Tag Archives: asana

A place of peace and stillness

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Recently, a student asked me what  are the benefits of meditation. I answered truthfully, from my own experience, but felt afterwards that my answer had perhaps been inadequate in conveying all that meditation means to me.

The answer I gave was that meditation helps me to attain a calmer, steadier state of mind, and that a regular meditation practice helps me to carry these benefits over into the rest of my day.  All true, but there is so much more.

When I first established a daily practice, many years ago, I found that over time I became less reactive to the events of my life, dealing more calmly with the unexpected, and becoming more resistant to the ups and downs that we all experience. I found a new equanimity, calming the attachments (raga) and aversions (dwesha) to which we are all so prone. The ceaseless chatter of my mind was stilled, first in formal meditation  and subsequently in my wider life.  I found a deep and pervasive stillness and peace within myself, and a clarity of mind that would be impossible without taking the time to stop and simply be.  I developed a more tangible awareness of my chakras and began to truly experience the subtle movement of energy around my body. In truth, I became a different person.

But over the years, it became harder to maintain such an intense daily practice.  Long working days, marriage and parenting made it difficult, if not impossible, to find an hour a day to meditate, as well as another hour for asana practice. At first, I found that with missing the occasional day, I was able to maintain the benefits. But of course, with motherhood, I rarely had time to sit in formal meditation. I continued to chant, and to practice mindfulness, but it wasn’t entirely the same.  My sitting would get interrupted, and I learned to deal with the interruptions in a mindful way, but my practice wasn’t so profound.  Over time, that inner peace started to become more and more elusive.

I missed my daily practice dreadfully.  Whilst I loved my new life, the challenges that parenting sometimes presented would have been so much easier to deal with from that calm, centred place within.  And finally, it became essential for me to renew my commitment to my yoga, and to my meditation, in order to regain my full self.  Going back to a daily practice has been a revelation,  all over again.  I have been reminded of the healing and nurturing that can happen in deep meditation.  In meditation, in the stillness, I become fully aware of the work I  need to do on a physical and an emotional level;  I become aware of specific Safety Energy Locks (SELs) that are in need of some attention.  So as well as providing me with a tremendous sense of space and peace, my meditation practice also informs my asana practice and my Jin Shin Jyutsu practice too.  So much valuable information which would be hidden in the hubbub of daily life, but which makes itself heard in the silence of meditation.  Once again, I find an increased equanimity and a capacity to deal more calmly with the challenges of my daily life.  Once again, my intuition is enhanced.  So whilst I stand by the belief that something is better than nothing when it comes to yoga, and empathise fully with anyone who, like me,  has found their practice gradually squeezed out by other commitments, there does come a time when we all have to find a way to move our practice  forwards again, and to fully commit to that.

The ‘project’ of illness

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When I first started my Jin Shin Jyutsu training, one of the very many new ideas I was presented with was the concept of our illnesses being ‘projects’. The word ‘project’ usually suggests something we can engage with, be interested in, and work on. With Jin Shin Jyutsu, this is exactly the kind of approach we take to our own illnesses. Instead of despairing when we become unwell, we are challenged to use the tools we have learnt to meet our afflictions head on. It doesn’t usually work if we try to run away from illness. It is better to see it for what it is. If we try to ignore it, and the message it is giving us, it will most likely return in the future, maybe in the same form, perhaps in another.  If we attempt to ignore the early symptoms, chances are they will worsen until we do address their cause.

For instance, we know that the cold virus cannot survive in a bloodstream rich in vitamin C. If we ignore the early sniffles, or scratchy throat, it may develop into a really nasty cold. But if we acknowledge those symptoms and heed their warning, improving our diet, taking supplements if we need them, and getting more rest, we may avert the full-blown illness.

But what of the truly challenging times, when our ailments are more alarming and less easily solved? Is it possible to look at these symptoms with a degree of ambivalence, with a sense of enquiry rather than dread? What tools do we have that can help us through such situations?

There are no easy answers here. Everyone has to find their own way of dealing with illness. For myself, I try to remain present in the moment, dealing with what is, rather than with what should be. I may have had a busy week planned, which will have to change. I can waste the little energy I have railing against this fact, or I can accept the reality of it, and focus instead on getting well. I could try to enjoy the time I have in which to relax, sleep, or whatever it is I need to do to hasten my recovery. I could meditate and focus on my breath when asana practice is not so possible. I could accept help from family and friends with gratitude, and look for all the many positives in this new and unplanned situation. By accepting the way things are, I am likely to return to full health more quickly than if I fret about those things I cannot change right now.

So – apologies that I have not been posting so regularly over the past couple of weeks. I hope to be back to normal very soon!

Moving into stillness

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When we are busy and rushing around all the time, it can be too hard to simply be still.  Some of us are never still unless we are asleep.  This difficulty can put people off taking up yoga or meditation.  They would prefer to do some high-impact, high-speed exercise than to risk being unable to find the stillness which is buried deep within them.

And so when someone starts yoga, they need to learn to ease into that stillness.  Nobody can move from fast to still that easily.  We have built up a momentum in our lives which will take time to slow down.  So for most of us it won’t work if we rush in from our hectic day, sit or lie down and attempt to empty our minds.  It will take a bit more effort than that, a bit more preparation.  We make our slowing down a gradual and enjoyable process.

In class, we will generally start with some faster, rhythmic movements, which help us to initiate that process of listening to our bodies, co-ordinating our breath with our movements, and easing out any stiffness and tension.  Then the movements will slow down, moving into gentler, flowing sequences and a series of stretches and asanas.  Asanas may be held or we may flow in and out of them.  We are approaching that stillness in our bodies now, and moving towards a clear, calm mind.  Our physical practice can, in itself,  be a form of meditation.  One of the main reasons I chose to train in Dru yoga was because of the meditative, inward focus of the Energy Block Release sequences and the flowing postures.  Each part of the movement can be performed with awareness of different chakras (energy centres), with awareness of our breath, and of our state of mind.  Often we will pause at the end of a sequence to close our eyes and really tune into the effects we are experiencing from the movements.  The stillness follows naturally from the movement, without being an effort.

Only after this part of the class do we move on to meditation, pranayama or yoga nidra (deep relaxation).  The mental stillness follows naturally from moving and resting the physical body. Once the stillness is truly established, we may then – and only then – find an awareness of the subtle movement of energy in the body.  So just as movement naturally leads to stillness, so stillness will lead us into a deeper awareness and experience of our inner selves.

 

Sculpting with yoga

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Once I was teaching and there were people arriving for a meeting in another room.  As they arrived, I was teaching a relaxation at the end of my first class.  When they left a couple of hours later, I was teaching relaxation again, at the end of my next class. Two men were heard commenting that ‘it’s all about lying down in there!’  Well, that was all they had seen, but of course there had been a lot more to it than that!  Another time, I heard an elderly lady explaining to her friend that yoga was about learning to go to sleep!

People do have preconceived ideas about what yoga IS, even if they have never attended a class.  They may be interested, or not interested,  depending on what  they believe it IS.  There are many different reasons why people take up yoga – it may be to promote fitness or flexibility; it may be to aid in training for, or recovery from, another sport.  It may be to help improve posture, and to relieve aches and pains. Others may come to yoga as an aid to relaxation, to relieve their stress.  All excellent reasons for taking up yoga.

Increasingly, though, people are taking up yoga to improve their body image, as the press is rife with reports of various celebrities using their yoga practice  to tone up and slim down.  Another great reason to take up yoga.  The many forms of yoga vary enormously, and some will veer towards the physically arduous, whilst other styles are softer and more flowing.

When we practise asanas, whether holding the posture or flowing in and out in a sequence, our muscles gradually stretch, strengthen and gain definition.  It’s like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone – the sculpture slowly emerges out of the mass of rock.  When we work our muscles, they will improve in their appearance as well as in their function.  Even if we can’t at first feel or see the difference, rest assured that just beneath the surface, the changes are on their way.

But the benefits of yoga are so much bigger than this,  even if it’s toning and body sculpting that you’re after.  The body becomes stronger, more toned, more flexible yes – but with yoga you can’t separate the physical benefits from the mental, emotional and spiritual effects.  This is true to some extent of any exercise – I know that running, swimming, dancing, team sports and so on can have an exhilarating, stress-busting effect.  In fact, just getting moving can be key to  our mental as well as our physical health.  However, with yoga we also learn to focus on the breath, to live in the moment,  to meditate and relax.  Yoga sculpts not just the body,  but also the mind.  When we practise pranayama, chanting or meditation, we start to cut through the clutter of the mind, to achieve a greater clarity in our thoughts, and to find the peace that is so often hidden by the endless chatter, the running commentary of our mind.

And we could go so far as to argue that this is what yoga IS – that yoga IS this growing ability to control and calm our thought patterns.  Patanjali does just this, in the first sutra, where he says that :

‘To block the patterns of consciousness is yoga’

~’Four Chapters on Freedom’ (1976) by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

It’s not easy, and there will be times when our mind spins off in all directions – remembering and re-running scenarios in our mind, getting ahead of ourselves with future imaginings, worrying about things out of all proportion.  It’s like a broken record, going on and on and on.  But with practice, it gets easier, just as the physical asanas become easier too.  If we are kind to ourselves when it all goes wrong, those times when we are not present and are swamped in our imaginings, we will gently bring ourselves back to a state of presence, of noticing where we are right now.