Reflecting but not Writing or How Time Flies!

It’s been some weeks since I last wrote in here. I can’t believe we are approaching the end of February already! Ever since school started after the Christmas break, it feels like every week I’m having ‘exceptionally’ busy days at work. I don’t complain, I’m back to a full-time position, and I must say that I enjoy being a contact teacher. It gives an extra sense of purpose. In addition, I signed up for an online eight week course with my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, to study Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This helps me keep searching for the balance between practicality and spirituality.

From what I know so far about Yoga, Raja Yoga, or Dhyana Yoga as it is called in the Gita, is the path that resonates the most with me. I do apply the principles of Karma Yoga to my life, and I feel inspired by the devotion of Bhakti Yogis, but learning to better understand my mind and how to work with it to cultivate a calmer inner state is motivating and fascinating to me. I also notice that it helps me to improve my interactions with people since I recognise myself in their behaviour. Although we are different and we behave differently, it seems to me (and according to Raja Yoga) that the root of your behaviour is always the same.

One thing that has been a lot in my mind during the last few weeks is my wish to stay calm, to keep a somewhat stable inner peace. For this, I keep reminding myself to do my part and avoid wasting energy on external factors that are out of my control. Every time I catch myself judging or resisting a situation, I take a deep breath and ask myself what I can do to get through it. Is it necessary to be assertive, or should I just play my part and let go of my need of ‘fixing’ everything? Is the fact that I am adding my judgement to the situation or behaviour making it more stressful for me? This was actually one of my New Year’s resolutions: ‘less judgement’. I must say that it is difficult, I have an opinion about everything! I either like or dislike. But reminding me of letting go of the judgement and just doing my part allows me to be more clear about what my role is and where the part that is out of my hands starts. It requires a lot of practice, but it is liberating when I remember.

Knowing that January was going to be busy, I have made it a golden rule to prioritise sleep. I don’t go to bed later than ten thirty on week days. When I sleep well and enough, my mind is clearer and I am much more in control of my emotions. I think this is a big present for myself and those around me. My teacher said it the other day and I totally agree, contentment starts with a good night sleep.

In order to sleep well, it is important to balance the day by trying to live through the principle of moderation. Yes, I have a lot of work, but there are certain things that are less urgent than others. I am learning to prioritise better so even if I have been having longer days at work, I can still dedicate time to my kids when I get home, do some physical activity every day and have some time to do what I enjoy. The key is to adjust everything to the time and resources I have. For example, instead of aiming to running or go skiing in weekdays, I walk or ride my bike to work to get some exercise. I could also run, but I have a heavy backpack and I don’t want to run with it.

It might sound like mission impossible, but it isn’t. It just requires rude honesty and the willingness to let go of the need to do everything perfectly and instantly. Some things can wait. Some things can be delegated (hey, my husband can also cook dinner!) Some things can stay undone and the world will still turn.

Something that has also helped me a lot lately is to accept that all I can do at all times is try my best with the best intention. It sounds silly, but when I manage to really live up to this principle, I relax because I know that if I make a mistake, or if someone perceive one of my actions in a negative way, I can just say sorry and try something different next time. No need to be defensive, no need to be afraid because I know that I did what I could given the circumstances. That puts a lot of pressure off my shoulders.

Lastly, I have been thinking a lot about the fact that we sometimes mess up. Sometimes we’re not feeling great. Sometimes we struggle, and that is okay too. No need to add distress to the difficult situations. All we can do is accept the bad taste of the situation, try our best and remember that ‘the only way out is through’ (Prasad). There is always something to learn out of every situation, and often, the most challenging ones are the most enriching ones when it comes to personal growth.

And gratitude. Gratitude to be able to be part of the whole. Gratitude to be able to observe, reflect and hopefully learn. Gratitude to the beautiful people that cross my path, inspire me and teach me lessons. Gratitude to have all my basic needs met and more.

Everyday warrior

What are the characteristics of a warrior? How would you define yourself as an everyday warrior?

These questions came to my mind when I was planing an asana class where the main poses were the different variations of Virabhadrasana or Warrior pose.

In the yoga tradition, and as far as I know, the most famous warrior is Arjuna who is one of the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita. We meet him right before the battle of his life, the battle of Kurukshetra. Luckily for him, he has Sri Krishna as his charioteer and closest friend.

What I like about the Gita is that although it is known that Arjuna is a great warrior, the first we learn about him is that he is in despair. He is invaded by doubt and maybe even fear and he doesn’t know if he wants to fight this battle or not. What? A warrior that shows weakness right before the battle of his life? How come? How can we relate to that?

Arjuna teaches us that a warrior isn’t always on top of everything. A warrior experiences moments of doubt, of despair and fear, but what makes Arjuna an exceptional warrior is that he acknowledges these feelings and seeks for advice from Krishna.

Krishna then has a long conversation with him where he seeks to encourage Arjuna to make his own decision, but this decision should not be based in fear and distress. Arjuna needs to calm his emotions and see the whole picture. He needs to look inwards and find out what his duty is regardless of the outcome of the battle. Running away is most probably not the best solution because the issues that led to the battle will continue hunting Arjuna and his people.

I believe, there are many ways to interpret this story and make parallells with our lives, but what I have been reflecting about lately is the importance of doing what we can with what we have, with the best of intentions, and allow the result to be as it needs to be. Sometimes, we are put in situations where we feel helpless, where we don’t know what to do. It is wise to pause, calm down, and then proceed. Sometimes, we make the wrong choices or we make mistakes, but what makes us an everyday warrior is that we learn and move forward.

We don’t have all the answers, and that is perfectly fine. If we had them, we most probably wouldn’t be here…

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.

I did not sign up for this!

Earlier this week, I stood in front of one of my classes ready to start the lesson when one of the students snapped loudly ‘What’s up with your outfit? You look like a flight attendant!’ Surprised by her remark, I stood there some seconds trying to figure out how this made me feel and what I should reply. I don’t really care if my students approve of how I dress or not, but I did feel uncomfortable with a student making such remarks. I decided to reply that I wasn’t sure how to take her remark, and moved my attention towards the rest of the class.

The same evening, as I walked home from work, my mind brought me back to this incident. My first thought was ‘I did not sign up for this when I became a teacher’, followed by ‘And what did you sign up for?’ ‘What did you expect?’ I realised that at some point in life, I have thought the same about most of the roles I play in life.

What do we expect when we choose a profession? What do we expect when we choose a partner? In a friendship? We don’t choose our family, but we do expect quite a lot from them, and our friends and even our neighbours.

Many of the choices we make in life, we make when we are quite young. I know that when I chose a career and a partner, I had very little understanding of who I was. I chose to have children because most of the people around me were having children and because it felt right, but I didn’t really reflect much on the implications, on why I wanted so badly to become a mum.

I don’t say that any of this is ‘wrong’, but as time has passed, I have sometimes been quite dissatisfied with certain aspects of my life and I believe it is because unreflected, almost unconscious expectations started to grow in my mind of how things should be. How I should feel, how people should make me feel, how things shouldn’t be.

One problem that I see with this is that when I go around with lack of clarity of what my role is and what the purpose of engaging in something is, the expectations I have tend to change almost with the wind surprising sometimes even myself. Furthermore, I am putting the responsibility of how I feel in the hands of other people or the circumstances.

I believe more and more that the less we expect from the external world, the more peaceful life we can live. This is easier said than done. Everyday, in many situations, I catch myself getting annoyed or frustrated because of an expectation I have that is not met. I am trying to learn to catch myself before I react in situations when some unspoken, unfounded, unrealistic expectation is not met, but its taking time to make it a habit.

Going back to my initial thought, what did I sign up for when I decided to be a teacher? I could write a long essay about this, but I will spare you. I can honestly say that I had a certain vision when I decided to become a teacher, and this vision has obviously changed with age and experience. What I keep forgetting, is that in that role and any role I play, all I can do is have a clear and pure intention in every action I take, do my best and learn from the rest. Every class is different and every student is different. Og I could choose, I would of course love to have classes where students are eager and focused and motivated so I can share my passion for learning. But students come with their own background, experiences, expectations and preconceptions. Every moment is an invitation for me to create a space between behaviours and my reaction. To grasp the moment and turn situations into a learning experience both for them and for me. Now that I am in this role, for whatever reason I chose it, I can’t go around blaming big classes, noisy students, little time, lack of motivation and whatnot for how I feel in the classroom. I have to show up clear about what I want to achieve, and that should be something for the benefit of my students. I am not there to ‘get’ anything from them.

This said, it is also my role, I think, to prepare them to life beyond school and patient teachers. I need to lead with the example, be assertive, firm and sometimes maybe even stern, but for their learning and not to fulfil some kind of need in me.

Life is not easy especially because of human interactions, I feel. We all go around living life through our minds believing that the way we see things is the right one. Things don’t always go as we expect them to go, people don’t always behave as we wished they would. We can of course talk and try to understand each other, find compromises, but it isn’t always easy. Therefore, I believe that the way to a more peaceful life is to always go inwards. Always ask myself ‘why do I think like this?’, ‘what can I do?’, ‘what do I really want?’, ‘can I give myself what I am seeking out there?’, ‘is it realistic or even fair to have this expectation?’. This kind of reflections are helping me a lot.

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.