Unwelcome Truths

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“Denial is the cornerstone of sanity,” or so my husband likes to say. We are all amazingly good at not seeing the things that we don’t want to see, whether that is a partner’s affair, the injustice of poverty, the reason why our mother winds us up so much or our addiction to our phones. It’s more comfortable to tell ourselves a different story or avoid thinking about it altogether.

One of the side affects of meditation, which people don’t often warn you about, is that these hidden truths tend to come into sharp focus. What was hiding in plain sight is suddenly uncomfortably visible. Once the busy chatter of very day thinking falls silent, what was lying underneath becomes visible.

The second of the yoga Yamas, or ethical principles, is Satya, or truthfulness.  It’s easy enough not to tell little fibs, but to be truthful with ourselves about our motivations and the world around around us is a whole lot more difficult. Once we dpconfront the truth, we may have to take action or change, and change can be scary.

Meditation helps us to become wiser and more self aware; we can spot our patterns of behaviour rather than acting them out without any awareness of what is driving us. Some truths are a huge relief and leave us feeling lighter, but others are less welcome.

A few such truths that I have become aware of are:

– My kids are growing up and they will soon leave home and pursue their own adult lives. Cuddles on the sofa will be a rare treat indeed.

– My husband is 12 years older than me. Both my grandmothers spent over twenty years in widowhood, longevity running in my family, and it is quite likely I will face the same.

– The aches and pains that I have at the moment are a gentle taste of things to come. They will only get worse! Yoga asana practice is already more about maintenance than progression, and soon will be about slowing decline instead.

– Climate change is real, it’s happening, and if we don’t collectively do something radical, large parts of the earth will be uninhabitable, and society as we know it now is likely to break down.

– World poverty is hugely unfair, and there’s are many people hungry while I live in plenty and comfort. I could give up half my income and still be relatively wealthy by world standards.

So, what to do about these truths? Should I stop mediating and go back to cosy denial? After all, denial may be what is keeping me sane! It’s one option, but it feels like the coward’s way out.

Some of these truths are uncomfortable, but I can comfort myself with the thought that everything is as it should be. It’s right that children should grow up, and older people should grow old and die, otherwise the world would be very over populated. It’s a natural cycle, and the wise and skilful response is to be grateful for the here and now, and enjoy each day for what it is, rather than waste them worrying about the future.

Meditation definitely helps with this, as it crates the skills to enjoy each present moment for what it is. Practicing gratitude also helps, reminding myself each day what I am grateful for. Many wise people say you should think about death every day as a reminder to live fully and show love.

When it comes to climate change and world poverty, however, “everything is as it should be” feels like the wrong response. I can practice gratitude for having been born into plenty, but I have to also acknowledge the injustice of it. Maybe it is normal and natural that one dominant species (humans) should become extinct and a new species take their place, but it doesn’t feel right to accept this without a fight.

The truly ethical response would probably be to give away most of my money, and join the climate change rebellion full time, but the honest truth is that I am too selfish. I like my comfortable life and I am reluctant to give it up. I still practice the deception that my life is more important than the life of those yet to be born or on the other side of the world. Enlightenment is still some way off! I still have a lot of attachment to my current lifestyle.

However, encouraged by my teenage son, I am eating more vegan food, turning down the thermostat, growing my own veg and thinking about a holiday by train next year. I am in awe of Greta Thunberg and all those who are speaking out about climate change, and will lend my voice to the campaign. It’s not much, but it’s something.  And maybe if I keep meditating I will develop the skills to let go of my attachment to selfish comforts at the expense of future generations.

 

 

 

 

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Career Tasks in Mid Life

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“Maybe the truest difference between people is exactly this: how they see why they are hear.” David Mitchell, number9dream

The career tasks of early adulthood are well documented and recognised, even if they have become increasingly protracted and challenging. Most of us want to establish ourselves in a profession or trade, earn enough money to make a home and often support a family, and then begin to progress along the well worn tracks of career progression and increased material possessions. Key moments – leaving home, graduation, marriage, childbirth, property ownership, promotions – are well recognised and celebrated. All of these tasks contribute to the formation of a stable, adult identity and a sense of purpose.

But the tasks of mid-life are less well defined.  Donald  Super described mid-life as “maintenance”, a term that suggests we simply tread water in the place at which we have arrived.  This may seem to be true for some people, but it is certainly not the whole story.

The developmental tasks of mid-life (for those who choose to engage rather than tread water) are often more creative or spiritual in nature.  Whilst the mid-life crisis can manifest as a middle aged man on a motorbike, it is just as likely to show up as as a period of stress-related sickness or burnout from work, caused by the realisation that we can no longer bear to do work that takes us so far from our true selves. This period of introspection may be needed to give space to re-evaluate priorities.

Carl Jung describes how, by mid-life, we outgrow the persona that we created in early adulthood. This persona can most easily be observed through looking at out material possessions, career, achievements, family roles and relationships. He believed that this persona no longer serves us in mid and later life, and we need to return to whatever  lies beneath the persona we have created.  This may be a more authentic self that is less concerned with pleasing others or fitting into society.

Whitemore and Einzig describe a “yearning ingrained in the human psyche for something beyond the personal, beyond the material and everyday” in their essay on  transpersonal coaching and it may be this yearning that comes to the fore in midlife.  We inevitably more aware of our own mortality as we start to go to more funerals, watch our parents decline, and experience our own age related  health issues. Perimenopause and menopause are a clear sign for women that they are passing into a new stage of life and may need to prioritise self-care.  This changing of the seasons often prompts reflection over how best to use the time that is left.

With this awareness that life is short and finite, we may realise that we no longer want to spend it on the “shoulds”, rushing around to meet other people’s needs or jumping to some organisation’s tune. Material possessions, achievements and promotions may feel hollow as they do not generate the happiness we were promised (and besides, they may be increasingly hard to come by).

We may find ourselves craving the time and space to just be ourselves, please ourselves and express our selves.  We sense that under all the layers of conditioning, created by meeting the expectations of others, and all the the learned habitual ways of responding, there is another more authentic self just waiting to be discovered.

There may be a gradual change, as we start to let go of our egos and learn to simply enjoy the present. Perhaps we let go of competitiveness and embrace cooperation with our colleagues or take pleasure in mentoring the next generation. Maybe we find ways to be more creative at work, and get less bogged down in administration. Perhaps we learn to be grateful for what we do have rather than striving for things we don’t have. Maybe we learn to tap into our intuitive wisdom, honed through years of experience, instead of analysing every decision. Same job, different approach.

For many people though, there is a more significant crisis point which leads to a wholesale reevaluation of values and priorities. The old job no longer feels tenable, once we become aware of our own values and needs. This may result in a complete change in direction, a move towards self-employment, or downsizing into part-time or lower stress work. The moment of crisis may be painful and frightening, as we cling to the known and fear stepping out of our comfort zones. We are attached to the things we know, even as we experience aversion to many aspects of the work.

This dark night of the soul  is portrayed in the  Bhagavad Gita, with Arjuna having a crisis of purpose just as he is about to go into battle. Krishna counsels him to let go of his ego-based fears and attachments and to follow his dharma, or the path that is his, without attachment to the results of his labour. His life’s purpose is to win the battle, even if it is unpleasant, to ensure a better future for his country. Of course, our life purpose may not be so dramatic, but it can feel like an internal battle for meaning.

However the changing priorities of mid-life manifest, we are often looking for opportunities to get in touch with our authentic selves, to speak our own truth, to connect with others in a new way, and to create something meaningful, whether that is a garden, a friendship, a book, a craft, a social change or a charity fund raiser.

Anodea Judith, in Eastern Body Western Mind  discusses the link between the chakras of the throat and third eye, associated with communication and wisdom, and the need in middle age to speak our authentic truth and get in touch with our intuitive wisdom. In order to find balance, we also need to be firmly grounded in the present, with a strong sense of our roots.

To find the authentic self, we need to create enough quiet space in our lives to listen to ourselves and still the chatter thaT fills our minds.  Quiet space can come from yoga, meditation, prayer, gardening, running, dog walking, crafting, writing, fishing, painting or many other of the pursuits that often become popular in middle age. The tasks are to find ways to follow our intuition, express our truths and let go of ego. We spent the early part of our lives shoring up or sense of self with achievements and possessions, but now it is time to let go of this ego self and embrace our connection to the universe.

Maybe it is time to recognise and celebrate the these more introspective tasks, rather than righting off middle age as a time of stagnation, and to encourage those in midlife to find new ways of being rather than maintaining the status quo.

 

 

 

My Yoga Teacher Training Journey

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My journey to becoming a yoga teacher with Universal Yoga is nearly at an end, and it has been a busy year, so busy I have hardly had time to update my blog!  I have practised more consistently than ever before, read a library of yoga books, written reflections and assignments on every aspect of the course and planned my weekly classes.  I am now teaching a lovely class of eight people in a beautiful studio space, something I didn’t imagine would happen so soon.  (On top of that, I have been writing a book, working full time and looking after my family, but that is another story…)

Yoga teacher training is bound to be an interesting and at times challenging journey, and I feel very privileged to have been able to take the time to dive deep into my own yoga practice, and to share the journey with such a wonderful group of people.  Of course, I was practising yoga already, but now I have established a regular meditation and pranayama practice to supplement my asana practice. I have started practising early in the morning, something I had resisted for a long time, and this has helped me to be consistent rather than miss days of practice when I am busy. 

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I have done a few challenging poses that I didn’t think I could do, but more important, I have got better at listening to my body and adapting my asana practice to my own needs.  I am coming to terms with the fact that my way forward with yoga is no longer doing challenging poses, but more about maintaining good health and slowing down the more negative effects of ageing.  Meditation and asana have become my yin and yang – one is not complete without the other.

One of the real joys of this course was studying and discussing the Bhagavad Gita in a way that made it really relevant to every day modern life.  At times we must all feel like a warrior on the battlefield who no longer wants to fight – all those doubts about whether teaching is the right way forward – and Bhagavad Gita is full of pearls of wisdom to help with living a wiser life.   Having the opportunity to explore the history and philosophy of yoga has helped me to identify the values that I want to incorporate into my yoga practice and teaching, and my life.

Anatomy and physiology has been one of the most challenging aspects of course, and a subject that I feel I have only scratched the surface of.  It’s definitely high on my list for continuous professional development.  There is so much to learn, and every body is different.

Chanting has also been quite challenging for me. I have never felt confident to sing or chant without the safety of a group, and to lead the chant was quite daunting.  But like many things in life, once I got over my initial self-consciousness, it became something I enjoyed doing.

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I have made very special friends, and felt part of an amazing community of like- minded women who gave me the space to just be and offered me endless compassion and acceptance.  I have unravelled and cried and felt energised and powerful, and I have also given myself permission to not feel energised, to rest and say no to work, to stop driving myself so hard (that is my toughest challenge!).

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So I am nearly ready to be a fully qualified yoga teacher!  It’s a time to reflect on why I started this journey and what I wanted to get from it.  If I’m honest, I was never all that fussed about the teaching part of it, I just wanted to study yoga more deeply and improve my own practice, finding more tools to help in my own life.  However, yoga has changed my life in many ways and I have enjoyed sharing that with others. 

One of the things that has really surprised me is that teaching yoga gives a lot of the same benefits as practising!  I teach on a Wednesday evening, and I often get to the end of my working day on Wednesday feeling tired, not really in the mood for teaching, but then when I teach, I get so absorbed in the class that all the tiredness and petty irritations drop away.  By the end I feel as relaxed and energised as if I had practised the class myself.   I am not sure why this is, because I don’t generally do the poses in the same way that the class do; I am moving around assisting or giving verbal instructions.  I think, however, that teaching yoga requires a high level of mindfulness – both inner awareness and awareness of what every student is doing.  The intention that I bring to teaching is very similar to the intention of my own practice, so the overall effect is very similar.

 

I love to share my interest in yoga with others and see them coming to that same place of peace, stillness and self-acceptance that I find on my own mat.  Community is very important to me – I love being part of my yoga teacher training community, and I love the community of advanced practitioners that my old yoga teacher created (shame he moved to Brighton!).   Now I am creating my own little yoga community on my doorstep of people who share the yoga values of cultivating compassion,  inner peace , truthfulness, self-study and contentment through practice.

My aim is to create a group where people feel connection with each other and with the teacher, where they can experience peace, self-acceptance and self-nurturing, and where they can explore their potential – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  As a careers professional, I have always been interested in how people can achieve their potential and I find so many parallels in yoga, which is also a technology for living well. I want to keep my class small, so that I can interact with each person and personalise their practice. I also want it to be a place where people talk to each other and know each other, rather than entering and leaving in silence (silence is lovely, but community is also important).

As I move forward with my yoga teaching, I want to make sure that I keep my own core values at the heart of what I do – creating community, helping people achieve their potential, sharing my love of the whole of yoga, accepting people where they are and helping people come to self-acceptance and self-compassion.  I don’t want to get to the point where I no longer enjoy teaching yoga or it feels like a burden, or the point where I am so focused on teaching that I no longer enjoy my own practice.

Om shanti shanti shanti om!

 

Starting a Home Yoga Practice

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If you have been to a few yoga classes, and “got the bug”, you might be thinking about starting a home yoga practice.  Even five or ten minutes of yoga each day makes a huge difference to how comfortable and at ease you feel in your body, and will also help you to combat stress and cope with challenging situations with more equanimity.

Sometimes it can be hard to know where to start though.  So many poses – what to practice?  And without a teacher to guide you, you might worry that you aren’t doing it right.

Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is one of the best all round exercises to start with, as it includes forward bends, back bends, inversions and deep breathing  coordinated with the movements.  It is complete practice by itself.  There are many different versions of Surya Namaskar, and you can also add in your own variations to make an interesting flow.

The Sivananda Sun Salutation is:

  • Exhale, hands in prayer position whilst standing
  • Inhale, raise your arms and arch your chest back to the ceiling
  • Exhale, hands to the floor, bending your knees if you need to
  • Inhale, right leg back to a lunge (knee and top of foot on floor)
  • Retain the breath, left foot back to plank
  • Exhale, knees, chest and chin to floor, keeping the hips lifted
  • Inhale, hips to the floor and lift the chest to cobra
  • Exhale, push back with your arms and lift the hips to downward dog
  • Inhale, right foot forwards to the lunge
  • Exhale, left foot forwards to join it in standing forward fold
  • Inhale, rise up, hands to the ceiling and arching back
  • Exhale, return to standing
  • Repeat with the left leg leading in the lunges

You can do this sequence slowly, pausing in each pose to feel your way into it (sway the hips, peddle out the feet in downward dog).  Or you can do it more quickly, with each move corresponding to half a breath.  Try to make the movement and the breath the same length.

If you only have five minutes to practice, four Surya Namaskars followed by a minute lying down in Savasana to relax is perfect.

If you have a little more time, you could try some of the following:

  • There are no twists in Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) so you might want to add a simple seated twist or Ardha Matsyendrasana (Lord of the Fishes).

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  • Dolphin pose is great for building the upper body strength needed for more challenging arm balances and Sirsasana (headstand).  It is like Downward Facing Dog, but done on the forearms.  As you exhale, bring your nose to the floor in front of your hands.  As you inhale, move your chin back towards your feet.  If you practice Dolphin every day for a month, you will probably be strong enough to start working in Sirsasana!
  • To feel confident before a challenging situation, try Bhujangasana or Cobra pose, Ustrasana (Camel pose) and perhaps some Virabhadrasana (Warrior) poses.

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  • At the end of a long day, when you feel tired and in need of refreshment, you could try Legs Up the Wall.  This is a lovely way to refresh and re-energise, and you can hold it for as long as you want.
  • Forward folds are also a good way to relax at the end of a long day, but can be challenging if you have tight hamstrings.  Try sitting down, knees bent and close to your chest, with your arms hugging around your thighs.  Then slowly walk your feet further away, until you can no longer keep the stomach in contact with the thighs.  Then breath deeply here, relaxing more with each exhale.
  • Three part breathing can be practised anywhere!  A boring meeting, a supermarket queue, at your desk, supervising children, traffic lights, waiting for a train, almost anywhere.  Remember to breath deeply into your abdomen, chest, then collar bones, and exhale through the same three sections of your body.  You can also extend your breath by counting (for example, counting to four on the in breath and eight on the out breath).

Many people love the sound of chanting at the beginning and end of class, but worry about joining in.  The Sanskrit words are unfamiliar and lots of us are self-conscious about how we might sound.  If you want to become more familiar with the Sivananda chants, you can listen or practice here.

Finally, if you want to practice some meditation, I really recommend a free app called Insight Timer.  You could set up the timer for five or ten minutes, and set an interval bell for every one or two minutes just to remind to stay focused.  There are also lots of guided meditations to explore and some beautiful recordings of chanting, many of which are suitable for joining in with.

There is so much that you could practice, but you don’t need to practice it all!  Choose a practice that suits you and helps you to feel nurtured and restored.  If you enjoy it, you will be more likely to stick to it.  Don’t be too ambitious about how much time you will spend on it, but try to be consistent.  Five minutes a day is much better than one hour every two weeks.

I find it easier not to miss a day when I practice first thing in the morning.  The longer I leave my practice, the most likely it is that life will get in the way and it won’t happen.  But I do feel much less flexible first thing in the morning, so I need a gentler practice.  See which time of day works best for you, and then stick to it.

Contentment – Santosha

joy womanMany of us think of yoga as a set of physical poses that we hold, to develop strength and flexibility, but in fact asanas (or the physical poses) are just one of the eight limbs of yoga.  The first two limbs are the Yamas and Niyamas, which are basically an ethical code or set of principles for living a yogic life off the mat.

One of my favourite Niyamas is “Santosha”.  Santosha can be translated as contentment, or a sense of peace with one’s self and one’s situation. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that cultivating Santosha will lead to personal joy.  Personal joy seems to be something that we all want, but often seems out of reach.  We think that maybe we will be joyful when we build that extension, get that promotion, perfect our headstand or find a lifelong partner, rather than exploring how we can be joyful right now with what we have and all its imperfections.

Yoga provides a set of tools for exploring how to be joyful in the moment.  The asanas provide a laboratory where we can explore our own physical sensations, breathing and habits of mind as we move into unusual or challenging positions.  Meditation gives us the opportunity to notice what happens in our bodies and minds when we sit in stillness.  Both bring us into the present by focusing us on our moment to moment experience.

My experience of yoga is that the longer I practice, the more I feel at ease and at peace in my life, and sometimes I come away from my yoga practice with a joyful smile of my face that lasts all morning, no matter what my chores. It is easier to find contentment in the present moment than when the mind is flitting all over the place.  since it means I have let go of worries about the future or upsetting interpretations of past events.

Santosha relates closely to a practice I have carried out at several points in my life, that of keeping a gratitude diary.  Taking time to appreciate the good things in my life helps me to feel more cheerful and positive.  Practising gratitude actually rewires the brain so that positive thoughts come more easily to us (this is because those brain pathways are already established).  Gratitude becomes a habit.

It is interesting to contrast gratitude with attachment.   The Yoga Sutras invite us to let go of our attachments to things, relationships or goals.  In 1.15, Patanjali seems to be saying that when we can let go of our attachments to things in the material world, and to thoughts and feelings, then we can settle into a state of non-reaction (or maybe that reaching this level of non-reaction will allow us to let go of our attachments).

1.15 “As for non-reaction, one can recognise that it has been fully achieved when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.” (translated by Chip Hartranft)

1.15 “With constant remembrance of the self, Vairagya, all yearnings fade.” (translated by Nischla Joy Devi)

This seems very perceptive and useful to me.  So much suffering in the world is caused by attachments.  Some of those attachments may be to material things – a new car, a bigger house, a higher salary, job security, fashion purchases – whilst others may be to people or relationships.  If I am craving a new dress but I cannot afford it this month, I will suffer because I was attached to the idea of the dress. If I am craving recognition from my friend for the way I have helped her, I will suffer if I do not receive this recognition. Through meditation I may be able to witness these attachments forming in my mind and realise that they are just mental activities that I can observe, so they loosen their grip on me.

But if I feel grateful for the material possessions I have, my family, my friends, my job or my achievements, does that mean I am actually cultivating the very attachments that Patanjali says I should avoid?  This could be the case, but I think it is possible to cultivate gratitude without strengthening attachments.

Gratitude seems to be to be a positive state of appreciation, whereas attachment becomes negative when I fear losing the object of my attachment.  Santosha seems to be about cultivating that positive appreciation for my life whilst not feeding the fear I might have of losing things, whether they are physical possessions, relationships or emotional states.  An example of this is a work project where I find myself enjoying working with my colleagues or getting into a creative flow with the tasks, rather than being solely focused on the end result.

Yoga supports that by helping me to witness my attachments rather than be consumed by them.  Practising on the mat, I might notice and witness my attachment to  perfecting an arm balance, and rather than getting caught up in frustration that I cannot do it, I just witness the story I am telling myself and let it go.

Santosha seems to be a particularly important Niyama, since many of the other Yamas and Niyamas naturally fall out of this state of peaceful contentment.  If I feel contented with my situation and at peace, I am likely to experience Aparigraha (non-grasping, awareness of abundance) since I know I do not need more material possessions, success or affirmation from others to experience contentment.  If I am in a peaceful state of contentment, I am also more likely to experience Ahimsa (non-violence, compassion for all), since I feel a sense of inner and outer peace and I do not need to take anything away from anyone by force.  So, it also relates to Asteya (non-stealing or generosity).

An interesting challenge is to get the right balance between Tapas, or intense practice to ignite the purifying flame, and Santosha, or contentment.  It requires some will to practice every day and to put effort into asana and meditation with a spiritual goal in mind, and yet we also need to cultivate acceptance of where we currently are in our lives and with our practice.  Wisdom comes from knowing where to apply some effort and where to accept things as they are – this is what I am trying to cultivate in my life!  I am disciplined in doing my practice every day, but I accept that the practice is different each day and sometimes it produces more positive emotions or achievements than others.  I seem to be less attached to some of the achievements (difficult asanas, a particular energetic state or a focused stillness) than I used to be.  Ironically, being less attached to achieving a joyful state actually seems to increase the probability of this being the result of my practice!

 

 

Exploring Ambivalence

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Ambivalence is defined as the experience of conflicting emotions.  In some ways, we want to change but in other ways we don’t.  It is a fluctuating level of readiness. Most of us have probably experienced ambivalence about keeping the house clean, losing weight, doing more exercise or some other virtuous activity.

 In some ways, we would like to be healthier and look good in our clothes, but in other ways, we enjoy eating biscuits and cakes and don’t want to give them up.  In some ways, we would like to have a spotless house, but we also prefer to spend our time watching TV, gardening, reading or socialising.  In some ways we would like to quit smoking, but in other ways we enjoy the buzz, the social aspect of it or even the sense of “f**k it” self-destruction we experience.  People often recognise the harm of their behaviour but are nevertheless attached to it.

Trying to persuade or force people to change is often unproductive.  If your partner/parent/friend represents one side of the argument by trying to persuade you to change, then it allows and even encourages you to give voice to the other side.   The more someone else argues, “you should change jobs/leave your partner/give up smoking”, the more you are likely to articulate the other side of the argument with “yes but…”.

Since articulating one side of the argument increases your commitment to it (strengthening the neural pathways that correspond to this view), this will reduce your motivation to change.  The conflict is thus acted out and the argument is counterproductive.

There are pros and cons to each side of the conflict, which create this see-saw effect. As the weight begins to tip one way, you will tend to focus on (and shift weight to) the opposite side. This is known as the ‘decisional balance’.  As long as this see-saw effect continues, you will experience some level of ambivalence, and will not be fully committed to change.

Adding to this issue, we tend to prioritise short-term pleasures over long-term gains.  If a lovely bowl of crisps and a pint of beer is sitting right in front of us, our auto-pilot decision-making will tell us to help ourselves and enjoy the tasty, calorific snack, leaving our logical brain muttering somewhere in the background about hangovers and weight-loss.

So, how do you get out of this seesaw situation and build your own motivation to make a change in your life, maybe a change that scares you or will involve giving up short-term pleasures for a long-term gain?

Firstly, you need to acknowledge to yourself all the reasons why you do want to carry on with the negative behaviour or stay in your current comfort zone.  By fulling articulating all the reasons you like this behaviour to yourself, you can then free yourself up from “yes, but..” thinking.  Once you have named all the reasons not to change, you may find the reasons to make a change popping up quite naturally.  Acknowledge that you have a choice – you can change or not change and it is really up to you.

My old yoga teacher strongly encouraged all his students to do a daily yoga practice.  For a long time, I used to say, “I can’t, my children are too young, I’m not getting enough sleep, they always interrupt or need attention.”  The day that I changed my internal narrative to “I could do a daily yoga practice but I am choosing not to because I am prioritising time with my children and getting a bit more sleep in the mornings,” was the day I stopped arguing with myself and actually started doing the practice.

Once you have got the reasons not to change out of the way and acknowledged that the choice to change is yours to make or not as you see fit, then you can start to think about the benefits of changing.  What do you want to be different in your life?  Where are you heading now and where do you want to be heading?  How are your current actions or behaviour in conflict with your true values?

Whilst external rewards (such as giving yourself a treat when you stick to your plan or getting praise from others) can help to kick start a lifestyle change, the strongest motivation is internal motivation that is driven by your own values and your vision of the person you want to be.  Maybe you don’t want to be the kind of grandparent who can’t get down on the floor to play with the grandchildren.  You might not want to be a bad role model to your children by smoking in front of them.  Maybe you don’t want to be the sort of person who moans about their job but never does anything to change it.  Having a clear vision of how the track you are currently on is in conflict with your cherished values can be the very best motivation to change.

 

What Is Yoga?

imageMy regular readers will know that I have recently started a Yoga Teacher Training course with Universal Yoga.  The course is beautiful and I feel very privileged to have this opportunity.  It is also challenging on many levels – emotional, intellectual and physical.  By the end of the second weekend, my head was spinning from philosophy, teaching techniques and anatomy and physiology, and I had done more asana (physical poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, mindful walking and chanting in a weekend than I believed could possibly be fitted in!

Our starting point was the seemingly simple question, what is yoga?  We examined dictionary definitions, definitions passed down the ages from the early yoga texts, and more modern descriptions from eminent yoga teachers, before moving onto our own personal definitions.  We all agreed that yoga is more than a set of exercises to do on your yoga mat each week, but what more it is seems personal.  Some of the group are very drawn to chanting and devotional yoga, while others are more drawn to secular mindfulness or strong physical practice.

For me, yoga is a set of tools that I can use to energise myself, maintain equanimity in difficult circumstances, stay healthy and find more joy in everyday life.  When I practice yoga every day, I feel different: lighter, looser, happier, less irritable, more focused and more compassionate.  It is hard to put my finger on exactly what is different, but other people notice it – my professional discussions go better, my family are more relaxed, I have more random conversations with strangers, and I pass less stress onto my team at work.

Many people are drawn to yoga for the physical benefits.  Through practising yoga, I have certainly become both more flexible and stronger.  It helps me cultivate stamina, since a vigorous set of sun salutations is definitely cardio-vascular.  Practising yoga with careful attention makes the poses safe; by learning how to come to my edge, and release with the breath, rather than forcing myself into a pose, I can practice without getting injured.  After a yoga practice or class, I may leave feeling energised and joyful, or calm and restored.

When I first practiced yoga, I thought of it as a mainly physical practice and I enjoyed challenging myself to achieve more difficult asanas.  I had enjoyed gymnastics as a child, even though I was never very good at it, and yoga just seemed like grown up gymnastics.  I got a kick out of being able to stand on my head, get my forehead to my shins and twist myself into the lotus.  Other benefits of yoga quickly started to creep up on me though.

As a university student, I experienced a lot of anxiety, and my Mum gave me her Sivananda yoga book.  I started a daily practice and this helped me to control my anxiety  by focusing on the present moment rather than my large, existential concerns.  Each pose is a moment of stillness and focus, of noticing what is happening in the body and remembering to breath slowly in each different shape.  Yoga means “to yoke” or “union” in Sanskrit, and one way to think of this is the bringing together of attention on breath, mind and body at a particularly moment in time.  I wasn’t aware of the concept of mindfulness at the time, but without anyone ever explaining it to me, the yoga asanas (postures) helped me to be more mindful in the present moment.

Through my twenties and thirties, I had periods of practising and periods of not, but in most of the more challenging periods of my life – relationship breakups, health issues, bereavement, job insecurity, starting a family – I have been drawn back to yoga.  My mat is my sanctuary, a place where I know I can find respite from whatever problems I have.  My pregnancy yoga teacher was particularly keen on teaching us how to breath through physical discomfort, and this is a skill to return to over and over in life.  When I come into the present moment on my mat and focus on my breath, I come back to my true self and find my inner strength.  Yoga reminds me that I am still alive, still breathing and quite safe in the present moment.

In fact, the present moment is not much short of a miracle – the collection of atoms and molecules that make up me will only be together for a very short time in the life of the universe, and here I am, experiencing my own version of consciousness right here today.  One day my atoms will no longer make up me anymore, but will mix up again with the rest of the universe = the period of time that they are configured as me is short indeed.

Yoga asanas are intended to release built-up prana (life force) and to help energy to flow smoothly through the body.  This can be experienced immediately after any asana, when a few moments inward exploration will reveal energy changes – there may be a calm release of tension or an uplifting, even euphoric lift of energy.  By choosing a balanced sequence of asanas, the overall practice leads to a balanced energy.  When I practice yoga in the morning, I feel energised and focused throughout my day.  If I don’t practice for a few days, I feel sluggish, slow and heavy.

Patanjali’s opening sutras can be translated as:

Now, the teachings of yoga.

Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature. (translated by Chip Hartranft)

Yoga is a way of bringing stillness to the mind, so that we can let go of all the conditioning we have experienced, the assumptions we make, the thought patterns we have developed and our habitual ways of telling stories about the world, ourselves and our relationships.  In letting go of all that, we can experience stillness and a sense of unity with the rest of the universe.

Patanjali describes this as the uniting of individual consciousness with the universal consciousness – recognising that they are the same.  Achieving this sounds like a lofty and esoteric ambition, and would probably put off many beginning yoga students who just want to feel healthier and calmer.  A little research into modern neuroscience also calls into question his dualist perspective.  Nevertheless, as we progress in yoga, we may more inclined to wonder what this self or consciousness that we experience really is and to experience it in more subtle ways through meditation.

We are constantly narrating stories about ourselves and world around us to ourselves.  Nowhere is this truer than on the yoga mat, where I may be thinking, “I can’t do this, my arms are too short”, “We’ve been in this pose for ages, has the teacher forgotten us?” “Look at me in this amazing, clever pose”, or “This meditation is so boring, when will the time be up?”  In noticing my own internal monologue, I can start to step back from it and be less enmeshed in my beliefs and assumptions.  I might notice my ego fluffing up, boredom setting in or my resistance to a physical sensation, and in noticing it, that story and the set of emotions that went with it lose their power.  So yoga becomes a way of not just enquiring about my physical abilities and limitations, but also a way of enquiring about my thought processes.

Occasionally in yoga, there are moments of real stillness when the monkey mind ceases it’s chatter and all is quiet.  In these moments, there is an experience of something that sits underneath all our thoughts – the self that witnesses all those mental events but does not become them.  Experiencing this self helps me to realise that I am not my emotions and thoughts – these are just events that happen to me. In this way, I become less attached to the things that I think I need and want.

Seeing all of life as an opportunity to learn more about myself and to loosen the bonds of attachment to the things I want can also help to get through difficult times.  I remember a particular time when a group of us in my workplace had our jobs downgraded.  This was, of course, a huge threat to my sense of self, my status and my position in the organisation. But, by thinking about it as an opportunity to learn about my attachment to these things and practice letting go, I could get through it with a little bit more grace.  I still wouldn’t say it was graceful, but probably a lot more graceful than it could have been.

There is also a moral code in yoga.  The Yamas and Niyamas which Patanjali outlines in the Sutras cover ethical principles that include non-harming, truthfulness and non- stealing.  Most yoga teachers do not discuss these moral principles in general interest classes, but I believe the practice of yoga naturally draws people towards a more thoughtful and compassionate lifestyle.  As my ego has softened, I naturally see myself as part of a large inter-connected universe.  Harm to one part of the universe is harm to the whole, and therefore to myself.

Although I have been vegetarian or longer than I have practised yoga, I find yoga increases my commitment to avoiding harm to animals and the environment.  It seems natural to be concerned about the well being of other people, animals and our planet.  Of course, I am very far from perfect, and I lead a normal Western lifestyle, so I am aware that I do have a negative impact on the planet.  It’s not always easy to make ethical choices (is imported soya in a plastic bag better or worse than free range eggs in a cardboard box?) and the great temptation is to give up on thinking about it altogether (often guilty, sadly).  Awareness is the first step towards taking some steps to minimise harm but this is a tough journey.

Yoga, and the increased self-awareness it brings, also leads to noting the impact of what I eat on my energy levels and general health.  Caffeine tends to give me headaches, so I try to avoid it, and sugar gives me an unbalanced energy that later leaves me with more cravings, so again, I try to minimise it (difficult because I don’t have a lot of willpower when there is a packet of biscuits in front of me).  Yoga helps me to mindfully enjoy food as a daily pleasure, without getting too drawn into either depriving myself or over-indulging.

So, if I had to sum it up, I would say yoga is like a secret super-power that enhances the good days and gets me though the bad days intact.  The teachings are a treasure chest of amazing tools, and we are lucky that there have been so many great teachers who have spread the word.