Maitri

Let me tell you a story of love.

chill love

For a few months now I’ve been living as a resident at the yoga centre I go to. I still work, I pay rent, but then I spend my free time at the centre helping out; teaching, cooking, sitting on reception, whatever needs doing.

Being here all the time not only allows me to practise my sadhana at a deeper and more consistant level, but it also allows me to connect with the students that come here much better than I was during the ninety minutes I saw them when I was here teaching before.

One such student is an Indian chap called Mohandas. (Not his real name. Mahatma Gandhi’s real name, in fact.)

Mohandas is a lovely man. Very quiet, very calm, always eager to talk to you, to make a connection. He is in his seventies or eighties (I’m guessing), comes quite a distance to visit the centre, and probably enjoys the company as much as anything else. But you know what, I doubt he’s much different than the rest of us in that respect.

I had only ever seen Mohandas in reception – we would chat a little about his family, I would encourage him to come to yoga and satsang – but I never saw him in a class or got to teach him at all. Then one day I went in to do a class and there he was.

The way things worked out I found myself lying next to him. We had to move his mat to get it in line with everybody else’s, and that was when I discovered how frail Mohandas actually was. I had to help him stand up to move his mat. It made me wonder how he would fair during the class, which was an avergae, drop-in, intermediate class.

Class began as always with chanting. As we got ourselves ready Mohandas struggled to get himself upright. Then when he tried sitting on a single low cushion he couldn’t keep himself where he was, and kept rolling backwards towards the mat. I went and got him a thicker, higher cushion, and the teacher and I helped him onto it. He seemed ok, the chanting began, but as it continued I saw Mohandas roll slowly backwards, until he was lying flat on his mat but with this thick cushion under the small of his back.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to do. We have always been taught not to disturb the chanting. But then Mohandas looked up at me with pleading eyes, and said very quietly, “It hurts.”

I was compelled. The outpouring of love I felt for this man was unbelieveable. I saw myself in him, and him in me. There was no separation.

I immediately helped him up, the teacher came and held him while I removed the cushion, then I went and got a chair from outside for him to sit on. We helped him into it, made sure he was comfortable, and then we continued with the class as normal.

All the time Mohandas was apologetic, sorry for all the fuss, and never once did it occur to me that it was a problem. This sweet man needed my help, and I helped him in the same way I hope someone would help me if I was ever in need of it.

To be honest I was far more annoyed with the girl who, as I was in the middle of helping this man, asked me to remove his mobile phone that he had brought into class with him. There I was, chair in hand, this poor man in need of a seat, and she interrupts with her request. I was amazed. I simply told her, “One thing at a time,” got Mohandas settled in his seat, then popped his valuables into a locker for him and gave him the key.

Mohandas did the breathing exercises in the chair, proceeded valiantly through the sun salutations and asanas, enjoyed a well deserved final relaxation, and finished the class back in his chair for the Om Tryambakam.

At the end of the class I helped Mohandas get his things, we talked about the gentle classes we have available at the centre, he apologised once again, once again I told him (completely honestly) that it was not a problem, and he went home.

I wanted to share that story with you because such a feeling of loving compassion is not one I have often felt. Only once or twice in my life have my own thoughts and feelings been so completely with another person, identifying with them in such a way that, in helping them, I am also helping myself. It was a unique moment for me, a profoundly spiritual moment, and one that I will remember always.

And if you’re wondering about the title, the word Maitri means Generous Compassion. ~“Maitri is like a mother’s tender love, but expressed toward all living beings, not just for one’s own biological child.”~

“The simplest acts of kindness,” said Mahatma Gandhi, “are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”

 

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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. 😉

The Yoga Of Climbing

I just got back from a climbing taster session at White Spider Climbing – a little treat I gave myself in honour of my 42nd birthday tomorrow – and I’ve been wracking my brain as to how to incorporate yoga into the climbing experience.

receiving instruction

I mean you could talk about breathing. About how proper breathing keeps you calm and helps you climb better.

where next?

Or you could talk about relaxation. How keeping calm and relaxed helps you not get too tired too quickly (because you’re all tense and burning up energy) which in turn enhances your ability to climb.

nearly there

Or you could talk about mindfulness. How keeping your mind on where you are and what you are doing allows you to find a good route, while at the same time stopping you from panicking as you go higher and higher.

bouldering begins

But all of that applies to pretty much anything you do. It’s not unique to climbing. So how specifically does yoga help you with something like climbing and bouldering? Well, I’ll tell you: It’s upper body strength.

bouldering victorious

That’s the thing people in our group (all beginners) commented on the most; how much effort it was in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.

Now I’m not going to tell you I found it easy peasy. I still had to put a lot of effort in. But I have no doubt that if I didn’t do yoga on a regular basis, exercising my upper body and building up its strength and flexibility, I’d have had a much harder time of it than I did.

All told it was great fun, but in the end it was over far too soon for me. I wanted more! In fact I’m already looking forward to going back to have another go. And if yoga helps me up that wall then its just one more reason for me to keep up with my sadhana (as if I needed any more, lol).

New Thinking For A New Year

The new year is generally a time for resolutions. For people to make promises to themselves to do something different in the year to come. But do they really work?

for yoga

Personally I’m not a fan of the whole new year resolution thing. I think that if you want to change something in your life the time to do it is now, not just January 1st. However, if it helps get some people kick started on the change they need then who am I to argue.

I recently did a four week Positive Thinking course at the London Sivananda Centre, and the Swami there had some interesting things to say about how our minds work and what we can do to change our ways of thinking.

Because that is what is required for most of us to be able give up smoking, stop chewing our nails, eat healthier or do more sadhana (spiritual practice), is a fundamental change in the way we think about things. And that ain’t easy to come by.

Here’s a few of the notes I took on the course, presented in the order in which I took them. Perhaps some of the ideas will strike a chord, and maybe help cement your own resolutions for the coming year.

Thought is an energy you project. Thoughts have a form; thought have weight.

We tend to view thoughts as formless, being electrical impulses in the brain. But sad, angry, depressing thoughts can weight us down and make us feel heavy and lethargic, whereas happy, joyful, uplifting thoughts make us want to skip and dance.

We alone, among all beings, are able to choose our thoughts.

Changing circumstances means nothing if you cannot change the mind.

You can throw out all the chocolate in the house, but until you change how you think about chocolate, you’ll never stop craving it as much.

Changing our minds changes out lives.

Thoughts lead to actions. Repeated actions become habits. We can change our character by changing our habits. Your habits shape your life into the future (your destiny).

Thought → Action → Habit → Character → Destiny

Change your thoughts to change your destiny.

Thought is energy. Thought is alive. All that lives wishes to keep living [longer].

That includes not only all those negative samskaras (mental habits) that we have, but also all the positive ones too. The more we concentrate on the positive, and starve the negative of attention, the sooner the one will replace the other.

Negativity does not build up overnight.

Just as it took time, and repetition, for us to build up these negative mental habits that affect our lives, so it will take time for us to build up the positive ones to replace them.

Prevention means studying the law of cause and effect. Illnesses have a cause. So does being well.

You must recognise when you are unwell, recognise when you need rest, and do something about it. The body and mind deserve to be treated well.

Prevention in yoga means daily practice. It does not have to be much, but do something.

Removing a negative habit requires our choosing not to do something day by day. Adding a positive one involves choosing to do something day by day.

Anything we do to take our life back is considered positive. It inspires us. It allows energy to flow again. In the beginning it is connected to the physical movement of prana.

The mind and body effect each other greatly. When people want to change their lives they don’t always know where to start; so they come to a yoga class, do the exercises, and afterwards feel great both inside and out. Physically moving the prana (energy) helps move it mentally too.

As a man thinks, so he becomes.

Everything we think and do has a result. Therefore we must have discrimination in our actions. Positivity is a decision: So is negativity.

I can’t expect something beautiful from a half-hearted effort. Well-being does not drop from the sky.

You get out of your practice what you put into it. If you don’t try, you don’t get; simple as that.

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Good luck with those new year’s resolutions everybody. I’m sure you’ll do great! 🙂

Om Namah Shivaya!

International Yoga Day Announced

Apparently, the United Nations has just adopted a new resolution to declare June 21st ‘International Yoga Day’. The move was put forward by the Indian Prime Minister Modi in a speech he made to the UN in September, describing yoga as “India’s gift to the world.”

(silence)

This is just the latest in a series of moves the Indian Government has taken to safeguard and promote yoga in it’s traditional form. In 2001 they created the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, as a means of protecting ancient knowledge shared by all from being patented by the few (as was happening at the time). This was eventually expanded in 2008/9 to ‘copyright’ 1500 yoga poses so that no one person could claim them as their own.

Finally, in November 20014, they appointed a Minister for Yoga and Traditional Medicine, to oversee all of their good work so far, giving him a remit to ensure that yoga practice returns to it’s more spiritual roots. It seems they are concerned that a lot of what makes yoga so special is being lost in some people’s concentration on becoming bendy, and really you can see why.

om bags

The BBC report on the adoption of International Yoga Day posits the ridiculous question “Can Yoga Solve Climate Change?”, to which the simple answer appears to be “Don’t be silly.” But that’s only if you consider yoga to mean just the exercises people do (the asanas), often without the spiritual aspect as well.

To study the complete yoga system is to practice the mental as well as physical components – meditation, mindfulness, and proper relaxation – and in doing so to gain a better understanding of ourselves, our actions, and the effect we have on the world around us. We also come to understand that the idea we are separate from our environment is an illusion, and anything we do to it we do to ourselves. So maybe, from that perspective, yoga can change help solve climate change (in part, at any rate).

a lakeside contemplation

In my opinion anything that promotes yoga is a good thing, as it can only benefit everyone in the long run. And while I don’t think the creation of an International Yoga Day will change your average beer-drinking, meat-eating, TV-watching person into a full on yogi, a forum for introducing the asana-only yogi to the more spiritual aspects of their practice will certainly be of benefit to a great many people in the years to come.