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 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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