I have been quite for a while whilst plodding on with life as we all have during these times. I found that I simply could not find the inclination nor the concentration needed to sit and write this blog, but today I wanted to finish off my writing on the Niyamas and close the circle as well as wish everyone a happy new year for 2021.
It’s not anything that hasn’t been written before, but I learn as I reflect on these philosophical yogic principles and I find it so helpful to come back to these things, so here we are: the last three Niyamas (in Patanjali’s writings anyway):
Tapas (तपस्): heat, austerity, self-discipline, persistent meditation, perseverance
Svādhyāya (स्वाध्याय): study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self's thoughts, speeches and actions
Ishvarapraṇidhāna (ईश्वरप्रणिधान): contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality), attunement to the supreme consciousness
And it is convenient and helpful to group these three in particular together like this in fact - this relates directly to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2.1:
Tapas (literally meaning "heat") is needed for any yoga practice. Without a bit of passion and perseverance, forget any kind of consistent practice (in life too, not just with yoga asana!). Tapas is the discipline to practice and to move through the blockages that build up from our reaction to life experience. This Yoga is as an inward journey, of Svadhyaya, self-correction and knowledge in line with the yamas and niyamas. This heating of the inner self to connect with the essence of self and life and have the realisation, whatever your tradition, that all is one and here and now. Ishvarapanidhara, whatever you conceive of that supreme consciousness or being as being, is then a result of that disciplined process of self enquiry and introspection. Surrendering to a greater force than yourself whatever that is and recognising that this exists and that you are in relationship to it. This is the action of yoga (kriya = action).
Manifesting all of this through physical action and effort like yoga asana helps to ground it in the world beyond the fleeting, transient thoughts conjured by our minds. It puts us in relationship with ourselves inwardly to give us direction and clarity of mind. It allows this to be experienced in and by the body as well as the mind in connection to the environment around us. Through this, it allows us to truly participate in what life is.
So, with that in mind, here we are again, a new year again, an arbitrary marker in fact, but also a natural one, set by our planet's solar orbit, of course. I’ve said before I don’t make resolutions so much as send out hopes for the future and do my best to keep it on a path, through staying grounded and connected, that may lead to what the universe truly wishes for me. I intend to stick with that this year and I very much hope that this year is easier on all of us whatever happens. Let's see..... let's look forward rather than back and live in the here and now at the same time.
Love and peace and light to you. Namaste. xx
I've just come back from a road trip around Scotland. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go but since I’ve been overseas so much for work and living, I’ve never really had much chance to do the trip I wanted. Or perhaps it’s just that sense that it’s always there and could be visited anytime, one day. Given the limited options for going anywhere at the moment, I was most excited to be able to take the chance to get away and have an explore around the West coast and Isles of this beautiful, wild place. Road trip, camping, hiking, walking, fishing, connecting with nature, castles and the history. I felt totally safe from a health point of view, all COVID measures were in place everywhere I went and I was just grateful to be on the road. A change of scene. Awesome.
But somehow things did not go according to my plan. All the logistics were right and the preparation was flawless, but when it came down to it, I was just not feeling my usual adventurous self and it really just showed me where my head is at at the moment. The trip was great, I’m glad I went even, but I spent an awful lot of it overthinking and telling myself off for not having left it to another time. For pushing myself when I knew I was tired, emotional and probably just needed to be at home pottering.
So why do we do this to ourselves? Drive ourselves (literally and metaphorically!) to where we think we want to be and then realise once we get there it’s not what we quite expected or needed? And what to do when this happens?
I spent a good few days talking myself down from the ledge of self-recrimination because I had not checked in with myself a little more before setting off on this adventure and was cross with myself for not enjoying it more - disappointed with my inner child for being spoilt and ungrateful. I’d had some misgivings, but I’d also really had positive intentions and reasons for going too.
And then I got a grip and went with the flow and decided just to see what happened and I did end up making the most it. Stunning place, even when the rain is coming down sideways, you've got your period and there's nowhere to wild camp that isn't a bog. Finding gratitude really always helps. Yoga in action off the mat.
The truth is it was not the external circumstances that were the problem, but the internal disturbances, the Vrtti in the mind, of which perhaps not surprisingly there have been many over the last 6 months, building up and swirling round, and I perhaps even needed to go away to see that there was so much going on in my head that I had been ignoring, or sidestepping, or simply unaware of. That I had disconnected from myself.
So all’s well that ends well, my highland fling flung me back to me and to the mat once again. Where I have my yoga I have the means to participate in the experience of my life whatever that may bring. And it’s all good. So glad to be back. Much love and namaste.
The next of the Yamas is Santosha and this is one that I have been thinking about a lot recently. It usually translates to mean contentment, but it's more than that: it's really a feeling of deep, deep gratitude within oneself for everything that one has. It's easy to confuse what one has with meaning what one possesses, I think, but Santosha of course, as with most of these kinds of things in yoga, goes beyond the material. When thought about in this light, in a more metaphysical way, Santosha is a feeling of contentment and gratitude for everything that life brings our way and all the lessons that are available to us from those experiences, all of the things which make up the rich fabric of life, from which we grow and learn and through which our experience of life becomes deeper and more meaningful .
It sounds incredibly idealistic doesn't it? Because it is an ideal! But let's bring it down to a practical level. Say, for example, you're having a bad day and nothing seems to be going the way that you think it should. You slept through your alarm clock, you missed a really important work meeting and deadline and as a result you have hours of extra work and have to make apologies to people, The cash machine swallowed your ATM card when you went to get some money out to pay your rent and now you have to phone up the bank and sit and listen to endless lists of menu options and it's going to take five days to get your bank card back. Your account is frozen. You had a really upsetting argument with one of your best friends and that could be the end of a lifelong friendship. You get home to find that there's no hot water because the boiler is broken and a plumber can't come out for two days and you can't pay them anyway because your bank account is frozen. Any one of these things by itself would be crap, but the universe decides to throw it all at you all at once. What do you do?
Well, perhaps first of all you have a really good cry, swear quite a lot and allow yourself a little bit of feeling sorry for yourself because you're a human being.
And then you put Santosha into action. You breathe and you remind yourself that none of these things is life threatening and that there's a solution to each one and that In order for each of these things to have happened there is an underlying circumstance which is taken for granted such as having a job, having friends, having a house to live in and the ability to pay rent etc. You take a big old step back and refresh your perspective with a healthy dose of acceptance and gratitude. It seems a bit trite perhaps, but the thing is that it really works. If you bring this sense of deeper appreciation of all that you have to your life, it really keeps you grounded and rooted in reality. You can truly face literally almost anything with this mindset, whether it's a minor annoyance or a major challenge.
Coming from that place of acceptance means it doesn't get inside you and bring out all those corrosive feelings and qualities, which we all have to a degree, but which actually make bad situations worse, not better, such as anger, fear, frustration to name a few. It's not that it's bad to have those feelings even; it is perfectly natural. But to allow them to consume and drive life only leads to more of the same. And they are distractions when you think about how much of a miracle it is that we exist here now in this time and space at all. Taking a cosmic perspective is nothing short of transformational.
So Santosha indicates that one of the keys to a happy life is not what you've got so much, or even what happens around you, as how you view and respond to it. One thing for certain is that everybody in this world has problems and faces challenges whether rich or poor and it seems to be that the most content people are those that can accept life just as it is and go from there. This is not to be confused with spiritual bypassing - feel the feelings! Just don't fall into the trap of wallowing. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.
The next time life feels overwhelmingly negative, why not sit down and write out what is bothering you and then write out what you are grateful for starting with all the things you perhaps take for granted. Simple things: air; water; sunshine; colours; smells; whatever. It won’t fix any of the bad shit, but it will make it a lot easier to stay sane and grounded as you walk through it. That's a promise.
And in our yoga asana practice we put this into action at the beginning of every class with breathing and coming into our bodies in the space, checking in with ourselves physically and emotionally, finding the starting point, that still place of acceptance and appreciation of our body and what it can do, how it moves, the limitations it may have and yet, despite that, everything it does for us and everything that we have to be grateful for. Over time, this practice fans out, multiplies, seeps into the fabric of your life and being. Honestly, it truly does. Hope to see you on the mat some time soon.
Namaste, stay safe and well xx
It’s been said before and will be again, but these are turbulent, strange times for us all. I’m back after a short blogging break, sadly due simply needing to focus on walking through the experience of two family bereavements in quick succession. My father and grandfather passed away within a week of each other at the beginning of June and though they had both lived long lives and it was not unexpected, that doesn’t actually lessen the shock and grief of it, as many of you already know.
I have of course been turning to my yoga and meditation practice during this time for emotional and physical support and I have realised again how lucky I am to have some brilliant friends and family in my life who are simply wonderful people and very kind. The kindness has made me cry more than the loss at times – nothing restores my faith in life and the living, particularly during these crazy times, more. That connection and compassion, the giving and receiving of love, the affirmation of life and acceptance of death as part of it all, is yoga in action.
It has made me turn my attention again to the teachings of Patanjali and what he has to say about personal responsibility and care following on from my past reflection on the Yamas (or societal restraints – we need these right now a lot!). The Niyamas are the second limb of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga and set some guidance for how to take responsibility for oneself as an individual. There are five of them in all and the first is Saucha.
Saucha is literally “purification; cleanliness.” Sounds rather austere, doesn’t it? But as ever this is a practical path and the practice of Saucha centres largely on keeping your body clean and cleansed. In Ayurveda the buildup of ama (toxins or waste – physical or emotional) in the body and mind is the underlying root cause of all disease, whether it be physical, emotional or mental. Or individual or collective for that matters - but we'll save that for another blog :) We do not have to try to hard to rid ourselves of ama: Saucha arises from within if we let it.
So healthy body, healthy mind and vice versa. It does not mean living like a monk, although it has been said that Saucha can be the foundation for better insight and calmer states of mind leading to an ability to meditate deeply. Saucha is put into practice when you keep yourself and your living space clean, are regular in and attentive to your yoga practice, maintain good eating habits, clean your yoga mat, do the washing up, sleep regularly and well and in many other ways. Learn to truly love yourself.
So as the sages would say be wise in how you indulge your choice of food, emotions, and thoughts. This will help you to deal with the ups and downs of living and stay on an even keel, and you will be placed to engage with life (and death) in a healthy way. Never forget to practice your yoga, maintain your connection to life through the participation in your practice, and as a result unite mind, body and breath as a whole and with the whole. You'll feel better and things will flow as they are meant to, no matter the challenges that may bring. Without the mud there is no lotus,
Hope to see you soon on the mat. Stay safe, stay well. Peace and namaste. xx
The chakras are energy focal centres located at points along the spine from the root at its base up to the crown of the head. They are not physical tangible objects as such although they do each correspond to an organ or region in the body which is most aligned with them. They are also associated with a sound, an emotion and a colour, for example, the heart chakra's seed mantra is YAM, it is the seat of compassion and joy, and its colour is green. If you wanted to focus on balancing and opening your heart energy you might sit and chant the sound YAM and visualise the colour green, or being in a green wood.
Chakra meditations can help to heal by calling upon sound and colour to help balance energy in the body and mind. In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicine system and sister science to yoga, the body is viewed as a dynamic whole and imbalances of the mind can manifest as disease and illness as much as any physical malady may affect mind. As well as prescribing what we might think of traditionally as medicine to take for an ailment, an Ayurvedic doctor would also treat mind and body together by suggesting possible adjustments to food, some appropriate yoga postures and maybe also some sound meditation (mantra chanting) that would help to balance your chakra energy.
According to Ayurveda, all disease starts in the mind with upset and distressed thoughts and negative disturbances. That’s not to say that it’s all in the mind when we get sick, but disease progresses from mental and emotional to physical. On a biochemical level, our immune system can be impaired by stress and anxiety, which triggering the fight and flight response, spike cortisol and kick off the inflammatory response in the body, so our systems are overburdened, and it is harder for us to fight off pathogens when we need to. Certainly, stress and mental upset predispose us to physical illness. Physical, emotional and mental – they are all connected.
Sound can be a very powerful healing tool for reducing mental stress and anxiety. You only need to think about how soothing music can be for the soul to know this, how the body vibrates with happy, healing sensations when you listen to music that resonates with you. In chakra meditation, by using the voice to chant seed mantra, your body is actually able to create the vibrations that help to calm and heal mind and body. This can be specifically focussed or more general in nature.
If you are interested in finding out more about the chakras, their meaning and their sounds, I love this website and would highly recommend it: http://ar-yoga.com/feel/chakras/, or just click on the individual seed mantras above. I love the explanations given and the site is very well-designed; it's visually appealing too.
Next month, I will return to the Eight Limbs of Yoga as set out by Patanjali and consider the Niyamas (individual guidances for good living) following on from our look at the Yamas. I hope you are staying safe and well and send much love to you all. Thanks for reading. Namaste.
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness/ attachment. Letting go of all attachment to one’s possessions, including one’s body, and being willing to relinquish them all at a moment’s notice.
This is the fifth and final of the Yamas (restraints), and if there were a more appropriate one to look at during our current circumstances, I’d be hard pressed to think of it. There’s been a lot of discussion on social media about what is going on in the world being an opportunity to be kinder, to think of others, to reflect on what is really essential in our lives. I agree. What do we really need? What is essential? I have witnessed many kindnesses based on selflessness impulse and non-attachment over the last few months. A greater sense of sharing and wanting to share as a result of this crisis. The opposite is also true.
Let’s face it, this pandemic sucks. It wreaking havoc on the way we do things. Ask anyone who is sick and suffering to practice non-attachment to their body and life, or who is watching a loved one suffer to let go of them and their pain, just like that, and in the moment, I doubt they would thank you for it. It would be cruel and highly lacking in compassion. It’s worth remembering that the Yamas work together and we must also bring the others into play: kindness (Ahimsa) – give comfort where you can; truthfulness (Satya) – be honest, but temper it with kindness; non-stealing (Asteya) – including someone’s peace of mind; and right use of energy (Brahmacharya) – focus on what is productive and useful for growth and health.
Rather than focus on the sacrifice that Aparigraha seems to require, through a combination of these principles we can focus on bringing positive energy to a horrible circumstance. Perhaps we can try let go of the need to blame, to change anything and find some acceptance. Aparigraha encourages us to be softer and less demanding in life. It asks us to confront our own mortality for sure, but as a natural fact of life and not as something to be fearful of. What we can do through the practice of Aparigraha is find a space to let go of the fear around that fact, and be conscious of it, so that we can carry on living as best we can rather than in a state of permanent fear or anger. Resist the urge to lash out in anger on that social media post!
As humans we have a natural tendency to want to control what we can and make ourselves feel secure in the process. This is our biological drive to survive in action. Witness the toilet paper hoarding. It may seem ridiculous, but when in fear of the unknown we sometimes behave in very strange ways. And if toilet paper is an easy win, voila. I think we seriously need to question whether this drive is actually that helpful in our current age (that’s a whole other discussion really….). Some will disagree – survival of the fittest. Again, its a question of what values inform your life, but the ancient yogis would say we are all one anyway. There’s enough toilet paper (and everything else) for everyone who needs it, if we can learn to be less attached and fearful and to share.
This pandemic will leave its mark and cause much suffering. I am very sad for the suffering and the pain. It can’t be denied though that it is certainly shining a spotlight on all of our values and priorities in the face of that. I pass no judgment on people; it is what it is. We do, however, have an opportunity like none seen before in this generation to really assess and let go of what is not serving us as individuals, as families, as communities, nations and a species, if we can but take it, although it is very hard to say at the moment which way we will go. We will just have to wait and see.
As with all these matters, it starts with the individual and the yoga mat can be a crucible for change at the level of self. Come join us :)
May you be safe & well and may you find peace in troubled times. Namaste and love to all.
Often the word Brahmacharya is translated as "celibacy". On the basis of its more traditional interpretation, this is the not the most popular of the Yamas. In context when you think about the history of Yoga and who was permitted to practice you can understand where the idea of celibacy comes from. Yoga was co-opted as a religious spiritual pathway and the practice of the physical aspect of yoga, a pathway to the divine by Hindu religion and culture. It was limited to people, to men, religious men, as a practice. And for some reason sex and god are not compatible in many minds. I guess it's just too much of a distraction.
However, the good news is that this is a very limited definition and the word Brahmacharya, as is so often the case we find with language, has layers of meaning. It's generally accepted that the practice of this Yama is not limited to the narrow definition subscribe to by the Brahmins.
What a relief! We can enjoy the pleasure of intimacy with ourselves and with others, physical, emotional and spiritual, without feeling bad about it. Everything is part of the whole and to suppress or deny anything in life that is life-affirming in its essence goes against the universal balance nature seeks. It causes big problems! Just take a look around if you need evidence of that.
What then does Brahmacharya mean and what does it look like in practice? Personally, I prefer to associate it with the concept of right use of energy and restraint from excessive behaviours, thoughts and deeds. That I find is very helpful for modern life. “Where attention goes, energy flows” as they say and this has been my experience.
I try to find life-affirming things I love to do and do them with care and attention to the wellbeing of others and myself as well as simply appreciate being in the flow of life as much as I can. Simples. Haha. Of course, we have to work and we have to deal with the sometimes-gritty business of living. But we don't have to be slaves to drudgery and the anxiety that often arises from the constant pressure to succeed, achieve and surpass that seems to be so prevalent.
So for me, it is not about big, grand actions - ostentatious shows of kindness and virtue-signaling restraint (hello Lent), although that can of course be of help as a reminder of what's important, if translated into daily living somehow - but small daily acts of care, kindness and consideration without abandoning myself in the process. Right use of energy includes looking after myself too. Hope to see you soon on the mat. Namaste :)
Where did January go?! Blink and you missed it, it feels like. And what a start to the year with Corona Virus viscerally demonstrating just how globally connected we all are. I feel for all my friends in China and thoughts are with them as they weather this time of stress and worry. I am hopeful it will be contained and pass in its natural cycle. If any country can rise to the challenge of this, it's China. Division also playing out as GB brexits. And everything else that is going on everywhere else. The ebb and flow of life and the world.
Asteya is our next Yama, or universal principle for living, and this introduces the idea of non-covetousness, non-stealing, or put simply being happy with your lot. Not in a deflated way, but in a truly grateful way. This idea is not unique to yoga, of course. Buddha, Lao Zhu, Jesus, and many others have said the same although all came after – but it gives credence to the idea that these are human values not specific to a time place or culture.
Admittedly it’s difficult to reconcile with our consumerist society, the culture of more, difficult, but not impossible. Asteya is not about not having things - and having what you need and even want is just fine by the way up to a point (more on that later) - it’s more about not taking what is not due to you or depriving other's of what is naturally theirs. This means things, of course, but extends beyond the material too to include thoughts, words and deeds. We all get to have what we need, no more or less, although what we seem to think we need has been somewhat skewed in our times it would seem.
Fundamentally, the practice of Asteya plays out as respecting other’s time, effort , energy and peace of mind, which by the way happens naturally through contentment with oneself and a realisation that all you really need is within – everything else is just a nice to have. This connection with the essentials of living is yoga - union and participation in the flow of life - because everything and everyone is connected and so to steal or covet is, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, harmful.
But, you might say, but even if I adhere to this what about him over there or her? They will take advantage of me and I will be the worse off for it. Well, if we all practice along these lines, that fear and worry evaporates, and I am certain it is possible for every man, woman and child to do it. Love is the key. Tolerance too and compassion. Human nature tends to these as much as to the opposite. It's a choice we all have.
Hope to see you soon on the mat. Love, peace, and stay well in the meantime.
I'm not a fan of big, bold resolutions or promises in the "new year, new you" vein. What I have learnt is that it's often impossible to change if too much happens too quickly. Sudden change can lead to big collapse and overwhelm. My preference is small, slow increments and to keep on keeping on trying to be the best version of yourself you can be for today. That's my plan! Be kind to yourself and others. Namaste and may 2020 be an amazing year for you.
Satya, or truthfulness, is the next of the Yamas that comes up. It’s not a particularly appealing one in my opinion. An absolute minefield in fact and not at all easy to negotiate in life. People often wonder what exactly it means and how it fits with Ahimsa. Have you ever seen that Jim Carrey film The Liar, where he loses the ability to lie and has to tell the truth all the time….. well, it makes the point perfectly. Being brutally honest is often not kind and causes problems in relationships of all kinds – if the truth is brutal or will possibly cause harm you’ve got to ask yourself: does it need to be said, does it need to be said now and does it need to be said by me?
It may well be that the answer to those questions is affirmative in both cases due to some other moral imperative – we don’t have to become passive and powerless in the face of wrongdoing, for example – but what Satya and Ahimsa working together lead us to is the idea that due care and consideration does need to be given to the potential impact of what we say or do, as well as the when and the how. Even if a loved one, or simply someone we know casually is doing something we think is silly, irritating or simply not what we would do, we also have to question whether our judgment is really that important – who cares? Keep that ego in check and tend your own garden as they say….each of us is finding our own way most of the time and that is necessary. And yet it is important to be honest with yourself always and with others when it matters. The art lies in judging when that is, I suppose, and that's the truly thorny issue for most, I'd guess.
Related to that, there is, of course, the whole concept and culture that’s grown up around the idea of being true to yourself. Again, I have found this to be pretty vital for living my life if I want any hope of having a sense of balance and coping with the darker parts of living. There are big (but actually very simple) questions to be asked like: What do I actually want if I am truly honest? Am I happy doing this job? With this person? In that friendship? In this country? Is my life serving me well and am I serving life well? If you’re not honest with yourself, how can you hope to be connected and content in life? I find that what causes most suffering for people who share these kinds of things with me is living someone else’s idea of success and finding it wanting or being disconnected from self to the extent that ignorance (or lack of knowledge – in this case of the self - avedya) reigns. We can cause a lot of pain and suffering to ourselves and others simply by not being honest about what we really want and living a lie.
It’s a well-established idea that ignorance is not bliss in Vedic tradition – far from it! But it takes courage to find your own truth and accept that it is what it is, not least because it might not be what you have been taught to expect it will be, or even what you necessarily want it to be! Hmmmmm, food for thought…. Clearly there’s a connection with the next Yama – non-stealing - as well, but we’ll save that tbd for next time…. In the meantime, get on the mat and start getting connected to yourself I say! Namaste.