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.