About heart sizes

I consider myself lucky to work with knowledgeable, reflective and inspiring people. I can say that all my colleagues are, each in their own way, a source of inspiration for me. I observe how they work, how they are with each other, and learn. It is very motivating to work with people like them.

Like in any work space, there are some people I work more closely to because of the subjects we teach. During the last five years, I have been working closely with the other language acquisition teacher, and especially during the last year and a half, I have been inspired by the way she approaches challenging and what I see as at times overwhelming tasks. I have never seen her stress or heard her complain or judge others. Instead, she does the best she can do with the circumstances she is in. She doesn’t seem to be interested in playing the super hero, but she always does what I see is the best for her students. She always puts their well-being first. I think she is the perfect example of a yogi even though she doesn’t call herself a yoga practitioner.

To me, it seems like she is always focused on what her intentions are, does her best with the time and resources she has, but is not attached to the result of her actions. She doesn’t seem to be invested in the outcome. Not that she doesn’t care, she does care, a lot, but she seems so centered in her self, that she is not looking for any form for validation in what she does.

The answer according to my understanding of yoga is yes. I believe that when we have a peaceful mind, when we work out of the heart, we are detached from the fruits of our actions, and then work for the benefit of the whole and not just for what we perceive as our individual benefit. Many of us can at times be stuck in the mind which can either lead to acting selfishly to get something in return, like some sort of validation or material benefit, or acting out of fear or judgement.

Unfortunately, this colleague is soon leaving our school as she and her family are moving abroad, and thinking about her and the years we’ve worked together, a phrase came to my mind ‘she has a big heart’. I started playing with the thought. Why do we say that? Are there really people that have bigger hearts than others? Then, I remembered something my yoga teacher often says: do everything from the heart. What does that mean? My colleague is a very responsible, efficient and professional teacher. Are does qualities of the heart?

So, going back to my question, does my colleague has a bigger heart? I don’t think so, what she has is a peaceful mind that allows her to work out of her heart. I believe we all have the same potential as she has. I believe some people wear their heart on the sleeve more easily than others. What can we do then? Continue working on ourselves. For me, the practice of meditation is the way to calm the mind, work on myself and create more clarity in my life. Meditation in the yoga tradition is not ‘only’ to sit down in silence for a certain amount of time every day, it is to strive towards living a conscious life and observe our thinking patterns to then adjust them towards what brings harmony and peace inside and around us. It is to strive towards a living following certain principles, two of the most important being non-attachment and practice. Keep practicing, until it comes naturally.

I strongly believe that if we find the inner source of lasting peace, we can deal with the outer world in a more skilful way that allows us to contribute to the well-being of those around us.

I am thankful for having worked with this colleague for the last few years, I have learned many lessons from her. I will keep her attitude and work in my mind for the rest of my life.

Who knows what is best for you?

“You can rise up through the efforts of your own mind; or in the same manner, draw yourself down, for you are your own friend or enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6v5

This quote is from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita where the path of meditation is explained (Yoga Dharana). Krishna, Arjuna’s friend and guide emphasises that we have the power to make our lives good or bad.

Notice how Krishna talks about the ‘efforts of [our] own mind’.  The mind is key and the outer circumstances are secondary in this theory of Yoga.
The work of self-observation and self-reflection is crucial in order to decide which aspects of our life and mind we can continue cultivating and which ones we need to change, and more importantly, how.

In the quest towards making choices that will improve your well-being, you can start by avoiding taking your mind and body too seriously. What does this mean? Avoid over-identifying yourself with the shape of your body or the state of your mind. Avoid the extremes of overindulging or neglecting yourself. In both cases, you are feeding into your ego mind which prevents you from reaching deeper into your Higher self which, according to Yoga, is Pure Potential.

Overindulging 

What do you associate with overindulging? How do you overindulge? We often think about food and alcohol, but there are other ways to overindulge: sex, work, sleep, social media, reading the news… It is basically any activity we do to stimulate our mind through our senses where we lose control.

Beside the possibility of harming our health, by losing control of our senses, we also lose the opportunity to keep a calm and clear state of mind. Patanjali talks about thoughts that bring pain, and thoughts that bring suffering. Thoughts that bring suffering are selfish thoughts. Whether we like it or not, when we lose control over our senses we are being selfish. We are seeking to feel good through the experience of sense objects. The problem is that, when we seek comfort by satisfying our senses, we end up in a negative spiral. We either experience momentary pleasure in sensual experiences, but the moment the stimulus is over, we start craving for more, or even worse, we don’t experience satisfaction until it is ‘too much’ leaving us feeling overstimulated, and maybe even remorseful for the loss of control over ourselves.

Overindulging often comes from a conscious or unconscious feeling of void. This void is felt in different ways by different people and we often connect it to past experiences or trauma. The truth is that if we all observe our mind, we all experience some sort of emptiness. For some, it is stronger, and for others it is more bearable. 

So, what to do?

  1. Slow down: when we slow down, we are more aware of what we do and why we do it.
  2. Make sure you rest enough: lack of sleep and rest can lead to overindulgece. The mind seeks stimulation to get out of tiredness or the emotional instability tiredness brings.
  3. Enjoy life with moderation: we are not encouraged to neglect ourselves. We are encouraged to use our senses to experience the world with its ups and downs but we are warned of the consequences of being controlled by our senses. Instead, we should aim to live a life of discipline, where we control the senses.
  4. Try not to put your well-being in sensory experiences. Cultivate contentment that is independent of the external world. Contentment is mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is anchored inside ourselves, no matter what is happening outside us.

By contentment, supreme joy is gained.” Book II sutra 42 Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Swami Satchidananda writes in his commentary on Paranjali’s Yoga Sutras that one must understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction: ‘Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.’

“ The contact of bodily senses with objects and attractions in the world creates feelings like sorrow or happiness, and sensations like heat or cold. But these are impermanent, transitory, coming and going like passing clouds. Just endure them patiently and bravely; learn to be unaffected by them.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v14

The Bhagavad Gita invites us to live a life of moderation and of constant awareness over and control of the senses. The problem with putting our happiness in sensory experiences is that they do not last. Everything we experience in the outer world is transient. If we want to experience a constant feeling of contentment, we need to put our focus inwards. According to Yoga, all we need is already inside ourselves, beyond our mind and our body. If we take the time to slow down, to make contact with this inner core, we will gradually experience this feeling of contentment that is independent of anything that is happening around us.

  1. Take time to know yourself in all aspects of your life. Observe what happens when you sleep less, what happens when you sleep more. Try different techniques to improve sleep: reading, light exercise before bedtime, meditation, yoga, staying away from electric devices. Observe what happens with your body and mind when you eat certain food. Be honest with yourself. It might be possible that you feel satisfied after overindulging, but what happens next? Do you experience discomfort? If not, continue as you do. If yes, what can you change? If we take the time to listen to ourselves, to observe how our body and mind react to different stimuli, we find out what best suits us.
  2. Create habits and stick to them. We are all different, and it is good to listen to advice, but if you keep jumping blindly from one thing to another, you are not listening to yourself. It has taken me many years of either overeating or dieting to finally realize that something in between is what is best for me. I have tried different things and have come to a sustainable diet. Something that I can live with, that doesn’t complicate my life, on the contrary, it makes it easier.
  3. Be patient. Be consistent. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. 

Self-neglect

“I must emphasize that you have to lift yourself by your own efforts! You must not allow yourself to be demeaned by your ego-self. Know that the self can be both friend and foe – a friend when used to conquer the mind, senses and body; a foe, when it drags one into the mind, senses, and the body. True Self (Atma) is the ally; the ego-mind self is the enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v5-6

Some feed into their ego by overstimulating their senses, some, by self-neglect. Many move from one to the other constantly beating themselves for either overindulging or for not taking care of themselves.

In any case, we are only feeding into our ego mind creating stress and distress for ourselves. Neglect is not only harmful for ourselves because how can we function to our best when we don’t take care of ourselves? How can we show genuine care, compassion and love to others when we don’t do it towards ourselves?

Therefore, the best thing you can do is to find MODERATION in your life.

“It is impossible to practice Yoga effectively if you eat or sleep either too much or too little. But if you are moderate in eating, playing, sleeping, staying awake and avoiding extremes in everything you do, you will see that these Yoga practices eliminate all your pain and suffering.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v16-17

Note that ‘practice Yoga’ doesn’t mean to do physical exercise (asana), but the practice of cultivating a peaceful and clear state of mind. If what we seek is to live a more peaceful and clear life, we need to start by taking good care of ourselves. Even if we are taught that we are much more than our body and mind, these are the vehicles we have to move around and experience life. Therefore, we need to take care of both. The best way to do so is by living a life of moderation in actions and in thought.

Who will you spend the rest of your life with?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? What is the obvious answer?…You!

You might spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of your relationships with other people. You might invite people to your life and say good bye to others often connected to what they bring to your life, but how much time do you spend trying to figure out the person who will be with you until your last breath, namely you?

If I ask you how well do you know yourself? What would be your answer? Hopefully, you know your likes and dislikes, and you know your strengths and weaknesses. Often, however, our introspection stops there. We know how we think, how we feel and how we act in different situations, and we limit ourselves to believe that there is nothing we can do about it believing that that’s just how we are.

Yoga teaches us that there is more to ourselves than what we usually think, and taking the time to get to know ourselves better can help us:

  1. Accept ourselves better
  2. Gradually let go of the aspects of our mind that bring suffering to bring lasting peace of mind
  3. Cultivate the qualities that bring inner peace

Rude honesty, acceptance and refinement

The work of introspection starts with self-observation, honesty and acceptance. Observe your behaviour, thoughts and attitudes, and find what doesn’t help you cultivate inner peace, what creates distress, what hurts others and yourself. Honest reflection is required here but do this with the same kindness you would use to rise your own child. Do this with acceptance and without judgement, because if you don’t accept yourself, the work of refining your thoughts will be very difficult. Being judgemental towards yourself will mislead you and you will get stuck in the negative emotion created by your judgement missing the opportunity to go deeper.

Let us say that you have a tendency to get very angry and you don’t like how you behave when you do so. Every time you get very angry you end up doing and saying things that you know hurt others. After an outburst of anger, you then end up feeling frustrated and angry towards yourself regretting the whole situation for hours or even for days. Ruminating, blaming yourself for not being patient, blaming others for their behaviour, blaming the world for being as it is.

Do you see how much time and energy is invested in a pile of emotions that are not helping you? What we learn through the study and practice of yoga is to first and foremost accept that you experience anger but you are not anger. Anger is an emotion that comes to you as some sort of messenger, and you are invited to listen to this emotion, figure out why you get angry. The tough part is that you need to look inside yourself to find the answer instead of pointing your finger toward other people, or the circumstances that make you angry.

In yoga psychology, we learn that anger is often connected to our expectations or to fear. If we manage to recognise the source of the emotion, we then are able to do the work by asking ourselves if we can change or let go of the expectation or if our fear is unfounded. This kind of process requires patience, time and a lot of practice. Awareness is the first step, acceptance is the next one and then we can start the work of refining our perception in order to change the behaviour.

That is where the regular practice of meditation comes in handy. When we sit in silence with ourselves, we learn breathing techniques that help us slow down and relax. We learn to observe our thoughts as if they were some sort of movie playing on the screen of our mind. When we sit in meditation we do not act. We just observe. With practice, we can bring some of the elements of meditation to our everyday life. When I notice that I am angry, I can take some deep breaths to calm myself and create some space between the emotion and the reaction. I can observe my thoughts and allow them to stay as thoughts and not as actions. I can then remind myself where this emotion comes from, and choose the best way to deal with the situation without hurting myself or others in the process.

Another useful practice is to start noticing your self-talk as you go about throughout the day. Whenever you catch yourself being nasty towards yourself, stop, and try to change it to constructive self-talk. It is okey to be critical, to want to improve, but it is not okey if you are constantly putting yourself down.

Cultivate qualities that bring inner peace

The work of introspection is not easy, and it can leave us feeling vulnerable. It is not easy to see with full honesty into the limiting ideas we have about ourselves and those around us. It can be tough at times. That is why, we need to see ourselves as our most important ally in life. We need to accept, love and show compassion towards the aspect of ourselves that we do not like, and keep cultivating the aspects of ourselves that we know bring peace to our mind.

Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to replace limiting thoughts that bring pain to ourselves and others with thoughts, attitudes and actions that bring inner peace and by consequence peace around us.

There are several ways to do this, but I want to highlight three:

  1. Decide which values you want to live up to, write them down somewhere. They shouldn’t be more than five. You can maybe range them from your topmost important. Every morning, read your values, and either choose to live consciously by applying them every moment of the day, or choose one for a period of time. Whenever you are in a situation where you need to make a choice on how to behave, go back to your value and reflect how you are applying it in the situation. It might happen that you sometimes go back to acting in a reactive way without reflecting, and realise that you went the completely opposite direction than the one shown by the chosen value. This is completely okay. Practice is one of the main principles in the yoga tradition, and it is not by chance. Every deep change needs practice. So, forgive yourself, learn the lesson, and keep trying.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find some guidance if we were unsure on what to choose, in Chapter 2, sutras 29-32, he talks about the Yamas or great vows, and Niyamas or observances. The Yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-greed, and the Niyamas are purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books, and self-surrender or worship to God (the Divine).

Furthermore, in chapter 1, Sutra 33, he gives practical advice on what kind of attitudes we can cultivate towards other people in order to cultivate inner peace:

‘By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.’

In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 16 verses 1-3, we find many uplifting values and attitudes that can help us:

‘(1) Fearlessness, purity of heart, perseverance in acquiring wisdom and in practicing yoga, charity, subjugation of the senses, performance of holy rites, study of the scriptures, self-discipline, straightforwardness;

(2) Noninjury, truthfulness, freedom from wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, nonslanderousness, compassion for all creatures, absence of greed, gentleness, modesty, lack of restlessness;

(3) Radiance of character, forgiveness, patience, cleanness, freedom from hate, absence of conceit—these qualities are the wealth of a divinely inclined person, O Descendant of Bharata.’

2. Whenever you catch yourself having thoughts that limit yourself. Thoughts that bring distress, stress and/or pain, acknowledge them, accept them, and remind yourself what you want to replace them with. Let’s say I want to live in Trust instead of Fear. Whenever I am worried about an uncertain situation in the near or far future, I can remind myself to trust I will be able to deal with it, and that I will get through whatever life brings.

‘When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.’ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras translated by Swami Satchidananda

3. Create yourself an affirmation. If you know in which area of your life you struggle the most, for example, having a feeling of unworthiness, or feeling a lack of love, or feeling unsafe, create an affirmation for yourself: ‘I am enough’, ‘I am loved and protected’… During the day, whenever you remember, repeat your affirmation in your head, and especially in moments of distress.

You are much more than what you believe

Lastly, in the yoga tradition, we are constantly reminded that our body and our mind are only the vehicle through which we experience life, but we are much more than that. Every sentient being is at their core what in Sanskrit is called Atma. My favourite translation to English is Pure Potential. We all are this Pure Potential which is source of infinite love, creativity and happiness. That is why we keep seeking love and happiness throughout our lives! The challenge is that throughout our life (and lives, if you can accept the idea of reincarnation), our mind has been shaped by experiences, and this Pure Potential is covered with layares and layers of limiting ideas that do not allow us to see our real nature.

Our job is then to peel off the layers of limited thoughts to come closer to our core. We start by replacing our thoughts and behaviours that cause pain with what doesn’t cause pain, and little by little we are able to let go of everything that limits us to finally see the infinite goodness in ourselves and others.

Whether you believe in this or not, you should at least know that we all are capable of much more than we limit ourselves to believe. We all have the ability to change our mindset. It is not easy, it won’t happen in a day or two, but with practice and perseverance, you will notice the gradual changes.

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.