The main principles of Yoga (session 2)

“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.

Yoga: from doing to living (session 1)

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.

My limitedness

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

Performing at 80%?

This school year, I am working 80% at my job as a middle school teacher. I asked for an unpaid leave of 20% to have more for teaching yoga, and to see if this has a positive impact in my family life and mental and emotional health.

Last school year was busy. Work wasn’t necessarily busier than usual, but work combined with family life kept me busy from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I had to plan my days to the detail and follow this plan in order for things to run smoothly.

I tried my best to take care of myself by doing my daily sadhana, do physical activity, and spend the weekends as much as possible with my family without making any plan but still, I felt quite tired towards the end of the school year and when the calmness of the summer break finally kicked in, I realised how tense I had been the whole year.

Two weeks after going back to work, I definitely notice the difference from working 100%. I feel less tired, more present and much more capable of dealing with whatever happens at work and at home in a more skilful way.

My first thought was, “I’ll never go back to 100%”, followed by “how will this affect us (my family) economically” and “am I being lazy?”, to “all teachers should have less teaching hours”.

When it comes to my family’s economy, I think we’ll manage. I think this change has made me be more mindful of where and when I spend money. This can only be beneficial for our and the world’s well-being. If I cut some expenses here, I can save some money there, and we will be able to spend our money more mindfully. We have always tried to not buy more than we need, but living the privilege life that we live, we definitely have more than we need. Ultimately, the question is simple, what is more worth getting more stuff or living less stressed? I think my kids appreciate more a relaxed mum than anything they wish for that we can’t give immediately.

Am I lazy? I don’t think so. I might have too high expectations for every role I play in life, and maybe I need to work with that, but in order to feel that what I do is meaningful, I need time, space and energy to do things with a sense of purpose. For the time being, my biggest responsibilities are towards myself – if I don’t keep myself physically, emotionally and mentally sane, I can’t engage in a positive way in the practical world; towards my family and towards my students and colleagues. If I have more time to plan my lessons, to reflect on what is happening in the classroom, and choose the way further, I think I will do a much better job than when I am supposed to perform at a 100% feeling constantly drained.

This leads me to my third thought. What is the real meaning of ‘efficiency’? Is it to do as much as possible with an absent mind, or is it to do what we do consciously? How can teachers be present for their students and colleagues, how can we better choose the next step when we are constantly running against the clock? If we are to carry out our real duty as guides, as facilitators, as caring adults, we need the energy and time to be present, reflect and then act in a way that empower our students and ourselves. Why do we believe that the right way to go is to squeeze out until the last drop of people’s energy? Since I can’t change the way society thinks, I can then make the choice to not overload myself and work less.

I will soon start teaching more yoga, and we’ll see how this affects the whole equation. This makes me think of the importance the attitude we bring to everything we do has for our inner peace. I want to teach more yoga because I am noticing the benefits it is bringing to my life and I want to share this with others. I want to teach more yoga because I have noticed that it gives me energy and gives me a sense of purpose but if this doesn’t work, I will have to rethink the whole thing all over again. And this is what we do. We try, we sometimes get it right, sometimes fail and have to try again.

Space is magic

Create space for yourself. In all your states. Don’t panic, no thought or emotion will stay forever. Enjoy the good ones and observe the bad ones. What are they trying to say? The more space you create inside yourself, the easier it is to deal with your changing emotions and moods without looking for external answers, they tend to disappoint.

Create the space to see all sides of yourself. Accept and love yourself for who you are. Only by looking directly into your innermost thoughts and attitudes, you will be able to make small adjustments here and there that will bring you to a better place. Only by exercising the art of setting yourself free, you will be able to see other people with eyes of compassion and understanding.

Create space for those around you to thrive and grow. Give love and see it flow. Love is always the answer no matter what. Don’t measure the love you give. Don’t be afraid, the more you give, the more you have. Lead with the example, lead with the heart, and you’ll see magic moments arise. Keep your eyes open though, and don’t stare at one spot. Love will flow from sometimes the most unexpected places.

Create space for those around you to struggle, to be challenging, to show their moods. It is never about you, it is all about their inner life too. Just like you, they have their own internal battles, and just like you, all they need is the space to experience, to learn and to move forward. If you don’t push back, if you are curious, if you are present, you will be able to either help or step back. When we give space to others, magic happens, the other gets time to react, to reflect and then come back in a calmer state.

Space is really magic.