Ahimsa Begins with Yourself

21/11/2012 14:36


Many of us here at Yoga Thailand spent last night sitting on or kneeling in front of the toilet (or both). Myself included. However, most of the people that were sick still went to practice this morning. I often wonder, why, even when the body is weak and tells us to stop, do we still push ourselves?


When I watch people practice (or when I watch my mind as I go through life), it often reminds me of how most of us are pretty good at loving other people, but not so good at loving ourselves. Most of us, we either push ourselves to reach a specific goal, or we allow ourselves to take it easy today. That, however, is often followed by the guilt-trip. Which is just as uncompassionate as option 1.


Both mental patterns are products of the same constant bargaining with ourselves: I will love myself WHEN... I will be happy with myself WHEN... I will accept myself WHEN I have gotten rid of this weakness... I will give myself a break WHEN...


But how about loving yourself NOW? How about giving to yourself NOW?


I have written the book about being hard on myself. And I have spent a lot of time investigating why. Is it my strict upbringing? Is it years and years of classical ballet? Is it my fiery personality? Is it society? Is it cultural? Is it karmic? Is it an imprint on my subconscious from other generations in my family? I have a million answers, but none that really solves the problem.


I have to say, it is thanks to yoga that I have at least become aware of my destructive behavior towards myself. I have learned to recognize the workings of the ego. It dishes out all these negative thoughts so it can stay in control. Just think of all the things we could do if we didn't waste all that energy on thoughts like “I am only worthy if I learn to be more (adjective of your choice)” or “Who will find it in their heart to love me if I don't learn to be more (adjective of your choice)” or “Or if I don't behave a certain way, I will not receive affection.” etc.


However, even when you recognize that it is just the ego opposing resistance, these emotions still surge, and more often than not we are still overwhelmed by them. This causes such a great conflict because we think now that we intellectually know the cause, we should be able to rid ourselves of them. When we see that we haven't succeeded in destroying the ego, we make ourselves feel bad about that. Which is again the same pattern.


Something Stephen once said on a teacher training was very helpful for me: We don't need to destroy the ego. We need a healthy ego to survive. The ego, the mechanism of grasping for what we need and like, is vital. It is what causes the body-mind complex to reach for the inhale, for food and water, for knowledge and information. However, just because the ego is necessary, that doesn't mean that we need to let it run our lives.


Dorien told me a very good metaphor today. If we think of ourselves as the director of the orchestra, then the ego is probably the very obnoxious horn section of the band. It is up to us, our higher mind, the Buddhi, to direct the orchestra. We have to hone our skill so we can learn to tune out the wind pipes a little bit – they still play in the orchestra, but we have throttled the decibels.


So, we learn to observe, without creating stories, just like a meditation. See every bit of how we punish and put ourselves down, of how we feel guilty and ashamed of mistakes and shortcomings. Then comes the even harder part: We have to learn that we cannot change our Samskara by force, by interfering, by doing. We just have to sit and watch and not do. Because that IS loving yourself. Interfering is exactly the same not accepting and bargaining. Assuming that there is something to correct, to press into the desired shape, is not loving yourself. Non doing is letting everything be as it is and still being true to yourself. Loving yourself in spite of all the ifs and buts. Unconditionally.


 Ahimsa  starts with yourself. I believe that you start being compassionate with yourself, you become also more understanding of the struggle of others.


The Empty Cup

19/11/2012 14:53


At the end of my foundational teacher training, all of us were given a cup – as a reminder to always remain an empty cup. The wonderful Buddhist story that goes with this little ritual is the one of the professor that went to see the Zen master. The professor itself was an expert of Zen philosophy himself and wanted to learn more from the Zen master. As he went to the Zen master's house, however, he just kept talking and talking, showing off his own proficient knowledge. At some point the Zen master went to fetch tea. He started pouring for the professor and even when the tea reached the brim of the cup, he kept pouring. The professor interrupted his soliloquy to exclaim: “What are you doing? Can't you see the cup is full?” The Zen master smiled and said: “My dear professor, you are like this cup. You come here to learn from me, but you haven't cleaned the slate of your mind. Your mind is too full to pour anything into it.”


Once we get good at something, it is easy to think that we have become experts. The ego likes to call it a day and we convince ourselves that there's no work left to do. It happens to all of us. We go to a different class, different teacher, and they explain a concept differently. We feel almost offended and certainly reluctant to take the feedback. As in “I know what I'm doing here, just let me do my thing.”


The exact same thing happens when we become a teacher. Becoming attached to the what we have discovered works for us. We forget that what works for our body, might not work at all for another. Or what worked for us at some point in our lives, is no longer appropriate two years later. We lose our beginner's mind and begin to think of what we know as set in stone.


In a way our mind doesn't like boredom, but at the same time it is also reluctant to undo the scaffolding it has gone to such lengths to construct. We want to bask in our knowledge, in what seems safe and established.


Come to think of it, we show similar patterns in our personal relationships. Or in the relationship to our teachers. We have a certain preconceived notion of what these relationships are or should be or of how the other person is supposed to act. These expectations cause our cup to be always full. What then, can another person give to us if they instinctively feel that we are blocking the way with our concept of what should be?


I was deeply touched when Stephen once told us about his relationship with Tiwariji. He said that other students are good friends with Tiwari, and so they are invited to his house to have tea together. Of himself Stephen says that his relationship with his teacher is different, still affectionate and deep, but maybe just not as close. From my own experience, I know that it is easy to feel a little bit envious or pushed aside when you wish your relationship with your teacher to be a certain way. What I've also learned from experience is however, that envy freezes the situation even more. As you hold on to your idea of how things should be, nothing can be given to you. You become more and more frustrated because the more you try to shape what is, the less space you leave for someone else to shape it with you or for you. If you're cup is full, nothing more can go in.


Every relationship has its own Karma, its own destiny that will unfold. Maybe we can just trust that whatever we receive, even if it seems little, is exactly what we need. It is my belief, that if we empty our cup, enough (of love) will come.



The Subtle Shift

18/11/2012 14:09

I have often heard Stephen say this about how people approach their yoga practice. Often the mindset is: “What can I get out of this?” You may believe in the power of energy or not, but I think many of us have experienced how the practice shifts radically depending on your personal motivation: Are you trying to prove something to yourself? Are you trying to “get there” to impress someone? Or are you actually surrendering – quite oblivious of results and outcome ? Can you simply give in to the pleasure of the practice without expecting anything in return?


I have once heard Stephen say that the chemistry of the blood changes, if you practice with ego. It has happened to all of us, I think: After we have experienced the benefits and blissful effects of the practice in a first phase of discovery, we begin to count on them. We begin to grasp and reach for what feels exhilarating and transformative. However, if we come to our mat with a set of expectations, the practice will just not feel the same. Like Stephen often says: The minute you reach for something, it's gone. Just like when you finally find your balance on one leg, the second you think, “Ah, NOW I've got it!”, you fall.

The physiological explanation is that reaching will most likely generate stress in the nervous system, which in turn will cause the mind and breath to be agitated. It is very counterproductive to be in a state of nervous tension when you are trying to balance on one leg or meditate or to hold Kumbhaka or to find headstand. I think we can all agree that this pretty much defeats the whole purpose of yoga.


In the historical Vedic period of Yoga, sacrifice was considered a central ritual. Because the Divine had provided, the practice was to simply offer back. So the question was not “What will I receive?”, but “How can I give back for what I have already received?”.


For the longest time this concept of sacrifice, seemed rather foreign to me. Until I realized that when you make your practice a sacrifice, an act of giving back, you can trick the ego. Karma Yoga can work magic. When you abandon your egotistical purpose, then something within just relaxes. It might be hard to see, because our mat practice is something between seems to be about me, myself and I. True. But for starters, you could ask questions like: What can I give into it? How can I abandon myself to it? How can I make this an offering? How can I do this for someone else other than myself? How can I direct this energy I create into the support of someone else?

I like sometimes dedicating my practice to someone. But even if you don't do that, your practice is also always for others. Whoever you ask, most yoga practitioners will tell you that yoga has changed them. And even if has just helped them deal with their own personal migraine, or insomnia, or high blood pressure, isn't that something that affects their friends and family as well?


A word about teaching, since this is the reason we're here for: You might think that when you become a yoga teacher you no longer have to think about it, because giving seems like a given. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There are different motivations for giving. Do you give to be seen and applauded? Do you want your students to “get it” just to know that to feel that you did your job well? Or do you give without expecting to see specific results? Is it enough for you to simply support with your energy so your students can be confident and feel safe in the space? The same rules apply: If you let go, you create the space for transformation to happen. If you hold on, you narrow the space and nothing can budge.


Like all things in life, it is challenging to strike a balance. All teachers have moments when they grasp for approval. So teaching (or assisting) becomes just another practice. Like all things in life, our motivation fluctuates. Even here at Yoga Thailand, I go through ups and downs. On some days I find myself answering question after question because I want to feel needed and seen. Then suddenly it hits me that I have lost my awareness and that I am reaching for gratification.


The best days however are those when it's totally not about me. When I feel I am here to hold the space in the background, so Stephen can teach and not worry about anything else. I love adjusting and explaining alignment, but the moments I savor the most are when I am standing at the back of the room in silence. I see 39 pairs of arms lifting for the beginning of the Surya Namaskar and I see it is the wings of their confidence spreading.


At the end of the morning Stephen asks me how I'm doing. I reply that after ten days, I feel more confident, so that I can leave the space, without always talking or having my hands on people. I can just support in a subtle way, my ego is releasing the grip. He whispers in my ear: “Yes, it's beautiful when we can teach without constantly justifying ourselves.” I look up at him and smile: “Well said.”

The Breath Never Lies

16/11/2012 20:12



There is one paramount reason why I love Pranayama: The breath never lies. It constantly reflects your state of mind, and no matter how hard you try, you can't fake it. If you are calm and relaxed, then your exhales will be long and you will take fewer inhales, without gulping down the breath. If you are upset or afraid or stressed, you will sip in quick inhales and have very shallow exhales. It's the unchangeable law of nature. And in the context of our yoga practice, the breath always tells us whether we are actually balancing effort with enough ease. If we watch the breath honestly, then we will not force poses or breath work, and we will not push ourselves into injury.

Today I heard the most beautiful metaphor from our anatomy lecturer James Newman: Breathing consciously and unconsciously can be compared to flying a kite. Either the wind takes over or instead of letting the wind take control of your kite, you can perfection the art of flying your quite by tugging on the string. The same is true for our breath. Most of the time, we just let the mind, the wind, have its way with us and the breath will simply reflect our emotional state. In yoga, more specifically, Pranayama, we are taught to use the breath as a tool, as a string, to manipulate the mind. Pranayama literally means “controlling the Prana/breath/life force”. We use the yogic breath to trick the mind into thinking: “All is well, no danger, I can relax.”

Whenever the human being is confronted with a stressful situation, the mind-body complex goes into what we call the fight or flight response. The brain sends a chemical message (adrenalin and noradrenalin) to the whole body to prepare for fight or flight. We begin to inhale more than we exhale in order to get in a higher amount of oxygen  per minute. One of the most evident physiological reactions is that heart and lung action accelerates. The blood vessels constrict in most parts of the body so blood can be efficiently conveyed into the extremities. Consequently our limbs can react quickly to fight or flee. Thus, the digestive organs are drained of blood, so digestion slows down or stops. In extreme cases this pattern of inhaling more than we exhale can lead to hyperventilation.

I’ve always thought it strange how both body and mind, otherwise so intelligent, cause us to fall into this vicious circle: The more we inhale, the less we exhale, the more the sympathetic nevous system is stimulated and the less the mind-body complex can relax. Of course, this mechanism was originally smart when we still used to live in the wild: The need to take in as much as possible and get the supplies where they're needed, in order to act fast when in danger, is a survival mechanism. Also in nature, the animal will rest after a fight or flight moment. However, it becomes a catch 22 as we still react in the same way in our stressful daily lives, even though being late for a meeting doesn’t exactly equal mortal danger. And most certainly, we don't take rest after stressful moments. We just keep going.

I think the life-changing effect that the yoga practice has had for many people I know (including myself) starts on that very elementary biochemical level. The reason yoga is so soothing is not so much the physical practice, but the fact that this practice is synched to the breath.
 Most of us have unlearned to breathe in a way that calms the constantly stimulated nervous system.

When we are exposed to a high level of stress, we usually fall into a pattern of chest or even reverse breathing, sipping in the inhale and having trouble finding a long and regular exhale. Yoga, or more specifically Pranayama, teaches us to inhale slowly and exhale fully, by contracting the breathing muscles so we can get all the residual air out of the lungs. This is why we use Ujjayi breath technique: We tighten at the glottis/vocal cords to pace the breath and to prolong the exhale against that valve in the throat. Slow steady breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, causing both body and mind to unwind. We revert the process: Instead of letting the mind dictate stress to breath and body, we use the breath as a tool to trick body and mind into relaxation. In other words, we control the kite by the string. We don't let our mind, the wind, gallop away with it.

In my personal experience, retraining the breath, also really reprograms the mind. The inhale is very strongly connected to our ego, to the need to grasp, to take in and to never get enough. Don't get me wrong, this mechanism is (literally) vital. We need a healthy ego otherwise we would stop taking in oxygen, food, knowledge etc. But training the mind via the breath to take in moderately (slow inhales) and also give freely (long exhales), has an amazing effect on the ego. Actually, in my experience, the grasping reflex of the ego is weakened a little bit. The ego becomes more porous and over time we start getting little glimpses of a higher wisdom, of the space of the Buddhi.



Balance and Nutrition

15/11/2012 20:47


Since we are spending a month in this place where all the food is sattvic (meaning healthy, light, fresh and juicy – to harmonize the mind, the physical and the subtle body), a word about nutrition: Yesterday I see people's eyes go wide as Stephen mentions that your lifestyle should support your yoga practice. Meaning that there is no point in running to practice every day, if at the same time you have 5 cups of coffee a day, which probably make you irritable and so you're impatient with traffic at rush hour, with the person at the checkout counter, with your spouse, your mother etc. When on the same night, we leave the sattvic oasis of Samahita to go out for dinner and I comfortably order a beer with my food, people's eyes go even wider. But let me tell you how I got here.


I have been obsessed with nutrition ever since I was 11 years old. A Samskara that I will probably have to work on all my life. The groove is so deep, it is all way beyond rational. Too many years of dancing have etched it deep. I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I think, I have come very close. When, after the first years of yoga, Ayurveda came along, my ego seized onto all the dos and don'ts. For quite some time, I was cooking only ayurvedically and denying myself everything that did not fit the requirements of a yogic diet. You want to know what happened? My skin got worse, I was often bloated and, can I just say, very unhappy. It was a vicious circle. I grew more and more frustrated and thought the remedy was to be more and more rigid in my diet.


The stress I was creating around my eating habits was enormous. And what happens when we are stressed? Adrenalin is released into the blood stream, our heart and breath rate accelerates and blood flows into the extremities, away from the digestive organs. And then NO MATTER WHAT you eat, the body cannot properly digest it. Badly digested food starts to ferment in your digestive tract. Toxins get stuck. As Manuela once said to me, stress is actually the worst toxin. After months, I finally admitted to myself, it's not what you eat, it's THE WAY you eat it.


As Stephen often says, yoga can be the medicine, but it can also be the poison. Our practice on the mat teaches us in a very unique and tangible way how to pause and observe. Alignment in Asana and observation of breath are wonderful tools to create awareness, or as Manuela loves to say, mindfulness in action. We are still moving, acting, but we are watching ourselves as we move or act. Over time, this becomes a habit. And we begin to mindfully observe off the yoga mat, in our every day life. Which can be quite revolutionary – at least it was for me.


Suddenly you begin to notice certain behaviors that are unhealthy or even destructive. I think, most practitioners of yoga would say that yoga has had an effect on their lifestyle in a very organic way. Then however, there are the A-type personalities like me, those that are used to being proactive, to being the doer. They become aware of something that doesn't fit the whole concept and they desperately want to change it.


So, it is easy to cling to this concept of sattvic balance (eat light, go to bed at 10pm, meditate every day...) and knock it over into a new extreme. The ego is smart. It will use any excuse to stay in control. It is easy to bargain with yourself: “If I eat/talk/act/look/sit like this, then I will emanate the bright and radiant aura of a true yogi.” Sadly, this is just a new facet of the same neurosis.


I love how Lama Yeshe explains the Buddhist concept of Renunciation in his Introduction to Tantra: Renunciation does not mean that we have to renounce pleasure. The idea is simply to renounce the belief that if we gain or get rid of something, we will be happy and satisfied.


I've seen this happen so many times. People get obsessed with being “such a yogi”, as I like to call it. Just the same way they were obsessed with being such a successful banker or such an acclaimed scholar or such a skinny dancer. This is what human beings are like: We tend to go into the extreme, over and over. Balance, or health or wholeness, however, is about finding the middle path, over and over. And about loving yourself – as horribly cheesy as that sounds.


Balance is not static, it's dynamic. Like our body, it feels different every day. Every day we need something else to create balance. And on some days that might be a vigorous practice or a steak, on others it might be a light restorative session or just a light soup. The only trick, really, is to observe with honesty. And to have the Maitri, loving kindness for yourself, to give yourself what you truly need. And on some days, that might just be a beer to go with your pizza.


And, really, what's the pleasure of getting all clean and shiny if you can't get a bit dirty?



PS: And in case you were wondering... Yes, I am very much aware that beer and pizza are very much clashing with what you'd expect from a yogic blog. It is a form of self-therapy.

Trusting the Teachings of Life

14/11/2012 22:37


Before we begin our Pranayama session this morning, Stephen invites us to take a moment to thank our teachers, formal and informal, those that have made a difference on our paths. I usually think of my first important yoga teacher, of the teachers from my foundation training, of my mother and her Buddhist teacher... Recently I also often remember a choreographer I had started training with for a short period of time in New York. I had fallen in love with his work, and desperately wanted to dance with his company. I had completely idealized him and thought I had found a great mentor. Unfortunately, like many successful dancers, he had gotten a little caught up in his ego. I quickly sensed that he didn't like having me around. Even though I liked his work, I was still rather critical and independent. He didn't accept people that questioned his work or his ways.


One day he sat me down and kicked me out of the trainee program with the words: “You're not a dancer, you've got nothing going for yourself...” Maybe you can imagine the impact these words had on me at a time when I was dedicating myself solely to dancing. I was heart-broken, cried for days. Looking back, however, I realize, if he had asked me to join the company, I would have been fully absorbed by that. I would have been obsessed with the need to prove myself or I would have rested on the laurels of my success. But I didn't get in. Back then it felt like all my hopes had been shattered, like there was nowhere to turn to, but soon I began to explore new paths.


It was around that time that I met my first important yoga teacher, Tara Marie Perri. Her nurturing and constructive teaching was healing in so many ways: certainly physically, but also because it provided the understanding that it is not only about winning the race (in dance it often was), it is not about achievement, but about understanding why something happened and learning the lesson.


So, I often thank this choreographer when told to invoke my teachers, because put into context, he was a very important teacher for me. Without him I might never have gotten into yoga. And yoga has become a huge part of my life (and not to mention my current occupation).


In Yoga (and everywhere else) we choose our teachers according to preferences. We like someone we can identify with, someone who is kind and compassionate, or some of us like teachers that will give them a little push to explore their boundaries. In short, someone who fits the bill. But one thing is true for everyone: We tend to choose someone we like. In general, the people that make us uncomfortable, in yoga as in life, we tend to push them out of the way. Or like Stephen said today in his lecture about the sutras: There is a form of laziness that always wants to seek out bliss in the yoga experience. There is nothing wrong with that, except that it denies the wholeness of life. Because life does not consist exclusively of blissful moments. And looking back – like I do on my dancing days in New York – aren't the obstacles in life the greatest teachers?


And maybe – after we've dried our tears – the obstacle itself can become the meditation. In A Path with Heart Jack Kornfield talks about his “Returning Visitors” - thoughts or wounds that would keep bubbling to the surface in his meditation. I incidentally read a great quote today, by C.G. Jung: “What you resist, persists.” If the experience is not blissful as you would like it, and if you suppress it, it will just keep revisiting you.


So maybe we can make some space in our heart for the returning visitor and actually see the resistance as something positive. Ok, it is not fun to investigate and reflect honestly why a particular person our situation makes you want to run or scream hysterically. But it is extremely worthwhile.


And how do we create that space for self-reflection? I think one answer is faith. If we can trust that everything happens exactly the way it's best for our growth, then it becomes possible to deal even with the greatest of losses. We will still prefer pleasure to pain, we will still choose teachers that we are naturally drawn to, but we will not shrink back the same way if the teachings of life are a little harder to digest. We will accept that portion as well and make the most of it.

It is not always easy to trust life. Some things are so challenging that we really begin to doubt. So it helps to look back and remember how things have played out in the past. Maybe then we can see the connections and realize, at the end of the day, there is some higher power, the universe, fate, the divine, something taking care of us. And we are always exactly where we were meant to be. So here's to surrendering – to accepting that you are not the doer, that there is a backdrop to our existence where the threads are held and intertwined. And who- or whatever is interweaving them, know what they're doing.

Diwali - Light and Shadow

13/11/2012 21:32


Today is Diwali – the official holiday in India, which is comparable to our Western Christmas or Thanksgiving – the “festival of lights.” One of our trainees at Yoga Thailand is actually Indian. Yesterday I was delighted with his story about Diwali – one that his mother used to tell him when he was little. Attracted by the idea of a festival of lights, I dive into more research, but quickly realize I'm not even going to attempt more detail here.


There seem to be different stories and myths that Hindus associate with Diwali. Based on the Ramayana, some believe it marks the date of Rama's return after 14 years of exile in the jungle. It was a moonless night as he was making his way back with his wife Sita and his brother. It was so dark that on the road back to the capital Ayodhya that people lit ghee-lamps to show the way and welcome his return. Also coinciding with the date is Krishna's defeat of the demon Narakasura, in other words, the triumph of good over evil (the second day of the festival is dedicated to this). Traditionally, Diwali also marks the end of the harvest season for most India. Farmers give thanks for the abundance received and pray for a good year ahead, invoking the goddess Lakshmi, symbol of wealth and prosperity (the third day of the festival is Lakshmi Puja, but is also dedicated to Ganesh, the of auspicious beginnings). Traditionally, people clean their houses and decorate them with as many lights as possible. You wear new clothes and buy new kitchen supplies. It's a moment of renewal. As the old moon dies, everything has a chance to transform, you let go of the old and make space for the new.

Personally, I was immediately drawn to the spiritual significance of a celebration of light. I was once told the Buddhist concept of practice: It is like polishing a smoke-blackened, grimy glass so the inner light can shine through. The inner light stands for our higher self, for our supreme consciousness, our discriminative intelligence – Atman, Brahman, Buddhi, the Divine, the Soul. For the longest time, these concepts sounded quite foreign and abstract to me. So, to keep it simple: Our yogic practices create awareness. You begin to observe yourself more mindfully as you act and think. There is a part of you, the witness, that begins to watch more carefully when you're reacting out of a set pattern of fear, aggression, attachment, illusion. And that awareness, that intelligence, is what is awakened and what promotes understanding, compassion, and well, love. A higher, “better” Self.


I remember when I was little,every once in a while my dad would force me to clean up the mess in my room. He would pull everything out, strew toys, books, stuffed animals etc. on the floor – and then we would find a place for everything. But for the first hour I would just sit amidst the chaos in my room. In my experiences the practices of Asana, Pranayama and meditation work in a very similar way. Things will get messy before they get calm. The way to light is through darkness and chaos. Or as my mother would say to me: If you create light, there's bound to be a shadow. None can exist without the other.


This is often what happens, as we begin to move deeper into the practice. We become still and settled enough to actually notice what's going on in the mind. And boy, suddenly we get this unobstructed view of the relentless roller-coaster upsetting the streams of our consciousness. This can cause a nauseating vertigo. Countless times I have been frustrated as I became aware of the crazy mechanisms of my ego. Maybe the most frustrating thing is that you can only watch, because the ego will do its dance anyway, no matter how much you want to stop or suppress it. Only over time and with sustained awareness will the tight grip of the ego loosen a bit. That takes a lot of patience and compassion for yourself.


It was again my mother that gave me a piece of advice that has been a little oil lamp on moonless nights and dark roads. It helps to love yourself, to treat yourself to whatever lifts your spirit. Singing, Mantra and Kirtan, has shifted a lot for me. Which is why it was important to me to do something on Diwali when I heard it was today. So we sat together on the outdoor Shala, just a few of us with three candles at the center of our little circle. Our Indian friend told us about the myth of Diwali and we sang a few mantras. Just to charge the battery with light, for darker days to come. Simple, small, but in a way a new yoga family, a Sangha slowly forming. Which is another thing that helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel: People that are on a similar path and shine their light for you to follow. 

The Balance of Effort and Surrender

11/11/2012 18:01


This morning Manuela begins with a beautiful heart meditation, which – as she indicates – can be particularly helpful if you tend to intellectualize and conceptualize a lot. Stephen introduces our mantra practice with the words: “Because it is Sunday, we'll do ten Gayatris.”


As he has often pointed out, in Hatha Yoga the heart tends to get a little left behind. So much is about the mind and the fire center at/below the navel. Hatha means the yoga of force, and it is by nature a more masculine, a more yang practice. The masculine qualities are in fact intellect, clarity of mind, structure, light and fire, logic, determination, or what in the Niyamas is called Tapas, the fire of passion, discipline, austerity. The right side of the body is associated with the masculine side as is everything that is active, heating, solar (sun) and strong. Maybe you notice that the qualities I have just listed are also the ones valued by Western society. Many have been raised to be strong, to be organized, to always have a plan and be in control. Maybe it is no coincidence that most people are right-handed? Then some of us (like me) are also that way by nature. In my Ayurvedic constitution (Dosha), fire (Pita) is already quite dominant. So I tend to be very clear and focused, but sometimes also too disciplined and too hard on myself. In my experience, in some cases, yoga can make us a bit too extreme.


Like Manuela was saying this afternoon in her lecture and practice on the core, some yoga traditions encourage too much core work. Or, as we discover the benefits of the stable transversus abdominis for our lower back, we get a little hung up on it. In other words, from too flexible or too unaware, we become a little too aware and too rigid. Which again hurts the core and the lower back.


It is my own personal experience, that sometimes this masculine clarity, this yoga of stamina and structure can be a little bit too much. There is one thing I never tire of repeating when people that don't do yoga say: “Oh, I can't do yoga – I'm so not flexible!” I also keep reminding it to students that have a very advanced practice. In fact, I constantly have to tell myself: Yoga is not about an extreme, it's about balance, about the middle path. Those that are very flexible may find stability. Those that lack mobility will find more freedom of movement. And once you swing towards the other polarity, then, because of how the mind works, you might just get stuck in that opposite extreme.


So the work of yoga is actually to never stop seeking the balance between effort and surrender. In our society, we tend to be good at effort, so we often need to soften. However, the idea is also not to end up being completely limp and submissive. Which is why the key is awareness and self-observance. Every moment is different, so every moment you will need a different counterbalance.


Like Stephen said this afternoon discussing Abhyasa and Vairaghyam – keep showing up, keep exploring and questioning, keep discovering what you need at this very moment. It is not about the destination, it is about the journey. The process stays always dynamic. We pulsate back and forth, shooting past the middle path into the other extreme. But it's ok, because yoga offers the tools to re-create balance. When we get too much into our head, we chant. When we get too exhausted, we take a long Savasana. When we feel too lazy to do anything, we revitalize with a sun salutation or a handstand. When we feel all hyped up we do a little bit of alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodana). When as a woman we get too much into the masculine side, we might opt for a yin yoga practice. It is all about staying mindful and maybe a little about the orientation towwards the ideal of balance, not of an extreme.


Maybe this is something to remind yourself of on a Sunday?



Into the Unknown – or the Faith after the Leap of Faith

10/11/2012 18:38



It is always interesting to hear people's yoga story. I love to hear what brought people to this practice and what it then did to their lives. More often than not, as we go deeper into the practice, it does quite dramatic things to us. We break up with a significant other, we quit our job, we change our eating and sleeping habits, we move... For the simple reason that yoga makes us aware of what is going on and maybe more specifically of what can no longer work for us. And because we realize what we need, some changes are usually in order.


Especially here, as we go deeper into our teacher training, I get to hear more and more yoga stories. That makes me remember the first time I heard Stephen's yoga story. It was just at the time that I had decided to start teaching yoga full-time. There is one sentence I remember like it was yesterday: “So I jumped off the cliff... into the unknown, but luckily I had a parachute.”


This is what all of us did by deciding to come here. You never know what awaits you in a teacher training. Even if you've done a teacher training before or if you know the teacher – it is bound to be an intense period of time. You will not only deepen your practice, you will get to know yourself, the ripples on the surface of the mind, from very up close.


This morning Stephen keeps interrupting the flow of the Asana practice to point out principles of alignment. I can tell some of us are a bit snubbed. Like we always are when we thought we had something down. And what, now we need to rethink everything?


It is that moment of in between. We found the courage to jump off the cliff. It is just the only thing that makes sense, because inside the chips fall where they're meant to go, and the outside situation needs to realign itself with that inner truth. This is why we came. But then the ego gets in the way. Jumping into the unknown is scary. It's uncomfortable to replace the old and well-worn with the unfamiliar and the new. At the same time, however, it is also quite miraculous, because you have been longing for it. You have been longing to break the shell and know more and find answers.


I find it quite miraculous how the mind has this creative power – by changing the inner life the outer realigns itself with it. Then again, the mind/the ego can be limiting or even destructive as we resist that new order of things by holding on to the familiar scaffolding that we've created over time. Today Stephen called this the magical aspect of yoga: When we start to understand how the mind, or prakriti (nature) or the gunas (qualities of nature) work, that almost gives us “magical powers”.


As we discuss the first of Patanjali's sutras in the afternoon (1.1.  Atha yoganushasanam ), Stephen tells us about his pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. Apparently, their guide told them it can only be Karma that they ended up on this pilgrimage. If you undertake something as rough and challenging, then it really must be written in your stars. And then you can also trust that it will just lead into the right direction.


In a way, we were the ones who created this situation by our readiness, by saying to the universe: I am ready and I am willing. If the desire for this transformation hadn't formed in us, we wouldn't be here. This opportunity wouldn't have presented itself, things wouldn't have worked out for us to come. It takes a little bit of faith after the leap of faith. But if you see what you can create as the energies within you shift – then maybe, you can also trust the rest of the process. You are always exactly where you are meant to be.









Savasana - Widening the Field of Experience

09/11/2012 20:56


The first pranayama session of the teacher training. We begin with a chanting session, to open formally and, as I always feel, to help the mind settle down. After opening chants and after the Kriyas and breathwork, Stephen always recommends lying down in Savasana. The pranayama cleanses and balances the subtle body. So energetically we shake loose what was stuck. Savasana can be helpful as it will clear the stuff out. If the body is tired, it will regenerate. If the nervous system is going haywire, it will steady. Or as Stephen said today, the Nadis (or Meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine) are like little rivers through which Prana (or Chi, life energy) flows. In some places the rivulets have run wild and in other areas a drought has left the river bed arid. Especially after Pranayama, Savasana will even out these imbalances, transport Prana to where there are blockages or deficits.


This morning, Stephen shares how at the beginning, it seemed strange to him to do Savasana almost at the beginning of the practice, so to start off quietly, silently, without movement. However, since all our Hatha Yoga practices, such as Mantra, Pranayama or Asana simply serve the purpose of waking up, becoming present, it makes sense to move into a quiet space after we've done the practices. So we move closer towards the raw experience, as opposed to always being in our head.


Unfortunately, once we get quiet on the outside, the inner landscape usually gets annoyingly loud. Just like today when they were chopping down trees with a chainsaw outside the shala. We tried to shut the noise out by closing the doors. Stephen smiled and pointed out the symbolism: Just because we shut the door, that doesn't mean the noise will cease.


Left with no distraction in the outer world, the mind begins to busy itself with creating stories in the inner world. In fact, I had just started my train of thought about my own little drama of sleep deprivation (label = bad), when Stephen encourages us to avoid conceptualizing the experience as we settle into Savasana.

The mind always wants to label experience. It is a quick fix. Think, for instance, of the situation when we meet someone new. The mind instantly goes “like/dislike”. After the first 10 minutes of small talk, we think we already get the person. We instantly fit them into our little personal filing system of judgments.


The mind is efficient like that. Experiencing every moment as it is, is a huge effort. It means you have to be present all the time. That's why it is much easier to be on your mat and anticipate experience: “Oh man, Utkatasana kills my thighs every time! I hate rotated triangle! I will never be able to backbend like that!” That way we are safe. We don't actually have to expose ourselves to the raw experience. We've already boiled it down to what we think is its essence. As the great BKS Iyengar once said: "An opinion is yesterday's right or wrong knowledge warmed up and re-served for today's situation." 


It is precisely in our mat practice, however, that we learn that body and mind fluctuate from day to day, even from moment to moment. Why should nature out there be any different? We only cling to the strategy of narrowing experience so we don't have to go through the process of exploring, or of naked awareness, as the Buddhists call it. For some reason, the mind wants to be in the know, wants to be safe from questioning everything all over again.


But if we constantly narrow the experience by overlapping it with our template, with what we think is real – are we ever really there? Do we ever really experience? As Stephen said, the practice is just a trick to get us there – or actually, as he likes to say, to get us “awake, awake, right here, right now.” Which is why, after all the cleansing of the energetic body and preparing of the gross body, we lie down or we sit in meditation. When the slate has been wiped clean, we are sometimes lucky enough to catch a glimpse of naked awareness, without narrowing the field of experience.  

<< 1 | 2 | 3 >>