Sunday, May 31, 2015

Qi Gong - Is it Chinese yoga?

In some ways Qi Gong sounds very much like yoga.

It has a diverse set of practices that coordinate body, breath and mind. Practices include moving and static meditation, massage, chanting, and sound meditation. Movements might be dynamic with slow flowing movements or passive, meditations with inner movement of the breath. Some practices emphasize static postures held for long periods of time.

With roots in ancient Chinese culture dating back more than 4,000 years, Qi Gong is practised for health and long life, as meditation, and to enhance skills in martial arts.

Qi Gong has many different lineages although in modern times attempts have been made to draw them together. Influences range from Dao and Confucius, to Buddhist strands that would have brought influences from the sub-continent of India, home of yoga.

Traditionally, knowledge about Qi Gong was passed from adept master to student in elite unbroken lineages, typically with secretive and esoteric traditions of training and oral transmission - just like yoga!

The name literally translates as "life energy cultivation". The concept of "qi" or "chi" is similar to the yogic concept of "prana", that is, it is a life-force energy, and like prana, qi flows throughout everything. Health, longevity and spiritual advancement depend upon free flowing and masterfully controlled qi.

The movements themselves may be very different from those we know in yoga, but the practices are somatic, with great mindfulness of the felt sense of the body. The breath also has a place of high importance in Qi Gong. Meditation and relaxation as a pathway to wellbeing are also important. So yogis will certainly find an affinity with the practice.

At Yoga Spirit Studios we remain curious about all somatic practices and pathways to wellbeing, so we were very pleased that a teacher of Qi Gong could come to the studio to teach some Qi Gong.

Secret Elements Qi Gong combines these ancient roots with the modern knowledge of kinesiology and psychology. According to Secret Elements co-founder and trainer Sascha Wagener the system is easy and can be learned by anyone.  It can be practised standing, seated or even lying. The secret to the power of these movements is in developing a deeper awareness of the body moving, and the process deepens with each practice. (Still sounds like yoga?)

This can benefit anyone, if you are recovering from illness, ageing, an athlete or a business person, anyone," says Sascha.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Cultivating right attitudes

First published in "on the Mat", the newsletter of Yoga Spirit Studios

Switching on the news can be quite depressing can't it? We should ensure we are informed about what is happening in our world, hiding our heads in the sand will not help. But there is so much violence, and so many people swept up in terror, death and destruction. I find myself very moved by it and frustrated too that as individuals we can do nothing to change it.
What we can do is cultivate the right attitudes in our own heart, ensure that we are wiring our own brains towards non-violence.

Non-violence, or ahimsa is the first practice that Patanjali offers in the Yoga Sutras, the very first of the yamas, which is the first of the eight limbs of yoga he lays out in Book 2, the Book on Practice.

However today I am drawn by a sutra in Book 1, sutra 33.

The mind becomes quiet when it cultivates
friendliness in the presence of happiness, 
active compassion in the presence of unhappiness, 
joy in the presence of virtue 
and indifference toward error

Sounds easy enough. But is it? In this sutra we are being given the clue to much needed equanimity in the face of all we meet, equanimity that will guide us into right action to fulfill our responsibilities.

Friendliness in the face of happiness: Sometimes another's success serves to remind us of our own failings and this may set our minds in an unfriendly direction. cultivate friendliness. Note the feelings of unfriendliness if they arise, invite it in, and then also invite friendliness. Move back and forwards between them. You will find that the unfriendliness loosens its grip upon you and you have cultivated friendliness.

Active compassion in the presence of unhappiness: It is relatively easy to be compassionate in the face of a friend's bereavement but what about the unhappiness of a homeless person, or a drunk or drug addict. Faced with the homeless person, drunk or drug addict, right there in front of us, do we feel compassion or aversion? First we can note that tendency, but then can we open ourselves to be with the other's suffering, acknowledging our oneness?

Joy in the presence of virtue: Is there a contraction present when we see the good works of others, perhaps because we feel ourselves to be unworthy or incapable of such giving? Note that. Then can we cultivate, feel its opposite as joy?

Indifference towards error: Why indifference? Does that mean we should not act when error is present, as in the bombing of children or passenger planes? The lesson here is to note the passion, the sadness, the anger, and the sense of impotence that arises in the face of error, note it and welcome it, and then chose equanimity, (indifference) as its opposite and cultivate that. Then we can act from the correct place, we can respond rather than react.

So much of the ever spiralling vortices of violence we see are fuelled by unskillful reaction based on hatred and fear. Patanjali offers another way and what better place to start than with ourselves, where we can act to make a change.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Packing for a yoga workshop

First published in "On the Mat", the newsletter of Yoga Spirit Studios.

During a training I recently attended, my buddies were amused and amazed at the things I had brought along to keep myself comfortable. They asked for my packing list. So this is for all of you, but especially for Lizzie, Susannah, Anna and Bev!

When you are going away on a yoga retreat or training, chances are you will need to bring along your own gear. This is tricky, especially if you have to travel by air. So rule number one is to always make sure your ticket will include a checked bag for your yoga gear.

Some time ago I bought a large wheelie duffel bag especially for the purpose and have never regretted it. Usually, most of my clothes will fit into a carry-on bag, leaving the checked bag bag for my yoga gear. The first picture shows my bag with only my yoga gear in it, and there is still room for a few clothes or toiletries that don't fit in the carry on.

Into it I pack a bolster, a sticky mat, one blanket, a block if it is an asana retreat/training and a meditation cushion. On this last trip I also borrowed a little camping seat which was so useful I have now ordered myself one online - they are sometimes available in camping stores but never when I go looking. I also pack a little bag of extra bits that I use in my practice. It contains a super-ball for rolling my feet on, two flannels for fine tuning of restorative poses, a strap, a rolled up towel to make a "sushi-roll" for selfie back massages, a hand fan for when the room gets too hot, an inflatable gertie ball for all manner of releases, my still-pointer balls for a quick relax, yoga toe socks and sticky wedge gloves (could stay in my room for a matless practice when needed) an eye-pillow, two silk sarongs, useful for a little extra warmth during relaxation or when the air conditioning is too chilly. If it is winter time I would probably also stuff my zebra stripe snuggie in too, perfect for a toasty relaxation. If you are going to a workshop with Donna Farhi, count on packing a large bath towel as well for the famed "wonton head wrap". I also have an inflatable bolster that I might also pop in if I thought a second bolster would be good to have.

It’s all about being prepared.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Navigating Asteya in modern life

Asteya, it's the third yama, the five constraints or external ethical practices recommended by Patanjali as the first of the eight limbs of yoga.

"Steya" is to take something that doesn't belong to you, that is to steal. "Asteya" is the opposite, not stealing, avoiding anything that could remove from someone else what is rightfully theirs.

First reaction - oh that's easy, I'm not a thief. Meaning, I don't break into houses, steal cars, shoplift, or create email scams to do people out of their money. OK, so how do you do on these questions?

Do you only ever pay for music that you like to listen to, or do you think its OK to take a friend's CD and download it to your device?

Are you one of those downloading Game of Thrones?

Would your default position be to try to get concession tickets you are not entitled to instead of paying full price? Would you get your six year old into the show as an under five year old for free?

Or even trickier .....

Do you turn up to events on time, or is it OK to you to be late and thus steal the time of others?

Perhaps you never even thought of it that way. But as we begin to really consider the depths of this undertaking of Asteya, we discover that there are many ways that we may be prone to "steya" that are not crimes, like turning up late.

This third yama, so easy to commit to at first sight, actually leads us into deep self-examination. For example, do the products I purchase result in damage to the planet and the stealing of habitat of other creatures, or were they produced with slave labour, stealing the right for a free and healthy life from other people? It is really complex and a life-long undertaking, if we truly try to practise Asteya, but isn't all of yoga deeper and life-long when we really start to embrace it?

Our modern life certainly makes it difficult. For a start, desire is the root cause of stealing. Therefore if we can overcome desire, Asteya follows.  With desire comes a sense of entitlement and we convince ourselves that the world owes us in some way. If others have more than me, then they will not miss what I am taking.

Our economy is based upon creating desire in us so that we consume more. The sophisticated marketplace that is enticing us everywhere we go is persuading us to want more. And the ways in which products may be stealing (habitat, lifestyle, income and so on) can be quite masked behind seductive gleam. Furthermore we live in a world in which technology makes it so easy to download and copy that which is not ours.

Yet we can all make a start, make a commitment to try, and begin to examine what we do in the light of Asteya.

Discussing ethical issues is helpful in developing our ethical sensibilities. Would you like to discuss this? Use Comments to share your thoughts on practising Asteya in daily life.