Category Archives: Reflections

Thoughts, reflections and insights on yoga and life

On the mat and off the mat

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on&off the matA very english yogi spends a lot of his time “on the mat”. It’s called yoga practice and consists of asana, pranayama, mudra, mantra and meditation. You can find a list of the stuff that the ‘yogi gets up to on the mat here.

But in reality when the ‘yogi adds up the minutes and hours of his days, he finds that the majority of his life is spent ‘off the mat’.

This can be at work, or with his family or friends. The permutation of peoples and places that the ‘yogi can find himself in includes, in the car, at a desk, on a computer, in a meeting with others, in the garden, cooking, reading, making or playing music, walking, designing and writing and all sorts of other places and things.

Practice on the mat is fairly straightforward. Typically the ‘yogi is alone, with just asana and other practices to work through.  He can follow the teachers who have taught or influenced him through the postures and practices. It’s good to find a space and a time to practice postures and meditate as well as all the other stuff like mantra and pranayama.

After a morning practice though, a very english yogi spruces up and goes out to meet the world in all its guises.  This is where the real practice starts.

The trick is to bring the practices, knowledge and experiences ‘on the mat’ along with you.  There’s no doubt about it: it’s hard though. 

Off the mat, the ‘yoga finds that the asanas – the postures help him feel good, flexible, healthy, and happy. But it’s the mindstuff that really helps him get through a day without causing too much damage to himself or others.

A few guiding principles help:

1) whatever it is, it will pass: the world will move on and you’ll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

2) people (and all living beings) are precious and special: our job is to help everyone and every creature to a place where they are happy and fulfilled.

3) everything is ripe with opportunity: you can choose to make that opportunity positive or negative, fulfilling or unfulfilling.  It is your choice. Don’t forget that.

4) compassion and love are the spice that makes the dish tastier.

5) it’s all just a projection of your own mind stuff: past, present and future.

There are loads of guiding principles and techniques. The one that the ‘yogi loves most at the moment is a work called Peacock in the Poison Grove. If you search for it online you’ll probably find it. It’s a centuries old toolkit for managing your mind and your life. 

Either way, if you are practicising ‘on the mat’ – remember that the practice continues ‘off the mat’.  Infact, that is where the learning and growth really starts.

Namaste

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Easy does it….

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Every so often, a very english yogi  comes screeching to a halt to avoid hitting a stone wall.  stone wallHe never crashes into the stone wall; just stops in front of it and pauses for thought. There are a lot very english dry stone walls around the place. They provide margins and borders to the scattered fields, woodlands and valleys around the ‘yogi’s home.

Actually, the ‘yogi isn’t talking about stone walls outside his house; he’s talking about inner walls – mind walls if you like. And they are no different to the dry stone walls outside. The ‘yogi still screeches to a halt in his mind when he comes up against one and still stops to pause and think things through.

Recently, a very english yogi was asked to consider developing a posture profile on the asana Dwi Pada Pitham.  This posture is also known as the two legged table pose. It’s a precursor to the Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose).  It’s sort of a baby version of bridge.

The ‘yogi really struggled mentally with this posture profile. I think that this was because I regarded it as an insignificant asana, in that for me (who loves strong postures which are rich in symbolism and gesture) it wasn’t powerful, strong or rich in symbolism and gesture. For example I typically love working in asanas such as trikonasana, virabhasana, natarajasana, matsyendrasana – all expansive, symbolic, and richly gestural asanasa, involving all the body and encouraging for me,  deep meditation and awareness. Because I am drawn to wildness of posture and real bodily movement and because kinaesthetically I love the physicality of the postures – Dwi Pada Pitham seemed so insignificant and as a result I wasn’t drawn to it.

When I searched for references in classical literature as much as modern texts, the lack of references suggested to me that others think similarly; and as a result I think I became biased against it. As a result I really had to push myself to explore it both theoretically and practically.

My bias and resistance against a seemingly simple posture was my “dry stone wall”.

When you come up against such barriers – the important thing is to work with the edge of your resistance, and use your energy to transform the feeling and the moment.  Ironically by pushing myself and really getting to grips with the posture in theory and practice, I begun to see the value of this seemingly insignificant and rather gentle asana.   The vinyasa of the moment – you can see it here – encouraged me to focus on breathing in movement and posture, and for me although I am considered a quiet, reflective and quite a slow person – I tend towards wildness and activity – people are fooled: a very english yogi is as mad as Milarepa (ok not so mad!).  So it was interesting to be slowed down and grounded by this posture and this movement. 

I tend to find the quieter poses a challenge because I think I need to be energised to feel alive.  Dwi Pada Pitham was a good compromise – it was posture and movement (the vinyasa) but at the same time it was calming and grounding. Perhaps the vinyasa worked to calm and ground me more than, say, savasana (corpse pose) as when my body is so still, the mind kicks off on its monkey like swinging from tree to tree.

For this very english yogi  the lesson was – don’t be fooled or dismiss the seemingly “easy” postures – their gentle easiness can powerfully help you in ways that can sometimes take you by surprise.  Easy does it…..

Namaste

Be kind (to yourself, and others)

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2013cubes290x300So, 2013 has finally arrived, and with it the optimism and aspirations of a new year.

Just as much as a very english yogi likes each new morning for the  potential that it brings for each new day; so he relishes the turn of the year as it offers so much more potential for a whole year.  That is quite some opportunity.

It’s very easy to start off with some grand plans or aspirations and then slog at these, only in the dull days of mid January to find alternatives or excuses not to follow the grand plan or the dream aspirations.

There are lots of other blogs and websites that will give you all you need to plan and act on your plans.  Below,  the english yogi sets out a few of these. Some are really neat – for example, Stuart Berry’s ‘Ideas to Share’ blog majors on SMART -ly defined goals – and the yogi thinks this approach has a lot of merit. How do you know where you are going if you don’t define the destination?  There are loads of exercise sites but this year the english yogi thought the best (mainly for their fun loving quality) were the frugal fitness site ,  exercise works and Pumps and Iron sites, amongst many others, which  offer some really fun but yet effective, workouts.

I really loved the following sites for their evidence based realism and love of life : Richard Wiseman, David R Hamilton , and Seth Godin . Throughout the year, the yogi has kept coming back to TEDtalks – still one of the best online sources of inspiration generally, around.

The participants of the yoga discussion groups on Linkedin, remain a continuing source of inspiration, validation and  exploration. I thank them for their superb comments, discussions and insights.  If you are interested in yoga in all its guises, you can do no worse than visit the linkedin yoga sites and join in or simply observe.

So there is a plethora of information out there for the aspirant yogi,and my suggestions regarding these, are merely just a starting point.  If you can recommend any blogs or sites – please do!

Mindful of the dangers of offering recommendations and suggestions, my only recommendation for 2013 is that you try to be kind to yourself, and to others. Kind to yourself, because if you can’t be kind to yourself, how can you be kind to others?  And being kind to others just seems right so it’s worth a try.

Good luck and best wishes,  with love,

Yoga is a good hinterland to have

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viewing the nature of realityEvery so often while the ‘ yogi is reflecting on something or other, synchronicity usually crash lands around him to prod him further on in his reflections, and from reflection to doing, or being. 

Recently, he was reflecting on the value of depth and breadth in being fulfilled in life. In essence, the more broadly you expose yourself to things and the deeper you explore them, the richer and more fulfilled you may be. 

So he was thinking about this on his drive up to Cumbria recently, and on the M6 he turned the radio on and what should the singer be singing?  “the river is deep and the river is wide, you got to ford it to get to the other side”………………..

And then in the place where the yogi was staying, he decided to sit by the fire and read. The only available readable material was an old Daily Telegraph, which if you know a very english yogi, you’ll realise it’s not his default newspaper…Anyhow it’s a seriously dated newspaper and he opens the pages and there is an article about the importance of “having a hinterland”, written by Emma Soames. For the curious, the article can be found in the Daily Telegraph online,  and can be found here. Hinterlands according to Emma Soames are experiential or existential space created by people through their interests and outlook. Having a hinterlands makes people  deep and broad…….

And then over lunch with Mr Ross one of the Gateshead Druids, the next day, the yogi, heard him mutter : “you have got to have your own hinterland”.  He nearly fell off his chair, but recovered his composure and asked Ross what he meant.  Ross said that he encountered so many people, who didn’t have  a hinterland and this was, he felt,  much to their personal cost. He came across people who had retired with little else to interest them because they had focused solely on their careers, or whose sole focus had been family, and they had woken up feeling too one dimensional as a result. 

So many references to ‘hinterland’ and all at the same time. The english yogi has to say that something, or someone, somewhere is giving him a fairly big hint about something. He counts this as a synchronicity thing but more importantly he thinks it needs some serious consideration. 

The general consensus is that it is important to have a hinterland. So, yes, push or stick yourself out like a promontory facing the wide expanse of the sea and all its glittering opportunities, but make sure you have a good solid swathe of land to fall back on when the waves of the sea crash on your cliffs and start eroding them.   So if you aren’t sure if you have a hinterland, the first thing is to review yourself and your life.  The key thing about this is that providing you are, or have become, genuinely curious about the world beyond your own then you can start building your hinterland if it’s not already there. 

The yogi is influenced by his now, deceased,  Grandfather.  Inspite of his horrendous experiences on the Somme in World War I, or maybe because of these, Grandpa had an unswerving interest and natural curiosity about the world around him, which led him in many directions, and made him, even in his later years when he was elderly and infirm, an interesting, ecletic and intriguing companion.   hinterland swirlHe has learnt a great deal from him over the years, but more importantly he learned with fun, humour and with what we would call nowadays, a hypertextual interest in a wide range of often unconnected matters.  Grandpa also had many hobbies and interests: he would potter in the garden, growing flowers and veg’; he followed the space programme, and loved food and art. He was always interested in people, and what made them ‘tick’.  One of the many things he told the yogi, was to “never underestimate the value of a hobby or three, and always keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas and views”.   The key to building and maintain your hinterland is to have lots of interests, and hobbies, take an interest in the world around you and beyond your patch, and learn as much as you can.

So when the waves and winds of time start eroding your own personal promontory, built as it may well be on career, family, status, ego,  money or any other such thing – you’ll find that you have a richer, wider, deeper life to fall back on and launch yourself from in due course when the glittering prizes lose their glitter or recede in importance as things often do. 

Of course, the best hinterlands have emerged, as a result of sediment piling up over time, creating a large expanse of land, so that when you find the erosion starting on the promontory,  you can look back to see this land you created and which you can return to.

Emma Soames in her article describes (as one example) doing yoga as a contemporary hinterland. ‘English Yogi couldn’t agree more. Making a decision to go to a yoga class is a big step for many but once you have gone and have kept going – you’ll suddenly find that yoga is not only very beneficial and fun, but that it isn’t just about the asanas or poses. As your practice deepens you’ll find that yoga is a rich tradition with many aspects that you can explore with many benefits.  However, the first thing is to get to a class. 

Although it’s not the only thing in a very english yogi’s life, he does consider yoga to be a good hinterland to have. He hopes you can find it and draw on it too.

Namaste and best wishes

Going out, to get inside

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Lancashire Yogi loves this time of year. It’s cold, and the air is crisp and sharp. The sky often open and wide, and stunningly blue.  Nature is either moving into hibernation or has already hibernated. The sap in the trees has long dropped.  And most of the time it’s freezing.   Tree branches are glazed with ice, and grass frozen in spikes.  High above and across the sky, flocks of migrating birds swoop and undulate in perfect motion on their way to a warmer, more welcome climate. Sometimes ‘Lancashire sees the birds spell out goodbyes and farewells in the undulating sweeps and swoops. The occasional vapour trail from a high altitude ‘plane spells out migrations of another sort.

It’s a perfect time to get out of the house and go walking.  Lancashire Yogi likes to take off over the fells and this year is exploring the Wasdale and Ennerdale valleys in Cumbria. The silence is astonishing: it’s almost as if every possible sound has frozen along with the grass and trees. And the silence hangs heavy in these Cumbrian valleys: heavy and deep. The occasional dog bark sounds like an exclamation mark in the silence. A crow on a tree branch, a comma of the frozen pause that has begun.

frozen grass (2)Lancashire Yogi always find that through the process of walking  in nature, he comes back to himself, and finds his centre.  Perhaps he finds his place and along with his pace. The rhythm and pace of his walking are like a metronome guide back to himself, as much as to the destination of the walk. But in many ways, the destination is always only one aspect of Lancashire’s walks in the ‘Lakes.  Somehow the forays are always about walking back to himself, and the destination and scenary are simply an excuse to get back to himself.

And what happens when ‘Lancashire walks back to himself? Intriguingly he makes an astonishing and mindblowing discovery – (as Easwaran says in the Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living) – with all this walking and out in the fresh air, with beautiful views and the senses alive to the environment, ‘Lancashire is not this body that he has.  It’s an experience thing rather than an intellectual observation or analysis. The body is merely a vehicle to pass through the land, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the journey. And if ‘Lancashire is not this body ; then others cannot be their bodies either.  The outer thing we call a body is simply a jacket or outer covering. It suddenly means we can dispense with our sense of difference about others and ourselves. Without identifying people as ‘bodies’ we can see them as people, souls, perhaps, within a vehicle that is simply just helping ‘us’ get through.

The walking thing then brings about something even more extraordinary realisation – often half way through a nice long walk : we are not our mind either. Because as you walk, you begin not merely to observe your surroundings; you begin to start observing your thoughts. And then you begin to wonder, ‘if I am observing my thoughts, who is thinking?’.  If the mind is generating thoughts, and I am observing them, what, or who , is doing the thinking? This perspective means that the you that is observing the thoughts can start responding to the thoughts that are perhaps mistaken or wrong, or unhelpful. And you can begin the process of mind engineering – for example,  tightening a bolt here, loosening a nut there, pouring some oil into the mechanism.  As an aside,  ‘oil’ for ‘Lancashire is repeating mantras. We can watch the torrent of negative or disabling thoughts rush by like a river full of flotsam and jetsam.  And we can follow the flow down stream and away out of our thoughts. And as a guide, Lancashire Yogi finds himself looking around to nature, and observing it’s “is-ness”: where it apparantly has no thoughts and no worries: and just ‘is’.

And then, finally Lancashire Yogi finds that actually, there are no boundaries between him and nature, and probably, well, everything.  There is a sense that he, and everything are all interconnected. He feels this particularly as he moves through the Cumbria landscape, through the valley, in the shadow of the fells, with the water of the lakes beside him. And if he is interconnected with everything, and indeed, all of us are interconnected – then to put up barriers and create degrees of separateness must surely be an illusion for some reason or other. And if everything is interconnected perhaps we need to cherish life and living things, and value our place in the big scheme of things.

Yes; Lancashire Yogi loves walking and loves walking at this time of year. However walking at any time of year is a good way of coming back to yourself: a sort of going out to get inside.  If you are feeling physically, mentally or soulfully cooped up – why not get up and go for a walk – just wrap up warm and enjoy.

The days are getting shorter at the moment. We are heading towards the Winter Solstice: where the sun is at the lowest point on the horizon at midday, as a result of the earth tilting on its axis. The Solstice is not a time for sadness though, even though it is the shortest day in the year.  From the Solstice (the 21st December, this year), the days will start to lengthen again. And although most will be rightly celebrating the Christmas and New Year; the Solstice is surely worthy of celebration as it is the beginning of the days slowly becoming lighter and a pointer towards Spring and Summer even in the cold, dark, often snowy days of Winter.

Namaste

zen and the art of me-tenance

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Lancashire Yogi has been re-reading a wonderful book which you may have read called ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintainance’.  Written by Robert Pirsig the book’s central thesis is that we, and the world as a whole are split between the rational, logical, scientific view of the world, and the other more irrational, intuitive and imagination based view of the world.  There is a constant struggle between the two, which is typified in the book between the differing views and attitudes of the narrator and his companions who are journeying through the states on motorbikes.  His companions are romantics, the narrator, more logical and scientific.  His cold logic frustrates them, their hopeless romanticism irritates him.  Ultimately through the journey, the narrator, comes to an understanding that both views have a place, and that the key to life, or quality in life is to embrace both the rational and the romantic. For Pirsig and us, this means encompassing “irrational” sources of wisdom and insight, as well as understanding science, logical reason and technology.  This means that while we pursue ‘truth’ and ‘quality’ , we should accept our bursts of creativity, insight and intuition, as much as our search for rational explanations.  The rationale and the intuitive can and should exist in a synergetic harmony.  Sort of ‘yin and yang’ type living Lancashire Yogi thinks….Ultimately, Lancashire Yogi, thinks that Pirsig is suggesting that a rich and accepted combination of the rational with the romantic can lead to a higher quality of life.

And that’s where yoga comes into the equation. Lancashire Yogi calls it ‘zen and the art of me-tenance’. The practices of yoga help you establish an open-ness and an equilibrium that enables you to accept both rational and irrational positions – the romantic and the scientific. At the same time the practice of the yamas and niyamas (the values and codes of living set out in yogic pratice), ensure that while being open and balanced you don’t fall into the trap of ego or hurtful living.

How can one accept these two positions? Lancashire Yogi knows quite a few people who seem to live this sort of dualism – the doctor who goes to church, the scientist who loves art, the mechanic who loves nature,  for example. How can they balance this seeming duality?  Who knows? But the key benefit of yoga practice – getting on the mat and doing asanas, meditating, and breathing all work to help you reach a point of acceptance. And that is what “me-tenance” is all about, accepting the duality of the rational and the romantic, being open to all the potential and possibilities that it brings, and as a result being happy, kinder and calmer.

Of course, this is just Lancashire Yogi’s interpretation of a great book – what do you think?

Namaste

The yoga of hearing

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Yoga as we know is a package of practices, of which the one that the most people think of and do is ‘asana’ – yoga postures.  There are seven other elements of the yoga package. Meditation is one of these. Lancashire Yogi meditates regularly, and recently he was reflecting on the power of silence. How important it is to experience silence in all its depths.  It’s important to experience silence every so often because we are simply surrounded by noise all the time. There is the internal noise of our own mind to contend with, as much as the noise of the world ‘out there’.  We like to contribute to the noise, with our own thoughts and opinions too. Lancashire Yogi read somewhere that the level of background noise that surrounds us in our daily life is increasing both in range and volume.  It’s rare to hear complete silence. 

When Lancashire Yogi moved to his cottage in the middle of nowhere, it took him ages to get used to the dark nights because they were really, really dark. There was no light pollution. The night hung heavy with darkness.  But the nights, and the days are also heavy with silence.  Lancashire Yogi can hear himself think. Amazing. 

This got Lancashire Yogi thinking. If there was a yoga of hearing or listening – what would it be?  He thinks it is about being mindful of all the noise and sounds that one hears; not contending with it but abiding with it, and connecting with it without judging it.  Just listening.  In this practice, in the end silence, can be very noisey!

Lancashire Yogi was at a meeting with his business colleagues last week. They sat around a table and everyone wanted to say their ‘tuppence worth. Everyone had a lot to say, and everyone wanted to be heard. Lancashire Yogi was amused because everyone was getting quite heated. They all wanted to be heard, and all thought that what they had to say was the most important thing.  Lancashire Yogi was amused, because when he sat and listened, he realised that they were all saying the same thing essentially; with a different nuance or take on things. By listening you can connect and ultimately help others to connect. That’s what Lancashire Yogi did at the meeting.  That’s what he tries to do in life. It’s not easy. And like all other forms of yoga requires practice. But the trick is to not speak unless moved to speak, and then to be sure that one has something to say.  For the most part, the aim is to listen and hear; and integrate.  The synergy that results can lead to new insights, innovation and a fresh perspective.

Namaste

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