Thursday, July 5, 2018

There is no such thing as a negative thought or emotion

Does your mind rebel at this statement?

There is no such thing as a negative thought or emotion.

I will stand by it.

It is not to say that I find every thought or emotion comfortable. Far from it. I just think that we should not regard them as "negative".

Every teaching you receive should be put through the filter of your own experience. Thus far I have found that the teachings that stand up in my experience are simple, which is not necessarily the same as easy. So it is with this statement. There is no such thing as a negative thought or emotion.

Reinforcing the belief that they are negative makes things worse

When I see the self help writings offering ways to "rid yourself of negative thoughts and emotions" I experience sadness. The expectation that you can rid yourself of uncomfortable emotions is so unrealistic. The teachers of these ideas are sincere enough, and they seek to help.  Their methods might work for awhile, but in the end those uncomfortable sensations will return.

In fact the perpetration of the idea that they are something you want to be rid of, the idea that they are negative and therefore undesirable, can actually create conditions for them to increase. Any strategy to push them away is bound to be unproductive and even increase the experience of those same emotions and thoughts over time. If they are undesirable, it is logical to push them away.

A radical shift in perspective is called for

As I said before, every teaching you receive should be put through the filter of your experience. To do that you must, of course, first give the teaching a preliminary assessment. If it asks you to do harm, to yourself or others, it is as well to reject it as being false. True teachings are benevolent, not malevolent. Beyond that you can only assess the effectiveness of a teaching by trying it out. I am sharing this teaching with you because I tried it out and found it to be effective, and so I take it to be true.

The radical shift in perspective is to regard everything that arises, including uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, as messengers whose message is a pointer to our essential wholeness. As messengers with such important and useful messages, the only thing to do is to welcome them and to enquire of them what it is they have to reveal.

The moment you turn towards, instead of away, from whatever is here, it ceases to have so much power over you. All the while you are turning away, pushing it away, you are in fact becoming more fused with it.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but in the act of turning towards it you are in fact de-fusing with it. You are immediately allowing it to be a movement in awareness, along with all other movements in awareness. Doing so frees up its passage to move on through, and its movement through opens the space for something else to move through and that something else might just be a more comfortable emotion or thought.

Of course, if a comfortable thought or emotion is present, it must be greeted in exactly the same way. It is pointless to try to fuse with it and hang onto it. It has come, as a messenger, allow it to deliver its message and move on through.

The dance of manifestation

This shift of perspective brings us into the position of witnessing what is going on instead of being caught up in it. From this perspective we witness the dance of manifestation. That part of manifestation that is this body is full of sensation, energy, emotion, and thought. These movements are coming and going  as a microcosm of the larger manifestation which is the entire universe.

Everything that manifests arises (is born), grows, stabilises and abides awhile, declines, erodes and decays and is reabsorbed. Everything. Can you think of anything that doesn't? Even a mountain. Even a planet. Even a star. Even the whole universe itself. Some things have a short period for this cycle, and some longer. Time itself is a part of the dance.

Compared to the cycle of manifestation of this body, the cycle of manifestation of any emotion or thought is short, sometimes fleeting, sometimes a little lingering, but short nevertheless, especially when it is being welcomed with curiosity.

And this is the message, or at least part of it.  It is simple. Everything comes and goes and nothing is permanent. This too shall pass! And in its time bound manifestation there is beauty. There is beauty in the grief, in the shame, in the sadness, in the nervousness, as much as there is in the joy, the friendliness, the compassion, the delight.

Who is doing the witnessing?

The rest of the message is in the answer to this question. Who is doing the witnessing? The emotion or thought, comfortable or uncomfortable, is a messenger. When we welcome it we open to the shift of perspective that reveals that witnessing aspect. This points us back to that which is witnessing.

Different sages, different traditions, have different words for this, but we might call it capital C Consciousness or capital A Awareness. Notice that this is not the thinking mind because it can be aware of thoughts. This is that part of us, the Consciousness in which those thoughts, or emotions, or sensations arise, grow, abide awhile, decay and are reabsorbed.

I encourage you to read some previous posts which may help your explorations.

Dealing with negative thoughts and emotions

Reset your defaults

Follow the senses

Carl Sagan

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Being kind

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."

Versions of this saying abound and attributions are many. It is a worthy axiom to live by.

I am amazed by the troubles that people are managing in their lives all the time.  They may be presenting to us as if nothing at all is unsettling them, but in fact their life may be full of turmoil.

How often does our own turmoil take us away from kindness? I know it does with me, and it is highly likely that my own problems are miniscule compared to others'.

To a great degree our ability to be kind to others, no matter what we ourselves are dealing with, hinges on our ability to be kind to ourselves.  How do we do that when faced with a crowd of sorrows?

Meditation and meeting ourselves as unchanging awareness helps. When we access that part of ourselves which is untouched by the anxiety, the grief, the guilt, the worry, and know ourselves to be that, no matter what else is arising, and meet the same in everyone else, that is the truest kindness we can offer ourselves and all others.

Visitations that come in the night

I was lying in bed awake in the middle of the night last Friday night.  As I have to leave the house at 7am in the morning on Saturdays, being awake in the middle of the night on Friday nights is a trifle problematic, but nevertheless, I welcomed it as an opportunity for practice. So I was practising welcoming awakeness and also welcoming the dull ache in my right sacroiliac joint that I felt sure had something to do with my awakeness. There was much to be grateful for here as a real episode of my SIJ instability would have my entire hip and right pelvis, inside and outside, in spasms of pain.  That really can wake you up at night! No, not that, just a dull ache, welcome that.

Showing adjustments I don't think are a great idea
I must have drifted off for awhile as I found myself in a dream. I was teaching. It was as if I just walked into the room, and my students were already doing their practice. I saw that they were straining and efforting to do their postures. They were "helping" each other. In seated wide legged forward folds (uppavistakonasana), the legs were being pushed wider. In seated bound angle pose (baddhakonasana) a friend was sitting on each knee. Students were working hard to bring a leg behind their head. A student doing forward splits (hanumanasana) had friends pressing down on each thigh with a foot.
Bikram Choudhury dancing on student's back
It didn't seem like Yoga Spirit Studios at all and I seemed not to have a voice to call the class to order. Then I realised that I was not the teacher but it was as if I was observing memory. As happens in dreams it was a mash up, and I was aware that I was in the dreaming state, curiously aware of my dream.

Awake again, welcoming the dull ache and a sense of too warm, I tried to think where this idea had come from that bodies need to be forced to do things that they are structurally unsuited to. Writing perhaps around 200CE Patanjali had said that the posture should be steady and easy, or at ease, or spacious, or comfortable (sukha), but he was not referring to uppavistakonasana, baddhakonasana or hanumanasana, but any seated posture taken for pranayama and meditation.

Indeed, in the Yoga Sutras there are 2 sutras that refer to asana, and 89 on concentration, meditation and the states of samadhi.

By the time Hatha Yoga arises from Tantra and Svatmarama writes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in the fifteenth century (yes folks, that recent) just 15 yogasanas are mentioned. They are described, and several are pointed to as excellent, but we have no idea how the yoga gurus taught them to their disciples.

Even in this text, the first chapter might be called Asana, and it does contain 63 verses, but only 15 postures are described and a lot is discussed that is not asana. There are 124 verses in chapter 4 on meditation and samadhi. Even back then the emphasis was not on doing fancy postures.

Tradition and the wisdom that we are given from a long time ago is a wonderful thing and should be respected. But everything needs to be freshly examined and tested with a curious mind asking "is this true to me, now?" It is a tricky thing, balancing respect of tradition and insights only available to us in modern times.

We can track the evolution of yoga, through different ideas and practices, yet we have no idea how the physical practices of asana were practised. Our knowledge is limited to a few descriptions in old texts and what we know from direct transmission only from the twentieth century on. Most of the postures we now practise in our western yoga classes were not described in those old texts. We really cannot rely upon tradition.

My dream was memory.  I have been in yoga classes where some of these things happen. They probably still do. And it is not confined to yoga. In all kinds of athletic and artistic physical disciplines, this kind of thing is still normal. Such practices are saying that the body should fit into an external concept of what perfect is. This body is not yet perfect. but if we do this perhaps we can make it so.

If that is the tradition, then it is a tradition that needs to be questioned. We now understand the uniqueness of each individual's anatomy. Frankly, not everyone will ever do Hanumanasana, or Padmasana, or Kurmasana  in that externally evaluated "perfect" way. Better by far to let the yoga help you discover and connect with your body and to discover what the pose can teach you, letting go of the thought that you are somehow imperfect for how your body responds.

Sleep came, and when I awoke I felt refreshed. The ache of the night had an excellent message for me. I had been neglecting my morning practices on the mat, cutting them short.  I headed for the studio, landed on the mat and luxuriated in the somatics practices that serve me well before my students arrived for the 8am class.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Listening to the Heart

When you feel compassion, where do you feel it in your body?

When you feel loving, where do you feel it in your body?

When you feel kindness, where do you feel it in the body?

When you feel joy, where do you feel it?

For me these are all right in the centre of my chest when I feel them, the energetic, spiritual heart.

Have you ever noticed the tussle between heart and head? Head might be presenting many logical arguments, but heart is calling somewhere else? It is my experience that the heart does not lead you astray, when truly listened to.

Now I love to explore the connections between languages and did you know that the word courage is a cognate with the Latin word for heart, cor, which pops up also in French as coeur. (English takes the word cordial from the same source. To be cordial is to be heart-felt.)

Where do you feel courage in your body?

How much courage does it take to truly listen to and to follow your heart?

Often the call of the heart goes unheeded as it seems crazy. In fact it is difficult to even uncover the heart's true calling as it is so suppressed beneath the weight of thought and logic. So the heart's calling may also be scary. It does take courage to follow it.

How will you know your heart's true calling?

It's call is sweet. It is harmonious. It may be a whisper. How to hear a whisper? Become quiet and listen. Listen with the heart.

In yoga the spiritual, energetic heart is sometimes called Anahata, sometimes Hridaya. Let me explain these terms.

Anahata means "unstruck". It refers to the sound that has no cause, the seed sound of the universe also known as Pra-nava which is the syllable Om. Pra means before, the antecedent and nava sound, shout, exalt, so Pranava means "the first exultant sound"at the creation of the universe, unstruck because there was nothing before it.

Hrdaya is from hrd which is cognate with English "heart", you can see the similarity, and "heart" is exactly what it means.

So listen. You might hear the unstruck.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The sacro-iliac joint and why it is vulnerable in yoga

Recently I taught a workshop on the sacro-iliac joint but a number of folk have told me that they were disappointed to miss it, so this month I am putting down a few thoughts about it. I must begin with a disclaimer, I am not a physiologist nor an anatomist, just a humble yoga teacher. I am presenting my understanding as simply as I can. So where is this sacro-iliac joint?
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Location: the Sacro-iliac joint is the junction between the spine and the pelvis.
Photo credit: One Health Osteopathy 
It is not meant to move much - the above picture shows the ligaments that bind the joint front and back. They form a dense webbing, intended to keep this joint very stable.

So why is it a joint? Why are the bones simply not fused together like the vertebral bodies of the scrum itself?
Please take a moment to look at this video. It is very short but it illustrates why.

Some movement is required in the joint for the normal functioning of walking and other movements of the body. This little animation is an exaggeration however. The degree of movement is actually very small, around 2 degrees. If you have as little as 4 to 6 degrees you will be experiencing pain.

So the next logical question is, how on earth do you get into the situation where you have instability in one of the sacroiliac joints.

How does a sacroiliac joint become unstable?

As with any joint it can be injured due to the immense pressure brought on it by an accident such as a severe fall or car accident. Falling onto the buttocks, perhaps when falling off a horse or motorcycle, is a common cause.

Repetitive strain is another way. When an action that is asymmetric is repetitively applied it can gradually loosen the bonds of the ligaments. The repetitive rotation of a golfer, batsman or bowler would be the kind of action that could gradually lessen the integrity of the ligaments.

Force through one leg can place a tremendous asymetric strain on the joint. This could be one major trauma as in a motor accident. But when an athlete repetitively lands on the same leg, perhaps a figure skater, ballet dancer, or hurdler, this again will lessen the integrity of the ligaments.

Women are more prone to sacro-iliac joint injury than men

Notably during pregnancy, but also during the menstrual cycle, and during lactation, a women's body has elevated levels of hormones that cause the ligaments to become prone to overstretching.

Can yoga practice contribute to sacro-iliac joint instability?

I believe so, especially if we attempt to force the body into positions its structure will not allow. Here are some examples.

Seated twists while trying to keep the pelvis anchored

House photo - Yoga Spirit Studios
Many people are taught to anchor the pelvis in a seated twist. Unfortunately this sets up precisely the conditions which can lead to over-stretching of the ligaments which bind the joint, and down the track might lead to the debilitating pain of sacro-iliac instability.

When twisting in a seated position, allow the pelvis to turn slightly in the direction of the twist and then direct the movement into the thoracic spine, not the lumbar, in order to keep both the lumbar spine and the sacro-iliac joint safe.

Forcing external rotation of the hip

This can happen in attempts to do open kneed seated postures, from simple cross legged, to lotus pose. But even being over zealous in padagusthasana could create a problem.

It has to do with the shape of your hip socket in relation to the shape of the top of your thigh bone. There is a tremendous variation in the way we are built and no two hip joints are really the same. This picture illustrates that.

If your head of your femur (thigh bone) runs into the rim of your acetabulum (hips socket) in external rotation (turning the leg so the toes point outwards) and abduction (leg going out to side) and you try and force this, it is like using your thigh bone as a tyre lever to prise open the sacroiliac joint.

So how do you know if you run into such a bony constraint? You will feel a jamming sensation on the leading edge, that is, in the hip in the direction of the movement.

It is not a case of needing to become more flexible. No amount of flexibility is going to change the shape of your hip socket. In such a situation the yoga lesson is contentment, Santosha, with what you have, Satya, honouring the truth of your body, and Ahimsa, doing no harm to your body. Take the sitting posture that is right and comfortable for you.

What to do if you have sacroiliac pain?

Cease all the postures that aggravate it. This will include:
  • Forward bends
  • Asymetric poses, such as warrior poses
  • Anything that twists, including triangle pose, reverse triangle and so on, which are also asymetric, so double reason there.
The job now is to begin to train the surrounding muscles to take up the work of the overstretched ligaments in order to provide stability in the pelvic region. Now that is your core muscles, and I include in the core group the following, some of which are often not counted as core:
  • transverse abdominus
  • miltifidus
  • spinae erectus
  • iliopsoas
  • pelvic floor
  • quadratus lumborum
  • internal and external obliques
Here are some pictures to help you identify those.

There are many ways for you to proceed with this core training, and many lovely yoga practices to help as well. Just do 70% of what you think you can do in any one session, and only begin to reintroduce the full range of postures when you are pain free. And when you do, practice with a new awareness of pelvic stability.

Your well trained yoga teacher can help you to identify practices that will help you and which ones to avoid.

Finally, listen to your body. It is immensely wise.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Ishtar story

Ishtar is a Mesopotamian goddess with an interesting story. She was Inanna to the Sumerians, Ishtar to the later Akkadians, Babylonian and Assyrians. In this week before Easter, it is timely to talk about her as some claim that her name was later appropriated as Easter., though this is debated. Ishtar was the Queen of Heaven and presided over sexuality and fertility, and is identified with the morning and evening star.
Photo credit: Wikipedia - Cylinder seal from ancient Akkadia
depicting Inanna/Ishta in a style we later see as Durga in India.

One of Ishtar's most famous stories is of her Descent into the Underworld. I will try to do it justice in summary.

The Underworld is ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, and it is not a place that folk usually return from. So before departing she arranges for the deities to rescue her if she does not return in three days. She dresses up in elaborate clothing and jewellery to denote her power and status.

To descend she must pass through seven gates. At each gate, in order to pass, she must surrender part of her clothing or jewellery and power objects, and so her power is progressively removed from her. When she arrives before Ereshkigal she is naked and powerless. Thus it is that her sister is able to overcome Ishtar and inflict such torments upon her that she dies and is cast upon a tree. On earth the consequence is the complete cessation of sexual activity, and thus of fertility.

However, Ishtar has her insurance policy and when she does not return, her faithful servant turns to the gods to rescue her and one of them responds, creating two sexless figures and instructing them on demanding Ishtar's corpse and how they must sprinkle it with the food and water of life.

This they do, gaining Ishtar's corpse from Ereshkigal with some drama, revive her and enable her to ascend, back through the seven gates, and as she passes them she regains the items she lost on the descent, regaining her powers.

When the Assyrians converted to Christianity, the cult of Ishtar was appropriated into Christian practice, many aspects of her worship entering into the cult of MaryAnd so too there is the claim that her name being taken on for the festival of Easter, along with practices of the fertility cult (eggs and rabbits). Even aspects of the Passion of Christ bear remarkable resemblance to Ishtar's descent into the underworld, the three days of death cast upon a tree (the cross), the resurrection and ascent to Heaven again.

There are other parallels with Ishtar in the cosmology of India. The Goddess Durga bears resemblance to Ishtar. And if we look west, the Germanic Goddess Eostre, whose name might also give rise to Easter, is a fertility goddess and associated with dawn (morning star).

The seven gates can be interpreted as the chakras. From base chakra to crown the seven chakras move from the gross to the subtle, from earth element, through water, fire and air, and in the higher chakras, increasingly rarified space. Ishtar's descent is a descent into embodiment, and in embodiment is life's opposite, death. But just as she could descend into embodiment, and die, so too could she ascend, becoming whole (restoration of powers) as she does. But the wholeness is always there. ascent through the chakras connects us with that essential spaciousness of Awareness which is always here. So the ascent is the salvation, and it is available to us all.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The 30 day Love Challenge

It is February, therefore it is the month of St Valentine and the month of love.

Love is not just for February of course. It is all the time.

As we steep ourselves in meditation we come to feel love, more and more, as an all pervasiveness. The persistent belief that we are separate from all others is challenged by meditative experiences of Oneness. Love for ourselves becomes love for others, love for others becomes love for ourselves.

Love, like kindness, becomes a spiritual practice in itself.  Sometimes the practice of self-love becomes important.  Many of us find self-love difficult, so convinced are we of our unworthiness, our imperfection.  So we can start with outward love.

I have been trying this of late.

Conjure the feeling of love for a moment, remembering the feeling of love. If you have children, the love you have for them is ideal as it is so unconditional, no matter that there may be difficulties in our relationships with our children the love remains. Or you may choose memories of love for mother, father, sibling, lover. Feel the feeling of love.

Whenever you see anyone, try to conjure this feeling of love and direct it at that other person. The person on the pedestrian crossing in front of you. the person ahead of you in a queue. The person serving you at the store, in the restaurant, wherever. You can do this spiritual practice anywhere and nobody need even know.

Try it with the person who just cut you off in the car. The person who just stole your carpark. To the office jerk. And so on. Challenge yourself.

Notice always what the feeling is and when resistance arises love the resistance. Keep trying it out and noting the effect it has in your daily life.

I challenge you to try this practice all the time for 30 days. Let me know how you go. I am doing it too so you are not alone.

This practice comes with a warning: you are changing your brain. The ability to hate may become impaired.

Love you!