The Tribulations of Embodiment; or Body Image in Yoga

This Mental Health Awareness Week is focused on Body Image and I have to admit I was going to ignore this theme and just focus on mental health in general. Unfortunately this is a problem that I struggle with a lot and some old toxic habits have reared their ugly head recently.. So it all just felt a bit raw and I was going to steer well clear of it.

But then suddenly yesterday I realised that instead of staying stuck in my own emotional quagmire, I could zoom out a little and look at the big picture, and examine it through the yogic lens. It would seem obvious that yoga and the body go hand in hand, and I’m sure there will be plenty of articles this week about the rise of instayogis and idealised imagery that we are supposed to live up to and expensive leggings we’re supposed to buy and how damaging that is to mental health…. That’s fine but I’m more interested in what yoga philosophy can tell us about the meaning of the body, what are the implications of being embodied and how the physical aspect is only one part of our experience.

Society’s love affair with the body

We are bombarded all the time with images of idealised, impossible to achieve (or maintain) physical standards, which, as visual creatures, we can’t help but fall in love with. Economically speaking, these are very useful – they drive the massive industries of fitness, beauty, fashion, even the food and drink industries. (charcoal smoothie, superfood salad, anyone?) It would be useful for us to remember that these have no bearing on reality and frankly should have nothing to do with our own self-esteem. Or you could call for more regulation of advertising and stuff.. But actually I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon simply because the way our society is driven by this carrot and stick game of chasing after perfection and buying stuff to make that happen.

Even more than that, we are hard-wired to glorify a physically attractive body. From a survival perspective, a healthy, strong, virile body is what will keep the human race alive. Clearly it was the more fanciable cavemen and women who propagated and here we are, our very survival instinct tells us to go after attractive specimens of humanity (and by return, to try and BE one of them so that we will survive).

Even though humanity is far from the danger of extinction, this impulse is deep inside and we can’t resist it. But now, the ideal of beauty changes depending on what’s going on in society – during times of plenty being skinny is the thing, during times of lack a lovely juicy big bottom is desirable.

Isn’t it interesting how our standards of beauty change all the time? It’s funny how we don’t notice how arbitrary it is.

Body Image and Self-Worth

Humans are social animals and subscribing to these random rules of beauty (big eyebrows this year, glossy lips last year) is one of the ways that we bond ourselves as a clan. When we try to live up to these standards we are really striving after a sense of belonging – of survival, of love. For that reason, ideals of physical beauty are always going to be a part of the human narrative and the way our society works. What makes this relevant to mental health awareness week and why the real problems begin is when the judgement of our physical bodies spills over onto the rest of ourselves. It becomes about more than shedding a couple of pounds, and more like – ‘because my body doesn’t look a certain way, I am a bad person’.

As we’ll see later (in the yoga part of this blog) – the body and mind are interwoven completely, one could say that they are expressions of each other.. And yet – based on everything we’ve just said, surely it seems crazy that we would judge our validity as a human being on something as arbitrary as a form of physical beauty?

Not only that, but it works in the opposite direction as well. When you are feeling bad about yourself emotionally and mentally, it can express itself through physical self-loathing. My own issues of body image and disordered eating flare up not when my body is not looking right (whatever that may mean) but rather when something else is going badly in my emotional life.

This is, I suppose, what body dysmorphia is all about. No wonder we look at our own bodies and see not just skin, muscle, blood, pulsating life – but a catalogue of places where we don’t measure up. Not only do we have unrealistic standards projected all around us that we can’t resist the urge to try and live up to, for evolutionary and instinctual reasons, but because of the complexity of our human emotions, our self-worth becomes entangled in this value system, and manipulating the way our body looks becomes a way of controlling the way we feel and how we cope with the world.

So, can yoga help with all of this??

The body-mind-spirit discipline of yoga is an excellent tool to tackle this massive problem. And indeed, a lot of the insight and self-awareness I have now has come to me through yoga practice and conversations we have in this world.
However, yogis are still people and we are still participating in modern society and unfortunately the yoga world is not immune to beauty standards and practices of judgement..

Unfortunately I’m sure many people come to the practice in order to change the way their bodies look  – and on a bad day I also do this. “Ohmygod I haven’t practised today but I ate that extra thing, how am I going to burn it off” (How awful that looks written down but unfortunately that sh&t is in my head).

Fortunately the yoga world is actually holding a fairly useful dialogue, inspired by ladies like Jessamyn Stanley, about the ridiculousness of the idealised yoga body which is invariably white, skinny, blonde and wrapped in overpriced leggings.

However in yoga there’s another danger – one of the ways the practice has helped me battle my own issues is that I started focusing on how fun it was that I could do the postures, rather than how my body looked. I realise more and more that this is another form of toxic judgement – we shouldn’t have to be able to touch our toes in order to be a valid person.

Again, people are talking about this more and more – but I think that in order to get to the heart of the problem we need to go deeper.

Yoga’s view of the Body

Historically, yogis saw the body as something abhorrent, an obstacle to the spiritual path. The Maitrayaniya Upanishad refers to the “ill-smelling, unsubstantial body which is nothing but a conglomerate of bone, skin, sinew, muscle, marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm – what good is the enjoyment of desires?” and it wasn’t until Tantric times that the body was seen as a spiritual vehicle, and expression of the divine. By the time Hatha yoga was being practised, the body was seen as an instrument which could be fine-tuned in order to experience enlightenment as a full-body event.

This understanding was based on the view of the body laid out in the Upanishads of the self made up of five ’sheaths’  which constitute our body, mind, and soul:
Annamaya kosha – the physical body
Pranamaya kosha – the energetic body
Manomaya kosha – the mental/emotional body
Vijnyanamaya kosha – the intellectual body
Anandamaya kosha – the bliss body

Far from denying the importance of the body, this system explains how you can’t get anywhere without it – and how necessarily interrelated the levels of our being are. Then we are given a map to work gradually from the visible and tangible physical self towards the subtlest level of being, pure consciousness.

The tantras describe how the beginning of any action is the first impulse of will (iccha-shakti), which is wrapped around by knowledge, (jnana-shakti) and finally takes form as action (kriya-shakti). This process describes the divine acts of god and nature – but the same principle takes place in our own bodies. Any action that we take must necessarily begin with an impulse of will. First an idea or an external trigger causes ripples in our nervous system > we respond to this with emotion or sensation > a movement arises in response > the body creates tissues around the movement, so that our actions and habits are cemented by our fascia, muscle and bone.

In this way our bodies are literally an embodiment of our thoughts, practically speaking – concrete forms made of the way we live. Whether our actions are eating cookies so we lay down some extra adipose tissue, or practising yin yoga so our fascia is lengthened, or running marathons so our heart is strong, or carrying our bag on our left side so our shoulder is droopy, or working a stressful job so we have high cortisol levels, or texting a lot so our thumbs are very dextrous, everything we do makes us how we are. When my students bemoan tightnesses in their bodies I say – but these are just souvenirs from life. Your body is literally what you do and where you have been made tangible in the form of flesh.

For that reason, then, our bodies are mutable – if we can change the way we live, then we can change the way our bodies are – on an individual scale, and as a society. After all we saw above how the ideals of beauty change depending on the cultural and economic values of a society..

This constantly adaptable and responsive physical entity is what the Bhagavad Gita calls the Field of Action (kurukshetra). Our embodied self is where spirit takes form, and the way that consciousness (whether you think of it as a universal spirit, or the individual soul), experiences the world.
All of our senses, nervous system, the ability to move, speak, pick things up and put them down – all of these are our spiritual tools to explore the world and interact with the people and things within it.

“AS a man casts off his worn-out clothes
And takes on other new ones in their place
So does the embodied soul cast off his worn-out bodies
And enters others new.”
BG II.22

If our bodies form around the way we live, then it means they are exactly the way we need them to be for us to learn the lessons that life has to teach us. Things that present a challenge to me might be easy for you, simply because our experience and our knowledge are different because of where we’ve been. Similarly our bodies all respond to the yoga postures in different ways, depending on our genes, our lifestyles, all of our actions.

Through our bodies, then, we can open ourselves up, always learning, on own personalised route back to peace.

Despite what the early yogis might have said, we necessarily are existing in the world.  Donna Farhi says “Where else but the body can we experience consciousness? We have to go through the body, we cannot go around it”.

“The liberation that is attainable by the shedding of the body – is that liberation not worthless? Just as rock-salt is dissolved in water, so the Absolute (brahmatva) extends to the body of the enlightened yogin.” –
Yoga-Shikha-Upanishad

How to be embodied

Yoga is a practice of witnessing, so let’s witness.  To practice mindfulness is to see things as they are. And the closer we look at the body, maybe by studying anatomy, maybe by practising asana, maybe just by paying attention to the way our bodies are created by our living, the more we realise there is nothing to be upset about. As Michael Stone said, “You can know the body as a body – the more intimate you are with the breath the less personal it is.”

We are embodied –  and that’s great! But we need to zoom out a little and notice the big picture.  Body image is not going to be sorted by thinking positively, ‘I’m beautiful’ or ‘I’m ugly’ .
The more we pass judgement (negative OR positive) on our own and each other’s bodies, the more we get caught up in the game.
What happens to me is I get drawn into the body-fixing trap, eat less, overexercise – get into shape, and feel good. Oh, nice! I feel like everything is okay… until another bad day and suddenly my body image is all skewed again (because after all it doesn’t really depend on how you look) .

Buddha found when he practised asceticism that there was no limit to the attempt to purge ourselves physically.. This kind of war with our body will only end when we die.
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind – Shunryu Suzuki

What we really need to do is change our perspective on the whole thing – zoom out, and understand what the body really is – an expression of the ALIVENESS of nature.
If we can all realise that, just like the clouds or earth, like birdsong or the beating of the heart, our bodies are beautiful simply because they ARE.

Mental Health Awareness Month – how yoga can help; and when it can’t

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, and next week (13th-19th May) is the annual Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, as hosted by the Mental Health Foundation since 2001.

We all have Mental Health

The dialogue on Mental Health is growing in support and engagement all the time and thank goodness – not only is anxiety and depression a growing problem worldwide due to the ever more hectic pace of life and the pressure of comparison we all feel due to traditional and social media – never before have we had so many images of perfection around, never have we been just so well informed of the intimate details of what people we hardly know are up to (or rather, of each other’s highlight reels – cause who cares to hear about our bad days, detail of our struggles?)
Not only is the cacophony of notifications increasingly draining away our attention, but no one is immune to this.

To leave aside demonising social media for a moment – Mental Health is relevant to everyone, as more and more people are acknowledging. Yet there is still a stigma and shame overshadowing conversations about mental wellbeing – for some reason admitting you are struggling feels like admitting defeat. But, you would never feel guilty for going to the doctor with a broken leg..

This is how I like to talk about it – if you think about your physical health, we are all on a constantly fluctuating scale. One day your head hurts, another day you have an upset tummy, on the third day you cut your finger, one day you have to miss work because of a virus, and unfortunately the scale goes all the way to serious afflictions that can put your very life in danger.
The exact same is true of your mental state. On one day you feel invincible and joyful, on another you are a bit irritable and tasks are less appealing – on another day you can’t cope with the world at all.
Now this is not to say that we are all in the same boat – because we can’t compare a runny nose with cancer nor can we equate a bad mood with serious mental illness – but this is simply a reminder that we are all human, we are all susceptible to problems of mind or body, and should never be ashamed of admitting that something isn’t right.

Yoga can help

More and more, mental heath charities, support organisations and even the NHS are recommending yoga and other mindfulness practices to help relieve mental health issues. And this is awesome! So – like any good yoga and mental health article, this piece should list some of the benefits, hey – so here:

  • calming the nervous system – the mindful linking of breath, attention and movement encourages the parasympathetic nervous response of the autonomic nervous system, which means ‘rest-or-digest’ mode rather than ‘fight-or-flight’. Biologically speaking, then, we slow the heart rate, we reduce blood pressure and inflammation, improve the resilience of the nervous system and all of these allow for better functioning of the body in general, increasing a sense of wellbeing, lowering cortisol (stress hormone) levels, increasing serotonin, and gradually slowing the incessant stream of thoughts.
  • being in the moment – even the physical practice of asana is a mindfulness practice as we focus so closely on the breath, concentrate our attention onto the body and the often weird shapes we’re doing (try balancing on one leg and worrying about your to-do list at the same time. not gonna happen, my friend) . Anxiety and depression in particular are ‘big picture’ stress responses – when we focus on the here and now, we can hold our overarching problems a little at arm’s length, at least until we slow our breath down and our brain works a little better to sort things out.
  • working with the subtle body – yoga builds our awareness of our mind, our emotions, and our body, and also of how all of these things are connected. Notice when you are feeling joyful or dejected, you can feel it in your physical body, in a particular place and as a particular energetic force. Excitement often is a lift of bubbly light at the top of the chest, depression a sinking feeling in the belly or across the shoulders. Subtle anatomy explains these sensations by describing the various energetic seats in the body – it will be no surprise that the heart is the centre of compassion, the navel the source of confidence and will. But also, the base of the spine is our centre of groundedness and safety, the hips emotional storecupboards, the lungs the seat of grief, the heart the abode of joy. In yoga, we can use posture and breath to work with these centres, to release and activate our emotions and our powers and become more in tune with what we are going through.
  • body image – this particular point is the theme of the Mental Health Foundation’s initiative next week. 30% of people describe feeling overwhelmed by stress over body image, and no surprise. I already talked about the overabundance of artificially perfected imagery, add to that the massive food and drink industry and the fitness and wellbeing business always pushing this or that on us. There are more and more ways to feel Not Good Enough. Food and exercise have such a massive effect on the way we feel and live and they can unfortunately form part of a toxic toolkit of self-punishment, restriction, and grasping at control in a chaotic world. I have gone through this myself, and I’m sad to say that it’s a struggle that I haven’t completely overcome, but in this ongoing challenge, yoga is my ultimate touchstone. At first it was a way of refocusing my attention from how my body looks to what it can do, and how it can feel. Magic! And yes, I’ve got stronger, but more than that I feel how temporary the body is, and I’ve managed through Yoga to catch a glimpse of something deeper, radiant, and eternal.

Maybe Yoga Can’t help?

Having listed all the amazing benefits and sold you yoga to the max, I now have to get a little real.
I’m a fixer. Whenever anyone tells me about a problem, my brain immediately goes OK, Right! Let’s seee… whether it’s a yoga posture for improved digestion, pranayama for lowering blood pressure, or an ayurvedic root for grounding (let’s hear it for shatavari my friends, <3)
Obviously there are benefits to this – but in real life it can not always be a helpful response, in particular if the problem is something that is out of your hands, like illness or disbalance – and especially if the problem is one of a racing, anxious, and bullying mind.

Unfortunately this article (as I’m sure you’ve already realised) is coming from my own personal experience of mental and emotional struggle.
Now, the way it goes in my head is this: but you do yoga every day! asana, pranayama, study, meditation, journalling.. my vegan diet is ayurvedically balanced, almost completely local and organic, jeeez. Why, then, do I still feel bad?
That’s when I start to feel like even more of a failure.
(See how I said we shouldn’t judge people for suffering mental struggles? That’s easier to do with others than yourself…)

I start to think – how can it be, that my beloved yoga isn’t solving everything?
But then I realise that it’s not that yoga isn’t solving things – it’s the fact that I’m applying the same neurotic mindset to my yoga as I am everything else. The yoga technology, like anything else, is a tool – a container for our humanity, complete with the rollercoaster of all of our frailties.
Thankfully the system has made provision for this with arguably the most important practice (and one which I have clearly neglected) – vairagya – letting go.

OK Yoga does help actually

Vairagya – dispassion, is the practice of releasing your grip on the results of your practice, of stepping back, and instead of pushing and willing things to change, you just let it be. Let yourself be.

The times when my anxiety and fear have loosened on me and seemed to step back are exactly when I have stopped fighting them. When I realise that it’s OK to not feel OK, when I stop trying to find the answer, and instead rest in not knowing, then my heart starts to open.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but equally, you wouldn’t continue to work, to rush around, if you were sick with the flu – you have to give your body space to rest and recover.
Your mind needs the same – space, peace, ahimsa (compassion). The more you beat yourself up for feeling bad and not being strong enough, the less likely you are to feel resilient again.

So please, (and I’m mostly talking to myself here), give yourself a break. Practice ahimsa and vairagya and some self-love – feel your feelings and know that the people around you are just fighting the good fight just like you.

I WISH YOU ALL PEACE DURING THIS MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH

Yumi Sakugawa, There is No Right Way to Meditate

NEED HELP? just talk to someone, a friend, your GP, even your boss – I’m sure you will be surprised at how much understanding and compassion you will meet. Otherwise:
breathingspace.scot
www.wellbeing-glasgow.org.uk
www.mentalhealth.org.uk

the constancy of change and rebirth of spring

We just had Easter and I have come to realise that for me, it far outstrips Christmas as far as holidays go. This time of year brings lovely lambs, warmer weather (if we’re lucky in Scotland- thankfully this year we are, yipee!) , pink blossoms burgeoning on the trees, not to mention some excellent sweet treats (vegan creme egg, anyone?)

I inevitably started reflecting on why Easter is so much nicer – not only is it less In Your Face than Christmas and obviously has more pleasant weather.. but there is a deeper optimism at the heart of the holiday that celebrates the turning of the seasons, the greater scheme of the Natural order.

the Wheel of the Year

©Katonah Yoga, illustration by Susan Fierro

Sometimes at the end of winter it drags on so long (especially in the delightful climates that I have lived in..ahem Scotland..ahem Russia) that we forget what sunshine feels like. Wrapping up in scarf and hat still at the end of March it’s easy to get frustrated – but really we should trust in the cycles of nature, and know that no matter how cold it is now, it will change. Spring and Easter time are the reminder that we will emerge from the darkness.

The Dark Side of the Moon

Tao Te Ching, 2

The thing is, in order for Spring to come, we have to go through the darkness and grimness of Winter. If Christianity is your bag – the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection can only take place because he died and descended into hell..
There can be no light without darkness and we cannot emerge, sparkling into the daylight, without spending time in the stillness of the night. Our world is so go-go-go, we tend to forget the importance of pausing to reflect, of letting go, of confronting the darkness so that we can release it and come full circle into the light.

The turning wheel of the year should reassure us that it’s ok to spend some time in the dark, that the light will always come to follow.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna reminds us that the circular pattern of nature applies to us also and this is why we should trust and have no fear:


For certain is death for the born and certain is birth for the dead; therefore, over the inevitable thou shouldst not grieve. Bhagavad Gita – 2.27

be Reborn every moment

the cycles of the ages (Yugas)

The cycles of nature are so powerful that they permeate the world at every level – according to Hindu philosophy the world goes through a cycle of yugas (ages) – currently we are in the darkest of the ages, Kali Yuga. Typical!
Zoom in and there are the orbits of the planets; the cycles of the seasons, and ever 24 hours day moving through night.
These same cycles happen on a micro scale within our own bodies. Our tissues are constantly renewing themselves; women obviously go through moon cycles, and everyone has their circadian (Latin, circa, around; diem, day) rhythms – the waking- sleeping cycle. Then we have the ultradian rhythms, the cycles that repeat throughout one day – blood circulation, pulse, heart rate, left/right nostril dominance, hormone secretion.
Zoom in even more and on average 15 times every minute we go through the most familiar cycle – of the inhale and exhale.

If you let your attention rest on the breath and instead of thinking ‘OK now I’m inhaling, now I’m exhaling’, focus on the sensations of the breathing cycle itself, you start to notice that the end of the exhale has the seed of the inhale within it, the exhale inevitably transforms itself into the inhale. Just like Krishna said, everything that dies must be reborn – or as it’s expressed in the Tao te Ching, being originates from non-being.

Tao te Ching of Lao-Tzu, translated by Stephen Addiss & Stanley Lombardo

When you realise that your being is going through this constant flux, it becomes a wonderful opportunity to practise being fresh in every moment.
Each exhale is the chance to get rid of something and to reboot yourself. We can’t always go on living through the same patterns and habits, sometimes it is necessary to ‘die’ to what is familiar and comfortable, in order to experience a rebirth that allows us to open our eyes to what’s really in front of us. We have to get rid of the old to make space for the new, just ask Marie Kondo..
This means that no matter what is going on, we always have an amazing refresh button that we can hit to reset our nervous system and find a blank slate.

EXHALE – INHALE!

by holding your breath, you lose it – by letting go, you find it

Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope

This is an invitation, then, inspired by the rebirth of nature and the blossoming of the trees which never fails to delight us every year as if we were seeing it for the first time, to zoom out.

As long as we keep breathing, the cycles will keep turning.

All we have to do is be like dancing Shiva, at the centre of the wheel of fire, and keep our hearts still as everything fluctuates and spins and transforms itself around us.

Breathe in, Breathe out, be constantly reborn and therefore eternal.

starting a home yoga practice

So if you’ve been attending yoga classes for a wee while and you’re feeling great – your body feels more open, you’re more aware of your breath, maybe you even feel calmer and more collected.. Maybe you’re starting to think about how you can take this practice home with you to feel like this every day?

If you’re starting yoga for the first time it’s best to go to a few classes at least so that the teacher can guide you in the foundations of the practice and get you into the swing of things. But once you’re feeling more comfortable on the mat I definitely encourage you to take the practice away with you and start to integrate yoga into your own routine, at home.

Benefits of Home Practice

CONTINUITY
If you go to class regularly you probably notice the benefits of consistent practice – then, when you miss a couple of weeks, suddenly everything feels a bit more creaky!
Yoga is a practice after all and works best when we do it often.
When you start to do a little bit between classes you can maintain continuity of your practice, which means not only retaining the benefits, but also having the foundation to make progress and maybe even go further.

FINDING WHAT YOU NEED
When you go to class you’re always going to be in a group setting which means the practice will be designed for general needs.
At home you have the opportunity to cater your yoga practice to exactly your needs and take it at your own pace.
Hips feeling tight? treat yourself to some lunges and standing postures
Want to boost your energy? Try a couple of sun salutations
Tired and wiped out? Restore yourself with legs-up-the-wall or a reclined twist
the world is your oyster.

LISTEN TO YOURSELF
The ultimate goal of yoga is a deeper knowledge of yourself – and home practice is the ideal opportunity to start to listen in: what do you need? how does each practice make you feel?
You can start to observe the workings of your own body, your own mind. Knowledge is power – the more subtly we become acquainted with our own being, the more control we have over how we feel and how we want to live.

AWESOME! so – what next?

Tips for beginning

KEEP IT SIMPLE
When getting into your own home practice, start as you did in class – at the beginning! The most important thing is to feel comfortable, so don’t go crazy. Do practices that are familiar to you, which you’ve done loads of times before in class. A couple of postures will be enough at first, so take your time, exploring how it feels to find your way into them on your own.

DO WHAT YOU LIKE
Making a new habit has to be fun, otherwise you’re never going to stick with it. The best way to build your home routine is to select the postures and practices that you like the most and which work best for you. If it feels impossible you won’t want to keep going – leave the difficult postures for class when the teacher can guide you – for now, at least!
When I first started practising at home I would get on the mat in the morning and try to remember the sequences I liked the most from the night before. It meant I could practise and improve those same techniques so I could feel stronger and more confident the next time I went to class.

SAME TIME, SAME PLACE
Make the practice fit into your own life! Again, it has to be convenient or you’ll drop it not long after you’ve begun. Choose a time that fits you and stick to it, so you don’t have to think about it. Soon you’ll find a habit forms.
I like to wake up, (take the dog out!), make a green tea and meditate, then get on my mat for about an hour. When it’s a no-brainer, it’s easier for me to get on with it without laziness or procrastination getting in the way.

USE A VIDEO
It’s obviously easier to stay motivated when there’s a teacher in front of you forcing you to hold that plank and there’s nowhere to run!
If you don’t feel motivated or you don’t know what to do, use a video class to get you going. I do this once or twice a week and it always brings me lots of inspiration.
After all you can always hit pause if you need to (if only you could do that to the real life teacher sometimes!) There are SO many great beginners yoga classes on youtube – or just use the short sequence I’ve recorded, below.

and finally –
DON’T EXPECT IT TO BE PERFECT
your home practice is unlikely to be as strong or as focused as going to class , but really that doesn’t matter. The home practice is about keeping the thread. For Yoga to work it requires consistency – but also, a little goes a Long way. All the dedicated yogis I know who have an established daily practice have kept it going by being realistic – knowing that inevitably the dog or the kids or the postman or some other piece of randomness will crash into your best-laid yoga plans, and that’s fine! At the end of the day just standing on your mat, spreading your toes and taking a deep breath is a step in the right direction.

[Yoga] Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break, and with enthusiasm.

Yoga Sutras, 1.18

Compassion – Humanity’s Secret Weapon

It’s funny, at Valentine’s day, how love and affection are packaged up into a sugary, pink and shiny product. Nowadays too in the wellness world it’s all about self-love – but what does that really mean, beyond the opportunity to sell us some bath brushes, a soy candle and a pink gratitude journal?

I have to admit I hopped on the bandwagon this week and themed my classes around heart opening and compassion practices. Partly because of the valentine’s momentum – but I do also happen to have been listening to the Michael Stone podcasts on Book 3 of the Yoga Sutra, where he discusses why compassion is a superpower.
Most of all though I was very moved by my friend Marina’s post on empathy, where she admits that she is often mocked for her compassion both towards humans and animals.

I know why some people can see compassion as a weakness – yet I am convinced of the contrary.

What a sucker!

Like all of our negative qualities, aggression, or just an aversion to compassion, is a protection mechanism. We’re afraid that if you’re compassionate you become soft, squidgy and easily wounded. In the big bad world you can’t go about with goo goo eyes, handing out daisy chains. For some reason we’re even wary of making eye contact or smiling at people in the street.
But it’s true, it’s scary to open yourself up. The ego, our turtle shell of individuation, is hard at work all the time separating us out from the rest of the world, and so it thinks that if we don’t put walls up around ourselves, then we’re just going to blend in with everyone else.
Not only that, but – I don’t have time for other people’s problems, I have enough of my own!

There’s a magic secret, though – it just doesn’t work that way.

But what actually happens when we connect with others is something else – we become even more ourselves, in a deeper and more luminous way. Compassion is like a candle flame – by lighting up others we don’t grow dimmer, just the opposite.

In order to open up to this, however, it requires a leap of faith – in essence compassion comes down to trust. If the ego is the protective shell, we have to have so much trust in our own innate strength and wealth, that we don’t need to fight everyone around us or constantly have our shields up – and not only that, compassion is the understanding that we have enough to share.

“Compassion is the continual act of making friends with yourself”
Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Innate Empathy

“How are you?”
“Fine.”
Yeah, right.
It’s understandable why we have come to smooth out our responses to this loaded question. When someone answers honestly, “not great, actually” – what do you feel? Sadness, pity, awkwardness, anger, regret  – you always feel something. And usually we don’t have the time to unpack all of that, to share it – so we simplify, to stop the other person diving in to our emotion with us.
The reason it would be so messy is empathy, we can’t help but feel for each other, it’s deeply wired inside us.

Biologists and cognitive neuroscientists are discovering mirror-neurons, the so-called empathy neurons-that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own. We are, it appears, the most social of animals and seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows.

Social scientists, in turn, are beginning to reexamine human history from an empathic lens and, in the process, discovering previously hidden strands of the human narrative which suggests that human evolution is measured not only by the expansion of power over nature, but also by the intensification and extension of empathy to more diverse others across broader temporal and spatial domains. The growing scientific evidence that we are a fundamentally empathic species has profound and far-reaching consequences for society, and may well determine our fate as a species..“
Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization (via Michael Stone Teachings)

Our secret weapon

In yoga we try not to focus on mercantile attitudes like “this is what you can get if you do this”, especially with something like compassion – however, the social and physiological benefits to an attitude of compassion are remarkable and, I believe, prove the inherence of empathy and loving kindness to the human condition.

How to win friends and influence people

In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities ceaseYS 2.35
Ever practical, Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras that the best way to avoid aggression is to nip it in the bud by spreading harmony. Vachaspati’s commentary on this sutra even says that “Horse and buffalo, rat and cat, snake and mongoose, and other being natural enemies of each other, give up their animosities, by following the tendencies of the mind of the revered one, whose habit of not causing injury is confirmed.”
We all know that aggression begets itself, and yet it’s so easy to forget that if we come to a conflict with an open heart, we can diffuse the situation so much more quickly.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Mark 5:9

How to meditate better

As yogis we are ever striving towards the ultimate goal of yoga – the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind (YS 1.2). Sometimes in the name of this goal we can beat ourselves up mercilessly, chastising ourselves for the constant yabbering of our minds, trying to push thoughts out by force, concentrating so hard that our faces turn red, ouch!
Again, Patanjali has the answer and it’s much, much nicer than all of this punishment. After listing all of the obstacles (distress, despair, trembling, disturbed breathing, oh dear), he tells us the remedy for all of this:
By cultivating habits of friendliness, compassion, complacency and indifference towards happiness, misery, virtue and vice respectively, the mind becomes pure. YS 1.33
Just as a shove is most likely going to result in another shove in response, the more we push at our thoughts and emotions, the more they push back.
However, when we soften, suddenly everything starts to melt. Vastness and warmth start to open up before us.

Lower your blood pressure and improve your digestion

Increasingly scientists are finding real evidence for what the yogis have known for centuries – kindness is our natural way, and when we fight that, our bodies suffer. 
In recent years there has been more and more discovered about the nervous system and how we (via the nerves) deal with our environment. Our nervous systems are constantly processing the information that our bodies are absorbing from the world around us – we really are a continuation of our surroundings. This means that when we are aggressive to the outside world, we are being aggressive to our own insides. 
The 10th cranial nerve, known as the vagus (‘wandering’) nerve starts at the medulla oblongata and passes through the neck and chest to the lungs, the heart, and the digestive organs. It is made up of 80% sensory nerves, which means that part of its job is gathering information from all of these organs and sending it up to the brain, allowing for the optimal functioning of all of these parts of the body. It is also responsible for slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, aspects of peristalsis (digestion), speech, and reducing inflammation in the body. 
Maintaining vagal tone is not only a medical matter – high vagal tone can be maintained through physical posture (oh hi, yoga-asana!), as well as vocalisation (omm!!), behaviour (yama-niyama), and practising compassion. 
So let alone all of the namby-pamby, hippy dippy yoga talk about we’re all one, and let’s all be friends – from a purely practical health perspective, one of the best things you can do for yourself is care about others.

the vagus nerve is loaded with oxytocin and dopamine receptors - these chemicals that help us feel connected to others, and make us feel peaceful.

Anxiety, depression, and self-love

In particular when dealing with anxiety and depression, self love can be hard to cultivate. The beautiful buddhist practice of metta meditation can help to find that compassion, as we begin by summoning and saturating ourselves in the deep loving kindness for someone that is so dear to you. In this meditation we gather this compassion into our heart, so strongly and warmly – that the compassion itself emanates from us, without any particular subject in mind. At this point you can feel how compassion and kindness are not subjective but rather this aspect of vastness which we have inside us all.
It is this aspect which becomes clouded over when anxiety and depression grip us. But many studies now are finding that loving kindness meditation can not only treat the negative symptoms and release the grip of anxiety and depression, but also build the positive, opening us up to the warmth of this loving and resilient attitude.
I have been practising this a lot lately – when stress or anxiety start to pile up within, I take the person at the centre of my dilemma – or in fact anyone at all nearby, and wrap them in the loving messages of metta meditation.
Immediately I feel the sharpness of my tension soften, I become more collected and calm, everything falls in to place.

New Year, Same Old Me

Why new year’s resolutions deepen avidya (ignorance)

New year, New you!
So, as January is ticking along – how are your new year’s resolutions going?

Suddenly on January first, after two weeks (or more!) of treats, tipples, and eating one serving too many of that tasty thing over there, suddenly we’re all transformed into saints who rise at the crack of dawn (ehh, actually it’s still dark – it’s the middle of winter!), eat only green foods, don’t touch a drop of alcohol, a gram of sugar, or a single carbohydrate. Oh yeah and we’re off social media, reading all those books on our list, going to yoga class every day and running 5k every morning too.
right?

With the turning of the year and resetting the clock to zero as we do at midnight on 31st December, it feels like a great opportunity to start afresh, make new goals and allow all of the new year momentum to lift us up to become faster, better, more productive versions of ourselves.

Inevitably we set ourselves all of these lofty targets and find them almost impossible to live up to in the real world.
so – two weeks in, how is it going??

I didn’t make any resolutions per se for the new year, more I thought about intentions for how I’d like to be throughout the coming twelve months. Nothing concrete really, more a general direction that I’d like to orient myself towards – and certainly no shiny new habits that I planned to pick up with the alarm of the Hogmanay bells.

I do tend to suffer from this problem all year round however – yes I’m in the yoga world and yes I’m interested in health and well-being and eating well and productivity. The practice of yoga and meditation and healthy cooking and journaling all help me to live better! However, as I do more and more, I often realise that all of these self-care habits can become a compulsion in themselves – an obsession with self-improvement. At the heart of all of this lies the underlying poisonous idea that on my own I’m not good enough, and need all of these habits to ‘fix’ myself.

Just as you, celebrating the end of year parties and polishing off a scrumptious mince pie, are not good enough and you need to get to the gym, go on a diet, and basically sort yourself out – make a NEW YOU IN 2019!

The idea for this blog came from one of my students who said, “This new year instead of a ‘new me’ I’m staying with the ‘same old me’.” I was struck! Is she enlightened? This is genius!

In our consumerist society self-acceptance is a revolutionary act. When you’re being told 100 times a day that you’re not good enough unless you use this shampoo or drive this car or get this job or wear those shoes, it takes real courage to say, excuse me, no – I’m just fine the way I am.

Why self-improvement is avidya in motion
The Yoga Sutras explain that the root of all misery is avidya – ignorance. Of What? Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant, and the non-Self as the Self. (YS.2.5)
When we suffer from avidya (as most of us do), we mistakenly believe that our body and mind is our real self – when really these are just the temporary embodied forms of the universal Self of which the whole world and everything consists. Not only that, we are all implanted with the innate belief that we are incomplete and imperfect – which, according to yoga philosophy, is the exact opposite of the truth.

He cannot be cut by sword,
Nor burnt by fire;
The waters cannot wet him,
Nor the wind dry him up.

Uncuttable, unburnable,
Unwettable, undryable
Is he, – eternal, roving everywhere,
Firm-set, unmoving, everlasting.

Bhagavad Gita II.23-24

According to yoga philosophy, we all come from the one universal Self and thither will return – and in the meantime while we are here in our embodied state, our job is simple – to pay attention.
Our consciousness is the universe’s way to become aware of itself

“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

Alan Watts


Hang on Ema, what has all of this got to do with January diets??
A lot!
When we focus all the time on self-improvement, we have no time or energy to become aware of the Divine within ourselves. Our job here on Earth isn’t to lose inches on our waistline or add zeros to our bank balance – our job is to just be in love with the universe and to play our part in the cosmic boogie that is our Dharma.

OK awesome, so I don’t need to do anything then? I can just sit on the sofa and eat maltesers?

Um – no.
We still have work to do, simply because it takes effort to stay awake enough to be aware of the magic of the present moment.
Doing yoga, eating well to keep your body and mind healthy, applying yourself to the work that you love, studying, weaving baskets, collecting Faberge eggs.. anything that fully absorbs you is a way to hone our awareness and our fully present engagement with the world in its luminous immediacy.

Whatever effectively causes one’s submerged consciousness to emerge is suitable for an offering, because it is this emergence of Awareness that is called bliss [ānanda].
Tantraloka 167c-8b

So the moral of the story is – yes, get up early for a run before work, go to yoga, learn a new language, drink your smoothies! And do it not out of self-loathing or because you feel like you could do better, do it as a celebration of the very awesomeness of being alive!

HAPPY 2019 everybody!

How Yoga can Benefit Your Training (and your Life!)

No matter what kind of healthy lifestyle you keep, yoga is a wonderful practice to include in your routine. An excellent way to improve strength and fitness in its own right, it acts as a great complement to any other kind of exercise you are doing, from running to weight lifting to rock climbing or martial arts.

If you’ve never done yoga before it can seem a bit bamboozling but fear not! I am here to demystify this centuries-old wellbeing system and show how it can be perfectly relevant here in the 21st century.

Yoga is designed as a holistic system to make your entire body work better, and more than that it deepens the connection between your body, your emotions, and your mind – so that you can have more control over all three.

BENEFITS OF YOGA PRACTICE
Let’s look in more detail at some of the great things that adding in a little yoga can do for you.

MOBILITY and INTEGRITY
The first benefit that most people think of is improved flexibility, and it is true – yoga postures open up the body and make the tissues more supple. This can be invaluable if you do other exercise which is repetitive or which creates density in the body. I’m sure you’ve experienced stiffness the day after a heavy training session! Yoga movement can help to loosen up but more than that it brings increased blood flow to the tissues, allowing for improved recovery  and growth.
Despite what many think, being flexible is not a prerequisite for doing yoga. In yoga we recognise that every body is completely different and so the practice is designed to meet you where you are.

Every posture and movement in yoga involves 100% of the body – often we discover muscles and corners that we had long forgotten about! For this reason yoga builds integrity in the body – which is useful for functional strength for life and staying active as we get older, as well as improving form and performance in other forms of fitness.

BREATH
Probably the most important aspect of yoga is its integration of movement with the breath. In yoga we learn to use the full capacity of the lungs, which improves every aspect of the body’s functioning. Deeper, more efficient breathing improves oxygenation of the blood and the brain and all of the body’s tissues. This means that our body and mind work better, and it also improves waste elimination through a fuller exhale.

Conscious control of the breath gives us control over the autonomic nervous system – that is, the fight or flight/ rest and recover modes. By changing the way we breathe, we can influence our heart rate, metabolism, blood pressure, tissue repair, stress response, and much more! In effect the breath is like a volume control for the body – there is no such thing as an involuntary system in the body if we learn to regulate the motion of the lungs.

CONCENTRATION AND MENTAL STAMINA
The conscious connection between movement and the breath means we refine and strengthen our focus when we do yoga. This transferable skill can be applied to be more productive at work, more present in our relationships, and even give us the mental strength to push through that last mile on the treadmill!

No matter what level you are at, if you’re just beginning or if you are twisting into crazy pretzel shapes every morning, these benefits apply across the board. You need no special preparation to practise yoga either, just some comfy clothes and an open mind.

YOGA CLASSES AT FIT FOR IT STUDIO
Every Sunday morning –
Beginners 11am
Continuers 12.30pm

108 sun salutations – the essence of yoga

This weekend I participated for the first time in Merchant City Yoga‘s annual charity event, 108 sun salutations to raise money for Yogability, a beautiful charity that brings yoga practice to children and adults with special needs.

108 sun salutations is a fairly common practice for special occasions – charity events, international yoga day.. but I’ve never done it before. To say I was looking forward to it wouldn’t be completely accurate – certainly, I was excited about participating in a beautiful community event – but I did have some apprehensions about how physically arduous and even monotonous it might be.

In the end the 108 sun salutations turned out to be a remarkable experience that I can’t wait to repeat next year, if not before.

We do sun salutations in almost every yoga class (especially in ashtanga) but what about a practice made up exclusively of them?
The sun salutation is a warming sequence that takes the spine through full flexion and extension, raising the heart rate through the descent and ascent from the floor to standing. What we sometimes forget is that it is a gesture of reverence, turning our faces upwards in greeting, and folding ourselves all the way to the ground in deference. As Claire Ragozzino puts it, Your body becomes a prayer to the source that feeds all life on earth.

On Saturday, performing one sun salutation after another, I experienced this like never before and was transported quite to another place.

ARDUOUS or LIGHT
Before we began, Judi prepared us to approach the exercise with care – offering options to use stepping rather than jumping, ‘there’s no ashtanga police here today’ – we should execute the salutations in the way that would get us through safely.
As we began, I was reminded of when I used to do long-distance running. Pacing yourself, conserving your precious energy to build in vigour gradually- gradually.
I began by stepping back and stepping forward, but soon my body (and my ego, I am ashamed to admit) was asking for more and soon I was jumping forward and back from the forward folds.
Yet the magnitude of the task ahead kept me respectful of my body, and after a short while I found I was performing the sequence in a whole new way – though I was doing a strong physical movement, yet I retained a lightness.
A huge transformation occured as we moved into the third quarter of the practice, as I stopped moving my body from the outside, but rather letting the body be lifted and contracted by the breath.
Inhale arms up, exhale fold, inhale look forward, exhale jump back.
Soon it felt like I wasn’t moving my body at all, it was doing this all by itself.

What a remarkable sensation – I thought, how magic is this – if I can take this same lightness and bring it into my every day practice!

SIMPLICITY AND REPETITION
What happens to the mind when the body starts to move by itself? There’s a danger of disassociation, where the body knows what it’s doing and so the mind begins to wander off into to-do lists and neuroses.
But if you can catch it and bring the attention back to the breath and to the body, then the attention becomes sharp and clear like a diamond. Because it’s the same movement over and over again, you don’t have to think about what you’re doing, and you step out of your own way. The body moves and you just let your attention rest on it. Soon I could feel new sensations all over – the flow of the breath, the tingling feeling all over as the blood rushed up and down my limbs. And all this because of the simplicity of the movements, the subtle magic within the practice started to shine out.

COMMUNITY
This whole process wasn’t just something interior.
Most of the classes I attend are mysore-style practice, meaning that everyone is doing their own thing at different paces. So now it was wonderful to be in a room of thirty people all moving at the same time, this same repetitive meditative movement, in unison and all in it together.
John Scott says that when we practise together, our energy is multiplied to the Nth degree. Bodies moving as one, minds perhaps as one as well.

THE ESSENCE OF YOGA
As we all moved through the practice, I became more and more moved. Experiencing the lightness of the body and the focus of the mind, and the connection with everyone else in the room, it all felt like a distilled version of exactly what the yoga practice is intended to create – the movement of the body as a prayer, but also as a generator of energy, which brings the mind to stillness, as we step out of the way and let the breath take over.
Not only that, but moving and breathing as one, we all became blurred together, a reminder of how we’re all one, deep down. Putting our combined efforts together to raise money for a wonderful charity – using our yogic superpowers to help those in need.

Mostly I’m writing this blog as a reminder to myself of the magic that I experienced in this practice, to tune in and see if I can bring that same meditative magic every time I step on the mat. I hope you will also have the chance to participate in such a beautiful event, especially if it can benefit a wonderful charitable organisation such as Yogability.


Winter Light

Today is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year. It’s a holiday by and large ignored by most of society because of the fast approaching behemoth of CHRISTMAS and it’s a real shame because this is a beautiful occasion, a turning point in the seasonal calendar.

This is the day when the night is longest – darkness descends like a velvet cloak wrapped around the sky, and especially in our northern latitudes we see the light only for a few hours.
UGH it can feel oppressive!
This is the very reason why every culture has a winter holiday that brings the light to the unremitting darkness of mid-December. Diwali, Hannukah, Yule or Christmas – we all celebrate the glittering of life-giving light, even through the blackness of the winter night.

And it’s so fun to get all sparkly! Put on the candles and fairy lights, glitter and sequins and run around and have fun with tasty food and drinks and laughs and all the entertainments that we can enjoy this time of year.

I’d like to invite you though to look at the darkest and longest night not only as something you get through and block out with the brightest sparkles, but a wonderful opportunity to go inwards.

Just as you have to get away from the bright lights of the city to see the stars at night, sometimes we can’t see the subtle magic that lies within because of all the bright colours, business, meetings, tasks, responsibilities, fun and games. Life is so hectic and multifarious and delightful and stressful – we are all constantly on the go (I am so guilty of this) and it can be really uncomfortable to step back, to empty the diary, and stop.

These are the times that we usually discover something amazing.
As the moon goes through its phases from gleaming to obscured, so we too have our phases and aren’t meant to be productive 100% of the time.

The moment we release, we suddenly find the space and softness that new and unexpected ideas and realisations arise from.
The leaves that fall in winter become the fertiliser for the soil that the tree grows from in the spring – how many times have you taken a few days off from practice, and then found the rest has made you stronger and more open and suddenly you can do things that you didn’t think you could?

I invite you to take this winter solstice, and any moments that you can find over the festive period – to find some quiet and some space, take the opportunity of the darkness outside to let your eyes adjust to the stillness within. Let it be dark enough for you to see even the most subtle glimmer of light.

To that end – here is a short guided meditation to tune in to the inner world, and to kindle that golden secret light within.

All you need is a cushion to sit on and 12 minutes of quiet time – to find the space to soften and grow.

After all it’s only going to get lighter from here on in! So embrace the darkness and SHINE ✨🕯✨

The World is Too Big; on perfectionism, disappointment, and chaos.

It’s my birthday next week.
Since I was wee my birthday has always been a big deal for me and even though I’m creeping through my thirties now, I still look forward to it like a small child.

Every year I inevitably make a huge effort to plan the most perfect day ever. This year, even since January, I planned to go to Berlin for the weekend.
Alas the way things have turned out, this is not to be.  
However since I am thankfully not 5 years old but 32 (and 359 days!) instead of getting distraught about my crushed dreams, I have used this as an opportunity to ponder the largeness of the world and how our best laid plans gang aft-a-gley.(to quote our local bard)

I am good at organising things and love to do so – I regularly come up with amazing plans for the perfect occasion and work like a dervish to make it a reality. But what often happens is I fall in love with the idea of my perfect moment, and if for some reason not everything turns out as I planned, I end up crumpled and dismayed.

The human ability to model the future, located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is what gives us our advantage over other animals. It helps us avoid danger, make plans, set goals, and make things happen. But what happens when we become too good at picturing the future, and our obsession with our imagined worlds sabotages our life in the real world?

Yoga has a lot to teach us about this. The problem is not exactly the ability to plan and imagine, but rather our emotional attachment to these mental creations.
Two of the obstacles laid out in chapter two of the Yoga Sutras are raga, attachment to pleasure, and dvesha, aversion to pain. Surely, you would think, it’s ok to be attracted to nice stuff and to want to avoid the unpleasant?  The problem is that our ideas about what is good and bad are not always accurate, and our inclinations and aversions can end up controlling us and preventing us from seeing the world as it really is.

Even nice stuff is harmful if we’re too attached – we just want more and more of it. Or, we start to have unrealistically high expectations, and when they are inevitably not met, that bums us out too. (“maybe I’ll go to Berlin next year, sigh..”)

To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the conflict among the activities of the gunas, which control the mind. YS II.15

Our attachments become a trap – they grow out of each other, and the more we have, the less freedom we have to participate in the world in front of us – constantly bummed out that the spectre we conjured up hasn’t delivered on our fickle desires.

The whole practice of yoga is there to help us claw our way out of this snare.
How fresh and how clear the world will suddenly appear, once we can rid ourselves of our attachments! Dispassion to both pain and pleasure, we can bask in the immediacy of pure experience!

Content to take whatever chance may bring his way,
Surmounting all dualities, knowing no envy,
The same in failure and success,
Though working still, [the yogi] is not bound.
BGIV.22

Through inner work, meditation, study, some blood, sweat, and tears,  I have started to let go of some of my own attachments. Let me emphasise the ‘start’ part of that – because this is hard. And you have to take it a bit at a time.. At first you tackle the nasty stuff – that’s much easier to get rid of. But when you come to the things you like, suddenly it’s much more difficult.

I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy at the idea of letting go of attachments to my favourite things, my dreams and my plans – and so it’s clear to me that deep down the raga is still working at full force.

However, instead of mourning the loss of what I think I want, which is unlikely to ever allow me to let it go – I’m trying to take a new perspective.

The impulse to organise, plan, control, comes from a deterministic way of seeing the world. Newton thought that the world worked like a clockwork machine, ticking away to its correct rhythm, where, if you knew all the factors, you’d be able to work out exactly what would happen. Similarly if I get the venue, invite all the people, bake all the cakes, make a smashing playlist – everything must turn out perfect, right?

But that’s not how it goes.

There’s a Zen koan called ‘Why can’t the tail pass through’ – A water buffalo passes through a window. The head gets through, the horns get through, the legs gets through, but the tail can’t get through. Why can’t the tail get through?? If everything else can get through how come the tail doesn’t, what is up with that?
Koans are delightfully frustrating puzzles that encourage us to sit with the paradoxes of embodied living. And here it is – even if you put in 100% effort, you don’t quite get the perfect result, there’s always something that you can’t foresee. Even if you try to know everything as well as you possibly can, there’s always going to be something missing..

Chaos theory describes how miniscule, almost undetectable variations can make apparently identical conditions vary wildly over time. Or in other words, there is always going to be a snag that means things don’t turn out just as you planned.

There are too many billions and trillions of factors at play in the world for anything to ever be truly predictable – and because we are mere mortals, there is no way that we can ever know even a small part of them, we simply don’t have enough information.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna looks over the battlefield and sees that he must fight against his own kinsmen. He protests, arguing (not unreasonably!) that this goes against his morals, his principles, his understanding of the world.
Throughout the Gita the all powerful Krishna explains to Arjuna that there is no way he can actually fathom what is at stake – he must fulfil his dharma and play out his role in the big picture even if he can’t see it. While we worry and fret from our tiny view of things, from the vantage point that spans the whole universe our own concerns are revealed as trivial.

For a thousand ages lasts
One day of Brahma,
And for a thousand ages one such night:
This knowing, men will know what is meant by day and night.

At the day’s dawning all things manifest
Spring forth from the Unmanifest;
And then at nightfall they dissolve again
In that same mystery surnamed ‘Unmanifest’.
BG VIII.17-18

Finally in order to prove his point Krishna reveals his unfathomably huge and multifarious true nature to Arjuna, ‘As One and yet as Manifold, With face turned every way, in many a guise’ – to blow his socks off and let him see just how massive, mindblowing, and huge the world really is – to put his dilemma into perspective.

Every single thing that we think we comprehend conceals within itself unknowable layers of complexity. The mathematical probabilities of the world too multifarious to be calculated by any computer (yet, anyway) – and the myriad ways of experiencing the world through varying perspectives, combinations, moods..

When we stamp our foot and decide, ‘nope, that’s how it’s going to be, and that’s that!’ we take this vast ocean of potentiality that’s out there, and limit it to one tiny possible outcome.

More and more I am starting to see that my over-controlling planning approach is really limiting things for me. Why am I getting upset about one tiny particular version of events not coming to pass when there are so so many other possibilities out there!

How wonderful things might be if I loosen my grip on my attachments, even on the positives.
Surely my puny brain can never come up with anything as marvellous as there is out there in the vastness of the constantly fluctuating universe? By letting go I create space for new and amazing possibilities, instead of squeezing the world into my own constrained itinerary of events.

I think now I’m going to open my mind and my arms and see what the world is going to offer me as a birthday surprise!