New postings can now be found on the Mahashakti Blog - please check it out!
This year I decided, despite an injury last year, to continue with snowboarding. Those of you who enjoy snowsports will know the sense of exhilaration that comes from being high in the mountains on a crystal clear day, and this was one element which lured me back. The other was something to do with fear. This second week of boarding saw me quickly master the turns I had begun to learn last year, and then suddenly and completely lose my nerve! Yet, every morning something compelled me to strap myself into my bindings and get back out on the snow. Sometimes I was glued to the spot; sometimes I sat on the snow crying big fat tears of frustration; and occasionally I pulled it together enough to carve a few glorious turns. Then on the final day I spent the whole morning riding turn after turn; finding my balance and confidence on the board; and, yes, actually enjoying myself!
My companion on this journey through fear was, as in all things, Yoga. Each morning I repeated a mantra: breathing in to the word “confident” and breathing out to the word “calm”. On the slopes I found myself mentally repeating the Sankalpa “I can and I will, I can and I will”. Each evening I practised relaxation and visualised myself confidently making turns. Most significant however, was the realisation that Yoga wasn’t just supporting me in learning this new skill, learning this new skill WAS Yoga. The whole process was a lesson in focus, mindfulness, balance and, significantly, in transforming fear. I realised that my fear was not specific to boarding since, when I analysed it, I knew that I wasn’t in any immediate danger. Rather, my fear was a greater, free floating fear of the unknown and could easily have been applied to any experience which found me so radically out of my limited comfort zone.
This is not just about doing things like launching ourselves off the top of snow-clad mountains, it is about stepping more widely out of our familiar comfort zones; facing our personal challenges; making changes; and trying things that perhaps we believe we cannot do. Eleanor Roosevelt recognised this and is famously quoted as saying “You should do one thing every day that scares you”. What was revealed to me was that avoiding fear simply perpetuates it and creates even more fear. However, when we face our fear it transforms not only our feelings about that particular thing but about everything!
This applies equally to our Yoga practice. It is easy to find a comfort level in Yoga and to identify those practices or postures which are, in our minds, a step too far and simply hear ourselves saying “I don’t do that”. We all tend to do this but in doing so we simply reinforce this self-imposed restriction of our practice and remain forever within our limited comfort zone. Rather than saying “I don’t do that”, a more useful mantra is “I already do this so I will also do that”. Yoga is a life-long journey, there is always something more to discover within ourselves and last week’s snowboarding has served to remind me that we will only discover if we actively seek, and journey beyond the comfortably familiar.
Transitional times, such as New Year, allow us to reflect on what we would like to change and we are encouraged, traditionally to resolve to change those things. However, change requires energy and often, we find ourselves at the turn of the year, the darkness of Winter, feeling very low in the kind of energy that might feed us the strength and willpower to fulfil our resolutions. Also, because resolutions are often derived from wanting to change what we believe to be negative things about ourselves, they can sometimes serve only to reinforce that negative self- belief.
In Yoga, we use a technique called Sankalpa. This is a bit like a resolution but framed in a much more positive and dynamic way. Sankalpa also more deeply explores what is behind the desire to change. So, for example, rather than wishing or hoping to lose weight, which may or may not be a good thing for you, a Sankalpa might be a positive statement of creating health and wholeness. In combination with Yoga, Meditation or Yoga Nidra and used consistently and with intent, Sankpala becomes very powerful.
When I teach Sankalpa in workshops, I always read the following on “What is Sankalpa” by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati:
“Sankalpa is not only a thought; it is a power, a force. Whatever you think is projected into the environment. Just as there are radio waves and other invisible waves and frequencies in the environment, which can be captured with the right instruments, in the same manner thoughts and desires also have a frequency. Negativity and positivity, pessimism and optimism, have a frequency. What you express leaves an impression on the channel in the mind and waves are transmitted. If there is an intensity behind a thought, behind a sankalpa, behind a resolution, then the channel selector, the imprint on the mind, will be stronger and you will be able to access that channel more frequently and easily. It is like the pre-set channel.
Sankalpa is not just a wish, it is a conviction. It is faith in oneself, faith that one can do it. The sankalpa cannot be “I wish it was like that” or “I wish to become that”. That is wishful thinking. Sankalpa is the conviction that “I will become that”. Sankalpa is trust and faith in oneself, in one’s own strength and courage. “I have that, therefore, I can become that.”
I am sure there are times in the darkest days of winter when you feel like hibernating! It is a time of hibernation for many animals. Plants die back and trees drop their leaves. Our Ancestors were undoubtedly more in tune with nature’s cycles. Winter would have been a slower time, when energy and valuable food reserves were conserved.
In modern times we are expected to continue to operate at the same frequency and with the same high energy levels throughout the year and in December the pace picks up even more. As we frantically rush around shopping, wrapping, cooking, travelling and partying, many of us can find ourselves low in energy, depressed, stressed or anxious. The truth is, for many of us, the pace of the festive season is simply out of kilter with the natural energy of the season. When it feels more natural to embrace stillness, peace and restfulness, we are encouraged in the festive “spirit” to do quite the opposite and we may end up wondering why on earth we’re not enjoying ourselves!
Yoga can help us embrace stillness in our lives, and to live in a way which is much more in tune with the cycles of nature. And this can lead to us changing how we approach seasonal events.
And when the pace becomes frenetic, our yoga practice can be something we can come back to even if it’s just to take a few moments breathe deeply and reconnect with the peace and stillness within.
On 13th December we will be exploring this and other themes in our Midwinter Stillness Workshop
I have just found myself being surprised by the date. November already? It’s a common theme and topic of conversation, how quickly the months seem to fly by. We are intrinsically linked to the flow of the seasons and still gauge the passing of time by seasonal milestones. The passing of time can also feel more quickly paced at certain times than at others. Time can reflect achievements, goals and challenges, deadlines missed and tasks yet undone and we often dwell on the past or constantly plan or worry about the future.
Yoga teaches us to be more present in the moment – something which is sometimes called Mindfulness. More important than the ticking by of seconds, hours and weeks, is what is occurring RIGHT NOW. Indeed, the only thing we can be absolutely certain of is what is happening right now. More than that, it’s about developing awareness, focusing in and being mindful of what is occurring, with our breath, in our bodies, in our minds. Off the mat, it is about being fully present in our lives. It may not be possible all of the time, but the awareness that comes from practising yoga can give more meaning and depth to our experience of each moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes beautifully on the subject of mindfulness. In this extract from “Present Moment Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living” he comments on the following verse about Washing the Dishes:
Washing the dishes
is like bathing a baby Buddha.
The profane is the sacred.
Everyday mind is Buddha’s mind.
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur to us only when we are not doing them. Once we are standing in front of the sink with our sleeves rolled up and our hands in warm water, it is really not bad at all… Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. It may take a bit longer to do the dishes, but we can live fully, happily, in every moment…If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert and a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of doing these things joyfully. With the cup in my hands, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavor of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment. The time of dishwashing is as important as the time of meditation. That is why the everyday mind is called the Buddha’s mind.” THICH NHAT HANH
Writing this week about my work with people living with cancer, I found myself commenting most significantly on the breath. The breath is our connection between the body and the mind. When we are stressed, or anxious, the breath can become short or shallow, we can even find ourselves holding the breath just as we clench the jaw or hold tension in the shoulders or belly. And breathing in this unhelpful way can become a habit. By learning to breathe more easily and practising simple breath awareness we can start to create a deeper connection with what is happening in the body. Simply noticing the breath can begin to change the way we breathe. Making space in the body by releasing long-held tension, we free the diaphragm allowing us to explore the full capacity of our lungs. When we take this practice further , maybe by following a practice of yoga, we can create new habits of breathing that have profoundly positive affects on our wellbeing.
Practising Breath Awareness
Sit or lie comfortably. Take a few deep breaths and release the breath in a big sigh, relaxing the abdomen as you breathe out. Then breathe comfortably through the nostrils, easily, without changing the breath in any way. Keep the abdomen relaxed and when you breathe naturally, it will move with the breath- rising on the inhalation and releasing on the exhalation. Although don’t feel the need to force this, just keep your abdomen relaxed – and breathe. You may focus on this movement of the body as your breathe – or you may find that you are drawn to some other aspect of the breath, such as the sensation of the breath in the nostrils or throat, the sound of the breath or even just the idea of it. Focus in whatever way is easy. Allow the breath to fill your thoughts. Allow other thoughts to drift. You won’t stop other thoughts coming, but just let them go again. If a thought or feeling distracts you, bring yourself gently back to thinking about the breath but don’t let this be a struggle, allow yourself to be gently guided back to the breath each time. As you focus you may find that your breath starts to become longer and deeper. Again, just let this happen. Become absorbed in the breath for a few minutes.
We have just returned from a week on a sailing boat in Cornwall. The plan was to help sail the boat up the West Coast and back to Scotland. However, with adverse weather conditions, we spent the week sheltering up-river.
Being on the sea is an energetic challenge for me. As a strongly air-orientated person, I am much more at home at the top of a mountain where I feel comfortable and free, than on or in the water. Indeed, there were moments when we were on very rough seas where I would rather have been anywhere else and found my mind closing in and my breath becoming slow and rhythmic, trusting in the experienced sailors on board, until it was over.
Yoga is not only what we do on the mat, we can take it into all of our daily life aswell. As an example of this, when calmer seas returned, I realised that I had been practising yoga.
The regular practice of yoga helps us on a number of levels. We can learn to meet fear and adversity with poise and balance and to accept and confidently work with, rather than attempting to resist or control, the awesome power of nature. We can learn to trust and respect the knowledge and abilities of others and maintain energetic balance within ourselves and in our relationship with the world.
In September, we invite you to explore with us the many ways in which yoga can enhance your life by coming to one of our classes or workshops.
August marks the seasonal peak of high summer. Yes, despite the rain- it is still summer! The 1st of August is the ancient Celtic feast day of Lughnasah or Lammas, the feast of the grain harvest. We are surrounded by the signs of ripening fruits and crops and abundant flowers marking the beginnings of the harvest season.
We live in a land much dominated by the weather and it is a topic of discussion during many of our day to day conversations. And let’s confess, a lot of that is about complaining isn’t it? Indeed, we think about clouds and rain as “bad” weather. Just as easily however, we could don our waterproofs, open our brollies and enjoy the odd shower, taking delight in the brief and frequent windows of sunshine that appear amidst the clouds and celebrating the precious gift of abundant life-giving water. Have a look at the Cloud Appreciation Society for some real weather-lovers.
One of the many gifts of yoga can be a greater peace with nature and an acknowledgment and acceptance of the energy of each season. Through our practice we learn how it feels to stop struggling – with our bodies, with our breath and with our thoughts- even if we only catch a glimpse of how this feels. Off the mat, this can carry over into our relationship with the world. In August, we invite you to continue to share this, and the many other gifts of yoga with us.
We had a lovely time in Spain recently, where it was exceptionally hot – over 40 degrees at times! In that climate things have a totally different pace. Shedding shoes and layers of clothing and practising yoga in natural heat was a joy. We attended the wedding of fellow yogi, Kenny, near Madrid (congratulations to him and his new wife, Maria!) and then travelled South to stay with another yogi, Ruth, at El Duende in the mountains North of Malaga in the Axarquia region of Andalucia.
With the holiday season upon us, we find an opportunity for some extended time to stop and remind ourselves of how it feels not to cram every minute of our lives with activity. Of course, with holidays, what most people find difficult is extending the feelings of relaxation and wellbeing much beyond the first two days back at work. However, throughout the year, Yoga provides us with a holiday every time we step onto the mat! We know how it is, life gets busy but we invite you to take that mini-break. If you haven’t been to class for a while – It’s never too late to come back and we’d love to see you . Details of all our classes are on here and we’ll be teaching throughout the Summer.