Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Santa Paradox

A few days ago, Australian comedian and columnist Catherine Deveny published this article online. I think it's hilarious - a nice piece of satire on the media among others. But it also highlights one of the most disturbing elements associated with modern-day celebrations: consumerism. In Deveney's fictional article, "soft drink giant Coca-Cola is negotiating branding the proposed ''Christmas'' with a character called Santa, an elderly obese bearded man who lives in the North Pole and has elves who make gifts for good children who follow the teachings of Christ." [NB I say fictional because of course Santa is the descendant of the early Germanic character St. Nicholas, who still descends chimneys in Germany to place gifts in children's shoes.]

It seems that everywhere we go, Christmas is surrounded by a consumerist haze. Advertising for Christmas goods saturates all the media. We are encouraged to buy big, expensive gifts. Can't afford one? Buy it on credit! Because everywhere the message is the same: Christmas is about giving material gifts. You can measure your love in dollars and cents, the bigger the better, and of course, nobody you love will really be happy unless you find them the perfect (biggest, most expensive) gift. [Aside - uh oh... if you buy your gift on credit with no down payment, then maybe you don't really love me because you didn't actually spend anything!]

We are all victims of this mentality in some way or another. Have you ever found a lovely gift and rejected it on account that it cost too little? Ever found yourself buying something probably useless because you feel obliged to give a material gift on account of the season? Ever felt ripped off when your spouse/sister/parent/child didn't spend as much on you as you spent on them?

Consumerism, that Western child, is also alive and well in Asia - and so is Santa Claus. His white face and white beard is plastered everywhere across the capital city, where the shops are filled with cheap Chinese goods. Under his watchful eye, dusty stuffed toys, cheap plastic dolls, cars and airplanes, plastic footwear and t-shirts with misprinted English slogans are sold from every little stall and street vendor. The quality of these items is so poor that some of them have actually fallen apart while still IN the boxes, and yet they are sold at prices that for the local economy, are exorbitant. On the days leading up to Christmas, the shops of the capital were packed, mostly with women, spending precious dollars on this badly-made junk. In a country where most of the population lives hand-to-mouth, it is a bit shocking to behold this pocket of consumerism. Yet there is the hallmark of the emerging middle class - the luxury to shop is a sign of social standing reserved for the economic elite.

The truth is that for the majority poor in this Catholic country, Christmas is actually still a religious holiday. How astonishing that seems in our modern, material world. Yet across this tiny nation, the population (yes, all of it - or about 98% of it) flocks to 3 or 4-hour mass to celebrate the birth of their faith. Christmas is a time for prayer, not presents. If you're fortunate, you will celebrate by going to sleep with a full belly. If you're really lucky, you might get a new shirt for Church. Only the rich would expect a shiny new toy. And so that, therefore, is what everyone aspires to.

The seeming paradox of a fat, white Santa in Asia in fact makes all too much sense. He represents everything that people dream of: a full belly, a long life, luxurious clothes, and high social standing (white skin, long beard, gifts for everyone). And so in this town, in the poorest country in Asia, Deveney's article is in fact not too far from the truth: in the creche scenes that are erected all over the city, watching over Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, standing taller and prouder than the 3 wise men, is Father Christmas - Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


As most of you probably know, December 21 - 22 is the solstice. For the northern hemisphere, where I am from, it is winter. For the southern hemisphere, where I currently live, it is summer. For the tropics, which I am right in the middle of, it hardly matters.

We don't have the same seasons here as those who live in the higher latitudes. The tropics move to a different beat: hot-and-wet, hot-and-dry. At the moment, we are in the middle of the wet. Every day, the humidity is 100%. In the mornings, the sun beats down. In the afternoons, the grey clouds move in and hang heavy over us until hopefully, finally, they break, and with a fit of thunder send their downpours crashing to earth. Rain on tin roof, that terrible din! Rain floods the streets, turning every pothole to a massive puddle, every garden into a paddy. In the tropics people don't hide from the rain - young boys play football (soccer) in the streets, gleefully splashing.

Last night, due to a mix-up with the conference room we use, I taught Yoga outside in a child-care space. From that sweaty, crowded space, you could hear the rain coming down softly amid the hum of engines and the shouts of children. As it grew dark, I lit candles to teach by. It was one of those classes where about 8 new people show up and you can see them struggling to keep up with the regulars, and it was hot outside, so I paused often and in one of those breaks we took a short seated meditation. I mentioned that it was the solstice and asked people to reflect on what it meant to them, and to think of all the things that may have happened or changed during this year, and things that they would like to have achieved or changed by this time next year.

Which gets me thinking, of course. So here are a few answers of my own.

*What does the solstice mean to me? The passage of time. I also like the solstice because it is a day humans have celebrated for thousands of years, since long before any of today's major religious holidays came to be celebrated at around the same time.

*What has happened/changed during the last year? This has been a big year for me! Getting my teaching certification was a huge dream that I had wanted to pursue for years. Re-connecting with my Ashtanga practice. Starting to teach regularly again. Finishing a job that I enjoyed and felt satisfied with. Moving on to a more free (self-employed... for now!) lifestyle that lets me make my own schedule. It has also had its share of sad events, with deaths both expected and unexpected, and happy events, with many new babies coming into my extended family of relatives and friends. And so the cycle continues. :)

*What do I hope to achieve by this time next year? To keep up my yoga practice and my teaching, and add more classes to meet the needs of the growing yoga community here. To hold workshops (already in the works for Jan/Feb!) and retreats. To keep my self-employed lifestyle while still managing to keep my bank account balanced!

What about you? :)

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Seat of a Teacher

All the discussion online and elsewhere about regulating teacher training programmes has got me thinking: what, really, is a teacher? How do you become one? Who are the best teachers?

I became a yoga teacher by accident. No, really! Out of the blue one day I was asked to lead a small group of yogis, after our teacher left. So I did - and I found that I loved it! Three years later, I finally decided to pursue a teacher training. I guess I did this for two reasons - firstly, to challenge myself to take my yoga knowledge and practice to the next level. And secondly, out of a realisation of responsibility towards my students - especially the responsibility to their safety.

When you put yourself in the seat of the teacher, people innately trust you. In a yoga class, people get into the flow of following instructions. They try things they wouldn't normally (like touching their toes!). And everyone's body is different - I can do something without pain that might injure another person.

So a teacher is someone you trust. In Yoga, you trust your teacher physically to guide you safely through the postures. There is also an ethical dimension to this: you trust your teacher to be professional, to touch you appropriately, to make you feel safe and respected.

A teacher should do this because a teacher is someone who is there for YOU. S/he is not there to hear herself speak. S/he is not there to do her own practice or to show off her asanas. S/he is not there to judge you, gossip about you, or flirt with you.

A teacher is someone who shows you the road, gives you the keys, but lets you drive there at your own pace. A teacher wants you to succeed for your own sake - not for how it will reflect back upon them. A teacher gives you a map but doesn't just hand you the treasure.

Teachers are a gift, and sometimes a surprising one at that. They appear in your life out of nowhere, sometimes staying only a moment, sometimes staying with you forever. If you are open to it, almost anyone can teach you something. :) And maybe without even knowing it, you are teaching people all the time.

So, what does it take to sit in the seat of the teacher? Honesty. Courage. Faith. Humility. A sense of humour!

Please add to this list...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tips for the travelling yogini

Well, it's been a while since I blogged, because I've been travelling.

For the yogini, travel poses a different set of obstacles. More and more of us are travelling in this day and age, for work or for pleasure or both. And like everything else in our world, travel today is faster than ever before. 100 years ago, it took weeks or months to travel from, say, Europe to America. Now it takes only a few hours. And as anyone who has experienced jet-lag knows, this puts a heavy strain on our body and our metabolism. Our sleeping and eating habits are disrupted, and our bodies can be confused by sudden changes in climate.

With all this going on, maintaining an asana practice while on-the-go can be very challenging: jet-lag, busy schedules, cramped hotel rooms and smelly old hotel carpets are only a few of the limitations! All this assuming that you are able to practice on your own, away from your favourite classes and teachers.

Here are a few things that I've found helpful along the way, maybe with the holidays coming up and many of us preparing to pack up and go, some of these will be helpful!

Before you Go:
- Pack yoga-light. Unless you're going on retreat, realistically you'll only need one set of clothes for your holiday practice. Think about the climate where you are going - it may be different to where you came from, so you may want to pack a yoga outfit that you can layer up or down.
- After years of travelling with a cumbersome yoga mat, I have discovered the skidless yogitoes "yoga-towel", which to me is the perfect compromise. It's not perfect, but laid out on a hotel carpet it's fairly grippy and a lot easier to pack. Plus, easy to wash! [I also bet "yoga paws" would be great to travel with but I've never tried them].
- If you don't have a regular home practice, it will be worth spending time to write down a sequence you can practice while you're away. Use your favourite book or DVD, or ask your teacher to help you - I would advise aiming for a 45min-1hour sequence.

While you're there:
- Be prepared to modify your practice and accept that you probably will not be able to practice as much as you do at home. A rough guideline based on my experience when travelling as a tourist is half as often, and 3/4 of the usual length of practice.
- Travel can be stressful to your body, and we all carry it in different places. Be prepared to listen to your body's needs and modify your practice accordingly. If you are carrying heavy bags, you may want to focus on poses that loosen up your back, neck and shoulders. If you are doing a lot of hiking or walking, you might want to go easy on the standing poses and practice a sequence of restorative forward bends. Feel uprooted? Try solid, grounding standing poses that open up your hips and, hopefully, your mind.
- All the new sensations, sights, smells and tastes you encounter when you travel to a new place can be overwhelming! Try to make time in your busy schedule for meditation or a restorative practice, or keep a journal of your trip. Whatever works for you, give yourself some you-time to process all your new experiences.
- When it comes to asana on holiday - practice non-attachment! Yoga is much more than just doing your asanas. Engage in the Yoga of action as you see new places and meet new people. Allow yourself to be open to the other types of transformation that a voyage opens up in us.

When you get home:
- Sometimes it can be hard to get back into your regular routine. My advice: start straight away (or as soon as jet-lag permits)!
- Sometimes, returning from a trip is also an ideal time to start a new routine, maybe something you've been meaning to do or let slip along the way. Again, the best time to start is as soon as you get back, before you get swept up again in your old routine.

Those are a few things that I've gleaned from my travels - as always I would love to hear if anyone has anything to add! Namaste everyone and enjoy.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Extraordinary Hanuman

Once a young girl named Anjana was cursed to take the form of a monkey, until the day she would give birth to a god. And so she prayed every day for this child, and finally the gods Shiva and Parvati heard her, and ordered Vayu, the wind god, to grant her this divine pregnancy. Thus was born Hanuman, with the form of a monkey and the powers of a God.

One day when Hanuman was still young, he was playing outside in the yard. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of yellow and thought: "mmmm... a mango!" And sure enough when he looked up into the sky he saw a bright yellow ball - the sun - and he thought to himself: "THAT is the BIGGEST, JUCIEST mango any monkey has ever seen!!". And so Hanuman set out towards the sun, determined to take a bite out of this most perfect of mangoes.

However as Hanuman approached the sun, he interrupted the planet Rahu, who was also on his way towards the sun to cause a solar eclipse (don't you hate it when that happens...). Hanuman, flying out of control, collided with Rahu, who became convinced that Hanuman was trying to usurp his place in the cosmos! Rahu ran to Indra, the Lord of the Skies, to complain. And so Indra took a lightening bolt and threw it at Hanuman, who was knocked back to Earth and broke his jaw. Now, when Vayu saw what had been done to his son, he became very sad and withdrew his wind from the world. But without wind, the world wilted, and so the great God Brahma intervened. To make amends, Brahma healed Hanuman's broken jaw, and granted upon him eternal life. All the other Gods also granted Hanuman with special powers and protections.

However, there was one catch. Hanuman would not remember his special powers until, unaware of his magical protections, he tried to perform an act of great selflessness which would cause him to remember his true nature. Until that day he would live in ignorance of his gifts.

And so, unawares of his magical powers, Hanuman grew up. He studied hard, mastering all the scriptures, and became a great devotee of Lord Rama. One day, the terrible demon Ravana kidnapped Rama's beloved wife Sita. Hanuman immediately vowed to help Rama rescue Sita, and set out with an army of monkeys to find Sita and tell Rama of her whereabouts. The monkeys journeyed far, seeking Ravana, only to come to a vast ocean that separated India from Ravana's kingdom, Lanka. Seeing the ocean, Hanuman was disheartened - how could he cross it? But he had vowed to Rama to try, and thus prepared to undertake this impossible feat. Seeing his truly selfless devotion, one of Hanuman's companions reminded him of his true powers - and Hanuman, restored to his full self, made the vast leap accross to Lanka, setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to Sita's rescue and Ravana's destruction.

The symbolism of this 'catch' holds the key to the emotiveness of Hanuman's tale. The monkey is a symbol for the human mind - which, like Hanuman, can be fast and cheeky, easily distracted. In the Hindu world view, as humans we are all living in a state of forgetfulness of our true nature, which is pure, noble and divine. Hanuman was a Karma Yogi - he did not act for his own good, but devoted everything he did to a higher ideal, never wanting or seeking reward. This story is telling us that by training our mind and acting selflessly - devoting our actions to a higher benefit, we can unlock our own forgotten nature.

I like this story because the deeper message is that inside, we are all extraordinary beings! Thus to become our true, amazing selves is not a question of doing or achieving, but simply of remembering who we really are. :)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Freedom Discipline

I have been musing on Freedom.

Why? In the words of my teachers, "Yoga is a Liberation Discipline". We practice Yoga in order to liberate our True Selves from the ego, in order to become Free.

What is interesting to me, is that this type of Freedom is Freedom through Discipline. This is not the instant-gratification-or-your-money-back kind of freedom that we in the Western world might grasp at, that "do whatever you want, no consequences" kind of freedom where the individual desire of the customer (your ego) allows you to simply do whatever you want. The message here is that if you are a slave to your impulses, you are not free. If you feel obliged to conform / reform / reject / accept / buy / borrow / steal, then no matter how you justify it to yourself ("cause I'm worth it!"), you are not acting from a place of freedom.

On a physical level, how many of us are aware on a daily basis of what our bodies are doing? Do you control your body, or does it control you? For many people, Yoga provides a therapeutic form of liberation - freedom from pain, freedom from the physical restrictions imposed by a past injury or by an illness. Slowly but surely, yoga helps us move beyond our "I can't"'s. If you had asked me a few years ago if I could possibly one day stand on my hands, I would have told you: " I can't!" Now, I'm not so sure. Yoga makes everything possible.

Possibility is not instant. Possible is made reality through discipline, hard work and dedication. And in order for those to be real to you, you need commitment. Not the "I-will-go-on-a-diet-for-one-week" kind of commitment, but a real, true, heartfelt commitment to change the things in your life that are holding you back.

As with most things, the first steps are the hardest. Sure, we want to lose weight / quit smoking / stop swearing / quit that job / tell that person to treat you right / spend more time with the kids. But saying things and committing to them don't always go hand in hand. Things slip away, intentions remain intentions and not manifestations. Our ego intervenes, providing us with helpful excuses and justifications.

So as we approach the new moon this month, the Equinox, a time of balance and of re-balancing, take time to reflect: what would you like to be liberated from? What are you committed to? What steps have you already taken towards this freedom? What steps remain?

Make a commitment to transformation - make a commitment to be free. As the saying goes, Change Begins Now. ~Namaste.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Edge

What is the edge?
It is the border between what is, and what can be.
It is the place where our strength and our vulnerability meet in equal measure.
It is where you go your farthest, and everything stops.
No walls, no pretenses, no crutches, no disguises
- just you and your breath.

The edge is where you meet yourself.

At the edge, you confront your fears.
At the edge, you learn how to surrender.
At the edge, pain becomes peace,
What was heavy suddenly is light.

The edge teaches you to release your deepest desires.
At the edge you find that love of all things
begins with loving yourself.

At the edge, truth is beauty and free will is fate.
At the edge, none of this even matters.
You shed layers like petals,
What remains, is Truth.

At the edge, we are humbled by ourselves.
Our mortal shell that allows us to fear,
our immortal self that invites us to hope.

At the edge, we experience infinity.
At the edge, we find Grace.

At the edge, we are free.

Dedicated to the Teachers and students of GaiaTree TT 2009. Namaste :)

The Niyamas - without ethics, "all is just circus"

It's hard to know where to begin this post, having recently come home from a 3 1/2 week teacher training retreat in beautiful Bali. Since the real purpose of Teacher training is to recognise the teacher within, and in Yoga the discipline of looking at oneself is expressed through the Niyamas, I thought I would start with that. The Niyamas are the second of the eight 'limbs' of Yoga, and are key observances or self-practices that are like beacons, lighting the path back to the true self.

Saucha – purity
To live Saucha starts with oneself – taking care of the body, which is our temple, our vehicle through this life, the mind, and the soul. Yoga gives us helpful cleansing techniques, or Kriyas, which are practiced every day to keep the nadis (energy channels) of the body clean and balanced. In a borrowed metaphor, Yoga is like a process of renovating your house (transforming your life). So once you have knocked down walls, broken through barriers, smashed what you no longer want or need, you must sweep away the old to make room for the new. After all, who decorates a dirty house?

Santosha – Contentment / Satisfaction
Santosha is the principle of accepting what we are given in life as enough. But it is more than material contentment or detachment from the material world. Santosha is to realise that all that we need, we already have, within ourselves. All the tools for our liberation are there, waiting for us to remember how to use them. To live Santosha is also to accept your limitations of the present moment. In our daily practice of the Ashtanga primary series at the retreat, each of us has to accept the limitations of our current practice, as we are allowed no further in the series if we cannot perform a pose. It is frustrating because our natural tendency is to look ahead at poses to come, and measure ourselves against them. But by learning to live with our limitations we also learn to be satisfied with our state of being as we are.

Tapas – Effort / Self-Discipline
Tapas is more than just 'effort', it is 'transformative effort'. Tapas is the ability to see the silver lining in your hard work, even when it feels like it is going nowhere. Literally “fire” in Sanskrit, Tapas is the ability to burn through your negative thoughts and make room for the positive. The Ashtanga Primary Series (literally called “Yoga Therapy” in Sanskrit) is the embodiment of this transformative process. It is a rigorous, challenging series that cleanses and balances the body. It requires discipline, commitment, patience and humility, and when practiced thus, it will indeed rouse the fire that can transform you and move you to another level.

Svadhyaya – Self-study
One could say that this principle is the embodiment of Yoga. Whether we know it or not, to practise Yoga is to embark in a journey of self-discovery. As one of my teachers said: “the mat is like your battlefield. Here you confront yourself. And if you can rise to that challenge, do battle with your ego and still maintain a steady breath, what in life can you not do?” Our Svadhyaya on the retreat was further intensified with the observation of Mauna, or “noble silence”, for the first 7 days when not in class. Imagine 25 people walking in silence, eating in silence. It was intense! The Mauna was like a cleansing process – breaking the habit of “chit-chat”, of speaking without thinking, of being on social autopilot. Bringing us to mindfulness, bringing us into ourselves.

Ishvarapranidhana – devotion
Literally this Niyama means “surrender to God”, but for me personally the idea of devotion is not that blind following that I associate with my limited contacts with modern religious institutions. The devotion here is to a higher purpose, yes, but that purpose need not be sought without, for it resides within every one of us. Call it what you will: the soul, the consciousness, our inner light, our divinity, our inner nobility, our True Self. To be devoted to finding this inner light is a lifelong commitment. It requires us to peel away the obstacles of humanity (ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, to name a few) in search for that which is already within us. Ishvarapranidhana is the humility to look truly at oneself, the courage to accept change, the discipline to transform our lives so that we can live every moment of every day as our true selves – so we can be free.

And so, those are a few of the lessons I have been learning of late. It is good to remind ourselves of these fundamental principles, which are after all the foundations of all the rest of the limbs of Yoga, with the Yamas. This is crucial because Patanjali is telling us: to achieve liberation, one must live an ethical life. Without this, in the famous words of Pattabhi Jois: “all is just circus.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Downward-facing Tree

7 months ago I started working on handstand (adho mukha vrksasana - downward facing tree pose. Go figure.) Now, I have never been gymnastically inclined. I could never do a backflip, or a cartwheel (still can't!), or any elegant combination of those things. So given that, I think it would be fair to say that I brought little experience but lots of baggage with me when I began this pose.

Sometimes the hardest part of learning something new is un-learning all the things you learned before.

In my mind, I can feel this pose. I can sense the muscles in my body as I place my palms on the floor, pressing down through the fingertips, and then lift one leg up to the sky and hop ever-so-smoothly and rise up, my lower back curving, my muscles engaged, my feet lifting towards the sky! In my mind.

Back in the real world and firmly rooted in my body, however, it is a whole different experience. My courtship with handstand has been neither graceful nor smooth. It has been a hard, sweaty, teeth-gritting experience. It has been a grueling and inelegant process of throwing myself towards an unforgiving wall and heavily crashing back to earth. There has been sweat. There have been grunting and angry noises. There has been frustration, and oh yes, there have been tears.

There have been sacrifices, many of them on the part of my partner, who time after time has stood behind me and dodged my wildly flinging legs in an attempt to catch me in the pose. She learned handstand at the advanced age of about 7, and used to walk on her hands in the front yard. She, as rational a being as has ever walked on two hands, cannot understand the fear. It goes something like this:

her: "you can totally do this pose!"
me: "I know. but I can't!"
her: "why not?"
me: "I don't know! I don't trust the wall to catch me."
her: "but the wall has to catch you! it can't go anywhere!"
me: "yes. no! I'm afraid."
her: "but you know you can do it, and you know the wall is here!"
me: "yes. but I'm afraid."

At some point in Yoga, we have to confront our fear. It is part of the flow. It is deeply entwined with the journey we are on. It manifests to us in a thousand different variations, each deeply personal to the wide-eyed traveler. It is one of the most daunting things we can do as an adult. Sure, we cope with fear when it comes upon us in extreme situations. That is one thing. But intentionally seeking out your fear and confronting it - that is a whole different experience. At the end of the day, we are alone in our fear. Fear shatters our ego and the delusions we make about ourselves. It is up to us to try, fail, cope with failing, and try again. Until one day, yes, we lift up through the fear, and in spite of the fear, we rise.

So after 7 months, yes, I finally am able to kick up into handstand against a wall. But each time I do it (or, so often, don't) I still have to move through my fear. Each time is as intimidating as the first time I faced that wall. And each time I don't make it (and there are still so many!), I am still deeply confronted by the feeling of failure, and frustration. Even when we are successful, fear is not finished with us. It is a part of life, and it is here to stay.

So, what is a girl to do? Each time, I have to breathe, and keep on breathing and move on, moving either buoyed by my success or depressed my failure, but moving inexorably nonetheless. Leaving it to try another day. Coming back to my centre and remembering that I am not here to measure myself against what I can or cannot do, but what I tried to achieve. Reminding myself that you never know who you truly are until you know yourself in the face of a challenge. That is a tree facing downwards. That is Yoga.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Present vs. the countdown

Perhaps one of the most challenging mindfulness disciplines of Yoga is summed up by this reminder: "Be Present".

Three little words: Be. Here. Now. Three little words that represent one of the most difficult things a person can do!

I come to this topic because I am counting down until my TT retreat starts. In fact, the first title I typed into this blog post today was "T minus 8 days". And then the more I thought about that, the less Yogic that felt. Because in counting down to the future, you are not living in the present. And not only that, but when we project our expectations onto a future event, aren't we just setting ourselves up to experience that in a certain way, instead of honoring the experience itself?

This of course is familiar to anyone who has ever "set themselves up to be let down". When we allow ourselves to overindulge in our expectations, whether it be about an event, a job, a situation or even a person or a relationship, we open ourselves up to disappointment when the reality is far different from what we expected or hoped. I have known people who seem to live chronically from one dreamy expectation to bitter disappointment, and then onto the next dreamy expectation. One lasting impression that comes from an encounter with such a person is: "s/he must be exhausted!"

The real point here is not whether or not life lives up to our expectations. From a Yoga perspective, by constantly living in expectation of a future event, we are avoiding the present. Which, wait a minute, is exactly what I am doing! At present, I have a week of work left to go, a mountain of things that need doing, people who need direction, documents that sadly will not just write themselves. And yet, here I am dreamily musing about Yoga and looking forward to my teacher training... and writing blogs!

Well, guess I should take my own advice and get back to the present... and do my best to stay focused on the here and now!


Thursday, June 25, 2009

5 weeks to go...

In 5 weeks today my teacher training starts!!! It's pretty scary but at the same time I think I will be as ready as I'll ever be. I've been practicing almost every day for the past few months, teaching twice a week, and recently I started taking classes 3x a week at lunchtime.

Taking classes again has been an amazing experience. It was really serendipitous that I found these classes just as I'm preparing for my training. My teacher is a very experienced Yogi, a brand apart from the usual drop-in studio teachers who are not significantly older than I am. This teacher has maturity and many years of a dedicated practice. He pushes us to completely new understandings of poses while making sure that we maintain rigorous attention to the form of poses. He makes us take our time coming in so that we pay in-depth attention to our alignment and muscular activation in each pose - and then once we're there, he helps us to explore each pose deeply.

In English that translates as: "ouch"!! :) In a "oh, I have muscles there I never even knew about until I felt them every time I moved? This had sure better make me grow as a person..." kind of way.

It makes me feel again like I felt when I first came to Yoga, when I'd walk out of pretty much every class with the above sentiments. It also makes me realize the areas in which I've been lenient in my own practice. With a home practice it is so easy to be unaware of the things you're doing wrong or to ignore the poses you aren't as good at. It's easy to get egotistical, thinking "oh, yeah, I've got that pose down". But a good teacher reminds you that you've never "got a pose down". Even in perfect alignment you can always put more energy or effort into a pose, explore it more deeply, feel it more fully, or at the very least, be more connected to your breath.

So, the countdown has really started... Every day I'm trying to be a better teacher, but I'm finding it difficult to strike the right balance between giving good instructions for each pose, and keeping the class moving at a good pace. How do you 'slow down' your teaching enough to really help students get the most out of each pose, without slowing down the class too much? How much instruction is enough?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Practicing yoga is practicing life

Last week I had a lesson in Karma Yoga. I had adopted a stray cat (or rather, she had adopted me), and for almost a year had been feeding her. She was a lovely cat with a sweet disposition, and desperately wanted to be adopted by me (which my actual cat was having NONE of!).

She was always in fragile health but we had fed her up and she was seeming pretty strong and healthy. So last weekend I took her to the vet to be spayed, in hopes that once she had had the operation we could find a family to adopt her. I was a bit worried that she wouldn't be strong enough and I warned the vet about her fragile health. He thought she would be ok - but sadly, she wasn't, and died during the operation. :( Oh, tears!!!!

I felt terrible. I felt like I had betrayed her. I replayed her pitiful meows from inside the cat-box in the car as I was driving her to her doom. I regretted ever taking her to the vet and I wished I had just let her be.

But then I remembered my own post about Karma Yoga - that action is better than inaction. The intentions of my action were good. I did a better thing by trying to do something good for this cat than by doing nothing at all. We can't let our lives be ruled by attachment to consequences - good or bad. The intention is, has to be, the guiding principle that we live by.

Lesson in point - but I will still miss Patches the cat.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It's all about attitude

Attitude refers to the way we express ourselves. Interestingly, it is derives from the Latin word for 'fit', and from the Italian "attitudine" which means "fitness" or "posture". How 'fitting' for Yoga because indeed much of a person's attitude is carried in their posture.

A teacher can encourage students towards a positive attitude, as defined from a Yoga perspective and guided by the yamas and the niyamas, leading students towards a non-harming, non-grasping, focused Yoga practice. One of the key things I have heard teachers remind their classes is that a pose is not about results but about effort. Being in touch with your body and putting in the right amount of effort in a way that challenges you while respecting your needs and avoids the risk of injury is a key ability to develop a balanced practice.

Most importantly in the Yoga studio, though, is the teacher's attitude, because this sets the pace for the entire class. A Yoga journal article for teachers ( expresses this perfectly by reminding teachers to pay attention to their posture, since the way you carry yourself is the first thing students will notice as they come into class. Body language can be a simple yet powerful tool to create an atmosphere of trust and comfort for a new student.

Much of a teacher's attitude comes from their own history and personal approach to Yoga - are you playful or serious, quiet or vocal, lenient or strict, or somewhere in between? For me, the most important thing for a teacher to consider is whether or not they are acting according to the principles of Yoga. Are you teaching from your ego, seeking acclaim or admiration from your students? Or are you allowing knowledge to be channeled through you, teaching from a humble standpoint instead of grasping at results?

A recent experience I had puts this in point for me: the other day I was leading an informal group of Yogis who wanted to try salamba sirsasana, supported headstand. As I explained the steps for coming into the pose against a wall, I decided to demonstrate the pose, but it was hard for them to see me with my back against the wall. Acting quickly, I decided to demonstrate the pose in the open, re-positioned my mat, and lifted up. All good until I remembered where I was, and with a sudden loss in concentration I promptly fell straight over backwards with a resounding "thump"! Thank goodness the group was not scared off the pose and after some better instruction had a very rewarding session in headstand!

These are the moments that Yoga teachers dread... yet in these moments we also learn the most about ourselves, and that is Yoga. In reflecting on this quite embarrassing situation, I realized that the primary thing that went wrong that day was that I did not have the right attitude. I did everything I told my students not to do. I didn't take time to prepare for the pose. My concentration was elsewhere. I was focused not on my breathing and the pose but on the group. But more than that, I was over-confident, and took the opportunity to show off for the group. Falling over was a 'tiny Karma' - in other words, I deserved what I got! So, I learned a valuable lesson - and few bruises!

However, at least I can honestly say that I demonstrated positive attitude after the fact. I did not allow my ego to take over, despite being somewhat embarrassed. I laughed heartily at my mistake and assured the group that they would be safe since they had a wall to support them. For me, it was a good reminder that Yoga, like life, is trial and error. We make mistakes, we fall down, both on and off the mat, and it's ok. A Yoga student should never feel judged by a teacher's attitude. While perhaps other aspects of our lives are not so forgiving, a Yoga class is a safe space, where the student is respected no matter where they are with a pose, as long as their intentions are good and they are putting in the right effort. And every once and a while it's good to know that even our teachers make mistakes - and learn from them. I know I did.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Yogic Words

Philosophically, Yoga is about bridging the gap between mind and body, opening the awareness beyond the senses and finding a deeper connection with the Universe.

I am often pleasantly surprised to find a reflection of this in unexpected places, such as this extract from Walt Whitman's famous poem:

(extract from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey)

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Yogi Ethics 101 - The Yamas

The Yamas are moral or ethical principles, sometimes referred to as 'abstinences'. They are:

*Ahimsa - a principle of non-harming / non-violence
*Satya - a principle of truthfulness
*Asteya - a principle of non-stealing
*Bramychandra - a principle of continence or self-restraint
*Aparigraha - a principle of non-greed or non-attachment.

So, in practical terms, what do these mean?

Ahimsa, or non-harming, is similar to the universal moral principle "thou shalt not kill". Each person may have a different interpretation of this principle. For some, it simply means do not kill people, whereas others take this to include animals as well, and therefore do not eat the flesh of animals, and for still others, it is a motivation to protect the rainforests, since their destruction would kill many species of life. It is up to each of us to think seriously about non-harming and decide what we think is morally right for us. In addition to this though, Ahimsa can be extended to every action you take by asking yourself the simple question: "will this harm someone?". Chances are, if the answer is "yes", you should do your utmost to avoid that course of action. You can - and should - also apply Ahimsa to your own life and wellness - first and foremost. Avoid things that you know to be harmful, including relationships, harmful substances, self-depreciating thoughts, or addictions. The list goes on. Living a life that is non-harmful to yourself is the first step to finding your potential happiness.

Satya, truthfulness, comes second in the Yamas. Again, this principle doesn't only apply to being truthful with others, but to yourself. We all deceive ourselves or tell ourselves and others "little white lies" - sometimes leading us to be so entangled in a web of delusion that we feel we are completely lost and out of touch with ourselves. Staying in a relationship when we are not in love, saying "I tried" while knowing you didn't really, pretending to enjoy something to impress another person, all of these are examples of delusion. The principle of Satya could be colloquialised as "no bullshit". Deep down, we know that these are pretenses or lies, and they cause us inner suffering, not to mention that they might cause others to suffer as well. Satya starts with "keeping it real". It means not only to tell the truth, but also to accept responsibility for our actions instead of telling little untruths to cover them up. However, Satya comes after Ahimsa for a reason - the first principle of an ethical life is non-harmfulness. Therefore when telling the truth, the Yogi should first use restraint, and only tell that truth which is not harmful to others. Gossip is the perfect example - stories take on a life of their own and people end up being hurt by the rumours being told about them. When being truthful it is also always important to remember that what is true for you may not be for another person. When several people witness an event, they may all tell a different version of what happened. They are not consciously being untruthful, but in view of this, it is best to remember that every story has two sides. The Yogi should strive carefully to draw the line between fact and opinion: "I saw them eating lunch together" may be fact, but it's a long way from "I think they're having an affair." While you may truly think this - this is a harmful way of telling the truth, that is based on your opinion, not on actual fact.

Asteya, or non-stealing, has the obvious meaning of not taking without permission that which is not yours. Every person, again, can define what this means to them - be truthful with yourself. Non-stealing can be extended far beyond simply appropriating an item that belongs to someone else. Perhaps you believe that buying pirated DVDs is stealing because it violates copyright. Perhaps you believe that buying goods produced in sweatshops is stealing because people are not fairly compensated for their labour. Perhaps you do not believe that the formulas for key medicine should be kept a secret if they can save lives. Again, examine the issues, and be truthful with yourself - then stick to your moral precepts. In the February 2009 edition of the Yoga Journal, Hillari Dowdle gave her modern interpretation of these Yoga fundamentals, and reminded the readers that beyond the physical interpretation, when you are late, you 'steal' someone else's time, and when you deceive, you 'steal' a person's trust.

Bramychandra, or continence, is perhaps one of the hardest yamas to put in practical terms. The idea of celibacy is not one that is within the reach of the average Yogi during their sexually active years! Keeping in mind that many Yogi sages had sexual partners and children themselves, why is the concept of 'celibacy' important? The main argument is that the expenditure of sexual fluids, namely semen, depletes spiritual energy. Of course, this theory poses a problem for many yogis of all ages - and women in particular! Let us cut a long discussion short by again expanding on the innovative practical interpretation offered by Dowdle - that bramychandra is about "energy moderation". The article compares the total energy of the body to, say, a paycheck of one hundred dollars. So the question is, are you going to spend the whole paycheck in one night, indulging your senses in food, booze, or shoes, and coming out at zero every time? Or, are you going to spend only $25 on your basic needs, and save the rest, thereby gradually increasing the total you have in the bank? Energy is the same. Bramychandra advises you not to over-indulge in anything: I personally would include in this alcohol, drugs, television, work, and yes, sexual activity. Instead, the Yogi is advised to be moderate and live a balanced life, distributing their energy in a way that gives them more energy - not drains them completely. We all know people who are completely ruled by their over-indulgence in alcohol, or completely drained by being a workaholic, or addicted to stress. But again going back to the principle of non-harmfulness - these behaviours harm not only the individuals in question, but those around them and their loved ones. This is why Bramychandra is important.

Aparigah, or non-greed, is like the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. In striving not to be greedy or to be attached to our posessions, we can all use a healthy dose of truthfulness! Non-grasping can start by asking yourself the question "do I really need this?" Or, when you consider items you no longer use, "could someone else benefit more from this?" One of my favourite expressions is: "it's just stuff". When something breaks, or is lost, I remind myself of that. Even with items of sentimental value, the sentiment comes from within me, not from within the object. I can still feel affection for a person that I have lost touch with, without keeping a trinket that they gave me. In the Western world we are taught to define ourselves by our "stuff" - the little things, like accessories and gadgets, to the big things, like houses and cars. In wanting these things, we go from grasping to greed - always wanting bigger, better, more impressive stuff. But of course, these things do not really make a person happy, and deep down inside we all know that. Only when you can detach yourself from greed can you be happy with what you have - which for most of us, is a lot more than the average human in the world has. Therefore the final implication (for me) of non-greed is generosity: recognising that others can benefit far more from our "stuff", our money, or, most precious of all, our time.

These are just some practical suggestions for how to incorporate the Yamas into everyday life, if you choose to do so. But for this yogini, the emphasis should not be placed on the specifics of which moral codes you choose to follow, and exactly how you interpret them. You are an ever-growing, ever-evolving being, and these things can change over time. For me, the most important thing is to decide what is right for you - and stick with it. Only in this way can you live harmoniously, for your actions will be at peace with your inner beliefs. This is integrity - this is Yoga.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action

The Baghavad Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a young warrior who, on the eve of a great and terrible battle, calls to Lord Shiva for guidance. Shiva explains to him the path to the 'eternal state', which requires the seeker to abandon desires and release herself from attachment (moha): "The [wo]man attains peace, who, abandoning all desires, moves about without longing, without the sense of mine and without egoism." (BG II.71)

Upon hearing this, Arjuna thinks to himself that if realisation is a state of mind, why in that case should he engage in action - in particular, in the battle before him? Why not, indeed, withdraw from the world of the senses (and therefore from desires), renounce action? Shiva explains to Arjuna that the road to enlightenment is twofold, and comprises both knowledge and action, saying (in characteristically cryptic fashion): "Not by the non-performance of actions does [wo]man reach actionlessness, nor by mere renunciation does [s]he attain to perfection. " (BG III.4)

Essentially, Shiva is saying that one cannot reach 'perfection', or self-realisation, simply by renouncing action. Furthermore, even if one doesn't act, the mind is still active, and, as he continues: "verily none can ever remain for even a moment without performing action, for everyone is made to act helplessly by the qualities born of Nature." (BG III.5) We are a part of nature, and action is our inherent nature. Every time we breathe, walk, speak - these are actions and they have consequences on the world around us.

Shiva's point here is that by remaining ignorant and un-mindful of our actions, we are most likely to commit those actions which are based in delusion, as opposed to those that lead to self-realisation and have a positive impact on the world. Shiva goes so far to suggest that this can lead to hypocrisy, in the sense that "repression leads to obsession" - by supressing actions and desires one might encourage the mind to dwell on them! Therefore, in order to do good, the Yogi should engage in positive actions while controlling the senses, and being aware of her intentions.

The key to Karma Yoga is to engage in that action which is right, without being attached to the result of the action or expecting/desiring recognition from that action. Think of the greatness of the anonymous gift - that which is given freely, and without expectation of recompense, or a sense of martyrdom, is truly noble. The Yogi should perform her actions for the sake of the rightness of the actions theselves, or dedicate them to a higher purpose. In return for this latter, Shiva explains, the powers-that-be will bless the giver of these actions, and reward shall come to them from the universe in due time and fashion. This, of course, is what we commonly understand as "karma". To those who do good, good things will happen. But beware - the person who does good for purely selfish reasons does not truly progress.

If we are all revolving around the wheel of birth and re-birth, therefore, the person who remains ignorant, or who acts only on selfish impulses or to seek selfish rewards, wastes their time in the cycle. This person is deluded by egoism, and does not recognize themselves (and all their actions) as a part of Nature. On the other hand, the person who controls their desires and acts without expectation of benefit, will progress towards self-realisation and understand that all actions are a part of the tapestry of natural forces, not badges to be pinned to an individual's belt. In the famous words of Lao Tzu: "free will is fate, fate is free will". The enlightened person, controlling their senses, actions and impulses, sees into their true nature, and therein disentangles nature - human nature - so as to rise above the duality of the world as expressed by opposing forces of love and hate, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, etc. This person, freed from these constraints, can attain a state of peace. But, before one can control one's actions and senses, one must possess self-awareness - therefore the seed of Karma Yoga is planted in self-discovery and meditation.

The fundamental precept of Karma Yoga is that action is superior to non-action - and that every action we do should be done for itself, and not for the glorification of our own ego or to seek a reward. However, Yoga Gypsy might ask herself, how is one to know what is right, and what is not?

The next post will discuss some of the possible guidelines a person could use to inform their actions - always remembering, that when in doubt: "the wise should act without attachment, wishing the welfare of the world!" (BG III.25)

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Tiny Yogas" - Yoga for everyday

I can't remember where I read the term "tiny yogas" (or else I would credit it), but I love the phrase. These refer to the many ways we can apply what we learn in Yoga to our everyday lives.

The physical applications of this are obvious and you can be as creative as you want! Practice tadasana while waiting in line at the bank. Try your triangle pose (utthita trikonasana) when you get home from work and you feel a bit stiff. Use parsvottanasa (standing nose-to-knee stretch) to stretch out your hamstrings before a hike or a walk. My personal favourite (as my housemate will testify) would be Warrior III while brushing my teeth!

But the asanas are only the beginning. So I want to refer back to my last post about balancing energy, and bring the theory off the mat. We don't only benefit from having balanced energy when we practice our physical Yoga, but being aware of your energy and balancing it in your everyday life can have a positive impact on ordinary situations.

As an example, let's imagine Yogi Jane, who is facing a difficult situation at work. Her boss calls her into a meeting and lays on her a huge task, that will require immense time and resources, that has to be done yesterday, that will require her to drop what she is doing and work around the clock to get it done. Even though she privately thinks that what he is asking is unreasonable (it makes her stomach churn!), she acquiesces. As she drives home that day, she thinks about the task ahead and her stress level rises. When she gets home, her housemate Sarah asks her how her day was, and Yogi Jane explodes into a long tirade against her boss and this task he has set her. No matter how Sarah tries to comfort her, Jane's stress levels don't abate. Finally, Sarah's patience is exhausted and she heads to bed. Jane is left feeling unsatisfied and negative, and her stress keeps her from sleeping well.

Sound familiar? Now let's look at the situation from an energy perspective. When Jane acquiesces to her boss despite her reservations, she is using only softening energy - bending or complying to the situation. The 'hard' or muscular energy in the situation isn't dissipated - and it turns into stress, which then overflows into stress, and impacts other situations in her life (her relationship with Sarah). The imbalance between Jane's softening and muscular energy causes her to experience the situation negatively, and she ends up the worse off for it both professionally and personally.

So, what could Yogi Jane have done differently? Imagine that when her boss comes to her with his demands, Jane takes a deep breath and activates her muscular energy - her willpower. She actively resists the instinct to give into her boss' demands. This has an instant physical effect - making her posture stronger and more self-confident. Instead of agreeing immediately, tells her boss that she thinks his proposal is unreasonable. Then, she balances this resistance (her muscular energy) with some soft energy, and proposes some alternative scenarios that could achieve the objective within the time and resources available to her and her team. Together the two of them come to a compromise that meets both of their needs. Coming home to her housemate Sarah, she shares the story of her problem and how she resolved it and then the two relax into a nice quiet evening.

Perhaps this is oversimplified, but the concept remains. Just like in each and every Yoga pose there are areas that need muscular energy and areas that need softening, the same can be applied to situations we confront. Different contexts require different balances - but learning to apply the right mix of 'hard' and 'soft' energy to the situations in our lives can help us bring the mindful, calming influence of Yoga off the mat.

Practicing 'tiny yogas' - applying the principles of Yoga to an action or an activity in your day, is a rewarding way to begin exploring the path of Karma Yoga - Yoga by action, if you will. In the next post, I'll explore this concept more fully and also touch on the fundamental precepts of the 'Yogi code of ethics' - the guidelines (do's and don'ts!) that Yoga lays out for how to live a fulfilling life.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sun and Moon: Masculine and Feminine Energies

The Yoga we are most familiar with - the practicing of physical poses or asanas - is often called Hatha yoga. In Sanskrit, Ha = sun, Tha = moon. Together, Iyengar defines hatha as "force or determined effort". Combined with the meaning of yoga (to 'bind, join, attach', and also 'union' or 'communion') we reach the overarching view that the practice of hatha yoga is a joining or balancing (of the sun and moon energies in the body) by determined effort in order to achieve union or communion. (To what is up to you!)

The concepts of sun and moon elicit in us a reference to masculine and feminine. Hatha yoga, is about disciplining the body (and mind)'s energies. The masculine energy is linked to the God Shiva, and is called the Prana (masculine). The feminine energy is linked to the Goddess Shakti (Shiva's consort) and is called the Aapana. Together they form the Kundalini, which is like a spiral of energy that flows the length of the human spine. This accounts for the focus of Hatha asanas on the spinal column - it's also why it is important to perform poses on both sides of the body (balance).

In theory when we practice Yoga we are trying to join the masculine and feminine energies of our body, thus becoming 'whole' and achieving "a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly." (Mahadev Desai as quoted by Iyengar in 'A Light on Yoga'). These energies flow through our subtle body (our non-physical or psycho-spiritual body... it's complicated - look it up!) by means of channels called nadis. The nadis run all along the body, connecting at 6 special centres of energy called chakras. But now I'm getting sidetracked.

I recently parcitipated in an Anusara Yoga workshop in which the Teacher discussed this balancing principle. He discussed masculine energy as muscular energy. It is that energy which is powerful, energetic, and giving. When you push up from plank pose (kumbhakasana) to downward-facing dog (adho muka svasana), that would be masculine energy. But once you arrive in the pose, you invoke your feminine energy to soften the upper back and the shoulders and sink gracefully into a deeper stretch. The feminine energy is what allows us to be creative, countering the strong but rigid masculine energy with a gentle touch that says "what if...?".

What amazes me is that in my 7 years of practicing Yoga, I have only just discovered this. How did I miss it? It's fascinating (to me!) that in Western Yoga, which is so female-dominated, the feminine principal of Yoga seems to play second fiddle. Is this because the main styles of Yoga we practice today were male-initiated? Or is it because Western society is full of those rigid, energetic masculine principles? Because we are so focused on the individual, or on attaining instead of letting go? One example is our typical Yoga mat - straight and narrow. Why did it take me 7 years of Yoga to hear a Teacher say: "go ahead and go outside your mat". Simple, yet it can change the whole way you practice Yoga. It feels like coming home.

From this we learn a valuable lesson. Yoga is neither masculine nor feminine but both. It is strong yet soft, rigid yet fluid, it is fixed in a moment but flexible and changing always. Somewhere in there is a balance - a moment when time stops, when the ego dissolves, when the Yogini or Yogi just is. And that is Yoga.


Om Shanti

I'm reading a wonderful book at the moment by Lama Surya Das, an American Buddhist monk. In the chapter on generosity, he outlines the four traditional ways for sharing the Dharma - whatever wisdom is yours to share. They are:

1. Share generously of yourself.
2. Engage in meaningful discussions with others about what is of true benefit to them.
3. Encourage others to implement and internalize what they have learned.
4. Lead by example.

This blog is the first: sharing generously of myself.

I am embarking on a journey: I am training to become a Yoga teacher. Well, lets be truthful: I already teach Yoga. But I am doing this training to feel worthy of the title Teacher - to truly deepen my knowledge of Yoga philosophy and practice as well as of the way Yoga works on the human body.

So, last week I was accepted to my course of choice, and received already my self-study assignments. Namely, these are to read and reflect on three classic yoga texts:
  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • The Yoga Sutras
  • The Hatha Yoga Pradikipa
I'm starting with the Gita, considered one of the most important classical texts in Yoga philosophy. As Swami Chidananda says in the foreword: "Within its eighteen chapters is revealed a human drama. This is the experience of everyone in this world, the drama of the ascent of man from a state of utter dejection, sorrow and total breakdown and hopelessness to a state of perfect understanding, clarity, renewed strength and triumph."

If you can assimilate the lessons (implement and internalize - no 3 above) of the Gita: "Light will fill the heart and mind. This is the Gita."