Monday, May 8, 2017

Why you should re-treat yourself

Last month was a month of retreat for me. It started with seven days of silence with my teacher Richard Miller. A few days back from that and I was off again for five days with our soon to graduate trainee teachers. This was a busy period in many ways for me, yet I feel really refreshed.

Retreat is an important part of yoga practice. Our day to day yoga practice should serve and be carried into our daily lives living in the world. We can attain and maintain the state of wholeness which is at the heart of yoga without withdrawing permanently into a monastery or hermit's cave. However retreat, a time of withdrawal, is a magnificent way to recharge the batteries.

Most of us cherish our vacations. We plan trips away, visiting far off places, catching planes, dealing with jet-lag, we rush from tourist spot to tourist spot, not wanting to miss a thing in this place we may never visit again. Often we come home exhausted and quip to our work colleagues that it is good to be home for a rest.

That's OK. I do it too, and always feel enriched by excursions into other cultures and seeing new places. It's good. But to go on retreat is true re-creation.

The most unexplored territory is inside ourselves, an adventure awaits there and you will be able to start the exploration at one of the cheapest vacations you could take - retreat.

There is a burgeoning retreat industry, offering retreats in exotic tropical places, yoga plus massage and the whole spa experience, would you like surfing with that, bonus sight seeing tours. I am not so much attracted to them.

I was a frequent flyer at this labyrinth at St Joseph's
where I retreated last month 
To re-treat myself I seek a quieter and local experience of retreat, the early morning meditations wrapped in a blanket, gentle movement practices, periods of soulful silence, sattvic food and deep self inquiry, walking a labyrinth  and the paths of a garden in my breaks.

Retreat in winter is always special as well.  My recent autumn retreating almost met requirements, with cool nights and cooler early mornings, sometimes some rain to enhance the cocooning effect a little deeper. While those tropical retreat centres look great in the brochure, all that lush abundance and gleaming swimming pools, give me the pleasure of wearing ugg boots around the centre and snuggling into a rug for yoga nidra!

And when you spend several days in the company of like-minded retreaters on a similar path to your own, a tremendous deepening occurs.

Here are 5 key symptoms that will tell you it is time to re-treat yourself.

1. The days are full of more and more things to do and your anxiety levels are rising. This is exactly the time you need to stop and step away from the world for awhile. So long as there is someone you can recruit to take care of the kids, the elderly parents and the pets, nothing else can't wait. You must prove that to yourself and take time out to recharge.  You cannot do all of those things if you get so anxious and tired that you get sick. this is exactly when you need retreat.

2. Your yoga and or spiritual practices are beginning to wane, you are making time for them less often, even though you know that they make you feel better. Retreat can kick start your practice and insert a new enthusiasm as you will want to maintain the feeling created on retreat. You will experience and learn new things and there will be an impetus to try them out in your own practice. With the time dedicated to meditative and spiritual practice on retreat you will discover a true spaciousness and a deep sense of well-being, and the simple discipline and regularity of retreat life will assist you in the return to your own regular practice, or even to commence a personal practice if you did not already have one.

3. You feel lonely. Often people look to find a buddy to go on retreat with. That is nice but some of the best retreat experiences I have had have been when I have gone on retreat by myself. This is partly as you have no-one but yourself to "worry" about.  You can feel free to deepen, go on walks on your own, decide to go right now to walk the labyrinth without consulting anyone else. But you also make great new friends, people who are sharing the experience of retreat. many great friendships also start on retreat. And one of the best things is that it is really safe to do by yourself. It is a safe environment, with like-minded people, with enough structure, and enough free time to make the perfect treat for yourself.

4. You are doing all the usual things that are meant to make you feel better and life is just not improving, in fact you are feeling stale. When the evening glass of wine, the morning coffee, the weekly yoga or meditation class, the walk or jog around the block, the visit to the masseur, the physio, the psychologist are just not really making the difference you crave, you need to try something new.  On retreat you will learn new practices, you will meditate for longer, and in so doing overcome the barriers to meditation, find new approaches to well-being.

5. You are feeling that you would like to deepen your yoga, find out more than you can in the public classes you attend, but are not seeing how you can do that. Attending retreat is definitely your next step. In the sustained structure of a retreat over several days teachers can show you the way forward. In contemplation you will give yourself the chance to notice and respond to your heart's calling.

"Between the head and feet of any given person is a billion miles of unexplored wilderness." Gabrielle Roth

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Welcoming change

Welcoming is a quality of our True Nature. Welcoming is openness, it is loving and compassionate. Welcoming does not hold onto anything nor does it reject anything. It simply welcomes everything just as it is.

Welcoming is Presence, the act of being present to every moment just as it is.

When we welcome whatever is present we find that we are no longer held in the thrall of anything that is arising. Whatever is present is welcomed just for being here now. There is no need to tense against a future that may never arrive.  There is no need to hold onto whatever has been in the past.

We are often challenged by change and yet we also know that change is always happening. Good times come and go and bad times come and also go. Body sensations are always changing. Our emotions are always changing. Our thoughts are always changing.

When we are able to really practice welcoming we can welcome change without all the stress as we recognise it to be the way the world of matter works. In as much as we are embodied, things will be changing. Our bodies are changing from the moment we are conceived and continue to change after we have died!

In welcoming, in as much as it is a quality of our True Nature and therefore brings us home to our True Nature, we find that which is unchanging. Our True Nature is not the body, nor the emotions, nor the thoughts.  It is not the external circumstances. All of these are in constant change.

Welcoming helps us to discover that which is unchanging and unbound by the temporal and changing circumstances.

Next week I am looking forward to going on a retreat to sit with my teacher, Richard Miller, who has really helped me to recognise the truth of these teachings. On retreat we give ourselves the opportunity to immerse and practise being welcoming and finding our way back to this unchanging Presence that is our True Nature.

In June I am also looking forward to sharing the same with you. Please join me on retreat, and Come Home to Being. June Long Weekend.

Find out more

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stillness and contentment

Last week my friend and colleague, Cherise, loaned me a little blue book, the Art of Stillness, by Picot Iyer. "You'll like it", she said. I do.
Being still I catch the scent of gum blossoms.
Photo credit: Vittala K Shettigara

As I read it, and sat with it, I reflected how stillness is something really precious to me, the greatest treasure being when I gain an ongoing sense of stillness, no matter what my activity or what is happening to me or around me.

I practise opening to permanent Stillness. Slowly it is coming.

To write a column like this I need to find stillness so that what wishes to be expressed can make itself heard. So today I have paused, and sat, asking it to come forth. Iyer's thoughts expressed in that little blue book are with me. Stillness is here.

And I recognise what else is here, things that arise through the gateways of my senses. Green tea on the palate. The tinkle of the courtyard fountain. The mid afternoon light a glare through the blinds. The scent of gum-tree blossoms floating in through the open windows.

The loud sounds of excavations across the road as an empty block of land is readied for construction are not disturbing me, they are just there.

As I progressed through Iyer's book he talked a lot about monks going off and spending years in isolation in monasteries and doing nothing. But that is not the life that is available to most of us. Yet I know that those of us who live in the world are not doomed to be caught up in all its motion.

I too love to stop and be quiet. In a few weeks time in early April I will be spending a week in silence sitting with my teacher on retreat. And in June I am offering my students a retreat, partially silent, for three days. Retreat gives us the opportunity to immerse and heighten our sensitivity to the Stillness that is always there. Retreat helps us to carry that flavour of stillness with us back into the whirring activity of everyday life and to continue to experience it there as well.

Iyer also reaches that point in the little blue book, eventually.
"The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world."
Stillness is a quality of  Being Awareness, a vastness that through practice we come to recognise is who we are, as much as we are the body and personality we inhabit or the thoughts and emotions that we experience.

Contentment is also a key component of stillness. When we can be at peace just with what is here, recognising that everything is arising and subsiding in and from a vast stillness that is Awareness, contentment is also present.

Contentment is the second of the internal practices, or niyamas, described by Sage Patnajali as the second limb of yoga. Yoga Sutra II.42 reads"From contentment there flows the most excellent happiness and delight." (Translation Swami Venkatesananda).

When we are not in connection with Stillness, Contentment is difficult to attain. Yet when we begin to practice the mindfulness that leads to Stillness, Contentment also arises. Discontent is a restlessness of mind, body and spirit. As the restlessness is stilled, through our practices of mindfulness, body and breath sensing in movement and in still and silent practices such as meditation and yoga nidra, so too the discontent, and we are content with things just as they are.




Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Not knowing and being OK with that

In yoga inquiry there is often no hard and fast answer. Where should I be feeling it in this asana?  Where is my Muladhara chakra? What should my asana look like? As teachers we should not and indeed, if honest, cannot give the student the answer to such questions. This is a conundrum for the student who really likes to have a definitive answer.
Where should I feel this? I don't know, where do you feel it?
Photo credit: Still from David Garrigues Asana Kitchen
Upa Vista Konasana on You Tub


Travel has a way of getting you out of your comfort zone, into confusion. And out of all of that comes growth and new understandings. It throws a light on the culture we are visiting, but that then reflects right back on the home culture and then on being human itself. We never know what insights will come. We just travel, experience and later reflect.

Upon my return from India last month a friend asked if I would be writing about the experience, and I responded that I had to let it all settle and filter through first. It's happening.

Being home all the stuff of life and work begins to happen. Now though it is all filtered through the screen of the travel experience.

As Westerners we seem to want definitive answers to everything. And of course we are also very swayed by the findings of Western scientific method. Which is great, my western mind just loves it when there is a definitive answer to something.  Having lived a few decades I also have been around long enough to know that there are fields where science had definitive answers yesterday that turned out to be not so definitive at all. Woops! For instance, what we once understood to be the "best diet" (low fat) is now challenged by new research, and we are all confused!

That might be annoying if we are sincerely trying to eat in the most healthy way, and how dare they change their minds, and what is the right answer anyway?

But confusion is great. Fabulous.
Confusion precedes growth.

As Westerners we are also very keen to manipulate nature whenever we want to achieve a desired outcome. When I am in the garden I will pull and hack away at anything I didn't invite or didn't want to grow that big or in that place.  And if something is in the way of the new scheme, then it goes.  Call me heartless!

My Indian husband is much less inclined to rip things out, like when we were extending the house, he was very upset when a mature hibiscus that was under the footprint of the extension, was ripped out.

And I have to say, while there are many examples of cruelty in India, in a deep cultural sense there is a cultural disposition not to kill. For example, instead of culling stray dogs, they tolerate them roaming in packs, howling at night, and posing a threat to their wellbeing. I've seen trees literally growing through buildings, trunks and roots inserting themselves into walls. In the west the tree just wouldn't be tolerated long enough for it to become an integral part of the building.

Yoga grew first in an Indian context, so when reflecting on Indian culture it can become a reflection on our experience of yoga too, perhaps there are insights here. The very first thing Patanjali would have us observe is ahimsa, not harming. So I need to reflect on what my weeding and hacking in the garden is really all about, in the light of ahimsa. Should I let the sward fern crowd out, choke and hide the other plants I lovingly put there, or accept living in a honeysuckle jungle? Because to control them requires harming some kind of life.

You can see what is happening though can't you. My western mind wants definitive answers. I want to know. I want a definition. I am thinking I don't know enough because these confusions and conundrums are present. Limited knowing, hello!

If we move this onto the mat, if I am confused, and I am asking, where should I be feeling this (asana, chakra, kosha), what should I be looking like, where should my hand be in this asana, I am looking for definition where perhaps there is none.

Rather, we need to let go of a need to know definitive answers to everything, to recognise the kanchuka of limited knowing, turn the other way and follow it home, simply explore and uncover, what is.



Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What do you really, really want?

I am sitting to write this article for readers to see in early January and I am aware that it is the season of the New Year's Resolution. 


What goes on the list of New Year's Resolutions is usually something like this:

  • Lose weight
  • Eat healthier
  • Get up early to exercise daily
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Drink more water
  • Work harder/ work shorter hours
  • Read more
  • Get a new job 

The things that go on the resolutions list are usually to fix something we perceive is wrong with us. Last month I wrote about limiting beliefs and those veils of limitation. Here we have them in action again.  Limited perfection. Limited space. Limited time. Limited action. Limited knowing.

Remember though that they can always be lifted to reveal what is your True Nature.

What is it that you really, really want?

It is surprising how unconscious this can really be, but if we can flush it out into the open, many "desires" such as are reflected in the resolutions list, become superfluous. Be like a little child and keep asking the question why.

Let's imagine that your immediate answer to the question, what do you really want, is to have enough money to retire on right now. Let's have an imagined dialogue about that.

Why do you want that?

My job sucks.

Why?

I have to work really hard, but it doesn't pay very well and my boss is really bossy and seems to think she owns me, wants me there when it should be my own time .....

Well we opened a flood gate there, but what if we ask again. What do you really want?

Not to be in that job, to feel valued.

To feel valued. Could we take a look at that? You do not feel valued?

No, I feel unloved and unvalued, worthless, when I go to this job and am treated like I am treated.

So what do you really want?

To feel valued and appreciated.

So how would it feel if you were valued and appreciated? If you are valued and appreciated right now what feelings would be there in your body?

I would feel warm inside, and my edges would be soft and inviting. I would feel whole.

So would it be correct to say that what you really want is to feel whole?

You can do this with yourself. Take what first arises in answer to the question, "What do you really want?" and then workshop it just as I have in this imagined conversation above.

In traditional yoga nidra the practice starts with the Sankalpa, or resolve. In iRest® Yoga Nidra the Sankalpa is divided into three parts, the Intention, the Heartfelt Desire and the Inner Resource. I have noticed that many people take some time to arrive at their Heartfelt desire (or Life Mission, deep driving desire, Heartfelt purpose, what words you call it doesn't matter).

This questioning of what arises can be quite a useful way to open the process of discovery of what it really is. Another lies in what happens at the end of the practice when we invite the Heartfelt desire to arise again.

During the iRest Yoga Nidra meditation we open to the state of awareness in which everything arises and begin to experience our True Nature as open, welcoming, all-pervasive awareness. At the end of the yoga nidra practice it is directly from that state of pure Awareness that the Heartfelt Desire comes to us, and if we can notice it before the thinking mind begins to edit it, we will see it for what it is.

Sorry for the Spice Girls echoes in the title of today's post.







Monday, November 28, 2016

Limiting beliefs

What do you notice about this picture?

Do you believe the flower to be imperfect, or perfect and beautiful just as it is?

What if this flower were a person looking in the mirror. Perhaps it would be telling itself that it is not perfect, not beautiful, not good enough. Believing in this it would probably be feeling bad, suffering in other words.

We all have them, those beliefs that limit us.  This article invites you to explore those limiting ideas, what they might be and mean and give you some strategies for seeing them for what they really are. To get the most from it, sit down with a pen and notebook and do the suggested exercises while you read it.

Ready?

See if any of the following resonate with you.
  • I am too fat/skinny/unfit/stiff/weak
  • People don't love/respect/like me
  • I have too much/more/something else to do
  • I cannot do or be something as I am too ignorant/young/old/female/male
  • I need a bigger/different/better organised/ house
  • It isn't possible because I live where I live and not somewhere else
If you can add any of your own to this list. Grab your notebook and jot them down, and jot down the versions of these that most resonate for you as well.  Don't worry about reinforcing them, we are going to work on that.

Take a look at the list. See if you can arrange them under the following headings (some may seem to cross over more than one, just try to make the best fit for the moment.
  • I am not good enough
  • There is not enough time
  • I don't know enough
  • There is more I need to do
  • I am in the wrong place or lack space
Did they all fit somewhere in thse headings? These categories I have given are not a random choice but a version of the five Kanchukas, or limitations, which the wisdom teachings tell us are clouding our understanding of our true nature.
  • Raaga - limited perfection (shows up as desires which seek to fill up that which is lacking)
  • Kaala - limited time 
  • Vidya - limited knowing
  • Kalaa - limited action or doing
  • Niyati - limited space (shows up as being confined to a location, as in a body)
But they are not only the limitations themselves but when we start to notice them they become signposts that point us towards our true nature.

  • Raaga, limited perfection, points to our inherent wholeness - Perfection
  • Kaala, limited time, points to the timelessness of pure Being, which we are - Eternal
  • Vidya, limited knowing, points to the all knowing wisdom which is also here, always - Omniscient
  • Kalaa, limited action or doing points to there being no doer and the state of not doing that is the state of pure Being - Omnipotent
  • Niyati, limited space points to the spacious infinity of pure Being - Omnipresent and Infinite
Now, go back to your list of limiting beliefs. For each of them, find and record next to it, an opposite.

For example, if you have a belief "I haven't done enough" you might take the opposite to be "I always do the best I can" or "I do as much as I can to the best of my ability"

If you didn't get out a notebook and pen, while the others are completing this task, take a moment to think of what prevented you from doing that.  Perhaps it was "I am too busy right now, I just want to read this and get it over with". This would be the limitation of time, wouldn't it? Was there a different reason?  Is there a Kanchuka there?  Not in the right place just now? Limited space. Unsure of where all this is going?  Limited knowing. There is something wrong with being asked to do exercises? Limited perfection. Can't be bothered doing exercises?  Limited action.

OK, so now look at your list and pick the limiting belief that you find most poignant or resonating with you right now in this moment.  Ask your heart and don't hesitate. Take note of the opposite you have created. 

In a moment take some time to sit awhile with your eyes closed and take the limiting belief, and explore what it feels like?  What emotions does it raise? Where does this live in your body? Sit with that a moment and explore it a bit, being curious. Then take the opposite. If you take this to be true, what does it feel like? What emotions does it raise? where is this in your body. For a little while, as long as you like, go between these two opposites. Take enough time to let the belief, its attendant emotions, perhaps memories, and feelings arise and note the bodily sensations that are there, before moving back to the opposite.

What happens?  Does there come a time when they can both be here together?

Now for a critical question. Who is dong all the observing of these beliefs, these memories and emotions, these sensations in the body? Can you just be there, be that?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Why do we chant mantras 108 times?

At the Yoga Australia teacher's retreat in South Australia recently we took the opportunity to chant the Gayatri Mantra 108 times. This is a traditional practice which is why there are 108 beads on a mala. The fingers are run over the beads to facilitate counting while chanting. There is also a tradition in yoga of doing 108 sun salutations.

The question arose later in conversation, why 108? What is it about 108 that makes it chosen as the number of times to chant a mantra or  do sun salutations?

108 is a number that is ascribed mystical significance in Indian traditions but other traditions as well. Here are some attributions:

  • The deities of Hinduism often have 108 names. 
  • There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet; with each letter being attributed with a masculine and a feminine aspect, or more accurately Shiva and Shakti, 54 x 2 = 108. 
  • There are said to be 108 Gopis or servants of lord Krishna
  • In symbolic terms 1 stands for the one Universal Consciousness from which all arises; 0 stands for completeness or perfection which is also fully spacious (empty, void) that is the goal of the spiritual path; 8 stands for Infinity (laid on its side it is a universal symbol for infinity
  •  In Islam God has 108 names
  • In numerology 9 is considered the number of completion and 12 is the cosmic number. their product 9 x 12 = 108, 108 is the Universal number
  • 1+0+8 = 9; in numerology 9 represents unconditional love
  • Some schools of Buddhism say there are 108 feelings, multiplying the six senses of taste, hearing, small, sight, touch and consciousness by the three attributes of  painful, pleasant or neutral, multiplied again by the two factors of whether they are internally or externally generated, and again by the three time divisions of past, present or future. 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108
  • 18 is a revered number in Judaism. Gifts and charitable donations are given in multiples of 18 (18 x 6 = 108) and in the number 108 the fullness of zero sits inside 18.
  • Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps

But none of this really satisfactorily explains why.

The ancient Indians were keen astronomers (and astrologers) and great mathematicians, so I wondered if all the magical mystical significance comes about due to their understanding of the maths and science of it. And it turns out that there are indeed some pretty amazing things about 108 when we turn to science and mathematics. Like this:

  • The average distance of the earth from the sun is 108 times the diameter of the sun
  • The average distance of the earth from the moon is 108 times the diameter of the moon

At least it would have been as far as the ancients could observe and calculate it - with modern instruments and computers it is a bit off, but still, I am already going wow!

Now for the mathematics.  I have to admit to quite a lot of  "glazing over" when researching this for I am not noted as a mathematician. But it turns out to be a pretty cool maths idea too. See if you can get your head around these:

  • 11 x 22 x 33 = 108 (1 x 4 x 27 = 108) - that is called hyperfactorial. But wait there's more!
  • 108 is a refactorial number meaning that it is divisible by the count of its divisors, that is it has 12 divisors, 1 and 108, 2 and 54, 3 and 36, 4 and 27, 6 and 18, 9 and 12, and it is divisible by 12
  • The measure in degrees of the internal angle of a regular pentagon is 108 (Euclidean space) - this relates back to metaphysical excitement about the number as pentagons are also considered a magical shape.
  •  2 sin (108°/2) = (the Greek symbol phi which means the golden ratio )

I do not know if all of this has resulted in an answer, really, as to why we chant the mantras 108 times and do 108 sun salutes, or why the deities have 108 names, however with such an amazing number, why not?