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.
According to the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Kindness, or Ahimsa, is one of the Yamas (5 social ethics). Ahimsa is often translated as “nonviolence”, but that is in truth just one aspect of the sense of the Sanskrit word. It also encompasses in a sense the idea of positive kind action towards others and all things.
It’s worth remembering that yoga is a practice that, according to the great sage Patanjali, Chitta Vritti Nirodha. Patanjali’s definition of yoga tells us that: Yoga quiets the mind. In that restful state we can experience ultimate reality without the distraction of our minds and their prejudices, biases and filters. We can understand that all things and beings in the universe are connected and that we are part of that. This means that any harm we inflict on others is also harm we inflict upon ourselves.
So Kindness, what and why? Whilst it isn’t too complicated really, it is aspirational and not so easy to practice in reality. Mind, ego and perceived self-interest easily interfere and cause great suffering in the end because we forget, or have no concept in the first place, that being kind is self-care and love turned outwards. Something to reflect upon.
I find reassurance that I can be kinder to myself and others in trying consciously to do one or two little acts of kindness on a daily basis - that gives me hope when sometimes the bigger picture is too overwhelming and too much to comprehend. They’re manageable and really cost nothing at all. Smiling at someone, offering a hand, sending a text to let someone know you're thinking of them (or better yet calling), even putting the spider outside the front door rather than squishing it in fear, being kinder to yourself in your head, celebrating small successes and being positive, and radiating that out to the people around you. The nicest things that have happened to me recently have been a hug I was not expecting and someone saying I smelt nice. It's very easy to overlook little small kindnesses and fixate on the negative. I suppose you could say that kindness that way can become a habit that is built over time, or even a mindset.
That’s not to say that we all need to turn into Pollyanna overnight. That would be just as unkind to the world – a state of perpetual denial about the reality of things from where there would be no way to move forward. The next Yama is Satya or Truthfulness and they all work together, tempering each other, balancing …..
But it’s worth to remembering – the next time you have the chance to be kind take it. It’s a small random act of healing and hope in a mixed up, crazy world and may just make someone’s day, month or year. It may even give you greater peace of mind too. Peace and Namaste.
“What’s the difference between Yoga and Pilates? And which one is better?”, I get asked quite a lot. Totally understandable, as they are often thrown together as if connected in some way, and perhaps they are, but perhaps not as directly as many may think.
So I thought I would use my blog space this month to shed some light on and hopefully demystify the differences (and similarities) between the two practices. In my view, nether is “better” and what I have noticed is that for some people Pilates clicks and for others Yoga really does. I think it’s a question of trying it and seeing what you like as they’re both great, although of course, I have to admit, I am a teensy bit biased towards Yoga…
In summary then, Yoga is a holistic practice based upon the teachings of the Vedas and other texts out of India and has been a round for a very long time indeed – thousands of years in fact. By comparison, Pilates is a baby of a practice having been created and systematised by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century. Both of them have a physical aspect and involve controlled movement to work the body, in Pilates particularly the core, to build strength and flexibility, but the focus in Pilates is purely physical.
Perhaps the biggest link between the two is the emphasis both systems place on using breathing as part of the practice to help with this. However, in Yoga the practice, including the breath work, is part of a holistic system designed to connect mind and body - it has a strong spiritual component. That’s not to be confused with a religious dogma – I’d highly recommend checking out what Gabor Mate has to say on secular spirituality and connection to “self” if you’re interested in this further. In short, Yoga goes beyond the physical. Intentionally. Whereas, Pilates does not.
Another way of putting this is to say that a main aim of Yoga is to calm and quiet the mind, as well as strengthen to the body. The ancient Yogis needed to be strong in both to sit and meditate for days on end. That’s not to say that Pilates does not also have this benefit: all exercise, to an extent, supports a better sense of mental wellbeing. But in Pilates this is not a primary purpose and you will not find the opening and closing meditations in a Pilates class that are common in most Yoga classes.
And that is it in a nutshell. There is a great deal of crossover and even some of the postures (asanas in Yoga) may appear similar, and there is some evidence that Mr Pilates borrowed from the extensive repertoire of Yoga postures on which Yoga does not have a monopoly either. The human body moves how it moves afterall and IP rights are a modern Western concept, but the intention and origins of the two are not in anyway directly connected. In Yoga, you will find a whole life outlook if you wish to and it resonates with you. My suggestion is to try both and see what you like. Hope to see you on the mat soon. Peace and Namaste.
An early addition this month, to make up for July's lack. The question of yoga and money has been on my mind a lot recently. As someone who has at times made a lot of money from my career, and also been at the other end of the spectrum, I have had ample opportunity over the years to examine my attitude towards money. Ultimately, as in all things, I have always come back to an idea of balance being king here. Live within your means, save a bit for a rainy day and be as generous according to them as you can be as, but not overly so. Respect money, but keep it in its place. It's the means to many things, but not the end. The yogic principles can guide us in this as much as any other aspect of daily living (see June's blog).
One thing I have noticed recently because of things that have happened is that other people's attitudes towards yoga teachers and money are often quite interesting. There are those who see a free class as a given and fail to acknowledge the gift it is. There are profitable businesses who want to hire yoga teachers for nothing, just for the "opportunity" they are giving them and make money themselves off the back of that. Or there are the students who ignore the rules laid out for the validity of their class passes, that they have themselves agreed to, and still expect to get discounted class prices, and then malign their teachers for being avaricious when the agreed terms are enforced. These are exceptions to the rule I hasten to add, but noticeable exceptions.
Let me be clear in what I think. Yoga teachers like any other kind of trained specialists should be fairly compensated for their time, respected fo their expertise and rewarded for their effort. It is totally disrespectful and against yogic principles to demand for free simply because yoga is a spiritual practice. Very few are the teachers who become millionaires from their sincere and passionate efforts to do good through their teachings. And the principle of Karma Yoga, free service to others, such as offering free taster classes to new students in modern practice, extends only so far. Even Patanjali had to eat. I am very grateful for the vast majority of my students who see the reciprocity of the exchange for what it is.
It's time to take a break for a week or so and I am off to Cornwall to explore. I'm tired and I can't wait. Travel within the UK is definitely something I have not done enough of and we are so lucky to have such amazing places within such short travelling distances. I am looking forward to some downtime. Happy practicing and namaste to you all. Claire xx
Whilst we’re all pretty familiar with the physical practice of yoga these days, there is more to it than simple asana practice as a form of exercise. Circa 300 BC, Patanjali, the sage and wisest of yogis, who was the first person really to codify Yoga via his sutras, set out to systematically set down on paper (or whatever was in use back then!) the whole of yoga teaching. His much quoted phrase “Chitta Vrtti Nirodha” roughly translated means “Yoga Stills The Mind” and that sort of sums it up, but in understanding how that stillness comes about and what it means in truth, we need to understand more of what “Yoga” really entails, and here Patanjali and his categorization of Yoga into eight limbs or “Ashtanga Yoga” (ashtanga is sanskrit for eight limbs) provides the insight we need.
Ashtanga Yoga is often confused with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which is an athletic form of asana practice cultivated by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore which follows a fixed sequence (Primary Series) and has been made famous by many celebs. It’s a really beautiful practice, check out Laruga Glaser’s videos online if you want to be mesmerised by grace, strength and elegance embodied, but it is not quite the same thing as Patanjali’s Eight Limbs, of which asana is one, but which tend to emphasise the mental and moral aspects of Yoga over the purely physical practice.
So what are these eight limbs already! Here we go (and bear with me, do remember this is a beautiful if challenging moral ideal, not a stick with which to beat anyone, or a covert criticism of those that find it unappealing…..):
Yama – the five moral restraints
Niyama – the five individual observances
Asanas – postures
Pranayama – control of vital energy through the breath
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses to self – going within
Dhyana – meditation
Samadhi – bliss, super conscious state
The eight limbs can be taken individually or worked together - this I believe is one reason for the vast diversity of yoga practiced today. Some of us are purely focusing on asana, others mediation and others the more devotional aspects. Some of us are incorporating aspects of all eight limbs into our daily lives without even knowing it, others more consciously, others not at all.
One thing that strikes me more and more is the overlap with so many of today’s secular mindfulness practices and concepts: meditation, being kind, compassion for others, having curiosity and seeking out learning, mindful movement, finding joy and so on.
In this modern world many are averse to any hint of spiritual mongering or religiosity – and I can totally understand why, with so many wannabe gurus around seeking fame, ego-inflation and more often than not enrichment, I feel the same way myself a lot of the time – but at the time these concepts were set out faith in a deity was the norm.
I'm convinced we can reframe this teaching and secularise the process of becoming connect to self and consciousness. There is no need to disregard the essence of yoga for the sake of (justified) aversion to dogma - that's just throwing out the baby with the bath water. There's also no need to be intimidated by it. I sometimes imagine that the sense of intimidation so many feel coming to a yoga practice is a subconscious instinct that this is something really potentially life changing, which floats up to the level of our consciousness, manifesting as a strange, small fear or anxiety, and is really nothing to be worried about at all. Yoga is at its heart a spiritual practice – cultivating a path to Samadhi and oneness with the divine. What I firmly believe is how you chose to conceive of the divine is up to you. Yoga embraces all.
You know, it occurred to me during a class the other day, that I talk a lot in class. A lot. I have an almost stream-of-conscious flow going with words to match the flow of whatever is happening in sequence. I’m told it is really helpful and my students appreciate the detailed information and descriptions I give which is just as well. Lol.
But it also occurred to me that I tend to throw in words with which I am very familiar, but which may not be as familiar to those practicing with me especially if they are relatively new to yoga.
Soooo, here are the most common Sanskrit terms you’d be likely hear in a class you take with me:
Asana – posture or pose - this one is pretty straightforward!
Drishti – gaze – maybe less commonly heard, I really like this term in the original as it implies not only the physical gaze and where it’s helpful for you to be looking, eg big toe, thumb, ceiling, but also a sense of internal gazing – raised consciousness, awakening and awareness.
Chakra – a chakra is an energy center and there are seven. Asana, mantra and mudra plus a few other yogic practices work on the opening up and activation of chakra energy in many different ways – this gets into the subtle and energetic body side of things. I’ve been talking and directing attention to Anahata (the Heart chakra) quite a lot recently – compassion and joy in the season of Spring.
Prana – breath, but also life force or energy – whole scholarships have been dedicated to defining this, but lets just say it’s important and breath and breathing are an essential in yoga. Extend your breath, extend your life force and vital energy…. no breath, no space, no air, no energy, no life. yogainternational.com/article/view/understanding-prana
Om shanti shanti shanti – the Sanskrit mantra for universal peace. Om is the sound of creation, the universe, all time, space and matter and the indivisible unity of all things. Shanti means peace. Universal peace. Say it often and wish it well to all. Mantras create powerful vibrational energy when chanted. Every one is fighting or tormented by something, often something that comes from within but often from without too, from fear, to anxiety, to self-doubt, to greed, to jealousy and so on, and everyone deserves a bit of peace from that. The world would be a better place if we could all figure out how to be a bit more at peace with ourselves. https://www.wildmind.org/ mantras/figures/shanti
Namaste/Namaskar/Añjali Mudra – Namaste can be translated to mean “the divine/ light in me recognises and salutes the divine/ light in you” and is a form of greeting that’s often used to open or close a yoga class. It is very loving, kind and respectful. Namaskar is the action of greeting (salutation as in Surya Namaskar) as well as a substitute for saying Namaste, and Anjali Mudra is the gesture of bringing the hands together in front of the heart. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Namaste
STHIRA AND SUKHA: STEADINESS AND EASE – in caps on purpose. This is what we all seek in yoga! Yoga postures were never supposed to be torturous and painful. https:// yogainternational.com/ article/view/sthira-and- sukha-steadiness-and-ease
Surya Namaskar - a sun salutation – it is said that every movement in yoga can be found in the sun salutation, which is a sequence of asana in a set order that most Hatha and Ashtanga classes start with. A great reason to get down with them. If you can make it through Surya Namaskar, you’ve got it!
That's it for now from me and thanks for reading. Of course, if there’re other phrases or words that crop up that pique your curiosity do drop me a chat on WhatsApp, or an email and ask me about them! I'll do what I can to interpret and explain and where I can't I'll seek out the answer from those even better in the know.... See you soon I hope and in the meantime: Peace. Namaste. Ommmmmm shanti. :)
What a novel idea! Not mine originally I hasten to add, but one worth entertaining I think. And as a result, here’s what I’ve been noticing recently. There’s so much emphasis today about working on oneself, self-development, improvement, being better, doing better, living better. On achieving a higher state of being so we can overcome ourselves. It’s become a bit of an obsession spawning a vast array of methods, designs for living, tools, professions even, all with their own take on the new wellbeing craze and how to get to that “best state of being”. But what if the real antidote to feeling (suffering from) that modern malaise of dissatisfaction were simply just to stop trying so hard to “fix” things?
I’ve been listening a lot to teachings on Mindfulness for a teacher training I’m on at the moment and the key things that keep coming up are these:
So it seems perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse. Being “good at” yoga or meditation or whatever misses the point and simply won't help - it becomes just another way of seeking to change how we are, whilst being unaware of how we are in the first place. Letting go of anything can be very difficult because most things stem from or can be so easily corrupted from their original true purpose by the social patterns of doing and thinking to which we are soooooo conditioned. So conditioned we don’t even notice them really. We tend to want to just layer more things on top in the hope that will solve everything for us. But it won't. As Rumi says, "maybe you researching in the branches for what only appears in the roots.
So it follows that a good place to start is with raising awareness and acceptance of ourselves in our own particular context. EXACTLY AS WE ARE however repulsive or unattractive, the unfortunate reality of how people feel about themselves these days in many cases, that may seem and how uncomfortable it makes us feel.
We as humans are an embodiment of nature and life and perhaps are not able to, or in fact don’t need to, conquer or change that. Perhaps we just need to sit with ourselves. The reality is we are driven by our desires and most of what we do has an underlying vested self-interest – why? Biology – survival and satisfaction of need. It’s quite simple in fact.
But where does that us lead? Taken to the extreme it can be extremely nihilistic and dark. There’s no real point to all this because we are just animals and it doesn’t matter. We are all just selfish creatures and so it has to be survival of the fittest (enter Capitalism – I have nothing against it per se, but left unchecked……well, look around you). Indeed many, many people do pursue this to its logical conclusion and as we are witnessing it engenders a life denying, destructive pattern, in which many of us find we are stuck. Feel crap through the comparisons of not having what they’ve got or burn out through striving for more, more, more. Consume, consume, consume. Numb out. Destroy -ourselves and the planet - in the process.
And when you look at it, it really all comes down to avoidance of something. And we now seem to be at risk of simply turning towards using “healthy” mechanisms of avoidance as much as “unhealthy” ones. Avoidance is avoidance whatever the method of doing so. Avoidance of feelings, avoidance of fears, avoidance of doubt, striving to feel good all the time.
Mark Whitwell gave a great satsang recently on a visit to Koh Phan Gan in Thailand titled (very tongue-in-cheek) the Hoax of Enlightenment
(you can watch it here. It’s long, but worth it! https://www.facebook.com/amanecurated/videos/2324143334489702) The point, which he makes far more eloquently and at greater depth than I can here, is each individual one of us is already everything that we need to be if we can just cut through all the bullshit layering and conditioning to which we are subject, and that yoga asana, or whatever practice you chose, is simply an enhancing tool to participate in the pure intelligence of the body, spirit and mind that is already inherent in everyone. That’s true yoga he asserts. The Buddha teaches that too. The discipline of practice is not the end. It is necessary, but we as human tend to fetishise and ritualise as a matter of course from ignorance and make it all about that and miss the underlying truth.
Think about the word self-realisation. Realisation– becoming aware - not creation – making something. Realisation is an internal process of getting connected to something, not something externally imposed, nor a product you can buy. Ultimately it is experiential, beyond what is rational and empirical and tangible. It defies that.
So, then, all we have to do is let go of conditioning and be open to feeling and realising what is true in ourselves because everything we actually need in order for us to be as intended is all there within. Simples! Lol.
Easier than you may think. Just let go. John Kabat-Zinn says “instead of “let it go” we should probably say “let it be””. (Cue the music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra3rF4b6O3E). One of my faves as it happens.) Because letting go still carries an element of judgment and control that interferes with actual awareness of self and truth and feeling as it is arising in that moment, still risks a turning away from rather than a coming round to a state of realisation. The point is not to deny feeling this way or that, or try to discard or avoid it, but to accept it and without any idea of an outcome or purpose. Just for the sake of it. Thich Naht Hanh, of course, also writes some wonderful stuff about all of this and I am a big fan of Tara Brach who gives wonderful teachings on these issues too.
I’ve had to let go of one or two things recently and frankly the emotional backlash is distressing, but there’s a huge sense of relief and compassion for myself and the other person involved in amongst the loss and grief and sadness too. Sitting with the feelings has helped me realise that. I’ll see what happens and ride it out because it’s honest and it’s not my job to be in charge of what happens next. I simply have to be honest with myself and go with that moment-to-moment. In my experience, if not always immediately or in expected ways or ways I understand, only good things have come from getting more honest and intimate with myself.
See you on the mat! Namaste.