Measure your progress in yoga not by the yoga positions you can do, but by the person you become.

Modern society thrives on progress. It seems like we are always being pressurised to achieve more, earn more and buy more. This rarely leads to lasting happiness because there is always more you can have and do. With social media images of bendy yogis bombarding your newsfeed, and with pressures to achieve coming from all directions, it’s easy to bring this mindset to your yoga practice. This is such a shame because if you are always striving to achieve more, you will never surrender and accept this moment, just as it is, enjoying the real fruit of yoga.

People practice yoga for all sorts of reasons and I understand that you may want to become more flexible. You may be really tight and need to get more flexible in order to enjoy normal healthy movement and posture. If you practice regularly this will happen, whether you strive for it or not. If you have been practicing yoga for many years, as I have, you may be very capable of doing all sorts of positions that you never dreamed were possible, and yet you still may seek progress in what you can do. I do. I love to challenge myself to do more, but the main benefit of this is what it brings to my life. It helps me to stay calm in challenging and new situations. It helps me to be more present for my friends and family, it helps me to believe that anything is possible, and hopefully it helps me to be a better person. Very few people really care, or even know, what yoga positions 18 years of yoga has made it possible for me to do. But they do care about what kind of person I am.

If you practice yoga regularly you will become more flexible. There is no need to worry about that. Practice, surrender, and use your practice to become more present. Sometimes it will be wonderful. Sometimes it will be challenging to really be here. Practice, practice and practice some more. Then bring your practice into your life.

Sometimes as a teacher, I notice that the people that seem to understand it the most, are actually the tightest. They have had to tune into their breath. They have realised that it is going to take a while. And they have surrendered. I am not saying this to be harsh to the bendy people. I happen to be one myself, but I think sometimes within the yoga community, we forget this and we think the bendy people are the great yogis. This is not always the case. They may not have even done that much yoga. They might be a gymnast or a dancer. They might really struggle with other aspects of the practice too. We are all different, but the real journey is an inward one, and that’s where the real peace lies.

Do you ever put pressure on yourself to be better at yoga? How has yoga had an impact on your life and or who you are?

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?

 

Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali Explored – The Ethics of Yoga

 

The Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali approximately 500 to 200 years B.C.  In the opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga we pay homage to Patanjali.   The Yoga Sutras are an excellent guide for anyone interested in delving deeper into yoga. Despite being written so long ago, they are very relevant to the modern day practitioner of yoga. Each time I have read them I have understood them on a different level as insights from my own practice and life help me to understand them more.

 

In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines the term Ashtanga.  Asha mean eight and anga mean limbs. The yoga sutras are     not specific to Ashtanga Yoga and are relevant to all that practice yoga and are interested in delving deeper.

The eight limbs are:

 

  1. Yama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with society
  2. Niyama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with ourselves
  3. Asana – the yoga postures
  4. Pranayama- breathing exercises, control of prana, our life force
  5. Pratyahra – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – a state of consciousness whereby the mind is directed to one point
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi- a state of oneness

 

These eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga are not necessarily practiced in that order.  Usually practitioners of Hatha yoga, such as Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga that I teach begin with asana, the physical postures.  Actually the other limbs are also practiced within  the physical yoga practice as we shall see when we explore them further.

 

This is a big topic and I would like to write a series of posts about Patanjali’s eight limbs in order to explore them in my own life and hopefully get some other people’s experiences.  I would like to begin with the Yama and Niyama.  In the next part I will discuss each of them in more depth, to begin with I will define each one.

 

The five yamas are:

 

  1. Ahimsa – non – violence
  2. Satya – truthfulness
  3. Asteya- not coveting others possessions
  4. Bramachamera – sexual restraint (not necessarily celebacy)
  5. Aparigraha- to not be greedy

 

The five Niyamas are:

 

  1. Sauca – cleanliness
  2. Samtosa – being content with what you have
  3. Tapas – keeping the body fit,  to create  heat in the body and thus cleanse it
  4. Svasdyaya – self inquiry
  5. Isvarapranidhana – surrender to god

 

Well my Sanskrit dictionary  just grew!  Most of these are self explanatory and are practiced by most people anyway.  By practised, I mean we know these are things we should do, I am sure we all find it challenging sometimes, I know I do. We all get things wrong some of the time!  However they are useful guidelines in which to reflect our choices.  As discussed in the previous post about why people practice yoga, often people begin practicing yoga for purely physical reasons and then find that they are inadvertently changing for the better.

 

I will discuss each yama and niyama in more depth in future posts.

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Do you think these ethical guidlines are useful?

Do you think they are challenging?

Why Do You Practice Yoga and Does it Matter?

For me yoga is a spiritual practice with physical benefits.  I enjoy it and I practice daily because I have found it transformative.  The term spiritual draws differing responses from each person, depending on how they interpret the meaning of the word. For me its meaning is somewhat fluid, as it exhibits varying qualities at different times.  I like yoga and meditation as they allow me to discover things for myself rather than being told what it is about. Although I also like to read the teachings, it is the fruit of my own practice that leads to understanding.  I find that fairly scientific but it is also very subjective, as all my experiences are interpreted by me.  Yoga certainly helps me to see through these illusions though and to question and experience more of what actually is.  For me mostly I am just trying to get beyond my thoughts and experience more of what actually is, be it spiritual or physical.

 

People practice yoga for all sorts of reasons.  As a teacher, here are some of ones I have come across: inner calm, relaxation, spiritual, losing weight, recovering from injury, increasing flexibility, help with sport (cross-training), help with sleep, anxiety, stress, increasing general health and wellbeing.  The list of reasons is endless.  For me any reason is valid.  Yoga is great and I feel many people can benefit from it.  Yoga in the West is sometimes criticized for having lost its spirituality for the sake of commercialism.  Whilst reading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Christine and her students we discussed this as it is brought up a number of times in Swami Muktibodhananda’s commentary

 

“Originally, a sadhaka practiced hatha yoga  for many years to prepare himself for the awakening of kundalini, or in terms of raja yoga, for the experience of Samadhi.  However, in the last fifty years, with the revival of yoga in the West, it seems the real goal of yoga has been overlooked or even completely forgotten.  Today, yoga is generally practiced to improve or restore health, to reduce stress, to prevent the body from ageing or to beautify it.  Hatha yoga does fulfil these of objectives, but it should be kept in mind that they are certainly not the goal.” Swami Muktibodhananda, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

 

While I think this is a valid point, I feel that more people are practicing and getting benefit from yoga than ever before.  I feel this is a good thing, whatever the reasons and generally people’s reason for practicing changes with time, I know mine has.  As a yoga teacher I try my best to make yoga accessible to the varying needs of my students.  I sometimes feel that this openness does mean that spirituality and philosophy are not discussed as much as they could be.  I make an effort to connect with my students and hope that they will feel they can talk to me about the deeper aspect of their practice.  I am always interested to hear about other people’s experiences.  I also hope that this blog serves to broaden what I share about yoga and what we discuss both here on the blog and in class and so far I am finding this to be the case.

 

If you are interested in exploring yoga philosophy I highly recommend readingThe Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, which contains a translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras at the back.  It is a wonderful book and a great starting point for this vast subject.  If you are practicing yoga to get fitter or loose weight, good for you – you may find you get even more from it than you expected…

 

Why do you practice yoga?  Have your reasons changed since you started practicing yoga? What is your experience about the physical and spiritual aspects of your yoga practice?