About two years ago, I had to take a course for my work and I found that I could take it in Paris. Since I lived in France for a few years when I was a student, it seemed like the perfect excuse to visit the French capital and see friends that I don’t have the opportunity to see often.

One of my closest friends lives in Paris and although we had not seen each other for a long time, we had maintained contact during the years in a slightly irregular way. For some periods, we would talk over the phone almost daily, and sometimes it could be months without we even exchanged a single message.

It had been six months since we last had exchanged messages, but when I knew that I could go to Paris, I sent her a message sure that she would tell me that we could see each other every day after her work.

To my surprise, her answer was rather dry ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time’. I first asked jokingly if not even for a coffee, but she didn’t seem to like the joke. I wrote to ask if she was angry but the more I tried to find out what was happening, the more it seemed to make her angry. It got to the point that she told me that I was harassing her. Maybe I did insist too much, but I found her behaviour so strange that I even thought maybe she was in some sort of trouble.

I went to Paris and I didn’t see her. I sent her a message to tell her that no matter what, if one day she wanted to be in contact again, I would be happy to do so. But I must confess that her attitude hurt me so much that I erased her from my Facebook friends (hahaha, I know, how old am I?) And I didn’t contact her again…

Until last Christmas when I sent her a message to wish her happy holidays, and then this summer to tell her I was thinking about her, and finally this week, to wish her a merry Christmas.

This time, she answered by saying that she has nothing against me, but that our ‘incident’ two years ago made her realize that her life is better without my friendship.

I am not trying to put her in the ‘bad’ box and myself in the ‘poor martyr’ box, there must be something I did that made her angry, but what is frustrating is not to know what the heck I did. I would have liked her to tell me.

As usual, the most interesting thing in this story is to observe my own reactions. First of all, I felt pain and confusion. Then, I do not deny it, anger because in my expectation of what a friend ‘must do’: misunderstandings are spoken about in order to give the opportunity to repair the damage. Followed by a feeling that she doesn’t really know who I am and what she’s missing, and finally a consuming feeling of self-doubt.

This friend is one of the few who knows everything about me: my achievements and my mistakes, my good sides and my weaknesses. I came to think that maybe she no longer wanted my friendship because of the mistakes I made that made her see me as not worthy anymore. I felt unfairly treated because she didn’t know or seemed interested to find out how these mistakes had made me reflect, and what I learned from them… ‘if she only gave me the opportunity to show her that I’m a better person than I she thinks I am’, I thought. But why would it be so important for me to prove anything to her? Who am I trying to convince? Her or myself?

Finally, yesterday, I started to have some fun observing my thoughts. We all have our weak spots, and I believe that rejection is definitely one of mine . It is as if by rejecting me, people confirm to me what I ‘know’ about myself: that I am not perfect, that I have many flaws, that I am not as good a person as many can think, and so on. How is it possible that from one episode in my life I can waste so much energy on useless and negative thoughts? I do not know.

What is my conclusion? I have to know when to let go. It was a pretty friendship as long as it lasted, but it is over. I am not perfect and I will never be so all I can do is to keep walking, keep learning and try to do less harm than good around me. Accept my mistakes, forgive myself, ask for forgiveness and avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Maybe most importantly, don’t put my self-worth in anybody else’s hands, it will always be flickering and confusing.

Why develop compassion and forgiveness?

The yogis look upon all—well-wishers, friends, foes, the pious, and the sinners—with an impartial intellect. The yogi who is of equal intellect toward friend, companion, and foe, neutral among enemies and relatives, and impartial between the righteous and sinful, is considered to be distinguished among humans.’  (Bhagavad Gita 6:9)

How does this resonate with you?  What is your immediate reaction to it? Can you accept it? Why? 

If we define Yoga as equanimity of mind (Gita 2:48), does that change your way of understanding this quote? Why would this be important in order to have a calmer mind?

Although this quote doesn’t talk directly about compassion or forgiveness, for me, it is an invitation to practice both. Compassion is an important concept in many traditions. Have you ever thought about what compassion means for you?

When practicing compassion, we are always encouraged to start with ourselves. When you allow yourself to see inside your mind with complete honesty, you will discover both the bright and dark sides of it. Instead of criticising yourself, try to understand yourself. Try to understand why sometimes, you act and react in ways that do not serve you or those around you. It usually has to do with thoughts and ideas that are imprinted in your mind as a result of past experiences. When you are able to understand yourself, you are able to show compassion too. This is the first and most important step towards self-transformation. By observing, accepting and understanding, we create space between our thoughts and our actions, this space, with practice allows us to stop living a reactive life and start living an active life.

Once you are able to show compassion to who you are at any time, you will see that it is possible to show that same compassion towards others because you realize that they too, act and react according to their own mental limitations.

Compassion has two main benefits, the first one is helping you stabilise your mind, the second one is to interact with everyone in a more open and harmonious way.

Once you are able to show compassion, you might be able to forgive. Forgiveness comes from our willingness to let go of our expectations towards others. If you are struggling to forgive someone, try to think in the same line as with compassion. Someone once said that hating someone is like drinking poison and wishing the other person to die. When we go around with resentment towards others, the only affected is our own peace of mind. In addition, we can consider the fact that we all are seeking love, freedom and happiness, but we do it in different ways. We all act out of our patterns of thought and perception, and for some, there is a real feeling of no other choice. This can help us feel compassion and eventually forgive.

Recognise yourself in others.

Late Friday reflections

When things don’t go as I wish them to go, my mind has a tendency to seek a culprit. Sometimes it is me, sometimes it is someone else. But, what do I win by blaming and criticising? I only feed on my distress and limit my perception. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on the way I deal with the situation. Things go as they go and we all have to reflect on the what, why and how of our actions, and I am starting to believe that we waste time by trying to guess or judge the intention other people put in their actions. We can communicate in a constructive way how their actions affect us and try to find solutions together, but blaming and criticising only shuts doors.

I had my yoga elective with yr6 and 7 today, and I chose to talk about the concept of light. Our mind has both a light and a dark side and they complement each other. Without darkness, we wouldn’t appreciate the light, and vice versa. Still, I believe that although we need to accept both our light and dark sides, we can learn to reach in for the light and choose away the dark in any given situation if we practice enough. In my interactions with other people, I can choose to act out of light instead of darkness no matter what the other person does.

One student asked, but what if the other person is evil? In this case, we can apply a deeper definition of the concept of light. According to the Yoga tradition, our heart is a cave in which burns the light of our soul. What we call soul in English is called atma in Sanskrit. This is our deepest and purest essence. This light or atma is equally bright and pure in each human being.

Then my student asked, but how can the soul of an evil person be equally light as the soul of a kind person? To this question, I love the answer from the Gita, we all have a pure soul, but not all of us are aware of this. Since we have lost contact with it, we feel some sort of vacuum, and so we go around trying to fill this vacuum with what we believe will make us feel complete again. This means that we sometimes behave in undesirable ways. So a person that does evil actions is not evil. Or better said, his/her atma is not evil, just the action and this action comes from ignorance.

My yoga teacher recommends us to 1. live with the heart on our sleeve (= live in love) and 2. try to always see or at least accept the pure potential in every being. I like these two principles, and I constantly have to remind myself to go back to them.

This week challenged me a bit more than previous weeks. It is the end of the first semester and, as always it is hectic and slightly chaotic. The Winter and the darkness have taken over in Trondheim making it difficult sometimes to stay awake. And then some dilemmas in my working space and family life arose. I felt like I didn’t have energy to deal with them. I felt overwhelmed. Until a dear colleague reminded me of the gift challenges represent in the spiritual path. I loved the analogy she made “they are the dead mice that your cat brings in to your house”. This helped me remember that yes, I can deal with this and more if I only remember to trust in myself, trust in the process and use the tools I have been learning to use in the past five years.

Today, I am so grateful to be surrounded by so wonderful women in my life. Most of them in my working space. How lucky can one be by having such resourceful, inspiring, caring and fun colleagues!

We're getting there

This year, I teach yoga as an elective at the school where I work. This isn’t the first time, and it is taking me many years to create a program that I feel is both meaningful and appropriate for the age of the students.

Last year, during the Spring semester, I was teaching to only tenth graders, which are around 16 year old. With inspiration from a research program I was invited to participate in called Hippocampus, I tried to create a program for those girls for that semester. It worked quite well. I introduced asana very slowly throughout the weeks. First, with mainly just some joint mobilisations and relaxing poses on the mat, and gradually, I started introducing standing poses.

During one hour, we would only do about 20 minutes of asana, around 15 of reflection on a topic I thought was relevant for them (self-esteem, stress management, emotions, relationships, etc), and the rest of the time they lied down on their mats for a body scan and simple breathing exercises.

I felt that the girls enjoyed it and that they got something out of it, so this year, I decided to ‘repeat the success’. What I didn’t count with is the fact that these electives are open for all students between 11 and 16. I ended up with a group of 11 girls (boys rarely sign up for yoga, unfortunately) between 11 and 12 years old.

Very soon, I understood that the program I had made for yr10 wasn’t going to work. These girls are much more active, they aren’t used to be still, and they are constantly looking for each other’s attention (this is very age appropriate). It is very interesting to see, and it has been a fun journey to teach them since September.

I still feel that it is my duty to introduce them to Yoga beyond asana, so I tried to structure each lesson with a bit of asana, a reflection and some relaxation. The asana I teach is very simple because I want to move away the focus from doing ‘fancy’ poses to get to know their bodies better. Many of them don’t exercise much, and they benefit from moving their bodies and strengthening them through simple asana.

I gave them a notebook too, where they can write or draw during the lesson, and I sometimes ask them to write something in particular.

I am trying to find the balance between giving these girls the space to be who they are and how they are, and trying to guide them towards the idea of relaxing the mind and the body, and towards the habit of getting to know themselves better. It sometimes feels like my lessons are filled with chaos, especially when we do asana. There is not much breathing going on, not much focus going on, they just want to do the pose and then it turns into dancing, jumping, and running around. But when I ask them to lie down for relaxation, I do insist in silence, and I am noticing that they are managing it better and better for each lesson.

I found a book called Stories from India by Anna Milbourne at the public library, with short cute stories that invite for reflection. I am now reading them one story in the beginning of each lesson while they lie down on their mats, and we then discuss what they think is the message. This is working very well, and we like the stories in the book.

One of the girls, a seventh grader (around 11 or 12 years old), has been slightly annoyed with the fact that we don’t do more ‘fancy’ poses. During the past weeks, she keeps asking me what yoga is, but she doesn’t really wait for the answer. She is trying to figure it out herself.

This week, I did a more fun session that I found in a Yoga for kids book called Yoga games for children by Danielle Bersma. I took one of the chapters about poses and modified it slightly and we were mainly rolling up and down on the mats working with the abs. I also read a story and we discussed the message, and they did some relaxation.

At the end of the lesson, when I was tidying up my things, the same seventh grader came to me and said, “Yoga is not physical activity, is it?” Before I even tried to answer, she said “Yoga is mental training, isn’t it?” and she left. I guess it is a good definition, isn’t it?

I am grateful for this class. It teaches me so much. I am thankful for these girls and all the kids at our school that sign up. I realise that being a Yoga teacher is not different from being a school teacher. We cannot have a fixed program that fits every class. We have an idea of where we want to lead our students, but we have to adapt the how to who and where they are in life/development, and we sometimes even have to adapt our idea of what they need.

The only way out is through

I’ve learned cross country skiing as an adult, and it has taken me many years to feel more or les confident on the tracks. It is until recent years that I took the courage to try to ski down steep hills (or what I perceive as steep hills) instead of taking my skis off and walking down. I think I started skiing more often more or less at the same time as I started practicing and studying Yoga more seriously. I remember I once was skiing on my own at a place that I didn’t know very well. As I approached a downhill, I felt my body getting stressed, but I decided to give it a try. Half way through it, I started panicking until I remembered this phrase from my Yoga teacher “the only way out is through”. I was already on my way down, there was no way back, it felt like it was going to last forever, but I knew that wasn’t possible, so why not try to relax my body, pay attention to what is happening and trust a bit in myself? And it helped! I couldn’t help but thinking that it is similar to when we experience downhills in life. We panic and want to change direction, but if we remember that the only way out is through, if we spend less energy on wanting to be somewhere else or doing something different, we will feel less stressed and/or distressed, and maybe get through it stronger and wiser.

In life, the most challenging situations offer us opportunities to learn and grow but, most of the time, all we want to do is run away. You might have experienced though, that the more you avoid the challenges that life presents you, the less they disappear. Asana, pranayama and meditation are good tools to get through challenging situations because, when practiced regularly, they help us cultivate a calmer state of mind. They help us create a space to be with ourselves no matter what, and listen to what our body and mind need to tell us.

The Yoga practice is not always necessarily a pleasant one, sometimes, especially when sitting in silence, it will open windows that we would rather keep shut. We need to be brave and patient. We need to see our vulnerability, our weaknesses, our limitations. When we dare to look at things directly in the eye, we give them less power. The whole practice of Yoga is to get to know and accept yourself better. To open up to whatever is happening in your internal world. In Yoga we are encouraged to direct our attention inwards.

An important subject of study in the practice of Yoga are our emotions. Emotions are messengers from our mind. For this reason, we do better by listening to them. Let them come, observe them, take some deep breaths, and when they feel less intense, reflect. Please note that there is a difference between allowing emotions be and feeding into them. When you notice a specific emotion, you can focus on how it feels, where it feels, but avoid analysing it, or trying to change it or even worse trying to justify it. Just observe, note and try to be with it and with your breath.

We have a tendency to believe that emotions are a consequence of what happens ‘out there’ but in reality, they are the result of what in Yoga is called our ‘belief system’. Whether we like it or not, our minds are conditioned by previous experiences, personality and DNA. Every reaction we have to the external world is connected to this ‘belief system’.  More often than not, this belief system limits us. We perceive ourselves and the world out of our likes and dislikes not giving the situation a chance. I invite you to observe your emotional reactions during the coming weeks. Are you, at all times judging a situation out of your own perception? What happens when you detach from that perception? Can you feel any difference? Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with your perceptions but if some of them are bringing distress, they are not serving you.

What about the moments in life when we are being really challenged? When life is tough. Yoga invites us to cultivate equanimity of mind. The less energy we spend rejecting a situation, the more energy we can use to take care of ourselves and those around us and act in a skilful way. It is not always easy, especially when we are used to live in a reactive way, but little by little and with patience and practice, it is possible to keep a calmer state of mind, even in difficult situations. For this, we need to be able to see the whole picture and to remind us that this too shall pass. We have to have faith in the process, in ourselves and in the Universe.