This week’s mantra

Sunday evening I often try to spend some time to mentally go through the next week. What can be challenging? How do I want to deal with possible challenges? What attitude do I want to keep?

In the rush of the day, I often forget the conversation I have with myself Sunday evening, so I have to keep reminding myself during my sadhana or before bedtime.

This week, I want to keep verse 10 from Ch6 in the Gita in mind:

“To attain this godly state, Arjuna, you must become fully immersed in the True Self through the process called meditation (dhyana yoga). You have to control your mind, body, and senses and become free of possessions, expectations, desires, and greed. You must live alone, at least internally, in a quiet place. This inner discipline called meditation is imperative because it is the means for achieving lofty and necessary ends.”

I made myself a little mantra ‘I am free from possessions, expectations, desire and greed’.

I like the idea of living ‘alone, at least internally’. In my interpretation, it means to find contentment and peace internally, to stay centered and let the world be what it needs to be and flow with it.

New week, here we go.

The onion

A very dear friend who lives on the other side of the world recently asked me this question on WatsApp: “How are you on a personal level?” Simple question that has kept me thinking since she asked it.

My immediate answer was “I’m doing good” but I then started wondering what aspect of “me” am I evaluating when I answer this question? I guess it means that I don’t start talking about how I am doing as a mum, or as a teacher, or as a wife, or as a daughter, or as a yoga teacher but just as Vanessa… but who is this Vanessa? Is she separated from all the other roles that she plays every day? Can Vanessa do well when the mum doesn’t do well? Can the mum be ok when Vanessa isn’t doing well?

I know this seems quite silly, but really, what does ‘on the personal level’ mean to you? I would argue that it has different variables for each and everyone of us, but I think it often implies our social and emotional life. It might also have an aspect of what we can call ‘self realisation’ beyond our obligations. Does it then mean that to do well on a personal level, I have to have a successful social life or have a hobby or be in a romantic relationship?

Through the eyes of yoga, I would argue that my social life and my romantic life are also part of the roles I play: the friend and the lover. So, how am I doing beyond that? Well, if I don’t attach to any of the roles I play in life, if I let go of all my expectations, I can then say that I am doing very well. I feel at peace for the moment, I feel balanced and, above everything, I feel thankful. Nothing exciting is happening right now and still, I feel good.

I was recently discussing the concept of equanimity of mind as described in the Bhagavad Gita with a fellow yogini, and she was saying that although she understands the idea, she is not sure of wanting to live a life ‘without emotion’. A life where ‘you don’t feel sad or you don’t feel happy’, where ‘everything seems the same’. I remember thinking the same when I started studying yoga, and although I am not constantly there yet, I do notice that my spectrum of emotions is not as wide as it used to be. There are no super highs and there are no super lows. There isn’t much excitement in my life, but I feel in general calm and this allows me to appreciate the moments of harmony and deal more skilfully with challenging moments. If this resembles equanimity of mind, I am all for it. I hope it also counts as doing well on the personal level.

I know this question was asked with a sincere wish to know how I am doing, and I appreciate my friend asking it. My point here is to invite to reflection. How are you doing on the personal level? What defines your well-being on the personal level? Have you ever thought about it? Is it dependent on external factors or is it something you work with internally?

“I am here for you”

A colleague lent me a book written by Thich Nhat Hanh called Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children quite long ago. This week, I used one of the sub-sections from the chapter about Strengthening Connections to prepare my Yoga elective at school.

I don’t have the book with me right now, but the main message was how to show love to those who are closest to us. The best gift one can give is to be present. The technique he suggests is to take a deep breath, feel your mind calming down, bring yourself to the present moment and think or say “I am here for you”.

Although Thich Nhat Hanh practices and teaches in the Buddhist tradition, I often find some parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of Yoga.

What resonates with me is on one hand the best way to show love by being fully with the people we love. On the other, it is the importance of being there for our loved ones no matter what. This, I connect with the advice that Krisna is constantly giving to Arjuna to control his impulsive need to constantly like or dislike things, situations and people. “I am here for you” even when your behaviour is difficult for me to accept. “I am here for you” even when you are not doing well.

Isn’t this the purest way to love someone? What we call unconditional love? It sounds so pretty, but it is so difficult to practice sometimes. I observe myself that I keep playing the market place with the people I love. I give and give and keep giving as long as it is ‘well-received’, but the minute I sense resistance or rejection, my attitude and behaviour change. It is almost uncontrollable. It comes from fear and insecurity, I think. It is difficult to be kind when it feels like it is not well-received. I don’t know what to do next, and I know that what is required is even more understanding, even more kindness, but I rarely manage to control my impulsive reaction which is to mirror the behaviour, or even get mad.

And, what about “I am here” when you don’t want me to be here? How does this apply? People have different ways of ‘asking’ us to be present. Some want support, someone to talk with or even a hug. Others want space and may look for that space in a way that can be perceived as hurtful. The real art here would be to manage to say ‘I am here for you’ by taking a step back and hoping that the person in question knows that the gesture is out of love and compassion and not indifference or rejection.

My Yoga teacher usually says ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’, I guess because according to the Yoga tradition, we will never run out of love. Love is what we are, we just have to peel off all our fears, all our insecurities and limiting ideas to realise it.

I like this idea.

What’s up with Fridays? or Friday, My New Teacher

I am trying to live my life following a simple yet sometimes difficult to follow principle: put my energy and creativity to do my part in everything I undertake and let go of the expectation of the result being as I wish it to be. This is a very nice way to focus my mind and energy in doing as good as I can and not wasting it in worrying about the outcome or getting all worked up by perceived failure.

This said, when things do go well or even better than I could imagine them to go, it kind of becomes addictive so when something doesn’t go as smoothly and well as the rest, the fall feels harder. This is quite funny when I think about it, but not that funny when I’m in the middle of it .

The last couple of weeks have been what I would call ‘good weeks’. I feel motivated, inspired and creative at work. My colleagues and I had been working on a couple of projects for our students, and they seem to have worked well. Students had fun, and we believe they also learned something.

I have been offered to teach two groups of ‘corporate yoga’ at a company where I have worked before and people seem to enjoy the classes. I have many ideas for these groups and I am so happy and grateful to get this opportunity.

I will start teaching two other evening yoga classes at a new place where I have been given the freedom to decide what to teach and how to teach it. I also have many ideas for these two classes, and I am super happy that the owners of this place asked me to join their team.

My kids and husband are doing well, everything is running more or less smoothly at home with daily routines, kids’ after school activities, and so on.

Happy days but busy days. So the past two weeks, when Friday comes, I kind of expect it to go as smoothly as the rest of the week only even better because IT IS FRIDAY. Finally the day to ‘relax’ has come.

To my big surprise and frustration, both Fridays have been the most challenging days in both weeks. Just when I am starting to let down my guard, one by one small challenges, like obstacles in a race, start appearing and I notice how little patience I have to deal with them. I experience a combination of frustration and amusement watching myself become more and more angry because the day of the week that should be the ‘best day’, turns out to be the least relaxing.

What happened? Nothing big actually, but combined with my expectations on how things should be, it can feel quite big.

Last week, I struggled to keep my cool when the lady at the drugstore behaved in a way that I perceived as condescending. The frustration was not just because of how I felt I was being treated, it was combined with frustration against the health system because I have been trying to get in contact with one of the specialists that see our daughter to renew a prescription and it felt like Mission Impossible. Then the pharmacist, who of course doesn’t know this, wasn’t being helpful. I was tired after a ‘good’ but busy week, and I noticed myself getting angrier and angrier. My dad has a say ‘el que se enoja pierde‘ , ‘the one who gets angry looses’ (I’m very bad at translating these proverbs, I hope you get the point). So, I lost it, and I just had to get out of the drugstore to not get even more angry and say something that I would regret afterwards. Did the problem get fixed? Nope. So I kind of lost.

This week, the same story repeated itself but instead of a tired pharmacist, I met my tired ten year old Kitchen Aid. I had the ambition of making bread buns for the yearly voluntary work to get the neighbourhood ready for winter tomorrow morning. I wanted to make two batches. It was going to be a ‘cozy moment’ between my oldest daughter and I. Half way through the process of kneading the first dough, the Kitchen Aid said ‘bye bye’ and stopped working, and not only that, I couldn’t get the bowl out of its base to take the dough out. After five minutes of ‘patiently’ wrestling with the machine, my daughter standing by my side looking more and more worried, I just had to stop and observe myself for a minute. The thing is that I wasn’t only frustrated because the machine stopped working, I had already started making many connections in my brain. First, ‘what am I going to do without my Kitchen Aid?’ Followed by, ‘some weeks ago the electric whisk died, then the blender, and now the Kitchen Aid? What is wrong with our house? What am I going to do? I don’t want to knead two doughs tonight. It is going to get late and we won’t have time to watch that series we like to watch all together?, Our youngest daughter is going to be so disappointed?’ , and so on.

I took a deep breath, and went to get a rubber hammer from the basement to ‘gently’ encourage the bowl to let go of the base. My daughter’s eyes were as big as plates but I managed. And we continued our ‘cozy’ evening with me getting some extra arm strength as a bonus.

To be honest, now that I think about it. I am happy these kitchen appliances have been one by one saying goodbye. My kitchen counter has more space, and I can still cook a decent meal without them. I believe in trying to repair things when possible, but these three were old and cranky, so we can say goodbye with good conscience. Plus, my husband had a good time dismantling the whole thing.

I take with me some reflections for next week, and hopefully when Friday comes, I will be ready for its challenges. One: keep my expectations in check to avoid unnecessary waste of energy in frustrations. Two: make sure I take time to rest and do nothing from time to time from Monday through Thursday so when Friday comes, I still have energy to deal with whatever is. Three: keep practicing detachment, especially when it comes to material things. I have so much more than I really need, it is maybe only a gift to be encouraged to live in a simpler way.

Luckily, the buns turned out quite good. My kitchen looks tidier, and I can now go to bed with a smile in my face.

Karma Yoga

In the Yoga tradition, there are different paths, all with the same end goal: to clear the mind so we can see our true potential. Karma Yoga is one of my favourite paths because it is for the practical life. Through the practice of Karma Yoga, you can continue living the life you are living and still live a spiritual life. It is all about changing the attitude you bring to your actions. I sincerely believe that if we all were familiar with the basic principles of Karma Yoga and tried to follow them in our everyday life not only we would be able live more peacefully and relaxed, but we would also make this world a better place.

To begin with, we need to look at the importance of the intention behind our actions. In order for an action to be liberating, it needs to come from a space of clarity as opposed to a state of selfish desire or neediness.

What Karma Yoga is trying to teach us is that since everything we need is already within us, we don’t need to seek for it in the external world. Therefore, we can detach from the fruits of our actions. We are responsible for the intention behind our action and the action in itself but we are not to worry about the results because they are out of our control. We all have experienced doing something for someone with the best of intentions to then be surprised and maybe even frustrated by the reaction of that person. For example, you make a nice dinner for your family putting your heart into it, spending time planning and preparing but nobody likes it. Your kids even make noises of disgust while eating. A common reaction would be to get upset, right? You put all this effort for ‘nothing’. But, is it really for ‘nothing’? You had a clear and pure intention, you did your best, whether your family likes or not the dinner is out of your hands. You can either spend time and energy getting angry and frustrated, or you just decide that either they need to be exposed to this dish several times to like it (do you know about the 10 times rule?), or you won’t make this dish anymore. That’s it. No drama, no unnecessary use of your energy.

It is important at this point to say that it is not about suppressing your emotional reactions to situations, it is about taking time to observe them and learn something about yourself. You are ‘allowed’ to get frustrated or angry, but you can try not to react to this in a way that is draining both for you and those around you. What was the real intention behind your action? Was it to do something nice for your family (in the dinner example), or was it more about wanting to get some sort of recognition? If it is the latter, ask yourself, do you really need anyone to tell you that you are a good cook? Can you acknowledge that yourself? If you really need the recognition, then say it clearly, ‘I made this dinner with the best intentions and I would appreciate some recognition, even if you didn’t like it’. You are then being very clear both to yourself and those around you.

To summarise: Intention and action are your responsibility. The results are out of your hands and therefore you would benefit from detaching from them to avoid unnecessary worry and/or frustration.

Another important aspect in the practice of Karma Yoga is the concept of svadharma, or personal duty. Swami Satchidananda has a good explanation for this:

“What you’re truly called to do is your dharma. It fits your aptitude, your capabilities and your natural inclination[…] No two snowflakes are exactly the same. As such, you are also unique, you have been created unique with certain abilities that no other person can do. That’s your svadharma, your individual duty[…] Find out what your svadharma is. Ask yourself, how do I feel when doing certain things? Does something come easily? Is it natural for me or am I trying to imitate somebody? But remember, that svadharma is different just an action based on a selfish interest. Svadharma is something righteous. The word “dharma” always implies the benefit of others.” From Sri Swami Satchinanda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita ch.3 v.33, 34, 35

This is such an empowering concept! We all are born with a set of qualities that makes us unique, and our duty is to use them in every action we take for the benefit of the whole. This is very important, you don’t need to resign your job, or neglect yourself and/or your family to go help others, you can contribute to the well-being of others by doing what you already do with the intention of doing what is most skilful for you and those around you. You can also stop comparing yourself with others or trying to imitate others. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself, but the only one you need to compare yourself with is yourself. You can ask yourself, am I a better version of myself today than last year? How does this make me feel and those around me? If the answer is more peaceful, you are then in the right direction.

Connected to the concept of clear intention is the importance of asking yourself ‘why do I do what I do?’. This can help you get to know yourself better and decide: 1) What am I doing just to do and I can let go of? Make a list of your priorities, if that list is very long, you might need to consider shortening it. 2) What am I doing with a ‘hidden agenda’ that I can stop doing or do with a “clear agenda”? What I mean by ‘hidden agenda’ is that sometimes we do things believing that we want to benefit others, when in reality we are looking for recognition. There is nothing wrong with wanting recognition, but in order to achieve a real state of peace of mind, in the yoga tradition, we are encouraged to start looking inwards for our value. All we find in the external world is transient, and therefore will never fulfil our needs completely. 3) What am I doing out of obligation?

If you find out that you do things out of obligation, can you change the mindset? Can you do things out of love? With your heart put in action? One example is parenting and spending time with our kids. Some parents experience certain aspects of parenting as an obligation, making this task more heavy and energy draining than it needs to be. If you rather see the whole picture and realise that you do everything out of love to your children, out of love to all children, the task will be less heavy and you will feel better. If you cannot find the joy in it, can you drop it? We sometimes feel that we are ‘obligated’ to do things that we really aren’t obligated to do.

All or some of these concepts might sound too difficult to live up to for you right now, and that is ok. You don’t need to apply everything at the same time, reflect on what is achievable for you. It might be enough to observe yourself in action and to note down where you meet distress and stress, and reflect on whether any of the described concepts would help you unknot some knots. Remember that one of the most important aspects in all yoga paths is practice. You need to practice, practice and practice more. Sometimes, you will feel the freedom, love and bliss that right action bring, sometimes you will feel that you keep giving with ‘nothing in return’. That is normal, but the more you advance in the path of yoga, the easier it gets, and I honestly can say that changes do start happening. It works almost like magic but you need patience and resilience and good guidance. Good luck!