DAY 43 : Brahmacharya Day 1

The third yama in the series, which will be my focus for this week, is brahmacharya. Sandra Carson, in the practice which is part of the programme I’m following on Ekhart Yoga, interprets this as “moderation”. In commenting on sutra II.30 Bryant defines it as “celibacy”, which seems to be a pretty common interpretation. Citing other commentators, Bryant writes:

“Vyasa defines celibacy as the control of the sexual organs, and this is refined by Vacaspati Misra as not seeing, speaking with, embracing or otherwise interacting with members of the opposite sex as objects of desire. He quotes the Daksa-samhita: “The eight kinds of sexual indulgences are thinking, talking, and joking about sex; looking [at the opposite sex with passion], talking secretly about sex, determining to engage in it, attempting to do so, and actually performing the act” … In short, self-realisation cannot be attained if one is sexually active because this indicates that one is still seeking fulfillment on the sensual level and thus misidentifying with the nonself.”

 A later yoga sutra (II.38) states that “[u]pon the establishment of celibacy, power is attained.”

Frankly, that all sounds like precisely no fun, so I think a different understanding of brahmacharya is required, at least for me. I liked Sandra’s “moderation” interpretation. In terms of the physical yoga practice, the idea is that if we push ourselves too hard in any one posture, we will not obtain the maximum benefit. Pulling back slightly and so being able to hold the posture for longer will be far more beneficial. This requires a clear connection between the mind and the body so that we can identify the precise point that will be most beneficial, between holding back too much and pushing too far.

The practice itself focused on hip openers. The hips are central to so many yoga poses, so cultivating a keener awareness of how they feel and move will I think be useful far beyond this one particular practice. Once again I had to face one of my current yoga nemeses, poses which start from a wide-legged forward fold position, but I think I managed not to get too frustrated. Beneath any frustration, annoyance and negative thoughts I know that these poses are good for me, because they require me to deal with internal discomfort and negativity and to face that part of me which says that something must be done perfectly or not at all.

After completing the practice, I did a bit more research into the meaning and interpretation brahmacharya. An article on Centred Yoga states that celibacy and a complete abstinence from sexual activity is “only part of the picture”. It refers to brahmacharya as essentially the act of harnessing energy and directing it towards greater personal understanding. The focus on celibacy seems to be due to the view that a preoccupation with sex and desire drains a person’s energy, so that it can’t be harnessed and directed in that way. There seems to be an underlying assumption both here and in the work of the commentators cited by Bryant that at a basic level people are just obsessed with sex and that this is detrimental to their wellbeing. I mean, for some people that might be true, but for most adults who are capable of making their own considered choices about these things it’s just a part of life, rather than something that takes over and drains energy that could be applied elsewhere.

Another interesting article was this one on Ekhart Yoga, which considers brahmacharya as the “right use of energy”. Putting brahmacharya into practice requires us to consider where we direct our energy, and in particular whether it is directed externally, towards things that we desire (I guess this is where the celibacy point comes in) or towards presenting ourselves in a certain way to please or impress others, or whether it is directed internally, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves. In terms of the physical practice of yoga, I suppose it is a question of whether energy is directed towards perfection in a posture, or frustration if it cannot be achieved, or towards accepting where we are, staying present with the sensations and obtaining the maximum mental and physical benefit that we can from a pose.

Combining the concept of moderation with a consideration of how we use and direct our energy seems, to me, to be the most useful interpretation of brahmacharya. The two are, I think, connected, as practising moderation requires that we do not direct our energy towards pushing our bodies as hard as we can in a pose or towards feeling frustrated, rather we direct it towards finding the most beneficial expression of a pose and towards focusing on the breath and the present moment. Moderation is not something that always comes easily to me. I’ve always been a perfectionist and I can tend to get a little obsessed with sometimes very random things. So, if we’re talking in terms of the direction of energy, mine often isn’t put to optimum use. It will certainly be interesting to see how a conscious focus on brahmancharya affects my practice and my life this week.

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DAYS 41 and 42 : Flows, Twists and final thoughts on Satya

Having finally got some energy back, yesterday I did one of my favourite Yoga With Adriene practices – her side body flow. I’m not entirely sure why I like this practice so much, but there’s something about the combination of poses that raise the heart rate, stretch out the side body and twist out the spine that ticks most of my yoga boxes. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with not wanting to take up too much space (perhaps a combination of not liking being tall and not being comfortable in my own skin, and the associated lack of confidence), so I wonder if one of the reasons I like this practice is that poses that focus on the side body require you to open yourself up and take up as much physical space as possible. The yoga mat is a place where that can be done with impunity and without having to worry about what others think. Getting used to doing that on the mat perhaps helps cultivate a feeling, both physical and mental, that can be taken off the mat.

For Day 42, I chose an Ekhart Yoga practice called “Positive Twist”. (It may be becoming clear that I’m a sucker for any practice that involves a decent amount of twisting – I think it comes from having to a greater or lesser extent an almost permanently sore back.) This practice started with some warm-up sun salutations, then moved through a series of seated postures building up to Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, which is basically head to knee pose incorporating a twist. This idea of a practice which is essentially building up to and preparing for one particular pose was intriguing, and having done it I can see how stretching and warming up certain parts of the body and spending time in certain poses can increase flexibility in, and so the benefits of, the final pose.

I found some of the intermediate poses quite tricky, not so much from a physical perspective (although I was no-where near the full expression of those poses), but rather from a mental perspective. I really don’t enjoy poses which start from a wide legged seated position. There’s something about that position which magnifies almost every pocket of inflexibility. This leads to me feeling very hunched and closed off, which can trigger very specific negative thoughts and can cause quite intense discomfort in respect of certain parts of my body. To start with, I swapped in different poses in order to avoid this, but then I thought that this was entirely contrary to this week’s focus of satya/honesty. Avoiding a pose which a particular practice requires and then telling myself that I completed that practice is the exact opposite of honest. So, I went back to those difficult poses and tried to just accept where I was. I tried to really focus on my breath, which meant that the resulting thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared (although when is anything, really).

These were the last practices in my week focusing on satya. I have been trying my best to approach each practice from a position of honesty, as well as incorporating last week’s focus of ahimsa/non-violence. I have found that approaching yoga and life in general with a view to being honest and truthful can strip away a lot of the little stresses that by themselves may be negligible, but which can build up to have a much greater and more detrimental effect. When you know that you’re being true to yourself and to the facts of a particular situation, there is a little less to worry about and decisions become easier. It does, however, require confidence in oneself and one’s actions, because having that baseline means giving less weight to how others might judge our words and actions. That’s something that it can be difficult to move away from particularly if, as I have, you’ve spent most of your life thinking about what other people need or want first, and yourself second. As with many things, though, I think it’s a case of practice and of retraining ourselves to act in a different way. The more persistent we are, the easier it will become (hopefully, at any rate!).

The focus for the coming week is the next yama, brahmacharya, which means “moderation”. As someone who has a vaguely obsessive personality, moderation is not always something that I’m particularly good at, so this should be an interesting week!

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DAYS 38 and 39 : Trial, Error and Energy

I’ve been feeling completely exhausted for the last couple of days. I guess maybe I hadn’t been sleeping well while my shoulder was hurting. (The pain has now reduced to a dull persistent ache, for which I’m very grateful.) Continuing on the basis of choosing my daily practice by really listening to what my body and mind need, I that I needed to inject some energy into both.

For Day 38’s practice, I started by browsing the videos on Ekhart Yoga and came across one called “Tiramisu”. I’ll admit that it was the name that initially drew me to it, as tiramisu is one of my absolute favourite desserts, but the description of a class that would “pick us up from sluggishness and laziness and make us bright and clear again” also appealed. Now there have been times throughout this project so far that I have wanted to give up during a practice, but I haven’t… until this one. It just didn’t click with me at all. The movements felt disjointed and I found myself getting more and more frustrated. I knew that I should be accepting that frustration and just working with it, but it got to a point where I felt that the adverse effects of the frustration and annoyance would outweigh any benefits. So, I stopped the video, refused to beat myself up about that, and moved on to another practice.

The replacement I chose was a Yoga With Adriene Shakti practice. In the Hindu tradition, “Shakti” is the word for divine, specifically female, energy. It is, apparently, the energy essential to living a healthy and vibrant life and is synonymous with empowerment, creativity and movement. I’m not sure about all that, although I will accept that there appear to be various different types of energy – that’s something that can be determined just by observing how the body feels in different situations – but which is not quite the same as seeing different energies as having distinct, maybe even divine, origins. That I can’t really get on board with, so I put all of that to one side and focused on just clearing out the sluggishness from my body and mind, which this practice did very nicely. The spinal flexes and side body stretches at the start felt amazing, as did opening up the hips with the hip circles and Lizard pose, while the flow aspects helped to shift some of the mental and physical cobwebs. I also loved that this practice incorporated Lion’s Breath, which is one of my favourite pranayama techniques. It feels childlike and a bit silly, but it really does provide a quick shot of energy.

On Day 39 I felt even more tired, to the point where I’d fallen asleep on the sofa for a couple of hours after lunch without even really realizing it. I needed a practice that involved minimal movement, but which would still perk me up a bit, so I chose an Ekhart Yoga Yin practice called “Connect to your Vital Energy”. I was intrigued as to how a Yin practice could really increase energy, but I certainly felt more energized afterwards. I liked Esther’s focus on just letting everything be, rather than resisting any thoughts or emotions that came up. That constant resistance to certain thoughts or feelings (or indeed to tiredness itself) can be exhausting, and just stopping that can free up that energy to be used elsewhere. One of the best aspects of Yin Yoga, or so I have found so far, is how it encourages slow, deep breathing and an intense focus on the breath. It’s easy to forget the connection between the breath and how we feel – it’s far more difficult to panic, for example, when the breath is slow and deep – and Yin encourages an awareness of that connection.

Without wanting to jinx things I’m feeling much more energetic today, and my body seems to be craving a more fast-moving, intense practice, so I’m going to try to fit one of those in before I head out for the day – the perfect way (hopefully!) to get my mind and body set up for a busy weekend.

DAYS 36 and 37 : Neck and Shoulder Therapy

My most recent two practices have been dictated purely by the fact that I woke up yesterday with a sharp pain under my shoulder blade, which this morning had spread down my side and up to my neck. This happens occasionally and although I’m not entirely sure why, I’m sure it isn’t helped by how ridiculously tense my neck and shoulders are. If I’m ever stressed or anxious that’s where it goes, often with the inevitable accompanying headache. I sometimes find myself getting frustrated that regular yoga practice hasn’t yet cured those tension and muscle issues, but realistically I know that it’s an ongoing process and not something that will just happen straight away.

Anyway, this all meant that I was focused very much on the physical benefits of yoga in choosing these practices. Day 36 was a therapeutic session on Ekhart Yoga with Jennilee Toner. This was a very interesting session as it wove some anatomy lessons in amongst the poses and stretches. While certain muscles tighten when we have poor posture, work long hours at a desk or sleep in a certain position, for example, others become weak. So in order to see improvement we need to both stretch the tight muscles and strengthen the weak ones. This was an hour long practice and my shoulder did feel significantly better afterwards. Having said that, I woke up this morning and it felt worse, but I guess it might have felt even worse if I hadn’t done that practice!

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene stretch and soothe practice from her Empower series. This wasn’t so focused on the neck and shoulders, rather it stretched pretty much the whole body as well as incorporating some gentle vinyasas. I chose it mainly because the discomfort in that one part of my body had made me feel generally very scrunched (technical yoga term, there) and tight, so stretching everything out felt great.

I think it can sometimes be easy to focus on the mental and emotional benefits of yoga and forget about the purely physical benefits. Entirely separating the two isn’t particularly helpful, especially if (like me) you’re looking to build a closer connection between your mind and your body. However, that doesn’t mean that the focus can’t sometimes be shifted significantly more towards the physical, provided an awareness of the present moment is maintained in order to keep the mind engaged. Focusing on how a pose is strengthening or stretching particular muscles, or increasing the flexibility in certain joints, could in fact help to build the mind/body connection as it cultivates a greater familiarity with how the body works and how it is affected by different movements and poses.

So, how to tie all this in with this week’s theme of satya/truthfulness and honesty? I think the honesty in these practices lay in the fact that I gave my body what it needed. I did think this morning “oh I should do a more intense practice, because I did a gentle therapeutic one yesterday”, but I didn’t. Instead, I accepted where I was and worked with it. I was honest with myself about any limitations I might have or difficulties in certain poses that I might experience due to the issues I was having with my shoulder. Approaching the practices from that perspective, I found that I was slightly less inclined to immediately criticise myself or to let negative thoughts take hold as a result of any particular pose that I was holding. I know I said back at the beginning of this project that I wanted a bit more structure to my practice, rather than just picking a practice each day, but I think there is a lot to be said for making a conscious and informed decision each day as to what type of practice would most benefit me.

As for tomorrow, however, I’m just hoping that the pain in my shoulder will miraculously disappear overnight. You never know, it could happen.

DAY 35 : Satya (Truthfulness) Day 1

Continuing with Ekhart Yoga’s programme on the yamas and niyamas, this week’s focus is satya – honesty or truthfulness. This has been defined as “one’s words and thoughts being in exact correspondence to fact” (by Vyasa, cited by Bryant). Truth must not, however, cause harm to others, as satya and all of the yamas are subservient to ahimsa, i.e. to non-violence.

The practice focused on honesty, exploring it by hugging the midline of the body, essentially creating strength from the core for each pose. There were a lot of standing poses (for example Warrior variations) that required not just strength in the legs, but strength down through the core of the body and mental strength when the leg muscles started to get tired. I will admit that I struggled a bit to get my head around how hugging the midline in a particular pose encourages honesty. Things started to become a bit clearer when I focused more on the strength aspect. Honesty often requires strength, so I would think that building strength on the mat can help us to approach life off the mat from a place of honesty and truth. I think it’s also much easier to be honest and truthful if we really know ourselves and have the confidence to accept who we are, rather than trying to mould ourselves to fit the place in the world that we think we should occupy, or that others want us to occupy. Yoga is one of the best methods I’ve found (and believe me, I’ve tried a lot!) to peel back the layers of thought, analysis and neurosis to get to who I really am underneath all those layers.

During the practice Sandra also talked a lot about freedom, and the fact that practising with honesty leads to freedom. Again, this was something that I wasn’t immediately able to grasp, but it started to make sense as the practice went on. If we practise honestly, in that we observe where we are on any given day, accept and acknowledge our progress and our limitations, and don’t take shortcuts with things like alignment and breath while telling ourselves that we’re doing everything we can in a pose, then we are free to obtain maximum benefit from individual poses and from the practice as a whole. Off the mat, if we live in a way that is true to who we are, and if our relationships with and attitudes towards others are based on truthfulness, then stress and anxiety levels reduce and we find the freedom to live the best life that we can. I’ve certainly found that when I’m being true to myself and what I need or want, or when I approach a situation from a position of total honesty (I might be a bad liar, but we all weave little fibs into lives every now and then), I’m a lot less worried and stressed as I know that whatever happens, I’ve based my actions on what I know to be true.

A focus on satya seems particularly relevant at the moment, given that we are living in a so-called “post truth” world where half truths or even blatant falsehoods can be classed as “alternative facts” and it is apparently entirely acceptable to accuse someone of lying if they disagree with you, even if their position is clearly supported by evidence. Power, pursuing a political agenda and maintaining the position and influence of oneself and one’s allies seem to have become far more important than concepts like truth and honesty. The truth can be bent to suit a particular purpose, and honesty is only required when previous lies are exposed (and even then only to the extent absolutely necessary to preserve reputation). These attitudes have bound themselves to the roots of our society to such an extent that it is sometimes difficult to see how we can pull back from them. That, I think, has to start on a personal basis, with each individual approaching their lives and their relationships with others and the world around them from a position of truth and honesty. That may sound pointless – surely one person is too small and insignificant to make a difference? – but it is the cumulative effort and effect that makes that difference. Gandhi said that “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”. Michael Jackson (and the LEGO Batman Movie) encourage us to start with the man [or woman] in the mirror. We can’t change the world until we change ourselves.

One final point: Bryant ends his section on this second yama with the following comment:

“Also, avoiding untruth extends to the point of abstaining from reading fiction, for Hariharananda [one of the commentators cited by Bryant]. The yogi is always contemplating spiritual truths and does not occupy his or her mind with fictional or worldly trivia, silly fantasy, daydreaming, or imagination.”

 No offence to someone who I’m sure was an expert, enlightened yogi, but that sounds incredibly dull. I see no reason why “avoiding untruth” should mean not reading books or daydreaming or using one’s imagination, and that’s not just because I love reading, daydreaming and imagining things. All those things stimulate and broaden the mind (although I suppose that does to an extent depend on what’s being read or daydreamed about), and if we are going to be true to ourselves and to offer the best of ourselves to others and to the world, then surely we shouldn’t stop doing that. “Contemplating spiritual truths” may be all very well but personally I think enlightenment, if there is such a thing, goes far beyond that. I, for one, won’t be giving up my books (including lots that would probably fall in the “silly fantasy” category) any time soon.

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DAYS 31 AND 32 : Strength, Focus and Acceptance

As per my last post, what I’m really trying to focus on at the moment on the mat is respect for myself, my body and its limits. This was really challenged by yesterday’s practice, which was a Yoga With Adriene practice for strength and focus. I’ve come to accept that there will be some days when my mind and body just don’t click, and practising is something of a struggle. (While it’d be great to hit some sort of zen perfection every time I get on the mat, that’s not exactly real life.) Yesterday was one of those days. My mind was chattering like mad and my body seemed to be resisting every even vaguely strengthening pose. Still, I tried to accept that that’s how things were going to be and respect the fact that perhaps I wasn’t going to get as deep into a high lunge as usual, or it might be a bit trickier to bring my knee to my elbow in plank. It was difficult, of course, but constantly bringing myself back to a mindset where I don’t engage with negative thoughts, even if I can’t stop them altogether, helped to keep the level of frustration relatively low.

Bearing how I felt during yesterday’s practice in mind, today I did a much gentler practice from Ekhart Yoga with Esther Ekhart. The aim of the practice was to accept and work with tiredness, and it caught my eye because of the reference to focusing on respect in each pose. This practice started with a seated meditation, then moved through a sequence of gentle poses and stretches (including Pigeon, still one of my favourites!) before ending in an extended Savasana. My body and mind definitely appreciated slowing things down a bit.

Throughout the practice, Esther referred to shifting our awareness so that we are less engaged with the body, but simply see it as a part of ourselves. This is something that yoga in general is really helping me to do, but it was nice to have some specific reminders. If anything I tend to overengage with my body, to the extent that certain unpleasant or uncomfortable physical sensations (I say physical, sometimes I wonder whether they actually start off in my mind rather than my body) can take over. My mind then latches onto those sensations to such an extent that they can set off some sort of anxiety spiral unless I take active steps to stop it. Trying to focus on that attitude of respect really helps here, because it’s more difficult for negative thoughts to pop up when the position from which I’m approaching each pose is one of acceptance and respect.

Off the mat, I’ve been trying to make my inner monologue a bit nicer, as it has a tendency to be kind of mean and bitchy, mostly towards me. It’s amazing how much less exhausting life is when you’re not constantly criticising yourself in your own head. I think I’m generally quite nice to other people (I’m certainly nice to them than I am to myself, but then I think that might be true of a lot of people), but I have been trying to consciously think about how I’m interacting with people. As with so much in life, really focusing on the every day things that we take for granted, such as how we speak to people, can make us realise that there actually are changes we can make, however small, to improve our own quality of life and the effect that we have on others’.

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DAY 30 : Ahimsa (non-violence/harming) Day 1

This was my first day of Ekhart Yoga’s ten class programme on the yamas and niyamas for beginners with Sandra Carson. Each class focuses on one yama/niyama, and my intention is to work on one per week, so in all the programme will take ten weeks.

The five yamas form the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and the five niyamas the second. “Yama” is defined by Bryant as “abstention” and “niyama” as “observance. The first yama is ahimsa, which translates as non-violence or non-harming. The commentators that Bryant cites identify this as the most important yama, which is at the root of all the others. Those commentators, or the parts of their commentaries that Bryant cites, and indeed Bryant himself, focus very much on non-violence in the context of our relationship with the wider world and its inhabitants. A yogi should not cause physical harm, nor should harm be caused through harsh treatment or words or the incitement of fear.

There is, however, no mention of something which was a more central focus of today’s practice, which was non-violence towards ourselves. I don’t mean so much in terms of physical harm (although that would obviously come within ahimsa), rather in terms of harmful and negative self-talk. It was repeatedly mentioned during YWA’s Revolution that we can’t be our optimal selves in the world at large unless we’re treating ourselves with kindness and respect. If we’re constantly beating ourselves up, then we’re not in the best frame of mind to serve either ourselves or others. On that basis, practising ahimsa that focuses only on our relationship with others and not on our relationship with ourselves is surely somewhat one-sided.

A theme throughout the practice was “moving with respect”. On the yoga mat, respecting our body and the limits of our flexibility on any given day are key elements of practising that non-violence in the context of our relationship with ourselves. If we do not have that respect, then we criticise and judge and focus on perceived imperfections, either in how we hold a particular pose or in our body itself. I say “we” here, but obviously I can’t speak for every yoga practitioner. Personally, I find that cultivating that mindset of respect and acceptance starts to shift the direction of my thoughts from their standard negative, critical track.

Physically, this practice wasn’t hugely challenging, but I don’t think every practice has to be. I did miss a common feature of Adriene’s practices, in that she will often incorporate one or more pauses in Child’s Pose to allow the effects of the practice so far to sink in, so I paused this video halfway through for a few moments. I also very much appreciated the relatively long and meditative Savasana at the end.

The aim for the rest of the week is to take this concept of ahimsa and try to apply it both on the mat, in terms of cultivating respect while I practice, and off the mat, in terms of how I talk to and treat myself and how I interact with others. There are also various aspects of ahimsa which I think require a little more thought. Does practising ahimsa absolutely require at the least a vegetarian lifestyle (as Bryant and the commentators he cites insist)? Just how much do I instinctively disagree with the apparent karmic aspects of the concept? How do we reconcile practising ahimsa with taking the required strong stand against the ever-more prevalent hatred and intolerance in the world? I hope to have some vaguely articulate thoughts on these questions over the course of the next seven days.

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