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.

The Morning Musings of a Jnana Yogi

If the witness observes the mind, who observes the witness?

If an objective of yoga is to renounce ‘I-ness’ (associations with identity) why don’t sanyasins just wear inconspicuous clothing like trackie dacks?

Are bhakti yogis attached to God?

Are karma yogis attached to selfless service?

Are jnana yogis attached to questioning?

Why do Om chants always end up at least a semi-tone lower than where they begin?

If the aim is to renounce everything, should we renounce renouncement?

How many days in a row can one eat dahl before one’s bowels explode?

Why is enlightenment the purpose of life?

How many yogis does it take to change a light bulb? (None.  They light a candle).

©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

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