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.

the constancy of change and rebirth of spring

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

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

the Wheel of the Year

©Katonah Yoga, illustration by Susan Fierro

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

The Dark Side of the Moon

Tao Te Ching, 2

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

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

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


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

be Reborn every moment

the cycles of the ages (Yugas)

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

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

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

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

EXHALE – INHALE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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! 

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..