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.

On being a mother: between ego and sacrifice

Among all the roles I play in life, motherhood is the one that keeps me reflecting the most. Where is the line between my responsibility and my kids’ own path in life? Where do my attitudes and behaviours stem from? A genuine wish to guide my children or my ego? How much am I ‘supposed’ to sacrifice in the name of motherhood?

I understand that being a mother is not what defines me. I understand that motherhood is one of the roles I play in life, but who I am is not limited to being a mum. I understand that I would harm myself and my kids if I were too attached to this role because every action then would come from ego. This said, I do believe that of all the roles I play in life, being a mum is the most important right now. My kids came to the world into our family, and at least during their first eighteen years or so, we have the responsibility to create a safe environment for them. Since they are young, they are still creating their own perception of who they are and the world around them. I know that this perception will change through experience, but I feel that I have the responsibility to at least try to help them have a positive experience of these first years.

Still, when I think about myself as a child, I can recognise that already then, I had my own way of perceiving things. Sometimes, no matter what my parents or other adults said. This means that as a mum, my job is to be clear about what my intentions are, but at the end of the day, the way my kids develop will be pretty much out of my hands. I can only guide and live the life I want them to be inspired by, but they will eventually live the life they will choose and learn the lessons they came to learn.

The way I understand it, ego, or ahamkara in sanskrit, is the aspect of our self that limits us. When we let ego guide us, we act in limited ways. Ego feeds itself, among other things from believing that its importance in this world is connected to how much control we have of our surroundings. Ego is the part of us that is attached to the practical world: what we do, the titles we have, the ideas and believes we have, the material possessions we have, our achievements and our defeats. So, as a mum, how can I keep ego in check? By letting go of control? By not being selfish? By sacrificing everything to my children? Maybe, but there is a catch in this idea of sacrifice too.

One of the basic principles in Karma yoga is yadnya which is translated as sacrifice. Anyone that is a parent would say that in order to be a good parent, we need to make some sacrifice. But what does sacrifice really mean? Can our understanding of sacrifice also feed into our ego?

Sacrifice is explained by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita as offering our actions to something bigger than us. So, yes, we play our role of parents as a sacrifice when we keep in check our intentions and avoid acting out of fear, own ambition, or a need to control our children. Sacrifice is by no means a concept of self-neglect because connected to the concept of sacrifice is the idea of sustainability. Can I go on like this for long? Also, because once we put ourself in a role of martyr, it is very easy to feed the ego with it. So, where goes the line between not being selfish and neglecting yourself? From personal experience, I know this line is very thin, and it keeps moving.

I have observed myself rejecting projects or even opportunities using my kids as an excuse. ‘I don’t have time because I want to be present for my kids’. I do want to be present for them, and I think I am, but to be honest, I have, in some occasions asked myself if I wasn’t using my kids as an excuse to not come out of my comfort zone.

This weekend, I signed up to a webinar of an hour and a half each day. In addition, I had some small things I wanted to do that do not include involving the whole family. To begin with, I felt bad conscience, I felt selfish and stressed. Especially towards one of our daughters who needs daily physical activity, and who is quite lonely during the weekends. But I had to let go of my need of always having control over everything. It is ok, from time to time, to dedicate some of our common free time to my own personal and professional growth. I think our daughter has appreciated the opportunity to spend time on her own with her things, and just relax for the weekend. I have made agreements with her, and both yesterday and today she went outside to move either walking or biking. My family do need me, but it doesn’t collapse if I sometimes let go of my need to organise and control everything. This for my own peace of mind, and for my kids to discover that they are completely capable of managing their free time on their own.

Why do I like Marvel movies so much?

Since the start of January, life has been busy. I have been planning a trip to India to study meditation with my teacher, but I made a terrible mistake with the paperwork required for the trip. I have this bad habit of always taking the longest and most complicated path towards a goal. So six weeks before my trip, I was trying to get all my documents in order to be allowed to travel. In addition, my husband and middle daughter left for a planned trip three weeks before my departure.

So here I was, at home with our other two children, with work, after school activities, and the responsibility of the house on my own.

It has been some intense weeks towards this trip. After letting go of my frustration for complicating things, I just did what I felt I could do to get my papers in order, and decided to leave the rest to happen as it had to happen. Luckily, nobody’s life depended on this trip, so if it turned out I couldn’t go, I would have felt very disappointed, but at least I would have learned my lesson.

Like magic, the same week my daughter and husband left for their trip, I received a message that I could pick up my passport in Oslo. That frustration and uncertainty got solved.

Then, there was work. Lots of work. I took on an extra role this Spring semester, and this meant some late evenings in January at work. Again, slightly bad planning from my side knowing that my husband was going to be away and that I had to juggle between my main job as a teacher, my kids’ activities and my yoga classes.

Early on, I had this ‘peptalk’ with myself: what are my main priorities here? How can I organise myself? What can I let go of to make my everyday easier? What can we learn from all this?

My main priority is: stay calm, keep my inner peace. If I mange to do this in the middle of busy periods, I am more focused, I am more creative and more efficient. I am open and present at any moment with my children (who are my priority nr2), with my students (at school and in my yoga classes) and my colleagues.

So, following the teachings of Karma yoga, I tried to keep in mind at all times what my role in each situation was, I did my best, and hoped for the best. I don’t want to sound crazy, but just like magic, things kept falling into place little by little. My kids are now old enough to take some responsibility at home and help, and I think they enjoyed this responsibility. I enjoyed the time I spent with them knowing that otherwise, we were all three going from one thing to another throughout the week.

I did meet some challenges, some ups and some downs, and after a first reaction of frustration, I kept reminding myself to stay focused, stay calm, and here I am two days before my departure and it seems like everything is ready. My lessons are planned, my house is clean, there’s food in the fridge, and my kids are calm. My husband and daughter are soon on their way back home.

Just yesterday, I was watching a Marvel movie with my youngest. We l-o-v-e to watch Marvel movies! And it suddenly hit me why I like these superheroes so much. They just do what they have to do. They get beaten up, they win some battles and they loose others, but they have very clear what their goal and priorities are. They just keep going. That is the life I aspire. Clarity, empowerment, resilience. That is why I work so hard on myself, and I see that the positive results not only benefit myself but also those closer to me. No matter how busy I am, I prioritise my sadhana, at least ten minutes breathing exercises. This helps me reconnect with myself, slow down and set things in perspective. It is self-help at its best.

I am also lucky enough to have supportive and understanding colleagues, some close friends that I know I can count with if things get too crazy and the support of my husband that encourages me to go on trips like this one. There isn’t many people in my life, but the ones that are in it make a big difference, just by their presence, their support and understanding.

May we all have the clarity to keep reminding ourselves to be open, stay calm and focused, and above all trust in ourselves and the process.

Have a good week everyone!