Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Resting and growing

Winter—quiet, slow, long-night winter—is a season of stillness. If you go for a walk in nature at this time of year, things are so quieted down you may find your ears leaning in to readjust. But the sounds are still there, all the same. I went walking in the English countryside this week, and felt that there was something so special about being able to hear the small sounds; a little rustling, wings flapping, the gurgle of a stream whirling around stones.

Thursday, 25 December 2014


The word santosha in Sanskrit can be translated as contentment; I have enough. I have enough friends, food, clothing, or what have you. I am enough.

It is one of the niyamas, or ways of living, as described by Master Patanjali in the ancient Yoga sutras. In my understanding, there is a sense of fullness to santosha—a knowing that we are full and clean and knowing, like a moon at night. Purna, wholeness.

It can be difficult to tune in with feelings of enough-ness and fullness in the holidays—specifically at a time when there's a tendency to compare our experience with everyone and anyone else's.

Monday, 15 December 2014

I found a doodle

...that I made at the summer solstice. You can hear the birds singing. It made me feel nice.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Winter and grace

I went to see my teacher, Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī in Detroit over Thanksgiving. It was a most illuminating trip in so many ways; I felt that through its challenges, as well as its many sweetnesses, light was shed in some dark and wintery spaces for me. The journey to Michigan was tough; like many other folks on Wednesday, I experienced all manner of shenanigans just getting on the plane. We boarded, our wings were de-iced (with green slime!), we waited, we "de-planed". We re-boarded. We were de-iced again. We waited. We de-planed again. There were frantic negotiations with airline folks at the airport, rescheduled flights, wonky routes—I'm sure you know how this goes. I eventually got to Detroit around midnight. Amma was still giving darshan (her blessing as a hug), and I found my way to her arms around 1.30am. I had to take my glasses off (I usually wear contacts but had been flying), and there was something really profound for me about receiving her embrace in such a blurry, vulnerable way—looking up afterwards to see her smiling at me as if I was a little baby: Look at you! You made it! Well done!

It was an intense trip for many reasons. Seeing my teacher is always a big experience for me. And there were aspects of the retreat that I hadn't really thought through beforehand. When I've seen Amma in New York, I am with my very favorite people, my whole yoga community is there and it feels like a shared experience. At the retreat, I didn't know anyone. I had thought that I could give or take Thanksgiving, being as it's not a festival I grew up with in England—but realized that since I've been in the States, I've always celebrated it with loved ones, and it felt strange to be away from that. And I signed up for a two-day meditation course that required a lot of time and I ended up feeling anxious and exhausted by it, surely not the intended result!

At the point where I realized I hadn't left the huge hotel and seen daylight for 24 hours since my arrival and was feeling very overwhelmed, I decided I needed to take a break and take a breath. Like a GPS: Recalibrating...

Thursday, 2 October 2014

International Day of Non-Violence

Hello everyone! Today is International Day of Non-Violence in honor of Mahatma Gandhi, who was born on October 2nd 1869. Ahimsa—non-violence—is such a key part of any yoga practice, and it encompasses non-violence on all levels, from the base to the subtle. Perhaps today would be a good day to be super-kind to yourself? Or just notice your mind when it goes into judging mode, particularly of the self (as mine often does). I'd like to share an excerpt here from a talk my teacher Amma gave 12 years ago, when she was presented the Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence at the United Nations in Geneva by Dr. Jane Goodall and the late UN Human Rights Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello. Amma said: "It is easy to awaken someone who is asleep. You just shake the person once or twice. But you can shake a person who is pretending to be asleep a hundred times and it won’t have any effect." I think today is a good day to be awake and be kind! Love to all.

"Mahatma Gandhi didn’t just preach. He put his words into action. He dedicated his whole life to peace and non-violence. Even though he could have become the prime minister or president of India, Gandhi declined because he had no desire whatsoever for fame or power. In fact, at the stroke of midnight, when India was declared independent, Gandhi was found consoling the victims of a riot-affected area. Likewise, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was courageous like a lion, yet in his heart he was as soft as a flower. He risked his life for the sake of love, equality, and the other noble ideals he upheld. He had to struggle with great perseverance against the people of his own country.

"It is easy to awaken someone who is asleep. You just shake the person once or twice. But you can shake a person who is pretending to be asleep a hundred times and it won’t have any effect. The majority of people belong to the latter category. It is high time that we all truly wake up. Unless the baser animal tendencies in people are subdued, our vision for the future of humanity will not come true, and peace will remain only a distant dream. Let us have the courage and perseverance, born out of spiritual practice, to realize this dream. For this to happen, each one of us needs to discover and bring to light our innate qualities of faith, love, patience, and self-sacrifice for the good of all."

—Amma, on the occasion of being presented the 2002 Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence at the United Nations in Geneva by UN Messenger of Peace Dr. Jane Goodall and the late UN Human Rights Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Thank you, B.K.S. Iyengar

December 14th 1918–August 20 2014

Mr. Iyengar died last week, aged 95. Can you imagine being born in 1918? And continuing to live zestily, generously, big-heartedly into a whole new century? He published his book, Light on Life, some ten years ago. I think of it as a manual for humans wishing to live well, and Mr. Iyengar closes the book stating, "I pray that my ending can be your beginning." What a thing to say, and with such lightness.

Much has been written about Mr Iyengar's life, and rightly so—this man was, and is, a true pioneer. He brought yoga to the west, literally, when he first visited London as a steely-eyed young man in the 1940s. His seriousness was part of his determination to be taken seriously, for yoga to be taken seriously—at a time when he was forbidden from showing his face in the dining room of the posh hotel he was staying in, on account of his being Indian. Half a century later, you can look at the photos of Guruji, laughing away; in a fine Radio 4 documentary recorded around his 80th birthday, he says, "I feel that my method of yoga can never die and that is why I am happy." He recognized his essential part in bringing yoga to the world and it delighted him. Of course, his levity and joy bubbled forth as a result of his ability, founded on tenacity, to live in freedom.

One of the things I've loved most about Mr. Iyengar's teachings, over the years, is his emphasis on living yogically as a "householder". In other words, not a practitioner who secludes themselves in the woods or a cave or a monastery to pursue yoga. Rather, someone living what we'd consider a more regular life; working a job, raising a family, these things. He treats this way of living—the way he lived, in fact—with utmost respect. He offers teachings on how to live in this world with devotion. It moves me that he did this; that he strove to help people in this way. It rings through in this teaching from Light on Life:

“As animals, we walk the earth. As bearers of divine essence, we are among the stars. As human beings, we are caught in the middle, seeking to reconcile the paradox of how to make our way upon earth while striving for something more permanent and more profound.”

Every inch of his teachings—physical and metaphysical—explores and seeks to clarify this wonderful, impossible, perfect situation. He helps us navigate, directs us in the dance that takes place as we negotiate these two seeming poles, as we move towards yoga, union.

He's there grounding down our back foot in Parsvokonasana as our top arm reaches up to the sky. His meticulous instructions directing us on how best to open the chest, waist, side-body to make space in the pose. He's there, encouraging us on how to bring our finest awareness to our asana practice, asking that we watch our discomfort in poses in our journey towards sthira, sukha—strength and sweetness. Or at least, I feel this to be so.

I was considering our human situation—our hooves on the ground, our consciousness ascending to the stars—with regard to longing. That particular heart-song that our condition seems to inspire. My friend suggested that this longing is also what helps us grow; it keeps us reaching, exploring and learning. Good to have a teacher there with you.

There is so much gold in Light on Life. Another friend of mine has read the book many times, underlining sections in a different color on each reading; the pages are almost entirely underlined now. When I heard the news of Mr. Iyengar leaving his body after this great gift of a life, I thought immediately of one particular part of the book, which you can read in the photograph below.

Here's to courage; to commitment, clarity and compassion.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Who knows?

On Monday I left my phone at home. When I realized this on the subway into work, I felt like a rogue—so off-the-grid. I liked that I couldn't check my phone for messages, or the time—or to check the time as an excuse to check for messages. I felt freedom as a result of not being constantly available at every moment, and also through not seeking approval or affirmation from outside.

I thought about the way we compare ourselves to others, on social media, and something a smart friend of mine once said, regarding this: You're comparing your bloopers and outtakes to someone else's showreel. It's not real or reliable.

That day, Robin Williams died. Besides sadness, there was also a general sense of shock at his passing and specifically his unhappiness—a feeling of, Who knew? To which I thought, he knew.

It's only you who lives with your heart. It's only you who negotiates between the heart and the mind. We can have immensely supportive, loving relationships with our families, partners and friends. But you are the only one who lives with you.

This, to me, is what is so valuable and precious about the practice of yoga and meditation. The watching and listening. We get to see time and again the movements of the brain and the body, our inclinations and habits, and the decisions we make. We may start to see patterns, and maybe even find a little space to make an evaluation in free, clear space. Or at least get a moment's peace. We sit with our heart and we listen.

We strive to make healthy decisions. By healthy, I mean healthy for your body and your heart: Eat well, love well, rest well. Choose well. Looking after your own health contributes to others' wellbeing. Living peacefully with yourself results in your moving in the world with more peace, spaciousness and compassion for others.

Thinking about this made me feel closer to the prayer, "Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu". May all beings be happy and free, and may my actions in some way contribute to that; may my happiness and freedom radiate outwards to touch others.

It can be difficult to disentangle yourself from checking your phone, checking others' imagined opinions of oneself, asking for others to listen to your heart with some kind of divine stethoscope. But you're there right now. You are with your heart and at any moment can choose to quiet down and listen.

लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनोभवंतु

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The view from the moon

I saw a lady eating a cucumber like it was a banana on the subway platform. I thought, interesting. Why not?

It made me think of an old art teacher I had at school. When we were out on lunchbreak, he'd turn our paintings upside down. We'd return to the studio and boom! a new perspective on the painting, its composition, what was really going on.

And that made me think of inversions in our asana practice; going upside-down to get a new view.

Yoga is about awakening; to the truth of the present moment. The banana-cucumber, the painting reframe, the handstand are all good ways to do this. When you are awake, you have a bit more spaciousness in the mind. A little bit more room to consider and experience what's really important today, beyond the mind's chatter.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this shift in perspective in his beautiful book, Fear. This extract is from the section Appreciating Where We Are.

'Imagine two astronauts go to the moon, and while they're there, there's an accident and their ship can't take them back to Earth. They have only enough oxygen for two days. There is no hope of someone coming from Earth in time to rescue them. They only have two days to live.

If you were to ask them at that moment, "What is your deepest wish?" they would answer, "To be back home walking on our beautiful planet Earth." That would be enough for them; they wouldn't want anything else. They wouldn't think of being the head of a large corporation, a famous celebrity, or the president of the United States. They wouldn't want anything but to be back here—walking on Earth, enjoying every step, listening to the sounds of nature, or holding the hand of their beloved while contemplating the moon at night.

We should live every day like people who have just been rescued from dying on the moon. We are on Earth now, and we need to enjoy walking on this precious, beautiful planet. Zen Master Linji said, "The miracle is not to walk on water or fire. The miracle is to walk on the earth."

I cherish that teaching. I enjoy just walking, even in busy places like airports and railway stations. Walking like that, with each step caressing our Mother Earth, we can inspire other people to do the same. We can enjoy every minute of our lives.'


I was happy to see that in the settling time before class started, a number of students had already got the props they needed and put themselves into the positions that really called to them—one student was lying in suptabadakonasana with a bolster, while another had blocks under his knees in sukhasana.

I was happy about this because I've been thinking about this idea of prajna lately. Or rather, specifically since I took class with Tara Glazier at Abhaya Yoga and she wove this concept into the class in terms of what she taught—the movement and the ideas—and the way she taught it, ie the energetics.

Prajna exists in Hinduism and in Buddhism, and it means insight; prajna is characterized as light illuminating the truth, and also as a sharp sword cutting and paring back to truth. At its most profound level this means the realization of ultimate reality, and the awakening of prajna—through curiosity, open-mindedness, presence and so on—can happen at every level of day-to-day existence. In her excellent article on Prajna, Judy Lief writes, "Our inquisitive interest encompasses all levels, from the most mundane, such as how do I turn on this computer, up to such profound levels as, what is the nature of reality?"

If you've been to a yoga class, you've probably heard the teacher tell you to listen to your body—an instruction which can feel like a bit of a cliche or a cop-out. But the way Tara taught it was different. She's a very experienced teacher who can give a whole bunch of helpful physical cues for finding the optimal alignment in a pose. But, as she said, ultimately your body simply won't let you injure yourself. Your body is intelligent, and if you really listen to what's going on and respond with physical and energetic curiosity, you can make your way towards that alignment yourself—and crucially, back off what doesn't feel right. Listen to your body and be honest with yourself.

One subtle effect of true listening and dialogue with my own body was that I found myself able to move into an advanced asana I'd have normally thought beyond my capability (though curiously I did dream I went into Vrschikasana scorpion pose a couple of nights before Tara assisted me into a tentative iteration of it). It's as if your body trusts you when it knows you're really paying attention.

Equally, taking restorative poses when you wake up feeling tired lets your body know it's okay, you're not going to force anything today; which allows for tension to dissipate in the mind as well.

So yes, I was happy to see the students with their props, responding to what they needed. We kept things super-simple in class and moved with care and generosity; making space and allowing for prajna practice on and off the mat.

Thursday, 17 July 2014


My teacher, the spiritual leader and humanitarian, Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī, visited New York last week, to my great happiness. Amma gives her blessing in the form of an embrace; in the last 30 or so years, she's hugged around 30 million people all over the world. You may have heard the Sanskrit word darshan used to describe this embrace; darshan can be translated as auspicious sight. I like to think of it as meaning a glimpse of the divine—or simply, love—as witnessed and felt by the eyes of the whole body and soul. Suffice to say, these hugs can be a profound experience indeed.

Equally profound are Amma's talks at these occasions. She communicates deep ideas and concepts with warmth, humor and simplicity. What really struck me at this year's gathering was how she spoke about patience. Patience is the foundation for all growth, she said. One can't peel open the petals of a flower to make it bloom; the unfolding must be unforced, the revelation arrives in its own sweet time. She spoke also of our tendency to look for happiness outside ourselves, when its real home is—well, at home. Inside.

This may be a familiar idea—certainly it's discussed a lot in yoga classes—but it's not always easy to let its truth unfold. We want to hurry up the process, hurry up the happiness: Give us all the joy of summer, now! Our physical practice, asana, and breath work, pranayama, let us sail towards this idea a little more smoothly. With practice and care, we can begin to let the poses come to us, let the breath come to us. As BKS Iyengar writes, the breath must “be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand. Nothing can be forced; receptivity is everything.”

I've been working with opening up in this way: exploring backbends to open the chest and reveal the heart; gently stretching the quadriceps to facilitate this and also to open the stomach meridian which may need attention in summer; and, crucially, slowing down; easing into summer's ripe, luscious, yang fullness, rather than rushing in. Letting oneself take restorative postures—yes, even in the morning! Moving into cobra pose, inch by conscious inch, and back again. Here is a sequence I've been enjoying. May it bring you joy, too.

Suptavirasana summer sequence

Begin in virasana on a block, opening stretches w strap. Tadasana, warm up/bring synovial fluid to joints espec knees. Sivananda-style sun salutations (back knee down to open through hip flexors). Adhomukha to crescent lunge, pushing down into back foot to protect knee and low back. High lunge with bent back leg to open quad, then straighten—flow w breath. Vira 2-high prayer flow. Trikonasana. Prasaritta padotanasana with fingers interlaced to open chest and shoulders, lengthen spine. Salambasana, Dhanurasana. Sphinx. Frog. Cobra, super slowly. Forearm dog. Sirasana. Child's pose. Suptavirasana using block and bolster (option one leg at a time for beginners/those with sensitive knees). Twist supported with bolster. Child's pose with bolster. Suptabadakonasana. Savasana.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Freedom Day

This is my sixth year living in the States, and every Independence Day I think about this notion of freedom—so prized and so specific-seeming, in America. As I understand it, Independence Day seeks to celebrate the country's freedom from subjugation, and affirms its people's right to happiness. These are noble ideas, I think. But I've also seen these principles turn into a sort of "Ha! We beat you!" attitude. Our minds are quick to jump to a place of dualism—the place from which most of tend to function, most of the time. We think everything makes more sense when it's neatly stacked into opposing poles—black/white, good/bad. etc.

I've been watching this happen in myself, with some amusement, during this World Cup. The competitive "instinct" that I thought I'd mostly sloughed off over the past few years has come surging back up, and I've found the cheering and the boo-ing quite thrilling—even as I've been aware that this can only happen by dint of my perceiving difference and division. When we pick a side, we become bound to it; attached, even weighted down by it.

Yoga means union in Sanskrit. It refers to an enlightened state where we don't see difference; we're all in it together. We don't try to impose structure on time; by being present, we've moved beyond past and future.

Being present, even for just a moment, you may find you relax; it's a relief to not have to consider all those things that happened in the past or might happen in the future. And as you soften a little, compassion comes. The feeling is expansiveness. Expansiveness in the mind, body, and heart. Freedom, if you like.

Resisting the urge to identify with your thoughts and stories ("I am this kind of person, with that kind of job, and those kinds of relationships" etc.) allows us to ease up. Being sweet to ourselves does this, too. My friend, the yoga teacher Seth Lieberman writes, "Be easy with yourself, take care of yourself, and allow all the feelings and thoughts and emotions to happen with less should and what it is supposed to feel like now."

BKS Iyengar puts it beautifully in his book Light on Life:

"A great boon of yoga, even for relative beginners, is the happiness it brings, a state of self-reliant contentment. Happiness is good in itself and a basis for progress. An unquiet mind cannot meditate. A happy and serene mind allows us to pursue our quest as well as live with artistry and skill. Does not the American Declaration of Independence talk of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? If a yogi had written that, he would have said Life, Happiness, and the Pursuit of Liberty. Sometimes happiness may bring stagnation, but if freedom comes from disciplined happiness, there is the possibility of true liberation."

Rumi's poem No Room for Form speaks to this sense of infinite freedom: "No room for form / with love this strong" (click past the jump to read the full poem). I have found Varadamudra to be conducive to this serene open feeling; with the right palm raised and facing forward, the left held open, you're expressing courage and compassion, liberation and acceptance.

Have a beautiful, happy Freedom Day.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Keep summer with you

Chase bubbles

Seven Arrows Sunday

I went to Seven Arrows, my friends' beautiful retreat center in Jersey, for Summer Solstice. We sopped up every sweet drop of the longest day on Saturday: Chanting in the sunrise from the dock, stretching in the green grass, eating, savoring, offering, making, burning, loving, sitting by the water under twinkling stars... It was very fine. Then on Sunday, a little stillness. Reflection. Space for whatever wanted to land—just like a butterfly—to land. To be, for a little, then fly away. Longing, melancholy, deep contentment... and just... birdsong.

I picked up my friend's guitar in the yoga studio. The window and doors were wide open onto the grass and trees. My friend lay on the wood floor. I played and hummed whatever came. It felt good.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Go slow

It occurs to me that one rarely hears people saying, "Oh my life is just too simple! I wish it were more complicated!"

This thought came to me as part of the process of readjusting from life in India back to life in New York, and was followed by another one: Slow down. Simplify.

Later that night, I saw a clip on YouTube of Liz Gilbert, talking about how she assimilated what she'd learned at the ashram she'd visited, which had partly inspired her book Eat, Pray, Love. Here's what she said:

"It's like protecting this little match that I lit in India, and I feel like my job now is to cup my hand around it and make sure that the shearing winds of capitalism and industrialism and competition don't blow it out. And that involves moving slower. Saying no. Rejecting some of the aspirations that I might otherwise have had. Being content with what you already have is an art form that leads to a peace that can't be replaced by anything else."

Simplify. Slow down.

So I decided to practice the first sequence I ever taught. Nice and slow and simple. Make room for learning and light.

Warm ups, Surya Namaskar. High lunge/Vira 2 flow, Trikonasana. Prasaritta Padotanasana. Vrksasana with hands in prayer, focus on Shushuna Nadi. Setubhandasana. Supine twist. Badakonasana. Savasana.

I went to India

I went to India. To see my friends, and my teacher, and myself.

I'd been warned about going to India in May. That it would be too hot and too wet. The people at the ashram suggested August would be more pleasant, and I was far more likely to be able to spend time with my teacher. Even when I got to the ashram, one devotee cheerfully told me, "Oh, you've come at the wrong time!"

I had "low" expectations for my visit—in that I just didn't know what I was going to get. And what actually ended up unfolding was so joyful and full and perfect. A wedding in Bombay with the dearest new friends imaginable; in Kerala, my teacher singing and giving darshan and giving out masala dosas; after that, being drizzled in warm milk at an Ayurvedic center in green palm paradise. Huge opportunity for reflection, and gentle dismantling, softening, and re-wrapping of the self.

It was as if having a blank slate makes room for surprise.

While I was at the ashram, I saw a sign on the wall in the Indian accommodation office, quoting my teacher; it talked about expectation making beggars of us. It took me some time to digest this. It seems to me that expectation is so often about wanting—we want (or don't want) something so badly that we'll do anything for it.

I felt very open and curious in India. What was interesting to me is that the expectations started happening when I got home. With work, and people I wanted to see, the things I'd been longing for while away, the habits that had been humming along...

Expectations around the unknown—around travel, adventure and discovery are one thing. But expectations where you already have a lot of related experiences, narratives and patterns can be harder to manage. So I've been trying to make space for life here to bloom and be what it is, just like in India. And I'm practicing this on the mat. Letting the experience and the poses be new, and letting sitting be now. Giving myself the luxury of being present.

This joyful sequence is designed to open the heart and quiet the mind.

Shivananda sun salutations. Surya Namaskar A, B. Utkatasana twist, lunge twist. Vira 2/high prayer flow. Trikonasana, Parsvokonasna. Ekapadarajakapotasana, starting with leg bind/chest open, then fold. Salabasana, Dhanurasana. Sphinx, Bhujangasana. Frog. Restorative sphinx. Forearm plank/dog flow. Sirsasana. Ustrasana. Reclined twist. Happy baby. Paschimotanasana. Suptabadakonasana. Savasana.

On not knowing

Notes from class in March...

I graduated! Having been so excited. Such a joyful day, after a year of training. I was overwhelmed by bedtime, then the next day felt strange and a bit teary. It took me a full 24 hours to realise I was really sad at this chapter of my life rounding itself up. Of course!

If we expect to feel something, we can get a bit off-center when something else shows up. It's the same with our fantasies of daily life—we set ourselves up for one thing, and get another. It doesn't always have to be this way.

Atha Yoga Nusasanam
-Yoga Sutras, 1, 1

Meaning, Now, Yoga happens. Union is now. Now is Union. Atha.

When we practice asana on the mat—atha, now—we give ourselves little chances to notice and not expect, to see and experience and not judge—or at least notice ourselves doing it, when we do it. As we will.

"Every thought, every feeling, every sensation or action is enlightenment; but we do not realise it... We are never separated from it. There is no need to look for enlightenment in any other place than where we are. It is there, unrecognized, in every moment."
-Spectrum of Ecstasy, Ngalpa Chogyam.

Super-simple sequence, working towards shoulderstand:

Seated meditation, neck warmups, Uttanasana, Surya Namaskar. High lunge with Garudasana arms to widen through scapula. Vira 2 to Trikonasana. Prasarrita Padotanasana with fingers interlaced to open hams and chest, bringing shoulderblades together. Setubhandasana to open chest and shoulders. Supine twist. Apanasana. Sarvangasana. Halasana. Restorative Matsyasana. Savasana.

Letting go

500 Hour Advanced Yoga Teacher Training thesis
March, 2014

To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Oh, what it is to cling! How familiar we are with the mechanics of seeking, desiring, and holding on for dear life to a person, a quality, a plan or a dream that may be complete fantasy—and yet how difficult it can be to keep ourselves from repeating the same patterns again and again in our daily life.

Clinging is a huge part of most humans’ life experience. Our tendency to clutch is commonplace—expected, even. The feelings we associate with unsatisfied wanting are the basis for so much literature, so many poems and pop songs; the motivation for political decisions, the source of familial divisions.

And let’s be clear before we go any further, there is a difference between longing and clinging. Longing is a deep throbbing of the heart for something huger than itself; longing has a musical quality. Ancient religious texts hum and sing with longing. It has a resonant, sweet tone, even when tinged with sadness.

Clinging, in its various forms, tends to feel uncomfortable. Try physically gripping on to anything for an extended period of time—the cuff of your sweater, whatever is next to your hand right now—and you quickly see its exhausting, enervating effects. And even more uncomfortable than clinging is letting go of that clinging. Letting go of a known fantasy of your own devising in favor of an unknown reality can be tough. Few of us are well equipped to deal with this. But the good news is that letting go is something that we can address with actual, tangible tools: with tried and tested techniques, as well as compassion and intelligence.

We’ll explore of the dynamics of attachment—how we do it, how it manifests physically and emotionally, and how we might begin to let go—through the lens of Yoga and Ayurveda, and then later from a Buddhist perspective.

Like so many of us, I have wrestled with grasping and the ability (or lack thereof) to let go. Raised in a loving family which fell apart when I was a child, I longed for security and developed a habit of anxious holding-on. It’s taken a committed yoga practice, therapy, and the blessing of some colorful close relationships to begin to see attachment for what it is, and see letting go as a really great option—rather than a loss. I am so happy to be able to share what I have learned, in the hope that we might all be spared a little heart wringing, and that we may instead uncover some ease and steadiness with which to welcome in joy.

And Paradise does come
Paradise comes like a breeze and like a breeze
drifts elsewhere than where we are at the time
and we have no way of following the wind
to the world’s end.
—Gavin Bantock, Joy

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Extending and expanding from the center

At the weekend, I went on a retreat on a small farm in the country. The house is on a river, surrounded by trees, and it looked very beautiful in the snow, nature at its quietest. The retreat focussed on going back to basics; we learnt how to milk the goats, and then we drank the milk and made cheese; we watched yarn being spun, and we learnt to knit; we made soap to wash with, and ghee to cook with. We did these things together and with a sense of wonder. I found first-hand that seeing the origins of things can be the most simple and, at the same time, the most miraculous thing—and this in turn took me back to my own center.

This journey of curious looking, going from inner to outer and back again, put me in mind of Mr. Iyengar’s book, Light on Life—specifically Chapter 2, Stability: The Physical Body (Asana). This great yoga master begins the chapter talking about physical awareness in our yoga practice and the way in which “every pore of the skin has to become an eye”—the way we see and comprehend physically. He goes on to talk about what he calls dynamic extension. He says, “Extension is attention, and expansion is awareness,” which sounds simple but takes a bit of thinking. He says, “Extension and expansion always stay rooted firmly in one’s center. They originate in the core of one’s being.” Then he gives a lovely example: “When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are. When you extend and expand, you are not only stretching to, you are also stretching from.” I suggest you try following his next instruction, now: “Try holding out your arm at your side and stretch it. Did your whole chest move with it? Now try to stay centered and extend out your arm to your fingertips. Did you notice the difference?” 

“Overstretching occurs when one loses contact with one’s center, one’s divine core,” says Mr. Iyengar, in a truism that works equally well both on and off the mat. “Instead, the ego wants simply to stretch further, to reach the floor, regardless of its ability, rather than extending gradually from the center.” In other words, we want to get there! We want to get there so badly that we quite lose focus on where we actually are, right now, maybe even disowning our current self, which is so far from where we’ve decided we need to be. Instead, I invite you today to meet yourself where you are—and take it from there.

“Each movement must be an art,” advises Mr. Iyengar. “It is an art in which the Self is the only spectator. Keep your attention internal, not external, not worrying on what others see, but what the Self sees.” So what will you see today? It’s exciting when you look at it that way. You get to start right where you are, somewhere you’ve never been before, and use fresh information to see where you extend and expand to—with this deep knowledge and love for where you’re coming from.

[Class sequence includes careful slowed-down sun salutations and lunge twists with attention on each extremity; standing side-stretch; Warrior 1 with the kind of alignment that brings the pose alive so you can feel the energy moving up; Warrior 2, shoulders over hips, strong awareness of center and Shushuna Nadi central channel, and from there extending the arms and opening the chest; Parsvokonasana, grounding down to reach up and full stretch; Trikonasana; Salabhasana, working on lengthening and expanding from the core and shooting energy back through feet and crown; Dhanurasana; supine twist; Janu Sirsasana, attention to rooting and sending the heart forward, reaching through head, forward through big toe, back through little toe, refining awareness); opening the hip and reaching back to find space (“stargazer”), then reaching forward for Parvritta Janu Sirsasana, noticing the difference energetically between just grabbing the foot, or instead lifting and reaching up and revolving the torso—referring back to Mr. Iyengar; Badakonasana; Savasana.]

Lying on one side after Savasana, we can think of those things we’re grateful for, and let that hum up and down the central channel and spine.

Coming to sit, we may notice spaciousness in the body and mind. In stretching from the core, we notice that we are vast; the small self becomes tiny, and then yoga, “union”, can happen.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

New ways to be new in the new year

[From a talk given the day after Blue Monday, and in the middle of the Polar Vortex]

Yesterday I heard about "Blue Monday", the officially recognized Worst Day of the year—a day when depression hits, divorce statistics peak, and everyone supposedly feels thoroughly miserable. The jollity and, to some extent, the anxiety that's kept us ticking along over the holidays screeches or sputters to a halt and we find ourselves sad and snappy.

It's also at this time of year that we can be most stern about our new year's resolutions. We will go running every day/give up caffeine/go on a diet. So, this morning I'd like to talk about self care in wintertime.

It's so cold right now. And when we get home on a freezing night, we don't go and stand by the fridge—we snuggle up somewhere nice and warm. Your organs want to do the same! Now is the time to eat warm, nourishing foods and steer away from anything icy. Both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda tell us that root vegetables will give a feeling of being earthed, grounded (rooted!). By roasting food, you get a warm, slow release of flavor.

Notice this slowness. Things are slower in winter (try doing a cartwheel in McCarren Park today). It's harder to move—through the snow, and our 20 different layers of clothing, and the fact that we simply feel less energetic.

Raw foods are harder to digest. Now is not the time for salads. Eating cold, uncooked food you run the risk of stressing and depleting your kidneys.

What your body needs right now is rest. In TCM, winter is a Yin season; it's slow, quiet, reflective. It's a time to plant seeds, not crack the whip. Tune in to the longer nights. Recharge. Let the winter be the seasonal equivalent of having an early night. Know that there's plenty of time for wildness in the spring and summer, and you'll have an even greater appetite for it—not to mention capacity to go for it—if you're properly rested and healthy.

New year's resolutions are a lovely idea, but they can turn into ways to be mean to yourself; to self-shame and criticize.

Yoga teaches us ahimsa, non-violence—which can be understood as non-violence to the self. Notice when you're tempted to be mean to yourself as you practice today, and let it pass. And notice ways you can look after yourself today.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us, Sthira sukham asanam. Asana practice is steady and sweet.
There is always a balance to be negotiated between strength and softness; and cold grey days like this one give us a golden opportunity to explore it.