. The term seems to have taken on a different meaning to the one I imagine is referred to by those who coined the term ‘ananda’ to our innermost nature. Perhaps this is due to our exposure to numerous chocolate bar adverts or paradisiacal holiday brochures.

It has been noted that to know Bliss is to know the experience of oneness, of non-separation.

If we keep this sense of porousness that attends our yoga practice and drop beyond the attitudes that hold us up we may be blessed by our true nature. Bliss. Ananda.

And of course we know this need not be limited to the mat.

The Value of Suffering

Existential crisis and yoga often meet in the intimate space of suffering. There exists the belief that through the practice of yoga we are building strong and healthy bodies, a carefully constructed pursuit of immortality. But throughout history the devout yogi has sought to transcend the body altogether, to become free from this ultimate attachment. Rather than to make it a comfortable place to reside, the yogi explores the searing fire of mortification and realizes that this is not all there is. Beyond the physical body, the vast field of bliss where all beings meet, awaits.

I came to yoga in my teens. As the foundations shook beneath me in a time that for most of us is characterized by deep uncertainty, I began to embrace a practice knowing subconsciously it would accompany me into whatever age and condition.

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As I explored asana for the first time I became aware of this very clear guidance from within, manifesting through my breath. I have been listening out for it ever since. As the physical body becomes more honed, more trained, sometimes it feels as though I have to push it harder and yet yoga is a practice that improves with age unlike other activities that become a struggle as the physical body declines. The more we cultivate the attitude of ‘letting go’ of attachment to the body, the more – conversely - the practice flows.

When suffering rears it powerful head, can we look straight in its eyes without wavering? Can we cultivate the skillful means to navigate it? Unrestrained by fear can we burn through the shackles that hold us back from our true state of bliss? On and off the mat, these may be the greatest lessons yoga can provide.

The Soft Core of your Being

    There's something funny about this body of ours and its that it keeps being there. Just when we take our health for granted something pops up to remind us that we are merely mortal, inhabiting this precious human form for what seems like seconds comparative to the great big scheme of the things that Really Matter. Which is a better reason than any for letting go of all that stuff we carry, that . stuff . that . really . doesn't . matter.

    And even were we to let go for a fraction of a moment of a second we savour that bliss of softening. Often this goes with the prompt reminder of other things to worry about, if not our own health, that of those around us, of the Environment, of the greater Humanity. These are all worthy concerns, most definitely but in what way are we approaching them?

    Yoga teaches us not to separate from the greater scheme as we are part of it. Not just a small tiny part but the whole shebang. This doesn't mean that we surf on a pedestal above the suffering of the world but we can take a little perspective and realize that perhaps the most counterproductive thing to actually doing something worthwhile with this precious human life is thinking that we can. Or in other words: thinking. 

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    It may have something to do with the way we use our brains. Our education system, brilliant as it is, brings us into the left side of our brain. We are trained to be efficient and rational machines and this vast swell of tension builds up as we strain to learn and memorize factual data and how to navigate this complicated world we believe we live in. The bodies that come to me are knackered, they are worn down by life. They are assailed by stresses and strains, weak, tense, breath is restricted, thoughts are oppressive. Even the approach to a practice as overtly holistic as yoga is strained and competitive. 

    I am by no means promoting a self defeating attitude of complacency, instead a proactive defeating of the 'small' self that keeps us in this state of restricted rigidity. And how, you may ask, do I propose we do this? Practice of course. Practice really sinking into the soft core of your being. At any given time when you are practicing your asana notice where you are holding tension, where the self-aggrandizement or its opposite self-deprecating voice begins to bellow in your inner ear. It is keeping this awareness at all times that can help us move beyond into a state of true freedom from the stuff that doesn't matter. 

   When we engage with the body in true presence the chattering, exhausting left side of the brain gives way to silence. It yields to softness. Then in śavāsana we can let the true work happen. The body's innate healing energy, which is one and the same as the Universal Energy, can dissolve what is no longer needed so you can be a true peaceful warrior and choose the battles you take on with deep strength and selfless concern.

   I hope to be there with you. 

To learn more about moving from the soft core of your being, with freedom and grace, come to my workshop on the 24th of February at Yoga Akasha from 12-2. Book online through the shop.

 

Mother India

In the last lecture of my MA last year the lecturer asked: "How important is it to you to go to India? Is it an integral part of your yoga practice?" My one-dimensional mind said no. Yet on my return to India after 7 years every cell of my being answered with a resounding yes. 

I have been going to India since I was 5 years old. When you are a child the barriers that separate us as adults are yet to appear, to be constructed by the wood, hammer and nails of our conditioning. Communication was open, I drifted into temples barefoot, played with local kids attracting nothing but an initial giggle, delighted at the tinkle of bells at dusk, the manic drum beats marking puja time. Now as a grown up that memory still lives strong and I was determined to take my own children before the skin grew leathery.

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The funny thing for me is that I haven't done any yoga training per se in India. The sadhana I undertake on the mat is homegrown, I practice in isolation. As an introvert I am not one to elbow into a culture's intimate spiritual life, neither do I feel the need to worship particular deities. And yet in so many instances of daily life in India what I observe is yoga in action. The village mothers caring for their babies, expressing love without words. Traffic swerving the cattle that have equal right to the highway, words exchanged as though the conversation had no beginning or end, the impeccable care taken to wrap basic groceries. 

There is a feeling of livity that, granted this is a generalisation, I feel is lacking in most of the western world. The divine is pulsating in the everyday, tragedy and comedy are the best of friends and I would like to return as often as possible, as often as Mother India will have me. 

It has always made me cringe to express how I feel when I arrive in India, because there is so much desperation, suffering and visible strife how could I heave a romantic sigh letting the obvious inequalities dissolve into oblivion? It is the immediacy of it all that soothes my soul. The visibility of death, un-suppressed.