om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: Karma yoga

Yoga and the balance between self and other

A few weeks ago I went to a workshop run by US teacher, Sarah Powers. Aside from being an incredible physical practice, what I really took away from the workshop was a sense that perspective is really important in a yoga practice (and, let’s face it, in life). At the very beginning of the practice, Powers talked about how many people think of the idea of self-improvement as a selfish act. She suggested that it needn’t be, if the improvements in self are also then used for the betterment of society as a whole in some way. That is, if we improve ourselves in ways which are beneficial to our relationships with other people, and indeed with other creatures and life forms. Ultimately, that kind of practice is more beneficial for us as individuals too.

Perhaps it sounds a bit namby-pamby to talk about realising and improving our connection with everything else. But I mean that in the most realistic and maybe even boring way possible. Every organism on this planet depends in one way or another on something else. We depend on other human beings, we depend on other species even, both in ways that we’re able to identify and perhaps quantify, and in ways that we’ve no idea about. We eat other species (even vegans and vegetarians eat other species — sentience is a whole other discussion and not one I’m going to have here just now), they eat each other. We rely on other human beings for friendship, but also to build the roads we drive on and the buildings we live in. For the most part, we rely on other human beings to manage our eating relationship with other species by growing our food for us.

My lovely friend and fellow yoga teacher (based in Seattle) Kat Selvocki, brought my attention to this article by Matthew Remski on how the ‘social good’ aspects of yoga are missing in the way most of us practice it. The idea of connectivity, both within and beyond ourselves, is certainly present in the philosophy of yoga, but it’s yet to take off in any concrete way in the way we practice yoga in developed countries. He writes about going to a church service and finding out about all the social services that church has on offer, and about then wondering why those sorts of services are not part of the way yoga generally manifests itself in our society.

I don’t think it’s a problem with yoga, per se. I think it’s symptomatic of broader issues of isolation and fading of community that can come with an increased emphasis on individual empowerment. I write about and do a lot of research into food systems, and I see the same problems there. In food systems there’s a huge disconnection between most people and the actual growing of their food — that is, most people don’t grow their own food, and have no idea who does grow it.

What buoys me as I do this research is the fact that there seem to be plenty of other people who are already aware of how problematic this is, and who are trying to do something about it. In the same way, pieces like Remski’s give me hope that some of these issues in the way yoga is practiced are being or will be addressed. The concept of ecological systems, which, essentially, are a way of examining the relationships between things in the non-human world and between the human and non-human worlds, is one that could easily be applied to the relationships between humans themselves. After all, we are actually our own walking ecosystems, made up of a community of our own genes and microbacterial life. (For a really interesting, if a little icky, examination of the bacterial make-up of human beings and how important it is to our health, have a listen to this short podcast about the medical practice of ‘poo transplants’. Gross, but really fascinating.)

But how does all this relate to a yoga practice? How might we keep a sense of perspective when we’re up close and personal with our bodies and all the physical, emotional and mental issues the practice might bring with it? Sarah Powers offered in her workshop a simple exercise that might help here.

As we held an uncomfortable but relatively supported and passive pose (you might do the same just lying on your back on the floor, or sitting upright on a cushion), Powers asked us to allow our awareness to travel around the body until we found the most uncomfortable sensation, and then to watch that sensation. To notice everything we could about it — where it was, how strong it was, whether it was tightness, whether it affected our breath etc etc. After a minute or so, she asked us to keep that point of discomfort as the centre of our awareness, but allow the edges of that awareness to expand out to the edges of our mat. Then after another minute, again keeping the original discomfort as the centre of our awareness, to expand the edges out to the sides of the room. After another minute, to the streets that enclosed the block the building sat on, then out to the suburb, the city, the region, the state, the country, and on and on, perhaps even out to the knowable universe. Once we’d expanded our awareness out as far as we could — still with the centre point being that discomfort in our own body — she asked us to notice how small our discomfort looked when compared to the rest of what we were holding in our awareness. Very small indeed.

This exercise was not used to try and eliminate that discomfort, or to suggest it wasn’t valid; it was merely an exercise in perspective that hopefully helped us to suffer less from the discomfort. And it worked. The discomfort was still there, but it didn’t feel quite as bad. I think it’s really important to remember that yoga isn’t supposed to just be exercise for the physical body. The physical poses are about realising that there’s more to life than what’s going on your head, and to see the connections between your body and your mind.

Additionally, the exercise certainly helped me to remember that there is more going on in the world (solar system, universe, whatever) than just what’s going on for me, even beyond my physical body. And this is hopefully what yoga is about, at least eventually. A big part of the way that Sarah Powers teaches yoga involves the Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving kindness, and an exercise like this one at the very least shows that we have an emotional capacity beyond our own experiences. The trick then, perhaps, is what we do with that capacity, how we put it into practice beyond an exercise on our yoga mats.

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This post is cross-posted on my writing blog.

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Saying Goodbye

This is my last week teaching in Sydney. In fact, this is my last full week in this city full stop. Next week, I’ll be leaving Sydney to have a little holiday, and then moving down to Melbourne. Leaving a place is always strange and sad and exciting and scary. I’ve written here, here and here about some of the emotions I’ve come across in knowing that I’m about to leave a place. Transition creates such an odd frame of mind.

These last two weeks I’ve really started saying goodbye. I’ve started teaching last classes in places I’ve taught for some years, and saying goodbye to students I’ve known for as long. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s been exhausting. Every class I teach lately is tinged with sadness — my own, mostly. And it’s take a great deal more effort to stay focussed on the class.

The goodbyes themselves are always odd. Strange and sad and really very surreal. It just doesn’t feel quite real that I will not see these people next week. I will miss each and every one of them.

The student/teacher relationship is a surprisingly intimate one. The intimacy, I suppose, is surprising because it’s not always very obvious. As a yoga teacher, you spend a lot of time watching your students. Watching how their bodies respond to your instructions, to your sequences. You look out for minor (usually) alignment issues, you look out for signs of distress (physical or otherwise), and you come to care a great deal about how what comes out of your mouth affects the people in the room. When I plan classes, I keep in mind the make-up of regulars in my various classes, and think — sometimes in great detail — about how a particular shape or sequence might affect certain students with injuries or off-centre bodies. (Well, all of us have off-centre bodies, but some of us notice it more than others.) If there’s one thing that being a yoga teacher develops in you, it’s a really profound sense of tenderness and compassion for other people’s struggles.

Saying goodbye to my students is upsetting in a way I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with. It’s a sadness I’ll carry with me for some time, I’m sure. I’ve been trying to practice sitting with those emotions, just letting them be, letting them work themselves out. There have been tears. It hasn’t been easy.

But that sadness also makes me feel incredibly lucky. I’m lucky to work with people in the way that I do, to introduce them to tools that will help them through tough times. But, as is the case with any kind of teaching, I’m lucky because teaching others also shows me things about myself. I’ve learnt an incredible amount about my own strengths and limitations these last few years, and I hope I’ve become a better teacher — and indeed a more resilient person — as a result.

So, to any of my Sydney students reading this, thank you. And keep in touch.

Saying goodbye to Sydney, of course, means saying hello to another place. I’ll be teaching yoga in Melbourne, but I’m not sure yet of the details. When I’ve got a better idea, I’ll be sure to update things here.

~

This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

What is karma?

Last night, I had an interesting discussion on twitter about the notion of karma. My friend suggested that making someone responsible for their current situation, by blaming the karma of past lives, is incredibly unjust. Of course, I completely agree about it being unjust. But it’s also a misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of karma. Which took me many tweets to explain (140 characters isn’t a lot for something so complex, and for someone as verbose as I am!), and which is why I’m now elaborating on my points here.

Many people think of karma as a kind of blame, or a way of deciding who ‘deserves’ what. As in: “You’ve done bad things (in this life or another, if you believe in that), so you deserve bad things happening to you”. I disagree wholeheartedly with this interpretation of the concept of karma. Karma is not about blame, it’s not about someone deserving what’s coming to them, it’s simply a description of a cause and effect relationship. As in: “You’ve done bad things, so chances are you’ll probably have to pay for them in some way, at some point”. Whether or not someone ‘deserves’ to pay doesn’t come into it at all — rather just that it’s likely they’ll have to.

The twitter discussion was really centred around the idea of people whose situation in life is less than fortunate, and whether this is of their own doing. The concept of karma might suggest that it is in some way related to things that have happened in that person’s past, and that maybe some of their past actions might have led them to this point, but that’s a far cry from blaming someone for their situation, or saying that they deserve it. I mean, that’s about as useful to anyone as saying that you deserve to miss the bus to work because you were tired and needed a few minutes extra sleep. Suggesting you deserve it doesn’t get you on the bus, and it doesn’t take into account any of the circumstances that might have led to your being tired enough to hit the snooze button once more than was necessary if you were to make that particular bus. The word ‘deserve’ and the concept of ‘blame’ are the application of judgment, and karma is a step before any judgement — it’s a simple observation of relationships.

Using karma to blame someone for their situation also forgets that the concept of karma applies to all parts of time — past, present and future — and that to dismiss someone’s problems by saying they’ve got ‘bad karma’ is probably not going to do great things for our own future karma. To respond with compassion, however, and an attempt to aid the person, should they need and want that aid, is sowing more positive seeds.

It’s worth remembering that, religious beliefs aside, karma, like all living philosophies, are about how to live a more fruitful life, and one that’s not at odds with the community in which you exist. As far as I can see, blame is not a particularly useful concept, and often bogs us down for longer than is necessary in the kind of emotions and emotional reactions that really just make us feel crappy. Responsibility, on the other hand, is a more useful concept. I think someone can take responsibility for something without having to take blame, and I think that taking responsibility without taking blame frees a person up to actually make changes to a situation that they’re finding unpleasant or harmful. It’s all semantics, of course. But words matter. (I’m a writer — can you tell?)

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If you’re interested in a much more eloquent teasing-out of this concept, this article by yoga philosopher, Sally Kempton, is a great start.

What’s your yoga?

I love Alison Hinks’ yoga infographics. They’re fun.

Her latest is this quiz — What’s your yoga?

Click to get a PDF copy from Alison's page

Visit Alison here, and check out her other infographics here.

Compassion

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

For the Dalai Lama, compassion is the key to finding happiness. Fellow Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, also emphasises the importance of compassion: “In order to have compassion for others we have to have compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, selfish, mean — you name it — to have compassion and care for these people means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves.” In other words, to feel true compassion for yourself and your own suffering, however big or small, helps you find the ability to show compassion for others who suffer.

In a yoga practice, finding compassion for yourself isn’t always easy. We’re often frustrated by the tension in our hamstrings or hips, or by our inability to master a strong pose like sirsasana (headstand).

Yogic philosophy calls for compassion too. The Vedic chant lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu translates roughly as ‘may all beings everywhere be happy and free; and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom’. The chant doesn’t say ‘may everyone except me find happiness’ — ‘all beings’ includes you too. And you can practise encouraging compassion for yourself in a yoga class.

Yoga, in many ways, is a process of getting to know yourself. Unfortunately, for most of us, that means becoming acquainted with our limitations, physical or otherwise. As unpleasant as that can be, it’s the perfect opportunity to practise fostering feelings of compassion for ourselves.

At the beginning of my yoga classes, I often ask my students to come into balasana (child’s pose) and take a moment to notice any areas of tiredness, tightness or strain, and any feelings that might be associated with those unpleasant physical experiences. The next step is to try and direct a feeling of compassion towards that area. For me, the easiest way to do that is to personify whatever it is that’s feeling the strain — “Poor hips,” for example. “You’re really feeling it today, aren’t you?” It can feel slightly silly, but that’s half the reason it works — in laughing at yourself for talking to your hips you gain some distance from the discomfort itself.

Hopefully the distance will help you muster up some compassion for those parts of you that feel uncomfortable in a yoga pose. And this should help you slightly modify your yoga practice to avoid further irritation to that area, or maybe even to bring some relief to it.

The same basic principle works when we extend feelings of compassion to others — either during our yoga practice or beyond the mat. Feeling compassion for others who are suffering, and wishing happiness for them can radically modify our thoughts and behaviour, and ultimately help us feel happier ourselves.

In his commencement speech to Kenyon College students in 2005, writer David Foster Wallace suggests that the way we think about other people in everyday situations can have a profound effect on how we live our lives. “I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do,” he says. “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is… then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention… it will actually be in your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

It takes practise, of course, just like any other form of yoga. But if compassion can help make a supermarket a more pleasant place to spend time, then the effort is well worth it in my books.

Yoga Aid

In about five weeks, yogis in Sydney will get together and practice asana for two hours to raise funds for various charities. If you’re interested in practicing, come 14 November, have a look here for details about how to join in. You can also donate. I’ll be there!