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.

Where did you loose your key?

According to Yoga, we seek happiness and love because that is the natural state of our Higher Self. This Higher Self (Atman) is who we really are. The issue is that most of us don’t have contact with this Higher Self. We live deluded believing that we are our lower self which is our physical body, our thoughts and everything we perceive and identify as ‘me’.

One way to the Higher Self is through meditation which requires practice and non-attachment. This non-attachment is our tool throughout the day and during our practice to reach the state of meditation. Sitting in silence every day is a way to train the mind to slow down and focus which in turn is a tool to gradually detach from what is in our way to see our Higher Self.

The challenge is, that this Higher Self seems so difficult to reach. Most of us are dealing with a very limited mind. So, it is easier to reach towards what we can see in search for happiness and love getting lost in our senses, acting in selfish ways and in worst case scenarios acting in self-destructive ways. Unfortunately, nothing in the tangible world can give us lasting happiness or a lasting feeling of being loved because everything is in constant change including our perceptions and expectations. What made me happy today, might not be enough tomorrow. The most trusted and loved person you have can suddenly change his/her mind and walk away from your life.

Once a seeker in the path of yoga accepts these basic principles, life’s small and bigger challenges take a slightly different form. We are affected by them, but we have the tools to work ourselves out of the negativity that can be created by our emotions, especially those like anger, fear, jealousy, desire and greed.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we meet Arjuna, a great warrior who finds himself paralysed by fear and anxiety right before the battle of his life. The more we study the Gita, the more we can identify ourselves with Arjuna and realise how limited and limiting our mind can be. We learn to observe our attitudes and behaviours, and with practice, discipline and patience, we manage to make adjustments that bring us to a steadier calmer state of mind.

Learning about the limitedness of our minds, and the absurdity of pursuing happiness outside ourselves is also a powerful tool that helps us better interact with other people. When you start observing your mind and realise all the internal work you need to do in order to live a more peaceful life, you are also able to recognise the same struggles in other people. You might be able to forgive easier when you acknowledge the fact that we all are seeking the same but act (out?) in different ways to achieve it.

Think about this next time you have struggles with someone you expect something from. How can you expect the other person to give you what you believe you need, when the other person is busy in his/her own mind? If you are lucky, this person is aware of his/her struggles, but most of us spend a good part of our lives completely oblivious of our own limitations.

My advice is 1) If you are lacking something, see how you can provide it to yourself. If it is love that you are seeking, find this love inside yourself. Or at least be very clear of how this love should look like and give it the same way you expect to receive it without expecting anything in return. 2) Next time someone hurts your feelings, think about the cliché line “It’s not you, it’s me”, and believe in it. Whatever people do is an expression of their own inner world, of their perceptions and expectations. Even when someone acts in response to your actions, they are acting with their mind as the puppeteer. Just observe this in yourself during the next days. People are just people doing their thing but we have decided who we like, who annoys us, who we hate, who we want to have by our side, and who we want to push away. This connects to another way of interpreting the same line, ask yourself why am I reacting like this? In most cases, it is because the other person’s actions did not meet our own expectations.

I once heard a story, I am not sure if it comes from Buddhism or from the Yoga tradition, but I think it fits here. When we keep looking for what we feel we lack in the outer world or in other people, it is as if we had lost the key for our home, and keep searching for it at the wrong place knowing very well that it wasn’t there we lost it.

One week of home confinement

It’s been ten days since the Norwegian government decided to institute strict restrictions to reduce the rapid spreading of Coronavirus. For my family this means home schooling for my kids, teaching online for me and home office for my husband. In addition, we have decided to avoid social contact, and we only go out to go for walks in nature or skiing during the weekend. I do the groceries.

I have been reflecting a lot about this situation that is gradually affecting the whole world. To begin with, the fact that we have to deal with change. For example, we need to reorganise our everyday life. As a teacher, I went to online teaching from one day to another. Teachers had one planning day where we collaborated as good as we could to create the guidelines for this, and off we went to spend the weekend planning. I am learning how to facilitate for my students online. I spend more time preparing my lessons, and spend more time in front of my computer. It is a big change, a time consuming change. However, like any change, it is a great opportunity to learn, to be creative and challenge myself. To be honest, it is exciting. I am now pushed to try many online resources that I had been wanting to try, but hadn’t ‘had the time’ to try. I see that I often stay in one track just because it is known and safe. I am now being challenged to try and fail more, and I feel it is ‘allowed’ because we are all new in this.

As a mum. I need to use my multitasking skills to both run my lessons and be available for my kids and support them with their school work. I keep thinking about all those parents who have home office now. How are they coping? After all, I am a pedagogue. I think maybe this is easier for me than for many other parents. In days where I have lessons the whole morning, I do get overwhelmed though, but this has reminded me of two very important things: 1) stressing won’t help me nor my kids 2) ask for help. My husband is home too, he can also help the kids with school work when I can’t. Why do I keep feeling that everything is MY responsibility?

This leads me to my second reflection during this week. This time of ‘home confinement’ is the perfect time to go inwards. I see it as a game. The first level is observing our home and how our family functions. What kind of patterns have we established and which ones don’t serve us? Living so close together with the responsibility of both the kids’ schooling and our jobs can bring a lot of stress and distress, but it can also bring growth. I realised this week, that somehow, we have this unspoken clause in our ‘contract’ that I do as much as I can to keep my husband calm and comfortable. He didn’t ask for it, it is a pattern that has been established throughout the years. For him, it is very comfortable, and since I haven’t complained, he is happy unaware of how much stress this sometimes brings to my days. So, last week, trying to be as diplomatic and calm as possible, I talked with him and said that I thought it was unfair that in these ‘home confinement’ days, he had taken over the desk with the PC and closed the door the whole morning, coming out only to eat lunch or get more coffee. I was left alone to work and help the kids in the dinning room. To be honest, I felt very uncomfortable bringing this up because I didn’t want to start a fight, but to my big surprise, he just accepted it and since then, he is trying to step in when he can. Assertiveness is the keyword here.

I read an article in the Norwegian news website NRK at the end of last week that ‘experts’ expect an increase in divorces during the Coronavirus crisis. We are now forced to stay together and it is not even holiday! I can understand this, but what if we rather take this time to reflect on how we act and why we act like we do. A big problem in relationships is that when we disagree, when conflict arises, we keep pointing our finger at the other, but if we start by bringing our attention inwards, we might do some progress. My yoga teacher always says that expectations are the source of anger in relationships. So we can start by asking ourselves: ‘What are my expectations? Are they fair? Are they realistic? Can I give myself what I am expecting from my partner?’. This doesn’t mean that we get rid of all our expectations, but we make a shorter list, a list that is manageable/achievable for the other person.

The second level of this ‘game’ is related to this advice from my teacher, because it can only happen by bringing our attention inwards. Ask yourself: how is my mind reacting to these ‘home confinement’ days? Be open, be curious, be compassionate and patient. Observe. What can I learn about myself, about my inner world when I are forced to slow down? What are my priorities? What is really important?

A big part of the Norwegian people are used to travel quite a lot. Either short distance to their cabin or abroad. Norwegian people love to travel. I have been reading about how challenging for many people it is not to be able to even go to their cabins during the weekend. I can understand this, but I also wonder why can’t they be creative about it and see if they can create the ‘cabin feeling’ at home? I know it is most probably a minority that is reacting so strongly about it, but this is a good reflection for all of us. When we are used to do something some way, it is very difficult to suddenly do something different. Or is it? It might be simpler than we think if we just learn to let go. Let go of what was and open up to what can be. Every moment is so full of potential and we are in reality privileged in this country to have our basic needs met almost no matter what.

One thing that I am doing everyday, and that is helping is to remind myself of being thankful for what I have. I have a family. I have a home. I can feed my kids and myself without any problems. We have the gorgeous nature where we can spend as much time as we want. I have yoga to help me stay calm, and the guidance and support of my teacher.

I don’t know where this will lead to. I just know that I have to move one day at a time, keep my sadhana to stay calm and focused. Trust that whatever comes, it is meant to be like that for me to learn something, to grow.

I know there is a lot of uncertainty for many right now. People without jobs, people loosing their loved ones to the epidemic. I do not trivialise this at all. I do invite all of us to take this chance to slow down internally also, to put things into perspective, and discover the amazing potential we all have inside ourselves.

Take care! 💖

Santosha or contentment

From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness’  Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Contentment is an important ingredient in the life of a yoga practitioner. In my understanding, we need to keep it in mind at all times during our everyday life in order to channel our energy in the right direction and cultivate a calmer state of mind but it is also something I can notice developing on its own inside me as I walk on the path of Yoga.

The what, the how and the why of contentment we try to generate.

Firs of all, what do I understand by contentment? I tried to find a translation in Spanish for one of my students but all I could find was something that translated back to English is “happy”. In my opinion, it is more nuanced than that. Being content is not necessarily being happy. Being content is more like being ‘okay’ no matter what. Noah Rasheta from Secular Buddhism defines it as ‘okayness’. This means that no matter what life is serving you today, you try to stay balanced. Why? To save energy mainly. Mental energy. If you don’t waste energy in getting all worked up in everything that doesn’t go your way, you can then direct your efforts towards dealing with the situation more appropriately. You avoid reacting out of impulse and you start acting more skilfully.

Contentment is one of the four niyamas in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. We are encouraged to practice it together with cleanliness of body and mind, sustained courageous practice, self-study and surrender to the supreme Self or God.

Being content means that when things go the way we wish them to go, we enjoy them and let go when we have to let go of them, and when things don’t go as we want, we focus on what can be done and what can be learned instead of getting lost in negativity. Not because negativity is ‘wrong’ but because most of the time, it won’t lead us towards any constructive action.

As one of my students put it today, if you get lost in negativity, you can’t get the whole picture of what is happening around you which may also include positive things. I loved this reflection!

Another way of cultivating contentment is to be tankful for what we have or for what does go as we wish it to go. It might sound difficult when we are in the middle of a crisis, but if you think about it, we can always be thankful for something: for being strong enough to endure this difficult situation, for the support we receive from others, for the food we get, the clothes we wear or the bed we sleep in.

How does contentment start growing from the inside?

When we constantly practice non-attachment to the results of our actions and at the same time put our best intentions into them.

Detachment brings discernment: seeing each and every thing or being as it is, in its purity, without bias or self-interest. Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 774-775). HarperCollins Publishers.

It requires a lot of practice, but when we manage, the feeling is of pure freedom. When you can tell yourself: I did my part, the rest is out of my hands and you really let go. If the result is the desired one, we are thankful, if not, we try to find the lesson in it, and move on. Done. No need to dwell on it. Freedom and contentment.

When we learn to trust. Trust in ourself, trust in the journey, trust in our guide(s), and/or trust in the Universe/God or however you want to call it. You stand up, brush the dust, and keep walking.

When we understand that our inner peace is independent of external stimuli. When we understand that what lies at the core of our being is independent and unaffected by anything that is external to us.

But the individual who truly loves the soul and is fully satisfied with the soul and finds utter contentment in the soul alone, for him no duty exists.’ Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita Ch11 v17

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!