A trip to fantasy island.

Do you ever daydream about being somewhere else? And in that daydream, life is wonderful and you’re wonderful and everything’s… wonderful?

Look at these photos (I command you). These are the types of pictures you’ll find me routinely posting to my facebook profile, along with variations on the caption of ‘gee, wouldn’t it be horrible to be here?’ Not only do I indulge my own longings for escape but I like to lure others along with me.

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Now look at the following photos. These are photos of where I live.

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Am I friggen nuts, or what?? Why would I long to be anywhere else?

Actually, I’m not nuts. I’m just unenlightened (although perhaps there’s not much difference). What is nuts about my incessant fantasising of greener pastures is that it is a gooddamn illusion and not much lasting good can come from it.

Yes, it’s a lovely little visual feast that momentarily sparks excitement within but you can bet your arse if you actually found me sitting in one of these amazing fantasy settings I’d be there with my computer, posting some other facebook picture of some other greener pasture I needed to get to in order to feel completely happy and fulfilled. Oh yeah, I’d be amazed for a day or two but inevitably, when the novelty wore off, the void would re-open and I’d be looking for something else to fill it. Oh, to be free of all life’s insecurities and pains! All I need is to be somewhere beautiful.

Yoga is wise to this insanity. Patanjali (a big cheese in yoga) explains the roots of these fantasy traps through the concept of the ‘kleshas’. Kleshas are largely unconsious earthly desires and aversions we carry with us as we live our lives. These desires blind us to a deeper experience of peace: we’re endlessly attached to what we like and dislike and suffer when deprived; we’re ceaselessly attached to our physical selves so we constantly seek to satisfy our needs and desires through sensory experiences; we’re so attached to ourselves as material beings that we think what is happening outside of ourselves is what mostly affects the inside.

Ergo, if I’m sitting on fantasy island with the sand under my feet, sun on my skin, waves gently lapping at my feet, hot man in g-sting feeding me grapes, and nothing to think or do, then surely all my suffering should cease. I should be instantly content. Life should wonderful.

But if sun, sand, water, and beauty were enough, I wouldn’t be fantasising over pictures of more sun, sand, water and beauty.

The fabulous and insightful meditation expert, Jon Kabat Zinn, wisely said, ‘wherever you go, there you are’. What a smart cookie.

It’s not the environment I’m looking to escape. It’s myself. It’s this inability to simply be where I am, with who I am, without needing to be or have anything more.

Going to fantasy island will never erase my neuroses. It won’t suddenly make me more disciplined, more meditative, less anxious, more kind, more compassionate, more successful, less identified with my ego, less afraid of dying, and all the other mores and lesses I want to have and be. Once the island becomes a reality, the fantasy reignites elsewhere.

Fantasy island is no remedy for suffering. In fact, fantasy island is a trap for more suffering. It deepens the void by deepening the sense of not having enough, of needing more, of needing things to be different, of perpetually chasing something that actually doesn’t exist outside of ourselves.

Fantasies aren’t all bad, when they impel creativity and invention and action. But endless fantasies that can’t be fulfilled create bigger holes.

Voids fill themselves when we let go and let be.

Yoga teaches us how.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2013

The REAL Secret.

006I read The Secret when it first hit the stands and frankly, I wanted to punch it.  That, or wipe my bum with it.  Apparently, all you need to do to have everything your heart desires is genuinely believe you can have it. Of course!  It’s so simple!  If only the starving African children made vision boards filled with pictures of money and food their poverty and starvation would be eradicated for good.  If only cancer sufferers believed hard enough, they could spontaneously heal.  If only we believed it enough, we would never die…

I also wondered this… what if 1 million people bought a lottery ticket and (applying the principles of The Secret) they all genuinely believed they were going to win?  Would they all win?  The Secret and similar philosophies have an out-clause to explain this improbability – if you don’t win, or you don’t get what you want, it’s because you don’t really believe you can have it.  So, I guess most of the time, only one person (or a small few) REALLY TRULY believe they can win the lottery?  They must have superior skills of belief.

I’ll say it loud and with heated passion – I can’t stomach this kind of simplistic nonsense.  Life can’t be abundant and fair for everybody.  Where somebody ‘wins’, there are others who lose – and through no fault of their own but because of the nature of life.  Our needs compete.  This is the nature of survival.

Besides which, is it not incredibly egocentric to think that we, as individuals, have the power to manipulate the universe to our own will?  Life is a complex inter-play of the needs of billions of people.  Why do we expect to always be avoiding suffering and getting what we want?

Yoga will tell us the same.  We can be free of suffering but it won’t be through the manipulation of external forces to get ‘what we want’.  What we can control is our internal reactions to things that happen in the outward universe (allegedly.  I’m still working on it).  Yoga also teaches us to release expectations – it is the ‘hanging on’ to the need for certain outcomes that creates suffering.  We are bound by the fears and disappointments of not being able to accept what is.

As an opponent of fundamentalism, I’m not going to head in the other direction and wipe out the power of positive thinking altogether because that would be bull-headed and dumb.  And besides, I love science, and the science supports a middle ground.

Imagine you believe you are an ‘unlucky’ person.  When you believe you’re unlucky, you effectively become ‘blind’ to luck.  There could be a fifty buck note fluttering on the footpath in front of you and you can walk right past it.  Because you’ve focussed on being ‘unlucky’, you fail to see a lucky opportunity (‘good things never happen to me’).  The belief becomes your reality.  Everything you ‘see’ validates the belief.

Similarly, if you were to focus your attention on positive goals and possibilities you are likely to find opportunities ‘springing up’ in the universe around you.  You might envisage having more money and then walk past that fifty buck note fluttering on the footpath and think ‘See? I put it out there and the universe gave it to me!’  But is that really a wish granted?  Or an opportunity recognised?  What if these opportunities are always out there in the world and your belief didn’t will them into existence, it just opened your eyes to them?

I’m about to pull some science on your ass so put your specs on please. Act academic.

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a part of the brain that filters sensory information, ignoring the bits that aren’t valuable to you and holding onto the bits that are.  It helps human beings stay focussed on the things that matter to their survival.  And it’s very subjective.  The RAS is a radio that tunes in to the things you put the most focus on. If you put the focus on fear and feeling insecure, the RAS tunes you in to fearful and threatening experiences.  You jump when a door slams.  You find human beings ugly and untrustworthy.  You sense ‘negative energy’.  Nothing ‘ever goes your way’.  Your beliefs paint your world.

If you put the focus on positives or possibilities, the RAS tunes you in to positive experiences and these dominate your perception of your world: you see the beauty in things, you see opportunities to be kind and loving; you see your own human potential and opportunities that will allow you to develop it.  (This can go the other way too though where certain unpleasant realities can be denied).

In essence your RAS creates the world around you.  We see what we believe – these beliefs can be both conscious and subconsious.  This is why it’s a grand idea to focus our thoughts and goals and beliefs about ourselves on positive things and to become conscious when negativity clouds our perception and robs us of progress. This gives us the greatest chance of recognising opportunities. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that if we just ‘think positively’ we will be immune to hardship.  Sorry brothers and sisters, a cold reality I know.  There are things out there in the material world that are beyond our control (although the ego persists in trying to convince us it should and can be otherwise).

But that’s why we have yoga.  We don’t try to control suffering; we don’t deny its existence with wishful thinking and fantasies; we learn how to transcend it by seeing EVERYTHING for what it is. We don’t allow our RAS to trick us into ONE WAY of seeing things.  We don’t allow it to either cripple or delude us.  We can float above the world, looking down on it all without wanting or needing to believe anything.

Sankalpa is one yogic way of orienting the RAS to positive experiences. But there is almost a contradiction in using this yogic tool to create a particular desired experience – if one considers that enlightenment comes from being free of want and desire.  My brain is still chewing on this and will spit out something in the following weeks.

In the meantime, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket (my RAS is choosing to ignore any information out there regarding mathematical probability…).

© The Yoga Experiment, 2013.

Body, mind, gollum…

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I’ve been thinking recently, it’s interesting how the human body reflects mental and emotional states.  Given that the majority of what we think and feel is communicated non-verbally – through our body language – the idea that we hold onto emotion and mental tensions on a physical level is not a mind-blowing revelation.   If we’re having a bad day, we might not hold our head up as high; our chest might cave inward in an attitude of defeat, or of protection; our posture retreats.  On days we’re feeling glorious and impenetrable, we might puff out our chests; walk taller; take greater strides.

Walk with me.

When I was training as a yoga student, I unmasked a previously-hidden fact.   I have always been aware, in a peripheral kind of way, that my posture isn’t fantastic.  But it wasn’t until one of my fellow students photographed my body from the side for a postural appraisal assignment that the reality hit home: I have the posture of a buzzard.

Imagine: head juts forward quite a bit more than is anatomically necessary for a standard human being; the shoulders slump forward, melancholy, as if somebody kicked their puppy.  I look like some forlorn creature slouching around the place with nothing much to live for.  Oh hello Gollum, how are you today?

If I’m honest, my body is an emotional inventory of my life; a snapshot of my mental self-image.  It says, among other things, ‘I am afraid’.

I’m reminded of another phenomenon I experienced during my yoga studies.  Whenever I did shoulder rolls, I felt angry and wanted to stop.  Weird!!??  I’d understand if I was frothing at the mouth during some kind of challenging upside-down- pretzel pose but shoulder rolls?  Gimme a break.  Rolling the shoulders is about as innocuous as taking a breath (unless you’re asthmatic… or have emphysema… bad analogy, forget that one).  But there it was, every time, rage bubbling up from under the surface.

A scientific mind searches for scientific explanations.  But I didn’t have a completely water-tight one, so I blended a little bit of science with a little bit of yoga knowledge, with a little bit of intuition and a chunk of life experience, and came up with a hypothesis.

There are three types of reactions to danger in the human body – one is to fight, one is to flee, and one is to freeze.  I’m a freezer.  I lack the faith in my own strength to either fight or flee; perhaps I lack the self-worth.  Maybe if I stand still enough and squeeze my eyes shut tightly, the cave lion will simply not see me and continue on his way.  Make the body look small, yes!  Now there’s an idea!  Roll the shoulders down, huddle in!  I’m adapting!!

When in danger, in any mode, the muscles in the human body tense up – this is how the muscles prepare to either fight back or to run away.  When you fight or when you run, this fear energy moves, it propels the body into action.  When you freeze, this energy freezes with you.

This is how I hold it.  I hunch the shoulders up and forward, for protection.   I have made a habit of holding my fear this way, mostly unconsciously.  I am always looking out for the cave lion (head jutting forward buzzard-style – is he behind THAT rock?).  This anxiety is temperamental; it was there when I came into the world (hypotheses around this one pending).

When I attempt to roll the tension out of the shoulders, the emotions release.  In the development of human emotion, fear gives rise to many strong secondary emotions, including anger (others include jealousy…hate… sorrow… ).  Shoulder rolls = Jen aka Cujo.  The upside is that this releasing is not a bad thing.  It feels ghastly in the moment but as it finds expression, the tension eventually subsides.  And I don’t even have to punch a cave lion in the face!  Hooray!

So, thank you yoga.  You are my release.  You are my mirror.  You may have shown me that I am a buzzard but you give me hope yet – that by watching the body, by gently working with it, I can change my mind.

Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012

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

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