Friday, 23 December 2016

Taking it nice and slow

Hello dear yogis,

I hope this week has treated you well. I know that at this time of year there's a lot of excitement in the air, and also a fair bit of anxiety floating around -- there's a wonderful quote by the American teacher Ram Das which is, "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." Even the most zen among us can find ourselves getting overwhelmed or unexpectedly triggered spending lots of intense time with family or getting in a pickle over Christmas dinner. So in that spirit, I've recorded a guided meditation for you (and for me -- I certainly use these techniques when I need them!). It's designed to help you feel grounded and calm, and reconnect with your own inner light and warmth. 

You can find the meditation in the post below, or go to my new Soundcloud page here. I'll be putting more meditations on this page in the new year, along with some of my favorite chants.  

My biggest tip for any time in life when there's lots going on is to slow everything down. We've worked a lot together in our yoga classes with slowing down our movement, so that it's careful and considered. I find that when I slow down my physical practice, I really notice the beauty and grace of what's happening. The same can be true in everyday life -- very often we get more flavor from the moment when we slow down a little; it's like the difference between absent-mindedly scoffing a piece of toast compared to actually sniffing the lovely smell of it when it's just out of the toaster with butter melting (and then scoffing it, of course). 

I recently interviewed the founder of Copenhagen's Institute of Happiness about the idea of hygge, the Danish word for coziness (he's written a book about it). What was interesting is that besides the superficial tips for creating hygge -- good soft lighting, lots of natural fabrics and so on -- he really emphasized taking time to enjoy simple things. So, cooking slowly, savoring a cup of hot chocolate, really listening when we're having a conversation. Less rush. Often we have a lot of expectations around big events like Christmas, and generally what life decides to serve up can be pretty different! When we let go of rushing or trying to make things "perfect", it has this beautiful effect of creating space around a moment. And where there's space, there's also possibility -- the possibility for the moment to be something unique and unexpected, and maybe even wonderful.

I wish you all a really sweet and special Christmas and new year. xx

Coming Home Meditation

Monday, 19 December 2016

Take your seat

Today I remembered a post I wrote for Conscious 2 last year, on the importance of finding one's seat – in yoga class and in everyday life. Now that we're approaching Christmas and the holidays, it seems a good time to share it again! I hope you enjoy it.

Take your seat

More than likely in a yoga class you will have heard the word 
asana—which is generally translated from the Sanskrit to mean “pose”. So, balasana; child’s pose. Halasana; plow pose. Trikonasana; triangle pose.

And it can also be understood as "seat". I love this translation and find it very helpful both in my physical practice on the mat and in my efforts to live well in the world at large. Here is why.

Most of us bring a lot of stuff to our physical practice. When you find Virabadrasana 1—Warrior 1 pose—there's a lot going on. You’re standing there on your mat, maybe first checking your feet are aligned okay and wishing yourmat was less slippy; maybe squaring your hips and letting your tailbone sink towards the ground and noticing how that affects your calves; lifting the chest, bringing your shoulderblades together on your back as you spin your upper arm bones outwards; then you’re refining, softening the gaze, dropping the shoulders… and then you factor in whatever internal narrative happens to be going on—it’s a lot!

And within that, how do we find the balance between effort and ease, readiness and relaxation? For me, often, it's about finding my seat.

We usually begin a class in sukhasana, easy seat (sukha, easy, asanaseat). We are sitting quietly and comfortably, if we're supported properly, and in such a way that breathing comes easily. Like this, we naturally begin to contact a more subtle awareness, simply noticing whatever is going on in the mind and body.

A good teacher will help you find your seat here with careful, calm instructions. A favorite of mine comes from meditation teacher and author Susan Piver. She suggests that while sitting and rooting down, you imagine that a very kind person has their palm held just above the crown of your head and you want to bring your head up to touch it; very likely your spine will elongate beautifully and your attention will brighten.

The yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar offers wonderful direction on how to relax into awareness in his book, Light on Life. “In every pose, there should be repose,” he says. “If you keep the back skin of the neck passive and the tongue soft, there is no tension in the brain.” Maybe you’d like to try that now, just closing your eyes and letting your throat and tongue and jaw be really soft. How does that affect how your mind feels? As Mr. Iyengar notes, “The brain can learn only when it begins to relax.”

So, we sit quietly, upright, shoulders relaxed, and there's a certain quiet dignity here.

When I'm caught up in emotions or storylines or simply hard work in a pose later in the class, I find it helpful to come back to this point. “Ah, here we are. In my seat.” Remembering this same sense of peace and rootedness can transform any pose, and take a lot of the drama out of challenging or seemingly fancy postures; can you find your seat in a handstand? It’s certainly interesting to try!

This same sense of coming back to one’s seat can apply to daily life—this is why it makes sense to me that yoga is referred to as a practice. We practice, practice, practice on the mat and maybe, maybe, maybe we notice little shifts and thinking gaps and opportunities to grow and wriggle out of habits and re-center ourselves in our day-to-day. I try to keep returning to my seat—when I'm in conversation, making decisions, tackling the subway—really anytime where I feel my anchor becoming a bit detached.

So I offer this suggestion anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed or caught up in something, to just take a moment, slow down and reconnect with your body. In finding our foundation we establish connection with the earth, and in relaxing and opening, we’re filled with light. Mr. Iyengar offers this beautiful encouragement: “Do not think of yourself as a small, compressed, suffering thing.” he says. “Think of yourself as graceful and expanding, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time.”

Take your seat. And take it from there.

Monday, 12 December 2016

On desire

"There's no prayer like desire."
–Tom Waits

This statue from the 14th century is my favorite piece in the whole Rubin Museum, and I come back to it whenever I'm here. I love the vitality and gorgeousness of their embrace; and the idea in the Tantric tradition that we're seeing wisdom (the masculine aspect) and compassion (the feminine aspect) in ecstatic union. It is so beautiful, and I love that it's deemed important enough to be cast in gleaming copper and celebrated in this celestial way.

Desire can feel like such a complicated part of our spiritual practice to navigate. I certainly find it tricky. There's often a sense, a misunderstanding, that we're supposed to be writing off our desires, that all desire leads to suffering. But dismissing any part of our natural selves can make life so painful and stifling.

I'm currently reading a wonderful book by a Buddhist psychotherapist called Mark Epstein called Open To Desire, which talks about the third way with desire -- which is neither grasping (as we often find ourselves doing) or denying, but holding our desire lightly. Hard to do, certainly, but what a way to find freedom.

He cites the Tibetan yogi Padmasambhava who said, "Look into the nature of desire and there is boundless light."

When I look at this statue at the Rubin, that light -- that utter joy and freedom -- is so clear, and so lovely.