What is Yoga? – my own understanding.

I asked this question to a group of fourteen year old students this week assuming that their definition would be in the lines of ‘stretching exercises’. Some of them didn’t know, some of them defined yoga as stretching, relaxation, and breathing exercises. None of these definitions is wrong, but they are incomplete. But then, one girl said ‘It is a way to relax the mind so we can deal with life better’. This is very close to what I understand as yoga after studying and practicing for some years, and it really surprised me how matter-of-factly she said it. She has never practiced yoga before nor does any of her family members.

If you have been study and practicing, you might know that there are many different definitions of yoga “Yoga is union”, “Yoga is skilfulness in action”, “Yoga is the cessation of the waves of the mind”, just to mention some. These definitions stem from different traditions in which the means to yoga vary but the goal is the same: self-knowledge for self-transformation.

The supreme goal of Yoga is to realise that we are more than what we perceive and think, but in my view, there are sub-goals that can bring immense benefits to our life and the lives of others if the goal of self-realisation feels too lofty or far to reach.

Traditionally, Yoga is seen as a science and the object of study is the self. Each path has its own definition and set of theories and techniques to lead the practitioner towards better self-understanding, thus guiding her gradually towards a state of lasting inner peace and clarity. One could simply say that Yoga is not the goal, it is the means, and more than a specific technique or practice, it is a mindset.

Stretching can be part of the yoga practice if one chooses to start the inner journey through the physical body by practicing asana (yoga postures). However, the physical practice is not limited to stretching. It is an invitation to self-exploration and self-understanding to make appropriate choices for our mental and physical health. Ideally, we practice yoga asana to keep the body healthy, agile and strong. A healthy body allows us to cultivate a calm mind. So, the asana practice does not need to be complicated or strenuous. In order for it to be Yoga, it needs to be practiced with clarity of intention. If the intention is self-knowledge, you are practicing yoga. If your practice leaves you invigorated but with a calm state of mind, you are practicing yoga. If your practice brings you injury, stress and the pursuit of the perfect pose, you are not practicing yoga. You are practicing physical activity. There is nothing wrong with it, as long as you are clear about it.

What many don’t know, is that Yoga can be practiced without the physical practice. There is Dhyana Yoga, or Yoga Meditation where one works systematically towards slowing down the mind in order to let go of misperceptions and misconceptions of who we are and the what world around us is. The main goal is to achieve a state of stable concentration that will lead to what is called samadhi. Samadhi for me is still too difficult to grasp, so my meditation practice is still focused on slowing down the mind for a more peaceful and centered attitude towards life.

There is also Karma Yoga where we live our practical life with full awareness and an attitude of sacrifice. Through action, we also get to know ourselves better, and we gradually change our attitude acting with clarity, pure intentions and for the benefit of the whole. Karma Yoga is a prefect path in our times since we all have to live a practical life, and through the change of attitude in our actions, we cultivate a calmer state of mind, allowing us to live a more meaningful life.

The list of different Yoga paths continues, and most of the time, these paths intertwine. This means that one can practice both yoga asana and meditation and be active in the world following the principles of Karma Yoga. What is required from us is to be clear about the main goal of Yoga and to be willing to do the internal work of self-study and reflection with the guidance of scriptures and a teacher.

Whatever your goal of practicing yoga is, and whatever path you choose, be clear about what your intentions are. If you go to a yoga class with the intention to get a workout, that is good. If you go to a yoga class with the intention to relax, that is good too. If you however want to make deeper changes in your life through the practice of Yoga, you need to know that it requires perseverance, self-responsibility, study, and lots of practice. Preferably through the guidance of a teacher who will be able to point you towards the right direction.

In all humbleness, as a yoga teacher, I aim to help my students explore the different aspects of Yoga. Hopefully this will lead them towards the wish to find a way to self-understanding so they can choose the right practice for them. However, the search and the responsibility lies in the student. I have my own teacher that guides me but I am encouraged to practice, observe and reflect and never take anything as dogma.

The magic of self-work!

As a Yoga practitioner, I am a strong believer in the power of meditation as a wholistic approach to life. Through the practice of meditation, I have learned the power of my mind. It is through my mind that I live my life, and it is through the practice of meditation that I can gradually train myself to calm my mind, create space between my thoughts and my actions, and change my perspectives or at least accept that they are just one way of seeing things.

I am learning the power of living life ‘inside out’ as my teacher calls it. I have learned to observe myself in all situations, especially in those that bring stress and distress and ask myself, ‘what can I change in my mind to better deal with this?’ So, every once in a while, reflecting about situations in which I experience stress, I set myself a goal on how I can change the situation by changing my perspective, my attitude or my behaviour.

For a while I have been thinking that if we all were willing to work with ourselves, it would be easier to interact with each other, we would take better care of each other, our environment and all living beings.

This week, during one of my meditation sessions, one of my students shared that she had set herself the goal of being less judgemental of her boss at work. In the past, she had experienced ending up in conflict with her boss, often because she had a negative opinion on certain things her boss did or said. She decided to put her effort in her work and not waste her energy in things out of her control. I asked her how this strategy is working so far, and she said that she had noticed a change of attitude in her boss too, and that they have had some good conversations. Once, her boss answered back in a harsh way and apologised shortly after without it escalating into a conflict.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my student’s boss also had the purpose of changing some attitudes and behaviours towards my student (and maybe all the employees). I really liked this idea. Imagine if we all were constantly reflecting about how we interact with the world around us, and when we notice room for improvement, instead of pointing our fingers at others, we decide to start with our own attitudes.

Less judgement, more magic

My yoga teacher recently advised me to to take the process of preparing for and running my yoga classes as an opportunity to learn and develop. This, with the purpose of detaching from ‘ego’. He also advised not to be fixated with the idea that ‘I want to teach’.

This resonated with me, also when it comes to reducing stress. The process would then go like this: I get an idea, I plan a layout, I advertise, and I run my classes with a clear intention. The rest is out of my hands, and therefore, I don’t need to worry about it. If the idea works, if people sign up and get something out of my classes, I feel humbly happy, if not, I’ll try something different next time, or try again. I don’t know how this idea transferred into my ‘other job’ in a slightly different manner, but it is still helping me a lot this first days of the Fall semester.

Usually, the start of the school year is quite stressing for me (and for many other teachers, I guess). I have tried in the past to take it easy, but it has been as if my nervous system has a life of its own.

So, this year, I decided to take a different mental approach: 1) Prepare as well as I can in the circumstances I have (time, resources, space, etc) with the intention of receiving my students with awareness and respect. 2) Refrain from having a personal opinion on everything that happens in a school day. Unpredictable things happen, changes happen, mistakes happen, and they sometimes feel like obstacles in the course I had in mind when I planned my lessons, but the less time and energy I spend rejecting these obstacles and getting all emotional about them, the more present I can be to grasp the situation and turn it into a learning experience for my students and myself.

This is, in a way, one of the main principles of Karma Yoga. Do your thing without attaching to the action or the fruits of the action.

I saw the magic of this attitude happen today. Since we started with our new schedules today, one of my colleagues made a mistake, and sent her students into my classroom before our lesson was over. When she realised this, we agreed that it would take too much time for her students to move back to her classroom, so they could stay and continue working silently on a task she had prepared but had thought they didn’t have time to do before she sent them up to my classroom.

Instead of getting caught up in the frustration of having to deal with an unforeseen change, and feeding into the emotion with the whys and the hows of this mistake, I first tried to see if I could tweak my lesson plan. I was attaching to ‘my plan’. I gave my students ten minutes to revise some vocabulary, and while they did this, I realised how great the idea of my colleague was.

After my students were done revising, I decided to let them do the same reading activity their peers were doing, with some adjustments. The last 20 minutes of the lesson went smoothly. I walked around to see what my students were reading, ask and answer questions. Thanks to this little mistake, I have a new idea in my lesson repertoire. No stress. No attitude from me towards my colleague. I just allowed myself to go with the flow.

I don’t know what this school year will bring. Every year brings its challenges, and we also have the pandemic adding uncertainty to the whole equation. I only hope, I will remember the advise from my teacher. I hope I’ll remember to be present, be humble, learn, and continue flowing. When I let go of judgement, stress, and worry, magic happens.

The Egg Saga

Two weeks ago, one of my daughters and I went orienteering in the forest with a friend and colleague. While we were walking from one post to another, my friend found a little blue egg on the moss. It had been windy and rainy a couple of days before, so we thought it might had fallen from a nest.

We discussed what to do with the egg, and after some hesitation, we decided to take it home and try to see if we managed to hatch it. I packed the egg in some paper and put it in a little box I had in my backpack. When I got home and showed it to my youngest daughter, she asked why on earth I would take an egg home from the forest. It was a good opportunity to discuss what is right to do in a situation like this, and I confessed I didn’t know for sure I had done the right thing.

We checked online what to do, and the advice in Norway was very clear: let it be no matter what. We found a cardboard Easter egg from some years ago that we had decorated with some fabric inside, and we decided to put the egg in it to keep it warm. We placed it on the window where the sun heats the most in the evening while we figure out how to ‘help’ it.

While researching for what to do with the little egg, I found an article online where I learned that here in Norway, we are obliged to act when finding a wounded animal.

My friend followed up on the egg, and she sent us a good article with advice on how to find out if an egg is alive. We found out there was no bird in it. Maybe that was the reason why it was on the moss to begin with. I think we learned that we shouldn’t mess up with nature, most probably this egg would have become food for another animal if we had left it in the forest but we had good intentions.

Today, my daughters and I went to visit another friend who has a girl around their age. After dinner, my friend and I sat at their porch while the girls went out to play. After some minutes, my youngest and my friend’s daughter came back with a wounded bird. I don’t know much about birds, but I recognised it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker, and I could see it was badly wounded. Obviously, the girls wanted to ‘help’ it.

I was so thankful for having read the article two weeks ago about wounded animals! On one side, I had an ‘excuse’ to act as my friend wasn’t very keen to have the wounded bird on their porch, and on the other, well, I knew what I had to do. I called the vet and she gave me two options: either bring the bird to them or call the police who would put me in contact with the authority who takes care of wild animals. I chose the latter, and I talked with a man who to my big relief told me would come to see the bird within an hour.

He arrived, looked at the bird, listened to the girls’ story about how and where they found it. He told us it was a young bird, and that maybe the nest wasn’t far away. We walked with him around but it wasn’t possible to figure out where the nest could be. They usually nest in high trees, and there was no high tree around. They can sometimes find a whole on the wall of a house.

He took the bird out of the little cage the girls had put it in, and after examining it, he concluded that it was too wounded to try to let it heal. It had most probably hit a window or a wall and its skull was broken. He would take it with him and put it down.

I don’t know if it is age, or maybe the internal work I have been doing the past five years, but seeing this wounded bird really made an impression on me, and I was so thankful for having found the information about what to do just by chance when we found the blue egg. I am thankful for living in a country where there is a phone one can ring to get support to help a wounded animal out of its misery.

We could have chosen to leave the bird in the forest behind the neighbourhood, and it would eventually have died or been eaten by another animal. I know this is the cycle of life, but helping a sentient being out of its suffering felt more natural. A life is a life. We all wish to get some help when we are in pain.

Here’s some gratitude for knowledge that comes randomly and turns out unexpectedly useful. Gratitude also for life, peace and joy while it lasts. May we all find support when we hit the wall.

How do we measure spirituality?

Last fall, I wanted to start a series of workshops about what I find are some of the most useful principles taught in the Bhagavad Gita to cultivate peace of mind. For this, I had to revise some of the chapters I have studied during the last five years through the guidance of my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar. I mentioned this to a good friend of mine who likes studying philosophy and especially Stoicism, and he got curious about Yoga and my engagement in it. He asked me if I could recommend a couple of books about Yoga he could read. I gave him a short version I have of the Gita but warned that it was difficult to read it from start to end without taking the time to study it, preferably through the guidance of a teacher. I also gave him another book that summarises the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yesterday, we went out with my friend and his family for a hike, and at some point, he asked me “How are your Yoga studies doing?”. I got excited with the question because for the moment, I am taking an online course with my teacher about the origins of Yoga and its development through the years until today. His next questions took me by surprise: “What do you want to achieve by studying Yoga? What kind of title will you get in the end? Are you aiming to climb up in some sort of hierarchy?”. I had to think a bit about what he meant, and what I could answer. I study because it is interesting, and because I see positive changes happening in the way I perceive myself and interact with the world through the practice of Yoga, but I don’t think there is a specific title I can get from my studies, I said.

This, or course, kept me thinking and that is why this blog post. It has happened, during the last five years that I have at times asked myself what would happen if I spent the time I dedicate to study Yoga to study something that can give me some sort of degree. I don’t have a Masters degree, for example, and I know that I will eventually need one if I one day want to change jobs. The thing is, however, that I think my life is busy enough as it is for the time being with three kids and a job. In order to add one more item to my ‘to-do list’ I would then have to sacrifice time with my family and time for my personal growth. This personal growth happens through the study and practice of Yoga, and cannot be measured as we are used to measure things in this side of the world.

So that is one aspect of my reflection today, it is difficult for some people to understand why someone would invest time, energy and even money in studying something that doesn’t give any sort of degree. This said, that is personal growth, isn’t it? Who can measure it? And why would anyone except for myself and eventually my teacher measure it?

Secondly, as I was answering his questions, it kind of hit me that I am literally on a path. I am slowly walking into something without having a very clear idea of what the ‘end goal’ is. Although I know that the ‘end goal’ is self-realisation or union with Universal Consciousness because that is what the scriptures say, it is way too abstract for me to say ‘that is my goal’ for the time being. But I walk with faith and curiosity, because so far, everything I have learned and applied has made positive changes in my life.

Thirdly, I realised how little my friend understands Yoga, and how limited my own knowledge and understanding is. I also realised how difficult it is to understand a spiritual tradition without proper guidance. It actually made me feel humble towards all spiritual traditions. My friend asked me if I am aiming towards becoming a guru. In my understanding, there is no such thing as ‘aiming towards becoming a guru’. I don’t think one can decide that one wants to become a guru. Maybe the simple fact of doing so disqualifies one to become one (hello ego!). Why would anyone want to become a guru anyhow? I guess it is because he doesn’t understand what a guru is. I’m not even sure I understand completely what a guru is, but I do understand that there is no prestige attached to it. Teaching and guiding others in the Yoga tradition is part of the cycle of life. It is a big responsibility, and should not put people in a position of power. My teacher keeps reminding us to be very careful of calling anyone a guru. According to Yoga, the natural thing to do is to help others once one has reached a certain level of understanding because we all have the same divine potential. If I remember right, it is part of what in yoga is called lokasangraha. Spiritual maturity is not measured with how many scriptures one has studied, it has to do with an internal process.

Yoga has taught me to walk life (as opposed to run) with as much awareness as I can. It has also taught me to be curious and be patient. It is teaching me humility and faith. One day, I will take a Masters degree that will benefit my profession, but it is not the right moment yet. I am way too busy with other aspects of my life, and when I am not fulfilling my responsibilities as a mum, wife or teacher, I spend time studying something that I think benefits me directly and those around me indirectly. It is not easy to measure, and I won’t get any titles for it but I believe in it. Actually, one thing that is certain about the spiritual path is that it pushes us to let go of things, we eventually loose everything we thought was so important, we do not acquire anything new…

One last thing, this is how I choose to live my life right now. I do not expect everyone to feel or want the same, let alone understand it. I am not annoyed with my friend when he asks all these questions. I like them because they make me reflect, and allow me to see things from another perspective.