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.

The Inner Vacuum

According to the Yoga tradition, everything we need is already inside us but we have somehow lost the connection with what we are at our core. The deepest part of us, our true Self, is complete and unshakable but covering this unshakable Self , are layers of misleading ideas we have about who we are. This is called the lower self.

The bigger the gap between our Self and our self, the more we experience an inner vacuum. This inner vacuum manifests itself in different ways in each person, and this sensation is at the base of all our uncontrolled and unconscious craving for external attention, affirmation and validation.

In my experience, I do see this vacuum at the base of emotions and behaviour that keep bringing pain for myself and others. I have observed that for me, the vacuum manifests itself as a perceived lack of love or attention from those close to me. When I feel the vacuum, I always blame it on what the external world is not doing to fulfill my ‘needs’. It has taken time and patience to accept this, and even more time and patience to convince my mind that I am ok. I still have moments where certain situations become difficult because my mind perceives them as a proof of my ‘unworthiness’, but little by little, it is becoming easier to take myself out of this limiting idea. Because that is what the inner vacuum does, it convinces us that we are lacking something and it is often because we ‘don’t deserve’ it.

Other people try to fill the vacuum with objects, with food, with projects, titles, goals, experiences… I am not saying that any of these things is wrong. There isn’t really an absolute right or wrong way to try to live a fulfilling life, and we all do whatever we can to feel satisfied. However, if you find yourself constantly running after or away from something, constantly stressed about your life, you might want to consider this idea. The typical way to discover if we are being chased by our inner vacuum is if we keep living in the “If…. I will be happy”.

All the external world can offer us are glimpses of moments of fulfilment because everything is in constant change and out of our control. This leaves us mostly unsatisfied, craving for more or disappointed because nothing and no one can measure up to our expectations. This inner vacuum can be at the base of our constant business too.

This does not mean that we should loathe the world or our lower self, what we need to do, is learn to take them for what they are: the self is our vehicle to be and interact in the world and the world is here to give us experiences to learn to know ourself better, first the lower self and its limiting tendencies, and by letting go of each one of these tendencies, we gradually get closer to who we really are, the Self. As Jack Hawley explains in his translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita:

[…]this world is a learning ground, a place to discipline, train, and elevate all beings. If we decline to learn we cannot derive the benefit of the schooling.”
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (ch3 v16, p. 31). New World Library.

The ‘schooling’ is life, and we are here not to get caught up in the self and its limitations but to learn and grow to achieve a lasting inner peace and happiness. This way, we function better in the world and we fulfill our true potential. For our own good and for the good of the whole.

What is it that we need to discipline and train? The mind. To discipline the mind, we need to create the space to get to know our patterns of thought better. This needs to be done without judgement so the first step is acceptance. To accept that a limited view, an expectation, a craving is damaging our inner peace. The next step is curiosity. Ask yourself, why do I think like this? What triggers this or that emotion? And finally, little by little and with a lot of practice, start making small adjustments. Start by trying not to act on or react to the thought or emotion that you know only brings suffering in the long run, this way the mind starts to calm down in that area and eventually, you will manage to let go.

What kind of thoughts do we need to discipline and train our mind to let go of? Basically, all thoughts that lead us to believe that we are what we do and what he have, and by consequence we also are what we don’t do and what we don’t have. By identifying ourself with what we have and or do, we can easily allow sensory indulgences, expectations, and selfish desires to be at the base of my actions. The problem with this is that we never get completely satisfied mainly because the result of our actions is rarely exactly as we expect it to be so we end up frustrated or the feeling of satisfaction lasts just for a short while so we keep wanting more.

Being aware can help us recognise when our motivation to act is the inner vacuum and either refrain from acting or change the intention. A third option is to act to hide the inner vacuum for a while, but be conscious of it.

A quite common place where the inner vacuum messes up for us is in our interactions with other people. Ask yourself, how many times have you done something expecting a specific response in return? And how often have you been frustrated because the response is not the one you were expecting? If we go around believing that the world is there to fill our vacuum, that the world owes us something, we are going to live a quite tiring and frustrating life, not to mention selfish. So step nr1: have your intentions very clear, and try to understand your emotional reactions when the result of your actions isn’t the desired one. Be compassionate towards yourself and the person or people involved. Step nr2: try to move away from acting to fill your vacuum. For this, you need to start cultivating inner contentment and self-sufficiency.

In order to cultivate contentment (santosha) you can start by focusing on what you can be thankful for every day. Some people practice writing three things at the end of each day. No matter how bad your day was, there is always something to be thankful for, if only the practical things that we give for granted: a bed, food, clean clothes, etc. Contentment can then be extended also to the not so pleasant things in your life. As painful as some experiences can be, we can always draw something positive out of them. I remember the feeling of overwhelming thankfulness I have had every time I meet someone that is able to help my daughter who has special needs. I am not thankful that she was born with a syndrome, but I am thankful for the lessons I have learned since she was born, and the opportunity to meet so dedicated and wonderful people. It has also inspired me to be a more understanding and compassionate teacher and mum.

Self-sufficiency is slightly more difficult for some of us (or maybe for most of us), but it is very important. Think a bit about this one, if you were really satisfied with who you are, would you then be craving for someone else’s attention? If you truly respected yourself, would it then be so important to you that other people show respect to you? If you truly loved yourself, would you then need so badly for others to love you? All the things that you need, you can cultivate inside you, and then, you will easily see how much you already get from the outer world. You will also and most importantly be able to give more, and above all, you will be able to show compassion to other people when you recognise that their sometimes challenging behaviour comes from the same space than yours: the inner vacuum.

“Arjuna, those who have found the pure contentment, satisfaction, and peace of the Atma (the True Self Within) are fulfilled. They have nothing more in this world to accomplish, no more obligations to meet. Being in the Atma,these people are beyond karma.
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (ch3 v17 p. 31).

To be self-sufficient requires (again) practice and patience. It requires our full acceptance of who we are, compassion towards ourself, and the willingness to change our mindset from seeking outside to exploring innards.