Titles, fashions, belief systems, nation states - all of these concepts cannot be clung to; they slip through our grasping fingers because of their inherent ambiguity. It is said that all of life is like a rope running through our hands; if you cling to it, you’ll get rope burn.Read More
I’ve never been able to consider myself one of those ‘normal’ people - and I don’t say that to be self-deprecating, but rather I’m genuinely curious why some of us habitually catastrophise hiccups in the road while at other times almost bounce off the walls in sheer enjoyment of life. As I continue learning about the human mind, I’ve come to a new level of understanding of how some people are just set up to have their shit together, and some of us are destined for emotional disregulation and confusing thoughts. Not that we find no joy or purpose in life, but rather there is so much more clarity and peace to be enjoyed. So my study into this psychology is to move forward; to accept that there are reasons our brains have wired a certain way so that we can actively begin the rewiring process.Read More
Yes, stretching can be part of yoga practice, but not everyone needs to stretch - even if you feel tight. Tightness can be caused by weakness, tissue trauma, or even emotional stress, so continually prying open your hips and hamstrings (as so many yoga classes love to do) may be causing more damage.Read More
Transformational change can only happen with consistent progress towards your fullest potential.Read More
Religion always creeped me out. The word ‘God’ still makes me wince inside, and any mention of Jesus in the present tense and I’ll be zoning out of the conversation. Being brought up in a Christian society, I was exposed to the principles and practices of this belief system from early on, and even at a very young age I found the whole thing entirely illogical. There was no debate to be had; if you thought there was a male being controlling everything and a long-haired man looking down on us, we were clearly not on the same planet, and no discussion was needed.
I’m becoming far more tolerant of the language and imagery people use to find meaning in their lives. But as an infuriatingly incessant questioner, I need tangibility to believe in something. Though I don’t consider myself a scientist per se, my belief system is firmly rooted in my perception of reality. What I’ve recently been learning is that science is also a perception of reality, a belief system - it’s own religion. The difference is the approach to discovering the meaning and mechanisms of life through experimentation, theorising, and constant questioning. If the reality of our existence is unmeasurable, even through the strategic theorising of our greatness scientists, surely we all need to explore our faith in the unknown. Albert Einstein puts it this way:
“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind...What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
I still don’t like to give the name ‘religion’ to this exploration of the human mind and the world around us. Perhaps the word has become too closely associated with prejudice and intolerance, all the way to violent crusades and extremism. To me (and I am only speaking for myself), ‘spirituality’ has a more curious, inquisitive meaning, and along with it a freedom from any dictated answers to life’s big questions. I believe the study of the ‘spirit’ is the study of our own unique experience of life, demystifying that ‘true self’ underneath all the context we’ve been dealt. While what Einstein here refers to as ‘mysticism’ could be the facade that protect us from deeper exploration into reality, the spirituality I speak of is this uncovering of what is - however imperfectly we may comprehend it.
It’s such a shame that spirituality is not addressed more in formal education. Not memorising passages of scriptures and learning to be in awe of their supposed authority - rather, being encouraged to look within to our immediate experience, and learning to be in awe of our own intuition. To me, it seems a natural progression of study from the foundations of arts and sciences. The arts are often defined as the study of the human condition; the sciences, the study of the life. Spirituality seems to me a marrying of the two: the study of the human experience of life.
Any sense of spirituality I have experienced boils down to wanting to decode reality, the truth behind all the noise of culture, upbringing and egos. I was never able to fully do this by reading science textbooks or exploring emotive drama. My greatest appreciation for the workings of the universe have come from my movement and mindfulness practices, which require the use of my body and mind as the tools of perception. Though it may have first been introduced to me during GCSE Physics, it was only through these practices that I started to fathom that everything is indeed energy. Though I may have felt that physical resonance with or repulsion to different people and places throughout my life, it was only through my structured practices that I understood that people and places literally have their own vibration, a frequency that makes us relax or recoil. Even Einstein wrote that “there is no logical way to the discovery of elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” So while I’m not yet inclined to wrap my head around quantum chaos theories, I’ve at least started to understand their premise; by taking the time, space, and quiet of mindfulness practices, I can somewhat discern a subtle intelligent mechanism underlying everything.
Whatever practice may be your introduction, I believe this kind of somatic connection to reality has the potential to bring significant meaning to our lives. Though we may still not be able to concretely track the laws of energy, through this visceral connection we can develop that felt sense of every particle of us sharing energy with every particle around. Nothing created, only transformed. Everything as potential manifestations of the same stuff: universal source.
This experience of energetic perception was first introduced to me via the yogic concept of prana - life force. Any talk of some sort of mystical energy field around us used to make my eyes roll. As with religion, this sort of belief system seemed to be for those who wanted to escape reality and live in a dreamland. It was only after a period of consistent practice, in which I fully allowed myself time and space to inhabit my body, that I began to physically sense subtle changes in vibrational energy. Whether that was a rush of electricity following a deep backbend, or a sudden shift in physiological state following a series of breathwork, I started feeling the shift in my cells. It’s a sense that I’m trying to bring more consciously into daily life, drinking in when feeling elated, and taking note when a dark cloud of negativity passes over.
For anyone who has not brought their awareness to this subtle sense in a deliberate practice, this may all continue to sound altogether other-worldly and fantastical. But whether it’s the yogis with prana, Chinese Medicine practitioners with Chi, the Jedi Knights with The Force, Christians with the Holy Spirit, or scientist with quantum physics, lineage after lineage of theorists have taught about this life force that makes up the world. It’s that elusive essence that means we gain energy not just from the calories we consume, but also the people we surround ourselves with. It’s that immeasurable intuition that tells us when a situation is not safe, that wave of comfort we feel when in the presence of people we trust, that subtle lift we have at the sight of a bright sky, and the very content of our dreams. Suddenly this mystical concept reserved for people who believe in fairies and angels becomes something that we can all discern. The reservation from self-proclaimed rationalists comes from a distrust towards mechanisms that are beyond human cognition. Maybe, like Einstein, we require a little more abstract vision for the forces that lie beyond our humble human grasp.
Life force is simply the energy that orchestrates the world. To me, that makes a lot more sense than putting it down to a singular male presence that judges our every move and must be worshipped. But when we have no way to measure or prove what is beyond our human comprehension, I can understand why some people need the depiction. To teach about such an indescribable phenomenon, storytelling is vital. I’m now starting to appreciate that all this imagery of gods and goddesses, the sun and the moon, the wind and the earth, mythical creatures, and even Hollywood heroes - they all serve a purpose. Through depiction and narrative we may be introduced to an artist’s interpretation of the experience. All art is the attempted recreation of an artist’s lived experience, so perhaps religion may be considered the attempted articulation of a believer’s perception of the ways of the world. Art is subjective because the beholder either understands this interpretation that is beyond definitive words, or they do not.
I’m drawn to philosophies like those of Buddhism, Yoga and the Stoics because of their emphasis on taking full responsibility for the way you live your life. There are no short-cuts to the enlightened state of contentment; there is much work to be done. Practices and insights are offered to help illuminate the path of self-realisation, but nothing is prescribed. We must all ultimately find our own path to making sense of our time on Earth. Whatever the strategy, we’re simply doing our best to join the dots. As Bruce Lee said: “absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own.”
I’m a newcomer to philosophy. That’s my way of saying that I’m no expert; I’m just playing around with ideas. I’m stumbling my way through the hordes of information out there at our fingertips, diving down eclectic rabbit holes to fetch whatever nuggets of insight I can use to better understand the world. Being a trained yoga teacher, it’s easy to stay within the teachings of this lineage - and there is plenty of actionable wisdom to devour. But I find myself hungry for a variety of ideas, communicated in diverse ways, targeted at entirely different people.
For so long I steered away from any kind of ‘spirituality’ because I equated it with subscribing to systems of thought in the absence of curiously exploring, questioning, and learning through direct experience. In a search for underlining truths that can help us lead happier lives, I’ve opened up my receptivity to whatever ideas may fall into my lap.
So far on this journey, the schools of philosophy that seem to have a nexus point within my own worldview are those of Yoga, Stoicism and Buddhism. Though I’m sure I’m not the first to make this connection, there are common threads that have found their way organically into my consciousness, and are informing what I share with my students.
What these philosophies seem to share is the underlying truth of life: the existence of pain and suffering. Their solution? Observe, accept, bounce back.
That suffering exists is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism; the Yoga Sutras describe the unavoidable fluctuations of the human mind that cause suffering; and the Stoics approach responding to suffering as the very art of living. They all reach the conclusion that shifting mindset will alleviate our pain. And the common theme among their strategies is unequivocal: face reality. Specifics of each esoteric tradition aside, the essential teaching is to wade through the noise of our upbringing, culture, and coping strategies, and find behind it all a clear-sighted, lucid consciousness, a ‘true self’. Once awakened, this perceptive awareness can witness the irrational the mind, chuckle at its foolishness, and return to our baseline of contentment.
To Stoic philosopher, Seneca, the very essence of philosophy is mastering how to recover from the frustrations of life. Frustrations, says Seneca, are unassailable. It is the accompanying emotions of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia that we have the power to transcend.
A relatable example to use is anger, which Seneca describes as “the swiftest route to insanity”. Being from a family whose blood runs hot and emotions are expressed through hysterics, I’ve had my fair share of dalliances with anger. The more I become aware of my emotions as they bubble up from within, the more I observe outrageously exaggerated reactions to unfolding events. Take, for example, the undignified woes of public transport. I frequently find myself spiralling into a seething, white-knuckled rage when I miss a train by 30 seconds. Do I really expect that the train (for which I don’t bother to check the departure time) to leave the station just as I am comfortably on board in a satisfactory seat? Why is waiting five minutes for the next train completely unacceptable? Am I really so naively hopeful, despite all previous experience to the contrary, that the stars would align to gift me an effortless journey? Given my furious response, it would seem that so lost am I in this unfounded fantasy, that I adamantly refuse to accept what is. This naivety of optimism creates a great chasm between expectation and reality - what Alain de Botton describes as “the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality”. Such a discrepancy is the very cause of suffering.
No matter how loudly advocates of ‘positive thinking’ affirm that you can wish your problems away (and they are out there screaming their quotable affirmations), every being on this planet is consistently experiencing some form of suffering. Monks may seem serenely at peace, but this is not a perpetual state; they too encounter frustrations, and are as susceptible as the rest of us to primal emotional reactions. But they are trained to reign back the mind, to bring it back from indulging in the associated emotions of suffering, the drowning in resisted pain. This is not a single achievement, but an ongoing practice.
The mindfulness practices of yoga and Buddhism teach us to observe what arises. Not just extrinsic circumstances, but things from within our own body and psyche. This normally begins with simply watching the breath, mentally scanning the body, or noticing subtle physiological changes during a physical practice. By focusing attention on these minute sensations, we are fine-tuning our concentration and drawing ourselves fully into the present moment, relinquishing distractions from our noisy thoughts - even if it’s just for a moment. We are training to be the witness, the ever-present watcher behind thoughts and feelings that arise. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard teaches that if you focus your attention on an emerging emotion instead of the object of whatever your rage or sadness is directed at, you will realise how irrational it is. Your negative emotion, now witnessed and exposed by the rational mind, will evaporate. There is no such thing as good or bad, only what is. We ascribe our interpretations, desperately trying to categorise in our fearful search for certainty. So, neutralise negativity by being aware of the very construction of thought and feeling.
In Ashtanga Yoga philosophy, the concept of santosha, translated as ‘contentment’, refers to the acceptance of all that life brings. By practicing santosha, we are able to select happiness as a choice. It is the antithesis of desire, a sense of lacking, or envy. This is not as simple as ‘positive thinking’, which can essentially be glorified denial in the form of instagram posts and expensive seminars, setting up good-intentioned believers for a rude awaken when reality smacks them in the face. Accepting what is includes accepting our current circumstance, and, without judgment, acknowledging when we feel a resistant emotion surface. Denying what is in the plight to become a ‘positive’ person is fighting against an unbeatable opponent; reality will always win. As the Buddhists teach: suffering = pain x resistance. Better to conserve our energy for cultivating composure and sharing that peace with whoever you encounter.
For those who are not ready to take to the yoga mat or meditation seat, Stoic philosophy is helpful introduction to mindset training without explicitly ritualistic practice. The Stoics teach that we have no control over unfolding events, but our power comes from the ability to choose our reaction. Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, came to the same conclusion: his famous maxim is that between stimulus and response, there is the space to choose. If sufferable obstacles are simply part of the terrain of this life, resisting their existence is a waste of precious energy. Studies have found that it is only when stress is perceived as such that is actually has a negative effect on one’s physiology. So if bumps in the road are certainties, they should not be resisted as unacceptable nuisances, but embraced as mere details within the wider picture of life. Better yet, use them as resistance training to strengthen your character.
The Stoics’ contribution translates in my own understanding as a delightful dose of cynicism (unashamedly beloved by my British culture) to add to the more fanciful practices of the Eastern traditions. They help me to articulate that life is just a bit shit sometimes, but we can keep calm and carry on. We will always feel somewhat inadequate, the pang of jealousy will always arise, and sometimes we will just get the urge to smack the face of whoever is in the car that just cut you off. The practice here is witnessing your reaction, acknowledging it as an emotional reflex, and distancing yourself from it. Thereby, it will be set free.
I’m only at the first steps of this practice. I’m witnessing my entrenched reactions arise, I’m acknowledging that they are merely habitual responses...but I’m still indulging in them. While watching the process unfold, I still seem unable to step in before the anger, irritation, jealousy or impatience take over my body, commandeering my actions. Behavioural patterns run deep, and this is never more apparent than with the very people you developed those patterns alongside - family. Family dynamics represent the very framework that taught us what reactions are appropriate to a given situation. Overcoming that programming is probably the hardest pursuits in self-development. As Ram Dass says: “if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family”.
When we step into everyday circumstances, the algorithm our primitive mind has so expertly coded for us is quick to step in. Negative thoughts are hardwired into our brains - we evolved to be suspicious of threat, or else we wouldn’t have survived. The clutter of cultural programming and upbringing force us to bolster up our egos to drown out the perceived terror of reality. That’s all irrational behaviour is: fear. It is only when we trust the world that we can let down our barriers. The issue comes when we identify with those negative thoughts and feelings, believe them to be part of our identity. For me, it feels like I’ve stepped into a wholly separate persona when I start to become saturated in these feelings of frustration or anger - an alter-ego my friends actually identified and nicknamed Susan... I find it hard to take responsibility for these irrational reactions, because they feel so outside of me. I love the way Alain de Botton speaks of exactly this circumstance:
“In calmer moments, the angry may apologise and explain that they were overwhelmed by a power stronger than themselves, that is, stronger than their reason. ‘They’, their rational selves, did not make the insults and regret the shouting; ‘they’ lost control to dark forces within. The angry hereby appeal to a predominant view of the mind in which the reasoning faculty, the seat of the true self, is depicted as occasionally assaulted by passionate feelings which reason neither identifies with nor can be held responsible for.”
To be quite frank, it feels disheartening and exhausting to watch myself succumb to such text-book pitfalls. Despite a dedication to a life and career of sharing happiness, progress is still painful slow. Sometimes it feels like I’ve gathered together a great big supply of joy, and before I know it it’s been depleted again. But with these teachings in mind, I also have faith that there is always the opportunity to refill that supply. The more we accept that droughts will come in the way of life’s inevitable setbacks, the more we can prepare with reserves and resilience.
I don’t expect progress in this most fundamental of areas to come easily, but freedom to react without the irrational software we’ve inherited seems to be the greatest key to a peaceful and happy life. I don’t want to settle for a life at the whim of alter-ego Susan, always ready to pounce at ingrained triggers at some misplaced attempt to protect me from the unknowable world. Through a unique blend of all of these practices, each of us can find our own way into clear-headedness - an objective view onto the melodramas we conduct for ourselves. Flexing the muscle of conscious reflexion makes us more and more prepared for the next test. Progress might be slow, but they are incremental steps in the right direction - so, on we go. When anger comes up, let’s use it as a lesson to teach us about the workings of the mind. What deep desire or fear is being expressed?
All we can control is our reaction here and now. No matter how many times we succumb to the destructive cycles of behaviour, the next moment is ours to determine. With this philosophy of our inherent bounce-back ability, we must accept where we are now. But know that we always have the choice to gracefully return to the contentment that is our natural state. That’s the main lesson: face reality, reserve judgment, and choose to come back to peace. When you get lost, start again. And again. And again.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ― Maya Angelo
“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt, It Seems to Me: Selected Letters
One of the first and most profound lessons I learned on my yoga journey was to let go of story. Let go of the narratives we grew up telling ourselves. Let go of the various identities we have constructed for the purposes of weathering the inevitable storms of life. In an instant, this teaching reframed the way I viewed my very purpose, and changed the trajectory of my life.
This blog, though it is my story, is nothing more than my present musings on the many paths that brought me to this moment. I make no pretence that I have a arrived at some flawless deconstruction of my development or a conclusive ideology by which I plan to live out the rest of my life. Rather, I hope to express my working philosophy and maturing mindset, ever subject to change, ever hungry for evolution. I share in case my story stokes the fires of another's curiosity - a catalyst for a paradigm shift that opens up infinite potential for how we they can live their life. This has become my driving force, and the very reason I am pursuing the path I am now on.
To begin with the seedlings of my memory, as a child, I was a dancer. That was my identity. I lived for the spectacle of the show, the precision of the practice, the smell of the hairspray, the glare of the spotlights, the imposing tightness of the costumes. Outside of dancing, my memories are characterised by sulking and tantrums, so often seemingly in a world alone where I was misunderstood, unable to articulate the frustrations of my experience. On stage - audience attentive, music on cue - here I entered a world of expression beyond what my words or thoughts could articulate. I gave power to my performance by so readily entering into the fantasy world, and my ego beamed as I propped up my constructed identity with the praise and prestige I was presented with. What I looked on then as a sanctuary from the claustrophobia of my busy and confused mind in daily life, I now understand as my own form of movement meditation; my flow state.
Due to circumstances unforeseen and inescapable, I stopped dancing before I was 10. I don't remember the day it happened, but it must have happened in an instant. I didn't gradually stop going back to class. Forces outside my young comprehension were enacted, and I had to leave a life behind. Everything changed in such a whirlwind, and suddenly my old life was history. I was no longer a dancer.
As is the way of most schooling in this country, it was quickly noticed that I had little aptitude for curriculum sports, and I was shuffled off to the groups forced to merely meet mandatory physical education requirements. Us children can sense all too well the attitudes of our elders, and I could always smell the lack of faith and inspiration from these teachers. I didn't show immediate promise to be on any kind of competitive team, and there was no attempt to foster any kernels of my talents; no desire to inspire growth and progress in any capacity. Frustrated by my initial poor coordination and terrified by the implications of competition, I lost interest in physical activity. Most significantly, I lost connection to my body.
By the time I was twelve, I discovered drama at school. This opened up a whole new terrain of expression, and I fell in love with exploring psycopathic, murderous, or heartbroken characters. Looking back, I’m fascinated by my indulgence in these dark psyches. Growing up in a context in which happiness, love and peace were soppy concepts, and true passion was only expressed through anger, accusation and criticism, delving into dark worlds felt so much more in line with what I perceived to be the realities of adulthood. Performance and literature was an outlet for pain and identity confusion, while revelling in the beauty of positive emotions through art was far too uncomfortable for me.
Though acting gave me immense pleasure, and took me back into that flow state I had found back when I was a dancer, I never saw performing in my future. I took my roles incredibly seriously, and poured all of my energy into performances - and yet, I somehow looked down on the very concept of a career on the stage. As the concept of adulthood, social status and self-worth began to enter into my consciousness, performing didn’t seem to measure up; it did not inherently denote intelligence, education, or wealth. It was just for fun, an indulgence of frivolity, merely extra-curricular. Due to family circumstances and the culture I was dropped into, I had become entranced by different metrics of success: money and status.
Following the family melodrama that tore me away from my life as a dancer, there was an unspoken fall from grace that I could not articulate from a conscious place. At the time, it only sat on my shoulders as an amorphous yet relentless weight. With the little consciousness I had, I felt a calling to overcome the adversity. I read my life’s priorities as a progression from academic attainment, an impressive degree, a high-paying job, and ultimately to financial security. With fear stoked by my current situation looming over me as the driving force, this narrative was propelled by the end-goal of this elusive (and I now know fictional) “security”. I craved the supposed safety and certainty of everything I had lost: a traditional nuclear family and upper-middle-class living. Failure to achieve this narrow framework was a terrifying and shameful outcome.
The wealthy corporate woman was now my icon of hope. In every way the definition of achievement, I created this image with all the frills: from the expensive leather Filofax and designer suits, all the way to the stressful, long hours and sleepless nights worn proudly as badges of honour. The glamour of the grind. Actual money and opulence was never that interesting; it was the persona, the approval, the security I wanted.
Knowing I didn’t enjoy numbers or systems, I deduced that communications was the best way to exploit my creativity and performance skills. Armed with my new, unwavering goal, I began my quest out of uncertainty. At school I was determined to tick every box I could, joining every relevant club and becoming Head Girl in my final year. By the time I was finishing university, I was deep into the recruitment game of selling myself to any employer I sat in front of, shamelessly editing my CV to please, bending my personality traits to serve. I became so convinced by the various personas I was presenting that my own mission became completely obscured. I was lost in the race with no sight of the finish line.
I landed a job in corporate PR and thought I’d hit the jackpot. Somewhere I could be creative, but with a respectable business head on; somewhere I would get approval for my incessant drive to impress and prove my worth; somewhere I could look 10 years down the line and see wealth and professional regard. The steep learning curve was a thrill, and I marvelled at the well-trained slickness of my bosses. I worked around the clock, read around every subject and made countless unsolicited and ultimately unheard proposals. I was moving so fast that I didn’t have time to stop and realise that I was in a downward spiral. I was lost in the matrix of my half-baked mission, and I lacked the space and clarity to step back and question if the ladder I was climbing was even against the right wall. I was sleep deprived, suffered panic attacks, developed a binge eating disorder - and my GP’s advice was to take antidepressants and stick with the job. After all, life is hard work if you want to be successful, and I have to learn that lesson sometime!
Yoga became my cherished sanctuary during this time. I started yoga initially to shift some of the weight I had put on from my binge eating. It was purely exercise that somehow resembled the flow of dance that my inner child yearned for. I was aggressively cynical about anything spiritual or mystical (which Catholic all-girls school will do to you), but through my practice I began to feel, on a visceral level, that the mind-body connection is not some doctrine to be preached, but a real, sensate experience. I became more open to the breathwork, meditation and philosophy, and I felt the changes to my physiology. Yoga was not, and is not, my religion; it is a way into an authentic connection to our true self, behind the fog of these stories that we hold on to.
As goes the narrative of many journeys, it took hitting rock bottom to shock me into waking up. I didn’t need to stay on this ladder to nowhere just because the road was laid out in front of me. With no prospects, I quit my job and went abroad for my yoga teacher training. I know the world doesn’t need more yoga teachers (as everyone never fails to remind me), but when I finally started listening to my gut, that was the only step that made sense. And since then that’s what I’ve been doing: listening to how I physically react to a choice, and then taking steps one at a time.
By connecting to my intuition, I found that dancer within me. I’m now an untrained adult and have no aspirations to perform, but I’m inspired once again by that kernel of truth. I’m inspired by the underlying themes of movement, flow, meditation, freedom. Grasping at those threads and running with them, I’ve thrown myself into martial arts, gymnastic strength training, dance, and philosophy. I’m a pitiable beginner at them all, with virtually no skill and a whole heap of apprehension. Regardless of the anxiety and frustration that comes hand-in-hand with starting something new, there is something about this exploration that feels so aligned. I have no idea how it will all come together. I have dreams, but I know nothing of their standing in reality. I’m just following my gut one step at a time.
I will always be a sucker for a five-year plan. I will always quietly dream of changing the world. But I’m also more accepting than ever of uncertainty. What is courage without danger? What is daring without vulnerability? Anxiety still rears its ugly head. Doubt sits on my shoulder to prod me now and again. Physical and emotion claustrophobia remains a demon that follows me. But my movement and meditation practices are bringing me ever-closer to a feeling of spaciousness and freedom, so I’m following the signs one step at a time.
"Practice and all is coming"
When the man responsible for the initial popularity of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, repeated this famous saying he was making a profound statement: Dedication to this practice will change your life. These wise words speak to the discipline, faith, and consciousness that Ashtanga teaches.
Ashtanga yoga is undoubtedly physical. Practitioners are compassionately challenged to wring out every inch of the body, including areas that may otherwise be unattended to after childhood freedoms. Such is the wisdom of the practice, that every forward fold, back bend, twist, and balance is designed to liberate and tone all of the tissue that makes up the entire body and organ system. Leaving no stone unturned, imbalances are illuminated, allowing practitioners to learn about and connect to their physical body. The feeling body is awakened.
It should not, however, be misinterpreted that Ashtanga is purely about ‘working out’ the body. Though this aspect may be what draws people in initially, with regular practice many come to realise that cleansing the body in this way is a mere preparation for the stilling of the mind; first, we must rid the vessel of debris, then we can see its true nature. When this is discovered, practitioners may see that Ashtanga is not a physically ‘demanding’ practice at all. The postures are tools to calibrate the mind, body and breath, not to push through pain and discomfort to achieve a certain shape. Once this end goal is put to one side, the practitioner can start to work internally. Energy is then cultivated rather than depleted by the practice; we leave energised rather than spent.
Through mindful practice, Ashtanga helps to cultivate strength and mobility in both mindset and the body, which makes daily life freer and lighter. The discipline required to practice ashtanga yoga spills outward into all aspects of life, meaning we react with more measure, remain calm and make decisions with confidence.
Ashtanga practitioners begins with the primary series (shown below), and once conquered and performed with ease, move onward to a second and in rarer cases a third, but the point is merely to improve steadily only to the allowance that your body is ready for.
The traditional breath counting in Ashtanga often gives it the label of a strict discipline. But the counting provides the mantra for the mind to focus on, drawing attention away from conditioned patterns of thought, away from the thinking mind.
For the average newcomer, the idea of endlessly repeating the same sequence and counting breaths may seem tedious. Indeed, this judgment may be a theme running through the mind on some days, when the mind, body and breath are not synchronised. We bring our baggage to the mat, and noticing how it affects our practice can be a major teacher in the workings of the mind. It is said that discipline allows for freedom, and with repetition we can build a framework in which transformations can occur.
Sometimes it’s a struggle. But we come back to the mat because there are times that are easy, and we fly. As on the mat, so it is in life; play the game and ride the waves.
First published for Mary Ann Weeks Studio Blog 19/01/2018: https://www.maryannweeks.co.uk/studio-blog/ashtanga-yoga/
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