Less judgement, more magic

My yoga teacher recently advised me to to take the process of preparing for and running my yoga classes as an opportunity to learn and develop. This, with the purpose of detaching from ‘ego’. He also advised not to be fixated with the idea that ‘I want to teach’.

This resonated with me, also when it comes to reducing stress. The process would then go like this: I get an idea, I plan a layout, I advertise, and I run my classes with a clear intention. The rest is out of my hands, and therefore, I don’t need to worry about it. If the idea works, if people sign up and get something out of my classes, I feel humbly happy, if not, I’ll try something different next time, or try again. I don’t know how this idea transferred into my ‘other job’ in a slightly different manner, but it is still helping me a lot this first days of the Fall semester.

Usually, the start of the school year is quite stressing for me (and for many other teachers, I guess). I have tried in the past to take it easy, but it has been as if my nervous system has a life of its own.

So, this year, I decided to take a different mental approach: 1) Prepare as well as I can in the circumstances I have (time, resources, space, etc) with the intention of receiving my students with awareness and respect. 2) Refrain from having a personal opinion on everything that happens in a school day. Unpredictable things happen, changes happen, mistakes happen, and they sometimes feel like obstacles in the course I had in mind when I planned my lessons, but the less time and energy I spend rejecting these obstacles and getting all emotional about them, the more present I can be to grasp the situation and turn it into a learning experience for my students and myself.

This is, in a way, one of the main principles of Karma Yoga. Do your thing without attaching to the action or the fruits of the action.

I saw the magic of this attitude happen today. Since we started with our new schedules today, one of my colleagues made a mistake, and sent her students into my classroom before our lesson was over. When she realised this, we agreed that it would take too much time for her students to move back to her classroom, so they could stay and continue working silently on a task she had prepared but had thought they didn’t have time to do before she sent them up to my classroom.

Instead of getting caught up in the frustration of having to deal with an unforeseen change, and feeding into the emotion with the whys and the hows of this mistake, I first tried to see if I could tweak my lesson plan. I was attaching to ‘my plan’. I gave my students ten minutes to revise some vocabulary, and while they did this, I realised how great the idea of my colleague was.

After my students were done revising, I decided to let them do the same reading activity their peers were doing, with some adjustments. The last 20 minutes of the lesson went smoothly. I walked around to see what my students were reading, ask and answer questions. Thanks to this little mistake, I have a new idea in my lesson repertoire. No stress. No attitude from me towards my colleague. I just allowed myself to go with the flow.

I don’t know what this school year will bring. Every year brings its challenges, and we also have the pandemic adding uncertainty to the whole equation. I only hope, I will remember the advise from my teacher. I hope I’ll remember to be present, be humble, learn, and continue flowing. When I let go of judgement, stress, and worry, magic happens.

Reflections during my sick leave

A week ago, I woke up to start our day as ‘usual’ since the start of the lockdown. I turned in bed to get ready to get up, and to my big surprise, I became so dizzy that I just couldn’t sit up. Whenever I tried, I would feel so dizzy that I would get nauseous. What to do? Well, as with any other illness, stay in bed.

I spent two whole days in bed, unable to read, or do anything else than keep my eyes closed to avoid getting even more dizzy. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t sleeping that much, so I was awake, in bed, doing nothing. Since I practice Yoga, I thought this would be the ‘perfect’ opportunity to just be. Be with myself, with my thoughts and try to breathe through the whole thing. Some kind of forced silent retreat.

Halfway through the second day, my mind was driving me crazy, so much that I decided I couldn’t just lie down there, so I forced myself to get up, take a shower and try to ‘act normal’. My mind was driving me crazy because of two main reasons: recurrent painful thoughts and the feeling of being useless by just lying there without even having a feber.

My mind was going around and around thoughts of regret, loss, lack and worthlessness. Thoughts that I usually try to tame in my everyday life, but that I had to face when I had nothing to do. I keep noticing that I want to use yoga teachings to become someone else. Someone who doesn’t have these thoughts. Someone who doesn’t ‘need’ anything but unfortunately, given the chance, my mind keeps bringing me back to them. So, I decided to just allow, to allow my mind to go where it wants to go, to accept that this is how I really feel at times. Am I reasonable? Well, what is reasonable? Who gets to decide?

I am now able to sit up and move around, and do stuff almost as usual, but the dizziness keeps coming back so I am in a sick leave for a week. Once I just allowed these thoughts to be, they became less strong and I moved to another kind of thinking. Or is it reflecting? Life is slowly going back to normal here in Norway. Schools are reopening, some people are allowed to go back to work. This is, of course, great news, but I have some resistance to the idea of going ‘back to normal’. Although I think my life isn’t necessarily stressful, it is a busy life. The main activities that occupy my mind and my time are being a yoga student, my work as a teacher, being a mother, and trying to establish myself as a yoga teacher. I want to be good at everything I do and I keep feeling guilty about all other things I don’t do because I don’t have time/energy. For me, doing anything halfheartedly is mentally impossible, I need to put my 100% in everything I do and still, I go around with bad conscience for not doing better.

So, these days, I keep thinking about the importance of silence. Internal silence. According to many traditions, it is in silence that we finally hear our call. That we finally hear what we are here for. I find my three main activities in life very meaningful, but I keep doubting myself. I am tired of running from one thing to another and constantly feeling that I come too short.

There are certain things I feel I cannot let go of. I can’t leave my job because my salary is important for our family budget. I can’t stop being a mum, I don’t want to stop being a mum. Shall I stop teaching yoga? Am I pushing too much? Yoga for me is a personal journey and I started teaching because I want to share what I feel has helped me a lot in my life, but there are hundreds of yoga teachers out there. Does the world ‘need’ me as a yoga teacher? I don’t know.

I also notice that I ‘use’ yoga to put pressure on myself. This sounds very stupid, but I am very honest here. I ask myself? Am I making progress in my spiritual life? Do I need to study more? Am I applying these teachings appropriately? How much do I have to do and how much do I have to let in the hands of the Universe/God/Divine providence/ or whatever you want to call it?

I feel also that I am tired of being part of a system I don’t agree with. I am more and more concerned about the natural world. I feel more and more bad conscience about the way we are destroying it. How we feel entitled to do as we please. I want to be part of a solution and not continue being part of the problem, but to be honest, I have no clue on how or what to change other than the regular small things. I am reading a book by Satish Kumar called You Are Therefor I Am, it i so inspiring. If I could choose, I would take my family and my cat to a place where we can live a simpler life. A life where the important thing is to be in pact with nature and in pact with ourselves, and not to live according to the standards the capitalist society dictates. I keep thinking how important it is to find a passion, a call, but most of our kids are busy doing what we tell them is important to do, and when they have spare time, they are mentally and emotionally numb in front of their electric devices. ‘As long as they do well at school’, we repeat to ourselves. But really? Is that what will bring them peace? Is school giving children a sense of meaningfulness?

So, I am thinking that for the months to come. I will practice more silence. I will do less. I will put my heart in my daily chores. I will be more mindful. I will flow. All this with the hope that clarity will come to me. Where to go? What to do? What to change?

Creating clarity of mind

“If we can understand how our mind and heart works, we have a chance to answer the question, “Why do I keep making the same old mistakes? ”When we ask ourselves, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” our minds open.Iyengar, B.K.S.. Light on Life.

In the Yoga tradition, we are encouraged to cultivate clarity of mind. If we are clear about our purpose,  about our actions, and the intention behind them, our mind is calmer. We don’t waste energy in running from one thing to another,  and we don’t get entangled in a spiral of unconscious action.

My first question for you is: where does your clarity come from? Who do you rely on to be clear about what your roles in this life are and how to play these roles? Where do you think you need clarity?

Start by slowing down in everyday life to allow yourself to be aware. Whenever you can, help your mind be in the present moment. Not in the past, not in the future, but in the here and now. Observe yourself moving, acting and doing. What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Why are you doing it the way you do it?

The purpose is not to judge, nor to  label your actions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The purpose is to be curious, to be open and to create clarity. You might discover though, that there are things you do on autopilot without even knowing why, that there are things you do out of obligation, that there are things you do out of attachment, and probably, some of these actions are bringing distress and/or stress to your life. This is when you want to consider making the necessary adjustments to change the attitude (from obligation to love), bring awareness (from autopilot to fully engaged), or to let go (when the action is not in agreement with how you see yourself living your life, when the action doesn’t serve a purpose anymore).

We all play different roles in our lives. We are born into a family and become a daughter/son, sister/brother or ‘only child’.  As we grow up and we move in different arenas, we acquire more roles. How many roles do you play? How do you play these roles? How much do you attach to these roles? Can you see yourself as a complete being even if you lose one of these roles? In the Yoga tradition, we are taught that none of the roles we play in life define us. They can’t because they are subject to changing or even disappearing. What defines us is deep inside ourselves, and it is what makes us part of a bigger whole. It is what connects us  to the rest of the world too. The less we attach to these roles, the closer we are to our core. So play your roles, but let go of those that you can let go of, and be ready to let go or acquire other roles throughout life.

Connected to this idea is the importance of always playing our roles with our own personal and unique set of qualities. Although alike at the core and similar when it comes to physiology and personality, each person is unique and is encouraged to see and develop this uniqueness for his/her own benefit and the benefit of others. Be clear about who you are and what you are capable of. Stop comparing yourself with others and play your roles out of your uniqueness. 

All actions have three components: the intention behind the action, the action in itself and a reaction or consequence. This is one of the main principles of Karma Yoga. For the purpose of this session, I want to emphasize the importance of having clear intentions to our actions. This allows us to act more skillfully and also to be ready to let go of the reaction even when it is not as we expected it to be. If we interact with other people from a space of pure and clear intentions, and knowing that their own perception and experience of life influence the way they receive our action, we can then be at peace with ourselves even when things don’t go as we would like them to go. Sometimes, we act wanting to believe that our intention was one, when in reality we had another agenda. Being able to at least acknowledge this and accept the consequences of these actions bring us a step closer to clarity. We are not asked to be perfect beings, just to act in this world with an ever growing awareness and clarity. As we do so, we will be surprised (or not) to discover that our attitudes will gradually change to what is best for us in the long run and the well-being of the whole.


Not perfect but certainly unique

I’ve been living outside my country of birth for over twenty years now. I first moved to France when I was 19 years old, and then to Norway when I was 23. It was especially in Norway that I experienced several times being hesitant between what I felt was the natural thing to do, and what I observed the locals did (or didn’t do). During years, it became a sort of internal battle, and I must confess that my inner impulses often lost because of the fear to not fit in, to be seen as strange (who’s ‘normal’ anyway?). It is as if moving to another country suddenly confirmed all my insecurities and created new ones.

In recent conversations with some other ‘foreigners’, I have discovered that many experience the same. A yoga student was telling me the other day that she dislikes the fact that there is no culture of feedback in the company where she works or at least feedback she feels she can grow professionally from. She would appreciate constructive feedback to improve, but there might be this fear of ‘hurting’ people’s feelings by pointing at what could be better. When I asked why she didn’t bring this up, she seemed unsure. I completely understand her because I can relate to the experience. More often than not, I also choose to go with the flow, but why? In my case, I am afraid of my idea being rejected but if you think about it, if that is the worse that can happen, I might survive no?

A colleague was sharing a similar story. He volunteers as a coach at his kid’s sports club. Here in Norway, it is traditionally parents who organise and coach kids in many sports activities after school. My colleague had observed how the behaviour of the kids sometimes comes in the way for better opportunities for them to learn, and he had some ideas of how to improve this but again, he felt pretty unsure about bringing this up with the other parents. ‘This is maybe the way it is done in Norway’, he said. I think that the sports club is lucky to have him among the volunteering parents, and they would benefit from hearing his ideas, but it seems like he wasn’t completely agreeing with me. And I get it. I know it is easy for me to sit there and listen and want to push him to act when I haven’t done it myself in so many other situations. Of course, this doesn’t only happen with foreigners, it happens to many everywhere.

Coincidentally, I had been reading about svadharma while preparing a workshop about Karma Yoga this week, so I have been thinking a lot about how important it is to be courageous enough to see our uniqueness as an asset, and use it more often to encourage small changes around us…or at least try. Somehow, many of us believe that there is one right way to do things and many other wrong ways. Or, if everybody is doing it the same way, and I see another way, it must be because I am wrong.

It is well-known that the best way to help someone is to focus on his/her qualities, and use them to help him/her grow and develop. Why do we forget to do the same with ourselves? Do you know what you are good at? What comes naturally for you? What do you do that makes you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning? If not, don’t panic, you have it (everybody has it), but it is for some reason hidden from you. Maybe you have been spending too much time putting your attention ‘out there’? Comparing yourself with others? Following other’s path without noticing that it is not yours? Or maybe you have been too busy criticising yourself? Focusing on your less good sides? On your ‘darker’ sides? Have you ever thought about the fact that in order to be light, we need darkness? That we need two sides for a coin to be a coin? So you too have very good and less good aspects in your personality. It is good to try to improve the less good ones, but it is not good that they take all your attention and cloud your good sides.

Here are some challenges for you (and for me). In the weeks to come, start every morning by writing down three things that you see as qualities in you. Don’t allow your mind to play you tricks like saying ‘this is silly’, or that you don’t have any unique qualities, or that yes, maybe but so and so are even better than you. Then, before you go to bed, think about situations during the day where you used these qualities for the benefit of the whole. How did that make you feel? Do you think you need to use them more? Last but not least, is there something you’ve been wanting to suggest at work, in your neighbourhood, at home, or wherever but you haven’t dared? Maybe now is the time! Try, and if your idea isn’t accepted, at least you won’t go around for the rest of your life wondering what would have happened if you had dared to try.

Karma Yoga

In the Yoga tradition, there are different paths, all with the same end goal: to clear the mind so we can see our true potential. Karma Yoga is one of my favourite paths because it is for the practical life. Through the practice of Karma Yoga, you can continue living the life you are living and still live a spiritual life. It is all about changing the attitude you bring to your actions. I sincerely believe that if we all were familiar with the basic principles of Karma Yoga and tried to follow them in our everyday life not only we would be able live more peacefully and relaxed, but we would also make this world a better place.

To begin with, we need to look at the importance of the intention behind our actions. In order for an action to be liberating, it needs to come from a space of clarity as opposed to a state of selfish desire or neediness.

What Karma Yoga is trying to teach us is that since everything we need is already within us, we don’t need to seek for it in the external world. Therefore, we can detach from the fruits of our actions. We are responsible for the intention behind our action and the action in itself but we are not to worry about the results because they are out of our control. We all have experienced doing something for someone with the best of intentions to then be surprised and maybe even frustrated by the reaction of that person. For example, you make a nice dinner for your family putting your heart into it, spending time planning and preparing but nobody likes it. Your kids even make noises of disgust while eating. A common reaction would be to get upset, right? You put all this effort for ‘nothing’. But, is it really for ‘nothing’? You had a clear and pure intention, you did your best, whether your family likes or not the dinner is out of your hands. You can either spend time and energy getting angry and frustrated, or you just decide that either they need to be exposed to this dish several times to like it (do you know about the 10 times rule?), or you won’t make this dish anymore. That’s it. No drama, no unnecessary use of your energy.

It is important at this point to say that it is not about suppressing your emotional reactions to situations, it is about taking time to observe them and learn something about yourself. You are ‘allowed’ to get frustrated or angry, but you can try not to react to this in a way that is draining both for you and those around you. What was the real intention behind your action? Was it to do something nice for your family (in the dinner example), or was it more about wanting to get some sort of recognition? If it is the latter, ask yourself, do you really need anyone to tell you that you are a good cook? Can you acknowledge that yourself? If you really need the recognition, then say it clearly, ‘I made this dinner with the best intentions and I would appreciate some recognition, even if you didn’t like it’. You are then being very clear both to yourself and those around you.

To summarise: Intention and action are your responsibility. The results are out of your hands and therefore you would benefit from detaching from them to avoid unnecessary worry and/or frustration.

Another important aspect in the practice of Karma Yoga is the concept of svadharma, or personal duty. Swami Satchidananda has a good explanation for this:

“What you’re truly called to do is your dharma. It fits your aptitude, your capabilities and your natural inclination[…] No two snowflakes are exactly the same. As such, you are also unique, you have been created unique with certain abilities that no other person can do. That’s your svadharma, your individual duty[…] Find out what your svadharma is. Ask yourself, how do I feel when doing certain things? Does something come easily? Is it natural for me or am I trying to imitate somebody? But remember, that svadharma is different just an action based on a selfish interest. Svadharma is something righteous. The word “dharma” always implies the benefit of others.” From Sri Swami Satchinanda’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita ch.3 v.33, 34, 35

This is such an empowering concept! We all are born with a set of qualities that makes us unique, and our duty is to use them in every action we take for the benefit of the whole. This is very important, you don’t need to resign your job, or neglect yourself and/or your family to go help others, you can contribute to the well-being of others by doing what you already do with the intention of doing what is most skilful for you and those around you. You can also stop comparing yourself with others or trying to imitate others. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve yourself, but the only one you need to compare yourself with is yourself. You can ask yourself, am I a better version of myself today than last year? How does this make me feel and those around me? If the answer is more peaceful, you are then in the right direction.

Connected to the concept of clear intention is the importance of asking yourself ‘why do I do what I do?’. This can help you get to know yourself better and decide: 1) What am I doing just to do and I can let go of? Make a list of your priorities, if that list is very long, you might need to consider shortening it. 2) What am I doing with a ‘hidden agenda’ that I can stop doing or do with a “clear agenda”? What I mean by ‘hidden agenda’ is that sometimes we do things believing that we want to benefit others, when in reality we are looking for recognition. There is nothing wrong with wanting recognition, but in order to achieve a real state of peace of mind, in the yoga tradition, we are encouraged to start looking inwards for our value. All we find in the external world is transient, and therefore will never fulfil our needs completely. 3) What am I doing out of obligation?

If you find out that you do things out of obligation, can you change the mindset? Can you do things out of love? With your heart put in action? One example is parenting and spending time with our kids. Some parents experience certain aspects of parenting as an obligation, making this task more heavy and energy draining than it needs to be. If you rather see the whole picture and realise that you do everything out of love to your children, out of love to all children, the task will be less heavy and you will feel better. If you cannot find the joy in it, can you drop it? We sometimes feel that we are ‘obligated’ to do things that we really aren’t obligated to do.

All or some of these concepts might sound too difficult to live up to for you right now, and that is ok. You don’t need to apply everything at the same time, reflect on what is achievable for you. It might be enough to observe yourself in action and to note down where you meet distress and stress, and reflect on whether any of the described concepts would help you unknot some knots. Remember that one of the most important aspects in all yoga paths is practice. You need to practice, practice and practice more. Sometimes, you will feel the freedom, love and bliss that right action bring, sometimes you will feel that you keep giving with ‘nothing in return’. That is normal, but the more you advance in the path of yoga, the easier it gets, and I honestly can say that changes do start happening. It works almost like magic but you need patience and resilience and good guidance. Good luck!