om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: Yoga Philosophy

Awe and yoga

I practice yoga every day, and most days am reminded by that practice of how amazing the human body and mind are. Every now and then I come across a video of someone else’s practice, and find myself thinking: “I could never do that.”

This is one of those videos.

(I found this over at Garden Yoga; and Jo found it at yogachick.)

I think it’s interesting that my immediate response is “I could never do that”. I remember thinking the same thing about touching my toes. And about being able to step my foot all the way forward between my hands from downward facing dog. And about practicing a headstand, or a handstand. I can do all of those things now. Half the battle, I think, is getting past that “I could never…”.

So, you know, maybe one day I’ll be able to do this.

~

This is cross-posted over at my writing blog, avocado and lemon.

Learning and yoga

Alison Hinks, who’s a yoga teacher in Durham NC, posts a lot of really insightful and interesting things on her blog — in fact, I’ve share some here before — but this I particularly loved this one.

“If it feels wrong, don’t do it.” Applies to all areas of life, as Alison says, whether that be deciding if a tertiary education is for you, or if you want to try a particular pose in your yoga class.

Read more here.

A Brief History of Yoga

I’ve just found this beautiful coloured flow-chart by Alison Hinks, over at Yoga Dork (you can find a PDF version on Yoga Dork’s post here). If you’ve ever wondered about the lineage of different yoga styles, see if you can find them on here. Very interesting!

Yoga for Moving House

This last fortnight I’ve been using my Sydney yoga practice a little differently. I’ve been moving house. Reluctantly. As well as taking up all my time and energy, it’s been a sad experience for me.  The move was not a voluntary one – our landlord was returning from overseas and wanted to move back into her house. This house has been one of the best houses I’ve ever lived in; my housemates have become almost like family – and it’s the longest I’ve lived in one place since I left home all those years ago.

Unfortunately, it’s also taken up so many of my resources, material and otherwise, that my yoga practice has been substantially reduced. Again. It’s been frustrating.

Looking back through some of my Sydney yoga class plans, I came across one I taught on the theme of impermanence. The series of poses I’d chosen when planning the class seemed to accurately represent the process I felt I was going through moving all my things to the new house: physically demanding, alternately concentrating on balance, strength and letting go, and requiring high levels of concentration.

Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras with this statement:

Atha yoga nushashanam

This translates as, “Now, here is yoga as I have observed it in the natural world.” Sanskrit is not a language in which there are superfluous words. Each word in this phrase is just as important as the next, including the word “now”.

Change and impermanence are a part of life. Moving house became a big, long extended reminder of this. As much as I am looking forward to new adventures in my new house, there’s also an underlying resistance to the change and a hesitation that I’m sure will take some time to fade.

But permanence is an illusion anyway, according to yogic philosophy. Everything is in a constant state of flux, and clinging to the idea of permanence will only cause us distress. My hesitation too will change.

The Buddha said, “This existence of ours is as transient as the autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.” Buddhists argue that, because of the fragile impermanence in our lives, all we really have is right now. The “now” of Patanjali’s Sutras.

The brilliance of focusing on now is that it can both help you more fully enjoy moments of joy – make the most of them, because you cannot be sure how long they will last – and move through difficult times – they too will pass, you can focus on just getting through one moment at a time.

In a yoga class, we can practise what Buddhists call ‘mindfulness’. In any pose, we can draw our attention to any areas of tension, as well as any areas where we might feel more flexible. We can notice those parts of our body that are touching the ground, notice how the ground feels beneath our feet at that moment. If a pose is particularly difficult, I often tell my students to focus on their breath, making sure they can still breathe fully; all they need to do is get through that one breath. After that, all they need to focus on is getting through that next breath, and so on.

Of course, the same practice could apply to me, settling into my new house and moving through my sadness about the end of the old house. Over the next few weeks I’m trying to focus on unpacking just one box at a time. I’ve unpacked all the major things; the boxes that are left are me settling in, like I might slow my breath down gradually in yoga asana practice.

Yesterday I went for a walk around my new neighbourhood; on Saturdays there’s a farmers’ market just around corner from my house, I found a new strip of cafes, and some interesting streets.

The frustration of moving has given me a chance to try and take what I’ve learnt about impermanence and change on the yoga mat into my life in a new way. On my walk yesterday I also came across the type of opportunity that often presents itself with an unwelcome change: just up the road from my new house is a beautiful new Sydney yoga studio space.

Holiday Yoga

In the last few days before Christmas, while I was still at home in Sydney, yoga had started to disappear much further down the To Do List than it might normally be. (Of course, with all the last minute organising, yoga is probably exactly what I needed to keep my mind reasonably sane.) While I stood over pots of onion and chilli jam, despaired at failed shortbread (something I’ve never managed to fail at before!), and rushed out to the shops for panicked additions to presents, I realised that my usual yoga practice just wasn’t going to happen – at the yoga studio or at home. I needed to start thinking about what kind of practice I might be able to foster while I was rushing around all over the place.

I have a fairly dedicated home yoga practice. I was reluctant to give it up or change it. But, as I eventually realised, either it changed to fit the craziness that seems to come with the festive season, or I wouldn’t get any yoga in at all.

Of course, yoga is as much about flexibility of the mind as it is of the body. And in inner-city Sydney, yoga is almost always competing with chaos. The yoga studio I frequent most as a student sits right under the flight path and next to a scrap metal recycler; another studio I attend is just across the road from a popular (read: noisy) Newtown pub. Even in the classes I teach I’m often working around traffic noise or slotting into the lunchtime of a busy corporate student. And really, the festive season – and the interruption to routine that often continues well beyond 25 December – is just a heightened version of the balance between chaos and control that comes with everyday life.

As Sally Kempton, renowned US yogic philosopher says, “Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all engaged in pas de deux between our desire to keep things under control, and our longing to ride with the unpredictable. One on hand, control is essential. Without it we would never mature, never accomplish our goals, and never transform bad habits… In so many ways, control is good, necessary and admirable… [But] that useful, necessary control mechanism has a tendency to turn tyrannical… since life is basically out of control, your attempts to control outcomes will often end in frustration. If you can’t let go of your need to control when necessary, you’ll be at the mercy of your stress hormones.”

And this is true with a yoga practice too. Sometimes life just gets in the way, and we might have to be content with a reduced or altered practice. I might not be able to have as expansive a practice as I’m used to, but surely some yoga is better than none at all.

Two days before Christmas my housemate and I took a break from our cooking marathon and lay with our legs up the wall in our front hallway; we realised we’d never seen our house from that angle before. Most mornings leading up to Christmas I practiced some form of pranayama, which is usually only a very minor part of my practice; I rediscovered the amazing impact this practice has on your energy levels. And quiet meditation – even just five minutes – has helped me get my thoughts into order and settle into the new places I’ve found myself as I’ve travelled around to visit my family.

Trying new things in my yoga practice has given me a fresh outlook – never a bad thing as the new year rolls around. I have a whole lot of plans (yoga-related and otherwise) for the new year, and they involve a shake-up of what was my routine before the Christmas period. I’m sure when I return to Sydney, yoga will change for me all over again, and I’m okay with that.

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.

Transitions

When I say I’m a yoga teacher, I’m often asked which style I teach. “Vinyasa,” I say, knowing my answer will lead to further questions. With so many styles of yoga appearing class lists, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with what they all are.

In Sanskrit, the word vinyasa means “to place in special consideration” or “to place carefully”. It is immediately obvious that this word, vinyasa, could apply to all sorts of things — the arrangement of notes in a piece of music, words following one another in a sentence, even the order of your morning or evening rituals. And, of course, you can begin to see how the word vinyasa might be applied to a yoga class.

Vinyasa yoga carefully links one asana (posture) to the next, using the breath as a guiding force for any movement. Even restorative classes are not completely static, but a vinyasa yoga class can be quite dynamic, and the transitions between postures are often just as important as the moments spent relatively still in each asana. Surya namaskar, or Salute to the Sun, is a common vinyasa yoga sequence.

Change and movement are an unavoidable part of life — we grow and age, seasons change, the sun rises and falls. Some change is welcome, some is not. The trick is to allow yourself to be present and accepting as things change (easier said than done sometimes, I know!).

Practicing vinyasa yoga, and being conscious of the transition between poses as well as the poses themselves, can help us be more aware of transitions we are moving through off the mat.

As you practice surya namaskar, notice how you move from one pose to the next; do you drop yourself onto the floor during chaturanga (low plank), or fling yourself back up to tadasana (mountain pose) from uttanasana (standing forward bend)? Or perhaps you move slowly between poses, sometimes struggling to keep up with the teacher’s instructions.

If you take the time to notice each time you practice, you may find you’re able to make an assessment on your frame of mind or energy levels that day. Some days my surya namaskar seems to flow with such ease it’s like it’s not me moving at all, and on those days other things are easy too: I solve problems, I get lots of work done and I finish the day with a smile on my face. Other days don’t flow so well. I struggle to find the strength to lower myself to the floor in chaturanga, my shoulder joints crack as I move back into adho muka svanasana (downward facing dog), or I stand up too quickly at the end of a round and feel light-headed. On those days I’m more likely to feel tired, and perhaps a little grumpy. Even if I do manage to get lots of work done, I might not feel a sense of achievement.

Which isn’t to say that one type of practice — or one mood — is better than the other. Yogic philosophy teaches us that all emotions are equally important, even if some of them feel more pleasant than others. Checking in with ourselves like this, even if we don’t particularly like what we find, can help us to make choices about what we do on and off the mat that will make best use of our energy levels that day and hopefully address any imbalances present. Knowing where you’re starting from each day can help you to manoeuvre your way through a difficult period in your life; it can also help you notice and fully enjoy your good moods and any exciting changes that might be happening.

It’s a cliche, but often the journey is just as important as the destination. Practicing vinyasa yoga can help us relax and enjoy that journey, wherever it might be taking us. It can also help us practise giving special consideration to how best to approach our next pose, or the next phase in our day or lives.