Sunday, July 26, 2015

Meeting emotions in your practice

This article was first published in the Yoga Spirit Studios monthly e-letter "On the Mat"

"Yoga is meant to make you feel good, right? So how come I can't stop sobbing into my mat today? I don't even know why, there is no reason for this sadness."

If this has ever been you, take heart, you are not alone.

Ninety-nine times out of one hundred we get on the mat, enjoy some stretching and meditation, and afterwards feel relaxed and happy. But once in awhile something else happens. There may be unexplained tears, agitation, anxiety or perhaps even anger. Sometimes the effect emerges later, in vivid dreams, or the urge to cry while waiting for the traffic lights to change.

Coming into the body
Yoga is a somatic practice. This means that it takes us into deep mindfulness of our body. This is true across the range of yoga practices, whether you are practicing asana, or mindfulness meditation or breath awareness. We quieten, listen and sense into everything that is here, and the medium for this experiencing is our senses, the felt sense of the body and how it manifests as our inner and outer environments.

Emotions are not concepts. Emotions are felt senses in our body.  So it is no wonder that as we start to sensitize ourselves to somatic awareness, we will encounter emotions.

Samskaras - the deposits of the past
In Indian and yoga philosophy we understand that past actions, desires and experiences create impressions on the mind/body that are stored and affect future actions and ways of responding to future situations. These are called samskaras.
The samskaras form a lens through which we process all experience. This can be useful, but only up to a point. Just as a stored memory of pain associated with hot  informs us not to touch things that are hot again, so deeply and unconsciously stored samskaras inform our responses to the world and in so doing they may be protective.
But there are limitations. As we become more Conscious, as we develop our awareness and move ourselves through our practice towards  body/mind/spirit integration, the lens of the samskaras are clouding our true experience. 

Then our practice itself will begin to invite a shedding of the samskaras.

Truly meeting ourselves
Meeting ourselves in sensation, we will meet all of the old stored emotions associated with a lifetime of accumulated experience. All the things we have tried to push away, being unwilling to face them, are stored up in these samskaras, or in other words as buried emotion.  They may also be manifesting as muscle tensions, pain, psychological disturbance or illness.
When we start to turn the light of our yoga practice on what is really here, it is necessary to prepare ourselves to welcome the emotions that arise from time to time.

Let well-being support you
It is possible to welcome the emotions that arise if we ground ourselves in a sense of well-being and allow it to support us. In iRest® Yoga Nidra we call this the Inner Resource. 
Remember a time and place when everything was safe and secure, all was well with the world. If you cannot find such a memory, construct it with your imagination. Use all of your senses to help to build this place of security in your mind. Notice how the sense of safety and security feels in your body.
Practice building this Inner Resource often and be aware of the felt sense of well-being in your body. The more you practice it the faster you will be able to locate this sense of well-being in your body.  You may even be able to find it without going through the pathway of memory and image. Get to know it and reassure yourself that it is always there for you.
Next time the difficult emotions arise, can you be an openness of welcoming , allowing it to unfold in its own amazing beauty, allowing yourself to simultaneously be supported by your Inner Resource.
Being able to meet and greet the emotions that emerge on the mat, without pushing them away or being fearful of them, soon you will find they lose their power over you, and you have let go of that samskara and come a little closer to your true self. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Could surrender be the next big step in your yoga practice?

Remember the Niyamas?  They are the second limb of the eight laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The Niyamas are the personal observances such as purity, contentment, diligence, and introspection. The fifth Niyama is "Ishwara Pranidhana".

Ishwara is often translated as "God" but is more of a concept with a wide range of meanings depending on the philosophical underpinning of its use. It could be translated as Higher Self. Depending on belief, faith or lack of it, the word Ishwara may be challenging for some.

Then there is "prandhana". Layered with meanings of devotion, dedication, respectful attention, the word often is translated as "surrender".

The English word surrender may seem to render us weak. Vanquished armies surrender, the loser surrenders. Is Patanjali asking me to be a loser? It is possible that the whole concept of surrender does not sit easily with us, especially for individualistic Westerners in a culture that makes dominance a virtue. I might think that if I surrender I will become a door mat, and the I that is doing that thinking rebels against that.  This is the ego-I at work.

Furthermore, "surrender to God" might really be a step too far!

Surrender is the ultimate act of letting go of our ego. Love is surrender. Think of a time when you were consciously loving, filled with love for another. Love places the other ahead of oneself, and as such it is devotion, dedication, respectful attention and surrender. The ego-I that does not wish to be a door mat has no place in a heart filled with love.

Patanjali points us to surrender to "Ishwara" as this is the path to move beyond that ego-I that stands in the way of our unification and wholeness with the ground of our Being. It doesn't really matter how we conceive of Ishwara - for some it will be Jesus, for others Mother Mary, or God, for others an Earth Mother, or Siva ... that which resonates with the individual is what is important.

Whether we are on the mat or in daily life, the fifth niyama invites us to dedicate all action and all inaction to that higher force, so that we can shift that ego-I out of the way and transform our lives into an congruous flow of love and wholeness.

When you are next on the mat practising yoga, could you surrender, to the breath, to release, to the felt sense of the shape you are adopting? Could you surrender thoughts to sensation, sensation to just being?