Living Yoga little by little

I recently watched a Reel where a woman shows how she gets rid of stress by one by one taking out of her home her kids, her dog, her husband, and some objects representing house chores. Funny video, and relatable. I also sometimes wish to take everyone and everything out of the house, except for my cat, of course, or simply run away from it all.

Although meant to be funny in a very simple way, this Reel kept me thinking, mostly because I have been reflecting lately about how I keep going mentally to the same spaces that create stress related to my family life. We all want to run away from what creates stress in our lives at some point. Even the great warrior Arjuna before the battle of his life, as described in the Bhagavad Gita:

  1. “Sanjaya said: After speaking this way to Krishna, the Lord of the senses, Arjuna, who is the terror of his enemies, said: “I won’t fight” and became silent. “Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (Ch 2 p. 12). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

It is the Eater break and with it comes more time spent together in the house, and multiple expectations, many of them unmet. Some are my own expectations, and I have to “deal” with the emotions they bring, and some of them are my kids and my husband’s and for some reason, they feel like my responsibility too, so I also “deal” with the emotions they bring in me and in them. This has been the dynamic since I can remember every time we are on holiday.

The easiest would be to go on a holiday on my own, but I like to spend time with my family, so this time, I decided to be mindful of my frustrations and use my breath to let go of them or communicate in a positive way. When it comes to expectations and frustrations from others, I am working on not making them mine. Allow my kids to feel what they feel, ask critical questions if relevant, and let go as much as possible.

The Easter break has become in our family a time we spend at home, relaxing, the girls and I usually have some handcraft projects, our oldest son does his thing, and my husband does too. This, in reality, should be a very chill holiday, but I make a mental mess out of it having a bad conscience for not taking the kids anywhere, having a bad conscience for not doing something in the house like Spring cleaning or deep tidying up, or any other chore that requires more time that I have been procrastinating for long. The bad conscience is then mixed with annoyance because “only I see the work that needs to be done” while my husband “just sits there are does nothing”. The funny (or tragic) part is that no one knows about all these thoughts. I go through the holiday dealing with them myself. So, this Easter break, when I went into the shed to get something and I saw, again, the mess “nobody” takes the responsibility to clear, I took a deep breath and asked myself “Do I want to tidy up now?”, the answer was obviously no, so I made a mental note, I will do this at the beginning of the Summer break. No expectation of anyone else doing it, I see it, it bothers me, and I will do something about it, but not now.

  1. “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.” Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (Ch 6 p. 80). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

I am a strong believer that stress and distress are mostly a result of our thoughts, and although there are situations that do create immediate distress such as illnesses and accidents, it is how we deal with them that makes the difference. Life is full of surprises, and we owe to ourselves to live mindfully in the small moments (like my frustrations of everyday life), so we are equipped to deal with what I see as the “real” moments of distress.

I have now been studying Yoga for eight years, and most of what I study and learn makes sense, it is about time that I have a more conscious approach to its modalities and apply them more actively if I really want to see a change happen in my mindset. Little by little, step by step.

And in moments where I feel nothing else helps, I like to think of the Self, this deeper part of myself that is pure, at peace and unaffected by whatever happens in the palpable world.

  1. “Weapons do not affect the Self; fire does not burn it, water does not wet it and wind does not dry it.” Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (Ch2 p. 16). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

Love, again

I have never managed to think of my work as “just” work. It is almost impossible for me to go to school, teach, and then go home and let go of my day. I believe this is both because of my personality but also because of the nature of my work. I am always surrounded by people. My work is with and for people and we are constantly communicating and exchanging what I would like to call energy. We come to school with our mindset – the one we have that day, and the one we have formed throughout the years – and out of it, we mingle. Students, colleagues, and parents.

That is one of the things I like most about my job because I feel that I am constantly learning about human interactions and about my own mindset and attitudes. At the same time, when I forget to be mindful, it is one of the most exhausting parts of my job because I put myself in the position of “manager of emotions”. My students, their parents, and my own emotions… usually, I have enough with mine!

I sometimes observe in myself an inclination to mentally and emotionally oppose moments of tension. When there is a disagreement, when someone is experiencing distress and several people are involved, if I stop and observe myself, I feel resistance, especially if I feel one side is being more “reasonable” than the other, or when the distress is created by an experience of a situation that I feel is exaggerated, limited or even erroneous. However, once I have taken the time to take a step back and gain some perspective, I know that my rigidity doesn’t help because I end up being dragged into an emotion that is not mine and add to my frustration and judgment.

This month, my sangha chose as the topic of our gathering “love”. We decided on the topic at our last meeting, and we will all come to our gathering next week with our reflections, questions, and quotes to share. I have been reflecting on the topic of love through the lens of my understanding of the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita. The first thing I can say is that love in the context of the Gita is not limited to romantic love. It is bigger than that. Still, I find it difficult to define it. So I can do as when trying to describe Atman, by negation. Love is not a transaction, love is not conditional and it is not the result of an intellectual process.

I have been thinking that we often mix “love” with “like”. In French, we use the same word for both, “aimer”. However, we can say that love is something that unites us, that is bigger than us and at the same time part of us, so it cannot be subject to our judgment which comes from our limited mind. In the context of the Gita, we learn that we are love. We don’t need to search for it outside ourselves, we have it and we just have to move our attention inwards to see it, touch it, and show it.

If we think of love as some sort of power we have in ourselves, we then can use this love in different situations. We can put love at the base of all our actions. I do my work with love, I talk to others with love, and I navigate through difficult situations using love as a compass. It can sound like a cliché, but it isn’t.

So, when once again this week, I suddenly felt I had the responsibility to manage a situation where students were each other at their mental “corner”, acting out of their minds, opposing each other, with emotions all over the place, I reminded myself of the power of love. Somehow, this reminder allowed me to slow down and let go of the opposition. I stopped and thought, how can I create a space for both of them? Their emotions feel very real right now, both need acknowledgment but they also need to see each other. I don’t know how, but it worked. I managed to open my perspective and create space for everyone and I think everyone felt seen and heard. Furthermore, one of my students approached me with very nice reflections that I think will help them in the future. Because that is what it is all about, isn’t it? Not necessarily about solving conflicts, but helping my students find a way to navigate through human interactions in a constructive way, in a way that respects their individuality but at the same time respects other people’s individuality too, creating a space for everyone to thrive.

I didn’t give any answer because, like most of the time, I don’t have one (which often is a source of stress and distress for me), I just invited them to ask questions that can bring us closer together. I have written this many times, but I will write it again, we all live out of our minds and this is bound to create a conflict unless we accept this fact and put love in between each other to create some sort of consensus. The challenge is to be constantly mindful of this simple principle.

I am very excited to hear what my sangha has to say on the topic. I will maybe share in an other post.

Pondering on Karma Yoga

I studied chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita some years ago through the guidance of Prasad Rangnekar, a Yoga teacher from Mumbai, India. I remember that I felt it all made so much sense then, and I believed I understood what it meant for me. Throughout the years, I have revised this chapter a couple of times, reading commentaries from Yogananda, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and Iyengar still feeling that “I got it”.

One of my sangha members asked recently if we could discuss Karma Yoga during our meetings, and I gladly accepted since I felt I could contribute with what “I have learned” so far. So, I started revising Ch2 and Ch3 in the Gita, as well as my notes, just to realize that the more I read, the more I try to wrap my head around it, and the less I am sure I truly understand and am able to internalize these teachings. I remember my teacher saying that Karma Yoga is the path for people like you and me, people who are engaged in the world, but the more I read about its main principles, the more they seem to me as almost impossible to follow in our modern world.

Take selfless action as an example (Gita, ch.2 v47 & 50 among others in ch3 and other chapters in the same book). The only role I play in life that I didn’t choose was to be the child of my parents, other than that, I chose to study to become a teacher and thus, I chose to apply for the teacher job I eventually got, I chose to marry my husband, I chose to have children, I choose my friends, I don’t necessarily choose who I work with, but I choose to interact or not with them outside our duties at school. So where is the selflessness in all this? I can choose to leave my job, I can choose to leave my family, I can choose to not meet my friends anymore. I can make new choices that will lead me into new roles.

Choosing these roles is probably part of human nature, and the drive to stay active. One could even argue that I believe I chose these roles, but maybe they all are part of my karmic bondage. Indeed, Krishna does tell Arjuna that it is not possible to take part in this world without action:

One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation.

Bhagavad Gita, ch3 v4

There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material nature

Bhagavad Gita ch3 v5

So, here Krishna is telling us that part of living this life is to be active. Everything we do and don’t do is an action, but we need to choose the “right” action. The action that will help us grow spiritually, and eventually liberate us from our bondage to the material world.

Work hard in the world, Arjuna, but for work’s sake only. You have every right to work but you should not crave the fruits of it. Although no one may deny you the outcomes of your efforts, you can, through determination, refuse to be attached to or affected by the restults, whether favorable or unfavorable.

Bhagavad Gita ch2 v47

Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.

Bhagavad Gira ch2 v48

So, “right” action is the one that does not bring distress to our mind, and that helps us keep a balanced mind. Since we cannot control the consequences of our actions, all we can do is control the intention behind our actions and how we perform them. If the result is in our favor, we should be thankful and move on, if not, we should also be thankful and move on. Keep the mind stable. On the other side, we can also explore the idea of acting mindfully to avoid harming others because how can our mind be calm if we know we acted mindlessly or, even worse, with the intention to hurt? I guess these are just two sides of the same coin: the intention behind the action.

I once read in one of B.K. S. Iyengar’s books that Karma Yoga is “contained in the Yamas, the Niyamas, Asana, and Pratyahara” which are four of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. I don’t know if this connection is correct according to tradition, but I like it.

Yamas and Niyamas are useful in the path of Karma Yoga because they give us guidance. The Yamas (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.30) are non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteaya), continence (brahmacharya) and non-greed (aparigraha). Ahimsa is an important aspect of the life of any Yogi and also in other Indian traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism. Only this one would keep us on the right track for the rest of our lives, I think. The Niyamas (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.32) are purity (sauca)- both physical and mental, contentment (santosa), study which leads to the knowledge of the self (svadhyaya) zeal (tapas) and resignation to God (isvara pranidhana).

The way I see it, the Yamas are values that we can have at the base of our actions to make sure we have control of our intentions, and the Niyamas are to be used internally to stop the need to act to get something in return. If we practice contentment, if we keep our mind and body healthy and we focus our attention on what will help us grow spiritually, we will eventually stop craving for external gratification. This sounds so inspiring and beautiful but requires a lot of self-discipline and constant checking in with ourselves.

Pratyahara is the practice of restraining the senses, and in the Bhagavad Gita, we do learn about the importance of having control of the mind and senses in order to be on the path of Karma Yoga.

Those who restrain the external organs of action, while continuing to dwell on sense objects in the mind, certainly delude themselves and are to be called hypocrites.

Bhagavad Gita ch3v6

But those karm yogis who control their knowledge senses with the mind, O Arjun, and engage the working senses in working without attachment, are certainly superior.

Bhagavad Gita ch3v7

In this context, we have five organs of action (karmendriyas) which are feet for locomotion, hands for dexterity, rectum for excretion, genitals for reproduction and mouth for speach; and five sense organs (jnanendriyas) which are the ears, the eyes, the nose, the tongue and the skin. In addition comes the mind or manas because as we read above, we not only have to work with controlling our actions by gaining control over our senses, but we also need to work with the mind to ultimately detach from the need for physical reward.

I am unsure how Iyengar connects Asana to Karma Yoga, but I have learned that the meaning of Asana in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is to sit steady, basically, in preparation for Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana and ultimately Samadhi which are the remaining eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

So, Karma Yoga encourages us to act in a way that allows us to keep a balanced mind which in turn will allow us to act more skilfully and eventually liberate us from. the “wheel of karma” which is basically being reborn over and over again to continue paying our karma and, if not acting skillfully, creating more karma…

One who prudently practices the science of work without attachment can get rid of both good and bad reactions in this life itself. Therefore, strive for Yoga, which is the art of working skillfully (in proper consciousness).

Bhagavad Gita ch2 v50

Now, Krishna told all this (and more) to Arjuna to help him make the right choice right before the most important battle of Arjuna’s life. How would this apply in other areas of Arjuna’s life? How does this apply to my life? How does this apply to your life? It would be interesting to hear how you apply these principles in your own life. I will try to share in future posts.

Kudos to my kid

I had been dreading the yearly school skiing trip ever since I checked the weather forecast and saw it was going to rain a couple of days before the trip and then the temperature was going to drop below zero degrees centigrades. This meant icy conditions. This surely meant me being on my bum (or worse) quite often.

Every year, in February, before the Winter break, we take our middle school students on a skiing trip. Every year, we go to the same place, and students get two options: downhill or cross country. I am in the cross-country group. It is usually a very pleasant trip except for the last two kilometers which are only downhill. During the 23 years I’ve been living in Norway, I have been trying to improve my skiing skills, and I am much better than when I started, but I still dread steep downhills, especially when it is icy.

I KNEW it was going to be icy this year, and I had two fears: 1) to fall and hurt myself or break a bone 2) to be so afraid of my own downhill that I was going to be unable to help the students who aren’t very experienced in skiing. Every year, we have students who either have never skied before, or ski only on the yearly Ski Day. In that order. I know, I should be ashamed of myself, but that’s how it is.

A couple of days before the trip, I made an agreement with myself, to go with the flow. Stop dreading how it was going to be, and solve the possible challenges once there, in front of the steep downhill. Worst case scenario, I could take my skis off and walk the last two kilometers.

Usually, we get to the last part of the trip quite fast and give students two options, to go downhill and meet the rest of the school at the Alpine skiing center, or go for an extra loop with some of the teachers. I like skiing so much that I usually join the extra loop. Oftentimes, all students choose to go back to their peers together with a couple of teachers, so some teachers end up in a solo trip for about an hour or so.

This year, one of my colleagues suggested she and I do the extra loop and then just take our skis off and walk the hill down. I was so grateful for her suggestion, but when we got back to the crossing where we had to go downhill, she changed her mind and suggested that we try skiing down through the forest (!!!). She must have seen the surprise in my face because she smiled and said it is often better when it is so icy on the tracks. She seemed so confident, and I know she does this quite a lot with her family, that I decided to give it a try. It wasn’t easy, but boy it was fun! It wasn’t that hard either. We used more time than we thought, but we got back on time to help the other teachers organise the students to get the bus back to school.

Being such a cautious person usually (to not say a wuss), I was so excited when we finally got back. Thanks to my colleague, who by the way, I think is super cool, I got myself out of my comfort zone, and experienced something new. At some points, we did have to take the skis off because there were patches of bare forest, or because there were too many trees. We also fell – me more than my colleague, but that was fine too.

I kept thinking. on the bus ride back something that I have been thinking about lately. Why is it that I always want things to go “smoothly”? Why do I always dread challenges? Isn’t life more fun when we get to learn something new? When we use our problem-solving skills? I am trying to change my mindset in this regard, and I am also trying to apply this in my parenting as my kids grow older. I am trying to transfer this to them.

Today, our youngest daughter (13) took the train alone for the first time. All the way from Trondheim to a place called Porsgrunn in the south of Norway. The whole trip takes nine hours. She had to change trains in Oslo. Instead of hoping for the trip to go problem-free, I hoped she would encounter challenges with a problem-solving attitude- which by the way I know she usually has. Of course, I prayed for safe travels, but I hoped more for her to be able to tap into her own strength. And guess what? Challenges did come. Her train to Oslo was delayed and she lost her train to Porsgrunn, but she managed to find the ticket office and was directed to the next train. She called me a bit stressed but happy from the train track and texted me from the train. I think this is a very good experience for her because she realized she can do this.

In the last year and a half, she has been challenged. She has experienced challenging friendships, her best friend of years made new friends, and she changed schools. Past the immediate distress and sadness, I have seen her grow, and I see her become more confident. I believe that partly unconsciously, she knows she can deal with challenges.

I am being more aware of what I say to her when she experiences a challenge now. I always tell her, you can do this. You have the skills, and you know we support you.

On wishes and desires

Most of us experience if not often, at least at some point in life wanting something that is difficult to get or even that we cannot have. I remember when we were trying to have our first child. It took us a while, and at some point, we were told we probably wouldn’t be able to without ‘help’ from specialists. I remember the feeling of desperation and helplessness. Of feeling that it wasn’t fair. Why us, why me? We talked a lot about it and decided we didn’t want to go through the process of trying with in vitro. I tried to understand why I had such a strong need to become a mother.

Thinking back, I think I was still relatively immature, but I was able to understand that I had a need to nurture someone, to give love to someone. I said this to my husband, and we decided that it didn’t matter if the baby was born from us or not. We contacted adoption agencies to start the process of adoption.

It turns out that the Universe had other plans for us, and I got pregnant some months after we received the papers with the information, and not only did we have one child but three! Almost one after the other.

I have had other periods in my life where I have felt a similar lack like the one when we were struggling to conceive. I have wanted to have something that I don’t have. Maybe the need to become a mum wasn’t the first need I felt in my life that was difficult to fulfill, and it certainly wasn’t the only one.

Yoga came to my life in one of these periods of lack. It has taken me years to understand where it comes from, accept it and direct my attention to what I have and can create. Yoga has given me the tools to go a bit deeper, to turn my gaze inwards. Of course, on the surface, there is always something out there that I might desire but looking closer and reflecting I realise that the lack was all a product of my perspective. Maybe the feeling of lack of validation comes from a deeper need to see my worth that is independent of what I do or don’t do. My lack of connection with someone might be a lack of connection with myself which then makes it difficult to connect with others. My lack of love might be my inability to see that I have love inside me. And so on.

The challenge when we seek to fulfill our needs with a very specific wish is that 1) we risk not seeing what we do have 2) we don’t realize that what we seek, is deeper than the material thing, and thus we can give to ourself and others.

I thought to write this post partly because I have teenagers in the house. They all want things, and of course, I think that this is partly positive since that is what drives us to keep going in the world. But sometimes, they can get so obsessed with what they “lack”, that they don’t see what they do have. I know, this is a typical phase in life, and there is maybe a scientific explanation to it, the problem is when we become adults, some of us might never realize what I describe above. We might spend a lot of energy and time chasing that single thing that we think will make everything be better.

Right before I sat down to write this, I saw a short video from a Yoga teacher I follow on Instagram (@yaeleshy1), and I was surprised to see that she was talking exactly about the same thing I’ve been reflecting on these days. She put it beautifully: when you feel you lack something, sit with that desire, feel it, and try to see if you can define what the deeper desire is. Is it love, is it safety, is it happiness? If yes, how can you create it for yourself and others? There is nothing wrong with wanting as long as we manage to understand where this want comes from and evaluate whether we want to spend all our lives chasing that specific form that we think this want or this need “has to” have, or if we can invest our energy and time in seeing what we have inside ourselves and thus what we are able to create around us.