Bringing the Niyamas to Life – Tapas

At the last workshop we looked at the third niyama, ‘tapas’, which is often translated along the lines of ‘fiery discipline’.  This is the quality that helps us to keep going when things become difficult.  We all reach a stage in our practice after the initial love affair fades when our relationship with yoga is challenged – often when we suffer our first yoga injury or we reach our first seemingly unattainable posture, or our practice just seems to plateau and progress is no longer visible. Well, I would argue that this is when the progress is really beginning, as long as we can stay with it through the challenge – if we can apply tapas and weather the storm, then we will come out the other end stronger and wiser, knowing ourselves better.

However, this is easier said than done because we humans do so love to follow the path of least resistance and, when the going gets tough, it may be very tempting at that point to say, ‘nah, actually I don’t think yoga is for me,’ and walk away from it, onto the next thing.  But, like with anything, if we keep doing this, and we keep avoiding any discomfort, then we will never positively change and transform.  As I said at the start of this newsletter, change is always uncomfortable; when things become awkward or unpleasant for us, this is often because our ego is under threat and is playing up, and therefore these times can be the most fertile ground for positive transformation, if we can just keep going and stick to the programme!

Yoga helps us to know ourselves better; to me it’s a wonderful, holistic tool that helps us on the path to deep inner knowledge, gradually allowing us to strip back layer after layer of illusion, going deeper and deeper towards the truth of who we are, from the gross to the subtle, from the body to the mind to the spirit, but all interlinked, never linear.  And, blimey, that is a tough path! There’s no place we can hide when we shine the spotlight of close inner scrutiny onto ourselves, and the ego doesn’t like this one bit! So, on this yoga path you can expect lots of unpleasant, uncomfortable periods – it usually means you’re on the brink of stripping back another layer of who you thought you were, to reveal a new layer beneath, which is closer to the truth of who you are.  To keep going through the layers, we need lots of tapas. It’s so easy to fall at the first hurdle. But, here’s some positive encouragement: tapas can be cultivated and will grow as you use it more and more, like a fire that is hard to get going but soon builds up to a raging inferno of energy!  So, each time we say no to giving up and we keep on trucking, then we add to our internal store of tapas and our own fire burns a bit brighter, helping us to blast through obstacles with more and more ease as we continue along the path. And this is helpful because, as our tapas grows and enables us to go deeper along the path, the obstacles do tend to loom larger, sigh!

So, again, we can use our asana practice to help us cultivate this niyama.  When the going gets tough in a class and you’re ready to collapse into child’s pose or, if you’re on your own at home, just sack it all off and turn on the TV, can you instead take a deep ujayi breath and fill yourself up with positive fiery energy, believing that you CAN do this, you’ve GOT this, and then carry on through the rest of the practice with fiery determination? Similarly, use tapas to help you breathe into and be fully present in the more difficult postures such as warriors and arm balances – don’t fear the discomfort, it is usually blowing a fresh wind of change through your body, mind and soul!

You can also design your own fiery tapas home sequences that include lots of plank postures (including side plank and upward plank), warriors, standing balances and arm balances – for inspiration you can always drop me a line.

One final word here – as with everything in life, there is a balance to be found.  Some of us need to cultivate lots of tapas because it doesn’t come naturally to us, whereas others have it in bucketfuls, and possibly need to rein it in sometimes.  The best thing to do is think of the interplay between santosha (contentment) and tapas – yes, keep being determined to stick to the path and burn through obstacles, but counter this by always feeling contented to be exactly where you are. A strange paradoxical state of mind, you might say, but such is life! Also, if you feel your own tapas stores are out of balance in either direction then hang out with or practise next to someone with the opposite imbalance and you will soon balance each other out!

Bringing the Niyamas to Life – Santosha

As a quick reminder, the niyamas are five personal qualities mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that we’re encouraged to cultivate within ourselves, to help us on our yoga path. Building on August’s article on ‘saucha’ (cleanliness or purity), we now move onto looking at the second niyama: ‘santosha’, which means contentment.

Aah, the elusive contentment… I often think that contentment is what all of us are truly seeking, on some level, whether we consciously realise it or not.  It might seem to us that we’re pursuing happiness but, in reality, can you imagine if you were happy all of the time? Do you not think it could become a bit wearing to feel the same emotion all the time, or exhausting to be on such a high all the time or, dare I say it, boring after some time?!

In fact, when you begin to think about the concept of ‘perma-happiness’, it soon becomes evident that it’s an impossible illusion – we need to experience a full range of emotions to truly feel each one; for example we can’t know happiness as an emotion unless we also know sadness and suffering and vice versa. I would even go further, to say that our emotional complexity is part of the beauty of the human experience – it is the full gamut of emotions, the good, the bad and the ugly, which makes our experience in this earthly realm rich and complete. Imagine how many of our greatest songs, paintings, novels and poems wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our complexity of emotions – so many of them are inspired by the interplay of light and dark in our psyches…

But, with practice, we can cultivate ‘perma-contentment’, throughout all of our emotional experiences. To me, contentment somehow seems to sit ‘behind’ the emotional landscape that passes through our mind.  It is a state of being that we can practise and nurture within us, whereby we are able to accept whatever is happening to us with a semblance of grace and serenity, and find some level of peace within whatever maelstrom is passing through. It doesn’t mean we are passive, and just sitting back and allowing negative things to happen to us. It simply means we calmly accept our situation until a point where we can change it.  By finding a level of calm within a negative situation it means we’re more able to act decisively and positively when the time is right; contentment helps to create clarity of mind.

Similarly, when positive, happy times blow through our lives, we accept these with the same calm contentment, appreciating them for what they are, not wanting to change them in any way. In both cases, the contentment arises partly from accepting that every experience passes in time, both the good and the bad – change is our only constant.  At the end of the day it’s all aboutacceptance; accepting what is, rather than trying to control or change events ourselves.

Our asana practice provides us with a great opportunity to cultivate contentment. Like all things worth having, it requires much practice, patience and perseverance.  For example, when you’re in a posture that feels horrific but you know it’s doing you good (the core-busting boat for example!), see if you can relax into the unpleasant sensations. Try and sit back, ‘behind’ the emotions/sensations you’re feeling and stay relaxed, knowing it will pass in time.  Try slowing the breath, relaxing the face, maybe even finding the faintest hint of a smile. Conversely, when you reach your favourite postures, for example savasana (lying down at the end of the class!) see if you can just relax into the simple appreciation of the positive feelings you’re experiencing, rather than letting the mind take over, perhaps by wishing the posture could last longer, anticipating its end, or wishing you felt even more relaxed in it. With practice we can, in theory, pass through an entire asana class maintaining this backdrop of contentment, regardless of what contortions we’re putting ourselves through. And, as on the mat, so as in life, as really the yoga begins when we leave our mat and enter the fray of humanity, with all the various emotional experiences it brings to us each day… 😉

Detoxifying the mind

NB This article appeared in a newsletter to my yoga students earlier this year but at the time I didn’t dare to unleash it on the internet. But, today, I realised quite how pertinent it is to the topic of saucha, which I have just blogged about, and so again I man up and speak my truth, this time to a (potentially) even larger audience!

January 2016

(Preamble: This piece effortlessly flowed out of me one day, and somehow I knew I needed to ‘put it out there’, even though the thought filled me with dread and fear. Yet I have learnt to go deeper than the flurries of surface feelings and listen to the quiet voice within. It told me to ‘be the change I want to see’ by facing my fear of vulnerability and speaking my truth, even the ugly bits. It whispered to me that the nerves and the sense of vulnerability are just another illusion. So, if even just one person reads this and finds the courage to begin or continue their own inner investigations into uncovering their truth then it will be worth it, as I believe we heal the world one person at a time.)

Having run a yoga and raw food detox day the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of detoxification.

But it has come to me that our perception of detoxification is often incomplete – we focus on the body, but rarely do we also focus on tackling the toxins of the mind, yet the body and mind are inseparable. And in fact I’ve been thinking that, until we also focus on removing the toxins of the mind, our attempts at body purification will never fully succeed in the way we want them to – the fruits of our efforts will be, at best, short-lived as eventually the mental toxins will kick in again and send us back down old, tiresome pathways of negative behaviour. Whereas, if we can go to the root cause and cease the negative thoughts, then our behaviour will naturally become more self-supporting.

So what is a toxic emotion or thought? Well, anything negative, which doesn’t serve us – such as fear, anger, hate, guilt, shame, envy, spite, anxiety, competitiveness, stinginess, sadness, depression, melancholy, selfishness, arrogance… You get the picture. And toxic emotions and thoughts lead inevitably to toxic actions, which are more often than not targeted at ourselves. This plays out as self-destructive behaviour – for example binge-eating, drinking too much, smoking, feeling lethargic and unable to exercise, being too strict on ourselves, workaholism etc. We all have our own different patterns of physically expressing the toxic thoughts we have about ourselves. And until we understand these patterns and their cause, and begin to confront and root out the toxic thoughts that lie behind them and the deep, destructive negative core beliefs that lie behind the toxic thoughts, our attempts at body purification will never fully heal us in the way we want and need to be healed, no matter how many calories we burn or how many superfoods we eat.

Here’s a case-study example:

There was a young woman in her late twenties who felt inexplicably sad a lot of the time. She felt lost in the world and suffered from constant low-level unease and anxiety. She was hyper-critical of what she saw in the mirror and felt surging envy of others a lot of the time. She frequently felt worthless and drove herself to attempts at perfection in all that she did, to try and feel a sense of worth, then suffered crashing lows whenever she didn’t meet her self-set goals of perfection. She had an addiction to exercise/activity and also had an unhealthily greedy appetite – the extreme exercise justified the over-eating in her controlling mind. Frenzied calorie-counting were a part of her day and her time was strictly compartmentalised into different ‘productive’ activities, with no time permitted between for just existing and enjoying the present moment. Her existence was tightly controlled and inactivity made her anxious; she preferred to rush around helping other people out with their problems than stop and take time to face up to her own issues – but of course she didn’t see it like this at the time. From the outside she looked like a very healthy, successful, happy, sociable young woman, yet on the inside things were becoming very toxic indeed and the amount of control required to maintain the outward ‘perfection’ was becoming too much. Things started to unravel…

Eventually in her early thirties, her body took matters into its own hands and revolted, in the form of a debilitating bout of clinical depression, forcing the young woman to finally stop running away from herself and face up to her inner toxicity. From this point forward, once she was through the worst of the depression, the young woman’s focus shifted from maintaining the illusion of outward perfection through controlling habits, to investigating the reasons behind the need to control and be perfect. She began to explore, confront, allow and finally let go of mental toxins, one by one, and began to understand the deeply rooted negative core beliefs she had about herself that led to such toxic thoughts – she went deep and, in the end, unearthed the dark, shameful bedrock that shaped her world; a fear that she was unloveable, that she just wasn’t good enough, that she was a bad person and people would find out. Finally, she began to purify, chipping away at the bedrock a bit at a time. It was a long, slow process and the toughest thing she’d ever done in her life, but she never looked back…

You may have guessed by now that this young woman was indeed myself.

And, I can personally vouch for the fact that, as soon as I shifted my focus onto healing my mind, my body increasingly began to look after itself as a natural by-product, and that beautiful process still continues, the further down this path I go. As I have rooted out more and more toxic thought patterns, my self-love has grown, and with that comes a natural desire to nurture myself in a wholesome, positive way, with nutritious food, moderate exercise and sufficient rest. My diet is changing naturally, without force or control, and I’m starting to find the natural balance of exercise that feels right for my body. I’ve learnt to recognise the things that make my spirit soar and ensure I make time for them. In short, I’ve become kinder to myself.

It all comes down to your motive. The difference is, when you start focusing on healing the mind and fostering self-love, actions motivated by negative feelings of ‘not being good enough’ are gradually replaced by actions driven by genuine self-love and self-care. And that is a HUGE difference. You will naturally be more drawn to nourishing experiences rather than destructive experiences as you increasingly value yourself.

And, my goodness, I’m not saying I’m 100% there with this, not by a long-shot – I’m not sure it’s possible to ever banish all of our toxic thoughts, so deeply are some of them rooted. But you can certainly come to see them for what they are – illusory, dark thoughts that seek to control you out of misguided, fear-based self-preservation. But just by recognising them as such, their power diminishes and, with a commitment to continuous brutal self-honesty, eventually disappears. From my own journey, I can certainly say that, with a desire to change positively and a commitment to delving inward and confronting all of the ugly truths you find in there, you can change your life around in the most holistic and liberating of ways.

There’s no doubt in my mind that my commitment to yoga over the last fifteen years has helped this purification process. Sure, at times it has seemed as though yoga is part of the problem (it became part of my exercise addiction for many years), but I see now it was never yoga that was the problem, it was my attitude to yoga, which was heavily misguided by the mental toxicity. All the time, yoga has been quietly working its magic on me in the background – purifying my nervous system, filling me with prana, gifting me with moments of stillness and quiet, naturally weaving its ethical code into my life, keeping me grounded, gently confronting me with my ego (and sometimes not so gently!), introducing me to inspirational people and places – basically preparing me for this epic inner journey I’ve embarked on and keeping me safe as I weather the many storms that it unleashes within me. It has become a comforting beacon of light on the journey, a safe harbour.

And for that I am very grateful as, once you start the inner journey, there is no going back – it’s a one-way ticket towards shedding layer after layer of illusion and coming closer to who you truly are. So you definitely need some faithful friends along the way, and yoga has been there with me through thick and thin. Your own inner journey might take you away from yoga and towards other things, and that’s of course completely fine – I can only speak from my own experience. We all walk our own unique path back to ourselves and each path is just as valid and beautiful as the next. It’s the longest, slowest, most difficult and tortuous journey you’ll ever make, yet also it’s the most exciting, joyful, fascinating and, ultimately, life-changing gift you can give yourself. It will challenge everything you’ve ever thought about yourself and the world, but it will also light up your life in ways you probably haven’t dreamt about and will enable your inner light to burn brightly, the way it longs to do.

So, my advice to you whenever your thoughts turn to having a detox is to look at the things about yourself you are unhappy with and, rather than looking for the external ‘quick fix’, instead delve inwards, with real honesty, and see what you find in there. It may not be pretty, but the glorious truth of the matter is that those dark thoughts are not who you really are. With effort (and also, most likely, with help), you can learn to let them go. And then you become free to be the beautiful, loving, loveable soul that you truly are.

I wish you much courage and strength on the journey… 🙂

(Post script: My desire above all else is to help others by having the guts to speak my truth in a way that allows others to feel the healing liberation of speaking theirs. I dream of a day when we no longer have to hide our inner truths from each other through fear of vulnerability – one day we will evolve beyond that and feel connected enough to ourselves and each other to be able to interact with true honesty, and life will be sweet… :))

Bringing the niyamas to life – Saucha

The niyamas are the second limb of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras.  Along with the first limb, the yamas, these two limbs together form the ethical code of conduct that creates the foundation bedrock of the yoga path.  If you use the analogy of the tree of yoga, the five yamas and five niyamas could be seen as the roots of the tree, providing the stability and grounding for growth of the other limbs – without deep roots the tree wouldn’t be able to grow fully, and could also soon topple.

The yamas are ‘social restraints’ that we should be mindful of in our daily lives – things like restraining from stealing, lying, harming others and ourselves, sexual misconduct and envy (you can read more about bringing the yamas into daily life in this related blog post).  Conversely, the niyamas are ‘personal observances’ that we should try and focus on and bring into our lives as much as possible – these include cleanliness, contentment, disciplined effort, self-enquiry and surrendering to ‘god’/the divine/the universe/something bigger than you, whatever this means to you.

By restraining from negative traits and cultivating positive traits, as set out in the yamas and niyamas, the rest of the yoga limbs will easily begin to interweave through our lives.

In week one of my 2016 Saturday workshop series on the niyamas we looked at the first niyama, saucha, which means cleanliness or purity.  Patanjali dedicates two whole sutras to describing the benefits of saucha, showing how important he viewed it to be (he certainly wasn’t one to waste words!).  In the first sutra (sutra II.40), he describes how, when we establish purity in our lives, we become distanced from our own body and untainted by contact with others’ bodies.  We could of course translate this quite narrowly, by imagining ancient yogis living in caves where they couldn’t be tempted by other bodies until they reach a state where they become completely detached from the idea of a physical body, both their own and others’, and free from sensual, bodily temptation.

But it could also be translated in a way which is more accessible to the modern lifestyle: when we focus on purifying ourselves, externally and internally, then we no longer see people as just their bodies and physicality; instead we recognise that true beauty shines from within and comes from the level of the soul, not the body. Yet still, we recognise that the body houses the soul, so we treat our own body and other bodies with due care and respect.

The second sutra relating to saucha (sutra 11.41) goes on to say that purity of mind leads to mental happiness, the ability to direct and sustain attention, control of sense organs and true vision of the Self.  So, having described the more ‘gross’, outer expression of purity in 11.40, which relates to the body, Patanjali now emphasise the more subtle, inner expression of purity, which relates to the mind.  And, apparently, the benefits of a pure mind are pretty huge – wouldn’t we all like to have a happy mental disposition, great concentration, wonderful self-control and true knowledge of who we really are?! So, certainly, purity is something to try and cultivate within our lives.

As per Patanjali’s two sutras, we can investigate how saucha plays out in our lives on two levels. Firstly, how pure is our relationship with our own body?  Starting at the outermost level, how is our personal hygiene? BKS Iyengar used to state the importance of showering and being clean before practising yoga. Well, this might not always be possible in our busy lives, for example if we’re rushing to a class straight from work, but certainly we can all hold to a basic personal hygiene regime, as a mark of respect towards ourselves and others.

But, external, body-focused saucha is much more than this. How about what foods and drinks we are putting in our bodies – do these serve to cleanse and purify our body or to toxify it? Similarly, what about other non-natural substances that we put into and onto our bodies, such as drugs, medication, creams and potions?

The more pure and natural the foods and body products we use, the healthier we will feel, both in mind and body. So here are some ideas to help you think about purifying your body:

  • Consider buying organic, locally sourced foods where you can, and choose wholefoods over highly processed foods.
  • Find natural water sources where you can – there is something magically purifying about untainted water.
  • Try using natural oils such as coconut oil and argan oil on your skin and hair rather than chemical potions – if you can safely eat it, then your skin will be happy! Or, for shampoos and conditioners, there are many more natural, plant-based products available these days.
  • Can you cut out smoking or cut down on alcohol intake?
  • Are there any natural remedies that could supplement, or maybe even eventually replace chemical medication (under the guidance of a suitably qualified medical professional if needs be).
  • How clean and pure is the air you are breathing? If you live in a polluted city, consider taking time out each week to visit the countryside and breathe the cleaner air there, or make regular weekend trips to the seaside – there is something so rejuvenating about breathing fresh, salty sea air!
  • And finally, what ‘body and mind fodder’ are you allowing to enter your body? For example what books are you reading, what content are you trawling through on the internet, what films are you watching, what hobbies are you pursuing and who are you spending time with? Do these things bring purity into your life or toxicity? Can you identify any that actually make you feel pretty rough and that you’re ready to let go of and perhaps replace with a more wholesome alternative that makes your heart sing instead? (Warning, these questions require full honesty, and that’s not easy!) This last point overlaps with the inner purity that the article goes on to talk about but, still, look out for the physical effects that the ways you choose to spend your time have on you…

As for the inner purity, well this is in many ways more difficult.  This is about watching our thoughts and trying to replace toxic, negative thoughts with purifying, positive thoughts.  By starting at the inner level of our thoughts, the changes will ripple outwards to words and eventually actions.  We really do create our outer world with our inner thoughts, so if our thoughts contain high levels of toxicity and negativity, then this will be reflected in our life experiences.  By watching our thoughts, we soon come to realise just how negative many/most of them are – we would probably never talk to someone else as rudely as we talk to ourselves, and much of the time we would be mortified if others could actually hear what we were internally saying about them!

So really, in typical Patanjali style, he wraps up a hugely complex life-long endeavour in a tiny collection of short words – he is the king of concision! But therein lies the beauty and the challenge of walking the yoga path, or indeed any other path that leads towards developing self-knowledge and cultivating inner peace.  No-one ever said it would be easy! But, if we can begin to watch our thoughts, the very act of spotting the toxic ones helps to shed them of some of their power and, over time, we can become more connected to the calm observer of the thoughts rather than the content of the thoughts themselves and, eventually, through dedication and endless practice and patience, we can even begin to change the nature of the thoughts from negative to positive – and such positivity shines back at us through the mirror that is our external life experience.

At first it can be really difficult to ‘thought-watch’ all the time (although, warning, it is compellingly addictive!), so to begin with perhaps use your yoga practice, whether that’s asana or meditation, to watch your thoughts. And, soon enough, you will see this practice start to filter into your wider world – after all, yoga doesn’t stop when we leave the mat, in fact that’s usually where it truly begins… 😉

Happy exploring, and tune in next month for thoughts and tips on bringing the next niyama, santosha (contentment) into your life, on and off the mat.

white rose

 

 

Flowing with the universe

As this year’s five month travel stint draws to a close I reflect back on what I have learnt. Wow – so much! Every time I go away for an extended period of time, I truly do feel like I enter the ‘university of life’, receiving so many lessons and opportunities for growth. Of course I realise you don’t need to travel for this to be the case – wherever you are the lessons and opportunities are there if you’re looking for them. But there’s something about the relative freedom of travel that encourages you to step out of your comfort zone, challenge old beliefs and patterns and grow into a bigger and better version of yourself. As a fellow adventurous spirit, my dad encouraged my sisters and I to travel from a young age. He used to say it would ‘expand our horizons’ and I absolutely agree with this; not only does it literally expand our geographical horizons, but it also expands the horizons of our minds and spirit, as we grow ‘bigger’ with each journey we take.

The biggest lesson I’ve taken from this trip is to trust. To trust in myself, to trust in others and, most of all, to trust in the universe. From a shaky start, where trust gave way to fear and anxiety, gradually I’ve learnt to relax and go with the flow of the universe more and more. I know this potentially sounds rather fey and flippant, but I see now that surrendering to the universal flow is in fact one of the most powerful and courageous things you can do for yourself and the world.

Most of our problems come from our desire to try and control our external world and our subsequent frustration when we realise the universe is simply not going to play along with this game! I really do feel the universe actually has a rather cheeky sense of humour and likes to toy with us – the more we arrogantly assume we can control our outer world, the more it will trip us up and show us that this definitely isn’t the case! This trip has really brought this lesson home to me and, somewhere along the line, I made a conscious decision to try and let go of any attempts to control my path and instead attempt to sit back and enjoy the ride of whatever the universe gave me.

Initially, this is an incredibly challenging transition to make but, gradually, I’ve noticed that life has become easier and easier, and at the times when I’m able to let go of control completely, it flows beautifully and effortlessly and with much serendipitous joy and lighthearted playfulness. A dear, wise friend of mine likes to describe life as a playground for us to enjoy and learn from, and more and more do I see what she means. When we drop our efforts of control, which, let’s be honest, require us to concentrate with a furrowed brow much of the time, then we have more energy available to appreciate what comes our way instead – and I’ve found that worry lines soon turn to laughter lines… 🙂

The clarity of this realisation has built steadily during the trip, until the point that over the last couple of months I have truly felt like I am being gently pushed along a particular path by an unseen force, which I can only describe as the universe or cosmos. My sense of connection to the universe is blooming, and I am beginning to see a method to the apparent madness of life, and my path is becoming clear. Although, conversely, I also see that the method is the madness at times, in that it really doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, as long as we can appreciate the gifts that each moment brings to us and use every experience as a lesson or opportunity to grow. I realise my next step unfolds much more easily when I don’t try to second guess what it should be – I seem to meet the right people, have the right conversations and arrive at the right places to teach me what I need to make the next step seem obvious, and I also see how I am also influencing others’ paths in the same way. It’s really quite beautiful to see it all unfold, with an intelligence and grace that is far, far beyond what I could ever imagine, yet alone orchestrate, with my puny human mind!

And, most of all, it’s a much more relaxing, enjoyable way to live (deliberate emphasis – never have I felt such prolonged joy than over the last few months). Even if I find myself in what seems like an unpleasant situation, I now am more inclined to relax, sit back and let it happen, trusting that I’m in exactly the right place, and intrigued as to what lesson or opportunity this situation will bring, and where it will lead me to next. Sure, there are still crappy days and low moods that pass through, but now I see it all as part of a bigger adventure, a bigger journey, the significance of which I know will become more apparent the further along the path I walk. And this feeling of trust in the ‘bigger picture’ makes those bad days much, much easier to deal with and, in fact, the bad days often turn out to be the biggest gifts of all when you look back.

You often hear the message of trust that begs us to remember that we came into this world with every tiny detail of our existence accounted for and lovingly attended to, even down to our tiny little baby fingernails. Equally, our every breath and every heart-beat are looked after for us throughout our lives. Clearly there is a miraculous, creative, loving, mysterious force in action, that allows us to come into being and gifts us with a period of time on this mad, crazy playground of a planet. And yet, still we find it hard to trust in this force. Instead, we try and assume control, and in the end we suffer for this.

As I sit here in a beautiful converted farmhouse in north-east France, feeling excited about the week-long retreat that I will begin co-hosting here tomorrow, I feel an immense feeling of gratitude that life’s path has brought me to this place at this point in time and I trust that the week will bring me and everyone else that gathers here the lessons and opportunities for growth that are needed. And so, I choose trust… 🙂

beach

 

 

Vipassana – the magic of silence

I’ve recently re-entered the speaking world after having spent ten days sitting in silent meditation with around one hundred other people at the Dhamma Mahi vipassana meditation centre near Paris. Literally, all I did each day was sit on the floor and meditate from 4:30am until 9pm, with only a few short breaks for eating, bathing and watching an evening talk every day, which explained the details of the meditation technique that we were learning.

The technique is very simple and eminently practical. In a nutshell, it requires you to repeatedly mentally scan your body and observe the sensations that you subsequently feel in your body with a very attentive mind, and to remain non-judgemental and equanimous regardless of what sensations you experience, in the knowledge that all sensations are temporary, rising and falling away in their own time in line with the universal law of nature.  In doing so, we begin to let go of very deep negative reactive thought patterns that we all have, which are triggered at the sub-conscious level and are therefore very difficult to eradicate by using the mind alone; instead we have to enter the realm of the sub-conscious, which is all to do with feeling not thinking (hence focusing on the sensations). This is probably a hugely inadequate explanation – the best thing to do is join a course and find out directly yourself!

Anyway, we weren’t allowed to communicate with our fellow meditators at all, whether through word, glance or gesture – nothing. Also, we were not allowed to communicate with anyone from the ‘outside world’ – all phones, computers and other such technology were confiscated, in order to make sure we were left purely with ‘me, myself and I’ for the ten days. Males and females were segregated within the compound (they actually erect a wall between the two sides) to reduce distraction further.

Interestingly, the enforced silence is what most people found hardest to get their heads around before I left: ‘What? You’re not going to speak for ten days? How is that even possible?!’ Yet this was the aspect that I was least worried about and, as suspected, it was the easiest part of the experience and something I came to relish, as I know did many of the other attendees. It is refreshing to happily coexist with others, without any expectation of formal communication, and an interesting experience to go truly inward for such a prolonged, uninterrupted period – a rare gift in this busy, noisy world. Waking up at 4am also turned out to be surprisingly easy and I came to enjoy those pre-dawn meditations the most, faintly aware of and comforted by the world waking up outside, ready for a new day.

Being a bit of a greedy-guts at heart (still working on this one!), the aspect I was most concerned about was only having two proper meals a day – breakfast and lunch, the latter of which was served at 11am. After that, all we had was a small snack of fruit and herbal teas at 5pm. But, again, this turned out to be pretty easy to get used to. I became accustomed to going to bed with a growling tummy and, strangely, the hunger had always gone by morning – it was but one of many, many lessons that the retreat taught me about the impermanence of all experiences and sensations and how to maintain an equanimous mind through the endlessly shifting transience of our life experiences.

What I hadn’t been prepared for, however, was how immensely difficult I would find the meditation itself. I went in with a smug feeling that I’d be fine, that my many years as a yogi, with a relatively disciplined meditation practice, would help me sail through it all and I would exist for much of the week in a blissful state of near-Samadhi and maybe even experience the elusive ‘kundalini awakening’ that is often spoken about in yogi texts. Ha – I couldn’t have been further from the truth!

What actually happened was that I spent nine days in intense discomfort, fighting against the urge to leave the centre and knock the whole thing on the head. All week I experienced acute pain in my upper back that had seemingly appeared from nowhere, and I battled a whole range of negative emotions, dominated by anger and resentment, which I aimed at the meditation technique I was learning and, in particular, at the rather nasally delivered recorded instructions from the teacher, Goenka, which came to irritate me immensely!

Every time we entered the meditation hall it felt like a prison sentence and I felt a keen desire to run away, in fact just to do anything except sit there in stillness and silence. I doubted the technique, I doubted my ability to do the technique properly, I wondered whether it was all a big cult and I was being brainwashed, I fumed at Goenke’s chanting and instructions, I resented my back for hurting me so much, I felt bored by the repetition of the technique, I inwardly bitched about the seriousness and strictness of it all, I squirmed and wriggled on my cushion, finding no relief, and I resented almost every minute! Often, I even practised stealth rebellion, by refusing to do the specific meditation technique we had learnt and instead doing my own style of meditation, or sometimes I even sneaked into my room and did some gentle yoga on my bed, which wasn’t permitted. Wow – so much for the zen yoga teacher!

On our breaks away from the hall, we were able to walk through a beautiful piece of woodland and meadow. At these times, I found some relief and clarity amongst nature, and I reflected on all the anger I was experiencing and could see how it was my ego, massively under threat as I delved deeply inwards, and pulling out all of the stops to distract me from doing the technique properly. One of the key teachings of Goenke is that we all tend to blame our suffering on external people and events, whereas actually we create all of our own suffering and only we can heal it ourselves. So I saw how I was using so many different external scapegoats for my anger and resentment, but in reality I was creator of it all. Yet, often this then just plunged me into an all too familiar melancholic sadness and feeling of hopelessness. I felt I wasn’t strong enough for the technique, that I was a failure. Then, it was back into the meditation hall, where once more the anger would rise again. Phew, it was an endless, exhausting emotional rollercoaster, with very few moments of peace in between!

Yet, although each day was a battle and in fact I came very close to asking to leave on Day 4 following a tear-laden meltdown in the hall, every evening when we sat down to listen to Goenka’s discourse, something would change in me. Although his voice annoyed me so much in the meditation hall as it floated out of the speakers, here, when he was in front of me on the TV screen, he seemed like one of the kindest, wisest, funniest, most humble and endearing old men I’d ever had the pleasure to listen to. I loved hearing the philosophy and science behind the technique, and I loved how he delivered universal truths with such warmth, wisdom and admirable simplicity, thanks to his many humorous allegories and endless entertaining stories. It always gave me hope, and inspired me to stay ‘just one more day’; to give the technique another chance.

And so this is how I limped through the first nine days – nearly reaching the end of my tether each day, then being brought back to myself and remembering my strength by Goenka’s wise words each evening and resolving to try again, with full commitment, the next day. And, more than that, every evening he seemed to see into my mind and answer some of the questions I had been agonising over that day. He helped me to realise that the deep ego fears were rising from my sub-conscious, and if I could only accept them and watch them all play out without judgement at the level of sensation, just knowing they would pass, then indeed the fears would bubble away into the ether.  Indeed, what I was going through was strong evidence that the technique was working well for me, despite my ego’s best attempts to thwart it! I also had deep insight into the fact that the sadness that I’ve battled with my whole life, naturally sliding towards it as my emotional ‘comfort zone’ whenever things don’t go as well as I hoped they would, was actually an addiction that I feed every time I go to that place of sadness within me.  And I had a feeling this technique could help me finally eradicate that deep, deep psychological pattern, once and for all.

Then, Day 10 came (I wonder if I was the only person there talking to myself in my head in the Geordie accent of the Big Brother voiceover man: ‘Day 10 in the vippassana house and Becky is having another meltdown…’?!). This day was different – we were allowed to speak to each other and there were longer breaks between meditation sessions. It was there as a kind of a buffer, to help us to ease our way back into the ‘normal’, speaking world. Although at first I felt a bit overwhelmed at the thought of having to speak again, soon we all slipped naturally back into communication and, actually, it was wonderful. I felt like I’d got to know these women I’d been cohabiting with for so many days, even without words. I felt like we had somehow been supporting each other, even as we delved so deeply inwards, so it was lovely to finally hear each other’s voices and swap tales about how the experience had been for us.

It struck me that most people had had a very intense experience but that, in general, they loved the technique. In fact many of them were old students who return to the centre year after year and practise on their own in between. There were many stories of the wonderful changes that had come into people’s lives since practising the technique, and many people had experienced great revelations during the course – one girl hadn’t spoken to her dad for over ten years and said the first thing she would do when she returned home would be to book a train ticket to go and visit him.  All these stories were joyful and inspiring and I felt really rather sheepish about the playground behaviour and ego mind-games I’d exhibited, rebelling against the technique and resenting the instructions. So, I resolved that, for the rest of the final day I would truly commit to the practice. Feeling inspired by these other women, waxing lyrical about the technique, I would kick the ego into touch once and for all and just go with the instructions, following them diligently and with humility and gratitude.

And, do you know what? It was such a different experience. It was as though something inside me melted. I finally stopped fighting against the technique and instead welcomed it, as a gift that had been given to me. Immediately the pain in my back, which had plagued me for nine days solid, disappeared completely, I kid you not! Finally I felt the ‘free-flow of sensations’ through the body, which Goenka had been repeatedly telling us about, and finally I had a blissful meditation experience, which lasted the rest of the day. I felt so strong, so clear and so calm.

And that feeling of strength and calm clarity remains with me now, almost a week after leaving the retreat. I have had lots of time to reflect this week, and I see how the technique was working its magic on me all week – it forced me to go into the deepest, darkest, ugliest parts of me; the parts that we usually hide from ourselves and others so well, or even that we don’t realise are there, and so no wonder it was such an unpleasant week! And so, during the week, I think I let go of some very deep wounds. I have noticed that I am much more able to watch my emotions in a detached way now. If I see the sadness looming , I acknowledge it and know it will pass and, just like that, it bubbles away. I hear myself sounding more straightforward, clear, calm, joyful, happy and content. There is a marked difference. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it is, but definitely I am different – in a very good way.

So, I would strongly encourage everyone to try a ten day vipassana retreat at some point in your life. You will learn so much about yourself and the world, you will challenge yourself immensely yet heal yourself in equal measure, and you will gain so many precious gifts of insight, clarity and strength.  There are vipassana centres all over the world and all operate solely by donation, so financial concerns needn’t hold you back. The teaching comes direct from Gotauma Buddha, and was kept safe and pure in its original form over the years after his death in Bhurma, and is now spreading globally at a remarkable rate.

Buddha predicted this global spread of the technique would happen around 2500 years after his death, at a time when the world really needed some deep healing. Funnily enough, that time is now! This is definitely a time of great change and unrest, and I really think it’s the perfect time for us all to become part of the next revolution of our species – the ‘inner revolution’, whereby we each take responsibility to delve inwards and heal our own suffering and pain and put our egos firmly in their place, so that we can move forward as a species towards universality, love, peace and harmony. Vipassana is definitely a very practical tool to assist this process – so please do consider giving it a whirl – I dare you… 😉 For myself, I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, given how tough I found the week, but I can’t wait to go back!

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Unveiling the heart

For the last month, my partner and I have been happily living on the side of a beautiful mountain in a remote part of northern Portugal.  The reason for this change of address has been to try out community living for the first time, with a relatively new community venture called Merkaba Community.  I’ve been intrigued by the communal living model for some time now – it strikes me that we humans are social creatures at heart and we need to be part of a community, yet how many of us actually feel that we are a valued part of a community?

DSCF1225.JPG ‘Home’ for the past month – we couldn’t get the van all the way up the dirt track, so ended up living in a little layby around 500 m from the community, with glorious views all round!

During the month, we received delicious, home-cooked vegan meals every day in return for three to four hours of work per day.  Dan, one of the founders, asked me on the first day what I wanted to do, as he likes people to be happy in their work. I thought for a moment and couldn’t think what my gifts were.  Yes, I could teach yoga and give reiki and massage treatments, but how else could I be more practically useful?  How best could I serve the community? I was stumped and, feeling a strange sense of uselessness, I mumbled that I didn’t mind, that I would do whatever was most useful to the community.

So, the first week I was put on gardening duty and mostly weeded the edges of the paths that led up to the main geodesic dome at the centre of the site.  It was hard work in the hot sun, but also incredibly therapeutic and rewarding.  I began to look forward to my hours in the sunshine, enjoying getting dusty and grubby with my hands in the soil, communing with the plants and insects, and feeling satisfaction as the paths began to gradually look more well-kept and tidy.

In the meantime, I had overheard people at the community talking about ‘the heart’ a few times, as if it was a location within the site, and hadn’t know what they meant. One day I looked up from my work and saw for the first time that the paths I had been tending form the shape of a large heart at their centre – I was uncovering the heart! When we had first arrived, the vegetation was dense and overhanging, so the shape had been obscured. But now there were newly revealed stone edges lining the paths, and the crisp outline of a heart was clearly visible.

P1030839.JPG The heart is revealed!

I had a sudden feeling of joy, and almost laughed as I realised that, as I’d been unveiling the heart at the centre of the site, I’d also been peeling back the layers of my own heart. All through this time of being intent on my weeding each afternoon, of feeling the calm pleasure of a job well done as I put my tools away at the end of the day, of immersing myself in the minutiae of the natural world at soil level and of stolidly plodding on with my task, bit by bit, I had almost not noticed that I was becoming happier and happier by the day. I felt lighter, more confident, joyful, playful and increasingly full of gratitude and loving feelings.

I reflected upon why this was, and realised it was due to many factors – a simple, wholesome life of healthy, vegan eating, daily yoga, good, honest work with the soil, lots of sunshine and stimulating, inspiring company for starters. But, above all, I sensed it was because I had felt useful. I enjoyed serving the community in this small way, and the unveiling of the heart was like a symbol that service doesn’t need to be grand or flashy to be valuable and important and to give you a sense of deep satisfaction.  You often hear people say that giving to others is the best way to find happiness, and this experience of working for the community has really brought that home to me.

After my first week of weeding, with newfound confidence I went on to help in as many ways as I could for the rest of the month. I enjoyed learning about vegan cooking and by the end of the month was sometimes single-handedly mass catering using ingredients I had barely heard of a few weeks earlier! I had so much energy, and just wanted to serve, serve, serve.  And I don’t think I’ve ever felt so joyful and happy and carefree for such a prolonged period before, so I am sure the two are very much linked!

Sometimes it takes an experience such as this to bring home the true meaning of a phrase. I realised I was practising ‘karma yoga’, the yoga of service – something I had never felt truly connected to before. Now I felt on a deep level how giving is also receiving. I gained so much happiness and clarity through serving others.  In the last week, my partner and I created a giant ‘om’ sign within the centre of the heart, made out of locally found quartz stones. It was our parting gift to this wonderful community, and personally it felt very apt, given the peace I had found here, within its heart.

20160610_175408.jpg  Happily ‘working the land’ as the giant om project gets underway… 🙂

P1030831.JPG  Om-tastic!

I have learnt so many things this month, but most of all I have learnt that happiness truly does come from helping others. Community living has been the key to opening this door in my heart and I don’t want the door to close again!

So, what can you give to someone else today? It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – it could just be a heartfelt smile, or perhaps you could even weed someone’s patio… 😉

weeding.JPG Another weed, another smile… 🙂

And if you would like to try out community living somewhere beautiful with lovely people, then why not get yourself to Merkaba Community and see what it can do for you – I highly recommend it… 🙂

 

 

Saluting the Sun with a Surya Namaskara based Home Practice

June 21st saw this year’s summer solstice, which was made even more auspicious this year by falling on a full moon for the first time in around fifty years! There’s something very magical about this – a once or twice in a lifetime opportunity to see the ultimate yang symbol, the sun, share the sky with the ultimate yin symbol of the full moon – a visual representation of the earth’s energy being completely in balance.

It makes me think of the balance and power of the humble sun salutation.  I am often asked what a good home practice routine is and, for those who just want something general, I usually direct them towards trying to do at least five sun salutations at least three times a week – it’s better to practise ‘little and often’ rather than indulging in a very occasional big yoga splurge.  If ten minutes of sun salutations can become part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth, then you will soon start to notice a difference in your body and, eventually, your mind too.

And, with the solar energy being at its peak at this time of year, it’s a great time to harness this and start this new habit – soon you’ll feel ‘solar-charged’, especially if you’re able to practise outside. There’s something wonderful about knowing you’re absorbing the sun’s rays as you pay homage to it with your practice – it’s like a mutual love-in!

The sun salutation provides a very rounded, balanced asana practice – it has a forward bend and a back bend, therefore it lengthens both the front and back of the body. But also it has some great strength work for legs and core and is brilliant for grounding and finding your feet. If you can, try and build up to doing at least five rounds. As you go through each round, try and match each movement with one breath, so that eventually it becomes a fluid, moving, breath-led meditation. At the start, though, you may feel you need to take more than one breath in some postures, especially the bigger transitional moves, which of course is fine. I’ve indicated the correct breathing with each movement below.

Finally, please note that there are many different ways to practise sun salutations and all are brilliant! This particular style comes from ashtanga yoga, although with some suggested variations included. Ideally, when you’ve finished, try and complete your practice with a few minutes of sitting peacefully and mindfully breathing and/or lying on your back and relaxing the body in savasana (corpse pose).

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  • Stand in tadasana, mountain pose. Straighten the whole body, with all muscles engaged, shoulders drawn back and down away from the ears, feet pressing actively into the ground. Open the chest forward and tuck the chin slightly in. Take a full breath here to prepare.

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  • On an INHALE, turn the palms outwards and raise the hands above the head, looking upwards towards them. Try and match breath in movement so the hands begin to move at the start of the inhale and come together at the end of the inhale. Imagine you really are reaching upwards to joyfully greet the sun.

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  • As you EXHALE, take the hands down to the floor and fold in towards the legs – you can bend the knees as much as you need to find contact with the floor. Imagine that with this humble gesture you are making contact with the earth and expressing huge gratitude for the sun’s energy and creation of life on this planet.

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  • As you INHALE, look up and straighten the spine as much as possible, drawing the shoulders down and away from the ears. If you can’t keep your hands or fingertips on the floor as you do this, you can place them on your shins instead and try and straighten the spine from there.

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  • As you EXHALE, step back into either plank (hard version, photo on left) or tabletop with knees on the floor (easier version, photo on right). Either way, the shoulders are above the wrists and you push actively through the hands to engage the arms and the upper back muscles. Also engage your core by drawing the navel upwards towards the spine and drawing up on your perineal muscles.  If you’re in plank, also make sure you firm up the fronts of the thighs and draw the heels backwards.
  • Take a full INHALE in plank or tabletop (NB you can skip this and just do the next movement on the same exhale as number 5 but I think it works well to take the extra inhale here, so you have a chance to work the core/arm/leg muscles for longer, and to ensure integrity of movement).

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  • If you’re in plank position, EXHALE to lower to chaturanga dandasana (stick pose, left hand photo), keeping the elbows in and drawing the shoulders back and down to activate upper back muscles. Or if you’re in tabletop position, on an EXHALE lower the chest to the floor between the hands, keeping the hips high and looking forward (right hand photo). Draw the shoulders back and keep the elbows in.

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  • On and INHALE roll over the toes and come into upward dog (left hand photo). Feel like you’re openly presenting your solar plexus (where manioura chakra is located) to the sun, to maximise absorption of its rays. Draw the shoulder-blades down the back and move the chest forward between the upper arms. To make this more active, you can engage the front of the thighs to bring them off the floor and straighten the arms fully.  To make this softer, you can keep the elbows on the floor beneath the shoulders for cobra position (right hand photo – spot the costume change, lol!).

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  • On and EXHALE roll over the toes again and come into downward dog, feet hip distance apart. Take at least five slow, deep breaths through the nose here and really feel the connection to the earth beneath you through your hands and feet. Look back towards the feet or up to the navel if you wish to work harder with the core. Be aware of your core muscles activating and firm up the front of the thighs.  Have active hands, spreading the fingers wide and pushing the palms into the mat.

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  • On an INHALE, step the feet between the hands one at a time then look up, straightening the spine and drawing the shoulders back.

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  • On an EXHALE fold into the legs, bending the knees if required.

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  • On an INHALE raise the hands above the head, palms together, and look up.

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  • As you EXHALE, bring the hands back to your sides and re-establish tadasana posture, so that you’re ready to go through the sequence again as the next inhale comes. The idea is to keep moving, to build some heat and some fiery, yang solar energy, but if you need to slow down (e.g. if your heart rate rises too much) then you can always take an extra breath or two in tadasana between rounds.

If you want to add in some variations or extend the practice further, you could try stepping one foot forward from downward dog on an inhale and holding the following postures for a few breaths, then stepping back to downward dog on an exhale then swapping legs:

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  • Warrior 1 lunge variation with rear heel lifted. Front knee should be above the ankle or behind it, not in front. Draw the rear heel backwards actively to engage the back leg.  You can place the rear knee on the floor if you need to. Great for building strength through the body.

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  • Warrior 1 lunge with back heel down, toes in front of the heel and slightly out to the side. It’s harder to keep the hips square in this variation, but try and do so as much as possible by drawing the hip of the rear leg forward as much as possible. Also a great strength-builder and also opens the hips a little more than the previous variation.

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  • Crescent moon lunge – this time the front knee can be in front of the ankle. Keep the front heel on the floor and sink low and forward into the hips.  You should feel a stretch across the rear hip flexor and thigh as well as getting deep into the front hip. You can turn it into a backbend too by taking the hands backwards a little bit, but try not to collapse into the lower spine as you do so; keep lifting upwards through the torso and arms.

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  • Pigeon – take the front knee out to the side with the shin across the body. The foot can either be in line with the knee (as in the photo) for more of a stretch, or closer to the hip for a less intense stretch, but make sure the foot doesn’t come beneath the hip. Stretch the rear leg backwards as far as possible and press actively through the top of the foot.  Great outer hip and thigh opener. To also create a lower back stretch, you can lie down over your front leg, with arms outstretched ahead of you on the floor.

Turning fear to love

Leading up to and since the EU referendum, there has been a great deal of fear swirling around the UK, as well as anger and sadness, both of which are fear by another name.  There are also so many words and opinions swirling about that, until now, I’ve decided not to enter the fray. But, given the huge bias towards fear in the words I’ve read of late, I feel I would like to give a voice to the other side of the fence, which is love.

My feelings are that, when it comes down to it, we have two choices: to act from fear or to act from love. Really, it’s that simple – there are only these two motives for all our thoughts, words and actions, which lie as the bedrock of all the other ‘motivations’ we may dream up with our minds. And the two cannot simultaneously coexist within us. So every time we feel fear, we displace love. But the good news is that love is by far the more powerful force of the two and indeed it is our natural state – we just need to allow it to blossom.

So, I urge you today, and indeed every day: whenever you feel that horrible sense of sickening fear, sadness or anger rise up inside you, try observing and changing whatever thoughts are passing through your mind to a thought that stems from love – simply think of someone you love or something you love, and keep thinking about it, in great detail, until the sickness recedes and the soothing, empowering balm of love rises to take its place.

To me, it feels like this simple exercise could be how we change the world – one thought at a time. And gradually we will realise the huge power we have inside of us; the power of our natural state, of love. And we will no longer limit our potential through fear. And right now feels like the perfect time of transition to give this experiment a go – what do you have to lose, except fear? 😉

PS As a case study, my own fears today have been focused on dreading putting this article into the public domain to be judged, as this taps into my own deep-seated fears relating to rejection, the need for approval, care of what others think of me etc. So, I decided to change these tired old fearful demons to thoughts about how much I love this beautiful, crazy planet and how we are all such amazing miracles, desperately trying and needing to shine the true light of our loving souls onto each other and the world. And so, love prevailed, I manned up, and here is the truth that I feel deep in my core – and I know it will resonate with each of you too on some level, because the message carries the frequency of love, which is what we all are deep down, in our heart and soul.

Have a lovely day, beautiful people… 🙂

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Introduction to the chakras – and a chakra opening yoga sequence

NB This sequence appeared in my most recent monthly Frond Yoga newsletter.  If you would like to join my mailing list and have information of upcoming UK classes, workshops, detox day retreats and international retreats then please get in touch via beckymay@frondyoga.com.

In yoga philosophy, we are comprised of more than our visible ‘flesh and bones’ bits. We also have an invisible energetic body.  Just as blood vessels move our blood around the body, we also have a dense network of nadis (energy channels), which move prana (vital energy or life force) around the body.  Yoga practices such as asana, pranayama and meditation help to increase our flow of prana, literally enlarging our energetic body (yes, we actually grow bigger, even if we can’t see it!). The central energy channel is called shushumna nadi, which is found as a central column in the body, roughly following the location of the spine.  Along shushumna nadi are seven main ‘energy transformers’ or chakras, which help to generate more prana and increase the flow of prana around the body.  Each chakra is associated with particular physical and emotional conditions.  When the chakras are ‘open’ then prana will flow easily and we will feel balanced, physically and emotionally. But, more often than not, our chakras are closed or blocked in some way, leading to feeling emotionally ‘stuck’ in certain areas of our life, or suffering from repeated physical problems in certain parts of our body.

This is a vast topic, and I am barely scratching the surface of the outermost layer here, but during the Turkey retreat I put together the following ‘chakra opening’ sequence in order to bring awareness to the different chakra areas and the physical and emotional conditions associated with them, in the hope that regularly repeating the sequence could begin to help release any blockages. The best thing to do is give it a go, trying to hold each posture for between five and ten breaths, and notice if you feel any particular discomfort or emotions at any point in the sequence.  If so, note which chakra these are linked to. This might be a clue that there’s some work to be done in that area.

Muladhara (root chakra)

Located at the base of the spine. Associated colour = red. Associated element = earth. Linked to feelings of connection with the earth, feeling safe, secure, calm and grounded.  Physically linked to bowels, legs and feet. If it’s blocked you may feel flighty, edgy, unsafe, alone, ‘up in the clouds’ or too much in your head. You may also struggle to feel connected to earth and the ‘bigger picture’.

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Begin in a crossed legs position and place your hands on the floor in front of you. Really try and feel your connection with the earth beneath your hands and your pelvis, hips and legs. Know you are part of a huge ecosystem, and you are protected and fully supported by the earth.  Take some deep breaths here through the nose, trying to initiate each inhale right at the base of the spine and complete each exhale deep in the pelvic bowl.

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Then come into this version of malasana (garland pose), with feet out-turned and hands in prayer position. Sink deep into hips and lift out of the lower back, bringing the chest forward and shoulders down. Use your upper arms to push your knees outwards (it’s fine to keep the hands on the floor if you can’t balance in the posture without them).

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Push through the feet to come to standing and bring the feet together to stand in tadasana, mountain pose.  Close the eyes and try and find stillness in the posture. Feel very strong in the legs by drawing up on the kneecaps to firm the thighs, and root down through the feet. Try and emulate the mountain after which the posture is named – rooted, steady, part of the earth, strong.

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Move slowly into vrksasana, the tree pose. This time emulate the tree, growing in both directions. Rooting downwards through the feet into the earth and reaching upwards through the fingertips to the sky. Strong yet flexible.  Focus on feeling strong in the standing leg (again firm up the front of the thigh) and then swap sides after a few breaths.

During these postures let your awareness rest at muladhara at the base of the tailbone and imagine a spinning wheel of red light there.  Alternatively, as you breathe in and out repeat in your head the mantra for this chakra, ‘lam’, on each breath.

Svadhisthana (sacral chakra)

Located below the navel, just above muladhara. Colour = orange. Element = water. Linked to our feelings of sensuality, sexuality, creativity, pleasure, playfulness, fun and joy.  Physically linked to reproductive and urinary systems. If blocked you may struggle to allow yourself to enjoy life and have fun. You may feel joyless and struggle with sexual relationships or feel creatively blocked.  It can also be over-stimulated when you over-indulge in pleasurable activities in an ultimately self-destructive way (e.g. addiction).

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Open the legs wide with feet out-turned and gently rest your hands on the tops of your thighs for the goddess or horse pose. Sink low into your hips until you feel a stretching in the inner hips and thighs. Spend a few breaths here then take the hands upwards, palms facing each other. Keep sinking low into the hips as you reach upwards at the same time.

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Come to the floor and take baddha konasana, the cobbler pose.  Allow gravity to gradually open the hips.  Try and press down through the sit bones and lift up through the spine, chest moving forward between the upper arms.  (NB If you have a yoga strap you can do the bound version, reclining back onto a bolster – absolute bliss and this is what we did in the class, but I don’t have a belt with me here to demonstrate!)

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Change the leg position to upavishta konasana (wide leg angle pose) and place the hands on the floor in front of you. Feel a gentle stretch on the inner hips and thighs. If you wish to go deeper then take the hands forward after a few breaths.

During the postures let the mind’s awareness rest at svadhisthana below the navel and imagine a spinning wheel of orange light there and try and open yourself up to the postures with a playful, happy attitude – maybe try smiling your way through them!  Alternatively, as you breathe in and out repeat in your head the mantra for this chakra, ‘vam’, on each breath.

Manipura (solar plexus chakra)

Located at solar plexus. Colour = yellow. Element = fire.  Linked to our feelings of self-esteem, self-belief, confidence, proactivity and decisiveness.  Also linked to the digestive system. If blocked, you may feel fearful, anxious and lack belief in yourself, be unsure of who you are. You may also suffer from digestive problems. If over stimulated you may have an inflated ego and exhibit arrogance or false confidence.

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Come to table top position and stretch out the opposite arm and leg, focusing on drawing in moolha bandha (lift up on perineal muscles) and uddiyana bandha (draw navel towards spine to engage deep transverse abdominals).  Hold for a few breaths and swap sides.  Feel strong and grounded through the hand and foot left on the floor and supported at your core.

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If you want to work harder, do the same from plank and/or forearm plank.  Make sure the hips don’t creep upwards as you lift hand and foot – try and keep the body in a straight line.

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Take navasana (boat pose). Lift out of your lower back and raise your chest skyward, as if inviting in the sun’s energy to enter your solar plexus and send prana straight to manipura.  Hold for five breaths before coming down, and repeat at least three times. Challenge yourself to cross the lower legs and lift up on an inhale in between each attempt, even if you can only get your hips off the floor – believe that you can do it!

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Finish with a gentle seated twist with one leg bent and hooked over the other, straight leg, to stimulate the digestive organs.

During these postures let the mind’s awareness rest at manipura at the solar plexus and imagine a spinning wheel of yellow light there.  Feel the heat and life in your body and appreciate your inner strength, which allows you to hold the postures, even when it becomes difficult.  Alternatively, as you breathe in and out repeat in your head the mantra for this chakra, ‘ram’, on each breath.

Anahata (heart chakra)

Located at the centre of the chest. Colour = green. Element = air.  Linked to our ability to love ourselves, others and the world, and to our ability to accept love from others.  Also linked to lungs and circulatory system.  If blocked, you may find it difficult to build meaningful relationships with others, perhaps due to trauma and abuse that you have previously suffered.  You may suffer from a lack of self-love and self-worth.

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Sit in dandasana (staff pose) with your hands about ten centimetres behind you, fingers pointing forward. Lean into the hands and lift your chest upwards towards the sky, opening your heart. Try and soften the whole chest area and feel the rib cage rise and fall with the breath.

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Lie on your belly and place your elbows under your shoulders with parallel forearms on the floor to come into bhujangasana (sphinx pose).  Draw your shoulders back and down and open your chest to the front, focusing on inflating the chest with your inhales.  After a few breaths, if you wish for a deeper backbend then begin to straighten the arms to come into cobra pose, but keep the shoulders down, away from the ears.

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If your back feels open enough, stay lying on the belly and take dhanurasana (bow) or half bow pose. For full bow, bring both feet towards your buttocks and hold the fronts of the ankles.  Try and keep the feet together, and maybe even the knees, as you begin to push the feet into the hands, which will draw your shoulders and chest off the floor.  You don’t need to lift high with this – just come to a comfortable place and focus on breathing into the mid to upper back and chest.  Inflate the lungs and the rib cage with the breath. You may start to naturally rock forwards and backwards slightly as you breathe fully, in which case just go with it.  Feel like you’re breathing love in and sharing it with the world as you breathe out.

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For half bow, just lift one foot up at a time, hold for a few breaths and swap sides.

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Come onto your back and bend the knees and place your palms by your sides.  On an inhale lift up into supported bridge and take the arms overhead and down to the floor behind you.  Breathe fully into the front of the chest, trying to lift it higher and higher with each breath.

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Roll out on an exhale and then take a soft forward fold as a counter posture to the back-bending.

During these postures let the mind’s awareness rest at anahata at the heart centre and imagine a spinning wheel of green light there.  Try and soften the front of your chest and focus on loving feelings, towards yourself, others and the world.  Alternatively, as you breathe in and out repeat in your head the mantra for this chakra, ‘yam’, on each breath.

Vishudda (throat chakra)

Located at the base of the throat. Colour = blue. Element = ether.  Linked to our ability to know ourselves well and to communicate our truth to others with compassion.  Also linked to our respiratory system.  If blocked, you may struggle to make yourself heard, to form and give opinions or you may be very shy. You may also often feel tight in the throat, unable to breathe fully. Conversely, if over-stimulated you may be insensitive with your words and dominate conversations, drowning out others voices and being too opinionated/talking too much and too loudly.

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Come to seated and place one shin in front of the other.  Rock forward and take the hands to the floor quite far in front of you, then drop the hips.  Draw the shoulders down and take a deep inhale. As you exhale, open your mouth wide, stick out the tongue as far as it will go, look upwards and breathe out noisily through the mouth for simhasana (lion breath) in a kind of hissing, roaring sound, like a lion. Repeat at least three times. Try and relax the throat as you do so and just let the breath go naturally – don’t be shy, try not to hold it back!

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Lie on your back and take the legs up into the air and back behind you for halasana (plough pose).  The chin should be drawn into the chest, creating jalandarabandha (chin lock).  If the feet touch down then interlace the fingers and place the arms on the floor otherwise continue to support the back.  You can take a few breaths with straight legs then, if you wish, bend the legs so the knees come to the outside of the ears for karnapidasana.

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Gently roll out using core control and take matsyasana (fish pose) as a counter posture.  To come into this, lie on your back and bend the elbows (keep them close to your sides) and take hold of your outer hips.  Lift the chest upwards, arching the spine actively, and take the head back, then move your hands to rest on the front of the thighs.  If you wish to go further, walk your elbows outwards until you can place the top of your head on the floor, maintaining the arch in your spine, then place your hands on your thighs, so you’re just resting on legs and head.  When in the posture, relax the throat and the front of the chest and breathe deeply. To come out, place the elbows back down to take the weight, then bring chin to chest and come up slowly.

During these postures let the mind’s awareness rest at vishuddha at the base of the throat and imagine a spinning wheel of blue light there.  Try and soften your throat and cultivate an audible ujjayi breath by contracting the throat muscles, as you would if you were whispering.  Let the breath flow, try not to hold it back at all. Alternatively, as you breathe in and out repeat in your head the mantra for this chakra, ‘yam’, on each breath.

Ajna (brow or ‘third eye’ chakra)

Located between the eyebrows.  Colour = purple. Element = mind.  Linked to tuning into and trusting our innate wisdom and intuition, tapping into and fine-tuning our ‘sixth sense’.  If blocked, you are likely to be too much in your head, trying to ‘work everything out’ with your mind, rather than listening to your gut feelings and trusting the voice of intuition that rises when we sit in peace and allow it to emerge. If over-stimulated, you can use these abilities to inflate your ego, for example by abusing ‘psychic powers’ to boost your own sense of self/dominate others.

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Take balasana (child’s pose) and make sure the forehead connects with the floor or the backs of your hands or a block.  Focus your awareness on the space between your eyebrows as you take slow, deep breaths here, feeling the back rise and fall.

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Come to sukhasana (easy seated pose) or lotus or cross-legged or kneeling (whatever feels comfortable for you).  Extend upwards through the spine and relax the shoulders and rest the hands in jnana mudra on the backs of the knees (first finger touches tip of thumb and the remaining three fingers extend).  Take some slow, deep breaths through the nose.  Then let the breath come naturally and simply take your awareness to the space between your eyebrows and notice what arises.  If any thoughts or particular emotions arise, acknowledge them and let them blow through – don’t get involved. If you have a question that is occupying you at the moment, perhaps ask this now, directing your query to your ajna chakra. Believe and trust that you have all the answers you seek inside you already – give them space to arise through this simple ajna focussed meditation. You can also imagine a spinning wheel of purple light between the eyebrows.  Feel like you breathe in purple light to this area and, as you breathe out, the light spreads through your body, bigger and brighter with each breath.

Sahasrara (crown chakra)

Located just above the crown of the head. Represented by a thousand-petalled lotus of the full spectrum of colours.  This chakra opens only when all other chakras are open and prana is flowing unhindered.  It is linked with our sense of merging into oneness with everything else – a state of samadhi or unending bliss, resting in the seat of knowledge of the truth of who we are.

If you have headstand in your practice already, then take a headstand for at least ten breaths. Then counter pose with child’s pose.

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Finally, come to a comfortable, lengthy savasana (corpse pose).  Support the backs of the knees or the back of the head with a bolster or cushion if required, and make sure you’re warm enough, use a blanket if needed.  Spend at least ten minutes lying down in deep relaxation, allowing all muscle effort and tension to drain away.  Stay alert within your deep relaxation and notice what arises – perhaps feelings of warmth, love and contentment may spread through the body and, you never know, maybe even bliss, cosmic oneness and other samadhi-like feelings may make an appearance!