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?”
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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!

Are Selfies Yogic?

A while ago I noticed myself posting more selfies than usual – and I started to wonder what that was all about. 
I have always had mixed feelings about selfies, as something self-indulgent and something that you maybe do, but only secretly! It wouldn’t usually occur to me to post them – after all it’s ‘just my face’.  But then after some recent conversations with friends about the value of selfies I started to reflect on whether they are actually all that bad, and if they can in fact be useful.. 

Two inspiring ladies have recently been starting interesting conversations about selfies – my sister, a professor at Boston University, who asked her students to take a selfie with an object in the Museum of Fine Arts; and my friend Kima, a photographer and video artist who proposes selfies as a mode of self-exploration and healing.

Selfies are ubiquitous now – and many of us have a love-hate relationship with them but we cannot deny that they have become a new mode of communication.  Here I am, here we are, alive, now! It’s a way to try and understand ourselves in this new technological world. 

But if selfies are a way to express ourselves, then what are we saying? As with most things it’s not just what but how. How are we portraying ourselves – and what fiction are we thereby telling ourselves? 

You would assume that selfies wouldn’t fit into the yogic way of life, being an expression of vanity after all.
Vanity – it’s a fascination with the frivolous, a disregard for the  meaningful. When we are preoccupied with outward appearances we ignore what’s important – your appearances are just a shell, one that crumbles away with time. 
Yoga goes further to say that it’s not just your appearance but your whole I-ness that is temporary, and when we are attached to that sense of self, we miss what’s really going on inside and out.  This ‘I-ness’ (which is how you directly translate asmita) is one of the five afflictions which hold you back from achieving freedom and basically make you miserable. And it’s more than selfishness, it’s more than ego – it’s the identification with that sense of self that you have within, which motivates everything that you do. Yoga tells us that we are so much more than just that and when we get attached to our small self, it causes us to get attached to all the other things, good and bad, that pass our way, which causes all sorts of other problems! (YS 2.6)

Okay so if we are taking pictures of our small self, then that’s bad, right?

Maybe not. Yoga tells us that our sense of I-ness holds us back – but only if we are attached to it.  In fact, if we don’t allow our ego-principle to drive us blindly (we spend so much time blindfolded behind the wheel), then it can be a powerful motivator to do good (as beautifully explained by Sally Kempton)
The individuating principle, which yoga calls ahamkara, literally ‘I-maker’, is less of a permanent thing, but rather an action of delineation – it’s what separates me from you from the table from the river. Thus it drives us in the world, keeps us alive and makes us do great things. It makes me write this blog, bake a cake for my husband, teach a class, have a conversation with my friend. Without ahamkara, frankly, we’d be a blob on the floor. 

When you start to realise that the individuating principle is not necessarily a monster, you can get closer and examine it better. When we peel away the layers of mind, we find that beyond logic and desire and all of that, that sense of self is the last layer before we get to the real juicy stuff. As the witness to all other experiences, in its subtlest form asmita is the innermost layer of being nearest to the atman, what you could call the soul. (YS 1.17)

The only way to get to those juicy inner layers, though, is to go on a journey of discovery through all the others. If you want to dismantle something, you have to confront it – this means really looking it fully in the face, warts and all.

You know the front facing camera on my phone automatically smooths out blemishes? One time I had a rash on my face and was trying to record it for the doctor and I couldn’t take a picture of it because my phone kept trying to artificially beautify me!  Anti-yoga selfie phone.. 

What if I turn my phone around though and use the main camera to capture my face as it really is, blemishes, circles, food on my face (as ever!) and all. What can we learn from having the courage to see our ugliest sides and not always posing with our best angle?

When you confront things, they have a tendency to look less scary. Michael Stone said, ‘the more intimate you get with the breath, the less personal it is‘.  The closer you look at things the more dispassionate you can be and the more easy it is to choose how you are going to react to something. 
The funny thing is also that you start to see your different traits and characteristics, and how they come and go, too. The vital sense of I-ness that you thought was your whole world starts to look a little less rigid.
Yoga Sutra 4.4 says ‘ Many minds come from the primary sense of I-ness’ – that is, your one deeper sense of self gives rise to many different aspects of your personality, the many faces of your You. The more you confront that I-ness, the more you see those different faces and how in fact none of them are really you either. 

Have you ever looked at photos of yourself and felt a weird sense of unrecognition when you see your own face? In particular with old photos but even with recent ones. Something deep inside you tells you that this configuration of physical attributes corresponds with the embodied form that you carry around the world. And yet, does it really feel like you? 
I have to say that’s certainly how I feel when I see that weird gif above that I made to illustrate this article. 

The thing is though that we are embodied, we do exist physically in the world, and so we have to play by its rules. 
As man’s own nature, 
So must he act, however wise he be.
All beings follow Nature:
What can repression do?      Bhagavad Gita,
We stumble about the surface of the earth in our physical embodied forms with our fallible minds and our idiosyncratic personalities and try to navigate our way without bumping into the furniture too much, and so we search for tools and practices to help us understand our place in this context. 
Obviously yoga is quite good for that but I’d suggest that selfies can also be useful for understanding our place in the world – 

  1. your identity is your tool – being a totally unique combination of biological constructions, characteristics, and experiences, you have the ability to bring something absolutely new and amazing into the world. do it! your selfie can be your calling card!
  2. look your face in your own damn face – use the cold and dispassionate view of the camera to see yourself, and take a picture of your less attractive side, be courageous to bare yourself to yourself – and I’m sure you will discover something remarkable. 
  3. your selfies track your constant transformation. see how your body and your mind are always changing – see how you don’t have to be attached to being just one way, and how your qualities and the qualities of the things around you don’t have to upset you. 

After all your shell, be it beautiful and magnificent and powerful, is a temporary housing for the deep and eternal magic that it carries around within. 


Autumn coming – reap what you sow

Autumn is the time of harvests – the summer heat has been filling the earth up for the last few joyful months, and now the sunny days are winding in on themselves and the days are growing chilly, but the end of the heat gives us something else – summer days are over but instead we are rewarded with the abundance produced by the earth.

This abundance doesn’t appear out of nowhere – the amazing fruits produced are the direct result of the carefully planted seeds, the hours and hours of absorbing sunlight, and patience of letting the growing magic happen.

(My beautiful friend Jenni has a remarkable garden which has produced a glut of rainbow vegetables, many of which she has given away to me and other lucky friends!)

This is a beautiful example of cause and effect – one of the key principles of yogic philosophy, which you may have heard refer to as ‘karma’ . In yoga we understand that every action and every event leaves an impression on us, called 
samskara, and these then influence how we react and choose to act in the future. 

Where we are now depends 100% on where we have been and what we have done on the way.

Everyone’s experience, then, is completely unique. This is why it’s so unproductive to compare ourselves with others. We shouldn’t give ourselves a hard time if we can’t do something – we all have our circumstances.  Each of us plants our seeds in different soil, and no one has the same sun exposure or rainfall. All of our achievements and everything we are has come from the unique combination of factors that has influenced us. 

It’s for that reason, too, that we can’t expect to suddenly achieve our goals without taking some action towards that end. This is one of yoga’s moral principles – asteya, which means ‘non-stealing’. We don’t covet what’s not ours, and without some action our goals can’t become ours either. 

This may seem harsh – but in fact it should be a comfort. This is why we say ‘do your practice and all is coming’. Because of cause and effect you can know for sure that whatever you do now will bring you results!

We practise this every time we step on the mat. Yoga asana is hard! and it’s meant to be – we challenge ourselves to find our mental edge and make ourselves resilient as a diamond. And the practice is a wonderful measuring stick of how things can change. It can be very reassuring to see how with consistency and patience, things that seemed impossible can become suddenly accessible. 

I remember trying eka pada koundinyasana back in 2014 and the thought going through my head like, ‘What? How? Like, what? how is that possible?’  – and now, it’s one of my favourite poses. 

The fruits of your work may not always be what you expect but with honest effort you will always get honest rewards. It’s so easy to wish we were already at the finish line – but we don’t rush through summer just to get to harvest, we enjoy every golden droplet of sunshine. So should we be grateful for where we are now, while knowing that it will always take us somewhere amazing.

This also means that we can also be grateful for where we have been, no matter how messy or frustrating it might have seemed at the time. It all goes into the mulch, fertilising our experience – and look at all the riches it has brought us now. Knowledge, wisdom, friends and adventure, pumpkins and chard, and maybe a cheeky eka pada..

Sun Salutation C

Almost every yoga class has some variation on the sun salutation, and for very good reason. It’s not just a ‘warm up’ – although it does raise your heart rate and through the spinal flexion and extension builds heat throughout the body. 
Sun salutations contain so many of the foundational movements that come throughout the yoga practice – strengthening the shoulders, opening the pelvis, stretching the legs, working the core, opening the chest, building the foundation of the hands and feet..
Not only that, the sun salutations teach us to link breath to movement – inhale look up, exhale fold, inhale extend, exhale step back… When we are so connected to our breathing our bodies and minds come into sync, and you might notice thoughts don’t pop into your head quite so much!
And of course, this sequence is after all a salutation – the sun is the source of all life on earth, so this is quite a nice way to say, hey sunshine, cheers for that! 

If you were to do just one yoga thing, this would be it – and you can do just this every day, as many times as you like. Of course it does also get you going and focused, ready to launch into a whole yoga practice of your own.

This video takes you through Surya Namaskara C, which has a low lunge variation. I really like this one and also tend to add on extra variations to this, including high lunges, arm variations, side angles..etc!  In the video we go through the salutation on both sides once slowly, and then again at a more flowing pace, connecting with the breath. 

🌞 Happy Saluting! 🌞

Late Summer Vegan Quiche

Quiche was one of my favourite foods before I became vegan. When I was wee family daytrips were inevitably fuelled by quiche eaten straight out the box in the car. When I moved to Russia this dish was yet unheardof and so I taught myself how to make it – turns out quite easy. 
You’d think that for a vegan, a dish made of butter, eggs, cream, and cheese would have to remain a thing of childhood memories.. But no! Some clever blending and flavouring and lo, your summertime quiche dreams can easily come true. 

When it comes to eggs in the form of scrambles, omelettes, quiches, the magic ingredient is chickpea (gram) flour. Full of protein and with a consistency that holds together beautifully, it resembles a slightly starchier egg mixture.  Combining this with silken tofu  and a little cashew milk to balance it out with a more egg-white like consistency makes the perfect quiche-esque egg mix. The final secret is kala namak which has a slight sulphury aroma, recreating the taste of egginess in your vegan eggy situation. Nutritional yeast is my go-to for the cheesiness factor. I’m not a fan of commercial vegan cheeses, a bit too many weird ingredients and usually most of them are oil so not for me, thanks. I find some ‘nooch’, lemon juice, tahini and salt are usually enough to give you that cheesy fix. 

so let’s get to the point – the recipe! 
I have to admit I don’t usually measure quantities so feel free to adjust these amounts if required. 

I made a spelt casing for this quiche, mostly because that was the flour I happened to have, but it was lovely and nutty in flavour so I’d definitely recommend. The only note is that spelt absorbs liquid more than plain flour so that’s why there’s a greater proportion of flour than usual. 
1.5 cups spelt flour
0.5 cups dairy free butter (I use Flora but vitalite and pure soy or sunflower are also good) 
1 tsp salt. 
0.25 cup cold water
Add the butter to the flour a teaspoon at a time, straight from the fridge. Use your fingers to rub the butter and flour together, until all the butter is absorbed and the flour has the consistency of sand. Mix in the salt, and then add the cold water, pulling the dough together until it forms a ball. 
For the quiche I don’t bother rolling the dough out any more – instead I just grease my tart pan well with some more flora, and then press the dough straight into the pan, making sure that the base is consistently thick (about 3/4cm) across the bottom, and goes up all the sides of the pan. 
Use a fork to prick a couple of holes in the base of the casing and place it in the fridge to rest. 
1 cup chickpea (gram) flour
1/2 block silken tofu
0.5 cup cashew (or almond, oat, soy) milk
1 tsp kala namak
1tsp sea salt
For the egg mixture simply place all the ingredients into a blender and whiz it up. It should be a fairly thick but runny consistency. It will firm up nicely when baked! 

Once you have your egg mixture ready, you can put the pastry case into the oven at gas mark 5/190C/375F just for 10 minutes, while you make your filling. 

For this quiche I used some of the glut of courgettes we are currently enjoying (hence ‘Late Summer Quiche’ ) but of course you can use any filling you like – mushrooms, potatoes, broccoli, peppers – whatever!
1 medium courgette
1 cup raw spinach
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1tsp Ras el Hanout
1 chipotle pepper in adobo, chopped, plus a little of the sauce
I just chopped the courgette into cubes, and fried the garlic, courgettes and spinach in a little olive oil before adding the ras el hanout and chipotle for some aromatic goodness!

Once the case has been in the oven for about 10 minutes to just firm up slightly (don’t let it get brown yet!) , take it out and place the vegetable filling inside. Spread the veg across the whole base, and then just pour the eggy mixture over the top of it, making sure that it is well distributed throughout the base.
Top with another grind or two of salt and pepper, the 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast, then drizzle across about two tablespoons of olive oil. 

Bake at gas mark 5/190C/375F for about 30 minutes or until the top is browned and the quiche is firm. I used a pastry brush to brush the quiche with a little extra olive oil after baking, to retain extra moisture. 

Serve hot or cold! Perfect for a late summer picnic if you are lucky with the weather!