Yoga In The Media

There are as many reasons to come to yoga as there are ways to shuffle a pack of cards (that’s 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636, 856,403,766,975,289,505,440, 883,277,824,000,000,000,000 in case you were wondering), but I often wonder just how many people are missing out because of the way yoga is portrayed in the media?

Unless you’re really into yoga, and are doing some specific research, chances are when you come across yoga photos online it’s going to be some celebrity on a sun soaked beach performing asanas as the sun goes down, all bronzed and gorgeous and serene as hell.

yoga google screen grab

Or if not, then it’s an article on some new weird type of yoga that, let’s be honest, was probably written for people to have a good chuckle at the hippy weirdos.

You rarely get articles on the normal, average, day-to-day yoga that most of us do, the yoga that happens in a church hall in Croyden on a wet Wednesday afternoon. But in a world of click-bait headlines, with so many things vying for our attention, is that really a surprise?

Yoga
image © distelfliege, via Flickr

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve suggested yoga to people only for them to tell me “But I can’t even touch my toes!” With so many pictures out there of experienced practitioners doing advanced asanas really well people just think “Well I’ll never be able to do that, so why even bother trying?” With all the emphasis on the physical benefits of yoga that happen further down the line, people miss out on the positive mental benefits they can experience right away.

Which is why, when I come across a good yoga story that isn’t all about bendy celebrities, I like to highlight it.


image © Lee Ann Olwage, via sevaunite.org

I recently came across this story on the BBC News website, which I found quite inspiring. (NB: If you’re outside of the UK then chances are you won’t be able to view the content. If so then here’s another article on the project that I found on the Guardian website instead.)

In summary, the Prison Freedom Project is about bringing yoga to prisoners in South Africa, allowing them to learn and enjoy the benefits of yoga, and enjoy a feeling of liberation despite their incarceration. It is a voluntary, contribution driven organisation, that has already made a difference to many inmates, and will no doubt help countless more find health and happiness in their lives. To me it embodies the true spirit of yoga, and I like what they’re doing so much I decided to make a donation.

***

I’m not saying we need more ‘positive’ yoga stories out there. There’s plenty of those already. What we need is more ‘average’ yoga stories out there. More stories of normal people incorporating yoga into their everyday lives. I might even go so far as to say we need to stop elevating yoga to unattainable heights, and bring it back down to earth (which, ironically, is where most yoga happens, lol).

It’s understandable people want to show off when they do something well. No one wants to share pictures of themselves being average, or, even worse, doing something badly. But, in the interests of science, and to get the ball rolling, here’s a few pictures of me doing some asanas to the best of my abilities at the moment (with examples of how they look when you get good).

my forward bend

my plough

my pigeon

There are many aspects to yoga, and many benefits to be had, some of which you have to work at, and some of which you experience from day one. Anyone can do yoga (wherever you are in life, mentally or physically, that is where you begin; that is your starting point), and everyone has something to gain, one way or another.

Each practitioner is different, each experience is different, and each benefit is different; but all of it is positive, and worthwhile, and beneficial; and if it’s not, it’s not yoga.

What You Consume Matters

Let’s get down to basics. Your body is a machine, and what you put into it matters.

We all know that eating heavily processed foods full of sugar, fat, and preservatives we don’t need is bad for us, yet we still do it; why?

Some people don’t have time to cook. Some people don’t have the means, or opportunity (my work only has a microwave). Some people just don’t know how.

And for some people it’s habit, you eat what you’ve always eaten without thinking. And in that category we can include ‘tradition’ too.

consume 1

As we emerge from the Christmas period into the new year I look down at my new belly and I know where it has come from. Nut roasts, Christmas puds, sweets, cakes, lots of sitting around watching telly, and not much going outside because “it’s too damn cold!”

Yup, in general, what happens to our body is a direct result of what we put in it and what we do to it. But what about our minds?

consume 2

I was on my way into work last week and, out of habit, I was looking at the news on my phone. I was reading about people dying, people being nasty to a blind man, the mindless hate pouring forth from a certain president-elect, when I suddenly wondered what I was doing to myself?

I realised that, just as what we put in our bodies affects how it works, so it is for what we put into our minds.

If you fill your brain with thoughts of pain, misery, and death, first thing in the morning – or, to put it another way, ‘processed negativity’ – then you’re likely to have a pretty negative day. And if you do that day in, day out, over a long period of time, imagine what the results will be.

In general, you get what you expect out of life. As human beings we seek out the things that affirm our life view, whatever that may be. If you expect people to be mean to you then those are the moments you notice. You miss the happiness, and smiles, and acts of kindness. Or if you do notice them, you think of them as aberrations, short breaks from ‘the way the world really is’.

When I did my Month Of Meditation I deliberately deleted the BBC News app from my phone; mostly because, after the US election results, I expected the news to just get more and more depressing, but also to stop me wallowing in misery as much as I did. But then over the past few weeks, as I’ve ‘taken my eye off the ball’ as it were, I’ve gone back to accessing the news on my web browser. I wasn’t going to reinstall the app, but I was still reading the news in all its glorious processed negativity.

Sitting on that train, getting wound up reading the news, I had a revelation. Just as the bad food I eat makes me less healthy, so the bad things I put in my brain make me less happy. The more negativity I consume, the more negative I become. I know it sounds fairly obvious when you put it like that, but for me it mind blowing; and a definite wake up call!

I put my phone away that day, and since then I have been avoiding the news. I know from past experience that should anything important happen my friends and associates will inform me (often whether I want them to or not).

I’ve also been cutting back on my media consumption. Computer games, movies, TV (which is difficult for me considering the work I do – TV transmission controller, monitoring TV channels as they go to air). I’m trying to keep my exposure to external (manufactured) misery to a minimum, whilst at the same time increasing the positive mind work, with uplifting reading and meditation. It’s not easy, and so far the effects have been minimal, but the more I catch myself breaking an ingrained habit and choosing something positive the easier it will become.

Just as eating healthy is hard when all you want is a deep dish pizza and some cheesy garlic bread, choosing something positive over the negatives we have learned to consume without thinking can be a bit of a challenge. But if I want good mental health now and in the future, it’s what needs to happen.

A Month Of Meditation

A wise man once said:

“Sometimes I just sits and thinks,

and sometimes I just sits”

 
Now I don’t think that he was talking about meditation (actually I think he was talking about Winnie The Pooh) but he may as well have been.

For too long I have been at the mercy of my emotions. They rattle through my brain, unfiltered and unchecked, quite often ruining my day. They conjure in the mind such an endless list of past regrets, imagined slights, future fears and general unrealities that I decided it was time to do something about it. So, I set myself a bit of a challenge.

I decided that for the month of November I would sit and meditate thirty minutes every day. Now I know that sounds like a lot to begin with, most would recommend ten to twenty minutes for starters, but I know from experience that I can do up to an hour of sitting if I have to, so I knew I could handle it. The hard part wouldn’t be the sitting, the hard part would be finding the time.

The What, Where, How and When?

A few details about my practice. I opted to do vipassana meditation, as described in the excellent book Mindfulness in Plain English. It’s a straight forward technique where you concentrate your attention on your breathing, focusing on the sensation of your breath around the rim of your nostril. Whenever your mind wanders you just gently bring it back to the sensation, without judgement, and continue until your time is up.

To measure the thirty minutes I used a meditation timer on my phone that gongs when you’re done. Sadly it doesn’t appear to be available on the Google Play Store anymore, but there’s plenty of others on there to choose from if you’re in the market for one. They all pretty much do the same thing. You could also just use the timer on your phone, but I find it’s beeping a little harsh at the end of a session. A gentle gonging is much nicer.

When it comes to where to sit Swami Sivananda recommends having a special space in your house that you just use for meditation. Now most of us can’t do that, we don’t have the room, but I reckon that as long as it’s special to you somehow then it’ll do the trick. For example, this is my meditation space:

meditation space 2
meditation space 1

Now it’s just a bit of floor by my bed, but in my head it’s where I meditate, so it’s special to me, and really that’s all that matters wouldn’t you say?

As for when to sit, that was pretty much dictated by the outside world. It’s best if you have a regular time to sit – some recommend 4am as an auspicious time! – but in reality most of us have work, family commitments, a massive list of Things To Do, so you just have to sit when you can and make the best of it. For example, when I was on a day shift, the earliest I could commit to half an hour free was nine thirty at night, just before I went to bed. Not ideal, but it is what it is.

My Observations

Now, I’ve managed to meditate properly just once, ages ago, and it only lasted for a few seconds (I was so freaked out by the sudden change in my mind it broke my concentration). The only way I can describe it is; you’re sitting in a room with all the lights off. You think it’s completely silent and completely dark, and then the power goes out! Suddenly there’s no hum from the fridge next door, no illumination from the standby light on the TV. It’s just that much quieter and darker than it was before. That’s what it’s like when your mass of thoughts reduce themselves down to just one; mental quiet.

I can tell you now, I didn’t get anywhere near that in my thirty days. I did however have a few ‘revelations’ that I’d like to share with you now (in the order in which I wrote them).

* Get rid of any distractions. Meditating by the front window when you’re waiting for a package to be delivered is not ideal. Every crunch of gravel will have you looking outside to see if it’s the postman.

* Something is better than nothing. Sleepy, ‘off road’ meditation (where your head bobs around like you’re in a 4×4) is better than no meditation at all.

* Despite your best efforts… sometimes all you do is sit and think. That’s ok. Don’t get down at that. Judging the ‘quality’ of your meditation doesn’t help you.

Also,

* Good and bad depends on your point of view. Loud noises might be a distraction, but they’re also good for waking you up when you start to nod off. So, silver linings. That being said though, trying to meditate on Bonfire Night with all the fireworks going off is challenging at best.

* Don’t make it hard on yourself. Trying to meditate after twelve hours of work is hard enough already. Playing three hours of Assassin’s Creed when you get back first, so that you don’t hit the cushion until 1am, is just making things difficult for yourself.

Likewise…

* Think about the lead up to meditation. Sitting down after you’ve just eaten a load of Pringles is very distracting. All you can think about is ‘More Pringles’!

* Location matters. It’s hard to meditate at work. The seats are hard, the head is sleepy, and you feel really self-conscious.

* Comfort matters. If you sit wrong on your cushion your legs will go numb; fact! But, at the same time, numb legs aren’t as bad as you think. You can sit through them.

* Little victories matter. If I’m concentrating on my breathing when the gong goes, and not making shopping lists in my head, I count that as a win.

* It’s ok to ‘get it out of the way’. Doing it just to do it doesn’t make it worthless, as long as your effort is sincere.

My Conclusions

So what have I learned from my fifteen hours of meditation? Well, first of all, there is time in the day to meditate. Or rather, you can make the time. Turn off the TV, put down the book, put off sleep until later. It’s not as hard to do as you think*, and it is worth the effort.

*That being said, I am single. I can imagine trying to find the time with a bunch of people around would be more difficult. Not impossible, just more difficult.

I can’t say that I’m quantitatively any different now than I was before, any changes have been subtle, but I do feel pretty good mentally at the moment. Yes there’s been some frustrations, some flashes of anger, but I don’t think I’ve lingered on them as much as I would have done. Maybe I’m learning to let go a bit? Maybe I’m being more mindful of my moods, and heading them off before they get out of hand? Who knows? Maybe it’s too soon to tell.

A scientific study of long term meditators has shown that they have physically increased amounts of brain matter in the areas most associated with happiness and dealing with emotions (as seen on ‘Trust Me, I’m A Doctor’, with Michael Moseley). It also showed that for noticeable changes to occur you have to give it a go for a good six to eight weeks. So, on that basis alone, I’m going to keep going, see how I get on.

It’ll be the same kind of practice, just approached from a different mindset. It’ll be about long term goals now, not just completing a challenge. Hopefully it’ll be something that I can keep up in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

And, now that this blog post is done, maybe it’ll be a little easier too (as I can stop writing it in my head, lol).

Make Changes. Make Choices.

This post was going to be about preparedness. I was going to talk about the five day yoga retreat I’ve just been on, and how not going to the osteopath before I went really hindered my ability to do all the asanas and meditation. Also I was going to mention the many ‘hikers’ in t-shirts, shorts, and trainers I saw slogging their way up to the very cold and very windy top of Snowdon afterwards. In fact the post was going to be called “I’ve got sun cream and a penguin!”, something I heard one of them say as I passed their group on my way down. I thought it kind of summed it all up really, the idea of the lack of preparation, and how we don’t do ourselves any favours sometimes.

But then I had something of a personal revelation, so I thought I’d go into that instead. It’s a bit of a mish-mash, so you’ll have to bear with me, but essentially it’s about being happy.

So a couple of weeks ago I realised that I was forty two, single, I had a beard, and I had recently become a member of the National Trust. Needless to say, this is not how the young me had expected his life to unfold, not by a long shot! Something had to be done. Something big. I immediately shaved the beard. It helped, but only a little.

I guess I realised that there was a certain underlying dissatisfaction with how things are, something that I’m sure will be familiar to everyone. I thought going on the retreat would help me gain a little perspective. It did, but not in the way I was expecting.

Being on the retreat was tough for me. Physically I was carrying an injury that made some parts difficult for me, plus I think I was a little run down as I constantly felt like I was coming down with something. But mentally as well, I sometimes found it hard to keep my emotions on a even keel. I’m sure never getting a decent nights sleep while I was there didn’t help either.

There were a lot of people there I didn’t know. People who were new to Sivananda yoga. From taking too much food to talking before satsang, they didn’t all quite enter into the spirit of things, and that was frustrating for me. Of course I know that’s my problem and not theirs, but still, it only served to unsettle an already unsettled mind.

I thought I didn’t get much out of the retreat, but all that sadhana seemed to have crept in somehow. After I left the centre I went to a YHA near Mount Snowdon from where I would do my climb (more broken sleep in a room with other people). I realised I was agitated, restless, keen to ‘move forward’. But I was also more centred, clearer in my thoughts, whatever those thoughts might be.

The simple fact of the matter is, I realised I could be anywhere doing anything, so why be somewhere you don’t want to be doing something you don’t want to do? Everything we do is a matter of choice, and whether we choose to stay or choose to go, we have to own it one hundred percent. If my life wasn’t how I wanted it to be, I had to do something to make it different. And there was no time to lose.

I hiked Snowdon, then the next morning I left the YHA. I still had another night booked, but there was no point being there. I’d just be sitting around twiddling my thumbs. It was Friday. I’d be back to work Sunday, so I only had one full day to start making things happen.

Also, I should mention the catalyst to my mood. Our tenancy agreement is up in a few months, and the landlord wants more money, for the same flat, after just one year! It made me mad. It made me want to take back control. And it really tied in with the ‘Where do you want to be? What do you want to do?’ thing.

This year in London was meant to be about getting published. Making a proper go of writing to see if I really had what it takes? Instead I got waylaid by working and teaching yoga and looking for a new girlfriend and, well, life in general. I may have finished a novel and a short story (rewrites not withstanding) but I feel like I should have done so much more!

So I’m refocusing on what I really want, and putting all the rest of it aside. I will put one full day a week aside for writing. That’s not to say I won’t write in between, but one day a week I will do nothing but! No karma yoga, no teaching, no shopping, no admin. Just me, the keyboard, and my ideas.

I’m still going to teach yoga now and then, and do the odd bit of karma yoga, but only if it’s right for me, not because I feel I ‘must’ or I ‘should’.

I’m going to put more effort into meeting someone too. I liked being in a relationship, so if I want that again I need to make it happen. I have been trying, a bit. There was someone I thought might be interested, but every time we talked about relationships she kept saying she was happy being single, so I never really went for it and told her how I feel. Always the way when you really like someone eh? Well I’m not going to do that anymore. If I want someone special in my life it’s time to do something about it!

I know this all sounds a bit dramatic, but there really is a sense of urgency to me now. I’m tired of the hum-drum, the lack of the control, the acceptance of whatever comes along. I want things to be better, and the only way to do that is to make things better. You’ve got to put the effort in. You’ve got to try. You’ve got to make choices to make changes, and you’ve got to do it now, because there is no tomorrow, and now is all we’ve got!

*phew*

Ok. Let’s take a breath. That got a little intense there towards the end there. To counter balance all that, how about some nice pictures of the view from the top of Snowdon? There were actually a few breaks in the cloud for once and I got one or two decent shots, which came as a nice surprise. Check these babies out:

the peak clears

sunlight on the lakes

summit, with train

snowdon lake

me in front of snowdon

Oh! And here’s the cream scone I had at the top, and the chocolate brownie I had when I came down; just because. 😉

a scone deserved

post snowdon tea and cake

And here’s a sheep! 😛

making friends

The Things You Own, End Up Owning You

It’s a line from ‘Fight Club’;

The things you own, end up owning you.”

I could just have easily gone with, “Mo money, mo problems.” Because it amounts to the same thing. The more you have, the more you need to do to maintain it.

living out the boot of your car

My car started acting up last week, so I put it in for a service. Turned out it needed a bit of work doing (which I expected). Bish bash bosh, £400 gone! That’s two extra days work I’ll have to do to pay it off. Or to put it another way, two more days I am unable to dedicate to my sadhana (spiritual practice).

shelf shrine

Swami Vishnudevananda tells a story in (I think) the book Upadesa:
(and I’m paraphrasing massively here as I don’t have the book with me)

“People ask me why it is important for a swami not to have any possessions? Well, just imagine, a student gives me a mug as a gift. It is a nice mug, I like the mug, and it becomes my special mug. No one else is allowed to use it. Then one day I see someone drinking out of my mug. I become angry, and I decide to lock my mug away. So I make a special box to keep my mug in. Now I worry that someone is going to steal my mug. I cannot sleep. My life is full or fear and anguish, all because someone gave me a mug as a gift.”

 

drying off

Owning things is hard work. Once you have obtained your possessions you have to maintain them, look after them, keep them in good working order. That costs money, so you have to work more. And even if you do everything right, eventually they will wear out, and you’ll have to buy something to replace it anyway.

Sorting out my car – researching garages, making sure I got a good deal, getting it there, getting it back, finding the money to pay for it – was a pain. It’s the price you pay for the convenience of owning a car, but I could have done without it to be honest.

It was so much aggro it made me wonder; If it’s like this owning a car, what must it be like owning a house?!

The things you own, end up owning you. The bigger the things, the bigger the burden. Unburden yourself as much as you can, and walk freely in the world.

You’ve Got To Want It!

That’s what my brother said to me when he saw me off at Perth airport, and I was talking about maybe living in New Zealand:

“You’ve got to want it if you’re gonna make it happen.” (or words to that effect at least, I can’t remember exactly).

Now this struck me because, when it comes to things like yoga and Buddhism, wanting things, having desires, gets in the way of our achieving that which we need (note: ‘need’, not ‘want’).

Certainly in terms of Buddhism, where having desires is considered the root of our unhappiness. I don’t want a Porsche 911 GT California, so it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have one. But if I did, it would! Concentrating on our desires is generally considered as not a constructive thing to do.

And as for yoga, desire leads to frustration which leads to tension which leads to us getting in or own way. Never mind the fact that pulling and straining ourselves into positions that we are unprepared for will almost certainly lead to injury in the end.

But it is generally accepted wisdom that unless you do something about your dreams and desires then there’s very little chance of them manifesting. I mean, you can sit and hope for a Porsche 911, but until you start saving up…

all I want is...

It’s a tricky situation. We all have desires. It’s human nature to want things. I mean I want a nice house in the country, a beautiful wife, a family, a cat, a writing career, and a sitting forward bend that I’m not embarrassed about. The list is absolutely endless, once you get going. And if you concentrate on what you want (what is missing) too much then you ultimately get depressed by it’s absence.

But at the same time, if you ignore your desires and do nothing about them they’re unlikely to come about. So what to do?

For the hardcore yogi or Buddhist practitioner letting go of all desires is the answer. No hopes, no fears, no possessions or ambition; you just accept what is and so be it. But this is a bit much for your average person. You’re talking about becoming a monk or swami ultimately, and that’s a big ask! Too much for this lifetime (for most people at least).

So what do you do about your desires? What do you do about wanting a house, or a girlfriend, or a Porsche 911? How do you get those things without them taking over your life? Oh if only I knew!

The best I can come up with is to hold them gently in the back of your mind. Recognise what it is you want, and then slowly move towards it. Build upon your dreams, bit by bit, until one day they are within your reach. But! be sure that, along the way, you don’t become obsessed. Because ultimately you might never get there. You will change, your dreams will change, and even if they are attained they are unlikely to make you as happy as you think they will.

So enjoy the journey. Be happy now, with or without a nice house, someone to hold, a smart car to drive. Because if you’re happy every day then you already have the greatest desire of all – Joy! 🙂

Match.com Hates Yoga

That’s the only conclusion I can come to after my recent experience, that Match.com have something against yoga.

It was a moment of weakness that led me to them. I’d just had enough of everyone going on about their new relationships, and how brilliant they were. It only underlined for me my very single status at the moment. It’s been a year now since my last relationship and, I’ll be honest, I’ve been feeling the loss. I like having a girlfriend, having someone to share things with and do things with, so late one night (ie: early in the morning) I decided to do something about it.

Everyone was meeting people through online dating, so I thought I’d give that a try. I’d done online dating before years ago, with mixed results, but the game has changed so much since then I wasn’t sure where to start (the site I used – Earth Wise Singles – no longer exists, for example).

I looked at Tinder, but it turns out you need a Facebook account for that. I’ve never had a Facebook account, and I wasn’t about to start one just for online dating, so Tinder was a non-starter for me.

I thought about going specific, like I’d done before, but all the yoga based dating sites I looked at threw up such a mish-mash of wishy-washy profiles – ‘Favourite Book: The Power Of Now!, Favourite Quote: Sieze The Day! – that I was instantly turned off by them.

Either that, or they were so totally inaccessible without registering first that I just moved on without wasting my time. I’m not going to register without first knowing what I’m getting myself into. My details are a commodity, and I’m not going to just hand them over without first seeing what I might get in exchange.

So that left me with the generic Big Boys. I looked at them all, but in the end I gave Match.com a go, on the strength of my neighbours recommendation.

Over the course of a couple of days I set up my profile. It took that long because trying to use the site from my mobile’s web browsers proved difficult. Quite a lack of functionality in fact. But anyway…

My problems really started when I tried to upload some photos. They were fine with the generic, smiley, big-face-head-on-to-camera ones, but when it came to my yoga poses they had some issues.

These were the offending photos I posted originally:

36. byron bay headstand
 
scorpion

I liked them because not only do I think I look good in them, but because I reckoned the backgrounds made me look like a fun, interesting, well traveled, date-able prospect, lol. Match.com, however, disagreed.

I received the following e-mail (twice) from them:

match.com hates yoga

I was a little frustrated, it seemed a little draconian, but I could see why they had rejected my photos; the first one because I’ve got me nips out, and the second one because you can’t see my face. But I really wanted a yoga pose as part of my profile, it was important to me, so I selected another photo to stick up there instead.

59. ghan/alice springs headstand

I thought this one would be fine. It ticked all my boxes – yoga, interesting, fun, well traveled – and it didn’t contravene any of their rules – no nudity, face on to camera, etc. – but no! Not good enough for Match.com apparently. This one was also rejected.

By now I was getting pretty frustrated with Match.com. I felt like I was having to jump through hoops to be allowed on their site. And that what I was allowed to put up there wasn’t really a fair approximation of who I am.

I was also shocked to discover that it costs £29:99 a month!, something they don’t mention until you’re deep into the process. Yes it’s cheaper per month if you subscribe for longer, but do you need a six month package? How good is their site if it takes six months to meet someone? And do you get your money back if you meet someone in month one?

It was all just too much for me. The aggro of setting up my account (there were a number of other frustrating issues), the cost, the innumerable e-mails they kept sending me that only served to underline my singleness, I’d just had enough. I deleted my profile.

I don’t blame Match.com. they’ve got a business to run. But I don’t think it’s the way for me right now. I was creating a profile from a negative starting point, and that’s no good. It wasn’t going to bring me what I wanted.

I still want to meet someone, but better maybe to get myself to a positive place and then find someone to share that with. I reckon I’ll have more success that way.

So for now I’m just going to work on myself, make Me happy, and hope that as I go through life someone comes along who likes what they see and wants to be a part of it. 🙂