And FINALLY… I promised I would post the notes from the 40th anniversary of Yoga Scotland Seminar June 14-16th. It was a great weekend and I so enjoyed meeting you all and sharing yoga with you. For those of you that weren’t there and are reading this… the theme of the weekend was ‘Swadhyaya,’ which means Self Inquiry. It was a rich weekend and I didn’t really follow my ‘plan’ that much so these notes may be new to everyone! LOVE from Ben Lomond in California, where I am now. xx
ps… this is like 3 articles that are a bit messy because they were notes. Parts read more smoothly and parts may not make any sense at all!!! As one of the quotes here suggests ‘take the gold and GO!’ 😉
Mindfulness Moving (Soulfood 1 – Building Blocks)
‘The highest form of maturity is Self inquiry’
Martin Luther King
Often, our very first experience of yoga is met with great enthusiasm. This relationship to our practice, as with all relationships in life, can be momentary, can have a honey moon period and then fizzle out, or can last a lifetime. Whatever our experience is, there is no doubt the relationship will change over the days, months or years we practice. The form of our practice may adapt according to our bodies and life experiences. The motivation towards our practice may transform as we grow in wisdom. Whatever each of our unique paths may be, this unfolding is part of a natural evolution of the world we are part of and will happen in its own ripe time.
Most people enter yoga through the practice of Asana. Some continue to focus on this tiny aspect of yoga for a lifetime, which is totally fine and that, in itself, may bring them great gifts of insight. Others may eventually uncover the myriad of teachings that yoga encompasses, realising the vast and unlimited potential that is available through this path. Our path tends to expand upon its foundations as we go along.
One of the teachings that inquisitive students of yoga usually come across first is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s and, within that, the eightfold path of Ashtanga Yoga. It is here that Patanjali offers a systematic approach to yoga through developing awareness in the ‘limbs’ of yoga that he offers. These eight limbs can be thought of to be linear, but it is more likely that they all support each other as a whole.
It is important also to note that this teaching comes in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, after Patanjali has outlined other ways of meeting this state called Yoga. The eight limbs are part of a greater whole and, may work for some but not for others. In actuality, they are often natural outcomes of a more finely tuned awareness.
It is also important to remember, while working with texts, that, however helpful they are, when things get written down, they tend to become fixed in our perception. It is useful to remember the cultural context and time in which they were written. A wise teacher, Marc Beauvan once said to a class I was taking, ‘you must be like a pirate… take the gold and GO!’
The first two of the eight limbs are Yama and Niyama. Yama are the Social ‘codes of conduct,’ where as Niyama relate more to personal codes. It is interesting to inquire into how we conduct ourselves in these aspects of our lives in thought, word and deed. However, it is worth repeating that these are often natural outcomes of mindful living as oppose to rule we must force ourselves to live by. The Yama and Niyama are
Satya: Truthfulness ((thoughts)
Asteya: Refraining from taking what is not freely given (energetically too)
Bhramacharya: Sexual responsibility
Tapas: Austerity (deep commitment)
Swadhyaya: Self Inquiry
Iswarapranidhana: Deep surrender, humility, aligning with the flow of life
The rest of the eight limbs are:
- Asana (seated) (Hatha – FB, BB, TW, SideB)
Often, we think of Yoga as a VERB, as something we have to do in order to get somewhere other than where we are already, as a search for something out there (even when we put it in the context of ‘in here.’)
‘As if Something is absent’ as oppose to ‘a sheer participation in the wonder that is already the case.’ Mark Whitwell
The search can be a helpful place to start from and is valid in its own right. But if we continue to relate to our practice in this way, it becomes very difficult to appreciate ourselves and the nature of all things as they are. We can become dissatisfied with ourselves and judgemental towards ourselves and others.
When H.H. the Dalai Lama first came to the west he is said to have been shocked by how people in the west were unable to accept things as they are. In the Tibetan culture, they are educated to understand that life will have its measure of suffering and so they relate to it differently than we do. This is part of their conditioning, which can be seen to be healthy as it is a more realistic perspective on life. Our modern culture, although it has its positive qualities and this is not about east being ‘better’ than west, can tend towards an ‘ideal state’ mentality. In so many ways we disengage with the moment as it is, in order to either live coloured by the past, through fantasy or completely dissociated due to fear. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing things in this way. We need to be aware that it is very likely that these ways of seeing are there for a reason, often due to some deep fear or trauma that creates an inner tension and makes us want to control life or see it as is convenient for us. It is helpful, when we become aware that we are acting in such a way, to bring compassion to the situation, to soften into its root and to let go from there, rather than beating ourselves up about it or trying to be a ‘perfect person.’ This would only be living out the ‘ideal state’ mentality more.
The action that is likely to bring about great insight and wisdom is turning towards a relationship of intimacy with life, ourselves and each other. Living from this place, we can deeply embrace the whole of life as an opportunity to inquire deeper into the nature of ourselves and all things. The tools we have available through yoga, and indeed other contemplative practices spanning traditions, can gently point towards the Unity within the diversity of the polar qualities of being within the ONE awareness.
A few examples of these polar experiences are
Hot – cold
Ha – Tha
Sun – moon
Masculine – Feminine
Inhale – exhale
Life – death
Up – down
Front – back
All of these qualities have so many colours and textures that connect them in the space between. They exist individually and make up part of a greater whole. In Hatha Yoga we can use the anatomy of the body to navigate and observe the interplay between these polarities, allowing us to become aware of them as part of the rich tapestry of life.
‘Everything in nature is rhythm, sound, breath, light, vibration. Everything in the Universe is in motion, nothing is fixed, permanent, unchanging. From all the suns right down to the smallest cell – everything is born, grow, passes over into maturity and death, only to wake anew to life in another form, another light. This also applies to human beings.’
Johanna Paungger & Thomas poppe
Becoming intimate with life means to feel at ease within change, death, and transformation. A yoga practice is a wonderful opportunity to observe the ever fluctuating nature of life within our own bodies and to allow ourselves to rest within this constant change. It keeps us on our toes, keeps us alert, awake and mindful of our conditioning. It can be constructive to ask ourselves how much we use our yoga practice to stay safe, in control, to keep everything lovely, and, in essence, avoid death? In our modern culture of control, the fluctuating nature of the universe has become inconvenient to our safe existences. The fact that what is around the next corner is mostly out of our control can be intensely frightening for those who cannot accept change.
Another question that is important to ask is this; is my yoga practice making a positive impact on my life and relationships off the mat? How am I able to deal with the challenges that life throws at me? Am I using yoga to escape from them or meet them mindfully?
This brings us into an inquiry into the ‘Obstacles’ that are presented to us in Yoga. They have been written down in the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali as
- Disease, 2. Dullness, 3. Doubt, 4. Procrastination, 5. Laziness, 6. Craving, 7. Erroneous Perception, 8. Inability to achieve finer stages, 9. Instability
… although, were we to look within, we could probably have come up with these ourselves by inquiring into our own experience. Seeing them written down, knowing they have been written down and, further, taught for thousands of years, can allow us to relax a little and not feel so alone in the challenges we face. On the flip side, seeing these obstacles as obstacles can also create a greater obstacle by imbibing a sense of hopelessness in our psyche. Some may see these written down and inwardly feel inadequate and so far away from the ‘perfect human being’ they are ‘supposed’ to be!
When we shift the focus from these obstacles being obstacles and, rather, see them as teachers along our path, coming to offer us a deeper insight into ourselves and staying with us until we receive the richness of the teaching they offer, the aversion to actually experiencing these states can soften into caring attention and open inquiry. This is an art and will present itself again and again throughout life in so many different ways.
It is helpful here to remember the second Sloka in Chapter 1 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s:
Yogahchitta Vritti Nirodhah
‘The word ‘Nirodha’ does not mean blocking thoughts, desires, ambitions, passions and so forth, but it means the act or acts of blocking the process of consciousness responsible for remanifestation.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati
If we break this Sloka down a little further, we see that ‘Vritti’ means ‘Circular,’ referring to repeating a habitual tendency over and over again. So, the point here is not to block the thoughts, rather, become aware of the patterns of consciousness we are habitually and unhelpfully repeating and reshape them to serve us more fully.
So, we can use Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi to greater illuminate these holding patterns and slowly, in line with the nervous system, begin to transmute the habitual patterns of though, word and deed to one of naturalness in line with the flow of life. True Self inquiry will take us to this place in ourselves, free from judgement, shame and blame.
Swadhyaya is one of the Niyama (Personal Codes of Conduct) in Patanjali’s Sutra’s. It forms the basis of my practice and is how I tend to relate to life. I think it feeds beautifully into every part of Yoga. Held lightly, in awareness, we can see clearly all aspects of ourselves as they play out. We can step aside and learn to observe this play of life, to witness all things as they are with a loving impartiality. This, I believe, is a vital skill for yoga teachers, therapists and yogis to hone. It helps us gain insight and evolve as beings on this earth.
The starting point of jnana yoga is to believe nothing and accept nothing’
The process of meditative awareness that brings us closer to our inner nature and gives birth to our intuitive faculties
Some helpful points in Yoga psychology:
- A stress response is triggered and you become aware of it
- Your buttons have been pushed – What are they?
- Which Klesha has been thwarted?
=> Avidya – erroneous perception, misidentifying the transient, fluctuating world as permanent.
ð Asmita – The tendency to over identify with your ego, ‘story-self’
ð Raga – Craving
ð Dwesha – Aversion
ð Abhinivesha – fear of death, clinging to life… thoughts, words, deeds.
- Which Charka / quality / area of your personality has been rattled – Security, pleasure. Power, self-esteem, desire for love, social desire?
- What happened in the past to make you vulnerable in this way? (meditating on this can be helpful)
- S.W.A.N and illuminate holding patterns and reassess / feel into / respond.
Knowing the difference between our ambitions and our needs is also important in knowing ourselves.
Ambitions = desire
Needs = Basic, human
When primary, healthy pleasures are denied, secondary pleasures take over, such as the pleasure of drinking, drugs, avoiding responsibility, sexually acting out, or over eating. Since secondary pleasures cannot really satisfy our longing for primary pleasures, our lack of satisfaction makes us crave more, forming a basis for addiction. Healthy pleasures bring satisfaction, addictive pleasure brings a craving for more.
Abraham Maslow (an American Psychologist, 1908 – 70) lists a ‘hierarchy’ of human needs from basic to complex, called ‘Self-actualisation. – (from ‘Practical Yoga Psychology, Rishi Vivekananda)
- Physiological needs – for food, drink, oxygen, shelter, activity, rest etc
- Safety needs – protection from potential dangers
- Belongingness and love needs – acceptance and belonging to a group, receiving and giving love and affection. This one is important… look at our society today, how individualised we have become… are we meeting these needs?
- Esteem needs – the esteem and respect for others, oneself and sense of competence.
- Cognitive needs – to know, understand, explore and a need for meaning in life
- Aesthetic needs – beauty, balance, order and symmetry in life
- Self-Actualisation needs – the urge to find self-fulfilment and to realise our full potential.
Maslow further states that it is necessary for the ‘lower’ needs to be satisfied in order for the ‘higher’ needs to be possible. We can see that this list is, then, less hierarchical and more part of a whole. All the points on this list, stages in yoga etc, can be pictured as points on a circle as oppose to a ladder. This is also true of yoga.
Viveka and Vairagya
Vairagya ( Non – entanglement ) is useful on the path of Jnana Yoga.
ð Looking at this less as non-attachment, more as non-entanglement / non-addiction
ð Freedom from Raga (Craving) and Dwesha (Repulsion) and dissociation / apathy (this appears in Buddhist teachings)
ð Freedom from expectation / controlling fruits of actions
ð Avidya, Asmita, Raga, Dwesha, Abhinivesha
Viveka (Right understanding, Clear discriminative awareness)
ð The ability to see things clearly, as they are
ð Recognising the fluctuating nature of all that is manifest
ð Compassionate, discriminative wisdom (not overly critical)
These 2 qualities go hand in hand, like 2 sides of the same coin.
It can be easy to study yogic texts and to fall into the trap of trying to organise life to appear very ‘yogic’ on the outside, while inside the same old patterns play themselves out passively. This does not work. Awakening must be authentic, not just appear authentic. It is so important to start from where we are… over and over again. Otherwise we are a living, walking delusion, feeding into delusion. Beginning afresh each time we approach a situation allows us to truly apply the yogic teachings, not through an intellectual approach based on right and wrong, but a genuine expression of the truth of the moment. Beginners mind, conscious response.
As soon as we become identified with a role, a possession, position, profession, etc, we have lost the moment and are acting out of tendency, not authenticity. The art of yoga applied to each moment is the art of remaining real.
Warriorship is a continual journey. To be a warrior is to learn to be genuine in every moment of your life.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Importance of a Healthy Ego
For a healthy ego, it’s OK to make mistakes
We can not do anything without a healthy sense of self and who we are. It is a misinterpretation of the teachings of yoga to think that we have to ‘kill’ or do away with our ego. It is not possible to move beyond ego, unless it is healthy and well established in the first place. This is part of the foundation we build to support our greater insight and growth in wisdom. It is part of the circle.
Ego (Greek): ‘E’ ( I), ‘Go’ (Earth) = the grounded Self (A.Judith)
How we use our yoga practices, namely the more contemplative ones, to increase self-awareness and open self-inqiry.
The asana we tend towards needs to suit our individual nature. It needs to challenge our habitual tendencies (not enhance them) and, at the same time, be enjoyable, sustainable and nourishing.
From material by Bo Forbes
=> Memory, emotions, and experiences are
=> stored in the tissues of the physical body ( fascia)
ð Written into the Nervous System
ð Encoded in movement patterns
ð Burried in the deep visceral body
ð Engraved in the immune System and chronic pain pathways
Use Asana to awaken the parts of our body network that are sleeping and allow the already awakened parts to release
Pranayama (the expansion / regulation of our life force)
Again, needs to be tailored for the needs of the individual.
Pranayama impacts the nervous system very rapidly.
Deep breathing can help to quieten the mind.
ð Nadi shodhana
ð Mental Nadi shodhana
ð Involution of the senses
ð Awareness is neutral and not organically anxious, depressed, angry, excited etc
ð Deep relaxation allows space for Vijnanamaya kosha to become active and effortless insight to arise.
ð Deep, unconscious patterns can be released in a non-confrontational way
ð Complete body-mind relaxation
ð An opportunity to see clearly where habitual tendencies are playing themselves out in the space of stillness
ð Develops witness consciousness
ð Evolution of wisdom
ð Enhances awareness in daily life
ð Develops compassionate awareness
ð Promotes qualities of patience, acceptance, love and caring attention towards self and others
The path of Wisdom, Jnana Yoga is a deep and psychological approach to yoga. All yoga paths, whether they be Bhakti, Hatha, Kundalini, Raja, all feed into and interplay with one another. They are inseparable and often, through the practice of one, the others are integrated naturally. This ties in with following our individual Dharma’s. To live by our nature (not our habitual tendencies), will open the doors to an expanded perception of the whole.
To be a Yogi
To me there is Yoga and the practices of yoga and there is to be a Yogi. There isn’t anything specific that the latter looks like. To be a yogi spans traditions and practice forms. It can be witnessed while in deep meditation in a cave upon a mountain top, just as much as it can be while reciting poetry, playing music, putting the kids to bed, dancing, visiting the toilet, attending a funeral, time spent appreciating nature and the list could go on and on…
The common factor here is that, through every experience, through every action, is the inner volition to meet God there. By God, I do not mean a distant figure in the Sky, confined to this or that religion, but a dynamic and ever present essence that is within every thing and nothing all at once. This is to witness and embrace this moment in its entirety and, from that place, to respond consciously
It is to surrender fully into life’s natural flow, meeting each moment afresh – being keenly aware of when we are acting out of habit or holding onto past experience or when we are projecting into the future and trying to ‘control’ the flow of life so as not to face that niggling fear within. This way of living is both bold and totally vulnerable all at once. It is utterly naked and there is nothing in particular that it looks like, rather, it can be felt as a deep inner knowing in each moment. It is our natural state. One that, for many of us, has come to feel foreign, so much we have trained ourselves not to attune to it.
The practices that have come to be known as yoga can be helpful in illuminating habitual thought patterns, to allow us to become more aware, focused, to offer space amongst the inner chatter of the mind, to bring greater physical, emotional and mental health and, again, the list could go on.
This all depends on how we practice. The practices known as yoga can also become a first rate distraction from resting in our natural state. We can use our practice to shy away from parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see or deal with. Quite often, we can use our yoga practice to escape from life as oppose to turning towards it.
In truth, if we are truly living yoga it is impossible for this to happen as everything we need to face will show itself through our practice and we won’t shy away from life itself. However, it can be easy to play tricks on ourselves here and the awareness needs to be finely tuned to be able to see when this is happening or not, as with everything in life.
It is so important to practice yoga consciously, not just for the sake of it, to please a teacher or bolster a sense of self-worth and righteousness – but to boldly, honestly and, so importantly, compassionately inquire into each moment with open receptivity.
Aadil Palkhivala puts it beautifully when he writes:
As we evolve, our asana practice remains important, but if we focus entirely on it and make the performance of poses the end result of our endeavour, our practice becomes an obstacle to our own evolution… Your asana practice must serve your dharmic purpose… If your dharma is to be an exceptional artist, practicing asana for ten hours a day not only takes you away from your dharma, but it also serves the bodily ego’s greed. However, when you pursue your asana practice to help fulfil your dharma, it becomes imbued with the passion of purpose; it is no longer a ceaseless drudgery to appease the aches of the body, nor an endorphin – riddled addiction for a daily ‘high,’ but a yearning, a calling to be more fully who you are.
This brings us onto the topic of Dharma. Here is another quote from Aadil Palikhivala that, I think, explains our personal Dharma (Swadharma) nicely.
Dharma is not what you do, not what you should do, not even what you want to do, but what you were born to do.
The practice of yoga is usually not the path as much as the path to your path.
There can be different qualities of Dharma at different times of life. The skill is in being able to attune to the natural rhythm of the Universe and our unique place within it. The Dharma through which we interact with our family may be different to our social Dharma. How we conduct ourselves professionally may have its own ‘sub-dharma’ that is somewhat different to our purpose on a physical, moral or spiritual level. At some point all of these interconnect as there is nothing that does not. If our work compromises our moral ethic then, essentially, this will cause inner tension until we have realigned our Dharma to what feels natural and neutral to us.
Swami Niranjanananda explains how ‘we are often like and elephant trying to become a goldfish or a weak mouse trying to become a roaring lion.’ Living out of touch with our natural way of being creates inner tension. When we try to be something we are not, when we approach our yoga practice in order to become a ‘better person’ or something other. We can often look inside and trace this to a subtle form of aggression towards who we already are. If the practice comes from this space, it is that inner aggression and tension that drives it. If we can be aware of the tension or attitude toward ourselves and practice with awareness and compassion, from a place that accepts and sees ourselves as who we are in that moment, then there is an open space through which transformation can take place by itself.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati describes Dharma as a ‘code of harmonious living,’ so it is essentially living aligned with the natural flow of life and ourselves. This is different from living habitually. When we are stuck in conditioned and habitual ways of acting out, it can be helpful to use the practices of yoga to gain insight into the root of this habit, the lesson it can teach us and what lies beyond it.
Dharma is the natural role we have to play in life. The natural role is being what one is and not wanting to be what one is not.’
I have been fortunate enough to meet many inspiring people along the journey of my life so far and I never fail to be humbled by the qualities I see in those I meet. Not all of them ‘practice yoga,’ and yet, many of them, I appreciate as great Yogi’s. Some have been dancers, some musicians, some artists, some psychotherapists, some teachers. Whatever it is that they have given themselves to, they have an open attitude of exploration and all approach their chosen paths with creative fire. Everyone has creative fire and creativity is not something that is limited to particular activities, such as painting or music. It expresses itself through however we apply ourselves to what we are doing.
Practicing yoga consciously allows us to see the volition with which we approach the practice. It allows us to live a fuller, more embodied and engaged relationship with life, as oppose to the transcendental ‘us and them’ mentality that can form around sects, dogmatic traditions and rigid modalities of practice.
The body has its own wisdom and, while it forms part of the ever fluctuating matrix of life and is not essentially what we are, learning to read and respond to the signals the body gives us can be not only a great tool for self-inquiry, but a direct connection with the truth of each moment.
We all know that feeling in our gut when something feels right or wrong for us. We all have had glimpses of intuition that have entered our bodies like a thunder bolt or in some undeniable way that strikes us through our felt sense. It could be said that the body knows, but it is our lack of skill in trusting and responding to these intrinsic, felt sense wisdom patterns that leads us into situations that don’t serve us. The body is part of nature and nature, as chaotic as it may appear, is perfect in its own right.
A yoga practice that focuses on honing this skill of reading and compassionately responding to our body wisdom is likely to bring us closer to ourselves than a practice focused on self-flagellation and perpetuating the thought patterns of never being ‘enough.’
We must learn to discern, at a felt sense level, when we are acting out of habitual past tendencies or trying to control the outcome of the future out of fear. Every reaction we find ourselves repeating is there for a reason and the practices of yoga and meditation are no exception as to where we can find ourselves living out and perpetuating these patterns. The practice is not about getting rid of these tendencies, but rather seeing them through a wider lense and, with care and kind attention, allowing them to pass through in their own right time. There are no quick fixes and there is no escape.
Dr Brene Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher, has a great mantra that can be applied to any response we are about to make, including in our yoga practice. It is
Don’t puff up.
Don’t shrink down.
Stay in your sacred ground.
I have found these 3 simple sentences invaluable. Repeating them to myself before responding to certain situations has highlighted any tendency I may have to either ‘puff up’ and defend or ‘shrink down’ and submit. Repeating this before responding offers space, through which, a more conscious response can arise, one that is unconditioned and from my ‘sacred ground’ of that moment. It is far more likely that this response, even if it is a challenging one, will greater serve the situation as it is more authentic and does not cultivate an attitude of passive aggressiveness through submission, or defensiveness, through puffing up.
So, to be a yogi, to live yoga, to me, means the deepest most intimate surrender to a life fully lived in awareness, a conscious response to every moment and a receptive and patient attitude toward receiving the gift of seeing ourselves fully. The practices of yoga can either support this discovery or inhibit it, this depends on us.