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.

On wants and needs

Everything I write is about my own personal experience and reflections, but what I observe in myself, I often observe in others. When I write about it, it is mainly to make some sense of my reflections, but it is also to share and invite you to reflect about it. It might resonate with you, it might not. Either way, it is okay. I do appreciate comments whether you agree or disagree.

So, this week, I have been reflecting especially about the idea of lack. It is something that I have reflected about for a while now because I have noticed how this feeling creates distress in my mind and sometimes has led me to act in ways that haven’t helped at all. I observe how, the wanting of something can often cast a shadow on what I have and the opportunities and choices I have in front of me otherwise. For some people, the pursuit of acquiring something they lack can turn into an obsession.

I wonder why we have this in us. Is it part of our survival instinct? I guess the pursuit of a goal or a need has saved lives and brought what we call progress, but maybe, at some point during our pursuit of this ‘thing’ we lack, we ought to stop, observe, reflect and ask ourselves if the price isn’t too high. Is this pursuit taking all our time and energy? Is it affecting our mental peace? Is it interfering with our ability to see those around us and be present for the people who need us? Even more importantly maybe, is there another possibility? Are we ignoring all the positive aspects of our life because this one thing we believe we need or want so badly? Where does this need come from? Is it a need or is it a want? Can we find the root of it inside ourselves? Can we satisfy this need in another way?

I have experienced and seen many examples of lack: lack of romance, lack of children, lack of money, lack of acknowledgement, lack of respect, just to mention some. Christmas is the time of the year where we hear a lot about people struggling emotionally because they feel alone. Loneliness is apparently getting worse and worse from year to year especially in the Western world. I do believe it is a problem, and I don’t mean to trivialise it, but I wonder if it isn’t yet a state of mind. I know it is easy for me to say when I have a family to take care of, but what if, when we go into the state of lack, instead of focusing on our need or want, on what the outer world ‘should’ do for us, we turn the situation around and focus on what we can do? Maybe we can engage somehow either in an existing group or on our own? Maybe we know about someone who also struggles in one way or another and we can reach out? It doesn’t need to be big things.

One thing that I have observed during this year is the joy it bings to my kids when they can do something for someone else. I think it is a mixture between the joy of feeling useful and the joy of someone being happy because of our own actions. It has been small things like crocheting something for a friend, being kind to a stranger in the street by picking up something they dropped, including a friend during playtime. It can also be picking up rubbish from the park or feeding the birds during Winter. Anything that makes us feel purposeful and implies giving instead of receiving.

So, next time you catch yourself in distress because of something you lack, stop, take a deep breath and:

  1. Acknowledge your need/want and do not judge yourself. Cultivate an inner feeling of self-compassion.
  2. Ask yourself why it is so important for you? Is it really this one thing that will make you feel for ever happy? What will happen if you acquire what you want? What will happen next? Can you do something else to feel happy?
  3. Look around you and see where you are, with whom you are. Are all your basic needs met? Do you have all the resources you need to have a simple yet good life? What is a good life for you? How much is enough? How much is too much?
  4. What can you do for others? Are you seeing and acknowledging those around you? Can you give some of the time and energy you are spending in your pursuit for the benefit of others (be it people or the environment)?

Week 49. Reflections

Last Sunday, I went to Nidaros Cathedral to the service that marks the start of Advent. It is called lysmesse which means Light Service. Although we are not a Christian family, we have been going to this service for some years because of our children who have been in the Scouts, and recently, our youngest has joined one of the choirs connected to the cathedral.

I enjoy this service. The cathedral’s pastor has always a very nice sermon that I feel is addressed even to the youngest. A message of hope and a reminder of what is important to prioritise during this time of the year and otherwise. It feels comforting to be inside such a magnificent building, protected by the cold, surrounded by beauty and light, listening to the beautiful voice of the Girl’s Choir.

This year, because of the pandemic, very few people were able to attend the service. The Cathedral opened up for only fifty people to make sure they could keep the safety guidelines. I was lucky to be asked to come as support for the choir.

During the service, I sat alone, close to the choir. Calmness started to take over the place. Dimmed lights, beautiful stained glass windows, everyone silently listening to the pastor and the choir. I started to think about older generations who lived in a world that looked quite different from ours and to imagine the feeling of coming into such a magnificent building, in the middle of Winter. Maybe times were hard, maybe some of them were also anxious about what the future might bring. So they came to their holly place, to listen to their spiritual leader. To get some comfort, to regain hope.

I grew up in Mexico, where the majority of people are Catholic, but my parents were so disappointed with the Church even since they were kids, that they consciously decided not to raise their children into the Catholic religion. My father had seen the church in his neighbourhood receive money from the poorest who sometimes didn’t have enough to feed their children at the end of the month, while the priest lived in a big house and drove in a luxury car. My mum couldn’t make any sense of the sermon which often seemed more like a reprimand towards the congregation. There was a clear distance between the priest and the congregation. A relationship of power too. It felt like the priest was the intermediate between people and God, and he had the power to decide who is close to God and who is not.

I have studied Art History and I teach History to middle schoolers, so I know of the things humans have done in the name of religion, and I understand why, many people, especially in the West, have decided to distance themselves from it. In addition, especially in the Christian tradition, many of the texts used during the liturgy don’t make any sense if they aren’t explained properly. They seem so detached from people’s reality.

Still, the older I get, the more I study Yoga, the more convinced I am that we do not benefit from living a life without spirituality but spirituality requires individual work. It requires that each individual takes on the work of seeking, exploring, experimenting, questioning, reflecting and internalising. We have been so disappointed and critical of religion because it has been misused for power and oppression, but if we peel off the layers of institutions, rituals and systems, the message at the core of each religion is the same: seek the love inside you and spread it around you. Each spiritual tradition has its core values that we are encouraged to cultivate in order to live a better life and create peace and harmony around us.

I don’t think we need to be part of a religious community in order to be better human beings, but I do think that we need to be conscious of what kind of values we want to live up to, and acknowledge that each and every individual in this world has an important role to play to take care of herself, other people and the environment. There is more meaning to life than running from one thing to another to tick off all the boxes in our to-do list, there is more meaning to life than acquiring more things. We have lessons to learn in order to grow.

I also think that we have the responsibility to seek what makes sense for us, maybe also the responsibility to seek for someone who can guide us in the right direction? Not just follow each other like sheep either towards or away from religious institutions.

Life is unstable, life can bring us down to our knees, and we need to take care of our mind and our heart. In the world we live now, we are made to believe that peace of mind will come from acquiring things, from seeking entertainment and satisfaction in the senses. Why would I choose to watch a soap opera instead of listening to some uplifting words from a spiritual leader? Why would I choose entertainment instead of a walk in the woods? I think many of us have gotten accustomed to hide our fears and worries behind stuff instead of looking into the bigger picture. I think that we would benefit more from feeding our minds with words of hope and meaning than filling them with information we don’t need. At least ask ourselves from time to time, what can I feed my mind with that will bring lasting peace?

I think we are reaching the point where we have been at the two extremes. One being following religion blindly and being lured by the few who got sick with power and delusion, the other being lost in our day to day life forgetting to seek for something bigger than our wants.

Who knows what is best for you?

“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.” Bhagavad Gita ch6v5

This quote is from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita where the path of meditation is explained (Yoga Dharana). Krishna, Arjuna’s friend and guide emphasises that we have the power to make our lives good or bad.

Notice how Krishna talks about the ‘efforts of [our] own mind’.  The mind is key and the outer circumstances are secondary in this theory of Yoga.
The work of self-observation and self-reflection is crucial in order to decide which aspects of our life and mind we can continue cultivating and which ones we need to change, and more importantly, how.

In the quest towards making choices that will improve your well-being, you can start by avoiding taking your mind and body too seriously. What does this mean? Avoid over-identifying yourself with the shape of your body or the state of your mind. Avoid the extremes of overindulging or neglecting yourself. In both cases, you are feeding into your ego mind which prevents you from reaching deeper into your Higher self which, according to Yoga, is Pure Potential.

Overindulging 

What do you associate with overindulging? How do you overindulge? We often think about food and alcohol, but there are other ways to overindulge: sex, work, sleep, social media, reading the news… It is basically any activity we do to stimulate our mind through our senses where we lose control.

Beside the possibility of harming our health, by losing control of our senses, we also lose the opportunity to keep a calm and clear state of mind. Patanjali talks about thoughts that bring pain, and thoughts that bring suffering. Thoughts that bring suffering are selfish thoughts. Whether we like it or not, when we lose control over our senses we are being selfish. We are seeking to feel good through the experience of sense objects. The problem is that, when we seek comfort by satisfying our senses, we end up in a negative spiral. We either experience momentary pleasure in sensual experiences, but the moment the stimulus is over, we start craving for more, or even worse, we don’t experience satisfaction until it is ‘too much’ leaving us feeling overstimulated, and maybe even remorseful for the loss of control over ourselves.

Overindulging often comes from a conscious or unconscious feeling of void. This void is felt in different ways by different people and we often connect it to past experiences or trauma. The truth is that if we all observe our mind, we all experience some sort of emptiness. For some, it is stronger, and for others it is more bearable. 

So, what to do?

  1. Slow down: when we slow down, we are more aware of what we do and why we do it.
  2. Make sure you rest enough: lack of sleep and rest can lead to overindulgece. The mind seeks stimulation to get out of tiredness or the emotional instability tiredness brings.
  3. Enjoy life with moderation: we are not encouraged to neglect ourselves. We are encouraged to use our senses to experience the world with its ups and downs but we are warned of the consequences of being controlled by our senses. Instead, we should aim to live a life of discipline, where we control the senses.
  4. Try not to put your well-being in sensory experiences. Cultivate contentment that is independent of the external world. Contentment is mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is anchored inside ourselves, no matter what is happening outside us.

By contentment, supreme joy is gained.” Book II sutra 42 Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Swami Satchidananda writes in his commentary on Paranjali’s Yoga Sutras that one must understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction: ‘Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.’

“ The contact of bodily senses with objects and attractions in the world creates feelings like sorrow or happiness, and sensations like heat or cold. But these are impermanent, transitory, coming and going like passing clouds. Just endure them patiently and bravely; learn to be unaffected by them.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v14

The Bhagavad Gita invites us to live a life of moderation and of constant awareness over and control of the senses. The problem with putting our happiness in sensory experiences is that they do not last. Everything we experience in the outer world is transient. If we want to experience a constant feeling of contentment, we need to put our focus inwards. According to Yoga, all we need is already inside ourselves, beyond our mind and our body. If we take the time to slow down, to make contact with this inner core, we will gradually experience this feeling of contentment that is independent of anything that is happening around us.

  1. Take time to know yourself in all aspects of your life. Observe what happens when you sleep less, what happens when you sleep more. Try different techniques to improve sleep: reading, light exercise before bedtime, meditation, yoga, staying away from electric devices. Observe what happens with your body and mind when you eat certain food. Be honest with yourself. It might be possible that you feel satisfied after overindulging, but what happens next? Do you experience discomfort? If not, continue as you do. If yes, what can you change? If we take the time to listen to ourselves, to observe how our body and mind react to different stimuli, we find out what best suits us.
  2. Create habits and stick to them. We are all different, and it is good to listen to advice, but if you keep jumping blindly from one thing to another, you are not listening to yourself. It has taken me many years of either overeating or dieting to finally realize that something in between is what is best for me. I have tried different things and have come to a sustainable diet. Something that I can live with, that doesn’t complicate my life, on the contrary, it makes it easier.
  3. Be patient. Be consistent. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. 

Self-neglect

“I must emphasize that you have to lift yourself by your own efforts! You must not allow yourself to be demeaned by your ego-self. Know that the self can be both friend and foe – a friend when used to conquer the mind, senses and body; a foe, when it drags one into the mind, senses, and the body. True Self (Atma) is the ally; the ego-mind self is the enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v5-6

Some feed into their ego by overstimulating their senses, some, by self-neglect. Many move from one to the other constantly beating themselves for either overindulging or for not taking care of themselves.

In any case, we are only feeding into our ego mind creating stress and distress for ourselves. Neglect is not only harmful for ourselves because how can we function to our best when we don’t take care of ourselves? How can we show genuine care, compassion and love to others when we don’t do it towards ourselves?

Therefore, the best thing you can do is to find MODERATION in your life.

“It is impossible to practice Yoga effectively if you eat or sleep either too much or too little. But if you are moderate in eating, playing, sleeping, staying awake and avoiding extremes in everything you do, you will see that these Yoga practices eliminate all your pain and suffering.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v16-17

Note that ‘practice Yoga’ doesn’t mean to do physical exercise (asana), but the practice of cultivating a peaceful and clear state of mind. If what we seek is to live a more peaceful and clear life, we need to start by taking good care of ourselves. Even if we are taught that we are much more than our body and mind, these are the vehicles we have to move around and experience life. Therefore, we need to take care of both. The best way to do so is by living a life of moderation in actions and in thought.

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.