om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: Yoga Philosophy

The Fortnight of Full

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself slumped in my chair at my office job, heavy limbed, unable to concentrate on the sentence I was trying to construct on the screen in front of me. I desperately wanted to crawl under my desk and go to sleep. Instead took myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a cubicle, and sat on the closed toilet, folded over my legs for five minutes. I let my breath slow down. Let my exhales become longer than my inhales. Kept my focus firmly on the cracks between the grey floor tiles so I wouldn’t drift off. I could feel my slow pulse in my arms and legs, that feeling like the very beginning of pins and needles.

When I made my way back to my desk, I wasn’t really any less tired, but I had realised I couldn’t ignore the fatigue anymore.

This last fortnight (and a half, really, since today is Thursday) has been full. I use the word ‘full’ instead of ‘busy’ quite consciously, and not just because this article from last year about the ridiculousness of ‘busyness’ still plays on my mind. I use the word ‘full’ because the last few weeks have involved so many things that require some level of mental or emotional processing from me, and not very much time to attempt that processing.

I can hardly complain, because most of what I’ve been doing, seeing, saying, hearing has been hugely positive and I’m incredibly grateful for all of it. But it’s possible to be overwhelmed by great stuff too, isn’t it?

I think often of this blog post by yoga teacher and writer Bernadette Birney, where she talks about the balance between work and rest (although she refers to work instead as ‘play’, which I love — especially now that much of my work is stuff I really love doing). The basic premise of her argument in the post is that there’s a limit to how much each of us can do, to how long we can be continuously active, and beyond that point we just feel overwhelmed. And really need to rest.

Some of the wonderful things I was involved in over the last fortnight included running a Yoga and Writing workshop at the Emerging Writers’ Festival this last weekend, and sitting on a panel for a discussion called ‘Keeping Active in the Arts’. So it’s probably not surprising that I’m more conscious of the interplay between activity and rest just at the moment, given that both those events touched on these ideas.

For me, that relationship between activity and rest, and how I attempt to know when to move between the two, essentially comes down to energy. I mean that in the least hippy-dippy way possible — I’m really talking about levels of fatigue. I took a yoga class (as a student) late last week that had been designed to support a flagging immune system, or for periods of heightened stress, and the teacher talked about learning to notice the difference between stress that gives you the strength and vitality to get things done, and stress that is masking deep fatigue.

Thinking here of a ‘stressor’ as anything that makes demands of the body and/or the mind, it shouldn’t really surprise me that today I’m feeling deeply fatigued. Overwhelmed. This last fortnight or so has stretched me in a few different ways and forced me to consider a number of different aspects of my life from a new perspective. And maaaan, as amazing and helpful as it is, that stuff takes up valuable energy.

One of the outcomes of not having a thyroid and instead taking a dose of thyroid hormones each day, is that I’ve only got so much energy each day. (The thyroid hormones are rather directly linked to the body’s energy levels — they control the metabolism, that is, the release of oxygen in the body, or the way the body distributes energy.) Grave’s Disease, which is an autoimmune disease, is the cause of my thyroid issues, and I gather that most people with autoimmune diseases deal with this battle with energy as well. I can’t really hope to outdo this wonderful explanation about the kind of decisions people with chronic illness need to make about what to do with whatever energy they have each day, but suffice to say that the notion of having to ration it out really rings true for me.

Rest is something I’ve been historically and consistently bad at (which ultimately could have contributed to my getting the Grave’s in the first place, but then Grave’s also causes a big spike in thyroid hormone levels and metabolism, so it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument, really). For instance, I walked the hour home from work yesterday, instead of catching the tram, despite the irrefutable evidence of exhaustion from earlier in the afternoon. I’m an active person. I like to move. Moving is how I deal with the normal mental angst of being human. Plus, I have so many things I want to do! All of them right now! So rest is something I’ve really had to work hard at learning how to do, because when I don’t, I end up collapsing in a heap anyway. Which is rarely fun.

Strangely though, the collapse can be useful too. I’ve given a lot of thought these last few years to what it is that different emotional states can give us. For me, an exhaustion collapse usually involves anger or tears or immense anxiety (told you it wasn’t much fun), as well as the physical tiredness. Because I’m not very good at letting myself rest, sometimes this is what it takes for me to realise I’ve reached breaking point and that maybe I should just lie in bed and read rather than replant the garden and make a loaf of bread and ten litres of lemon marmalade and write those three essays and do all those hours of yoga I’ve been thinking about for the last month. Sometimes those emotions are what make me realise that something else is wrong, or that something bigger than just my activity level needs to change. At times, my periods of great activity are not imposed by anyone other than myself; they’re a way of distracting myself from something that’s troubling me. It’s definitely unpleasant, but I certainly get the message when one of the collapses occurs: look here, stop running away.

Other times, the busyness is really just accidental, or at worst, a case of poor time management. But even then, being overstretched usually highlights something I’ve been pushing away instead of facing, even if avoiding that thing is not what’s caused the busyness in the first place. What makes me really grumpy/sad/fuming when I’m exhausted often surprises me. If I manage to stay observant during an inner (usually) tantrum about the washing up, there’s frequently something other than sheepishness I can take away from it.

Tea and pyjamas

That said, I definitely do not consciously seek out these collapses. Trying to avoid them, useful though they may sometimes be, is what’s helped me begin to learn how to rest.

So this time I’m going to listen to that feeling of being overwhelmed, to that tingling tiredness in my limbs, and I am going to rest these next few days. I am going to be quiet and spend a lot of time in my pjyamas and potter about the garden and reflect on the wonderful fullness of the last fortnight or so, because I’m sure there’s enough I can take from that without the need for a meltdown.

~

This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

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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.

~

This post is cross-posted on my writing blog.

The brain, connectivity and compassion

Recently, on a day when I’d taught an early morning class on very little sleep, and was feeling a little muddled, I found myself watching* this astonishing TEDTalk by brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor. Initially, Bolte Taylor moved into brain research to try and better understand conditions like the one her brother lived with: schizophrenia.

Then one day she had a massive stroke.

In this talk, she describes experience of having a stroke as only someone who knows a lot about the brain could. She explains how she was conscious of moving back and forth between the two sides of her brain — the right side, which she affectionately refers to as La-La Land because it’s the part of our brains that experiences sensation, and that feels connected with the energy of everything around us; and the left side, which is thought to be where more of our more logical and linear thinking takes place.

The experiences she describes, and the way she describes them, are absolutely incredible. But perhaps even more incredible is that the experience made her realise how much kinder and more compassionate we all might be if we spent regular time in the La-La Land part of our brains. That is, the part of our brains that allows us to feel connected to everything around us.

Yoga is, at its essence, a philosophy and practice that tries to promote that very idea. The practices (hopefully) allow us to experience, as Bolte Taylor did, the workings of our bodies and minds as purely sensory experiences. They’re an opportunity to get to know ourselves as living things, and all the mess and wonder that comes along with that. The philosophy tells us that everything is connected — the word yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’.

Of course, the thinking and reflecting part of our brain is important too. It’s the part of us that allows us to actually function in the reality we share with other people and things. Bolte Taylor, of course, acknowledges the importance of both parts of the brain. But this is something that I worry is often not clearly articulated in the way yoga is often talked about. Not acknowledging the importance of the logical part of our brain is perhaps one of the reasons that yoga and other related practices sometimes get dropped into the hippy-dippy-fairy-land basket. You know, this kind of stuff:

Yes, yoga might feel blissful at times, and you might find yourself feeling connected to the universe (imagine me saying that in a deep, ethereal, uber-relaxing yoga teacher voice), but we’re supposed to be able to take all that love and compassion and heartfelt goodness off the mat. The idea is supposed to be that the sense of connection and peace we sometimes find in yoga in some way begins to inform the part of our minds that lives in the real world. It’s supposed to be bringing those two parts of our mind into greater balance, to be creating more and stronger links between the two.

In the end, this is exactly Bolte Taylor’s point. She’s not arguing for endless bliss-out. That’s not real life, and it’s far from realistic. Real life is often stressful, and often requires logic and thinking. In real life sad and bad things happen. What Bolte Taylor is suggesting is that if we had more direct experience with that blissful, sensory part of ourselves, perhaps we’d respond to the stresses of real life with more compassion, for ourselves and for others, and less fear, and that this would ultimately make the world a better place. And wouldn’t that be nice?
~
*When I say ‘I found myself watching’, I mean that a lovely yoga teacher friend of mine happened to link to it on Twitter that day. So really I was just lazing about looking at Twitter.

Donna Farhi on the body’s systems

I’ve begun reading again Donna Farhi’s Yoga, Mind, Body & Spirit, and am once again struck by how beautifully she articulates the experiences of yoga. This, for example, where she’s talking about the body’s systems in yoga:

In yoga practice we attempt to visualise, sense, and feel the actuality of these systems — we not only become familiar with the map, we also take a walk through the territory over and over again until we know it like the back of our hand.

To experience the [cellular system in the body—the most basic part of our existence], then, we must allow the habitual background noise of the mind and the distraction of activity to diminish so that the quieter voice of the cells can be heard. This is the process of meditation.

The bones are our most enduring body substance, surviving as evidence of our lives long after the rest of the physical body has disintegrated.

I also love the way this book looks — it’s set out with plenty of room in the margins for notes (in my copy there are plenty of these!), and uses a combination of photography and illustration to show poses and exercises. If you’re interested in finding out more about the deeper workings of yoga, this is a wonderful place to start.

~

You can buy this book on Amazon here.

(Note: I’m part of the Amazone Affiliates program, which means I make a very small commission if you purchase the book through this link.)

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?)

~

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.

Stillness

Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced wherever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in—when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you are doing. ~ Erich Schiffmann ‘Yoga: the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness’

I must’ve read this paragraph at least ten times over the last two years. It still strikes me every time. Stillness, on the rare occasion we manage to get it right, is dynamic. I love that idea.

Yoga & body shame

“Yoga is really trying to liberate us from shame about our bodies. To love your body is a very important thing. The health of your mind depends on your being able to love your body.” ~ Rodney Yee

From: Garden of Yoga (reblogged from geeky-yogini).

Meditation doesn’t have a reason…

“We could say that meditation doesn’t have a reason or doesn’t have a purpose. In this respect it’s unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.”

Worry

Last night I went along to one of my favourite Sydney yoga classes — the restorative Kundalini class at Jivamukti Sydney.

Our teacher, Aleta, told us one of her favourite Yogi Bhajan quotes:

“If you worry about something, it has the same effect as praying for it to happen.”

Indeed.

Don’t worry, be happy.

(Incidentally, this was one of my favourite songs when I was a kid.)

Gardening

I never thought I’d be a gardener.

The house I grew up in had an enormous front and back yard, and my brothers and I spent many hours playing in the garden, making cubby-houses out of bushes and soup out of mud and berries. A trip to the local nursery on a weekend with Mum and Dad was a fairly regular occurrence. But I never really understood the appeal of being on hands and knees, with dirty hands, at risk of attack from any number of nasty creepy crawlies.

And yet, as an adult, most weekends I find myself looking forward to spending some time in the garden. I get distracted by nurseries. I notice when my neighbours have planted something new, or pulled something out. These days, gardening for me is very much like yoga: it requires a regular commitment, is full of frustration and disappointment, but made entirely worth the effort by the joy that comes with any achievement, no matter how small. Gardening, like yoga, gives me a chance to really appreciate small things.

The switch from non-gardener to gardener has been a gradual one, and I can’t say exactly where it started. My Mum, a certain former housemate and a few other people have helped me along the way. Hey, maybe I was never really a non-gardener in the first place.

My love of gardening can be directly attributed to my love of food — most of my garden is edible. (Except the jonquils. They’re just purdy.)

In some of my research for a writing project on food and culture, I came across this article on The Conversation (an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the Australian university and research sector, launched earlier this year):

“Food. It is the great unifier of place and race, the common ground sustaining our very existence. Why then, does food production feature so minimally in public space and urban design?

Under the weight of looming threats to energy, population and economy, the time is ripe to rethink our design focus.

Traditionally, urban design has been dominated by the use of ornamental exotic and indigenous plants while edible species have been minimally utilised.

Now, as we move towards a potential crisis in food production it is more important than ever to rethink our design practices.”

(Read the rest over at The Conversation.)

I firmly support the idea of bringing some food production into cities. It’s unlikely that cities will ever support themselves entirely, but I don’t think that’s the point. My garden does not produce enough to be my sole source of food, but it does contribute to what ends up on my plate. Perhaps more importantly, it gives me a much better idea of where the food I do buy has come from, and the kind of work that’s gone into producing it. That increased awareness, I think, can only lead to good things.

So much of any yoga practice is about noticing what’s there — often below the surface. Food gardening, for me, is another way of practicing yoga without a mat.

~

This has been cross-posted over at my writing blog, avocadoandlemon.