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

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.

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!

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,
3.33
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. 

cheese!