Yoga: from doing to living (session 1)

If you’re reading this post it is either because you already are a yoga practitioner or because you are curious about the practice. Take a minute to close your eyes, feel your breath, and ask yourself, what is my motivation to practice yoga? Why am I interested in yoga?

For some, yoga is associated with physical activity. Practicing yoga means to move the body, to strengthen and/or improve flexibility, maybe also to have a time in the day or week to unwind and simply spend some well-deserved self-time. There might even be the wish to slow down and reduce stress.

The physical activity that we call yoga in this side of the world is called asana in the Yoga tradition and it can be part of the practice of yoga, but it is not THE practice of Yoga. Practicing asana can be a very good way to start bringing our attention inwards by paying attention to our body and our breath. In order to achieve this, we benefit from approaching the asana practice with an open mind towards ourselves, with curiosity and without judgement. By paying attention, we will discover what are our strengths – physically, mentally and maybe even emotionally- and what are our challenges and limitations.

For the asana practice to really benefit us, it is imperative to accept our body where it is, and learn to practice – preferably with guidance – the movements and poses that benefit our body and not our expectations towards our body or our ego. It is absolutely not necessary to do extremely complicated and/or physically challenging poses to be an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practitioner. I would even say, on the contrary, if the yoga asana practice becomes another pursuit in our life, something else to ‘achieve’ to the point that we even harm ourselves, we are not practicing it to its purpose. If we practice asana blinded by our expectations and desires on how our body should be like, we are missing the opportunity to get to know ourself better.

Not all yoga practitioners do asana, and personally, I use my asana practice to slow down, to reconnect with my body and to keep it healthy, but the most important aspect of my practice is my daily sadhana. Sadhana is defined as the daily spiritual practice. The word spirituality can make some eyebrows rise since it is often associated to some sort of mysticism difficult to grasp, but in the context of this text and my own practice, it is first and foremost the attitude of constantly improving ourself in order to reach a calm and centered state of mind (Prasad Rangnekar). So sadhana, is the time we spend daily for this purpose. For some, it is a combination of breathing exercises and sitting in silence/meditation, for others it also includes chanting, and for those that want to go deeper in the understanding of oneself through the study of yoga, it also includes the study of yoga scriptures. The one scripture that is most accessible for most of us living in the practical world is the Bhagavad Gita. It contains the essence of the teachings of yoga, the theory as well as the techniques to achieve steady and long lasting inner peace. The study of the Gita is not to be used as some sort of dogma, but to understand our own thoughts, emotions and behaviours in light its teachings. The theory of yoga, if directed as some sort of light towards our inner world, can help us understand why we think and behave as we do, and then, start making some adjustments to live a more skilful and purposeful life. One must apply these teachings to one’s own life and observe what happens. Learning in the yoga tradition is very empirical.

As one advances in the path of Yoga, the line between practical life and the practice of sadhana begins to vanish. On one side, the habit of observing our own thoughts achieved through meditation can be used in everyday life to slow down, to start living life through action and not reaction. As we continue doing breathing exercises, our breath improves and we learn to slow down our mind using our breath. Finally, through the study of oneself in light of the theory of yoga, we learn to accept who we are, see our limitations, and gradually make the adjustments that are necessary to live a more peaceful inner life and thus interact with the external world better following some basic principles.

The study and practice of Yoga is not always a walk in the park, and is definitely no quick fix to all our troubles, but with patience and dedication, I sincerely can say that you start noticing slight changes in your inner world that have enormous positive consequences in the way you interact with the outer world. My advice to finish this post is, keep it simple, keep it clear. Stick to one practice, don’t jump from one thing to another to please the restless mind. Give it time. You don’t need to make any complicated pose, you don’t need any specific object, all you need is the sincere wish to go deeper, patience and guidance.

Performing at 80%?

This school year, I am working 80% at my job as a middle school teacher. I asked for an unpaid leave of 20% to have more for teaching yoga, and to see if this has a positive impact in my family life and mental and emotional health.

Last school year was busy. Work wasn’t necessarily busier than usual, but work combined with family life kept me busy from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I had to plan my days to the detail and follow this plan in order for things to run smoothly.

I tried my best to take care of myself by doing my daily sadhana, do physical activity, and spend the weekends as much as possible with my family without making any plan but still, I felt quite tired towards the end of the school year and when the calmness of the summer break finally kicked in, I realised how tense I had been the whole year.

Two weeks after going back to work, I definitely notice the difference from working 100%. I feel less tired, more present and much more capable of dealing with whatever happens at work and at home in a more skilful way.

My first thought was, “I’ll never go back to 100%”, followed by “how will this affect us (my family) economically” and “am I being lazy?”, to “all teachers should have less teaching hours”.

When it comes to my family’s economy, I think we’ll manage. I think this change has made me be more mindful of where and when I spend money. This can only be beneficial for our and the world’s well-being. If I cut some expenses here, I can save some money there, and we will be able to spend our money more mindfully. We have always tried to not buy more than we need, but living the privilege life that we live, we definitely have more than we need. Ultimately, the question is simple, what is more worth getting more stuff or living less stressed? I think my kids appreciate more a relaxed mum than anything they wish for that we can’t give immediately.

Am I lazy? I don’t think so. I might have too high expectations for every role I play in life, and maybe I need to work with that, but in order to feel that what I do is meaningful, I need time, space and energy to do things with a sense of purpose. For the time being, my biggest responsibilities are towards myself – if I don’t keep myself physically, emotionally and mentally sane, I can’t engage in a positive way in the practical world; towards my family and towards my students and colleagues. If I have more time to plan my lessons, to reflect on what is happening in the classroom, and choose the way further, I think I will do a much better job than when I am supposed to perform at a 100% feeling constantly drained.

This leads me to my third thought. What is the real meaning of ‘efficiency’? Is it to do as much as possible with an absent mind, or is it to do what we do consciously? How can teachers be present for their students and colleagues, how can we better choose the next step when we are constantly running against the clock? If we are to carry out our real duty as guides, as facilitators, as caring adults, we need the energy and time to be present, reflect and then act in a way that empower our students and ourselves. Why do we believe that the right way to go is to squeeze out until the last drop of people’s energy? Since I can’t change the way society thinks, I can then make the choice to not overload myself and work less.

I will soon start teaching more yoga, and we’ll see how this affects the whole equation. This makes me think of the importance the attitude we bring to everything we do has for our inner peace. I want to teach more yoga because I am noticing the benefits it is bringing to my life and I want to share this with others. I want to teach more yoga because I have noticed that it gives me energy and gives me a sense of purpose but if this doesn’t work, I will have to rethink the whole thing all over again. And this is what we do. We try, we sometimes get it right, sometimes fail and have to try again.

You CAN make time for yourself

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the concept of balance between responsibilities towards the outer world and towards myself. It seems like, a lot of people struggle to find this balance. I know that I am constantly trying to find the right balance between responsibilities and myself. Sometimes, I am good at it, sometimes my responsibilities take over, sometimes I exaggerate on what I want for me. I have come up with some points with suggestions that might help you if you feel that you aren’t good at balancing between you and the rest of the world.

  1. Make choices with a clear mind and try to be at peace with what they bring by accepting, adapting and letting go of what you can let go of. One example is motherhood. I wanted to have kids but I didn’t know what I was signing up for until, in the lapse of three years, I was suddenly standing there with three kids aged 0, 1 and a half, and 3 years old. It was hectic, it was tiring, and it was amazing at the same time. We didn’t plan to have them so close to each other, but we were actually told we couldn’t have children in the first place, so we were happy to prove the doctors wrong. Having three young kids meant that we had to think differently, at least for some time. The main focus became to take care of and enjoy them as much as we could. I am not saying that this should be everybody’s main focus in life, but I do believe we need to be clear about our priorities so we don’t get overwhelmed. I stayed home for five years from the day our oldest was born and until our youngest was two to avoid the stress for us and for the kids of everyday life. This meant less income, and therefore we had to change our lifestyle. This meant balance for us back then. But I do remember that in several occasions, I had to remind myself of the choices we had made and their consequences. I remember so well the year we decided to sell our apartment to buy a house. It was the same year I went back to work . I dreamed of a big house which we obviously couldn’t afford because of our reduced income the last five years. I was frustrated, and I was angry at ourselves for some days until I reminded myself why we had made the choices we had made and what they had meant for us and the kids.
  2. Be brutally honest with yourself: the world will not go under without you, especially if you are only taking two minutes to drink water. You think I’m exaggerating? I’m not! Some years ago, I read an article about an American mum of three that had to be hospitalised because she forgot to eat and drink during two days because she was too busy taking care of her kids. This is, of course, an extreme case, but I know by own experience that I believe I need to do everything around the house so my family can thrive. The truth is that they enjoy the freedom of being left to their own devices from time to time, and most of the time, I am the one putting pressure on myself. This applies to work, extended family and friends too. It is not possible to be at my 100% all the time everywhere.
  3. Ask yourself, what is the priority now? And let me drop a bomb on you, you can’t prioritise everything if you don’t want to end up exhausted. I have (or hopefully I can say ‘I have had’…) fixed ideas of how my house should look like, so for some strange reason, I have always had the habit of tidying up before I leave the house. Maybe for the mice to have a cosy time while we’re away? I clean the kitchen, I arrange the pillows on the couch, take dirty clothes to the washing room, make beds, open curtains, and if I have time, clean the bathroom sink and mirror and sweep the floor under the dining table and in the kitchen… All this until this summer. When I’m alone with the kids during the summer, I plan some sort of outing with them everyday but since we all like taking it easy in the morning, I spend a good amount of time doing things that I enjoy and I allow my kids to do the same. We then eat breakfast fairly late so if we want to get somewhere, we need to be efficient after breakfast. This means leaving the house in what I see as a mess. It is a good compromise with myself in order to be able to spend time doing something that I enjoy, that gives me energy and that gives me the feeling that this is my vacation too. I would lie if I said that the outings with my kids are some sort of sacrifice, but it is slightly different because I am ‘on duty’ then. The aim is to have a good time, but the focus is them.
  4. Make your well-being a priority above all priorities. If you aren’t doing well, if you are ill, or if you are struggling in any way, you need to take care of yourself first. Actually, I believe you need to take care of yourself no matter what, but especially when you’re not doing well. A very important thing in this point is that you need to be very honest about what is good for your well-being. You might need more physical activity and a walk would benefit you more than going on social media before bedtime, or you might need to spend some time in silence for your peace of mind instead of going to a party. I remember some years ago, a friend of mine was having problems in her marriage. The good news was that she and her husband agreed on what the source of their struggles was, the bad news was that none of them knew how to get out of the hole. When I asked if they had considered therapy, she said yes, but that they didn’t have time for it. What can be more important at that moment in their life than saving their marriage? I hear things like this all the time. A friend that is stressed and would benefit from doing some sort of physical activity, but she ‘doesn’t have time for it’. A friend that has a pain somewhere but he never takes the time to find a good doctor. I don’t know why we do this. For some, it might be cultural. You feel that you are selfish when you let go of some obligations in order to do something good for you. For some it might be frightening to take care of themselves. Others might have become consciously or unconsciously accustomed to the role of victim and can’t get out of it. Whatever your reason is, try to find it, don’t judge yourself, and change this negative pattern of thinking.
  5. Organise your time. It might be a good exercise to spend some days, at the end of your day, writing down everything you did that day. Not in detail, but for example: waking up at 7am and describe your morning routine: breakfast, shower… Work from 8 to 4:30, lunch from 11:30 to 12, what you did after work, what you did during the evening. Do it for at least three days, and look for things you spend time on that are not your priority, that are stealing your time and you can let go of, that you do but could ask someone else to do, that you do and don’t even know why, etc. This will allow you to make some time for yourself. For example: instead of going to bed at 12 because you were watching a TV show, go to bed at 11 so you can wake up earlier to go for a short walk before your morning routine, or meditate, or read, or whatever you know would help you feel better. If you are not a morning person, use your evenings instead. Talk with people around you to support you. You need to be systematic and disciplined to manage this, but you also need to show yourself compassion when you skip out. Try to set yourself small goals instead of big goals. For example, if you want to start running, start with 15-20 minutes two or three times a week instead of dreaming of running for “at least” half an hour five days a week. When life is very hectic at home, I sometimes eat lunch while working, and then take a 10 minute pause to meditate, or to go for a short walk. This really helps me rebalance. But it requires some planning, some discipline and the mindset of doing something good for me is not selfish.

I hope this helps.

Coffee or early morning yoga practice? The dilemmas of a mum on vacation and my understanding of the idea of pleasure in the Bhagavad Gita.

“Al que madruga, Dios lo ayuda”, we say in Spanish. Basically, if you wake up early, you get a helping hand from God. For me this means that if you put all your effort towards your goals, you’ll get some help from the Universe. I thought of this recently while debating with myself on whether get out of bed and do my daily yoga practice or stay a bit longer in bed and then enjoy a cup of coffee on the couch.

I don’t always feel like getting out of bed early to do my asana and sadhana, especially when on vacation, but I know what a difference it makes in my day. Asana helps me get the energy in my body moving so I feel less lethargic and more motivated. Sadhana helps me cultivate a calmer clearer mind. Yesterday, I even got what feels like the only rays of sunlight available in days before it continued raining… the whole day…

This reminded me that it is important to keep on doing things that benefit me longterm even though it is not always things I want to do. When on vacation, a good cup of coffee while sitting on the couch is often more appealing than following the discipline of sitting in silence followed by yoga asana. The coffee on the couch requires less effort, but I know the benefits from keeping up with my practice so, most of the time (but not always), this argument wins over the pleasure of not doing anything.

I have been reflecting lately a lot about the principles I am studying while reading the Gita. Krisna is constantly advising Arjuna to cultivate a steady mind through, among other things, refraining from seeking pleasure and personal rewards through his actions. This is part of what is called Karma Yoga. I must confess that it has taken some time to understand the sense of this. It is not dogma. It is not because it is a “sin” in the way we understand the word in the Christian tradition. Seeking pleasure in the sensory world is normal because it makes us feel good, but it is not something that will bring us lasting peace of mind and happiness.

Sometimes, we believe we do something “good” for ourselves by giving in to indulgences. We even find some good explanations like feeling restless, stressed, sad, tired or bored, just to mention some. Yoga is not encouraging us to live an ascetic life, but it warns us from fooling ourselves to believe that sensory pleasures will bring lasting peace of mind and contentment.

Giving in to indulgences, especially when we loose control, can often end up on making us feel even worse than before. I have experienced to sit down for a cup of coffee with a chocolate square after dinner, and then have one square more, and one more “because it was a busy day at work” or whatever, and then end up eating the whole tablet. After the first feeling of pleasure, I feel almost nauseous and have bad conscience for not stopping after one or two squares. So the pleasure turn into a moment of discomfort.

Or sometimes I get so attached that I believe I can’t be happy without them. Because sensory pleasures have only a short lasting effect on us, we tend to seek them over and over again. Or we move from one to the next one, to the next one never being completely satisfied. It has happened (and still happens more often than not) with social media. I am tired, I know I would benefit from a good and long night sleep, but I check my mobile “one last time”. After verifying there are no important messages, I then pay a visit to Instagram, and I just keep scrolling , and then Facebook, scroll, scroll, scroll and before I know it, I will only get six hours sleep, again! What good did I get from it? Just instant reward of the senses. I’m not even sure what kind of reward though.

We are so lucky to live in abundance on this side of the world, most of us have all our basic needs covered, and we can have almost anything what we want. Still, most of us aren’t quite satisfied. We are running from one thing to another, we are tired, we are stressed. Often, because we want to make enough money to get more things, to experience more, to keep going, and we keep the circle going.

Yoga encourages us to work on building a sense of inner okayness called contentment which is independent of external influences. This requires practice and patience. Practice in the form of sadhana but also practice in every moment of our day by keeping certain principles in mind. Patience because the feeling of okayness is not going to come right away, finding pleasure in a quiet mind is not as straight forward as enjoying a chocolate, but the more we practice, the more we see the results, and these results are more stable and long lasting than the enjoyment of a chocolate.

The idea is not to stop eating chocolate or enjoying my cup of coffee in the morning, but to keep in mind that these are temporary pleasures, and the more I get, the more I want. So I need to create a very conscious approach to them. If I get my coffee, great! I enjoy it. If not, well, I can drink tea or water (haha). But first and foremost, avoid allowing the cup of coffee coming in the way for my more fruitful and balancing practice of yoga that brings more longterm effects.

At the end of the day, it all falls back to the same: I and only I am responsible of my own well-being, and I have to be very clear about what brings real well-being and what brings temporary well-being. This doesn’t mean that enjoying the pleasures of life is wrong. But if what I want is real contentment, real peace of mind, I might have to give up certain pleasures in life to work hard on a more longterm and lasting goal. It is said that those that have understood this principle enjoy the world more than anyone else precisely because they know very well the difference between temporary pleasures of the external world and the steady and balanced contentment of the self-cultivated inner peace.

Ultimately, when we read verses like this

One whose mind remains undisturbed amidst misery, who does not crave for pleasure, and who is free from attachment, fear, and anger, is called a sage of steady wisdom. (Bhagavad Gita Ch2 v56).

It is not because otherwise some superpower will punish us. It is because any of these states of mind only create distress and is needless for someone that is trying to cultivate a steady mind.

The whole art in here, is to find the right balance, and that is a constant work in progress. In the meantime, after I publish this post, I will reward myself with a good cup of coffee ;)… if I have any left.

Self-sufficiency – the yoga practice is not always a walk in the park.

An important aspect of the spiritual practice of yoga is the concept of self-sufficiency and self-responsibility. The practice should guide us little by little to the realisation that the source of love, peace and freedom comes from inside ourselves and not from the external world. Once we manage to detach from the idea that the outer world should fulfil these three basic needs, we can reach an independent state of contentment.

Therefore, we are encouraged to make sure that the intention at the base of our actions and interactions is not a need for validation of the ego or to satisfy emotional needs.

During the last six months, I have been more observant of my actions and interactions, and I can honestly say that when I manage to detach from my need of a reward from the outer world, I can act from a place of peace and the end result doesn’t affect me as much as before especially when it is not what I perceive as in my favor. It requires that at every moment, I ask myself what is the nature of the role I am playing and what is required by me in that role.

Needless to say, this is a quite difficult practice, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. The unconscious principle of trade is so embedded in me. When I give good, I expect to receive good back. On this note, a fun exercise is to remember that what I perceive as good might not be received or perceived as good on the other end. Or maybe not as good enough.

I recently had an episode with my husband where I went back to the idea that he never actually sees me. The feeling is that I do my part in our partnership, I work with myself to be a positive member of our family by observing my attitudes and trying to adjust them not to add stress and distress to our everyday life. Still, at times, I feel like I am completely invisible, and what is worse, whenever I say something that is perceived as silly or incorrect, I can then be sure to be noticed and not necessarily in a way that I appreciate. The amount of fun my ‘silliness’ can bring to the table is limitless. Joke after joke about what I said. I know there are no bad intentions behind this, but I did notice myself getting upset about it recently.

I am trying to be more assertive and to communicate in a positive way, so I took this up. I explained that in my view, in a relationship, there needs to be a certain balance between positive and negative attention. I can take criticism and even be made fun of at as long as from time to time, I feel appreciated too.

The response from my husband was positive, but this episode stayed in my mind, as it often does when something upsets me. I kept asking myself, am I right? Is it just my perception? Am I being needy?

I don’t have very concrete answers, but I did come to one sort of conclusion. There is of course, no harm on being assertive, but if I really want to be self-sufficient, I could say that sometimes, I attach to my role as a wife and what I believe I am entitled to in that role. If I detach from from it, I would then be ok with what is because 1) I don’t need anyone’s actions to validate me. 2) Maybe I am being appreciated all the time but I don’t see it.

I have another example. As a middle school teacher, I work with teenagers. They are lovely kids, but from time to time, like any teenager, they push the limits. One thing that I have observed really pushes my buttons is respect. Whenever I perceive my students being disrespectful, I struggle to keep my cool, especially if I am tired. After reflecting a lot about this, I came to one way to deal with it. As a teacher, I believe it is my duty to teach my students certain important values that will allow them to live peacefully in any society, and respect is one of them. Whenever they are disrespectful, I can react in a much more skilful way if I detach emotionally from the situation and react only in my role as a guide and mentor. So, it is not my hurt ego responding, or my need to be respected by others. I respond as someone that is supposed to guide them through their years at our school. I must confess that I am still practicing this, but when I manage, I reduce the amount of stress to zero, and I believe it benefits both me and the concerned student(s).

When I started experimenting with these ideas, I had a period where I felt disconnected and maybe even distant from all and everyone. It kind of scared me. Was I becoming like a robot? I felt like I was building a wall between me and the rest of the world.

It is too early to say whether I am or not becoming a robot (he he), but as I continue experimenting with these attitudes towards life, I feel some sort of calmness growing inside me, and at times a stronger feeling of connectedness. I can even say that I feel compassion when I am challenged by someone because I can see where my emotions come from, I can accept them instead of reject them, and I can show understanding for the other person’s behaviour since I know how challenging it can sometimes be to interact with others when we live trapped in our own perceptions, needs and expectations.