To burn or not to burn? That is the question.

After two years of fairly intense training to become a yoga teacher, making the transition from student to teacher is throwing up some interesting experiences.

When I started on the yoga teaching path, I had high ideals about opening up the wonderful, calming, incredible experiences of yoga to your garden-variety humans wandering around out there yogaless in the big, wide world.  Teaching in the real world though, has raised some dilemmas that might just thwart my lofty vision.

I’ve been trained in a highly systematic form of yoga that focusses on a careful, if not GENTLE, but certainly GRADUAL progression of skills.  The student starts at the beginning, mastering the basics before moving on to more advanced practices.  This involves some really basic groundwork – firstly relieving tensions and developing the range of motion and flexibility in the joints of the body.  Strength work comes in time and evolves naturally from the simpler asanas.  It’s important to work the joints.  Consider, for example, the student with stiffness in the hip joints.  She struggles to sit cross-legged.  When it comes to sitting for meditation she experiences great discomfort.  This physical discomfort distracts her from the mental (or spiritual) experience of the meditation.  It hinders her progress, keeps her stuck in the physical body.

Starting at the beginning with the most basic preparation removes obstacles to a deeper experience.  It also prevents injury when stronger practices are introduced.  It makes sense.

Dilemma:  the garden variety yoga student finds joint work TEDIOUS and BORING.  I have no problem with that response, personally.  I think it’s a great reaction.  It gives students an opportunity to notice their mental and emotional patterns when faced with doing things they don’t like or find ‘fun’.  Surely this is one of the most valuable life skills there is – the ability to sit with suffering and be ok with it, rather than to seek relief or gratification.  It’s great training for managing greater sufferings.

In life, many sufferings are inescapable.  Boredom is a small suffering, but a suffering nonetheless.  In our hyper-stimulating world though, many people find sitting still, slowing down and focussing small physical movements akin to some form of water-torture.  And I’m not in the game of torturing (not consciously anyway, although I’m sure some dark part of me wouldn’t mind…).  🙂

As one student mentioned to me recently, the students like ‘THIGH BURN’.   Ahhh… ok… I’m starting to get it.  Perhaps they want BOOT CAMP?  Perhaps they want to feel the sweet satisfying slithering of sweat down their bodies.  They want to walk out of that room knowing they had a WORK OUT.  They want BUNS OF STEEL (oooh I get that one, me too!).  In this context, being able to sit cross-legged is hardly a worthy achievement. I understand that.

This is a FITNESS focussed world – no pain, no gain.  If you’re not feeling it, then you’re not working hard enough or you’re not benefitting.  Yoga promotes fitness but it also seeks balance.  Yoga can produce benefits no matter how gently it is practiced.  I argue too, that a flexible joint can bring one heavenly relief.

I could deliver thigh burn, yes siree.  I’ve got some ball-tearing thigh burners up my sleeve.  But when I look around the room, I see stiff backs that struggle to bend safely; I see ankles and knees groaning under the weight of squats; I see head movement constricted by taut neck joints and muscles; I hear of tension headaches and bad backs and knee and shoulder injuries.  And there’s my dilemma.  Do I give the student what they want or what they need?  Moreover, will I be aggravating students’ injuries by teaching them stronger practices?  And more than this, do I even have the right to decide what a student NEEDS from yoga?  I’ve said here before, yoga is a subjective experience and no one can tell another what they should WANT or what they NEED from it.

And if I don’t give students what they want, will I be teaching to an empty room?  Likely.  This throws up another dilemma – because my teaching is my bread and butter.  I need students.

Essentially, I want to be a good teacher.  It goes something like this:

Student to other students: ‘Wow, isn’t Jen a PHENOMENAL teacher? I’ll be going back to that class every week!’ (notice PHENOMENAL, not simply GOOD or even GREAT …my ego knows no bounds).

Real Student: ‘Those classes are ok but they’re a bit BORING and not HARD ENOUGH. Might seek out a stronger class.’

Ego: ‘GULP.  I have nothing to offer.’

To burn or not to burn?  That is the question.

© The Yoga Experiment, 2012

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Are you your job?

One of the first questions people ask when meeting each other for the first time is ‘what do you do?’ It’s a telling question.  It shows us what we value most in ourselves, in others, in life.  It shows us the depth and power of our social conditioning.  Who you are = what you do for a job.

What happens though, if misfortune strikes you (or fortune depending on how you look at it) and you’re unable to perform a ‘job’ in the material world?  Who are you then?  Do you lose your value?  Do you lose your identity?  What do you do?  How do you answer that question when somebody asks it?  How do you feel about yourself?

Moreover, how do you react when you ask it of somebody else and they have no conventional answer?  They can’t tell you they’re a ‘doctor’ or a ‘secretary’ or a ‘stay-at-home mum’ or a ‘garbage collector’ or a ‘social worker’ or a ‘teacher’ or a ‘<insert job here>’?  What is your internal reaction to a person who doesn’t have a job?  And what is your reaction to the type of job somebody has? Is there a judgement there?

If you’ve been raised in a western society, then chances are there will be.  This conditioning is largely unconscious.  It’s hard to escape, unless you’re prepared to question social conventions.  But often it is not until we feel different or alienated or disadvantaged in some way in society that we start to question what is real and what is illusion.  Am I important because I have a good job?  Am I unimportant because I don’t have a good/job?  Is this objectively true?

Having a job is a necessary pursuit in a capitalistic society, there is no doubt about it.  It’s very difficult to survive without one, so we need to work – that’s reality right now.  But we build this importance around ‘job’ and ‘career’ that goes beyond economic necessity.  We build an ego identity in relation to the work we do, to how much money we earn, to our status in the workplace.  We link our jobs to our inherent value as human beings.  We make work our identity and we attach to that identity.  If we lose that job, that status – that identity – we are bereft.  Who am I if I am not this job?  How am I purposeful?  What will people think of me?

In yogic philosophy, this preoccupation with our performance in the material world is known as ‘Asmita’.  It is an ego state that keeps us bound to very small notions of self.  It stops us from seeing a bigger picture of the self that is beyond the social and economic roles we play in life.  It causes us pain because when we attach to an identity, we cease to value our essential nature (who we are behind the roles we play).  We do everything in our power to maintain the illusion – to ourselves, to others.  If we lose that identity we feel empty and confused.  Who am I if I am not what I do?

This is not to suggest that we should renounce our jobs, or the satisfaction that we can get from working.  It just means we can do a job without allowing it to define who we are.  Your job is not all of you.  It is an expression of one part of you.  It shouldn’t make you bigger or smaller in the eyes of yourself, or of others.

When you are able to stand back and identify less with socially constructed norms about what is good and bad, and right and wrong, you open your mind up to an experience of true peace.  You are not bound to egotistical notions of who you are and should be.  You release the need to impress yourself and others.  The judgements and expectations stop.  You start to glimpse a deeper part of you that exists – an essential part of you; your essence.

©The Yoga Experiment, 2012

THE SHUTTING UPSIDE – a post for incorrigible natterers

Do you have one of those mouths that just won’t quit?  Does that tongue of yours keeping flapping up and down even when you can SEE the person you’re talking to has switched off and gone to a more interesting place?   Have they nicknamed you Talkus Interruptus at the office because no one can get a word in edgewise?

Welcome to the fold!  Come, my friend, sit down.  Let’s see who can get the most words out in five minutes.

I’m patting you’re hand in empathy right now, actually.  Because I know what it’s like to be stuck in that talking loop, where it seems that a young infant on red cordial has somehow gotten behind the wheel of your mouth and it’s careening out of control.  It’s my modus operandi.

Could you control the talking if you tried?  You might be able to – but would you implode?  Because consider this – compulsive talking is less about actual TALKING than it is about ENERGY.  The energy of compulsive talking is EXCITEMENT and we need to put it somewhere – if not in chattering, then perhaps in walking quickly, or brushing our teeth hurriedly, or rushing between daily tasks and activities.  Excitement is a form of ANXIETY – even though we might consider it a positive form of anxiety, it has the same effects as any anxiety has on the body.  It activates the sympathetic nervous system.  When this happens, the body functions in ‘reactive’ mode – the body floods with adrenaline, the muscles tense up, the mind is hyper-alert, ready for take-off.  Now, this is a handy mode in which to function… if you need to run away from a cave lion.  But if you’re just talking to your pal over a cup of tea, you don’t need to have the adrenaline switched on.  When you constantly exist in excitement, you exhaust the body.  Worse, you condition the body to function in a state of excitability or ‘reactivity’ and it starts ‘unlearning’ how to exist in rest mode – which is vital to restoring and balancing all of the bodily systems (like digestion and sleep) and to creating overall health.

In yoga, this excitable energy is known as ‘rajas’.  Rajasic energy comes in very handy when we need to take action and get things done in life.  But when it dominates, it can lead to an incessant, compulsive kind of drive that creates tensions and imbalances in the body and mind and prevents us from accessing an experience of calmness and clarity of perception.  Being caught up in rajas is like being caught in the eye of a tornado – you become ungrounded and dizzy from all the spinning around.

So how do we tame this wild rajas animal so that it becomes our beloved pet that sits when we tell it to and comes when we ask it to?  How do we create a MODERATE, balanced energy that allows us to communicate and function in a state of calmness?

A good place to start is simply to WATCH.  Notice the sensations occurring in your body when your mouth or actions are motoring at high speed.  Is there a tight ball of tension in the tummy or the throat?  Are your shoulders cranked up around your ears?  Do you feel as if someone injected lemon sherbert directly into your bloodstream?  Are your ears aching (oh no, hang on, that’s the ears of the person you’re talking to… ;)).  Or is there some other feeling?  Simply NOTICE, without judgement, without the need to change anything.

And then BREATHE.  Take a slow breath through the nostrils and guide it deep into the abdomen.  Then let it out – oh what the hell, let it out with a BIG SIGH.  Do this a few times, or many times, until you sense the body relaxing.  Repeat this process, next time you notice those feelings of excitement manifesting in the body.

Congratulations – you just activated your parasympathetic nervous system.  Your body is now at rest, oxygen is flowing where it needs to, adrenaline is subsiding, your stomach can now digest that cup of tea (and your listener can digest what you are saying to them).  The young infant on red cordial is sleeping peacefully and you are back in control of the wheel.

Of course, there are many more yogic practices you can employ to deepen this effect of calming the excitable energy in the body.  We’ll get to those in good time.  For the moment… the simple acts of WATCHING and BREATHING is enough.  Now… if only I could apply my own advice…

Happy Talking. 😀

© The Yoga Experiment, 2012

 The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Can making your bed change your mindset?

What does making the bed have to do with the mind??  What preposterous nonsense is this?

Making the bed might seem like a trivial activity in the broad scope of life but what if we supposed that the smallest actions can create profound effects on the state of the mind?

Let’s explore this idea through the unmade bed.  The unmade bed is dishevelled.  The sheets are tangled.  The pillows are wayward.  We leave our bed this way in the morning, to come back to sleep in at night.  As the mornings and nights pass by, the unmade bed becomes more dishevelled.  The sheets are now turned sideways.  The mattress is exposed.  A pillow seems to have permanently made it to the floor.  The task of making the bed now seems so labour-intensive that we give up on it all together.  Perhaps we have not even noticed the state of our bed.  Perhaps we don’t care.

If we were to stop for a moment and compare the unmade bed to the state of our mind, could we find parallels?  Is the mind cluttered with worries or concerns or problems to solve?  Do we typically feel disorganised?  Do we find ourselves habitually feeling confused or overwhelmed by all the things we need to do in our days (dishevelled)?  Do we view life as chaotic and largely beyond control?  Or have we broken our connection with ourselves and the world around us?  Do we find ourselves making lots of mistakes, being forgetful or absent-minded?  Do we fail to be PRESENT?  Or are we in a state of apathy, where few things seem worth the effort?  Do we have a ‘why bother’ attitude to life?

In yoga, maintaing tidiness and order in our external environments facilitates tidiness and order in our minds.  When the external environment is cluttered, the senses are overloaded and the mind absorbs the clutter.  A cluttered mind struggles to think clearly; it reacts to problems impulsively; it fosters negativity.  When the effort of the mind is on sifting through all the clutter, it is unable to connect with a deeper experience of peace, intuition, and wisdom.  Like the sheets of the unmade bed, the mind becomes tangled in itself.

When we make our bed, we are creating order in our environment.  We are cleaning and clearing our physical space.  By doing this, we give the mental space a chance to follow.  When the mind is uncluttered, we find ourselves approaching life and all its challenges with a sense of calmness and clarity.  Our attitude becomes positive and light; all the things that typically bother us cease to seem so serious.  Our attitude towards people becomes open and friendly.  We feel greater control over our lives.  We’ve cleansed the inner turmoil.

Making the bed might not solve ALL of life’s problems.  But it can be used in daily life as a metaphor for clearing the mind.

It might be worth a mention that making the bed does not mean making the perfect, wrinkle-free bed with professionally-ironed sheets and hospital corners (that kind of need too reflects a conflicted mind – more on that another time!!).  It just means getting up in the morning (or whenever) and creating an intention to clear your space – to start your day with a clean slate.  Maybe try it and see what you notice.

For the sake of experiment – what does your bed look like right at this minute and how would you describe your state of mind?

© The Yoga Experiment, 2012

What is Yoga? A rumination.

Once upon a time the human brain developed the capacity to BE AWARE of itself. Human beings developed the capacity to THINK and to be aware of THINKING, to be aware of existence.  With this awareness, came questions – ‘what is this body?’, ‘who am I?’, ‘why am I here?’, ‘what is the reason for suffering?’, ‘what happens when I die?’, ‘how should I live?’ These basic questions have plagued people since the beginning of time and our need for answers reflected back to us in the many religious, spiritual and social philosophies that exist worldwide, shaping our attitudes and behaviours and experiences of life.  Different philosophies – same questions.

Yoga is one of these philosophies.  Yoga is not a religion but has ‘spiritual’ elements in that the ultimate goal of yoga is to experience something beyond the physical or ‘material’ self. For some people yoga IS a deeply spiritual practice that connects them with ‘higher’ levels of consciousness.  For others, it is a means of developing strength, flexibility, health and comfort in the body.  For some, it calms the mind, balances the emotions, and brings a greater sense of wisdom.  For a lucky lot, it leads to a perceived experience of bliss and ‘God’ and unity with the self and all of humankind.  For some, it is part or all these things.  For others, it is none of them.  Confused?

Essentially, yoga might be seen as a system of TOOLS we can use for getting to know ourselves more deeply, and for perhaps reducing some of the suffering we experience via improvements to our physical health, changes in our mental perception and adjustments to our behaviours.  These tools are delivered to us through several different modes, including asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), meditation (focussing mind), and philosophical frameworks around approaches to living e.g. values, attitudes, social behaviours, health practices, etc.

If this all sounds a little abstract well…YUP… it kinda is!  It’s really hard to articulate exactly what yoga is.  It’s best to try it and define it for yourself.  Or just to experience it without having to define it at all 🙂