Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit and yoga: A response

Is there anyone in the country who isn’t still in some degree of shock following Friday’s early morning news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union? A wake-up call, if ever there was one. The nation is split in two, each side convinced it is right, and each of us is implicated in the struggle – one which is a division specifically relating to a union.

The tension here is palpable, and already incidences of verbal xenophobic abuse are being reported in the streets (as per my own experience and on Worrying Signs). There is a sense of societal unravelling – of honor codes being undone, and of hysteria. I find myself horrified by this, and full of sorrow for the unhappiness which triggered the movement and which continues to be its result.

Yoga, translated from the ancient Sanskrit, means union; to yoke together. In this spiritual system, it is one’s awakening to the understanding that there really is no separation; that the same spark of universal love permeates everything – there is no “them and us”. In my experience as a yoga practitioner, there is a great softening that happens in one’s outlook and relationship to life and people, even when one is just starting out on the journey (as I feel I am). As we develop more compassion for our struggling, anxious selves, we develop more compassion for everyone else. We see their struggle and recognize their pain; we get it.

The yogic state is one of freedom and peace. And indeed, the organization that grew into the European Union was founded as a way of supporting freedom and peace following World War Two. Among its many functions, it allows free movement between EU countries, encouraging cross-cultural exchange and communication. A human body does these things, too; in our optimal state, our various systems (nervous, musculo-skeletal, lymbic etc) talk to each other and support each other.

Yoga emphasizes the importance of compassion, and specifically its unlimited nature. We may feel deeply for people fleeing from war-torn countries, for those suffering abuse and discrimination. And we may also have a lot of trouble finding that same empathy and wellspring of warmth for those whom we regard as racists or as selfish; for the frightened and the angry. For those whose aggression might obscure their position as suffering, deprived and victims of discrimination. I certainly find it hard, and I think that’s where a lot of the work of yoga comes in.

Yoga is often hard work. We’re sold an image of a serene young woman, usually caucasian, meditating by the sea, to convey what yoga is. But the practice of yoga is challenging on every level; it’s challenging on the mat, however seasoned a practitioner you are, and it’s challenging in everyday life, as is so clear right now.

I don’t ever remember living through a time of such social uncertainty, and I find it deeply disquieting – as indeed do my friends and family. I have found myself reading article after article, searching for some kind of answer or reassurance; I've noticed I've been delaying going to bed, nervous of being with the reality of the situation and my thoughts about it. It has felt at times like a relationship breakup, and also has echoes for me of the confusion I felt as a child when my parents were divorcing. 

Yoga has a great deal to teach us about uncertainty. We may have done thousands of downward-facing dogs, but no one expression of this pose will have felt the same. The conditions are different every time, in every moment, from the temperature and feel of the air to the fact that our bodies are changing and aging constantly. Some days our balance is great, some days we wobble and fall. We learn to observe the fluctuations of the mind and body without reacting immediately. We learn to sit with discomfort, and this is so very helpful at times like these, wherein we have, collectively, found ourselves in a period of profound unknowing. 

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that yoga is about action, karma, and purpose, dharma. Again, it is not about the serene lady on a beach in nice leggings; the Bhagavad Gita is an ancient war epic which takes place on a battlefield. It is a poetic examination of the nature of life and death, a treatise on taking action without being attached to the results.

To behave with integrity we must put our practices into loving action, even when (especially when) that is hard. And it is hard, now. We find ourselves in a difficult, sad situation, whichever “side” we consider ourselves to be on. So we must center ourselves and crucially, find some space. We can't listen when we are in a contracted state.

You have, I’m sure, experienced the sweet, amazing feeling of finding more space in your body after a yoga class. Creases are ironed out, muscles are elongated, tension and gripping are released. It feels like there’s more space in the mind, too. When the mind becomes more still, it becomes less interested in anxiety, and it gives less power to its thoughts. There is also a profound expansion in the heart. You may feel good will flowing, as if through invisible arteries, towards your own self and out into the world.

When we are spacious, we make room for the actual present. We are able to notice the moment and what is actually going on, because the present is not being squeezed out by our passing emotions or mental chit-chat. We are able to make room for others.

When the astronaut Tim Peake returned to our planet last week, he said in wonder, “The smells of Earth are just so strong.” He said he was elated. We don’t all have to go into outer space to develop our sense of the astonishing, potent experience of living on Earth (though I’ll admit I’ve always dreamed of space travel). But being present and spacious and kind allows us to make good choices based in the information we have, rather than reactive ones that make us feel panicky and desperate.  

Being present, we find our looking-eyes and listening-ears, and our place in a world that is profoundly free of boundaries. It can be tough, and is certainly a practice-in-progress for us all. But giving ourselves every chance to be loving and generous feels like the best option for both our inner lives and our collective health.

After the rain

Thursday, 9 June 2016


Maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam.
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
–Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:33, translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda

“Through compassion you find that all human beings are just like you.”
–HH The Dalai Lama

At London Bridge station today, during rush hour, there was a diversion at the gates between the Tube and the main railway station. When I realized this, I turned around and nearly bumped into a man who was behind me. He slurred, “Fucking idiot.” Then as we were all syphoned outside, I saw him from the back. Gangly, too-long arms, an unsteadiness about him. And I thought, Oh – you’re lost. Really lost.

He was looking confused about where to go. I said, “It’s this way,” as warmly as I could, and as we walked up the stairs, he said thank you. “I called you a name,” he said, “I’m sorry.” And I said, “It’s okay, it’s such a kerfuffle.”

He told me he was trying to get to Platform 1, so I walked with him. He said he was on his way to visit his dad, who would give him a hundred pounds. He said his wife had died. That he has two sons, one who’s 28, the other 30. “That’s good, isn’t it?” he said. And he said that people make assumptions about you, if you’ve got a drink in your hand… But that he’s always worked as a painter and a decorator. I said, “We’re all just trying to do our best.”

When I see someone who is feeling lost – when I have my eyes open – it touches my heart and sometimes makes me want to cry. It makes me think of the times in my life where I’ve felt truly lost. That’s a hard place to be – lost.

We have choices. We can do things that aren’t part of our day-to-day flowchart. We can do what we’re embarrassed to do, or something we’ve never tried. The teacher David H. Wagner is good at encouraging this (you can watch his talks on his Facebook page if you’re interested). Sometimes supporting others requires a little vulnerability on our part – we don’t know what’s on the other side of the unknown.

When I saw this man in all his vulnerability, I physically felt my heart move. I think we all experience this, from time to time – maybe when we see someone do something lovely in the street, or we see terrible suffering on the news. Pema Chodron talks about this feeling, really powerfully, when she describes boddhichita, here.

And in talking with this man, exchanging kindness, I became aware of my own relatively newfound ability to be kind to myself when things aren’t going so great. To forgive myself when I don’t do something in what I thought was the ideal way. When I’m just doing my best. “It’s okay. You’re fine. We’ll get there.” The way we relate to ourselves can have a huge effect on the way we relate to others; and indeed to our very understanding of "others". Asked how we should treat others, the sage Ramana Maharshi replied, "There are no others".

Karuna means compassion in Sanskrit. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that our physical practice can be strong and sweet at the same time: Sthira sukham asanam. And so it is with the heart.

We went our separate ways, the man and I; the better, I think, for having met.