Sunday, 27 December 2015

I woke up




Yesterday morning, after a strange, struggling dream, I woke up and felt like a mess for half a second. And then, completely unprompted, this phrase popped up: There is so much to live for!

Where did it come from? From deep inside. And it was one of those special, rare moments where it feels like a lot of quite diligent practice has come together—into something golden, strong and loving.

I bring this up today not as a means of spiritually showing off, but rather as a support to anyone who is on the path, having a rough time and showing up anyway. In my years of practicing yoga and meditation, this is one of the biggest, clearest lessons I have learnt: show up.

Sometimes it feels like big, exciting things are happening when we practice; we have an epiphany in meditation, a yoga pose stirs up deep emotions that we feel we can safely release. It can be wonderful when those things happen.

Other times it can just be really hard. It might be hard because you’re working through grief, and you feel hopeless to the point of feeling disconnected from the source, from love. Sometimes it’s hard because you’re tired to the point of falling back to sleep in meditation. Or—and this is a big one for me—sometimes it’s hard because it feels like an issue you’ve been working with for so long is still an issue. You feel like, “I’ve tried meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, reiki, and still I feel this difficult thing! Nothing is shifting!”

But you’ve been putting in the time on the mat, on the cushion. And time and again, you’ve been showing up for yourself; believing that there’s something beyond the streams of anxious babble going through your mind, or the emotional loops that keep playing themselves super-loudly right next to your heart—like, “This one! Remember this painful thing? Let’s hear it again!”

One of my favorite teachings is from the great yoga guru Sri Pattabhi Jois. He said, “Do your practice. All is coming.” I do not think of this as some kind of pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. In my experience, I do my practice, and then—often when I least expect it—I realize that something has shifted. Like when I received that message after my dream: There is so much to live for. It wasn’t some glib mental sticky-note; I felt it to be true. And this came after a year of big, real life losses, one after the other—and having felt, at one very low point in the spring, like there really wasn’t much to live for.

And sometimes we don’t have sparkly moments like these. Sometimes we don’t perceive shifts in ourselves until a close friend remarks on how much we’ve grown over the years—how much easier we seem in ourselves.

So, I’m saying: keep going. Keep trying. You are doing great.

The more we look after ourselves, the more we facilitate love and connection with each other. As my friend, the yoga teacher Adriana Rizzolo writes: “You and God take good care of your precious life and heart, and I’ll do the same. That way, when we come together, magic naturally unfolds.”

Friday, 2 October 2015

What a day


Today is the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence, and it’s Gandhi’s birthday. It is also a day on which many Americans are watching and sharing a speech given by President Obama regarding yesterday’s mass shooting in Oregon—the 45th school shooting this year in the United States. He seemed weary, incredulous at points, as he spoke of the country’s gun laws, observing, “Somehow this has become routine.”

Indeed, violence has become routine in our world. I remember walking home one night not so long ago and seeing through a large window on a recently built block of luxury condos: A man was watching TV on a massive flatscreen hung on the wall, and some kind of very loud assault was taking place onscreen, probably on a glitzy police TV series. We, as a society, invite violence into our homes, then wonder why it’s making us unhappy.

We can focus in even more tightly and look at the violence going on in our heads. This year I have been heartened to see a lot of discussion in advertising and on social media around the ways we are casually and relentlessly mean to ourselves, along the lines of, “Would you talk to someone else in the way you talk to yourself?” (Most of us: “Dear God, no!”)

However hard we try to behave nicely and smile, outwardly, through our own distress, doesn’t it follow that when we find ourselves intolerable, we find things in the outside world intolerable, too? This is where a meditation practice can become so valuable—not one which necessitates a fancy silk cushion, scented candles and mood music. Rather, one which involves sitting quietly with yourself, over and over again, and learning to be your own friend, as I discussed in last week’s post on Conscious. It is hard to be our own friend if we don’t know who we actually are, and crank up the outside volume to drown ourselves out.

I was very moved by the Pope’s recent words on the current immigration crisis. In a soft, patient voice, he asked people not to look at the numbers of refugees, but rather at their faces. This is so profound; it is very, very hard, to act without compassion when we’re looking in someone’s eyes. This kind of focus brings us back to earth and to our own humanity.

I have a friend who is a great mum to her lovely four-year old daughter, and when her little girl is getting distracted or overwhelmed, she asks her to look into her eyes while she’s talking. It changes everything.

It seems to me that so much trouble and violence arises from our inability to take a long look at something or someone, however painful and problematic it may seem. Violence can, and has become routine. And while it’s possible to cultivate “good” habits which benefit each other, I think that kindness cannot be routine. It’s a stirring of the heart, in response to truth. In Buddhism, it’s bodhichitta; the tears that instinctively come when you watch one of these news reports on TV, a compassion that comes out of being awake to feeling.

Today is a good day to practice lovingkindness meditation for all (outlined here); and of course, for the great, simple prayer: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu; may all beings be happy and free, and may I in some way contribute to that happiness and freedom.

Monday, 28 September 2015

How to be a friend to yourself


"Hey, you! Meet you!" Your meditation practice can help you make friends with yourself. Here are my thoughts on how this can happen, to coincide with Conscious 2's One Month Meditation Challenge.


One thing I hear often, from those who like the idea of having a meditation practice but feel it might not be for them, is, “But I can’t clear my mind!” They have tried sitting down in a quiet place, hoping to find some peace, and instead they’re overwhelmed by a honking barrage of thoughts—or a trail of anxious inner whispers, or whatever particular inner soundtrack tends to pop up for them.

To which I say, it’s okay. You don’t need to clear your mind to have a good, healthy practice. To me, that’s not what it’s about. In my understanding and experience, it’s about becoming a friend to yourself. It’s about being able to stay with the shouts and yelps and laughs and sighs of your own inner experience; and then integrate that patience and kindness into your whole being, so it starts to come naturally in your day to day life.

To get a little technical, in traditional yogic terms what most of us are doing when we’re sitting on the cushion is practicing dharana, which means "concentration" in Sanskrit. We are bringing our mind to a single point, like the breath or a mantra. Only once we’ve merged our consciousness with the object of our concentration are we in actual meditation, dhyana, which takes us to a fully awakened yogic state, samadhi—bliss.

As nice as it sounds, very few of us are going to be able to magically be whisked off to samadhi just like that, and it takes a lot of dedicated practice to even come close to softening into dhyana. The advertising images we see of attractive young women sitting on beaches in lotus pose suggest otherwise, though, which is where I think the mind-clearing myth comes from. The mind absolutely can be clear—is clear, when we let it be. But trying to stop our thoughts from coming is about as effective as trying to push rain back up into a cloud; it’s the way that we relate to these thoughts and feelings that lets the storm pass.

Concentration can sound like a hard, strict word—but it’s totally your ally in your meditation practice. Concentration when we’re sitting is simply about bringing your awareness to a single point, like the breath. The Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Saltzberg talks about “resting your awareness on the breath.” I love this idea of resting our awareness, because it does away with that flinty, unyielding notion of concentration (“Do it this way, or else!”).

So, you rest your awareness on your breath. And your thoughts will come, and your awareness will wander off your breath and want to follow your thoughts. The key is just to notice when this happens, and bring your attention back to your breath. Then you might start to observe how you’re bringing your attention back. Are you berating yourself? Telling yourself you’re stupid, or that this is a ridiculous idea, or it’ll never work? Are you neutral? Disinterested? Or maybe you’re really gentle about it.

For me, the absolute jewel of my years of meditation practice has been to discover that I can bring my awareness back to the breath with kindness, patience and compassion. “Let’s come on back now.” “There we go.” “Ah.” “How about now? What’s actually happening now?”

Over time, and in increments as tiny as the speed at which hair grows, I have become less impatient and frustrated with myself. I have become softer, and at the same time more courageous and strong, because I haven’t shooed away hard thoughts quite so much. I am more able to sit with who I am, most of the time. And this has moved into my everyday life. I have begun to see that I can be kind to myself anywhere.

I will say that it’s 100% an ongoing process. I still make myself squirm often. I still have a tendency to fan the flames of anxiety, get stuck in sad, doom-y thought patterns, or go off on a skip down daydream lane. But I catch myself more often, and more gently these days.

In the end, whichever tradition you’re approaching a meditation practice from, my feeling is that it really just comes down to love. When we quiet down and stop running our internal monologues, we get to hear and see the world in such a deep way; that’s when I start to feel a current of quiet joy running through me, and the sense dawns that maybe, yes, love really is our true nature.



And love

Says,


“I will, I will take care of you”


To everything that is

Near.


—Hafiz

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Honoring BKS Iyengar



A year ago today, the great yoga teacher BKS Iyengar died. He was such a light. Here is what I wrote in his honor in 2014.

Understanding the Prayer



Understanding takes its own sweet time, and it's an ongoing process. I had a profound moment, while wearing a hairnet and singing along to the Beatles. Here is what happened.

Summer and the happy habit



Beautiful, beautiful August! Such a good time to get into the habit of exercising our gratitude muscles. Here is my piece for Conscious this week.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A special day for teachers


Today is a special day in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist calendar: it’s Guru Purnima, a holiday where people can celebrate their teachers. For this reason, I think it’s a beautiful holiday for everyone, regardless of faith—though certainly faith comes into our relationship with any teacher in our lives, whether it’s listening to an insight or gesture when it’s given, or finding the space to understand it afterwards.

Perhaps you have someone whom you regard as a spiritual teacher? A guru, monk or humanitarian figure whose words and way of life you follow? Or maybe it’s someone in a classroom or a driving lesson whose words go beyond simply making sense and somehow become inspiring?

There is a beautiful lineage in yoga that the yoga teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti talks about in her book, An Offering of Leaves. She talks about how sometimes in a class, our teacher will physically touch us in a way that feels helpful, saying, that teacher, too, was touched by their teacher in just such a way, and their teacher before them. “When the teacher is talking about kindness and you feel nourished by their words, something inside of you is stirred and something that was sleeping awakens. This is because that teacher also had a teacher who spoke about kindness and woke them up.”

It makes me think of the image of buckets of water being passed down a line, and it strikes me that good teaching can work in our lives like this. Many pairs of hands have brought me to this point in my life; many good people have given me tools to dig myself out of holes or build safer ladders to the stars; many people have held me physically and emotionally. On a day like Guru Purnima, it’s nice to take a moment to think of all the people in your life whose teachings have lifted you and supported you.

For me, I’m thinking of my spiritual teacher Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma), and of my wonderful granny dressed in her white cardigan and sitting in her favorite chair; I liked sitting at her feet like that even when I was a grown up. I think of my incredibly patient driving instructor, Mo, who only lost it once, the day before my test when I was driving abysmally: “Love! What’s happening! You’re cracking up!” Family, friends, so many hands...

The word guru has its roots in the syllables “gu” meaning darkness and “ru” meaning light, conveying a sense of the darkness of ignorance being dispelled by light. Some friends and I had a discussion about the nature of a guru. One said, “the guru is in your heart,” then another said, “the guru is your heart.”

The guru is your heart. Happy Guru Purnima.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

What does it mean?


We so rarely know the true nature of any one event when it happens. Two big things happened in the same day that reminded me of this. You can read the full article for Conscious right here.

A mat that teaches you?

I laughed and sighed when I watched a promo video for a mat which purports to help you "find calm and inner peace." More thoughts on yoga gimmicks here.

How to be a race car driver

From a conversation I had with my dad at Heathrow airport, on how driving a Formula 1 car around the race track at Silverstone can be like our yoga practice and spiritual life. Yes! You can read the article here.

The meditation of the birds

This is one of my favorite practices for the mornings, and it can be indescribably lovely in the summer. Read the full piece for Conscious here.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Show your rough work


This felt like an important piece for me to write—on art and shyness. You can read it here. I've had some very positive feedback from women friends who have encountered the same issues in their creative lives which made me wonder how much of a women's issue this is? I am very interested to hear from men who have experienced this too!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Saying yes to the heat


My latest post is about saying yes to the heat, even if it involves a burly Russian masseuse thwacking you with oak branches. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

night roses


Get your nose in the roses. They smell so good at night, in the dark and the just-rained rain.

Rain


Walking in the rain when you're not trying to get out of the rain is so nice.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Working together, working alone


This latest piece for Conscious is about partner work and finding your own muscles—on and off the mat. You can read it here.

Feeling the feelings


This one is about the rasas, the purest states of emotion; the philosopher Abhinavagupta describes rasa as “the self tasting the self.” You can read the full piece here.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Spring, and how we see


Spring is such a visual feast, and can also be a time of vulnerability for your eyes, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Here are some practices you may find helpful, plus choice words from Cezanne and Thich Nhat Hanh.

The Magic Tree


Spring! Season of rising sap, life-force moving up and outI talk about my favorite methods of getting aligned with the season here. Includes twisting, stretching the inner leg-line and hugging trees.

Kahlil at the deli


“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.”

How we find our way to our food is important. Thoughts for Conscious 2, here.

Wriggling out




We all have Houdini tendencies when we're faced with discomfort. Here's how I work with my inner escape artist. Full article here, and below.

I meditate every morning, vipasana-style, for twenty minutes. How do I know it’s twenty minutes? Because I use a meditation app on my iPhone which opens and closes the session with the sound of a singing bowl. Having a set period of time for my sitting practice is useful because it means I leave the house for work on time (usually, anyway…) and because I find I can get more deeply into the practice if I’m not “deciding” on when to come out of it; we don’t “decide” on the timings of most of what happens in our day-to-day lives, so we may as well get some practice in on the cushion.

But here’s the thing. About two-thirds of the way through sitting, I often think: “But what if my iPhone has run out of batteries and switched itself off without my knowing and I will be left sitting here FOREVER?” Then there is usually the thought, “It’s probably fine. Just hang in there a while and relax.” “But seriously, what if?” And this goes on for some time. Sometimes, in the past, I’d decide I was as good as “done” (as if I were a soufflé rising) so I’d close my practice, and then check my phone—only to find there were about 53 seconds left on the timer.

The iPhone story my mind tries to tell me is basically an amazingwriggling-out device; it means I can wriggle out of discomfort at my own volition. Right foot going to sleep? Weird pain in my hip? Incessant repeating of a particular line of thought in my mind? Impatient? No problem! Let’s just wriggle on out via a handy escape route.

The point of this practice though, at least for me, is to get comfortable with my own discomfort. To see it, feel it and know it—and stay with it. Because there is, ultimately, no escape from discomfort. We go from one thing to the next, generally speaking. And there’s a positive side to this, too, as articulated perfectly in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke; in Go to the Limits of Your Longing, he writes, “No feeling is final.” This, to me, gets to the very core of meditation practice. You’ve surely heard the analogy that our thoughts are like clouds, moving across the sky; occasionally obscuring the sun, but always passing on by.

To me, this line, “no feeling is final” has all life in it. The relief and balm of knowing that it’s okay if you’re in pain, it will pass. And the heartbreaking tenderness of knowing that feelings of joy pass, too.

In vipasana meditation, we bring a light attention to the breath while we sit, and when the thoughts come—as they do—we recognize them, maybe acknowledge them as “thinking”, and return to the breath. Here they come, here they go.

Most of us have wriggling out tendencies in our physical yoga practice, too. It might be obvious, like taking a bathroom break if a pose you don’t like comes up in class. Or maybe it’s a bit more subtle. A particular favorite of mine is in Warrior 2 pose where I’ll straighten my front leg because I’m feeling discomfort in holding the pose. Because I have an established practice it can be quite a subtle kind of wriggling: “I know my body, I’m just working with it.” But when I do this, it means that I don’t get to watch my mind struggling, and realize that my body is actually fine.

I’m wondering if you, too, are a fellow wriggler-out-er? And if so, where and when you catch yourself doing this?

Moving away from what we dislike, and towards what we like are such fundamental aspects of most of our daily lives. Aversion and attraction keep us permanently running from pillar to post, seeking the thing which will make us happy, or stop us from being unhappy. We dash about, and life keeps happening; hard things keep happening and beautiful things keep happening and maddening things keep happening and gladdening things keep happening. The question is, do we want to be on the run all the time?

When I first started practicing yoga, I remember hearing a teacher use the word “equanimity” as something we could work towards. And part of me thought, “That sounds boring. Why would I just want to feel ‘meh’ about everything?”

But my understanding of equanimity now has changed. To me, it’s more about finding a steady place from which to fully experience our aliveness. To stop trying to run away, and instead feel my joy and sorrow and touch my emotions and thoughts; to live, really.

Like I said earlier, I am a pretty adept escape artist. I think we all have our Houdini tendencies that we’ve honed over the years. But the same fluidity that finds ways of moving out of and around things also helps me step back sometimes and see what I’m doing (and often have a quiet laugh to myself about it).

Real, deep discovery about ourselves and what we’re capable of is so often found in the most uncomfortable places—as I have absolutely learned in the many shades of discomfort I’ve felt in yoga and meditation. I don’t have to like it, but I don’t have to dislike it either. No feeling is final. Okay. That’s something I can work with. After all, when I do manage to stop trying to escape, that’s usually when I really arrive.

Three gems


Spiritual Post-Its, via dear friends

Sometimes it can be really easy to forget what you already know. I was reminded of this over the weekend, spending an evening with three dear friends: Seth, Graciela and Marissa. All three are yoga teachers, and I was struck by how easy life feels in the company of people who you feel are on the same path as you. It feels safe. I remember my granny telling me, years ago, that she’d gone to a party where all the guests were psychotherapists, and saying, “I’ve never been to such an easy party in my life!”  Meaning, people had shed enough layers that there wasn’t so much anxiety around trying to prove anything.

So we were sharing the various things going on in our lives—the adventures, the feelings, the trials and tribs, the usual. And I spoke about a particular tangle I’d got myself into—my mind was trying to deal with a thorny-seeming problem that kept going round and round in my head. We talked it through, and by the end of the night, each friend had revealed a beautiful, shining gem of wisdom. As we were winding things up, my friend Marissa said, “I know you already know these things. We all go through times in our lives where we get so overwhelmed in a particular situation that it’s like we forget what we’ve learned.”
So, if you have found yourself in a pickle lately, I want to offer you theirthree excellent pieces of advice—like spiritual post-its—which maybe you, too, already know and have temporarily forgotten.
1. Do away with the third layerMy friend Seth did a simple analysis of the semi-torturous layers of thinking that we often have in response to an emotion. We broke this down into three main components. The first is the actual emotion—the nitty gritty, if you like. The second is the thinking response to that emotion: “Oh no, I am sad” (or, “Hooray, I’m happy!”). And the third is the opinion we have about that thought: “I am ashamed that I am sad” or “I am relieved that I’m happy”—which can spiral off into a further nine zillion layers if we let it: “I am a bad yogi. I have failed somehow…” “Thank God I’m happy, now I can start fantasizing about the rest of my life….” And so it goes. If we’re working with what’s going on inside us, we need to get past the chatter, or at least notice the layers.
2. Get right into the very moment in the simplest possible wayMy friend Graciela pointed out that what we fear is going to happen—or what we wish hadn’t happened, or what we wish would happen—is not happening to you right now. Right now, you are reading at your computer. Later you will be making a cup of tea, or walking down the street, and you will be alive in the world as you do these things. Any time you feel overwhelmed, just come back—to the simplest part of what’s going on. The walking, the breathing, the hearing. While walking home recently, my whirring thoughts were interrupted, like a newsflash, by a flash of actual reasonable insight which said: “When you are thinking these thoughts, you are not in the real world of your life. Any moment you spend on these thoughts is a moment you are not spending actually living”. I say this without judgement—daydreaming can be a wonderful thing. But I think it can be important to recognize what it is you’re actually doing, and to do it as a decision.
3. Healing treatments are not magic solutionsWhen we’re feeling distressed, we might wish that someone would just wave a magic wand and make everything okay (I have definitely found myself wishing this were possible from time to time). But no-one can do your inner work for you. Marissa said that treatments like Reiki and bodywork do their amazing work of relaxing you and returning you to a quiet space, where you are then able to feel what you need to feel or be open to whatever insights may arise, and where you have the tools to support this work.
We all get in a tangle from time to time and forget some of the precious things we thought we’d learned. That’s why it’s so important that we hold the wisdom and kindness for each other, to be shared right when we need it. This is a part of Sangha, the Buddhist idea of true community—which is itself one of the three jewels that practitioners take refuge in. Precious indeed.

Sunrise


Precious.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Take your seat


This is one of my favorite photographs. It was taken near the end of my trip to India last year, looking out over the sea in Kerala. My friend Sri had taken me boating on a lake of lotuses on his birthday, and then to an open air temple, for the deity Murugan. We sat on a huge rock overlooking the temple and the sea. The rock was warm from the day's sun, and the sun was now setting. I saw a Sadhu walking around the temple and heard him chanting, "Soham, Shivoham" ("I am that, I am Shiva, pure"). He climbed up the rock and sat near us, and started to practice kapalabhati pranayama ("skull-shining" breath). I felt, in a childlike way, "Wow, this is real—people do really practice yoga in this way I've been taught back in America". I felt touched to my soul, honestly. I closed my eyes, because. And then... it was like I let go of everything, except that there was no conscious letting go. I did not want anything. Everything was... here.

I don't know how long I sat there like that for, probably just a few moments. But it is an experience that I am profoundly grateful for; to have touched a moment of peace like that, even for just a second. And I find, to my massive relief, that I don't need to be in India in a beautiful sunset to touch these moments, even in a tiny way. I practiced yoga asana in the spring sun outside at the weekend for the first time since the winter came, having brought with it so much sorrow. It felt wonderful to be moving outside. As I sat quietly at the end I saw the shadow of daffodils on the patio as the sunlight shone on them, through them. I had a sense of, "I cannot deny this beauty any more than I can deny the singing joy in my soul to see this; and I do not want to!" It was lovely.

So, suffice to say... I wrote recently about the art of finding one's seat (you can think of it as an art or a habit or maybe both). The piece is about finding your seat when you're sitting down or standing on your head and even in everyday life. You can read it, here. I hope you like it.

Letting it be

“How much can it be about letting go and not trying to have a particular experience?”

My friend Seth asked this question in his yoga class, and it struck a chord. Here my piece for Conscious 2, about what it means to me.

Transformation

“You can pick all the flowers but you can’t stop the spring.”—Pablo Neruda

I wrote about the great mystery of transformation in this post for Conscious 2. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

There is no finishing line

Tonight I went to a discussion at the Rubin Museum between Sonali Deraniyagala and George A. Bonanno, entitled Grief and Gratitude.

Sonali lost her two children, husband and parents in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. She said that for about two years after that she barely moved, and was on suicide watch. (She remembers being in the bathroom and a friend outside asking, Are you done now?)

Tonight she was bright and able to laugh; she was clear and warm and generous and real.

She wrote about her experiences in her book, Wave, in 2013, and she discussed her grieving process with George, a psychologist who writes about grief in his book, The Other Side of Sadness. He remarked on her resilience. And she said, very gently, "There's no finishing line." Meaning, you don't just go from being shattered to moving through the grief to being fine. “You need to keep fluid,” she said. “There needs to be some freedom to grieve and some freedom to feel.”

I found tremendous comfort and relief in this idea; that there is no finishing line, no point at which we will be judged or win the prize; we don’t have to achieve a certain thing at a certain time. It seems to me to be a spacious way to exist.

Sonali talked about the decisions she’d made over the years—the fact that she hadn’t moved back to her home city, London, for four years after the disaster, because she hadn’t been ready to go home. She said it was right for her at that time. It was just what she felt she needed to do. George said, We know more than we think we do.

I was very glad to have heard what they shared.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

A note on strength


Here is my latest piece for Conscious 2. It's about what it means to be strong. I really loved writing it. I hope you like reading it.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Flowers


We all need flowers.

Groaning season


Here is my piece for Conscious 2 on groaning season. It is about the kidneys in Traditional Chinese Medicine, how to look after them at this sensitive time of year, and how groaning can be good for you.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

...And that



So hum means I am that.
सो ऽहम्

There's a meditation practice around this mantra described on Yoga Journal, here. You might like it.

Like that


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Seeing things


Sometimes different things become visible in winter. Like the vapor billowing out of chimneys, making shadows on the walls in bright sunshine. It is a good, still time to take note of these things, I think. And just watch.

Getting free


My latest piece for Conscious 2 is about finding freedom. It is inspired by my five-year old niece (herself inspired by Princess Elsa). You can read it here.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Happy new moon


A holiday for your heart

My latest post for Conscious2 is right here. It is about looking after your lovely heart.

===

A holiday for your heart

Here is what I vote: I vote we make Valentine’s Day a holiday for your heart. And by that, I mean let’s give your heart the sweetest, tenderest care we can. Let’s see if we can give ourselves the day off from worrying and doing all the things we think we should, or feeling the ways we imagine we should. Instead, how about we have a restful time, full of gentleness and lovely things? Mmhm. I think that sounds nice. If you do, too, I have assembled a care package that you can give your heart—or offer someone you love, for theirs. I have found each of these things to be supremely helpful and healing in their own special ways, and I am happy to share them with you. Here they are. 

Hawthorn Tea
Having a cup of tea can be one of life’s simplest and most soothing experiences, in and of itself, and Hawthorn tea is especially good for your heart. Made from hawthorn berries, this tea is a very old healing remedy which is said to improve cardiovascular function and ease hypotension, as well as reduce cholesterol and ease tension in the chest.
You could follow Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to let your tea-making be a meditative experience, where you’re really contemplating what’s actually going on in your cup; you see that the water used to be a cloud, and that same cloud was once the sea… and maybe through this, you feel your perception of yourself as limited to just your body shift a little, as your consciousness melts into something far larger. That would be quite a cup of tea.

Ganesh mudra
Making mudras is like doing yoga with your fingers; a mudra is a special way of holding the hands to stimulate the flow of prana (life force) through the body’s energetic channels, just as you would in a physical asana practice, only here you’re sitting still and noticing a very subtle rebalancing of the body and mind. My favorite mudra for the heart is the Ganesh mudra, as outlined in Gertrude Hersch’s excellent book, Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands. This is a heart-strengthening mudra, and it’s a great way to start the day if you’re feeling vulnerable or wobbly; it’s good for heartache and times when you’re feeling like your confidence could do with a boost. In Hinduism, Ganesh is the deity associated with removing obstacles along yourpath, and a positive, full-blooded energy. Here’s how you do Ganesh mudra:
Start by holding your left hand in front of your chest at heart-level, palm facing outwards, fingers bent. Grab hold of your left hand with your right, with the back ofyour right hand facing outwards. As you exhale, draw your hands apart without letting go of the grip. This engages the muscles in your chest and upper arms. As you inhale, release the tension. Do this six times, and then gently place both hands on your heart for a moment or two. Then you’ll repeat this six times on the other side, so your right palm is now facing outwards. Take time to sit quietly afterwards.

Stones
I consider stones to be a big part of my healing practice. Sometimes I use them in an active way, placing them on the body during restorative poses, and other times I just like to have them in my pocket as I go about my day. Each type of crystal is thought to have its own energetic vibration, and this can have a harmonizing effect on the body.
The very loveliest stone for the heart is rose quartz. You can tell by the color—rose quartz is a beautiful, opaque pink stone and feels soothing just to look at. And its effect on the heart is equally soft. It is a gentle stone. Place it on your heart as you lay down and breathe deeply, lengthening your exhale (this calms the nervous system). If your mind is bouncing around, place a nice piece of amethyst slightly above and between your eyebrows. To support a grounded, rooted feeling of love and wellbeing in your body, place carnelian about a hand’s width below the belly button. See if you can let go of any gripping you feel in any of your muscles, however tiny, and release anything that’s weighing you down. Pink tourmaline is considered a “super activator” (!) of the heart chakra, encouraging compassion and also gentleness during times of personal growth; try keeping a piece on your nightstand and see how that feels.

Essential oils
Essential oils are extracted from plants according to traditional healing wisdom. To support serenity in your heart, I recommend Geranium, Sandlewood, Neroli, Ylang Ylang and Rose oils. Try dabbing a tiny drop directly on your sternum, or popping a few drops in a diffuser.

Lovingkindness meditation
Lovingkindness meditation is like meditation in a hug form. That’s not to say it’s easy, exactly. But the peacefulness it instills in your heart can be profound. Lovingkindness meditation in its full form is usually practiced with a number of different people in mind; a teacher or loved one, someone who is suffering, someone you don’t know well, someone you have difficulty with, and then all beings. The particular variation I’d like to recommend here can be found in Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful book, Love, and he recommends you begin by practicing it just with yourself, for as long as many days or weeks or months as you need, before you go anywhere else with it; coming home to yourself before you go anywhere is always a good call. Sitting in a comfortable meditation posture, you gently say these phrases to yourself, letting their meaning arrive in its own way:

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving and delusion in myself.
I like to add in at the end, May I meet myself where I am.
The key to all the practices I’ve mentioned is to offer them to yourself wherever you are, and however you’re feeling. You don’t need to be a “good yogi” to feel their benefits, or in terrible emotional or physical trouble to really “need” them. They are just there for you. And the more well and full and happy we are feeling in ourselves, the more we can be there for others, to offer our love and support. Happy Heart Day.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Winter and stillness


I have started writing for the health and spirituality site Conscious 2. You can read my first piece below. It is about what happened when the river froze over.

Winter and stillness

My favorite of the ancient yoga sutras is this one: Atha yoga nusasanam. You can translate it from the Sanskrit as, “Now, yoga happens”. It’s among the opening verses in Master Patanjali’s collected insights on yoga, and you could take it to mean, “Okay, sit down, we’re going to talk about yoga now.” And you could hear it on a deeper level, too. Yoga means union, and it’s used to describe the state in which we realise life’s deepest truth: that we are all connected, and everything is divine. And where does this truth reside? In the now, in the miracle of this present moment. When we practice asana, the physical aspect of yoga, or meditation, we are practicing bringing our minds back to the breath, back to movement, back to one single point – again and again, and with kindness.

But what if you'd rather do anything than be present? Than accept reality? This is something I've been working with for the past month or so. A very beloved friend of mine died suddenly, and around the same time a cherished relationship came apart. The present has felt incredibly painful at times, and the very idea of accepting reality can be frightening.

I went to stay with a friend who runs a beautiful retreat center in the countryside at the weekend, to try to find some peace. I have been visiting this same place for some years now, and have seen it in every season, just as it has seen me in all my heart seasons. But I had never before seen the river frozen. Utterly still, and glistening in the sunlight. I couldn’t quite believe it. Every time I’d see the river out of the corner of my eye, its stillness made it seem like the world had been paused. And there was a strange relief in that.

Usually, it’s when the river flows that I feel a relaxing – via the knowledge that all things are constantly moving and changing and nature is carrying things along just as it needs to. But this time, the river just said, “Stop. Be still. There is nothing you can do. Nothing to be done. How about breathing into the pause? How about relaxing and not trying to figure anything out, or solve anything, or be somewhere else? How about now? What does now really feel like?”

I recently came across a beautiful piece of writing by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, on stillness. He wrote,

“If it were possible for us to see further than our knowledge extends and out a little over the outworks of our surmising, perhaps we should then bear our sorrows with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new, something unknown, has entered into us; our feelings grow dumb with shy confusion, everything in us retires, a stillness supervenes, and the new thing that no-one knows stands silent there in the middle.”

This strikes me as an expansive and generous way of looking at uncertainty; of bearing the experience of not knowing and feeling like nothing makes sense. It reads as a reminder that you don’t have to try to pick apart the source of your sorrow, or push to make sense of it to the point of exhaustion and despair. I don't think you can neaten up the uncertain and the unknowable, and tie a bow around it all.

From a holistic point of view, winter can be supportive to this state of not knowing, whether you’re grieving or in a happy place, or somewhere in-between. We all begin the year not knowing, just as we begin every day not knowing. Winter shows us how to be still, with its frozen rivers and sleeping creatures and hidden seeds, dreaming germination in the dark.

We know, in winter, that movement will happen in due course, that the river will flow again, sap will rise and green shoots will appear; the seasons are the most beautiful, poetic and sure reminder of life’s capacity for rebirth, to those of us feeling desperate, lonely and bereft.

This is a quiet time, a space to let feelings move as they may, and listen. I cannot recommend highly enough that you support yourself as lovingly as possible while you do this. Yoga is a listening system, as is its sister science, Ayurveda. To practice either in a way that is nourishing and effective, you need to listen to your body, heart and mind: Which bones are creaking? Which muscles are sighing “Yes”? What does this food say when it meets my belly?

Restorative yoga will help you attune to the season’s innate encouragements to find some gentle time. Taking suptabadakonasana (reclined bound angle pose) will relax your body in a profound way. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is associated with the kidneys, which are in turn associated with fear and anxiety when there’s an imbalance in the body. This pose opens up the kidney meridians, which run along the inner legline to get chi (energy) flowing smoothly. Support yourself using a bolster and blocks, lay a blanket over the hips and stay reclined for 10-20 minutes. If you have a piece of rose quartz, so much the better – place it over your heart for soft healing and regeneration.

Warm, wet foods will soothe anxiety and stoke your agni, your inner digestive fire, and abhyanga, the practice of massaging yourself with oil, will boost circulation and bring you back to the body if the head is running around in circles. Sesame oil mixed with brahmi oil is especially effective and warming in the winter.

In my experience, letting others look after you, and accepting that love quietly is a profound practice and a meditation in and of itself.

Wherever you are at in your life at this still and poignant time, I wish you warmth, patience and peace.