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.

‘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?

Life As A Karma Yogi

I’m half way through my time at the Sivananda Ashram, so I thought it’d be a good time to do a wee review of what it’s like to live the life of a Karma Yogi.

Just so we’re all on the same page, a Karma Yogi is a voluntary member of staff who lives and works at the ashram, doing whatever needs doing around the place. In return for this ‘selfless service’ you get fed and watered, the chance to do your yoga asanas every day, plus chanting and meditation sessions, and hopefully you get to advance in your practice little by little. For this reason it’s also known as a work/study program.

So, where to begin? Well first off I can tell you that I’ve certainly gone up in the world in terms of accommodation. I mean here’s where I started out on the TTC,

old digs

then I got moved to here,

new digs

and now look at me!

newer digs

Doing alright for myself, don’t you think? ..lol..

So, you might think it’s a bit weird being obsessed with your bed. But let me tell you, when you have to get up at 5:30am every morning – actually, I get up at 5:15am as I have some duties to perform before the 6:00am Satsang every morning – where you sleep and how you sleep suddenly becomes very important indeed!

And you don’t get a lot of other chances to rest apart from when you go to bed and your one hour break each day. Just check out the schedule on a typical day (if there can ever be such a thing) I had last week;

05:10 – Wake up before your alarm goes off. Weigh up getting up early versus five more minutes sleep. Choose sleep.
05:15 – Alarm goes off. Drag yourself out of bed and into the shower.
05:50 – Get to Satsang (daily chanting and meditation) ten minutes early to had out translation devices. Probably find out you forgot to charge them the night before. Panic a little.
06:00 – Satsang. Wait to see if you get asked to lead some kritan singing. Pray you don’t.
07:35 – Staff meeting. Find out what the plan is for the day. Get given a list of stuff to do.
08:00 – Join the guest yoga asana class.
08:20 – Get pulled out of class as the food order has arrived and it’s your job to check it off and put it all away.
10:00 – First meal of the day. Usually dahl, grain, veggie and some salad.
10:30 – Wash dishes and clean kitchen top to bottom along with other karma yogis.
12:15 – Continue figuring out where to put all the food that’s turned up. Pack and repack the fridge trying to get it all in.
13:30 – Take your break. Go online and spend the next hour replying to e-mails, uploading photos, and trying to blog (eg. this post you’re reading now has taken 4 days to do).
14:30 – Do your Sadhana (spiritual practice, consisting of asanas and meditation) since you couldn’t do it in the morning.
15:30 – Go down to check the translation system is charged up for tonight.
15:50 – Cook a meal for fourteen people even though two weeks ago you’d never done anything like that before.
17:45 – Panic that you won’t finish cooking in time. Worry that you haven’t made enough.
18:00 – Second meal of the day.
18:30 – Clean kitchen top to bottom again.
19:15 – Second Satsang of the day. Get there early for karma yoga again.
20:35 – Get disapproving looks when the translation mike runs out of power for the second time in two days.
21:00 – After Satsang, go rummage around in the store-room for a different mike as the one you have is clearly faulty.
21:30 – Go online. Answer the e-mails you didn’t have time to answer before. Do more blogging.
22:00 – Go to bed. Set alarm for seven hours time. Pray it won’t be freezing cold when you get up in the morning. Count the days ’til your day off.

And that wasn’t even one of the ‘eventful’ days, like when we have dozens of guests or there’s an early morning puja (religious ceremony) or something.

blessed book
My travel notebook, blessed during one of the pujas.

Seems quite hectic eh? But weigh that against the perks of the job. Good food, nice digs, the chance to do yoga and meditation each day, and the opportunity to go on the odd outing here and there. I mean, take this moment for example;

You don’t get times like that working in an office, now do you?

Plus, the work isn’t so hard. I mean they give you as much as you can handle – what I call The 3-C’s of Karma Yoga; Cooking, Cleaning and Carrying Stuff – but not so much that you’re overloaded and want to run away. They know that we choose to be here, and if we don’t like it we can choose not to be here, so they strike a fine balance between challenging you and pushing you too far.

That being said, you’ve got to do whatever you need to do to keep sane. With some it’s sleeping as much as possible, for most it’s going online, but with me it’s snacking! Whatever happens, I gots to get me some snacks each day or I’d go mental.

This was my first snack hidey-hole,

the naughty snack corner

then I graduated to a drawer!

more naughty treats!

Next it’ll be a snack desk! ..lol.. I mean, I’m not doing my belly any favours, after all the weight I lost during the TTC, but you gotta do what you gotta do, right?

So it’s hectic, yet manageable; but still, you do enjoy your one day off a week! A lie-in, a chance to rest, and some time to catch up with the ‘real world’.

Unfortunately there’s not much to do round here. Reith is a one horse town, seasonally busy, so closed most of the time. Kitzbuhel, nearby, is bigger but similar. But at least it has a few coffee shops and that which you can go to during lunch time (proper shops close from 12:00-15:00, I kid you not!). Like I say it’s kinda boring, but you go anyway just to have some time away. You need that mental break now and then.

And that’s it really. That’s what it’s like to be a karma yogi (well, if you’re me, anyway). I’m enjoying it, but at the same time I’m looking forward to going traveling. Not just to visit California, Australia, New Zealand, etc., but also just to have more than one lie-in a week! No matter what I do I can’t get used to being up before 6am. It’s just not for me.

I can handle the next 4 weeks, but after that it’s long sleeps and lazy starts for me for a while. I just need the rest. Then I can start getting my head around opening a centre of my own (if I haven’t had enough by then that is, lol).

Not that I can complain really. I mean, this was the view when I got up yesterday morning.

morning blanket

snow in the valley

How gorgeous is that! And tonight the full moon was so bright it lit up the entire valley. So bright in fact that when you looked at it it left an after image on your eye. I’ve never seen it like that before. When I think of that, and then think of how I could be in London working a night shift, I know how lucky I actually am.