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.

What if?

– Dedicated to a dear friend

What if
The very thing
You believe you're missing
The very thing
You keep chasing
The very thing
You believe will make you happy
Is
The very thing
That is holding you back
The very thing
That is draining you from energy
The very thing
That is standing on your way
To
Pure contentment
To
True happiness
Dare
To drop it
That very thing
Let it go
And then
Stand still
Be quiet
You will discover
How complete you are
Without
That very thing

Self-compassion

Let a man lift himself by himself; let him not degrade himself; for the Self alone is the friend of the self and the Self alone is the enemy of the self. Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6 verse 5

Compassion is an important aspect in the practice of Yoga and one of the core values in Buddhism. I recently asked both my adult yoga students and my teenage yoga students what compassion is for them, and their answers inspired me to write this post.

I can start like I did with my students by asking what is compassion for you? Take a moment to think about it before you read further.

The common definition that most of us use is being understanding and kind towards others. The definition in the dictionary is slightly different: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Very few students include themselves as an important object of compassion when defining the word.  However, according to the Yogic and Buddhist traditions, in order to cultivate compassion towards others, we have to first cultivate compassion towards ourselves. If this is a new idea for you, take some time to reflect on it. Doesn’t it make sense? But what does that mean? How do we show compassion towards ourself?

I asked one of my teenage yoga students how she shows compassion towards herself, and she answered “by eating chocolate”. Eventhoug there is nothing wrong with enjoying something we like,  I think this illustrates how we sometimes tend to misunderstand what self-compassion is, and that is why I opened this post with the quote from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita.

We often think that we are being kind towards ourselves by indulging in something, especially when we experience distress. It can be food, alcohol, TV, social media, you name it. In my perspective, this is only a way of escaping from that distress. We might get the illusion that we are alleviating it, but in reality we are just hiding it or pushing it away. That is not self-compassion.

Self-compassion requires courage, it requires the ability to see beyond our fear. We have to first have the courage to stop running away and face the source of our distress, which we often have the illusion comes from the outside world, but if we look closely, we will discover that it comes from inside us.

So, I wonder, when am I doing something ‘kind’ towards myself that will allow me to continue growing as a spiritual being and what am I using as crutches to avoid the fall, the pain, the distress?

I have already shared in a post the distress I sometimes cause inside myself because I get caught up in thoughts and emotions. I recently realized that I haven’t been showing self-compassion at all. Although it is positive to be aware of one’s flaws, one’s dark sides, it is harming to be judgemental about them. The advice in Yoga is so subtile, I think. We are encouraged to confront our inner darkness but we have to accept it first and then make small adjustments at a time. As a dear friend recently said to me, you need to embrace the monster inside you to move forward.

Only when we decide to live a life of awareness, of rude honesty towards ourselves, will we be able  be compassionate towards ourselves and thus lift ourselves forward.

In the process, compassion towards others starts to come easier and more naturally as we keep discovering our dark sides, our weaknessess and we then can identify with other people’s distress. This allows us to be less judgemental and more understanding, more tolerant, more willing to help.

 

 

Four reasons why we shouldn’t aim towards perfection.

In some traditions, it is believed that we all go around experiencing some sense of internal void. Some of us are aware of it, some of us aren’t. I remember having this feeling of emptiness, or some sort of nostalgia since I was a little girl, and I didn’t know where it came from or what to do with it. At times it was bigger, at times it was so silent that I barely noticed it. Years passed and I never gave this much of a thought.

Then, in 2014,  the inward journey started for me when I started studying Yoga in Mumbai. I maybe wasn’t even aware that I was embarking towards an inward journey, I just felt that a lot of what my Yoga teacher was saying made sense. I wanted to explore these teachings, apply them to my life and see what happens.

One of the things we learn in Yoga is that our mind is conditioned and limited by layers and layers of ideas and false perceptions ( I won’t explain here where it is believed they come from), and one of the purposes of Yoga is to help us discover these layers, so we can peel them off, one by one, and see who we really are. In the process, our interactions with the world become easier, because we no longer limit ourselves with these layers.

This was a bit difficult to grasp for me back then, but I liked the idea that all I need is already inside me, and that the solution to all my struggles is to be found inside me, so I decided to give all this a try.

Little by little, I have been discovering my patterns of thought and behavior, I have been discovering my limits, and as I go, I try to make some adjustments here, and some adjustments there to live more in harmony with what is.

Despite all this internal work, I have bad days, I make mistakes, I fall into old patterns of thought and behavior, and when it happens, I have to confess that I have felt devastated. I have tortured myself thinking that all the work I have done so far with myself has been for nothing. Last time this happened, I realized that the lesson to be learned in these situations is one of humility.

The path of inner awareness is not the path of perfection. Perfection is sneaky because I have never considered myself a perfectionist, but I think I am. Especially when it comes to myself.

Spirituality cannot be the path of perfection as we understand perfection, and here are some reasons why I believe this:

  1. It is exhausting: who gets to decide what is perfect? And since we live in the transient world, how long will this perfection last anyhow? And once I reach perfection in this, I will want to reach perfection in that, and it will never end distracting myself from what really matters.
  2. It is unrealistic because nothing is perfect. According to Yoga philosophy perfection cannot be found in the world as we experience it, but everything is unique. I think this is very valuable. We are not a “problem” to solve. We are unique just as everyone and everything else.
  3. It increases the gap between me and the rest of the world: the more perfection I seek in myself, the less tolerant I am of others. That is not spirituality. Spirituality is to be understanding and compassionate towards my limits so I can offer the same towards others. Spirituality is to see the beauty in me so I can see the beauty in others.
  4. It increases the gap between me and Me. The more I strive for the image I have of the perfect me, the less I allow myself to see who I really am. So in a way, I would be adding layers instead of removing them.

So what I have to remind myself as I go around in life being my usual imperfect but unique self is that my goal is to reach a state of independent internal peace and by putting pressure on myself about what I should or shouldn’t be, I won’t come even close.