Have you ever looked up from doing something, and realized that time has flown by?
I find that happens often. But when you look up and realize that months have gone by, it’s nice to take a few moments to reflect on how things have changed.
It’s been about a year since my first class with Australian Yoga Academy. Through this time, and through the wonderful teachers there, I have grown in many ways, and there is a great renewal in how I view time, energy, and the privilege of having a body. It has changed my perception of change itself.
Here are 5 lessons I can share – and it’s just the beginning.
The Short Version:
The Extended Version:
1. Inhale. Exhale. Pause.
If a fish has never left the water, does it know what water is?
When you have been breathing all your life, you can be forgiven for taking it for granted. But it really is worth much more attention. Many of us spend so much time buried in the past, or anxious about the future. Isnt’ there a better way to spend our most precious gift – the aptly named ‘present’?
The breath can bring us to this gift.
In practicing meditation or yoga asana, now is the only time.
In the now, nothing outside the bounds of your mat matters. All that you can do is make the most of each moment you have, to feel what it’s like to be a living, breathing, moving being.
Breath is life force. It is known in Eastern philosophy as chi, or prana. Breathing impacts the functioning of every single cell in your body, and has enormous capacity to influence your mood and perception of the world.
In our fast, multi-tasking culture, we tend to start taking anxiety-breaths: shoulders are hunched, chest tucks in, neck stoops down as we concentrate on the artificial glow of a screen. We unconsciously move towards a foetal position, closing out the world, and our breath becomes shallow, irregular, irrelevant. Our inhalation is short and sharp – more akin to a sequence of gasping than a nourishing drawing of oxygen into the diaphragm.
Cells love being oxygenated. You are made of your cells. Therefore your body loves it when you breathe properly. But we can forget to listen.
Your cells protest – ‘more energy, please!’
Sometimes this cry translates as: ‘I’m exhausted, time for coffee!’
Coffee, I admit, can be a joyous treat to have. But next time you feel wilted, distressed or wanting something to keep you from yelling at a cushion, try something different.
Try taking a breath. SLOWLY. In through your nose, out through your nose.
And another. And then another.
Really relish in the sensation of fresh air flowing through your nostrils, tickling its way down to your lungs; instead of letting your chest rise, enjoy the feeling of your belly expanding so that the whole of your lungs can be enriched with oxygen.
[Trust me, no one, except you, cares if you stop sucking in for a few seconds.]
Take 5, deep, full breaths. Each one growing your spine taller. Your shoulders broader. Your neck longer.
Feel all the trillions of living cells within your body. It’s pretty special.
And here’s where we can pause.
To reflect, for an instant, on where we are (safe), how we are (present) and what we are feeling (alive). To pause from striving to seek more, and remember our gratitude for what is here.
It takes just two minutes of your time to anchor into your breath. Why not give it a go: your cells – and your health – will be happier for it.
2. Your body has wisdom beyond your knowledge. Listen.
You might be smarter than me, but your body knows things that you aren’t even aware of – or don’t want to admit.
There’s no hiding the truth from our bodies. It constantly tries to communicate with us – the key is to start listening.
Whenever I am met with new challenges, my first reaction (as opposed to response, an intention-based action) is often to make, and sometimes eat good food.
Because it’s what I know well, what I know to be ‘safe’. To be ‘good’ for me.
But it’s not good when it becomes the distraction, the procrastination, and later, the source of intense guilt for not facing what I’m meant to.
In practicing the postures (asana) of yoga, one trains to become more intuitive about what each part of the body is doing. It’s about coordinating the parts to create movement as a whole, balancing on that fine line between effort and ease. It requires a lot of listening, or else you topple over, quite literally.
Once I started being more aware of my body on the mat, it was logical to apply it off the mat too.
Instead of automatically acting upon habit whenever I felt unbalanced, and starting to breathe instead, I discovered that I am never really hungry in reaching for food in these situations. I realised what I seek is stability and familiarity. The kitchen is familiar. Making a big batch of cookies is comforting.
My mind knows when I am venturing towards terra incognita. And that can be frightening. So it attempts a diversion.
We often shallow dive into our inner pool of emotion, skimming the surface but not daring to go underneath the blue unknown.
But this is the place where your truths are found. And only you can dive into it. It is also the only way to adventure, and a sure path to growth.
It’s the path I’d like to explore – cookies preferred, but optional.
When was the last time you felt intuition speak? What has your body been telling you? Are you brushing this aside, or will you let yourself listen?
3. Be Present. Find balance and strength by first finding focus.
‘Drishti’ is a Sanskrit word that describes a focused gaze. Setting your drishti is essential to practicing those tricky, awkward balances in yoga, and eventually, making it feel graceful and expressive. The same can be applied to finding this balance and strength in your choices.
Nothing is of a single dimension. To call it duality is too simplified, but it is easier to understand. There is a yin and yang, dark and light, hard and soft qualities to everything we encounter – and it is a continuum. For many of the choices we encounter, there is no absolute right or wrong. The impact of each decision is nuanced and in (many) shades of grey.
I’ve never been a strong decision maker, particularly for the small things. The choices available (even if it’s choosing which flavour of ice cream) can be overwhelming – and then I fall into the steps of assessing what will be best for the environment, for my own well-being, for the people I am with, and a plethora of other factors.
It’s no wonder I’m torn; it’s impossible to please everyone, yet this is what my mind is trying to do. And in the end, the impact of the decision is often minute compared to the time and distress I cause myself.
Here’s where focus comes in. To know your focus, you need to know your Why.
Why you do something is the cement that stabilizes the foundations for your choices. If you know why, then you can back yourself up – to others, but also to yourself.
If you trust in your Why, then each decision you make will be aligned with what you believe in. It will bring balance. Strength. Stability.
(Simon Sinek elaborates on this brilliantly.)
So before you make a move, breathe and pause -then reflect on your Why.
And if you don’t know your Why, know that it’s absolutely fine to stay still, and find your drishti first, so that you direct your energy in the most worthwhile way.
4. Embrace imperfection. Have Compassion.
Perfection is death. It is an end, a place of no further. What more can you do with something that is frozen, and impossible to improve upon?
Let’s choose to be alive instead, for a flawed life well-lived is better than an existence unexplored.
Yoga is a space to train the physical body, but also the mind – much more than I originally realized. Many think that yoga is about the postures and the movement in between, with ultimate achievement being some graceful rendition of an impossibly twisted pose while balancing on fingertips…which is impressive, but certainly far from the purpose of yoga.
The intention is not to achieve a set goal, but to explore and ease the fluctuations within our own mind and body as we present it with challenges. Our abilities and capacity for being challenged shifts each day, according to our mood, health, life events and even the seasons and weather. Yoga teaches us to give, generously, from whatever we have in that moment. It teaches us to practice compassion, rather than judgement, for what our best may be on that day.
Compassion is the key. The word originates from the Latin compassio(n), meaning ‘to suffer with’. This word usually appears in the context of having empathy for others, but I have learnt that your ability to share and be empathetic is limited by the compassion you offer yourself.
Being kind to others at the detriment of yourself is not true kindness at all. If you’re at all like me, you will know that judgement of yourself can grow like weeds in your mind. And this can also lead to judgment of others, however unintentional.
Discipline is important. And working hard is good. But this internal harshness towards oneself when things go wrong (especially when it is out of your control) never fixes the problem.
Next time you find yourself being harsh and critical with your own thought or actions, take yourself out of your shoes. If it was your sister, or best friend, or teacher, who did the same thing, how would you respond? How does that differ from your response towards yourself?
5. Life is energy. Use yours wisely.
Energy cannot be destroyed – only transformed.
We have the creative power to choose how we transform our energy.
From the air we breathe, the food we eat, the calories we use to run or the electricity to light our homes, everything is energy. In today’s world of disposable-everything’s, we tend to forget that it all runs on a loop, where each part affects all others.
This loop is also true of our physiology and our emotional energy. Intaking food grown in healthy soils, harvested sustainably and prepared with care, will nourish the body and add to your desire for wellbeing. Breathing mindfully and sensing the prana as it circulates will enhance your mental awareness, and add to your awareness of the next breath. If you think good thoughts, you will glow from the inside out. But the same is true in reverse – food that throws your body out of balance will conjure cravings, hyperventilating will lead to shorter, shallower breaths, judgements or harmful thinking will lead to negative thought loops. And it always starts with our mind.
Yoga is about removing this barrier between mind and body. To align our energies so that all is flowing and connected. It is discovering that particular balance of energy: between effort and ease, strength and softness. This helps empower us to become more of who we really are. It helps us realize that we are not our own enemy.
What thoughts do you accept as truths, and how does that inspire or inflict upon our energy levels, our moods, and behaviour? Moreover, how does this affect the people and the environment around you?
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Words cannot express the nuances of my appreciation for Yoga as a teacher, on and off the mat. It challenges, it strengthens, it heals – from the inside out. Its lessons have impacted me far more than I anticipated.
My hope is that everyone can have the opportunity to experience its ability to help heal, grow, and expand your perception of the world, and of yourself.