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

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

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

Can making your bed change your mindset?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Yoga Experiment, 2012