Salisbury Pilgrimage

Salisbury has a massive cathedral. It has been a place of pilgrimage for the devout for centuries. It’s also home to the Magna Carta if you’re into your history. And the city itself is not far from Stonehenge, in case you like your monuments rectangular and ancient.

But none of that was of interest to me. I went there for the Terry Pratchett exhibition.

salisbury museum

I’ve been a Terry Pratchett fan for a long time now. I’ll be honest, I even shed a tear when the good man died on the 12th of March, 2015. But more than that, his books have been an inspiration for me in my own writing, showing me how to write engaging stories where no character could ever be considered to be incidental.

So when I heard that Salisbury Museum were holding a Terry Pratchett exhibition – Salisbury was Sir Terry’s home town – I knew I had to go check it out. I also like Salisbury a lot, so was glad of the excuse to go too.

keen

If you’re unfamiliar with the Discworld novels, they are a series of fun, funny, engaging and enlightening books that I would recommend to anyone. They are ostensibly fantasy novels, but don’t let that put you off. They are really just great stories about people going about their lives, trying to make sense of the world, a world that for them is a round disc flying through space on the backs of four giant elephants who are in turn stood on the back of a giant turtle.

great atuin and the disc

Sir Terry explains it better:

about the discworld

The books are great. If you don’t know them already I’d recommend giving them a go. But don’t start at the beginning. I know that’s counter-intuitive, but reading them chronologically is not necessary. And, to be honest, The Colour Of Magic isn’t the best one. For boys I’d recommend starting on Guards! Guards!, as it’s where the City watch stories begin. To me the best set of characters. For girls I’d suggest The Monstrous Regiment, a stand-alone book which is superbly written and features some strong female lead characters (something Sir Terry was particularly good at).

on having female leads

The exhibition was great. Lots of pictures by Paul Kidby, who illustrated most of the Discworld novels,

the librarian

plus a great number of artifacts belonging to the man himself, that give you just a hint of his character and wit.

terry's typewriter

terry's hat

The t-shirt, which he wore to conventions, reads:

“Tolkien’s dead. JK Rowling said no. Philip Pullman couldn’t make it. Hi I’m Terry Pratchett.” 😀

There’s a lot of love for Terry Pratchett and his work. He made you feel like a friend he had over for dinner. You’d laugh, cry, ponder and reflect together, always in a positive way, and always with tongue firmly in cheek. And at the end you’d feel like the world was a better place, if only for having someone like Sir Terry in it. I know that sounds schmaltzy but it’s true. Terry Pratchett was a friend to his readers, and they were all friends to him.

Don’t believe me? Just check out the love…

messages to terry

These are notes to and about Sir Terry, which the museum will pass on to his family. I wrote one too. Mine said:

Richard Stark taught me how to write.
Stephen King taught me how to write well.
Terry Pratchett taught me how I wanted to write.
An inspiration, now and forever.

They don’t all go on the wall. There wouldn’t be enough room for a start. There’s a postbox nearby where you can deposit your messages. In true discworld fashion, it has a monster living inside it. Can you see the eyes?

wizzard headstand

That’s me dressed as Rincewind BTW. You can do a bit of dress-up while you’re there too. The lovely staff lady who helped me do the headstand I wanted to do (below) suggested it. It’s tough doing a headstand in wizzard robes and a pointy hat, but I think I pulled it off.

My main reason for attending the exhibition was to check out the recreation of Sir Terry’s office. I wanted to get a feel for the man, and it seemed a good way to go about it.

terry prachett's desk

It was kinda special to see where the magic happened (or maybe didn’t, I can’t be sure. He apparently had several offices in his home, and could write in any of them), and I had to celebrate being there in the best way I know how, with a headstand.

80. terry prachett's office headstand

This is number eighty in the series. One day I’ll get to a hundred, but really, I’m in no rush.

I finished off my visit to Salisbury with lunch at the Cathedral Refectory. If you’re in town I thoroughly recommend it. The food is fantastic.

cathedral dinner

I got a lot of inspiration from my visit to the museum. It’s a great exhibition which I think everyone will enjoy, full of awesome artwork and amusing little tidbits from the man himself. In fact I’m going to conclude with one for all you aspiring authors out there. If you want to know how to be brilliant, you could a lot worse that this…

draft zero

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Dunmanifestin

Lying on the sofa playing Candy Crush is the road to happiness. It must be, coz I ain’t happy, and yet that’s what I do a lot of the time.

ullswater bench

People talk a lot about manifestation. They talk about it in wooly, wishy-washy terms that make you want to go, “Oh for God’s sake.” But at the heart of all this imagining-your-life-how-you-want-it-to-be is a kernel if truth: If you don’t know what you want out of life how will you ever get it?

Case in point – As I have mentioned before, I have been focused recently on getting my novel finished, finding an agent, and getting it published. I did that to the exclusion of all other things. And it worked. I now have an agent, we have been working hard together over the past couple of months to get my manuscript ready for submission to publishers, and now we are just waiting to see if anyone has an interest in bringing my work to the world?

I couldn’t have done that without a clear vision of what I wanted, and then putting in the effort to make that happen. But did I ‘manifest’ it? Did I imagine it into being? Who can say.

I think too often the idea of manifesting gets caught up in magical thinking. People concentrate on the idea of visualising what you want, and ignore all the hard work and effort involved in making that dream a reality (which is the lion’s share of the work). You have to work for what you want. It’s not just going to materialise out of thin air. But to attain that house, career, realtionship, life, that you desire, you need a clear vision of what you want it to be.

manifestation

Like I said at the top of this post, I ain’t happy, and the only way to move from unhappiness to happiness is to know what you want that happiness to be. So here goes…

1. I want to wake up every morning, after a good night’s sleep, eager to see what the day has in store for me.

2. I want a literary career that brings in enough that I don’t have to worry about money.

3. I want enough time each day to practice my sadhana (do yoga, meditate).

4. I want to share that sadhana with other people.

5. I want a nice house, not massive, not small, that is mine all mine, with enough room to do whatever I want, and no one to tell me I can’t.

6. I want someone to share that house with.

7. I want a family (before I’m too old to take my kids trampolining).

8. I want a cat. I will name him Dexter.

9. I want less of a belly and more energy, but I also want to eat good food.

10. I want nice views.

11. I want to go interesting places, and do interesting things with interesting people; because what’s the point of having a nice home if you don’t get to go enjoy going away and then coming back to it every now and then?).

12. I want to not have to worry about the future.

13. I want to be happy.

14. I want to make other people happy too.

That, my friends, is a list!

But, it’s a wooly list. It’s a vague list. It’s a set of ideas. It’s not a plan of action. For me to make this list a reality, for me to manifest it, I need a plan.

So what does it boil down to? Well…

1. Good diet and exercise – I need to cook better food, get out more, and make more positive use of my time. No more lying around on the sofa. No more crisps and cake. No more watching TV!

Achieving this is fairly straight forward, but to achieve it I need to practice mindfulness in what I am doing. Bad habits are easy to fall into. Awareness is needed to avoid them. I need to meditate daily to help focus my mind.

2. A better working life – this is a bit more of a toughie. The job I do, and get paid well for, is not conducive to the life I want to lead. I basically get paid a lot of money to sit and watch TV for twelve hours a day. It makes writing, doing yoga, cooking even, very difficult. I need to find a way to make good money doing something more regular.

What I am likely to do here is actually the opposite of what I need; to work more over the next twelve months, make as much money as I can, so that I can pack it all in and try something new. That extra money will give me the breathing space I need to take a chance.

It might make writing more difficult, but for the moment, until I have a deal (which could take months, even a year), that’s not something I need to worry about. Once I know what is needed I can adjust accordingly.

3. A nice house – this is the biggie! Houses cost money. Lots and lots of money. And nice houses cost even more. There are two ways to tackle this: One, make a lot of money, then you can buy what you want. Or two, readjust the parameters on what you consider ‘nice’.

I’m lucky, I’m really into the self-build, tiny house idea. I think they’re brilliant. They’re also relatively cheap. The only drawback with them is, living in England, the planning laws are a bit more challenging than you would like. Finding a place to park it can be a bit difficult (but that is just an obstacle to be overcome). But that also feeds into the idea of where to live?

This is very much on my mind at the moment because I have to move house in six weeks time, and not only do I not know where to go, I don’t know where I want to go.

The dream is to be living in the countryside, with nice views, but I can’t afford that right now. To make money I need to be near London. But London is so expensive, living here eats away at your cash. Is it better to be further away, pay less rent, then come in to town to work? And if so where? And at what point does the cost of travel outweigh the savings in rent.

I don’t mind admitting I’m drawing a blank on this one at the moment. Do I get somewhere small for a year, save my cash, then move away? Or somewhere nice that costs a bit more and have a better quality of life? Gratification now, or gratification in the future. It’s a tough one to deal with. I’m open to ideas.

And that quandary feeds into the other major point that needs tackling…

4. A relationship – this is a tough one for me. I’m a bit shy. But it’s not going to rectify itself, and I ain’t getting any younger, so what’s the plan?

Basically, online dating. Seriously, I don’t get to meet people much through work (my job is unsocial and isolating), I don’t get to meet people much through yoga (yes I meet lots of lovely women, but often it’s just in passing, dating students is a big no-no, I can never tell if the women I do get to know like me, or if they’re just being really friendly as yogis often are, and like I said, I’m a bit too shy to just ask them out), and so online dating is probably the best way to go.

I’ve actually had some success with this in the past. It circumvents the shyness in that you both know why you’re there. You can bypass the awkwardness and just get down to business (if you’ll pardon the expression). It makes it a little easier; not a lot, but a little.

These are my thoughts on dating vs housing: I could stay in London where there are a lot of potential dates. But if I want a nice place to bring a someone to I’m going to have to fork out for that. I could move somewhere cheaper and more isolated, but I’m cutting down on date potential. I’d be happier, maybe, but finding someone special would be a bit harder, probably. Or would it?

Now we’re solidly into speculation territory. Y’know what, I think I’m going to stop there. Once the variables get too many then you’re not planning anymore, you’re just mental rambling, and that’s not helpful.

My point is you need a plan. You need a clear goal to get to where you’re going. Your path may change (and in fact undoubtably will) along the way, but as long as you remain clear on your vision you should get there in the end.

But just visualising won’t make it happen. You have to walk the path to get to where you want to be.

Well, those are my thoughts on the subject. I am open to comments, ideas, suggestions, etc. Please feel free to leave a comment below. And if you know of any cute girls who might be interested in a slightly care-worn but still working yogi, please do point them in my direction. I’d love to hear from them. 😉

Y’know what, I’ve posted this video before, but it bears repeating here…

Yoga Retreat At Mittersill, Austria

Boy did I need a vacation!

You don’t realise how much until you go on one. You think you know, but once you actually unwind, then you realise just how twisted up you actually were.

sonnberghof mittersill

I went on a wee yoga vacation with the Sivananda people, at the Sonnberghof Hotel in Mittersill, Austria. It was brilliant. I mean, for a start, just look at the view!

alpine views

And that’s just one direction. There were gorgeous views all over the place.

Normally my Austrian yoga vacations happen in Reith, but a couple of times a year the bio-hotel there closes down for holidays of their own, so some of the yogis decamp to Mittersill to run their retreats from there.

They have a nice yoga room,

yoga room at mittersill

and a nice wee meditation hall,

meditation room

for sadhana and satsang respectively. And in between the bouts of spiritual enlightenment the hotel has an outdoor pool,

outdoor pool

as well as a selection of sauna/steam rooms you can enjoy, with a nice lounge area for you to relax in.

spa lounge
 
swing chairs

The routine was the usual Sivananda one of satsang at 6:30am, yoga at 8:30am. Then lunch, followed by free time. Then yoga at 4pm, lunch at 6pm, and evening satsang at 7:30pm.

The luxury of being able to do yoga twice a day is always welcome. You really do feel the benefits of your practise that much quicker when you can dedicate your time wholly to it. Of course it helps if someone else is cooking the food and cleaning up after you.

The food was very good. The kitchen staff at the hotel seem to have really got their heads around cooking sattvic food. I had to limit myself. The tempation to eat way too much was quite high.

The teaching was awesome too. They do offer tailored yoga programs at Mittersill, but I was just there for a vacation. I learnt a lot as we did our sadhana, including some new exercises to incorporate into my yoga, and some new ways to correct people when I’m teaching too. All in all a very profitable vacation.

I even made a new friend while I was there…

making friends 2

If you’re looking for a yoga holiday I can recommend Mittersill. The combination of yoga and spa is an excellent one. I felt incredibly relaxed by the end of my stay, and of course I wish I could have stayed more.

Instead I flew back, drove to the Lake District, and did an epic hike to the top of Helvellyn, lol.

Helvellyn Headstand, Helvellyn, Cumbria, UK

Kind of undid some of my good work, but got another shot for my headstand series so, siwng and roundabouts, eh?

Back in London now, trying to keep on with my daily practise, see if I can’t keep the flexibility I earned in Austria. I also need to prepare myself for the Sadhana Intensive in August. It’s pretty full on by all accounts, and I need to be at the top of my game if I’m going to get the best out of it.

Do You Suffer?

I came across this recently on the Post Secret website.


Image copyright Frank Warren @ Post Secret

Now it may seem bleak, but atually what this person has stumbled across is the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy.

“”I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach”
~ Buddha

Buddha laid out the Four Noble Truths for us, so that we could understand what he meant.

1. We suffer.
2. We suffer because we desire.
3. We desire because we have attachment. We can rid ourselves of attachment.
4. This is how we rid ourselves of attachment.

That’s a very basic stating of what the Buddha meant, but you get the idea. (click this link for a more detailed explanation).

I strongly believe that the majority of pain and suffering we experience in life comes from the ideas in our head. We think that the buses should run on time, that our bosses should treat us fairly, that our partners must act in a certain way, and we become frustrated when things don’t happen the way we think they should.

If we could just learn to accept what is, to enjoy the unexpected highs, and react less to the sudden lows, our lives would be a great deal easier; and happier.

Om.

Being Sattvic

I’ve signed up for the two week Sadhana Intensive course at the Sivananda ashram in Orleans in France this August. It is, by all accounts, quite intense (so much so that everyone I mention it to feels the need to tell me that).

You have to have a well established yoga practise to be allowed to do the course. And even if you do have a well established practise, there are a number of things you have to do in the lead up to it to prepare yourself for the course, so that you can get the full benefits of the exercises you will be doing.

Most of it I do already. No meat, no booze, no drugs, etc. That part’s easy. They also want you to do fifteen to twenty rounds of anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breathing) every day. Ok, not a problem, provided I remember to do it that is. Where it gets tricky is the sattvic diet.

Trying to follow a sattvic diet, sometimes called the yoga diet, is hard because of the way most ready-made food is made (even the good stuff). To follow the sattvic diet you need to be vegetarian, but also cut out things like garlic, onion (including spring onion, shallots, leek, etc.), caffeine, and a few other things I didn’t even know about.

an unsattvic shopping bag

This is the bag of shopping I bought before going to teach last night. Now I’d been good in not buying veggie sausages. Pretty much all of them contain some form of garlic and onion. In fact most pre-prepared veggie foods have garlic and onion in, mostly because they’re cheap and they add a lot of flavour. But garlic and onion unsettle the mind and make meditation more difficult, so we need to cut them out apparently.

So I avoided the sausages, but what I didn’t think about was the ketchup and baked beans. They don’t have garlic and onion on their ingredients lists, but I’d be surprised if the catch-all term ‘spices’ didn’t include garlic and onion somewhere along the line. So, no ketchup and baked beans for me.

Ok, that’s fine. But where else did I go wrong? Well, mushrooms it seems are a bit of a no-no. I don’t know why? Perhaps it’s something to do with the cleansing quality they are considered to have in Chinese medicine, so much so that you’re meant to avoid them when ill, as they will rob your body of vital nutrients. Or perhaps it’s that they can be ‘gas inducing’, as I just read somewhere. Not what you need if you’re going to be doing lung cleansing exercises.

NB: Just so you know, I’m not saying I believe all or even any of this. This is just what people say.

So that’s half my shopping bag out. But what about the rest? Well, the chocolate pudding is no good because of the caffeine. And depending on who you ask I should probably be avoiding the bell peppers as well, because they’re a bit spicy. Which leaves me with the bread rolls. As far as I know, no one has a problem with bread, yet (though I’m sure someone would have something to say about yeast!).

Anyway…

For my purposes, a sattvic diet means vegetarian food, no garlic, no onion, no mushrooms, no caffeine. Fine. But what about the rest of your diet? What about what your mind consumes?

Swami Krishnadevananda used to tell a story about when he was at the Paris centre. He would spend all week meditating and trying to be sattvic, then on his day off he would go see all kinds of stuff at the movies. Not that he used to go see stuff that was deliberately violent or anything, I just think he wasn’t being too discerning in what he went to see. He eventually realised the pointlessness of doing all this hard work during the week, only to undo some of it on his day off. That’s why he quit going to the cinema.

That’s not to say moives can’t be sattvic. It’s just that the sattvic ones are few and far between. And often not good. When I was staff at the ashram in Austria we used to have movie nights. The films they chose to show that I can recall are Peaceful Warrior, some borderline TV movie with Nick Nolte as a zen master/warrior mechanic type thing, Stardust, a modern fairytale which has more famous faces in it than it deserves, and The Mahabarata, a six hour epic adaption of a nine hour stage play of which the less said about it the better.

Now while these films weren’t exactly bad (with the exception of The Mahabarata which was boring in the extreme!) they weren’t exactly good either. Take away the things that cause the biggest reactions in people – guns, violence, sex, etc. – and you’ve got to be pretty skillful in writing to come up with something that is both interesting and which moves people; in the same way that you’ve got to be a good cook to make nice food when some of the biggest flavours are taken away from you.

So what are good sattvic movies? Well, I’ve been wracking my brains, and this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Now it might seem a little obvious showing a film set in India to a bunch of yogis, but set that aside and what you have is a brilliant film about people being people, trying to come to terms with their own lives in the best way they know how. It’s a great film, and if you haven’t seen it I strongly recommend you give it a try.

I know it’s a kids movie but Pixar are the masters when it comes to making films the whole family can enjoy. And Finding Nemo is one of their absolute best. It’s surprisingly moving, and funny, and well worth your time. In fact I’d say pretty much anything by Pixar comes under the ‘Sattvic and worth seeing’ catagory, they’re just that good.

So, as you’ve probably figured out by now, being sattvic in todays world can be tough. They put garlic and onion in everything because they’re cheap easy ingredients to add flavour. They put sex and violence in everything because they’re cheap easy ingredients to get a reaction with. To be sattvic we need to be discerning about what we consume. We have to check the list of ingredients very carefully. And most important of all, if we’re not sure, we have to be strong enough to just put it down and walk away, and go find something more beneficial for us to enjoy.

The good stuff is out there people, it really is. You just have to but a bit more effort in to seek it out. But when you do, hopefully you’ll find that the effort has been worth your while.

It isn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. As the Stoics say

“Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.”

I can give up garlic and onion. I can give up mushroom. I can even give up chocolate, though that’s going to be tough. But giving up tea, oh man! Now there’s a challenge and no mistake.

caffeine delivery system

Wish me luck! 😀

Oh, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall off the wagon every now and then. Even the best of us trip up on occasion. 😉

Let’s Talk About “Stupid”

I have friends who won’t use the word ‘stupid’. They see it as too negative, and so unhelpful in their spiritual growth.

They get upset if you describe something as stupid, they get very upset if you jokingly say something they have done is stupid, even if it is (some people don’t see a distinction between having a laugh with someone and making fun of them, which is exhausting); and, bizarrely, they even have a go at you if you describe yourself or something you have done as stupid (because it’s not ok for you to judge yourself negatively but it is ok for them to patronise you for some reason).

Personally I think all words were invented for a reason, and they all have their place. Yes, finding a positive way to look at things is a good thing to do, but sometimes no matter how hard we try we end up doing something stupid, and there’s no getting away from that.

my view of the satsang

A couple of weeks ago I was offered the chance to go to India for a month to help out on a Teacher’s Training Course. I said no.

I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink in…

I’m guessing most of you reading this would have jumped at the chance for what I believe would have been an expenses paid yoga ‘holiday’ in India. I know I’m starting to think I might have made a boo-boo.

So why did I say no?

For one thing, that was my knee-jerk reaction. Being asked to help out with the TTC was interesting. But then it turned out they wanted me to go to India, to do the technical side of things – sound mixing, lighting, etc. – and it was in a month’s time. Each new bit of information made it sound like a less and less attractive prospect. But why?

Taking each point as mentioned:

There’s an assumption that is you do yoga you have been to, or want to go to, India. I personally have very little interest in doing that. It’s just not on my radar. I have a big list of places I do want to go, and India isn’t one of them. If I’m going to spend my money it’ll be going places I want to go.

Though I do a technical job, I hate it. I just do. I mean, I know a lot of technical stuff, and I’m actually pretty good at it, but when it comes to what I like doing I err on the side of the creative. I like thinking, and making, and doing. Plugging in wires and adjusting sound levels is just boring.

I can do stuff at short notice, but going away for a month in a month’s time is a daunting prospect. I mean I have a flat, and work, and all kinds of stuff I want to be doing over here. To just up and leave so quickly is a bit mind-blowing.

And that’s another thing – money! Even if the flights, food and accommodation was taken care of, it still would have cost me £1000-1200. What with rent, bills, etc., plus the fact I wouldn’t be earning any money while I was away, I’d certainly be out of pocket by the end of it all.

But would it have been worth it?

As is natural, I started to second guess myself. Had I been too hasty? Perhaps I could have gone after all. I mean, it would have been an interesting experience. Most would give their right arm for such a chance. And I could certainly do with the holiday/sadhana time.

It’s hard to turn down what, on paper, is a good opportunity.

I started leaning towards the idea of going. I started persuading myself.

A few days later I contacted the swami to get some more details, but it turned out I was too late. They’d already found someone else. I wasn’t sure how I felt?

So I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Was I stupid to turn down such an opportunity? Should I have said yes straight away? Should I at least have thought about it for a while before saying no? The fact of the matter is, I don’t think so.

Sure, maybe I should have gotten some more info and then sat with it for a while, see how it felt, but my initial reaction was to say no, and if I wasn’t excited from the offset about going, if I had to persuade myself into saying yes, then I’m not the one for the job. It’s something for someone else to enjoy.

So, was I stupid in saying no? I was not. I didn’t really want to go, and besides, there’s a lot here I want to be doing instead. Stupid would be to not learn from the experience. To spend the next month doing nothing, instead of writing, or teaching, or getting on with one of the many other things I keep saying I want to do. To sit on my fat behind eating pizza and playing video games. Now that really would be stupid!

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