The seed of this week’s theme seems to have been planted last week, and has surrounded me - in articles, in conversations, in the words of fellow yoga teachers.
When we face a tough challenge- collectively or individually- there can sometimes be a sense of despondency, to feel there is nothing we can do about it because it feels too big. This is a judgement taken by the mind, which tries to remove us from being an active player. But if we step back from it, reflect on where those thoughts and emotions are coming from, we can look at it from many different angles and perspectives and see it in a different light.
We do this in our yoga asana work when we encounter something new, or a pose that continues to elude us. But if we break it down, we will find there is something that we CAN do, no matter how small it seems. We can chip away at our challenges individually and collectively to break them down piece by piece, one step at a time. We involve all aspects of ourselves to rise to the challenge- mind, body and spirit.
Do not underestimate the power of small acts: this energy becomes infectious and touches those around us. And our shared intention becomes transformation. So keep celebrating your milestones, no matter how small: champion what you CAN do.
A turbulent week in our country has stirred up the energy around us and for many, within us. The work in our yoga class helps prepare us to weather difficult times: it draws us back to our centre, to our selves, for strength and perspective. We establish our grounding, a sense of stability and firmness; we connect to our breath and use it to turn toward stillness and resolve within. We set an intention. We challenge ourselves to explore what we can achieve in this moment- listening within, learning with each breath, carrying a lightness of spirit, and respecting our limits. And in so doing, our capacity for positive change grows.
A personal mantra can help to connect and retain positive energy and drive. Mine this week has been the words inspired by Gandhi “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wish to see humanity let go of actions driven by fear and work collectively to steer our world toward better balance. I realise that is ambitious but I think it needs to be. The seeds of resolve must germinate within each of us before they can take root and flourish. Each person needs to play their part: the momentum of positive change is carried by each of us. So keep planting seeds and nurture them as they grow, one breath at a time.
Connecting to the words from last week’s theme, as students settle their bodies and bring awareness to their breath, we can begin to embody a sense of gratitude that the breath is there for us. It gives us life, literally breathes life into us. We tune in and feel the subtle transformations as we soak ourselves in this sense of gratitude. From a thought, we can start to physically feel its effects as the body relaxes, and almost spreads out, opens up a bit. It is as though we embrace the feeling.
As we practice on our mats, and effort levels gear up, it often becomes more challenging to retain the cloak of gratitude. The mind is being trained as much as the body, so bring in reinforcements: light up a soft inner smile and add lightness in your heart. Stay with your breath and feel into the movements. Challenge yourself and then give yourself space to reflect on what you have achieved as opposed to what remained out of your grasp this time. And yes, you can feel grateful when it is over!
There has been a lot in the news and on the airwaves about an epidemic of anxiety. Spectrum (British Wheel of Yoga) magazine included an article on this topic in the Summer 2016 edition. The author closes the article quoting the words of Louise L. Hay. I have since discovered they come from her book “Meditations to Heal Your Life” (Hay House Inc, 1 Jul 2000; pages 236-7). So this week’s classes begin with her words, to take into our practice and our lives.
I trust myself. – by Louise L. Hay
We trust that our next breath is there. Let’s begin to trust that other things will be there for us, also. The world is a work of art, and so am I. For me to contribute positively to this ongoing creation, it is necessary that I trust the process of life. If things get difficult, I confidently go within and anchor my thoughts in truth and love. I ask for the guidance of the Universe as I make my way safely through stormy seas and calm, blissful weather. My job is to stay in the present moment and to choose clear, simple, positive thoughts and words. I know it is not necessary or even possible to have a reason for everything. I do know that I was born a beautiful and trusting soul. I take a moment now to treasure the mysterious and invisible process of life that I am.
Still rooting our theme in the present, we consider the law of karma, of cause and effect. Our actions, whether small or large, whether to heal or harm, have consequences- for us and everyone. Some we can foresee and many we cannot. Some consequences follow quickly, others may manifest years later. Yet other consequences seem absent altogether. They may not yet have appeared, may never reveal to us (though they may to others), or we fail to connect the dots.
Imagine the energy created by all our acts swirling all around us like dust, some positively charged, some negative, others neutral. It can be a strain to anticipate which particle will settle where, when, and on whom. So let go and free yourself of the illusion that you can control how the dust settles. But you can use the law of karma to be more considered in how you act now. Be an active participant in creating more positive particles that swirl around your life and all of life, unconcerned with who benefits from this, as we all win here. We have in the present moment the learning from past acts and results to guide us. So use the past positively in the present to create a better future- one breath at a time.
Let’s turn back to our Yoga Sutra guidance. Yoga is moment by moment ability to still the fluctuations of the mind. We transcend the shackles of life situation and free ourselves to experience life. Not exactly a sacrifice when viewed that way! Yet still, we often resist moving toward that. Why? There is a reason they say “yoga is not easy”: Simple, yes. Easy? Well, no, at least not for most of us.
In one way or another, we all have things we tend to cling to which, in our more honest moments, when we put aside rationalisations, we know are not beneficial to us. And yet we persist. So it is perhaps not surprising that the other key ingredient for moving toward this state of inner tranquillity is non-attachment (Sutras 1.12 and 1.15-1.16). Effectively, we try to free our minds from becoming invested in and bound to possessions and status (acquired from past events) but also not consumed with thoughts of future acquisitions and outcomes: We detach from identifying with life situation (see last week’s theme), and instead, fully engage in our life as it is playing out now, in each present moment. Absolutely we can set goals and make plans but with an honest appraisal of how they nourish our life vs. their implications for our life situation.
Our yoga asana practice gives us much opportunity to cultivate this quality of non-attachment. Some will fixate on and become distracted by the end posture, which prevents full attention to the progression toward it. Whether overly keen to “get there”, or reluctant to try, both are removing themselves from being with it as it unfolds and develops, in whatever way. When we open ourselves to every moment and breath as an opportunity to enrich us, we loosen our binds of attachment. Whether it be challenging ourselves further or restoring ourselves with a rest, be present for it. So take a deep breath and dive back into your life.
I have recently been reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, interested to hear a modern interpretation of yoga philosophy. He asks us to distinguish our life from our life situation. Our life situation describes what has happened in our past, and our speculations about our future. Our life is what is happening now, with this current breath.
Many people have lost, or under-utilise, the ability to fully engage in the moment by moment life experience. The rare moments of connection then seem wondrous, as for instance watching a beautiful sunset or a harvest moon rising above the horizon. Take a moment and recall a standout memory from your past... Does the memory just live in your head, or can you feel yourself starting to embody the experience: muscle relaxation, breath opening up, perhaps lengthening. Any change in mood or mental tone? So we can use held information in the mind to bring us into the now. But be aware, when we brought that memory back, we fully committed to the experience in the present moment, without simultaneously trying to do anything else.
The author goes on to encourage us to be at least as interested in what is going on inside of us as outside by checking in with ourselves regularly, noticing our internal weather and barometer readings, our sense of ease within. We can then adjust our course for the better. This skill is a big part of what we do in our asana practice, and it begins to creep into more and more moments of our day. The theory is, when we move ourselves into better harmony and wellness from within, our life situation also seems to find better balance. We plant the seeds, and some do take root.
Welcoming some new students recently, it seemed timely to bring the theme back to the Yoga Sutras. Sutra 1.2 defines yoga as stilling the fluctuations of the mind, and then moving onto Sutras 1.12-1.14 we consider the qualities of a firmly grounded practice: well attended to, for a long time, without break, in all earnestness. (From Sri Swami Satchidananda translation and commentary). But what is practice? Practice is our efforts toward steadiness of mind (Sutra 1.13). No mention of asana. So how does this feature?
Our asana practice can be one tool to transform unhelpful life patterns into the qualities described above. So the HOW we practice becomes more important than the what. We learn to be fully present and committed to what is happening during this breath, and then the next. The demands of the asana practice help to retain our focus and concentration and can help to rebalance our nervous system so we are in a better place to work at establishing the qualities of a firmly grounded practice.
We can then realise that our yoga practice is embedding this shift in the qualities of our awareness to whatever moment we now find ourselves in. Taking these lessons off the mat and into our daily encounters and routine tasks is where the “firmly grounded” practice really gets challenging! So our yoga classes and shared community can provide a vital boost and encouragement to keep at it, a time to reflect, laugh a little at ourselves, and renew our commitment- one breath at a time!
What role does sound have in our yoga practice? Consider its power: sound waves can trigger massive avalanches, literally moving mountains. Sound is used in medical as well as military applications. It has the power to heal or harm. Think of the joyful act of singing vs. the annoyance stirred by an incessant car alarm. With a slow decay rate, sound waves linger well beyond the point we cease to hear them yet we can continue to feel reverberations within and notice how it affects us.
We routinely bring sound into our yoga practice when we cultivate Ujjayi breath, the slight constriction at the glottis that keeps the air audible. We hear its pace, rhythm, the silence as breath changes direction. As the intensity of our practice changes, we note the impact on the breath. Deploying conscious control over the breath enables us to develop and harness its power, helped by the ability to hear it.
Sound also features in yoga with mantra (repetition of word(s) or sound(s)). It helps us to draw awareness inward and supports a calm mind state as our exhale becomes extended. This week we explore the Aum (Om) vibrational landscape, aware of all three parts of the sound- ah, oo, mm. We allow time for each of these sounds as the lungs empty, cultivating better breath capacity and control. Through repetition, we begin to unshackle our voice. The soundscape vibrates within and around us and we become absorbed in its power.
This week I return to another reflection by Liz Huntley in Elephant Journal. (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/11/words-to-breathe-by-10-poems-to-ignite-your-yoga-practice-liz-huntly/), this time on her chosen poem for movement. I cannot say it better, as she remarks” As long as we are alive, we are in motion. The transition between asanas, the care with which we move in and out of a pose, are as important as the poses themselves. Even within the held space of an asana, we find the dance of the breath; the constant subtleties of tuning that align the body [the self] more harmoniously.”
I love the phrase “held space of an asana”. Just as in conversation, there are subtle and refined skills to effectively hold the space for all parties to be heard. For this to be achieved, we need to be anchored in the present moment, not anticipating a rebuttal, not pre judging words yet unspoken.
And so it is with our yoga practice. We hold the space for ourselves with each breath: we listen, we probe, we feel, we begin to understand. We practice unconditional friendship and compassion toward ourselves so we can then take it into the world.
Ruth teaches yoga in Cheltenham UK, weaving yoga philosophy into the asana practice to help students connect yoga on the mat to their lives off the mat.