A Live Experience.

Think of all the people who have made an impression in your life.  When I think of the people who have made a lasting impression in mine and I try to dissect the reasons why, they usually boil down to one of two things: either that person embodies a quality or qualities I would like to have myself; or they embody the opposite.  It’s not surprising that in my travels through the yoga world, I have come across a lot of people who have made lasting impressions on me (on both accounts).  I am always enamoured with those students and teachers whose behaviours and ways of being in the world actually reflect the yoga teachings.  I want!  Likewise, I always feel disillusioned when I come across ‘yogis’ whose behaviours seem to so profoundly contradict the teachings (even though I am more akin to these folks – yes, thank you Jung, I hear you whispering ‘shadow self’ in my ear, you’re awfully clever, now bugger off).

Back to impressions.  Today I am introducing you to one of those yogis who, for me, embodies that first category – the kind of person who has qualities you wish you could somehow absorb by osmosis.  I met Christina (I knew her as Cetanarupa) during my yogic studies.  Impression number one: always smiling (positive sign).  I got to know her better when we shared the same karma yoga bush regeneration group (oh yep, hi to the snakes and leeches up in the mangrove bushland, you were a blast).  Cetan had a softness and a lightness and a sincerity about her that I really appreciated.cetan 

But there was one situation in particular that I still remember today (several years later) that left the biggest impression.  And it wasn’t a huge event.  It was just a very quiet, gentle lesson for me.  Cetan and I were in a student group together discussing some yogic concept or another (yep, always the group sessions throughout a 13 hour day to test your metal) when one of the other group members became really agitated because she didn’t like the direction of the discussion.  Now this agitated student had been sticking in my craw a bit as it was (her tightly wound strings were bouncing off my tightly wound strings) and I turned to Cetan and yep – I rolled my eyes.  I’m not proud of it.  But my eyes just went off of their own accord (as they are wont to do).  Cetan just gave me a really gentle smile and then turned to the agitated student and made an effort to include her in the discussion, without placating or humouring her – just by treating her as if she was a human being (while I had viewed her more akin to a witch or something).  And at that moment I thought, ‘yep, you’re the real deal sister’.  I could have felt like a bonehead right there and then but Cetan’s compassion had extended not just to the behaviour of that tightly-wound student but to mine as well.  And, incredibly, I felt no shame – just a self-realised desire to try harder.  There was simply a non-judgemental acceptance from Cetan all around.  And it held up a mirror to me that didn’t crack when I looked into it.  Now that’s pretty cool.  You can see why it left an impression.

As with a lot of people who seek out yoga in life, Cetan has a really interesting back story that has shaped her approaches to life and to her teaching, which she has permitted me to share with you.  The fact that she has developed such a non-judgemental attitude towards others reveals just how much work she has done on herself because she wasn’t always so self-accepting.  She started practising yoga asana from a young age but a preoccupation with body image and a drive for perfectionism led her away from the more spiritual aspects of the discipline and towards the ‘grosser’ aspects of asana practice.  This obsession with body developed into an eating disorder that found Cetan trying to numb her own feelings of inadequacy through a roller-coaster ride of binge-eating, purging and fasting.  This yo-yo dieting saw her swing from being underweight to thirty kilos overweight.  Treacherous times.

As life got more destructive and unbalanced, Cetan re-directed her ambitions towards self-development, to a process she describes as trying to find ‘her Truth’- a ‘higher’ part of her self beyond her pains and sufferings.  But she still carried her drive for perfectionism with her and a lack of internal connection led her to continue to seek answers outside of herself – an extreme immersion into books and self-development courses, an array of different healing modalities, strict exercising and ‘healthy’ diet regimes that left little room for intuition and internal listening.  Still caught in the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality of her earlier years, Cetan militantly exercised and drank 3-4 litres of water each day, believing she was caring for her body in the best way possible.  Unfortunately, this extreme discipline led to a depletion of sodium in her body and one day she fell unconscious, sustaining a hypoxic brain injury from lack of oxygen.  She awakened from a coma to find her life completely changed. 

Doctors weren’t sure if or how Cetan’s brain would mend.  Thankfully, Cetan was able to draw on her earlier experiences of yoga to help her heal.  She complemented years of brain training with yoga nidra in particular, which saw her recover most of her brain function and change her sleeping habits from 18 hours a day to 8. 

This ordeal, however difficult, gifted Cetan with deep insight and she came to realise that which we all know intellectually as obvious but find harder to spiritually experience – this idea that ‘wellness’ is not an external job.  From here, she abandoned her ‘real world’ occupation in the finance sector to follow her passion for yoga, re-training and then teaching yoga in gyms and studios, before taking the enormous leap into traditional yoga training where she found herself living, studying and teaching in Satyananda yoga ashrams around the world for several years.

Since graduating from Satyananda teacher training, Cetan has started her own online yoga school (called Satya  Live Yoga), using her experience and knowledge to teach others how to use yoga to improve their lives.  Satya Live Yoga recognises yoga as a holistic discipline that works more than just the body but every aspect of the human make-up from mind to emotion to spirit, and it channels this philosophy into practical methods that are accessible to everybody.  ‘That means everybody,’ says Cetan, ‘regardless of age, ability, fitness level, or life circumstances.’  This is about teaching people tools for life.

For Cetan, yoga is the path to self-knowledge.  It’s the platform from which she has been able to come to experience that ‘truth’ she was so desperately looking for in all the wrong places all those years ago.  ‘It is so easy to get distracted,’ she says.  ‘For years I was lost.  I was relying on external substances and people’s approval for happiness.  It didn’t work.  I now know that nothing outside of me will ever give me real happiness. It has to come from within. I often forget this and my yoga practice gently reminds me.”

 Hm. Just as Cetan gently reminds me (unbeknownst to her) every time someone, or something, sticks in my craw.

(Satya Yoga runs classes and workshops in Victoria, Australia, retreats in Bali and its speciality is online courses.  Visit http://www.satyaliveyoga.com.au/online-yoga-courses/ for more information and to get in touch with Cetan/Christina.)

 

© The Yoga Experiment, 2013

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Abhinivesha in a Liberal Age

Well, nothing quite sets the rajas/tamas pendulum in motion like a federal election. Particularly when your fellow countrymen elect an ultra-conservative party geared to set any form of social liberalism back by about two hundred years.

Without going into the boring hows and whys of the politics involved (for those who don’t live in my country or who don’t have much education or interest in politics), I can dilute the predictable outcome into one neat sentence for you: under the newly-elected Australian government, citizens who have enough (and anything upward of enough) won’t notice much difference to their quality of life while citizens who have little, will have even less. And let me assure you, when you already feel as if you’re hanging on by a financial thread, this is a legitimately terrifying idea that keeps you awake at nights and anxious throughout the days.

There’s your rajas.

It’s also profoundly dispiriting. Because, not only will disadvantaged people have less access to practical resources (and have to weather the knock-on effects, ergo less opportunity to ‘thrive’ in life), we’re also having to process the idea that the majority of our fellow countrymen who actively chose to vote for an even LESS PROGRESSIVE government than the one we already had, are either (a) profoundly ignorant, or (b) don’t really care. Either way, a jagged little pill.

If you’ve struggled to be ‘economically productive’ in life in one way or another and have needed welfare assistance then it’s highly likely you’ve already endured your eternity wearing the labels of ‘bludger’ or ‘loser’ or ‘rorter of systems’, if not overtly by people around you, or via the media, then via the dehumanising attitude lurking beneath the various human services systems that essentially make you beg for your rights and continually threaten to take them away on the grounds of superfluous un-ticked boxes. You’ve probably had many more than one person say to you, ‘at least you’re not living in {insert country far worse off}’ – Poof! There goes your right to any legitimate claim of suffering. Such ingratitude for the things you have. Never mind you’re desperately afraid and socially isolated. Never mind that.

For your own emotional and spiritual survival, you’ve probably had to re-create some other sense of self-worth in order to survive a society that doesn’t really seem to, on the whole, value you all that much. What are you ‘contributing’ if not taxes or economic productivity? Why should you have access to all the things that money buys when you haven’t worked for them? Why should ‘hard-working’ people share their spoils with you? Apparently in the same way than ‘unsuccessful’ people are responsible for their ‘failures’, ‘successful’ people are alone responsible for their ‘success’, not because of any opportunities they’ve been advantaged with themselves (and that includes robust mental or physical constitutions, or aptitudes or personality traits that they are blessed to have been born with – not that they have earned).

Only the most super-conscious can protect themselves from absorbing the subliminal (and not so subliminal) message – you’re a ‘drain’ on society and you’re not ‘worth’ as much. If only you were a better person. If only you worked harder.

There’s your tamas.

So how do we (I) get back to Sattwa? How do we (I) generate a sense of peace and balance when we have lost trust in the world to help us when we need help? How do we (I) dilute the bitterness we feel at being perpetually labelled and misinterpreted and punished with a violence that is so insidious and covert that most would not even recognise it as such, including those who issue it?

If we consider yoga philosophy in earnest, then the ultimate way of dealing with the terrors of such things is to have no emotional attachment to any earthly happenings or sufferings, including the biggest one – our own mortality (try it, it’s really easy!). That, or have absolute faith that whatever happens to us is designed for a ‘higher purpose’ or is an expression of our own karma (excuse me if I and any other struggling people choke on the idea of being subjected to such a sadistic learning process for ‘our own good’).

Let’s be honest – it’s impractical to go fundamental with the yoga in this case (for this little duck, anyway).

I do know what I could embrace though – and here is where I’m not a victim of external circumstances and do have choices. I could, for starters, switch on the parasympathetic nervous system with the breath (ujjayi, yogic breath, bhramari – any of the ‘tranquilisers’) . I could consider how the yamas and niyamas might guide me (and be ok with ahimsa sitting last on my list for now). I could work the tensions out with some asana practice. I could go and do some karma yoga – help out somebody else. I could do some Om writing to calm the mind. I could read my yoga texts for hope and inspiration. I could antar moun it for twenty minutes – oh, no wait, who am I kidding? I’m not going to sit in a corner and be still and quiet. Things are a little too ‘gross’ to be subtle right now. I could engage in a little swadhyaya (self-study) by writing about my thoughts and feelings in a blog post… now there’s a grand idea.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2013

The Secret to being GOOD at yoga

When I ask students what they want to get from yoga, often the answer that comes back is, ‘I want to be good at it’.  But what does it mean to be good at yoga?

Many students typically think being good at yoga means being able to do all of the postures (asanas) perfectly but this isn’t really what it’s about.

A student who can maintain AWARENESS throughout his/her practice is one who does yoga well.  Or a student who can notice when his or her awareness slips and can gently guide it back, does yoga well.  If you can perform an asana to 10 percent of its full range yet you perform that 10 percent with full  awareness, you are getting the hang of yoga.  When you practice SAFELY and with RESPECT for the needs of the body, you are mastering yoga.

So what is meant by AWARENESS?  Awareness simply means applying your attention fully to what you are doing; finding a focus for your attention and simply OBSERVING your experience and being ‘present’ with it.

There are many focus points we can use to anchor our awareness during our practice.  We can focus the attention of the physical movements of the body; we can focus on the breath; we can sense into subtle energetic sensations in the body; we can notice our mood or emotion; we can watch our thoughts.

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Central to doing yoga well is an aim to observe our practice without any judgements or criticisms – or simply noticing when there are judgements and criticisms occurring within us.  Judgements and criticisms might include thoughts like, ‘I should be able to do this’ or ‘I’m so inflexible’ or ‘Everybody else is better at this then I am’ or ‘I will never be able to do this’.  Or they might even include thoughts like ‘I am better than everybody else at this’ or ‘This is way too easy for me’ or ‘I could do this with both eyes closed’.  All these thoughts are the voice of the ego.  The ego limits us to narrow experiences – it doesn’t allow us to open up and thrive.

Believing we can’t do something is a self-fulfilling prophecy – we stop trying, lose motivation, limit positive action and reinforce the belief.  When we believe we can do everything and there is nothing more to learn, we close ourselves off to deeper experiences.  There is always something to learn, something at which we can improve – if not a physical achievement then an emotional, mental or spiritual one.

Needing to be ‘good’ at yoga is an unhelpful judgement in itself.  What is the concept of ‘good’ anyway?  It’s just a social construct to which we’ve attributed all these ideas and meanings.  Why not just ‘do’ yoga and allow the experience to be whatever it is?  This is the gift of yoga – of developing awareness: the gift is the ability to let things be.  If this is not the most potent survival tool for living, I don’t know what is.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2012

20 signs you could use some yoga

1.  Relatively small inconveniences, like not being able to find a pen, make you feel like popping an artery.

2.  Your toe is itchy but you can’t reach it to scratch.

3.  You haven’t done a poo for three days and when you do it takes three hours.

4.  You continue to engage in behaviours that you KNOW make you feel bad (like eating the WHOLE block of chocolate or picking arguments with people or watching Jersey Shore).

5.  You have the posture of a buzzard.

6.  You can never find your keys.

7.  You spend a lot of time looking into mirrors.

8.  You spend a lot of time avoiding looking into mirrors.

9.  You frequently say yes when you want to say no.

10.  You always say no.

11.  Your morning tongue is coated in a white substance that looks suspiciously like perkin’s paste.

12.  You hold the world record for how many colds and flus one person can catch in one year.

13.  Your Facebook status is a perpetual rant about how much life sucks and all the ways you hate humankind.

14.  Being forced to sit in a quiet space with only your own company agitates you to the brink of spontaneous combustion.

15.  You can’t sit cross-legged.

16.  You recoil from hugs.

17.  You often find yourself smiling only on the outside.

18.  You feel unable to change.

19.  You can’t possibly leave a list at number 19 because odd numbers in the context of making lists leaves you with a feeling of profound uneasiness.

20.

Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012

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

Yoga Space

Creating a yoga space can be a lovely thing to do to keep you connected with yoga in your daily life.  A yoga space can contain anything that reminds you of yoga.  A yoga space can be a shrine, or a corner of a room, or an item on a bookshelf – anything that draws your consciousess to a state of calm and well-being; anything that fosters a sense of gratitude or love or joy within you.  For some, it might even be an empty space!  There are no rules around it.  Like yoga, it is a personal experience.

The yoga spaces in my home seem to have evolved quite unconsciously.  I have a habit of collecting objects at church fetes and op shops.  Many of my spaces contain items I have created myself, indulging my love of crafts.  I love colour.  Colour warms me inside and out.

I’ve become quite a collector of cushions.  When I ran out of lounge space, I started making cushion piles on the floor around the skirting boards.  Cushion stacks remind me of the ashram where I studied yoga.  They have a practical purpose (great for propping under the tailbone to align the spine for meditation!) but I like the aesthetics, especially of the lovely warm colours and different patterns.  I got 3 of these cushions at my local St Vincent de Paul op-shop.  They cost around $2-$3 each.  The covers got a good wash and away we went.

Candles… yum!  I am a sucker for candles and candle holders.  There is something lovely about the ritual of lighting a candle.  I don’t know what it is but I don’t need to.  I light a candle in my room every day.  I light a bunch when I have friends over.  They seem to create a beautiful and calm atmosphere.  In the background here is my tibetan singing bowl – a magnificent gift from my parents for my 40th birthday last year.  I still can’t play it.  But I’ve added it to my list of things to do.  I’d love to play it for my students during meditations.  It makes a sound that seems to resonate with some deep part of the human consciousness. It’s a profoundly comforting sound.

I have a thing for Ganesha.  I’m probably the least ‘spiritual’ person you’ll ever come across but for some reason, I am so attracted to Hindu art, I keep collecting bits and pieces.  Again, I love the colours and the whimsical nature of the paintings and illustrations.  Ganesha is known as the ‘remover of obstacles’, as patron of the arts and sciences, and the God of intellect and wisdom (golly-gee… no wonder I can’t get enough of him!).  This postcard was given to me by my lovely friend Katie (aka Yogachakra) who inspired me to train to be a yoga teacher.   I bought the frame for a dollar from my beloved St Vincent’s.  The candle was a valentine’s day gift from my precious boyfriend who is a total non-yogi bloke’s bloke but who seems to, against all odds, know just what speaks to me (it is berry scented – yum!!).

Another precious cargo – my yoga texts.  These are a source of unending inspiration for me.  I dip into them daily, both to help me with my teaching, and to inspire my own personal practice.  These fabulous retro bambi bookends I found at a car boot sale at $15 for the set (bargain!!).  Yoga texts and bambi are an unlikely coupling.  But then again, maybe not.  They speak to the child in me.  Maslow (the great social psychologist) declared that having a healthy relationship with the childish/playful part of the self is an important factor in self-actualisation.  Yoga tradition also directs us to take ourselves lightly.  (It also guides us not to attach to material things… I’m still working on that one… hehe).

Yoga in the garden.  I can’t recall where I picked up this little fella but he is sitting amongst by beloved succulents in my balcony garden (along with many other little buddhas hiding among my pot plants).  When I look at him, I am reminded of where I want to go; of what I hope to attain for myself.  He has a book in his hand – a representation of knowledge.  He is my little jnana yogi – seeking answers through his own experiences; looking inward to try to know himself better; seeking meaning in life.

I have more yoga spaces to share.  I will do so along the way.  I hope you have enjoyed this taste of my yoga spaces.  I hope it inspires you to create spaces of your own.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Using a lion to tame a monkey

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‘The eastern warriors say that when a lion hears a gunshot, it lifts its head and looks around to discover where the shot came from.  But when a monkey hears a gunshot, it shrieks in fear and anxiously begins to check its body to see if it’s been wounded.’  Andy Caponigro, The Miracle of Breath.

Let’s not beat around the bush.  I’d like to say I’m the lion but truth is… I’m pure monkey. Yep, <sigh> I’m a shrieker.

Monkeys are creatures of anxiety.  It’s not their fault.  They’re genetically programmed to be hyper-vigilant.  Otherwise, if they just sat around relaxing all the time and not paying attention, they’d get eaten up by stronger things.  Human beings are a 96% genetic match with chimpanzees, so it makes sense that we’d be walking around (minus dragging of knuckles) with some echoes of that anxious drive for survival within us.  We’re more monkey than lion, put it that way.  And like monkeys, our survival is very much dependent on others of our kind, so our anxieties are not only linked to subconscious predatory dangers but also to social and emotional factors such as social acceptance.

I digress.  What are we talking about?  Ah, yes, anxiety.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter why it exists in excessive doses in many of us.  The fact is, living with a little bit of monkey can be adaptive but living in pure monkey mode can be an exhausting.  It can affect the health and balance of the body on all levels.  The mind and the senses are always on high alert, waiting for the next conflict, or rejection, or judgement, or criticism.  The emotional switch is turned on to REACT rather than to RESPOND; we can become hyper-sensitive to others, easily offended, paranoid, defensive; we swing from enormous, joyous highs to torturous, dark lows. The muscles of the body are excessively tensed and ready to fight or flee so we develop pains and tensions, headaches, stomach aches, back ache, neck pain.  The internal chemistry of the body is flooded with stress hormones that if prolonged, can mess with our physiology, putting the heart under pressure, switching off our capacity to digest properly and disturbing the endocrine system which very much governs the health of the entire human body.   Above all this, anxiety like this hurts.  It hurts the heart.  It turns living into a matter of endurance rather than enjoyment.

The question is: what can we do about it?  (Apart from drink more wine, gobble more drugs, eat more chocolate biscuits, buy more things, clean more surfaces, mentally enact violent fantasies on complete strangers, climb under the doona and curl up in the foetal position…).

My answer is simple: borrow from the lion.  If he’s so cool, calm and collected and unaffected by gunshots and all other manner of frightening stimuli then why not steal from his bag of tricks?  Lions are courageous (a luxury afforded to those at the top of the food chain); they are stately; they move slowly, switching on the adrenaline only when necessary.  While monkeys swing erratically about up in the trees, the lion is confident and grounded.  The stability of the lion is unshakeable.

Simhasana starring the beautiful Jemina

Traditional yoga recognised the strength of the lion and embodied it in a posture known in Sanskrit as Simhasana – ‘lion pose’.  I hereby prescribe Simhasana for any person like me, who finds they have the monkey on their back more often than not.  Practise this pose daily for three to five minutes, or in moments of heightened anxiety.  See if it brings some calmness back to your being.

Instructions:

Kneel with the buttocks resting on the heels of both feet.  Ensure the big toes are touching each other.  Then separate the knees about 45 cm apart.  Lean forward and place the palms of the hands face down on the floor between the knees with the fingers pointing in towards the body (if this is painful on the wrists then just keep the fingers pointing forward or even keep the hands resting the knees).  Straighten the arms and slightly arch the back (no strain!), resting the weight of the body mostly on the arms.  Tilt the head back slightly to create a little tension in the muscles along the front of the neck (don’t tilt if you have a neck injury or if it causes pain).  Close the eyes and if it feels comfortable, rest the internal gaze on the eyebrow centre (you can move in and out of this gaze position if the eyes feel strained by it at any time).  The mouth is closed.  Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose.  Relax the whole body and mind.

And ok, maybe you’ll never completely be a lion and the monkey will always be lurking there within but one thing we do know about monkeys is that they’re really good at learning so… train the monkey.  The more you train it, the better it learns, until one day the learning becomes the natural response.  I truly believe you can teach the monkey to be a lion.  A lion with a penchant for bananas.

©The Yoga Experiment