Do you feel sometimes that Yoga, over the last few years, has turned into a circus somewhat?
Do you therefor feel that it is not for you?
As I was finishing the final project of my 500-hr teacher training, I started to wonder wether I could do this.
Am I good enough?
This was fuelled by bikini clad girls folding themselves into impossible contortionist poses that kept popping up on my Instagram.
The more research I did, the more of these posts and reels popped up. God forbid if I actually clicked on 1.
Half naked, skinny, young girls posing with pouty lips and ‘open hips’, doing the almost impossible for us mere souls.
If this is what I am competing with, then how will I ever fill a yoga class, let alone make my studio a place want to visit?
But then… is everybody really looking to be part of this circus?
What happened to Yoga in it’s original form. All eight limbs of it.
(See at bottom of page for more details on these *)
Lately I was lucky enough to spend a week at an Artist Residence (http://joya-air.org) to connect with my true self. Disentangling from what ever stops me from feeling free. Connecting with the true goal of yoga: to attain Moksha, meaning liberation or freedom.
I thought it would be a good idea to connect with myself and what yoga means to me before stepping into the studio and teaching others.
It didn’t take me long to be reminded that one does not obtain this freedom with an expensive pair of yoga pants or with the ability to touch ones toes.
To me it is attained when I let go of the world surrounding me, its shouty opinions and demands, and when I dig deep to find who I truly am when nothing else matters and nobody tries to mould me.
Not an easy task.
Sometimes this can simply happen when I take my shoes off, step into my studio and onto my mat and I just stand there. Peace washes over me. Total acceptance of the world and who I am.
I let go.
The more I try and practise all 8 limbs of yoga in my daily life, the easier this becomes.
And thát is what I want to bring to The Mat Sanctuary.
Not a circus where I am the only one moving from handstand to full wheel to plank to splits.
A self obsessed (and quite frankly) intimidating dance that will make all others feel incapable, frustrated and insecure.
Thát is not yoga.
Offering peace, calm, kindness and non judgement so that others too can find their personal freedom and grow and heal or reach whatever goal it is that made them step into the studio in the first place.
Thát to me is what yoga is all about.
Rather than offering the circus, I would like to take some real life problems that most of us will suffer from at one point or another in life to base my classes & treatments on.
Think menopause, anxiety, body aches while ageing, stress, insecurity, depression, finding yourself.
I like to take these and then use the real yoga, the 8 limbs of yoga, to help people heal from these.
In their own time, in their own space, their own body & mind.
Slowly and calmly taking time in a busy world. To breath and to be. Nothing more. No competition. No comparing.
Do come and create your sanctuary on your own mat. Do come and inject a little of the slow life…
While I was in the Artist residence I took daily photos that inspired me and then wrote a meditation based on them
* The 8 Limbs of yoga explained:
Yama's - Sense of ethics and personal integrity
Niyama's - Personal observances and self discipline. Be true to yourself
Asana's - The poses
Pranayama - Breathing. The breath is the anchor of practise
Pratayahara - Self conservation and controlling our senses
Dharana - Concentration
Dhyana - Meditation
Samadhi - Blissful enlightenment
1. YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows
This first limb, Yama, refers to vows, disciplines or practices that are primarily concerned with the world around us, and our interaction with it. While the practice of yoga can indeed increase physical strength and flexibility and aid in calming the mind, what’s the point if we’re still rigid, weak and stressed-out in day-to-day life? There are five Yamas:
Brahmacharya (right use of energy), and
Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding).
Yoga is a practice of transforming and benefitting every aspect of life, not just the 60 minutes spent on a rubber mat; if we can learn to be kind, truthful and use our energy in a worthwhile way, we will not only benefit ourselves with our practice, but everything and everyone around us.
In BKS Iyengar’s translation of the sutras ‘Light On The Yoga Sutras’, he explains that Yamas are ‘unconditioned by time, class and place’, meaning no matter who we are, where we come from, or how much yoga we’ve practised, we can all aim to instil the Yamas within us.
Read more about the Yamas and Niyamas
2. NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances
The second limb, Niyama, usually refers to duties directed towards ourselves, but can also be considered with our actions towards the outside world. The prefix ‘ni’ is a Sanskrit verb which means ‘inward’ or ‘within’. There are five Niyamas:
tapas (discipline or burning desire or conversely, burning of desire),
svadhyaya (self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts), and
isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power).
Niyamas are traditionally practised by those who wish to travel further along the Yogic path and are intended to build character. Interestingly, the Niyamas closely relate to the Koshas, our ‘sheaths’ or ‘layers’ leading from the physical body to the essence within. As you’ll notice, when we work with the Niyamas – from saucha to isvararpranidhana – we are guided from the grossest aspects of ourselves to the truth deep within.
3. ASANA – Posture
The physical aspect of yoga is the third step on the path to freedom, and if we’re being honest, the word asana here doesn’t refer to the ability to perform a handstand or an aesthetically impressive backbend, it means ‘seat’ – specifically the seat you would take for the practice of meditation. The only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable.
While traditional texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika list many postures such as Padmasana (lotus pose) and Virasana(hero pose) suitable for meditation, this text also tells us that the most important posture is, in fact, sthirasukhasana – meaning, ‘a posture the practitioner can hold comfortably and motionlessness’.
The idea is to be able to sit in comfort so we’re not ‘pulled’ by aches and pains of the body, or restlessness due to an uncomfortable position. Perhaps this is something to consider in your next yoga class if you always tend to choose the ‘advanced’ posture offered, rather than the one your body is able to attain: “In how many poses are we really comfortable and steady?”
4. PRANAYAMA – Breathing Techniques
The word Prana refers to ‘energy’ or ‘life source’. It can be used to describe the very essence that keeps us alive, as well as the energy in the universe around us. Prana also often describes the breath, and by working with the way we breathe, we affect the mind in a very real way.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Pranayama is the fact that it can mean two totally different things, which may lead us in two totally different directions at this point on the path to freedom….
Pranayama can be understood as either ‘prana-yama’ which would mean ‘breath – control’ or ‘breath restraint’, or it could be understood as ‘prana-ayama’ which would translate as ‘freedom of breath’, ‘breath expansion’ or ‘breath liberation’.
The physical act of working with different breathing techniques alters the mind in a myriad of ways – we can choose calming practices like Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath) or more stimulating techniques such as Kapalabhati (shining skull cleansing breath).
Each way of breathing will change our state of being, but it’s up to us as to whether we perceive this as ‘controlling’ the way we feel or ‘freeing’ ourselves from the habitual way our mind may usually be.
5. PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal
Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and the second part ahara refers to anything we ‘take in’ by ourselves, such as the various sights, sounds andsmells our senses take in continuously. When sitting for a formal meditation practice, this is likely to be the first thing we do when we think we’re meditating; we focus on ‘drawing in’. The practice of drawing inward may include focussing on the way we’re breathing, so this limb would relate directly to the practice of pranayama too.
The phrase ‘sense withdrawal’ could conjure up images of the ability to actually switch our senses ‘off’ through concentration, which is why this aspect of practice is often misunderstood.
Instead of actually losing the ability to hear and smell, to see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of mind so that we become so absorbed in what it is we’re focussing on, that the things outside of ourselves no longer bother us and we’re able to meditate without becoming easily distracted. Experienced practitioners may be able to translate pratyahara into everyday life – being so concentrated and present to the moment at hand, that things like sensations and sounds don’t easily distract the mind.
6. DHARANA – Focused Concentration
Dharana means ‘focused concentration’. Dha means ‘holding or maintaining’, and Ana means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. Closely linked to the previous two limbs; dharana and pratyahara are essential parts of the same aspect. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all attention is put on that point of concentration, and in order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently. Tratak (candle gazing), visualisation, and focusing on the breath are all practices of dharana, and it’s this stage many of us get to when we think we’re ‘meditating’.
7. DHYANA – Meditative Absorption
The seventh limb is ‘meditative absorption’ – when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation, and this is when we’re really meditating. All the things we may learn in a class, online or from a teacher are merely techniques offered to each person in order to help them settle, focus and concentrate, the actual practice of meditation is definitely not something we can actively ‘do’, rather it describes the spontaneous action of something that happens as a result of everything else. Essentially; if you are really meditating, you won’t have the thought ‘oh, I’m meditating!’…. (sound familiar?)
8. SAMADHI – Bliss or Enlightenment
Many of us know the word samadhi as meaning ‘bliss’ or ‘enlightenment’, and this is the final step of the journey of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. After we’ve re-organised our relationships with the outside world and our own inner world, we come to the finale of bliss.
When we look at the word samadhi though, we find out that ‘enlightenment’ or ‘realisation’ does not refer to floating away on a cloud in a state of happiness and ecstasy…. Sorry.
Breaking the word in half, we see that this final stage is made up of two words; ‘sama’ meaning ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘dhi’ meaning ‘to see’. There’s a reason it’s called realisation – and it’s because reaching Samadhi is not about escapism, floating away or being abundantly joyful; it’s about realising the very life that lies in front of us.
The ability to ‘see equally’ and without disturbance from the mind, without our experience being conditioned by likes, dislikes or habits, without a need to judge or become attached to any particular aspect; that is bliss.
Just as the theologian Meister Eckhart used the word isticheit meaning ‘is-ness’ as referring to the pure knowledge of seeing and realising just ‘what is’, this stage is not about attaching to happiness or a sensation of ‘bliss’, but instead it’s about seeing life and reality for exactly what it is, without our thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain fluctuating and governing it. Not necessarily a state of feeling or being, or a fixed way of thinking; just pure ‘I – am-ness’.
There’s just one catch though – Samadhi isn’t a permanent state…. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras importantly tell us that unless we are completely ready, without ‘impressions’ such as attachment, aversion, desires and habits, and with a completely pure mind, we will not be able to maintain the state of Samadhi for long:
Once the mind is pure and we truly do experience a state of Samadhi we can keep hold of, we attain moksha, also known as mukti, meaning a permanent state of being liberated, released and free.