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.

The magic of self-work!

As a Yoga practitioner, I am a strong believer in the power of meditation as a wholistic approach to life. Through the practice of meditation, I have learned the power of my mind. It is through my mind that I live my life, and it is through the practice of meditation that I can gradually train myself to calm my mind, create space between my thoughts and my actions, and change my perspectives or at least accept that they are just one way of seeing things.

I am learning the power of living life ‘inside out’ as my teacher calls it. I have learned to observe myself in all situations, especially in those that bring stress and distress and ask myself, ‘what can I change in my mind to better deal with this?’ So, every once in a while, reflecting about situations in which I experience stress, I set myself a goal on how I can change the situation by changing my perspective, my attitude or my behaviour.

For a while I have been thinking that if we all were willing to work with ourselves, it would be easier to interact with each other, we would take better care of each other, our environment and all living beings.

This week, during one of my meditation sessions, one of my students shared that she had set herself the goal of being less judgemental of her boss at work. In the past, she had experienced ending up in conflict with her boss, often because she had a negative opinion on certain things her boss did or said. She decided to put her effort in her work and not waste her energy in things out of her control. I asked her how this strategy is working so far, and she said that she had noticed a change of attitude in her boss too, and that they have had some good conversations. Once, her boss answered back in a harsh way and apologised shortly after without it escalating into a conflict.

I couldn’t help but wonder if my student’s boss also had the purpose of changing some attitudes and behaviours towards my student (and maybe all the employees). I really liked this idea. Imagine if we all were constantly reflecting about how we interact with the world around us, and when we notice room for improvement, instead of pointing our fingers at others, we decide to start with our own attitudes.

How do we measure spirituality?

Last fall, I wanted to start a series of workshops about what I find are some of the most useful principles taught in the Bhagavad Gita to cultivate peace of mind. For this, I had to revise some of the chapters I have studied during the last five years through the guidance of my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar. I mentioned this to a good friend of mine who likes studying philosophy and especially Stoicism, and he got curious about Yoga and my engagement in it. He asked me if I could recommend a couple of books about Yoga he could read. I gave him a short version I have of the Gita but warned that it was difficult to read it from start to end without taking the time to study it, preferably through the guidance of a teacher. I also gave him another book that summarises the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yesterday, we went out with my friend and his family for a hike, and at some point, he asked me “How are your Yoga studies doing?”. I got excited with the question because for the moment, I am taking an online course with my teacher about the origins of Yoga and its development through the years until today. His next questions took me by surprise: “What do you want to achieve by studying Yoga? What kind of title will you get in the end? Are you aiming to climb up in some sort of hierarchy?”. I had to think a bit about what he meant, and what I could answer. I study because it is interesting, and because I see positive changes happening in the way I perceive myself and interact with the world through the practice of Yoga, but I don’t think there is a specific title I can get from my studies, I said.

This, or course, kept me thinking and that is why this blog post. It has happened, during the last five years that I have at times asked myself what would happen if I spent the time I dedicate to study Yoga to study something that can give me some sort of degree. I don’t have a Masters degree, for example, and I know that I will eventually need one if I one day want to change jobs. The thing is, however, that I think my life is busy enough as it is for the time being with three kids and a job. In order to add one more item to my ‘to-do list’ I would then have to sacrifice time with my family and time for my personal growth. This personal growth happens through the study and practice of Yoga, and cannot be measured as we are used to measure things in this side of the world.

So that is one aspect of my reflection today, it is difficult for some people to understand why someone would invest time, energy and even money in studying something that doesn’t give any sort of degree. This said, that is personal growth, isn’t it? Who can measure it? And why would anyone except for myself and eventually my teacher measure it?

Secondly, as I was answering his questions, it kind of hit me that I am literally on a path. I am slowly walking into something without having a very clear idea of what the ‘end goal’ is. Although I know that the ‘end goal’ is self-realisation or union with Universal Consciousness because that is what the scriptures say, it is way too abstract for me to say ‘that is my goal’ for the time being. But I walk with faith and curiosity, because so far, everything I have learned and applied has made positive changes in my life.

Thirdly, I realised how little my friend understands Yoga, and how limited my own knowledge and understanding is. I also realised how difficult it is to understand a spiritual tradition without proper guidance. It actually made me feel humble towards all spiritual traditions. My friend asked me if I am aiming towards becoming a guru. In my understanding, there is no such thing as ‘aiming towards becoming a guru’. I don’t think one can decide that one wants to become a guru. Maybe the simple fact of doing so disqualifies one to become one (hello ego!). Why would anyone want to become a guru anyhow? I guess it is because he doesn’t understand what a guru is. I’m not even sure I understand completely what a guru is, but I do understand that there is no prestige attached to it. Teaching and guiding others in the Yoga tradition is part of the cycle of life. It is a big responsibility, and should not put people in a position of power. My teacher keeps reminding us to be very careful of calling anyone a guru. According to Yoga, the natural thing to do is to help others once one has reached a certain level of understanding because we all have the same divine potential. If I remember right, it is part of what in yoga is called lokasangraha. Spiritual maturity is not measured with how many scriptures one has studied, it has to do with an internal process.

Yoga has taught me to walk life (as opposed to run) with as much awareness as I can. It has also taught me to be curious and be patient. It is teaching me humility and faith. One day, I will take a Masters degree that will benefit my profession, but it is not the right moment yet. I am way too busy with other aspects of my life, and when I am not fulfilling my responsibilities as a mum, wife or teacher, I spend time studying something that I think benefits me directly and those around me indirectly. It is not easy to measure, and I won’t get any titles for it but I believe in it. Actually, one thing that is certain about the spiritual path is that it pushes us to let go of things, we eventually loose everything we thought was so important, we do not acquire anything new…

One last thing, this is how I choose to live my life right now. I do not expect everyone to feel or want the same, let alone understand it. I am not annoyed with my friend when he asks all these questions. I like them because they make me reflect, and allow me to see things from another perspective.

Do I want to take up this fight?

About two weeks ago, one of my daughters and I decided to ride our bikes to a beach close to our place to go for a swim. We packed our things, and off we went taking a path that we have been taking either when walking or by bike during all the years we have been living in this house. It is a street that leads towards a neighbourhood with apartment buildings, and in between two of these buildings, there is a big garden. In the middle of the garden, a path leads towards the shoreline. When I walk or bike towards the sea, I always choose this way because the view from the garden towards the sea is beautiful. In addition, there are almost no cars there, so I think it is safer and more pleasant.

As we were passing one of the buildings heading towards the path in the middle of the garden, we saw an elder man standing outside. I biked passed him, smiled and said ‘hi’. To my surprise he said, ‘you have to turn around and find another way, this is a private street’. I disagreed and pointed out that we have been using this way to go to the shoreline for years without any problem. There are no signs confirming that it is a private street. I also mentioned the Norwegian law that prevents people from blocking the access to public spaces. He suddenly changed his mind, and told me that we shouldn’t ride our bikes there because there is a garage and cars come out sometimes too fast and we can be hurt. I told him that we would be ok, and that I would not find another way today. We continued our way to the beach crossing the path between buildings.

All the way to the beach, I kept wondering though. Who is right? Is this a private street? I was on one side annoyed by the unpleasant moment, and on the other trying to be reasonable about the whole situation. This has been one of my favourite areas in our neighbourhood for years, especially during this time of the year. Am I willing to let go of this area? Shall I keep using this path and be ready to go through several unpleasant situations if I meet the same man?

When I got home, I actually checked the law. I even imagined myself riding my bike alone one day and being stopped by the same man, and suggesting we call the police to help us out. I was sure the police would agree that this is not a private street. But an important question popped in my head, do I really want to waste energy on this?

I tried to see things from his perspective. There is an area near these buildings that has become very popular among teenagers during the hot summer days. They gather to sunbathe, play volleyball and bathe in the sea. Maybe, during these days, there are a lot of people riding their bikes down this path, and I can understand it being disturbing with the noise. It might also be scary with a lot of bikes passing in high speed for those who are walking.

I have been using this path for over seven years, enjoying the view and the nature, but do I want to get into a conflict just because of that? No. Are there alternative ways to the same place? Yes. Can I let go? Yes. I actually got excited with the idea of discovering other ways to get to the same place. Get to know other sides of the same neighbourhood.

About a week after this experience, I went for a hike with a dear friend, and out of the blue, without me mentioning this little incident, she told me about a similar situation she and her neighbours are experiencing but from the side of the elder man. Around eight houses share the same grounds, and some years ago, an entrepreneur built a whole new residential area near these houses. Everyday, people cross their ground to get to and from the bus. This represents noise and a feeling of loosing privacy since people passing by can see directly into the houses. Many of her neighbours are annoyed About a week after this experience, I went for a hike with a dear friend, and out of the blue, without me mentioning this little incident, she told me about a similar situation she and her neighbours are experiencing but from the side of the elder man. Five houses built in the 80s, share a driveway that helps each resident arrive at their home from the main road. Over the past year, a developer has built a whole new residential area adjacent to these houses and driveway. Everyday, people from the new development use their driveway to get to and from the bus, schools and shops in the area though there are other, far less convenient access routes available to them. This increased traffic (not forecasted when my friend bought her house a year ago even though they’d asked the seller about any existing neighbourhood conflicts) represents noise and a loss of privacy since people passing by can see directly into the houses, and sometimes carry on conversations late at night. Daily, there is also an increased safety risk as children and people riding bikes now use this area intended for the car traffic of several homes, not for the dozens of homes using it now as a walkway. My friend’s neighbours are annoyed by this change, and they are trying to discuss how to solve this problem. Although the context of her story is different because it is mainly about poor planning from the developer’s and Kommune’s side, it made me think about my own story. There are always at least two sides to a story, and most of the time, we need to be able to see beyond our own perspective in order to find solutions that do not create more distress and stress.

In many situations in my life, I often end up with the same question: who is right? Most of the time, I realise no one is completely right, it is just a matter of perspectives. The question is, where am I willing to invest my energy? Do I want to be part of the problem or the solution? Sometimes, after weighing all possibilities, we might believe that our perspective is the right one, and we then have to swallow the bitter pill of engaging in a discussion that will be unpleasant. Sometimes, we have to go through the moment(s) of unpleasantness to see a change happen. So it is a constant dance between what we believe in, what we stand for and trying to see things from other perspectives.

In my little story here, it is obviously not worth the bitter pill. I can let go of my favourite path. Who knows? I might discover a new favourite path in the process. 🙂

Be quiet and reset

My Yoga teacher, Prasad, has taught me the importance of cultivating silence.
At least twice I year, I have created the habit of retiring to the guest house in Mariakloster in Tautra. I am so lucky to have such a place so near Trondheim!
When I am silent, I automatically slow down. When I slow down, I am able to observe my thoughts better and let go of the broken record of rumination, worries, regrets, and attachments. It is often after a period of silence that I move from thinking to reflecting, and that is very helpful.

Sometimes, I experience clarity, sometimes the only experience is the experience of being alone, in silence, in a slow tempo with myself for some days.

This time, I bring back from my retreat two things:
1) A quote from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” A reminder of the importance of putting our heart in everything we do. A reminder of the importance of accepting and embracing what we are put to do in this life. A reminder to not compare ourselves with others and stop blindingly chasing the bigger, faster greater.
2) Thankfulness for having Prasad as my guide. May I remember to be as patient, loving, and compassionate with my students, yoga students, and my own children as he is with me.