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.

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.