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.

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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.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbours Ikea

Desire can just spring out of nowhere. I mean you’re walking along, minding your own business, and then… *BAM!*

I went to the yoga centre today to do some karma yoga. They had me cleaning out one of the bedrooms, ready for the trainee teachers that’re coming in on Sunday, and in the room was this gorgeous looking chair.

I want one

Now I don’t know about you, but that chair works for me. I like the shape, I like the design, and I even like the colour of it. It’s a chair I’d like to own.

And that’s the crazy thing! I went from not knowing of that chair’s existence to seeing, to liking, to wanting; all within the blink of an eye. One minute I’m fine, the next there’s a chair shaped hole in my life!

Like it

Ok, I’m slightly exaggerating here. It is a nice chair, but I think I can live without it (especially considering how much it is). But I’m not exaggerating how quickly the desire to own the chair, or at the very least sit in it, came upon me.

In a world of instant gratification, where everything is geared towards fulfilling our desires as quickly and as easily as possible, we’ve got to watch out. It’s all too easy to just give in, go for what we want, only to find we either no longer want it once we have it, or we get bored with it really easily and start desiring something else.

Our desires are just thoughts, and like all thoughts they arise and then they pass. This is where meditation helps. It allows us to observe these thoughts/desires as they come and go, allowing us to not give in to them or the idea that having what we want will make us happy.

Fulfilling our desires is not going to make us happy, not for long at any rate. In fact it can often have the opposite effect. Think about it; the more stuff you have the more stuff you have to dust. And unless you really like dusting…

Our desires are no more real than our fears, our dreams, our doubts, or our prejudice. They are just thought patterns that arise, exist for a while, and then fade away. The more we can practice non-attachment to such things the happier we will be. Because in those moments when we want for nothing, and are in fact just enjoying the beauty of life, that is when we are truly happy.

It’s still a nice chair though, lol.

Addendum: I did sit in the chair by the way. It wasn’t the most comfortable. Needed a cushion for your back. But it was wide enough to sit cross-legged in, which I like. So all in all, not ideal, but not so bad either.

Forty Days And Forty Nights

Last Tuesday was Pancake Day. Or, to give it it’s proper name, Shrove Tuesday.

Now I always have pancakes on Pancake Day, I love pancakes, but I rarely give a thought as to why we have pancakes on Pancake Day?

pancake day screen grab

NB: For the Americans out there, what we in the UK call pancakes you call crepes. What you call pancakes, I would probably call dropped scones. Or maybe not, I’m not entirely sure of the recipe. But anyway…

For those that don’t know, Shrove Tuesday (aka Fat Tuesday; aka Mardi Gras) is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar. It’s your last chance to go big before giving something up for forty days and nights as a kind of spiritual cleansing and/or penance. And the reason you eat pancakes is to use up the eggs, milk and flour that would normally go off before the forty days of Lent are up.

Now I don’t consider myself particularly religious, but I thought this year that I’d give it a go. But what to give up?

once you pop, you can't stop

I’ve had this low-level Pringles addiction going on for a while now. Once opened, a tube in my house will rarely last til morning. I don’t blame the Pringles. I mean, they warn you in the advertising; ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop!’ But do I listen? Do I ‘eck as like!

So I’m going to lay off the Pringles for the next forty days (FYI: day forty is Palm Sunday, the 20th of March). In fact I’m going to cut out all fried crisp type things altogether. That includes Hula Hoops, Squares, Monster Munch, vegetable crisps, in fact anything that comes in a little pack and has way more fat, salt and sugar than they should. But mostly it’s the Pringles.

Denying yourself something like this is, I find, good spiritual practice. It allows you to exercise self-discipline, mindfulness, force of will, and in the end when you are finished you feel much better about yourself and what you have achieved.

But I don’t just want this to be a ‘negative’ experience, and have it be all about taking something away. So I’m going to meditate for thirty minutes every day too, to add something to my life as well. I’ve always found it hard to start a regular meditative routine, so this is my opportunity to give it a go and see how I get on. And it’s just for forty days. I think I can do it for that long… probably.

Anyone else giving anything up for Lent? Or maybe you’re adding something positive instead? Let me know in the comments below. I’d be interested to hear how you are getting on.

When Does Mindfulness Matter Most?

Mindfulness matters. It improves your yoga and meditation, it stops you getting too lost in your thoughts and emotions, it basically improves your life all round. But when does it matter most? Or rather, when should you be most mindful of your mindfulness?

when mindfulness matters most

It’s easy to remember to practice your mindfulness when you’re doing yoga, or when you sit down to meditate, but I find those aren’t the moments when a lack of mindfulness is most likely to cause you problems.

I had a lesson in lack of mindfulness this week whilst I was making breakfast. I’d made my tea, buttered my toast, and I was just reaching around the kitchen roll for some multi-vitamins when *yoink!* I pulled something in my back! It was the twisting and reaching without thinking that did it. Nothing big, just a nasty little twinge; but it hurt, and it put the kibosh on my yoga for the day.

I don’t know about you, but I find that its not when I’m carrying a sofa or something like that that I injure myself (that’s when I’m most careful about what I’m doing), its those times when I bend down to pick up a pen without thinking about it that I pull something and end up laid up for a few weeks. Or to put it another way, those little moments when I’m not being mindful because I’m doing something I’ve done a thousand times before.

When it comes to mindfulness there are no small moments, no times that are more important than others. Mindfulness is an all day, every day kind of thing. Every moment matters, because when you take your eye off the ball… *yoink!* 😉

Meditative Walking

Here’s how you meditate: You sit on a cushion, close your eyes, and just breathe. Right? Well, not always.

Sitting is one way to meditate, when the body is still but the mind is busy. But there’s also another way, when the mind is still but the body is busy.

Any repetitive task can be meditative if done with mindfulness, and what’s more repetitive than walking? Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot… You get the picture.

I’ve been doing a lot of walking recently. Really getting into it all of a sudden. When you’re puffing your way uphill and concentrating on not slipping and landing on your behind there’s not much time to think about anything else. Talk about one-pointedness!

I keep joking that my little bouts of walking over the past few months are like a meal. The starter was of course the Sivananda Summer Retreat in Wales.

over from the lodge

back down the valley

a valley peak

yogis at the water's edge

We saw some inspiring and energising sights, but the walks were necessarily short due to time restraints. After that course I was keen to do more. So, a few weeks later, when I went to visit my friend in Austria, I got to enjoy the main course.

My friend is really into her walking and let me tell you, it’s amazing how much you can get done (and how far you can go) when you get up and get out the house in the morning!

hilly

reflective

into austria

our overnight

moon rise

effects

I really caught the hiking bug when I was in Austria, and I think you can see why, so when I got back to England I kitted myself out in loads of new gear (I discovered jeans and Caterpillar boots are not ideal hiking equipment) and set out for a little bit of ‘dessert’.

Luckily, at the moment, the Lake District is right on my doorstep.

back towards keswick

valley 2

rolling greens

near the end, at the beginning

view from calf crag toward grasmere

Beautiful, no? You don’t forget sights like that in a hurry. I certainly felt like I’d eaten my fill. But, as it turns out, that was not to be the end of my ‘meal’.

The coffee/mint/brandy and cigars (?) to the whole thing was an epic walk to the top of the highest peak in Wales (and second highest in the UK) – Snowden.

This was where I found a good challenge. It’s all well and good doing a walk when it’s lovely and sunny, but when the weather turns on you then where are you? Hopefully, calm, concentrated, and above all well prepared.

When I set off you could see the weather was going to be a little ‘interesting’. NB: That’s Snowden in the background… somewhere.

rhyd ddu, snowdon obscured

the path begins

It started off getting cloudy…

into the clouds

Then it got wet…

a little damp

It got hard to see where you were going…

finding your way

Until eventually things started getting a little silly.

the way I came

Just before the top I had to huddle behind a rock to check my map, battered by the wind and hail. I wasn’t worried. I had maintained mindfulness of my situation all the way up, I knew where I was, knew the dangers, knew what I could handle, and if I couldn’t go on I was prepared to get back down safely if need be. Just one more benefit of maintaining a meditative practice.

As it turns out though I was just a few minutes from the top! I just couldn’t see it because this is all I could see (seriously).

view from snowdon

Conditions were a bit nuts at the summit. Really wet and windy.

to the top

So it was with a real sense of achievement that I made it there.

made it

at the peak

I even, for old times sake and because I haven’t done one in ages, did a headstand picture.

76. snowdon summit headstand

Couldn’t do it right on the top. The wind was too strong.

After the experience of getting up there, going in the summit cafe to warm up was both very welcome and highly bizarre.

summit cafe 2

summit cafe 1

You can get a train up to the top….

summit railway station

Which I heard in the clouds as I reached the peak, and which I thought was the wind. Really freaked me out. But not as much as walking into a room full of tourists. Quite a surreal experience.

I celebrated my achievement with some tea and cake (and a pie)…

my reward

And then it was time to contemplate the descent.

I came down quicker than I went up, because I knew once I got below 800 metres I’d be out of the wind and rain. Of course it started off wet…

the way back down

But soon things started to clear…

emerging from the clouds

the path home

And I could look back with a sense of achievement…

looking back

As well as enjoying what the future had in store.

snowdon ranger yha, below

Not least of which was a set of warm, dry clothes, lol.

drying off

Walking and leaving the world behind is a great way to centre yourself, and bring you into the here and now. Walking in a mountain top gale doubly so. But like all things in life, if you go forth well prepared, both mentally and physically, and you keep your head no matter what happens, then success is yours for the taking.

Sivananda Summer Retreat in Wales, 2015

“Sometimes, life gets in the way.”

It’s one of my old Tai Chi instructor’s favourite sayings, and I tell you what, he wasn’t wrong about that. Despite your best intentions, sometimes your sadhana has to take a back seat to so called ‘real life’.

That’s the position I found myself in recently when it was all change in terms of pretty much every aspect of my life. I’ve had a lot to deal with over the past few weeks, many of which is ongoing, and so my spiritual practice had to take a back seat to the basic practicalities of life.

I found I had to do something to get things back on track, which is why I decided to do the five day Sivananda Summer Retreat in Wales. If a steady diet of double yoga, double satsang, lectures and meditative walks didn’t do the trick, nothing would.

snowdonia mountain lodge

lodge 1

lodge 2

lodge 3

from the lawn, to the valley

The location for the retreat was a new one for me; the Snowdonia Mountain Lodge. It’s a little further than Gaunt’s House, the place I’ve been to previously with the Sivanadas, but I found the drive up fairly straight forward. Motorways and main roads most of the way in fact. From London it was a good four or five hour drive, but with the first yoga class on day one being at 4pm, that gives you plenty of time to get up there.

I actually had an unusual journey, in that I went up the day before – after having picked up a load of stuff from the yoga centre for transportation – and stayed nearby with a friend. It just broke things up nicely for me, and I arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to dive into my sadhana.

Actually, my first bit of spiritual practice was, of course, karma yoga, lol. I helped set up the stuff I’d brought up from London, which turned out to be everything for the altar and things for the boutique.

the altar

yoga room

sivananda shop 1

sivananda shop 2

Our set up was actually in the corner of a much larger boutique that they have at the Mountain Lodge. The lodge itself has strong connections with the Dru Yoga organisation, so any visiting yogis will find their needs well catered for (check out those snacks!).

retreat shop 1

retreat shop 2

retreat shop 3

Karma yoga over with (for now) I got to have a wee scout about before everyone else turned up. I scoped out the Peace Flame,

peace flame

and the Peace Bridge,

lodge 4

peace bridge

by the peace bridge

not to mention the Peaceful Views of the surrounding valley (anybody spotting a theme yet?).

over from the lodge

We’d chosen a lovely day to arrive, and everyone kept telling us it wouldn’t last, but I’m glad to say the sunny weather lasted nearly the whole retreat long, with just the odd shower to liven things up now and then.

The program for the course ran the same as it does for the TTC:

6am – Morning Satsang (medtiation, chanting and short lecture)
8am – First Yoga Class
10am – Brunch
11:30-3:30pm(ish) – Lecture & Meditative Walk, alternating depending on weather, and of varying lengths and start times, with a break in between
4pm – Second Yoga Class
6pm – Evening Meal
8pm – Evening Satsang
9:30pm – Finish/Bed

Apart from meals, every event lasts about an hour and a half (except the lecture which is about an hour) so there’s time in between to relax a little bit, but not too much. The program is pretty full on, but such practice has great benefits, as it really brings you out of your daily life and makes you concentrate on your sadhana. And that, after all, was the main reason I was there.

Two full yoga classes a day really improves your asana practice quite quickly. I’m not saying I could touch my head to my knees within the five days, but I did end up being able to do a very rudimentary Pigeon which, whilst not pretty, is at least fully realised (and I’ll let you figure out what I mean by that for yourselves, lol).

There were two levels of class on offer, a beginners/intermediate class and an intermediate/advanced class. Tempted though I was to give myself a break now and then, I stuck with the more advanced class. I know I’m lazy, and I need to be pushed, and so it was the perfect one for me. The teaching was provided by Narada and Sundari, two of the staff members, and was excellent as always. Though I often went into a class a bit tired, I pretty much always came out more energised (and generally quite hungry, lol).

soup and salad

pasta

crumble

retreat lunch

crumble and custard

Food was provided by the staff at the Mountain Lodge, but cooked using Sivananda recipes and under guidance from the staff, and I must say they did an excellent job. Everything we had was tasty, and I had to literally restrain myself from having thirds (seconds was a foregone conclusion) a lot of the time.

And so many nice puddings too! Never had so much sweet stuff on a Sivananda retreat. Not only at the meals, but after the walks as well. From chocolate mousse to rice pud to crumble and custard, I dare say everybody’s sweet tooth was more than satisfied.

Thank goodness was had the walks to burn off those extra calories, lol. The region around the Lodge had lots of great walks we could go on. A couple we could do right from the front door, and a couple we had to jump in the cars to go do.

The first walk was to a nearby hillside lake (what I would call a Tarn, being from Oop Norf as I am).

A five minute drive up the valley and a short walk brought us to the lake. NB: The walks are done in silence so that you can concentrate on calming the mind, linking your breathing to your walking, or just enjoying the energy of the beautiful surroundings.

meditative walk to the lake

yogis contemplate by the lake

Here we had a short meditative contemplation before carrying on around the lake to the other side.

from the far side of the water

second meditation

at peace

From here we could see back down the valley to where we were staying. Our accommodation is one of the white dots near the road in the first picture, but I honestly can’t say which one anymore, lol.

back down the valley

a valley peak

As Swami Jyotimayananda said, it’s amazing how invigorating being in nature can be. You forget the stuff you do day to day, but walks and scenery like that stay with you for a long time.

The other big walk we did was to Newborough Beach on Anglesey. This was a new one for everybody so Swamiji asked me to drive out there in the morning to check out the route and see what was what. It meant missing the lecture, but since it was on Positive Thinking and I’d done the Positive Thinking Course at the London Centre with Swami Jyotimayananda, I really didn’t mind.

I felt the responsibility of getting everyone to the beach. We were a convoy of about seven cars all in all, and I had to pull over a couple of times to allow everyone to catch up. We lost two cars along the way, but thanks to sat nav, and making sure everyone had a nearby postcode, those two cars actually got there before the rest of us, lol.

The beach was gorgeous, and we walked the full length of it before heading out onto a spit of land for our meditation (and a bit of a lie down).

a meditative walk on the beach

newborough beach

in the footsteps of a swami

yogis at the water's edge

yogis by the beach

wales from anglesey

yogi at rest

As I said, and as you can see, we got really lucky with the weather. Lovely sunshine and gorgeous views; what more could you want?

I thoroughly enjoyed the summer retreat. I won’t lie to you, it was tough at times. You know me, I likes my sleep. But I persevered, and I certainly felt the benefits afterwards.

I was invigorated by my time in Wales, and that carried through into the following weeks. I keep getting up early and doing things, which is crazy for me. Getting everything you want to do done and then looking at your watch and finding out it’s still morning just blows my mind, lol. I mean it’s great, but with so much time in the day what do you do with yourself? 😉

I’d recommend giving the retreat a go if you haven’t been on one before. It’s not as far as it seems, and once you’re there the benefits you gain far outweigh the effort required in getting there (much like yoga itself, lol).

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

Guess what? I’ve discovered this amazing new way to get really good at yoga! All you have to do is just lie around all day binge watching Britain’s Got Talent on youTube. That’s what I did last night, and I want to get really good at yoga, so it stands to reason that it must be true, right?

undoing all the good work

It’s my long standing lament. “I should do more yoga!” Say what you like, but it’s the only way you get good. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, of course. But how much practice should you do? Well, that all depends on what you want to get out of it.

If your aim is to get really stretchy really fast, you’re probably talking a couple of full sessions a day (maybe 3-4 hours in total). That’s how much I was doing during my Teacher Training Course, and after a month of that I was finally able to do a proper, legs-straight Plough for once (now a long and distant memory). Now I’m not in any rush to get bendy, but I would like to do a proper, head-to-knees, sitting forward bend once before I die.

om by the pool

But yoga isn’t all about the gymnastic contortions, is it? It’s also about Realising The Self (what the Buddhists would call Enlightenment). The original purpose of the asanas was to allow you to be able to sit and meditate for longer, without getting all stiff or sloppy in your lotus pose.

So how long should you practice if self realisation is the goal? Oh, about twenty fours hours a day, three hundred and sixty four days a year (you can have Christmas off, lol). Because practicing Mindfulness – the path to self realisation and the purpose of meditation – is never ending. It’s not just about the exercises. Mindfulness should be in everything you say, think, feel, do and are.

salabhasana - the locust

Ok ok, I hear you say, so how much to be able to sit and meditate properly? Or to just stay healthy? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I like to do a full session a day when I can. I’m talking an hour to an hour and a half every day. That usually keeps me in a flexible mood. But unfortunately, that’s not always possible.

If I’m working (twelve hour shifts!) I do what I call the bare minimum: Pranayama (breathing exercises), Sun Salutations, a few extra asanas if I have time, and at least five minutes Final Relaxation (the most important part of any practice). Then on my days off I do a full session. I find this is enough to keep me on an even keel, though sadly not enough to make any advances asana-wise.

mayurasana - the peacock

At the end of the day, who’s to say how much you should be doing? As I said at the start, it all depends on what you want to get out of it. The only thing I can say for certain is, only you know if you’re doing enough or not, and if you feel you should be doing more, then chances are you probably should.

I know I should, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it too much. Little and often, that’s the key. And for now, with all the work and traveling that I do, as long as I can do a little something every day I’m going to count it as a win (clip binges and cake notwithstanding, lol).

Thinking About Thinking

The other day I left work for lunch. I was heading down the high street to the shops, about a ten minute walk, when suddenly… I was there! I was at the shops. And I couldn’t for the life of me remember getting there.

It was like the intervening ten minutes had just disappeared, vanished into thin air. I could remember setting off, then my mind wandered, and then I arrived.

I realised that, whilst my mind had been busy thinking about things, my sub-conscious had been in charge of the rather important task of getting my body from A to B. And that worried me a little because, mine though it is, I don’t think my sub-conscious always has my best interests at heart.

It dawned on me that, for that ten minutes, I had not been practicing my Mindfulness. I had been locked in a Thought Pattern, and much like the landing pattern of an airplane on a cloudy day, rather than coming in to land my thoughts had just been going round and round and round and ultimately getting me nowhere.

**It should be noted that I wasn’t even having a useful thought. As I recall I was lost in some fantasy discussion about something in work that was never going to happen (and indeed never did).**

please be mindful

I’ve tried over the past few years to cut down on such occurrences, as they are not helpful and can even cause us problems in our daily lives. Think about it: Ever gotten in your car and driven in the wrong direction? Or gone shopping and come back with almost none of the things you went out for in the first place? Ever found yourself in the middle of an argument and wondered why you were arguing so vehemently about the ‘proper’ way to make a cup of tea? All can be attributed to a lack of Mindfulness.

To practice Mindfulness is to keep your attention in the here and now. To be aware of what you are doing as you are doing it, and to not get lost in thoughts of the past, future, or a now that isn’t real. And such practice starts with meditation.

**For a detailed explanation on Mindfulness check out this blog post by the Buddhist monk Wayne Ren-Cheng.**

You have to sit and practice observing your thoughts when there are no distractions, so that when you do go out into the world with all it’s hustle and bustle and clamor and noise, you’re better able to catch yourself becoming lost in a pointless Thought Pattern, and to bring yourself back to the reality of daily life before you step out into the road and get run over by the Number 37 bus (be that literally, or metaphorically speaking).

I’ll certainly be trying to practice a bit more Mindfulness from now on. At least by doing that I’ll be the master of my own fate (as much as any man can be, lol) and not just casually handing over the reigns to the careless, back-seat driver that is my sub-conscious self.

‘To Shrine, Or Not To Shrine…

…that is the question.’

Or rather, do you need an altar to be a good Yogi, or not?

shrine

I’ve seen many an altar in my day, some of them all gold and sparkly, like the ones at the Samye Ling Buddhist Monestary in Scotland.

shrine

Whilst others were more modest, down to earth and homely, like in the meditation cabins at Vajrapani Institute in California.

sunlight on the shrine

But I’ve never had an altar of my own, partly because I’ve never had anywhere to put one, but mostly because I couldn’t see the point?

My path to yoga came via Buddhism, most of which was self taught, and though I visited the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick a few times, I never took part in any of their ceremonies or pujas. I’m not a big believer in ritual for ritual’s sake, preferring to concentrate on my own personal experience and inner growth.

It was only once I started studying with the Sivananda Organisation in London that I gained some experience in such things, and from that started to see some value in them.

both of us in front of the altar

Having an altar, or shrine, can be useful in that it gives you a focal point, somewhere physical you can concentrate your mental efforts. You place there items of significance, and pictures of your gurus, and they can help remind you of what you are trying to achieve and how best to go about it.

You shouldn’t blindly prostrate yourself before the altar because that’s what you’ve been told to do, Buddha was dead set against that sort of thing, but if it can help you further along your spiritual path then why not?

And that’s the thing you see, only you can say if having a shrine or altar will make you a better Yogi or not, because only you know if it will be an aid to you in your studies, or a hindrance?

And the same goes for having a guru:

“If, though, by the conjunction of conditions, someone understands what the Buddha meant, that person doesn’t need a teacher. Such a person has a natural awareness superior to anything taught. But unless you’re so blessed, study hard, and by means of instruction you’ll understand.”
– Bodhidharma

 
Or in other words, if you think you need a Guru, get a Guru. And if you think you need a shrine, have a shrine.

When I moved into the last place I was staying I decided I’d like to have a wee altar to help concentrate my spiritual efforts. There was an old fireplace that seemed to be the perfect place for something like that, so I just picked up some bits and pieces from the local shops (vase, candle holders, etc.), bought an incense burner and some postcards of the swamis, wrapped a cardboard box in wrapping paper, et voila! One altar.

fireplace shrine

Y’see, these things don’t have to be all fancy. As long as you like them, and they have meaning for you, that’s all that matters.

And you can’t be too precious about these things either. I had to move house a few weeks ago, and so when my circumstances changed, so did my altar.

shelf shrine

Not as nice as the one I had before maybe, but so what if it’s just a wee bit of space on a shelf? It’s a bit of space set aside in my life for spiritual pursuits; a reminder for me to do my sadhana, to keep in mind the values of my teachers, and to remember what I am trying to achieve and how best to go about it.

And if it can do all that, then it’s done it’s job admirably, and no mistake; which at the end of the day is all that matters really, isn’t it?