Yoga for a heavy heart.

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Lots of people I know seem to be going through tough times at the moment.  They’re in the valleys of life, rather than the peaks.   I don’t care what anybuddhi says, sometimes life really is a big pile of poo.  And as much as we can reassure ourselves in hard times that ‘this too shall pass’, sometimes we just want to punch the platitudes in the face because, frankly, we are emotional and sensory beings, we feel things, we can’t always simply choose to feel happy – although we’re often pressured to feel it’s this simple.   

Often, when we’re trying to find silver linings, see the forest for the trees, or look on the bright side of life, we forget to give expression to the true feelings.  We feel we should be able to somehow rise above them.  But there are times when, despite our most optimistic efforts, the heart grows heavy.  We feel it there, water-logged in the chest, but we don’t know what to do with it.  If we open the gates, we might get swept away.

This is the part where I say yoga fixes everything, right?

Well, no.  That’s not a promise I’m willing to make.  Theoretically, yoga, like Buddhism, creates a distance between our self and our suffering.  Enlightenment is just that – it is the dissolution of the heaviness that comes with being human.  With a simple switch in perception (that comes to us through practice), we see that we are not our thoughts, or emotions, or bodies, or senses, or jobs, or relationships, or wealth, or social status.  These are anchors that bind us to suffering.  Transcendence sets us free.  Alas, achieving transcendence is about as easy as being able to lick your brain through your left nostril.

So, I’m not going to tell you yoga will eliminate your suffering.  But I will say this: yoga seems to have this uncanny ability to shift things – even if just for fleeting moments.  Sometimes fleeting moments are enough to lift the spirits to hope. 

When the effort of living is reduced to putting one foot in front of the other, yoga might not erase all your pain but it can be the friend who holds your hand. 

©The Yoga Experiment, 2013

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 Extreme End of Empathy

I’m sure we’ll all agree that empathy is a healthy and desirable emotion. It’s also a necessary emotion, as far as living as a cooperative member of the human race goes. Empathy regulates our behaviour towards one another. It makes us helpful to one another. It makes us look after and care for one another. At a fundamental evolutionary level, empathy enhances our chances of survival. It bonds us to one another.

However.

We often discuss problems of empathy in terms of what happens when it’s lacking (cue anti-social behaviour). But having too much empathy can be a problem too, creating an imbalance that hampers our pursuit of peace and happiness. This came to mind this morning when I noticed myself feeling sorry for a tiny nub of banana that failed to make it onto my toast with the other slices of banana. I didn’t want it on there because it was the nubby end bit with the black dot. Poor rejected piece of banana. I’d hurt its feelings. I felt bad inside. And so I put it on my toast. I included the banana. I didn’t want it to feel left out.

That little nub of banana tells me a lot about myself (apart from the suspicion that I might be a raving lunatic). It tells me first and foremost that I, myself, don’t cope well with criticism and rejection.

Let’s deconstruct this.

We learn empathy by relating to the emotional experiences of others via our own. At around the age of 2, we begin to develop awareness of our self as a person who is separate from others. When we experience a perceived loss of love, or a disapproval of some kind, or a rejection, we suffer emotionally. As a result of our own suffering we are armed with experiences that serve as a reference for the suffering of others. We can observe another person suffering and vicariously feel what they’re feeling.

So we’ll offer that person a hug, or we’ll try to make them feel better. We’ll extend a caring heart that says ‘I know what that feels like’ or ‘I can imagine’. Or we’ll include them on our toast with the rest of the banana.

So clearly, at some point in my life, I have felt very left out, and very distressed at having been left out. I wanted to be on the toast with the others.

Wistful nub.

When I was a child, I had a white stuffed cat toy that I named ‘Louise’. Every day I would tend to the emotional needs of that toy. I would take her everywhere, anticipating the anxiety she might endure if left alone. I had this over-riding desire that she feel ok. It is common for children to role-play emotional relationships with their toys. This is one way that we practice and develop our social and emotional skills and make sense of the world around us. But when you can’t leave an inanimate object in a room by itself without carrying a lingering anxiety around its feelings, the developing empathy has grown a little askew.Fretting for the toy was a reflection of my personal distress and a struggle to cope with the fear of being abandoned (an instinctive human fear). Soothing Louise’s feelings was a means of soothing my own. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – actually, it shows some resourcefulness. I’d found a way of somewhat coping and controlling my own emotional distresses, as much as my childish cognition would allow.

What happens when we transfer this extreme empathising to our human counterparts? We worry excessively about the state of the world; we feel tortured by the suffering of others; we put a lot of our energy into trying to rescue people and situations.  The empathic response shifts from a healthy and helpful expression of sympathy to a compulsive need to control our environment, to ‘fix’ external sufferings so that we can feel ok within ourselves; so that we can mute the anxieties caused by our own over-identification.

We can become so preoccupied with our own vicarious suffering that we unconsciously become more focussed on our own needs than the actual needs of the person or situation that suffers. We attach to our own agendas. We become controlling. We interfere. We feel angry a lot of the time. We feel depressed. We feel guilty. We feel helpless. We feel distressed. Altruism becomes enmeshed with self-absorption. We cannot let go and let be. We are too feeling.   We have projected our own sufferings so profoundly onto the world around us that everything we see seems to need repairing or soothing.

We spend our time and energy trying to make nubs of banana happy.

What has any of this got to do with yoga?

I’ll let you decide.

The Yoga Experiment, 2012

 

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

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