Considering the uses of adversity

Considering the uses of adversity

Whaaat? How can ‘adversity’ or adverse situations be remotely useful?

On a simple level – the answer could be ‘why not’?

You see the more life throws at you, the more opportunities there are to learn and grow. You could immunise yourself from any kind of adverse situation but ultimately you might find that life is fairly dull, you may become just too comfortable and complacent, and your capacity for growth limited.

If you have been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I read and practice from a Buddhist book called seven point mind training by Geshe Chekawa.  I think this guide was written around 1100 in Tibet.  It’s basic premise is that adverse situations should be welcomed and turned into opportunities for growth, practicing compassion, and love.

When you are in the middle of a dash of adversity, it’s mighty hard to stop and think about the benefits! At the very least, though, one could consider what, if anything, the experience of adversity (or suffering) can teach you, or that you can learn from.

Simply by transforming the moment from an “oh no!” moment to one of “what can I learn from this” is in itself quite liberating.

The transformation of every living moment is one of the goals of yoga, where we learn through yoga asana, pranayama and meditation the ability of seeing clearly each moment, rather than allowing it to become clouded in baggage, perceptions and misunderstanding.  Viewing things incorrectly is known as the “great mistake” and yoga practices can enable us to avoid this.

One potential ‘great mistake’ is our desire to see the world dualistically. For example,  viewing negative experiences as such, and for ever seeking positive experiences and avoiding negative ones.  Things are of themselves neither negative or positive. They just ‘are’. It is our mind that labels things as such.  A tree is neither good nor bad.  We label it as such when for example, it is blocking out the light (bad) or shading you from the sun (good). In reality, the tree is simply a tree: its position providing you with shade and light.  Viewed with equanimity, life becomes a glorious acceptance and exploration of every moment. In doing so we seize and realise the potential of every moment.

Yoga practices such as asana, pranayama, meditation and right living (the yamas and niyamas) can help achieve this.

Namaste x

Balance to balance

Balance to balance

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A very english yogi loves balances.  He does them most days. His favourites are vrksasana (tree), natarajasana (dancer) and ardha chandrasana (half moon pose).  These are all lovely balances in yoga asana.  And there are others too. But I tend to think the most powerful balance of all is more straight forward, and simpler than even these.

You could, for example start in the pose of tadasana – mountain pose. If you are practising this, you’ll know it. You stand upright (not to attention, more firm and steady). Feet together, legs together, whole body upright, spine straight but not forced upright, shoulders down, arms by your sides, palms facing inwards. Aim to look straight ahead, allow your chest to be raised, opening your whole chest without forcing this. Close your eyes and sense how solid like a mountain you are or perhaps whether you sway a little like a tree in the breeze. Have a sense of your whole body feeling grounded and open. Feel that your feet are solidly connected to the ground.

When you are ready, simply raise one of your feet, not too high, maybe a couple of inches above the ground, taking the weight on the other foot.

This is a lovely balance. You can do it in a queue, in the office, while you are waiting, at the photocopier..anywhere. Infact, if you are a little wobbly, you can lean against a wall, or gently hold on to something, or someone (if they consent!). And if you feel very wobbly – it’s not to far to put your foot down again too.

What is lovely about balances is that they are a great indicator of your own internal sense of balance.  Whenever a very english yogi feels that things are out of kilter he checks in to see the impact internally by using balances,  From the subtle foot raise, through to natarajasana. The pose is often shaped by the circumstances, so natarajasana is often done away from crowds, while the simple foot raise is typically used in busy places.

As well as being an indicator of your internal sense of balance, balances can lead you back to a sense of equanimity and balance simply by exploring them.

A very english yoga has a standard formula for balances to make them work well. Firstly observe your breath and breathe fully and in a regular, calm way. Secondly, find a point of focus. In his classes he aims to look at a nail on a floorboard (if the room has floorboards) say a couple of feet in front of him. Thirdly, don’t forget to be mindful of your posture – aiim to stand firm and steady, straight but not to attention.

Most importantly, just enjoy the sense of balance and if you wobble, enjoy the wobble too !

 

Namaste

x

“Sometimes..all I need is the that I breathe..”

“Sometimes..all I need is the that I breathe..”

We breathe in air. If we dont, we would die. Fact. So breathing and breath is important. Critical really.

Yoga isn’t just about postures (AKA asanas). It also includes breathing practices.  These are called Pranayama. Prana means life force. Yama means extension. The breathing practices are about extending the life force within you. Prana is not only  ‘life force’ it is vital energy. It is all around us, in everything, as well as within the air we breathe.

While prana is usually translated as ‘breath’, according to many texts and gurus,  this is only of its many manifestations in the human body.  All functions of the body are performed by five types of vital energy known as prana vayus.  Iyengar says that although these are five types, they are specific aspects of one vital cosmic force or ‘wind’ which is the primeval principle of existence.

The five types of prana are; prana, apana, samana, udana, and vyana.

Prana moves in the thoracic region and controls breathing.  It absorbs vital atmospheric energy.  Apana  moves in the lower abdomen and controls the elimination of urine, faeces and semen.  Samana stokes the gastric fires aiding digestion and maintaining the harmonious functioning of the abdominal organs.  It integrates the whole of the human gross body.  Udana, working through the throat (the pharynx and the larynx),  controls the vocal chords and the intake of air and food. Vyana pervades the entire body, distributing energy derived from food and breath through the arteries, veins and nerves.

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There are five subsidiary vayus known as upapranas or upavayus, these are Naga (which is manifest in belching), Kurma (which controls the movements of the eye-lids,  and the size of the irises), and Krkara which prevents substances passing up the nasal passages or down the throat, by encouraging sneezing or coughing. Devadatta causes yawning and induces sleep. Dhanarhjaya produces phlegm, nourishes and remains in the body even after death.

By practicing pranayama (the breathing exercises), we are bringing prana (vital energy) into our bodies.  The prana vayus (energy winds) work like this: Prana brings in the energy, samana converts the energy for use in the body, vyana circulates this energy to all parts of the body, apana eliminates any waste and udana provides base and positive energy”.

The Yoga Sutra describes the flow of prana as water which is channelled and dyked in a farmers field, where the farmer works to move the channel of water to various parts of the field (Yoga Sutra, 4.3). Desikachar (Heart of Yoga) and Iyengar (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) refer to this metaphor as an apt description of prana following the breath, flowing by itself into the cleared spaces, cleared by asana and pranayama and other yoga practices.

A very english yogi is if anything a man who likes to balance mysticism with science, intuition with practicalities. My take on the energy that is prana – is this.  Science tells us that in the air are molecules. Air itself is made up of mostly oxygen and nitrogen with smaller amounts of other molecules. All molecules, including oxygen and nitrogen are made up of atoms. Within atoms there are electrons, neutrons, protons and a nucleus.  Quantum physics suggests that as you go deeper and deeper into the workings of an atom, the result is that there is nothing there – just energy waves. The suggestion is that an atom can be typified as an energy field, which emits waves of electrical energy. As the universe is completely composed of atoms, including you and I, it is conceivable that the prana of the yogis was in effect the working of atoms that we breath in, and use.  It’s certainly a compelling connection, and food for thought.

One of the facets of  yoga that I am continuously drawn to, and which I draw on in my teaching practice is the growing science and evidence base that is showing how yoga practices can help people, from a health, psychological or philosophical perspective.  An example of this is that there is now significant research evidence that certain asana practices can help people with various health problems, such as chronic lower back pain, and that pranayama practices can assist people with respiratory problems such as asthma.  Furthermore, there is a strong research evidence base that meditation practices can reduce many health problems such as anxiety and depression and can help people feel in control of their lives, helping with self-esteem, focus and concentration.   Coupled with this growing research evidence base, there is also, in parallel a significantly growing knowledge base arising from quantum physics, biology and other sciences which suggests that our understanding of the world and phenomena are changing rapidly.  I referred to the recognition that quantum physics has identified that molecules are effectively now seen as entities of energy. While there appears to be no evidence to suggest that atoms within molecules are the modern day equivalent of prana, there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that this may be so.

You can do no better than starting by simply observing your breath. Inhale and exhale through your nostrils, keep you mouth closed. For each inhale/exhale consider this is one cycle. Try this to a count of 10 cycles. Don’t judge, just observe. How is it? What is creating or affecting its rhythm? How do you feel after simply focusing on your breath? Did your monkey mind leap from one thought to another or were you able to get to the 10th cycle just keeping a focus on your breath?  Give it a go. Let me and others know how it went – or what you think of my ideas about atoms and prana – I’d love to learn what you think!

Namaste

x

Embracing chaos by stilling the mind

Embracing chaos by stilling the mind

Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras over two thousand years ago. They remain as relevant today, as they did then.  Even if you don’t step on a mat or practice any kind of yoga with your body or your mind – the Yoga Sutras remain an effective psycho-social guide to living a balanced and happy life.

A very english yogi thinks that probably the most important words of the Yoga Sutras are : “yogash chitta virtti nirodhah” which loosely translates as “yoga stops the movement of the mind”.  Another translation that the  ‘Yogi likes is the translation by Roach and McNally and suggests unity and integration through stillness – “we become whole by stopping how the mind turns”.

When we are caught up in the hurley burley of life it is hard to pause and come back to ourselves, or as TS Eliot the poet wrote in the poem, Burnt Norton – “the still point of the turning world”.   shutterstock_149610314

The question is – does the mind create the hurley burley – or does the hurley burley create the mind?  It’s a chicken and egg type conundrum – but what a very english yogi knows from experience is that if you still the mind  - strangely the hurley burley chaos around us seems to slow down or even stop too.

The key is using the many aspects of yoga to help you still your mind. And if our experience of the world is a projection of our mind, perhaps this is the way to stop the chaos.  Stopping the chaos can be done by embracing it. Yoga asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), meditation or living kindly or mindfully are all ways through which you can embrace the chaos and return to yourself.

Consider the uses of adversity

Consider the uses of adversity

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Chekawa’s 7 point mind training suggests that the challenges that life throws in our way play an important role in helping us evolve as individuals.

Chekawa says “transform adverse conditions into the path to enlightenment”.  Typically we tend to run a mile from difficult life situations forever seeking happiness and contentment, command and control. When life throws a challenge or a barrier up, or some difficulty our initial reaction is to rant against it – confront it, seek to win or run a mile.  For many, adversity in all of its guises is a battle to be won, or at least to scramble off the battlefield, a survivor with scars and medals.

What the 7 point mind training suggests is that we consider each and every adverse situation as an opportunity to self-actualise, to evolve and grow as an individual. This is counter intuitive, but a bit like Jesus’ suggestion of ‘turning the other cheek’, this approach can break the cycle of aggro and open up a range of possibilities.

It took a very english yogi a long time to recognise that the difficulties he faced (in all their guises) were merely opportunities to learn and grow from. It’s not easy, and he doesn’t consistently practice this – but each time life throws another spanner in the works – a very english yogi thinks “ah, now here’s an opportunity to test my patience/kindness/optimism/helpfulness”.

 

When confronted with difficulties a good reaction initially is to observe your breath and make a gentle and concious effort to breath deeply, using the breath to pause the mind from reacting in its usual ego-ravaged way.  The pause that is created, and the breath that flows, can help inject a sense of perspective and serve to remind you that the difficulty you are facing requires consideration as an opportunity to grow.  You may read this and think this sounds trite, however why not give it a go. Life itself is a big experiment so why not do some investigations?

 

 

Life is much harder than meditation…

Life is much harder than meditation…

If you get the chance or have the inclination – I hope you find some time for some meditation. I know just how hard this is. But daily life itself is way much tougher.

A very english yogi likes the story of the zen master: Birds’ Nest Roshi. He would walk around the forest looking for abandoned bird’s nests. Then he would climb the tree and meditate in the nest. One day he had a visitor.

Standing on the ground far below the visitor asked, “What are you doing up there? It’s really dangerous! What possesses you to live and meditate way up on that branch? In a bird’s nest?”

The Roshi answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous! Living in the world, ignoring death, trying to make impermanence permanent, avoiding loss and suffering”

You don’t have to climb a tree and scramble into a bird’s nest to meditate.  I like the work of Jon Kabat Zin. You can find his work on youtube.

A nice intro is by Jon Kabat Zinn – author of ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ – here on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc

Enjoy the view

Enjoy the view

I used to characterise my life as a yogi as being on a roller coaster, where sometimes you are bombing downhill, and other times you are looping the loop, and yet other times you are slowly rolling up hill, only to go backwards downhill and do a reverse loop the loop.

Nowadays I tend to view life as a yogi as like a journey through mist and murk:

out to sea, misty view

 

Or like being lost in the clouds:

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…sometimes there’s a hint of sunlight…

 

hint of sun

 

And most of the time, after a great deal of effort, I emerge to a beautiful view:

open land, blue sky

The trick is to appreciate every moment, every stage in the journey. When you are lost in the mist and murk, or the clouds are obscuring your route, its easy to beat yourself up, blame or criticize yourself. The reality is that each stage of the journey has a role to play, an effect and a benefit. The key is seeking to understand that, rather than allow your citta’s to get vritting* (as Patanjali might have said). Once you recognise the stage and state you are in, you can do something about it.

This experience is common in yoga practice, particularly a very english yogi’s. When you are on a journey – there are typically two things that can help: a map, and a compass. For the yogi – the map is the body and the compass is the mind, and he gives his body asana (yoga postures) and his mind, meditation.

But what if you are struggling with doing yoga itself?

Here the key is to trick your monkey mind. Tell it you are going to do some asanas for only five minutes. Get into Trikonasana (triangle pose), and who knows, you may find yourself on the mat a little longer.  The ancient yogis knew a thing or two. Quite a few yoga postures are named after animals or nature. Want to bring some animal energy into your life or your practice? Practice dog, or cat – cobra or lion. Want to feel solid like a mountain – get into mountain.

These asanas are helpful in bringing energy into your practice, but also fun. If you are struggling with your yoga practice – there is nothing like a little bit of fun to draw you back in and get going.

With love,

Foot on Mat

* In the Yoga Sutras – the venerable sage, Patanjali says “yogah citta vritti nirodha” which means loosely – ‘yoga stills the movement or turning of the mind’.  Citta is mind stuff and Vritti is the turning/movement. Two and a half thousand years later, a very english yogi has adopted the phrase “when your citta is vritting”. Hopefully yoga can help still your mind.

 

 

 

A little survey

A little survey

I aspire (aspire is the operative word!) to practice yoga asana everyday. How often do you practice?

A very english yogi has created a little poll and would love it if you had a go. Results are anonymous and on screen.

Thanks

online poll by Opinion Stage

Breathe

Breathe

Breathing is pretty important. In fact it’s so important that our body doesn’t let us think about it too much; it just gets on with it.

If you are practicing that mindfulness thing – being mindful of your breathing, you will notice that your breathing is influenced by a lot of things.  Physical exercise makes it faster and harder. A bit of tension, or anxiety and your breath becomes tighter, shorter and shallower.  When you are calm your breath is often deeper, fuller, and easier.

In yoga there is a series of practices called pranayama, which is sanskrit for ‘breathing practices’. A trained yogi or yoga teacher can teach you the various breathing practices that make up pranayama. It’s best to get advice on these as you don’t want to mess with the automatic process and get it wrong!

If you are in a queue, or simply just doing what it is you are doing  - there are two quick tricks you can try.

The first one is that mindfulness thing. Just observe your breath – see what its doing – how fast or slow, deep or shallow, full or light it is. Just observe – don’t judge yourself – watch and follow.  You can do this as long as you like – 5 minutes worth is a good starting point – three hours and you’re going to be well and truly in the zone. When you have finished think about the experience, observe what external or internal factors influenced the breathing.

The second trick is a very simple, but quite effective relaxation method.  It’s called 4×4 breathing. No, you don’t need to be sat in a 4×4 vehicle – although if you find yourself in one, you can still do this breathing method.

1. Breathe in for a count of four seconds

2. Breathe out for a count of four seconds

3. Do this for at least 3 minutes, but longer if you are enjoying the relaxed state it may bring.

You can do the 4×4 breathing exercise anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

Just observing our breathing can help us recognise when we are “out of kilter” even if our mind is telling us otherwise. Although its an automatic function (thankfully), the breath can help us to move to more balance and integration.

Mind & Body

Mind & Body

Believe it or not, I get irritated, frustrated, angry, stressed and all those other negative emotions. I also can be happy, euphoric, content, in good humour, and calm.

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It’s a never ending journey to avoid the dualistic see-saw of happy/sad and all the other emotions that I experience. Yoga practice is a major attempt to seek the middle path of integration and find a balance to the see-sawing of emotions and feelings, as we go through life.

Meditation is a useful means of helping the mind avoid that see-sawing. It’s not some deep esoteric thing that only the few enlightened do.  One of the best forms of meditation is called mindfulness meditation. Here, to put it simply, you focus purely on the matter in hand. Washing dishes becomes a major focus of your mind rather than dreaming about your holiday this summer, or worrying about work unfinished or the state of your neighbours garden. When you are washing the dishes – you are totally focussed on washing the dishes.

You can practice mindfulness meditation wherever you are, whatever you are doing. It is a process of focus and attention on what you are doing, in body and in mind. So, no, thinking about the holiday, the neighbours, or anything, other than the matter in hand.

Some folk find mindfulness meditation very refreshing. Others really struggle. We live in a very complicated world where most people multi-task, multi-worry and multi-think.  Like all things though, once you start doing this – perhaps for five minutes at a time, you can build a habit.  Start small, and aim to enjoy. Even stacking the dishes in the dishwasher if you have one, can be done mindfully. Those little chores around the house can take on a new meaning and usefulness.

The other day, I somehow found myself saddled with a lot of other people’s worries which by transference became mine.  And of course, with time on my side, my mind was playing tricks too.  Because this monkey mind was mulling all these worries over I found that I simply couldn’t even start meditating – mindful or otherwise. The mind was just too clogged up.

In instances where the mind is swamped or clogged up, the best thing to do is to do some very physical exercise. This is why I love exercise, whether it is yoga, or Freeletics (high intensity body weight exercises), walking or swimming. The health that follows is an additional benefit as far as I can see, as the real benefit is the taming of the monkey mind.  You are  forced to become mindful because of the physical feelings induced by the exercise, not to mention our rapid breathing which is pumping in oxygen.  It’s not unusual for the ‘yogi to hear people say that they “took their worries or problems out for a run” and when they returned, they felt  they had a better perspective on their concerns, or that they had sorted their worries or problems out.  For many, exercise can be a creative exercise as much as a physical exercise too.

That’s one of the insights of yoga too. It’s a practice that goes back a few thousand years, and the classic texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Yoga Sutras suggest that before you start doing meditation you should practice breathing exercises (known as pranayama) and before that you should practice asanas (the postures).  Those guys knew that you can use the body to pin down the mind more easily than the breath or the mind.  They also knew that once you laid the foundation of physical practice, the mental or mindful practices would follow more easily too.

You don’t have to do exercise either, really. Cleaning the house, sweeping up the autumn leaves, chopping wood, or digging the veg’ patch are all good.

Foot on Mat