DAYS 44 and 45 : Flowing with some added Spine Work

Day 44 saw my practice being once again dominated by my shoulder which had decided, very kindly, to start playing up again. This caused my whole back and neck to feel achey and painful, so I chose a Yoga With Adriene practice that focused on the spine. Something I remember from my first forays into yoga well over *cough* ten years is the saying that we are only as young as our spine is flexible. Adriene said something similar at the start of today’s practice, that we are only as young and happy as our spine (I like the inclusion of happiness in Adriene’s version!). The way I see it, increasing the general strength and flexibility of my spine has got to be good for these sorts of back/shoulder problems.

The practice was flow-based with some added twists, including a twist in a toe balance at the end which I fell out of a couple of times. I got about 50% of the way to laughing that off rather than feeling annoyed with myself. Challenging poses like that make you realise just how important a strong core and spine are to keeping us balanced. The practice also included another of my least favourite poses, Dandasana (Staff pose), which involves sitting with the spine straight, legs straight out in front and hands on the floor by the hips. It sounds simple, I know, but I really struggle with this one. There’s something about it that makes me tense my back muscles to the point that I feel it’s undoing any benefit those muscles might have obtained from previous poses. This may well be a sign that my back muscles need a fair bit more strengthening! That muscle tension pulls my mental focus to one of the areas of my body that is most often the target of slightly obsessively negative thoughts, but I am continuing to try to just acknowledge and sit with those thoughts rather than engage with or fight them.

Day 45’s practice was another from YWA, this time her Freedom Glow flow. The basis again was a standard vinyasa flow, but I particularly liked the focus on finding freedom within the form – so essentially finding movement within a pose, or a particular expression of a pose, that felt right at that particular time, rather than following strict instruction. This was an interesting approach to tie in with this week’s theme of moderation, as it can be tempting to immediately take a pose to the most extreme expression possible. Instead of that, I tried to focus on experimenting in poses like extended side angle to try to find the optimum expression for my body at that time.

This idea of moderation is one that I’m finding particularly useful. It removes some of the pressure for perfection (I say “some” – there’s no way that I’ll just stop being a perfectionist overnight!) and allows a calmer focus on getting the maximum benefit from each pose. That calmness is something that I’m finding I can take into life off the mat. A less obsessive focus on certain aspects of life, or on particular things, frees up time and energy to focus on and enjoy a much wider range of things. Having said that, part of me does enjoy my temporary and occasionally slightly random obsessions, so I’m not quite sure if I’ll want to give them up entirely!

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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 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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Yoga Sutras : Thoughts on Ahimsa

I’m coming to the end of my week on the first yama, ahimsa, and throughout the week I’ve been thinking about various aspects of that concept. In many ways, the concept of non-violence, both physical and non-physical, is something that just makes sense. Our lives are almost certainly going to be better if we treat ourselves and others with respect. There are some aspects, however, that for me required a little more thought.

The first is whether and how eating meat is compatible with ahimsa. Bryant’s book on the Yoga Sutras, and the sources it cites, are pretty clear that “a vegetarian diet is nonnegotiable for yogis”. This is also the view generally shared by various internet sources that I’ve looked at. The reasons for this are pretty obvious – that meat is the result of violence done to animals, and so is entirely antipathetic to a concept of non-violence. I was a vegetarian for about six months, around ten years ago. Why did I stop? Because I like eating meat. There’s no less selfless or more worthy answer than that, really. Do I want to stop eating meat now? No, not really. I guess the question then is whether I’m being a massive hypocrite by on the one hand trying to incorporate this concept of ahimsa into my yoga practice and my life, and on the other hand continuing to eat meat. I suppose my gut feeling is that yes, I would be, but it’s human nature to not want to have to give up something you enjoy. Having said that, I do know that there is such a thing as making sacrifices in service of the bigger picture. I think I could quite easily cut down the amount of meat that I eat (that makes it sound like I gorge on the stuff – I don’t), which is perhaps the first step, and I can then think about whether I want to take it further. (Am I putting off making a decision here? Probably, but did I mention that I like eating meat?)

The second aspect of ahimsa that I’ve been thinking about is karma. Bryant states, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, that “any involvement in violent acts of any kind requires that the perpetrator be subjected to the same violence at some future time as karmic consequence.” Now I don’t believe that there’s some kind of all-encompassing universal law of karma that causes our bad thoughts and actions to circle back round to us (at least, I’ve seen no evidence of such a law, and I do like to base my beliefs on evidence). That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t consequences to how we treat ourselves and others. If we get into the habit of treating ourselves badly, then we’re more likely to do so again and again – self-criticism is a very difficult habit to break. If we treat others badly, or with less respect than we should do, then they are surely more likely to treat us with disrespect in return. This might not come within some spiritual definition of karma, but it’s still important to recognise that our actions have consequences.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how ahimsa fits in with things like moral and political opposition and resistance. This seems particularly relevant today, in a divided world that feels full of hatred and division. Ahimsa surely can’t mean that we simply accept what is happening rather than fight for what we believe in? I don’t think it can. The basis of so many of the divisions in the world is violence and harm in the widest sense, whether physical or verbal, including things like discrimination, refusal to help those in need, or the taking of political action that actively worsens the situation of people who are already struggling. Opposing and resisting these measures can’t be contrary to a principle of non-violence, so I think it then comes down to what form that opposition and resistance takes. Gandhi, perhaps the most famous proponent of non-violent resistance, practised ahimsa, calling it “the way to truth”. Resistance and opposition based on truth (not lies, mendaciousness or FAKE NEWS!) and non-violence must be entirely in line with the principle. A key problem, it seems to me, is that it may be difficult to maintain opposition on that basis when what is being opposed and resisted has no qualms in basing its position on lies, using, or at least advocating, violence, and actively encouraging divisions and disrespect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though. In Michelle Obama’s words, “when they go low, we go high”.

Well, this first week on the yamas and niyamas has certainly been informative, and I think it’s helped me to deepen my understanding of my practice. Looking into the philosophy and theory that underpins yoga is also helping me to really tailor my practice to my own personal thoughts and beliefs, rather than just taking on board what a particular instructor might be saying. The next seven days focuses on satya, or truthfulness. Given that I’m a terrible liar, and so don’t tend to bother, you’d think this might be a pretty easy one, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than the name might suggest.

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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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