May I Be Happy by Cyndi Lee – We Are Not Our Weight

I was given a copy of ‘May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing my Mind’ by Cyndi Lee in exchange for an honest review. The book is about the author, a yoga teacher in New York, and her path towards her self acceptance. I decided to write the review because I thought the book dealt with an important issue that of body awareness and issues arising from that. Cyndi’s biography is very honest and she talks in depth about her struggles to accept her own body image. I love the way that she freely admits her own failings.  Yoga teachers are sometimes expected to be radiant beams of ultra health and inner peace and whilst yoga is amazing, we are human beings too and Cyndi deals with this in a candid way. Cyndi writes informal style  which makes you feel you are somehow engaging in conversation with her.

 

There are some good gems and conversations with friends and teachers along the way. I like biographical writing as I always learn something about humanity and how we are similar as well as how we are different. As a yoga teacher the issue of body image does come into conversation with my students and I have learned a lot from listening to how people feel about it. Some people, of both genders, experience issues surrounding their body image. I have to admit I have never given it as much thought as Cyndi has and my heart goes out to her. I also felt that much of the book explored her struggles and not enough of the solutions and as such I wonder if it may not ultimately be a good choice for somebody who is experiencing similar issues. 

 

Yoga is great for your health and wellbeing and physical styles of yoga such as Ashtanga Yoga can also help with weight loss. You have to combine this with a healthy lifestyle and diet in order for it to be effective. For some people weight loss is a good step towards a healthier body and is a great thing. I feel the health and fitness industry occasionally exploits this a bit and I am frustrated to see the numerous fad diets and fitness regimes which people seem to torture themselves with. I feel that these extreme behaviours seem to often become a cycle whereby someone puts on weight then tortures themselves with an exercise regime and diet which they hate and so do not maintain and then they repeat the cycle. My advice, if you need to lose weight,  would be to find an activity you like doing and make gradual changes to both your eating and exercise regime.

 

Unfortunately, the situation sometimes runs deeper than this. The author Cyndi Lee honestly illustrates how some people who are in healthy active bodies can still struggle with their body image.  There are also people who are overweight who are concerned with their image of themselves.  Who you are as a being is not defined by your weight. There are many people, just like you, who are waking up to this possibility and are learning to enjoy their bodies, and themselves as beings, for all the amazing things they can do.  It is my hope that through yoga you can take steps towards self acceptance and begin to make peace with yourself one breath at a time.

 

What has helped you on your journey to self acceptance?

No Impact Man – Film Review – Is Individual Change Enough

Marc and I have just finished watching a documentary film set in New York about a family who decide to live a year making as little impact on the environment as they can.  They live in New York city and give up electricity, cars, buses, elevators, clothes buying and eat local seasonal food.  The documentary follows their family through the highs and lows of their experiment. The film was  released in 2009 and I only recently found out about it. Have any of you seen it?

The project was criticised for

  • Being a promotional stunt for his book, no impact man, which of course it was.
  • Some environmentalists felt that the extreme nature of the experiment was giving them a bad name.
  • It goes against the consumerist mindset of the modern world and I think people possibly felt their lifestyle was being judged.

I loved it because

  • It made me think about my own choices and the impact they have.
  • It made me think about what impact one person can have.
  • It challenged belief systems and I think it’s always good to question.

Ethics is something I have been giving a lot of thought to recently.  I have always been a firm believer that you need to be the change you want to see in the world.  This belief is really useful to me because it stops me getting overwhelmed by the problems of the world and moves me into a state of action.  I am aware that with all the efforts that I make there are always so many ways I can improve.  I also feel that I don’t have the right to tell others what to do, every action has all sorts of positive and negative consequences. Who am I to tell others what to do? One person can only do so much, efforts spent in one area is time and effort that could be spent elsewhere.

 

One of things that I love about yoga is that it gradually makes people to be more aware of what they do.  With that awareness comes personal choice rather than just flowing with the whim of others.  We live in  a society where consumerism is everywhere we are bombarded with it. Advertisements tell us if we have blah blah we will be so happy, so sexy, so successful.  The gap between the rich and the poor in this world is staggering:

The richest one fifth of the world

  • consumes 45 per cent of all fish and meat, whereas the poorest fifth consume 5 per cent
  • consume 58 per cent of total energy, the poorest fifth have less than 4 percent
  • own 87 per cent of the world’s vehicles, the poorest fifth own less than one percent.
  • consume 84 per cent of the world’s paper, the poorest fifth 1.1 per cent

The statistics are from Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations, Bread for the World, 2007.  I found them in the wonderful book Yoga for a World Out of Balance by Michael Stone.  This book is brilliant and I will write about it in more depth once I have finished reading it.  Despite these staggering polarisation in terms of how we consume we are all interconnected if I pollute the air you have to breathe it, whether you polluted it or not.

 

When I read statistics like that it makes me wonder not only if my own actions are enough but if my belief that all I have to do is be the change I want to see is enough.  When I first stopped drinking a few years ago, I realised that other people found it really challenging.  I don’t mind if other people want to drink at all as long as that’s what they want to do and they’re not harming anyone, who am I to judge?  Yet people get uncomfortable because it makes them challenge their own beliefs.

As a vegan, I experience the same thing, many people seem to want to argue with me about my choices. I have never tried to force my beliefs about veganism on anyone.  I don’t want to be the annoying person that rants at people while they are eating.  I feel that lacks compassion for my fellow man.   I don’t have that right and as passionate as I am about it I believe we each have a right to make our own informed choices.

I have been wondering recently if individual change is enough and if it isn’t what should I be doing about it.  I think it is not about telling other people how to live their lives or acting superior for all the great things we are doing.  In many ways I am very fortunate to live in culture where I have so much choice that I can learn about where my things come from and what impact they have, that I am not starving,  I have so may choices, I can read and learn at the touch of a button, I have so may things to be grateful for. There is also so much that I am not doing, I often leave lights on, I don’t always eat organic or seasonal, I sometimes forget my bags for life and there are many things that I have no even considered.  There is so much more I can do, I know I am not perfect.  I think what I am realising is that it is not about telling people what to do, I don’t have that right, however maybe there is a need to open a discussion to share what we can do and how we manage to make our own impact or tread a little lighter on the planet so that everyone can benefit.

Do you believe in the power that one individual can have to make a change?  Has yoga made you more aware of the impact of your actions on others or the world?  Do you feel empowered to be the change you want to see in our world?

 

New Years Resolutions a Month on – 10 Tips to Create a New Groove

So it’s  February, every one has gone quiet about the  topic of new years resolutions.   Why is that?  Well………. change can be challenging can’t it.  If you decided to make a new year’s resolution the chances are you have to change your previous habits in order to succeed.  You may find that your old habits die hard.  Unfortunately statistics show that many people do not manage to keep their new year’s resolutions.

According to yogic philosophy we are born with mental and emotional tendencies which shape out actions.  The more we do a particular action the more more strong the groove becomes and the harder it is to change it.  Should we give up then?  No, I think the challenge of change is what makes goal setting so transformational.  It becomes less about making a specific change and more about being able to take conscious action rather than get stuck in a groove which is no longer serving you.

Scientists have found that when we repeat a particular we strengthen the connection in brain pathways.  However we are capable of creating new pathways whenever we want it just takes practice.  Eventually the new behaviour will become natural, so how do we get there?

Here are my 10 tips?

1) If you make a mistake, give yourself a break.  Think about what you could do differently next time?

2) Talk your goals through with friends, make them real.

3) Believe in you, you can do anything you want.

4) Be realistic and shoot for the stars.  You need a goal you can believe in and one that inspires you to make changes.

5) Recommit, if you find that you have slipped back into old pattern make a plan for how to make the changes you really want.

6) One step at a time, big goals can be overwhelming, always ask yourself what the next action is?

7) What was holding you back?  What benefit are you getting from any old behaviour that is stopping you from moving forward with your new goal.  What do you need to let go of – old view of self, watching less TV to create more time, etc. Can you think of another way to get that benefit?

8) Why do you want this?  What difference will it make?  Get motivated!

9) Know that change is not always linear, what can you learn from any steps that might have seemed like steps backwards.

10) Be here and now.  You are not your past or your future you are what you are right now, decide what that is and don’t let anything hold you back.

Did you set any new year’s resolutions?  What has helped you stick to your plan?

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron a Book Review

The week before my holiday I was very busy.  I had to make lots of decisions which involved making a leap into a future that I couldn’t possibly imagine. Amidst all this business, I saw a quote from Pema Chodron on Facebook, on a page I follow updated by one of her students.

As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground- something predictable and safe to stand on- seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we’re part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process.” Pema Chodron
(Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change)

 

I laughed in recognition, when I read this, what a wonderful reminder and how true.  It seems like such a human trait to want certainty and reliability when in truth no-one knows what will happen next. I shared this on Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s Facebook Page, I am sure many of you saw it.  I then looked up the book and decided I should read it on my holiday.

 

I have read a few other books by Pema as well as listening to her teaching .  She is a wonderful teacher.  As I am sure you noticed from the above passage she has an amazing way with words.  I also love how honest she is able to be in her teaching, she admits to her own shortcomings and humanness with great humour so we can all learn from it.

 

Helen looking at extinct Volcano in Lanzorote

Montana Roja, Lanzarote

I read Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change whilst on holiday in Lanzarote with my partner.  I am so glad that I did because it a wonderfully inspiring and insightful book and it has helped me to stay more present.  I was able to let go of all the business back at home and enjoyed all we ever have – the here and now.  Sure I drift from time to time and that’s okay, Pema’s words, my meditation and yoga practice help me to come back here.

 

Pema is a Buddhist nun and her books and teachings are based on Buddhist teachings.  She was a student of Chogyam Chungpa who wrote Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism BookCutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which is absolute classic for anyone interested in a spiritual path.  I find her teachings are very compatible and useful for me on my yoga journey and I am sure you would find this too.  She has written a lot about how to deal with pain and suffering from the perspective of someone on a spiritual journey.

 

Living Beautifully with  Uncertainty and Change Book

In Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change she shares her wisdom about 3 Buddhist vows.  She explains how traditionally these vows would be taken formally with a teacher.  In this book she introduces them in a more general way, as three commitments, so that anyone of any religion or no religion could benefit from these teachings. I guess some people could criticize this approach, saying that it waters down the tradition but as I touched upon in my blog post  Why Do You Practice Yoga and Does it Matter? I think that if something benefits you in any way then that’s great and particularly when someone someone as wise and insightful as Pema is sharing.  The traditional approach is still there for those who want to take it and maybe more people will be inspired too after reading her book.

 

In summary the first commitment is about not doing harm to others and ourselves.  The second is about keeping our hearts and minds open to the suffering of the world, developing our compassion.  The third is about accepting the world as it is.  Although these commitments seem much like common sense they are very challenging for any aspirant to keep.  Pema gives excellent guidance for dealing with these challenges.  I think people sometimes struggle with change because they expect not to fail and yet this is often how we learn and develop the strength for our future. Sometimes we can’t cope with our own or others’ pain and that’s okay. Sometimes we mess up – I know I do and the important thing is to learn from this and recommit to change or to do what we can do today. In this holiday season when many of us have time to reflect on how we want to move forward with our lives, Pema’s new book offers some great ways to embrace life without agenda, to accept it just as it is.  You may have eaten too much at Christmas, you may be tired cold, poor or ill, but this is your world to embrace, don’t wait for everything to seem perfect.  If we cling to happiness and run from suffering in the search of a perfect world, we may find ourselves living our whole life in our minds.  I don’t think that this means you shouldn’t have goals, you are the captain of your ship, not the ocean.  Enjoy the journey, embracing your life just as it is.

 

Have you read anything inspiring recently?  Have you read any of Pema Chordan’s Books?

 

The Beauty of Imperfection From the Yoga Mat to Life

For me my yoga practice is like a microcosm of my life in general and who I am in the Helen siting in a meditation pose, world is reflected in who I am on the mat. Sometimes images of yogis or meditators looking at peace, lead people to believe that they will be at peace as soon as they step onto a yoga mat. Whilst yoga will certainly help you to be calmer and more at one with yourself and others this may not always be what you find when you step on the mat.  I hear this particularly from people who meditate for the first time but I think it happens in yoga too.  I think sometimes people think everyone else just gets it and they are the only one who is distracted.

 

This is to me part of our current culture at this particular time in our history, we feel we have to be good at everything or at least I do 😉  That is until I notice and tell myself to get real!  Anyone who has practiced yoga for a few years will realise that there is always more to learn.  Some people don’t believe me when I tell them that I still have things to work on with my standing positions despite having practiced yoga for 15 years.  In reality however, I am always noticing more and aligning my body better in subtle yet important ways.  This asana refinement is never ending and yet that is not what yoga is about.  The refinement is a useful tool for realigning the body and perhaps more importantly the  mind. It helps us to tune into what we are doing rather than do it without thinking. It enables us to bring our awareness back into our body and in the context of this post it helps us to realise we are not perfect and more importantly, that this is absolutely fine.

 

Chasing perfection is like chasing your own tail. It will always be somewhere in the future, meanwhile the real juice of life is right here waiting to be noticed. Hopefully yoga will help us to experience it more.

 

Sometimes this is easier said than done.  Life can throw challenges at us that can make it hard to focus on this moment even with the help of the practice.  I think it is important to realise that we all have days when the mind is distracted.  My practice was certainly like that today.  I had a thought flapping around in my mind that would not go away until it was acknowledged.  Mid practice it was so acknowledged that it was having it’s own party.  It was at that point that placing that thought in the context of the entire world helped me regain some sense of proportion and then returning to my breath helped me gradually get back to the actuallity of my practice.

 

I mention this because I feel that some people give themselves a hard time if they get adjusted or if their mind is cloudy or if they can’t relax.  They often think that they are the only one that feels like this and because of that the belief we fail to share what we view as our imperfections which means we don’t get to realise we all go through fairly similar things.  This is all very understandable and as we take our approach to life onto our mats we may find that some aspects don’t serve us as well as we thought they did.  The beauty is that the yoga mat is such a safe place to work this stuff out and we get to revisit it every time we step onto our mat.  So next time you feel everything isn’t quite how you thought it should be try and experience it for what it actually is and give yourself a break for making time to be on you mat at all.

 

One final note many people have said that they would love to comment on this blog but that they feel that their comments are not insightful or interesting enough. This saddens me. If you have something to say, I would love for you to share it on the blog. For one thing you might help the other people who also want to write on the blog find their courage. You will also find as I have that many people are actually thinking similar things and would benefit greatly from hearing your thoughts. We don’t have to wait for the perfect moment, to write the most interesting thing ever, what you have to say write now is perfect in it’s own way.

 

Do you ever find practice challenging?

Have you found that yoga has helped change your attitudes towards life in general?

Building a Regular Ashtanga Yoga Practice

I thought I would share some of the things that have helped me develop my self practice over the years.  Claire wrote a wonderful post about how some yoga is better than no yoga.  I totally agree. Sometimes people feel like they have to do the whole practice and so they end up doing nothing.  A good starting point is to 5 Surya Namaskara A and 5 Sury Namaskara B after you have done that you may feel like doing more and if you have time then go for it, if not simply close the practice with the last 3 positions of closing.  This practice will take approximately 15 minutes and will be a very beneficial way to start your day.

How often you practice is entirely up to you.  You will get benefit from doing yoga just once a week.  In my experience the more often you practice the more you will benefit. I have a daily practice, 6 days a week  which has been very beneficial and has meant that the benefits of yoga come into my daily life and are in fact inseparable from it. The six day a week practice is what is recommended in Ashtanga and is practiced by thousands around the world. However, I realise it may not be possible or even wanted by everyone. Each individual needs to work out what works best for them and their life.

For me the practice of yoga has been incredibly transformative and sometimes my mind puts up its own resistance to that. It will try and find all sorts of excuses to not get on the mat. I’m tired, come on give yourself a break etc. Obviously there are  times that this voice needs listening too. You don’t want to drive your body into the ground, injure it, or make yourself ill. Guidelines for practicing when ill or injured are specific to the injury, illness and individual and should be discussed with your teacher and where appropriate your gp or physiotherapist, etc. Here I am talking about a general tiredness or mental resistance.

So sometimes your mind will say it’s tired but it’s just an excuse or it is partially true and needs listening to to some extent or your completely exhausted and need to rest. The imbetween version where I am tired but can practice happens fairly regularly, my job is physically demanding. I have found the best remedy is to consistently practice, whilst listening to my body. If you practice anything regularly then it is very important you learn to listen to your body and react accordingly, which is best done with the guidance of a teacher. It is important to tune into your body each day and react according to its needs, ignore the ego!

The length of your practice should be something you can easily maintain on a daily basis without it tiring you out in the rest of your life. If you practice consistently you will ache less as long as you practice at an appropriate level. The best way to work this out is to come to a Mysore style class, where the teacher determines the length of the practice for the student. This is gradually built up. The ego tends to want to do more, at least mine does from time to time! A teacher can be a useful external gauge.

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Every practice begins with the first breath – photo by Nata Moraru

How much you should practice at home should be gradually built up even if you are used to practicing for longer in classes a couple of times a week. This should be done at a rate that makes daily practice enjoyable, possible and safe. For individual guidance on how to do this, talk to your teacher.

Another thing that I love about daily practice of ashtanga is that I do the same sequence every day.  So there is no mental negotiation about what to practice or even what pose to stop at.  I just do it.  I also have something that I do consistently in my day with the ever changing fluctuations of my mind and I find that especially useful.  Although some people advocate practicing less when you have less energy etc. I personally have found consistency to be the best advocate for my daily practice, although exceptions obviously have to be made for illness etc. You can only take this approach however if you are consistent. If you take a break from regular practice you have to start with a shorter practice and gradually build up. I guess what I am essentially saying is that I find it easier to practice every day because that’s what I always do and there are no negotiations about what I do, I do my full practice.  If this is difficult for you because of your schedule or priorities then the some yoga is better than no yoga philosophy may work better.  Do something regularly and do more when you can.

Developing a personal practice is a journey and it is something I had to work at rather than something I always had. So how did I get here?  Some things that helped me build to a daily practice are:

  • Planning – Working out when I can fit my practice into my day in advance and sticking to it.
  • Listening to my body, when I wake up I scan my body to see how it feels. When I practice I am continaully doing the same thing.
  • Going to a yoga class. Going to class not only gives me some great feedback to keep me safer during my practice but also helps keep me inspired and motivated to practice. I also find I am more focused in class which I try and bring back to my self practice.
  • Practicing along with a dvd. Obviously you cant see a dvd whilst practicing but having someone talking me through it helps me if I am tired or demotivated.
  • Community -Talking to yoga friends, reading a book, a yoga blog, etc.  Reading about other peoples experiences helps keep me inspired and allows me to look and explore the practice in other ways.
  • Being consistent but flexible. When I have practiced has varied depending on my lifestyle. I currently practice in the mornings but if for some reason I couldn’t, I would just practice later in the day.

I am very grateful and fortunate to be able to practice yoga daily and for all the benefits it has given me. I am particularly grateful to my students who continue to inspire me to delve deeper.

Do you have a regular yoga practice?

What helps you maintain it?

What do you find challenging?

 

Some Yoga Is Better Than No Yoga – Guest Post From Claire Sanders

I first discovered ashtanga almost four years ago and was immediately drawn to the physical challenges it provided; I practised rigorously and with enthusiasm finding that, for awhile, physical improvements in the asanas were a regular occurrence.  As somebody who had never felt particularly physically capable this was a real ego boost, ego being the operative word.  But inevitably, after a time, my practice began to plateau and I was faced by my own limitations.

 

To me this is yoga; finding that gentle space between effort and struggle, the difference between loving corrections and violent scolds – connecting the breath and body with acceptance.  And yet in my experience it is far easier said than done; I still catch myself internally berating my efforts in my practice, a pattern repeated in daily life when left unchecked.  Yoga allows me to engage with and answer this voice, to silence it with a smile, and occasionally when my practice has been absent for awhile, a few tears.  Conversely when I do not practice regularly my body feels heavier, but the biggest change I feel is not in my back, hips or hamstrings but in my thoughts, actions and awareness of the wider world.

 

Despite this I often find that I have tricked myself out of the practice I deserve.  Ego’s don’t like to be quashed and mine frequently tells me “But you don’t have time…” followed by a long list of other important things I have to attend to that day.  This appeals to my rational side; my practice takes around 90 minutes after which I need to shower and get dressed which brings it to roughly two hours.

 

“Two whole hours?  Do I have a spare two hours today?  Not really, it can’t be helped, I will practice tomorrow.”

 

This is a familiar conversation in my mind.  To combat it I have begun answering it with “Some yoga is better than no yoga”.  In saying this I persuade myself to step onto my mat, knowing that any time spent there is time well spent, a shorter practice does not mean a less meaningful one. Perhaps I will not work on supta kurmasana that day but I will deepen my breathing, focus my mind, connect with my body and make peace with my ego.  This is why I really practice.  This is why it is important for me to make some time, any time to practice.  How do you experience making time to practice, are there internal/external obstacles to negotiate and what methods help you to overcome them?

By Claire Sanders

Impossible Possibilities – From Yoga To Life

 

As I have been practicing yoga for many years I am able to do things with my body that would have never seemed possible in the past.  People often look at flexible people and think that they are born that way and sometimes they are. If you practice yoga regularly, changes inevitably occur.  It is the inner change that is important not the result.

 

Some degree of flexibility is healthy and enables us to move our joints  freely without pain.  So to some extent flexibility is functional.  However many yoga poses go beyond this functional range of motion.  Yet I find people wish they could do such and such a pose and I myself have been susceptible to the allure of a challenging asana myself.  But when you can do crazy stuff with your body it doesn’t make you any happier, more spiritually progressed or whatever.  It just means you can put your leg behind your head now, it isn’t really important but the journey is.

 

There are many things that I used to think were impossible both on and off the mat.  My yoga practice allows me to attempt the impossible every day and over time see it change. The pace of modern life is fast and yoga has taught me the patience necessary to work at things which seemed impossible to me.  The greatest result isn’t my outer physical flexibility but my flexibility in life to see past any limitations I may have otherwise placed on myself.   Many if not most impossible things are possible with work, this is one of the wonderful things I take from yoga to life.

What has yoga taught you that you are able to bring to your life?

 

Balancing Yoga Practice With Life, Love and Challenges

As is the tradition in Ashtanga Yoga, I practice yoga six days a week. The only exceptions are illness or injury, but usually that just means I modify what I practice. Practicing this often is great, for me it’s like brushing my teeth; it’s a non-negotiable part of my day that I love. Practicing daily brings the benefits of practice into my daily life but finding the time for it can still sometimes present a challenge.

 

Helen and Marc walking in Wales

Helen and her partner Marc walking in Wales - After yoga

I have just been to Wales to spend the extended weekend with my family and my partner, I had a lovely time. As I was there to spend time with those I love I found myself thinking about how it can sometimes seem such a selfish act to practice daily.  It is a luxury that I am very grateful to be able to experience fully.  My friends and family are very accepting and know it is part of who I am.

 

In this modern world, full of over productive schedules, taking the time for me can seem selfish. This is especially the case if I or my loved ones are going through challenging times in life. There are obviously occasions when not doing yoga may be the most ethical or safest thing to do. If my house was on fire, for example! In most cases, it is possible to practice yoga and do the right thing by the rest of your life. I am reminded now, of practicing on the day of my father’s funeral, it seemed such a strange thing to do but it helped me stay calm when I read a poem at the funeral and it helped me through the challenging day.

 

Experience has taught me that I am more aware of myself and others and better able to keep calm from practicing yoga and I am therefore able to make a better contribution to my world. I think it is important for everyone to make some time each day to connect with themselves, in whatever way they choose even if it is only 5 minutes. It can seem selfish but in the end I hope it helps everyone. I am very grateful for the time I have for myself and the impact that has on the rest of my life.  How have you overcome challenges in practising yoga?