Embrace who you are, empower yourself and use it around you
My yoga teacher keeps repeating to us every time we meet him, ‘slow down and simplify your life’. I think that if we are going to succeed in reducing the amount of pollution we create, we need to follow this advice. I keep observing my life, and the life we collectively live and I must confess that it feels like this big knot that I don’t really know where to start unknotting. I want to use less my car, but I pack my days with so many things ‘to do’ that this is going to be almost impossible during the winter months (it is quite difficult to achieve already now, but I’m still managing…almost every day). I want to produce less waste, but I do buy food that helps me cook faster: pre-cooked pulses in tetra pack, vegetables at the local supermarket that come packed in plastic because the option to buy at the Asian shops downtown seem too time consuming for the moment, cereal for the kids for breakfast, etc… Why? Because I don’t have time during the week to spend that much time cooking, and I still want to give my kids a varied diet (exclude the cereal in this statement).
I could continue writing about how I am NOT contributing to stop global warming and waste production, but I think you get my point. My point is not to go on a self-blame ride either, I am just observing, and hopefully, will find better ways to really simplify my life so I have time to make choices that don’t affect the environment in a negative way.
I see this happening at the bigger scale too. I was lucky enough to be among the teachers at our school that took the middle school students to an interdisciplinary day about biodiversity some days ago. One of the highlights of the day was a political debate led by a couple of our students where local politicians were confronted with questions about the environment written by our students or asked ‘live’ by the audience during the debate. All politicians in the panel seemed to agree on the fact that we need to take care of the environment to take care of biodiversity, but their answers were for me quite wishy washy. One of the questions was about protecting the bumblebees. All the politicians in the panel agreed that keeping or increasing green spaces in our city was the way to go, as well as encouraging people to grow grass on their roofs, and many other very innovative and positive ideas.
Our school is by a big public park . It has mainly trees and grass, and some weed does grow like dandelions, and other wild flowers. During the last four or five years however, the municipality (or whoever owns the park) has started to rent (or lend?) the park to different instances to run festivals. There is a kids festival in the Spring, a “neighbourhood festival” at the end of the summer with concerts, this weekend was another kind of festival. I understand the motivation and the thinking behind it: to bring people together and promote culture, but here we are again wanting too much at the same time. Every time these festivals are finished and the organisers take their stuff away, the grass is damaged by the amount of people tramping on it in the lapse of some few days/hours, the equipment they bring, the cars/trucks they need to use to transport all the stuff they need for the festivals. This is what I see, but what about the insects and birds that live in the park? How are they affected by this? So what is the priority here? Protecting the park to protect biodiversity or to use the park as a festival arena? Can we have both? Do we need to prioritise something?
This brings me to another advise I have been hearing from my Yoga teacher the last five years: prioritise and live with clarity. What is your clarity now? Is it to experience this and that, to not miss out, to do this and do that, to get this and get that, or is it really to take care of the environment? If we take this seriously, we need to start making some serious changes. Changes that I feel need to be made both individually and collectively in order for them to make an impact.
I have started to think that to simplify our lives is not what we have grown to believe is to simplify our lives. To buy fast food because we don’t have time to cook, is not to simplify our lives. To use the car instead of public transportation because we don’t have time is a sign that we don’t have a simple life.
I am trying to take small steps, but I must confess that I still feel that it is not enough. I am much more conscious of what I buy and where I buy it, I have stopped eating meat, and serve less meat to my family. I am trying to encourage my kids to reflect on what the want and what they really need. I am avoiding using the car as much as I can except when I have to drive to the other side of town to take my girls to swimming on weekdays. This makes me wonder, should we give up swimming just because of that? Should we change clubs to the one that is at the swimming pool on this side of town? Oh, but we like that other club so much better! That is one of the dilemmas we’re in for the moment.
So what is my point? My point is that I think that in order to be able to start taking more care of nature, we need to start slowing down, look at our lives and prioritise what really matters and let go of what we can let go of. We have to create some clarity, what is it that really matters right now? We need to live closer to nature too. How can we respect something that we have become disconnected from? We certainly don’t need to panic or loose motivation when we look at the challenge we have before ourselves, but we need to take it seriously and reevaluate what we think is simplifying our lives because I believe a lot of it is simplifying it short term, but not longterm.
It is well known for most of us that physical activity in the right quantity and intensity can help keep our energy levels balanced. Yoga asana, if practiced with respect for your own body’s strengths and limitations can be a good way to keep the physical energy at a healthy level. When doing asana it is important to balance between stability and mobility. Generally, poses for stability require muscle strength and are thus more intense, they can be practiced to create heat in the body. Poses for mobility are mainly poses that work with flexibility, those practiced seated or lying down are generally less intense than standing poses. Remember to always keep in mind what the intention of your physical practice is and adapt the time and intensity accordingly.
What else affect our energy levels? Food, sleep, responsibilities, work, and what does yoga have to say about these? We are encouraged to practice moderation:
‘Verily, yoga is not for him who eats too much or abstains too much from eating. It is not for him, O Arjuna, who sleeps too much or keeps awake too much. ‘ Gita 6:16
‘For the man who is temperate in food and recreation, who is restrained in his actions, whose sleep and waking are regulated, there ensures discipline (yoga) which destroys all sorrow.’ Gita 6:17
Key words here are discipline, moderation and the destruction of sorrow. In chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga is defined as the disconnection from union with pain, and in order to achieve this state, we need to find a balance in our physical and mental state through practice (abhyasa) which requires discipline.
If your goal is to improve your energy levels, start by having an honest conversation with yourself about your lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep? If not, why not? What changes can you make in your everyday life that will allow you to improve your sleep? What is part of your daily routine that you can either modify or let go of that is not allowing you to get enough sleep? You should aim towards at least 7 to 8 hours sleep every night. There is so much research that shows how lack of sleep is harmful for the physical and mental health.
A close and honest look at our eating habits can also be beneficial. I would like you to consider the following points:
- Pay attention to your relationship with food. Do you eat for other reasons than when you are hungry? Is food intake related to boredom, anxiety, emotional pain? If yes, start by just accepting this fact, observing how your emotional state affects your need to eat, and make small adjustments especially when it comes to eating food your body doesn’t really need. Seek help if you need it.
- Don’t get caught up in diets, or super healthy trends that are difficult to keep up with. Be rather curious about your own body. How do you feel when you eat this or that? Which food combinations are the ones that make you feel good? I sincerely think this is very individual. It requires time, rude honesty and patience to find out what kind of diet is the appropriate for you.
- Balance your meals with the healthy amount of different kinds of nutrients.
- Do enjoy guilty pleasures, but try to avoid overindulging.
So far, I have talked about the ‘obvious’ when it comes to our body’s energy levels: physical activity, sleep and nutrition. Can you think of anything else that affects your energy levels?
For this purpose, I want to suggest a short meditation. Read first the instructions, and then try it out. You will need a timer, a notebook (or a piece of paper) and a pencil. Start by finding a comfortable sitting position. It can either be on the floor or on a chair. Make sure you ground yourself on your sitting bones and from there allow your spine to grow tall, light and strong. Shoulders rolled back and down, chin parallel with the floor. Hands on your knees or lap. Set your timer for 3 to five minutes, and when you are ready, close your eyes, or place your gaze at a point on the floor in front of you. If you choose to keep your eyes open, keep your gaze soft and don’t move it during the meditation. Bring your attention to your breath, feel your inhalations and your exhalations. As always, your mind will serve you with all kinds of thoughts, allow these thoughts to come and go. When the timer is off, grab your pencil and write down on the paper the thoughts that came to your mind during this meditation. Without any judgement, without any analysis. Just honestly, write them down. Do this for some days, and compare your notes. You will most probably be able to then see what kind of thoughts are recurrent.
Our mental activity has a very big impact on our general well-being, and it affects directly our energy levels. Recurring thoughts that stress our nervous system such as worries, ruminating and discontentment, end up making us feel drained. One important aspect in the practice of yoga is the development of mental discipline that will allow us to keep a balanced state of mind regardless of what is happening around us. How? Here are some basic principles:
- Awareness and acceptance of the every changing nature of the external world. Change is inevitable, the way we deal with is up to us. We have a tendency to anchor ourselves in external factors: people, money, work, material objects, etc, but none of these are guaranteed to last. Enjoy the ups when they are there, and try to deal with a clear mind with the downs knowing that they will not last forever.
- Cultivate contentment or okayness that is independent of whatever is happening outside yourself. Start by being grateful for what you perceive as ‘the good’ and the growth you can achieve by what you perceive as ‘the bad’. Train your mind to deal with both pleasant moments and challenging moments equally.
- Build clarity of mind by evaluating everything you do in life and deciding what your priorities are and what you can let go of. Always ask yourself why do I do what I do? Be very honest with your answers.
- Do what you have to do with a clear intention and detach from the results of your actions. If we are too attached to the results of our actions, we tend to experience tiring emotions like regret, frustration, and anger over past experiences that didn’t turn out as we expected them to or worry and anxiety for future experiences.
- Keep expectations and desires in check. Expectations and desires are not ‘bad’, but if the unfulfilled expectation/desire keep disturbing your mind and draining you from energy, you might need to revise them and eventually let go of them.
- At any given situation, especially a challenging one ask yourself these three questions: can I change my attitude? can I change the situation? do I need to withdraw?
The mind’s job is to think so don’t judge your mind, and don’t try to ‘stop’ it. Disciplining the mind takes practice and patience. It is not only about sitting five, ten, sixty minutes a day to observe our thoughts. We also have to start making small adjustments in our everyday life, we need to slow down, accept more, push less and let go of what doesn’t serve us. It is a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it is worth it if you want real long lasting changes.
“Working in this state of Karma Yoga consciousness, there is no loss of good beginning or adverse result. Even a little effort saves one from great danger.” Gita 2:40
These are the words of Krishna to the prince and warrior Arjuna at the battlefield before the great battle of Kurukshetra according to the Bhagavad Gita. What we can retain from this verse for the purpose of this text is the fact that the practice of yoga is not dependent on any special place, special time or even special ritual. The sincere practice of yoga has more to do with a mindset rooted in several basic principles. A simple yet sincere practice is much more beneficial for the practitioner than getting lost in techniques and too much unassimilated knowledge, and most importantly, to practice yoga, you don’t need to be anywhere else than where you already are.
The Bhagavad Gita is a relatively short text composed of 700 verses (slokas) divided in eight chapters. It is part of a larger epic called the Mahabharata. It was written approximately around 200 B. C. in India, and it is one of the most important scriptures in the yogic tradition because it summarises the essence of the Yoga tradition. (You can watch this short video for a more thorough introduction) The Gita, is an invitation to observe, accept and reflect upon our perceptions, attitudes, actions and interactions, and thus through practice and patience, make some adjustments to cultivate a calm(er) mind. It describes the theories, methods, techniques and paths that can help us liberate ourselves from suffering.
You must know that disjunction from union with sorrow goes by the name of Yoga. That Yoga should be practiced with determination and unwearied mind. (Bhagavad Gita ch6 v23)
Yoga is detachment from sorrow through control of the mind and senses. Suffering comes from the misperception or ignorance (avidya) of who we are as well as our inability to see or accept the transient nature of the practical world. It is in avidya that we believe all our thoughts and perceived needs are the only reality. We identify ourselves with our limiting thoughts and desires.
According to the teachings of yoga, everything that we seek in the outside world is already inside us: peace, happiness, love, freedom, security... The starting point is therefore to gradually detach from the illusion that we are incomplete and that we need something outside ourself in order to be at peace. We practice vairagya or detachment to live life as it is, knowing that our inner self is independent and unaffected by the external transient world. Practicing vairagya allows us to live without experiencing the suffering that comes from the illusion of unmet expectations (towards ourselves, the fruits of our actions and other people), fear and unfulfilled or insatiable desires. The less we cling to, the freer we are, the closer we come to our true potential.
You can start by observing your own life and the material objects, relationships, ideas and expectations that create mental distress for you. Why do they create distress? Is it fear of loosing them? Is it frustration because of unmet expectations? Is it sorrow because of loss? What would happen if you decide to let go? It might seem like something very scary to do. You might even think that a part of you would get lost but if you let go of the fear, you might notice the feeling of freedom that letting go can bring. When it comes to relationships, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to cut people out of your life, it might only mean that you need to look at certain relationships from another perspective. What we often need to let go of in relationships is expectations. Expectations towards the other person, expectations towards ourself, and expectations towards how the relationship ‘should’ be.
Practicing vairagya can help us cultivate a state of contentment or santosha because our mental and emotional well-being is no longer subject to external circumstances. Santosha is another very important principle in the practice of yoga. Life still happens with its ups and downs, but we can be okay with both because, through practice (abhyasa) we learn to keep a steady mind. We are able to discern between what is transient and what is not (viveka).
‘Detachment brings discernment: seeing each and every thing or being as it is, in its purity, without bias or self-interest.’ Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 774-775).
The practice of yoga can at times feel lonely and frustrating. As we start learning how our limiting thoughts create distress in our life, we want so badly to change them, we want so badly to improve only to find ourself making over and over the same mistakes, falling into the same patterns of thought and behaviour. This is normal. The changes that living a life of awareness bring take time. We need to continue practicing, to continue falling and failing, to continue learning, and above all, to trust. To trust in the process, to trust in ourself, and to trust in the teachings that come from an ancient and still very relevant tradition.
‘Practice demands four qualities from the aspirant: dedication, zeal, uninterrupted awareness and long duration.’ Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 780-781).
In Spanish we say “cada quién habla de la feria según le fue en ella“, which basically means that we talk about something out of our own experience. In my spiritual path, the mentioned principles have been the most important for me to start cultivating inner peace so far, and I can honestly say that I am noticing the changes in my way of seeing and living life. So whatever resonates within you in this text, try to apply it to your own life, and see what happens. If nothing resonated, keep searching, you will find your way.
If you’re reading this post it is either because you already are a yoga practitioner or because you are curious about the practice. Take a minute to close your eyes, feel your breath, and ask yourself, what is my motivation to practice yoga? Why am I interested in yoga?
For some, yoga is associated with physical activity. Practicing yoga means to move the body, to strengthen and/or improve flexibility, maybe also to have a time in the day or week to unwind and simply spend some well-deserved self-time. There might even be the wish to slow down and reduce stress.
The physical activity that we call yoga in this side of the world is called asana in the Yoga tradition and it can be part of the practice of yoga, but it is not THE practice of Yoga. Practicing asana can be a very good way to start bringing our attention inwards by paying attention to our body and our breath. In order to achieve this, we benefit from approaching the asana practice with an open mind towards ourselves, with curiosity and without judgement. By paying attention, we will discover what are our strengths – physically, mentally and maybe even emotionally- and what are our challenges and limitations.
For the asana practice to really benefit us, it is imperative to accept our body where it is, and learn to practice – preferably with guidance – the movements and poses that benefit our body and not our expectations towards our body or our ego. It is absolutely not necessary to do extremely complicated and/or physically challenging poses to be an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practitioner. I would even say, on the contrary, if the yoga asana practice becomes another pursuit in our life, something else to ‘achieve’ to the point that we even harm ourselves, we are not practicing it to its purpose. If we practice asana blinded by our expectations and desires on how our body should be like, we are missing the opportunity to get to know ourself better.
Not all yoga practitioners do asana, and personally, I use my asana practice to slow down, to reconnect with my body and to keep it healthy, but the most important aspect of my practice is my daily sadhana. Sadhana is defined as the daily spiritual practice. The word spirituality can make some eyebrows rise since it is often associated to some sort of mysticism difficult to grasp, but in the context of this text and my own practice, it is first and foremost the attitude of constantly improving ourself in order to reach a calm and centered state of mind (Prasad Rangnekar). So sadhana, is the time we spend daily for this purpose. For some, it is a combination of breathing exercises and sitting in silence/meditation, for others it also includes chanting, and for those that want to go deeper in the understanding of oneself through the study of yoga, it also includes the study of yoga scriptures. The one scripture that is most accessible for most of us living in the practical world is the Bhagavad Gita. It contains the essence of the teachings of yoga, the theory as well as the techniques to achieve steady and long lasting inner peace. The study of the Gita is not to be used as some sort of dogma, but to understand our own thoughts, emotions and behaviours in light its teachings. The theory of yoga, if directed as some sort of light towards our inner world, can help us understand why we think and behave as we do, and then, start making some adjustments to live a more skilful and purposeful life. One must apply these teachings to one’s own life and observe what happens. Learning in the yoga tradition is very empirical.
As one advances in the path of Yoga, the line between practical life and the practice of sadhana begins to vanish. On one side, the habit of observing our own thoughts achieved through meditation can be used in everyday life to slow down, to start living life through action and not reaction. As we continue doing breathing exercises, our breath improves and we learn to slow down our mind using our breath. Finally, through the study of oneself in light of the theory of yoga, we learn to accept who we are, see our limitations, and gradually make the adjustments that are necessary to live a more peaceful inner life and thus interact with the external world better following some basic principles.
The study and practice of Yoga is not always a walk in the park, and is definitely no quick fix to all our troubles, but with patience and dedication, I sincerely can say that you start noticing slight changes in your inner world that have enormous positive consequences in the way you interact with the outer world. My advice to finish this post is, keep it simple, keep it clear. Stick to one practice, don’t jump from one thing to another to please the restless mind. Give it time. You don’t need to make any complicated pose, you don’t need any specific object, all you need is the sincere wish to go deeper, patience and guidance.
I know I am speaking out of my limited views
I know I am acting out of my expectation towards you
I know better
yet, I sometimes give in
To the limitedness of my mind
Is it childish?
Maybe so, but why judge?
All I know is, I am not perfect
Neither I am seeking perfection
Today, I allow myself to be frustrated and tired
Tomorrow will be another day
I know it is all a product
of my limitedness
which I am learning to embrace as much as my strengths