The gift of yoga

I love all of my yoga students, I truly do. Even on those days when I really, really don’t feel like teaching, they remind me again and again why I became a teacher in the first place, and continually inspire me to challenge myself both as a teacher at the front of the room, and as a student within my own practice.

But I have to admit, there is a group of students who are particularly dear to my heart, who inspire and teach me more about the true meaning of yoga, and what it means to be a kind and compassionate being, than anyone ever could.

They are the students to whom I offer a weekly, free yoga class as part of my day job as a social worker. They are the students who, despite acute and/or enduring mental illness, despite the debilitating side-effects of medication, and despite the potential anxiety of being within a social setting, turn up each week (okay, most weeks) seeking to challenge themselves physically and mentally, learn some new techniques for managing stress and perhaps even have some fun in the process.

It’s like no other yoga class I’ve ever taught. For a start, it’s predominantly chair-based, with most poses heavily modified to cater to all ability levels. Questions and dialogue throughout the hour-long session are welcomed and encouraged. Bare feet are optional, and everyone is free to sit out any poses they choose.

As my fellow social workers will know, to have had any students returning regularly is close to a miracle. To have had the majority of my students attend most classes FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR is beyond anything I could have imagined!

Only a very small handful had ever done yoga before. For others, it was basically the first time they had ever heard of ‘yoga’. And there was a large group who had thought about trying yoga in past, but either couldn’t afford it; were too unwell; felt uncomfortable going to a studio or gym; were anxious about being around groups of strangers; didn’t feel physically capable; or some combination of the above. Together, we’ve managed to create a safe space that anyone, no matter where they are on their road to recovery, may enter.

I am regularly thanked for teaching the class, but honestly? The feedback I get from my students, in terms of what yoga has done for them, is all the thanks I need. They tell me how much more relaxed they are. That they feel more able to manage the ongoing stressors in their lives. That they feel stronger or more flexible. That it gives them a meaningful focus for their day, somewhere to go, to be with others and feel less isolated.

We had our last class of the year yesterday, and so I am writing this post as a public acknowledgement and thank you to my clients/students, for allowing me to do what I love so much, for teaching me what courage and compassion truly look like, and, this Christmas, for both giving and receiving the gift of yoga.

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On attachment and change…AKA when Body Combat and yoga collide

It’s been years since I set foot in a gym. Nasty places, populated by impossibly energetic personal trainers who have clearly missed their calling as army drill sergeants, grunting men with no necks and matchstick thin women who look like they could benchpress me, no problem.

So why was I here, on a freezing Thursday evening, nervously sipping water as I waited for my Body Combat class to start?

Because, much as it pains me to admit it, my beloved yoga practice is no longer enough to keep the dreaded kilo-creep at bay. I’ve been vinyasa-ing my little heart out, eating salad, and still they keep on coming!

(As a side note, I’m fully aware that weight loss is not the primary reason for practicing yoga. But when it’s pretty much the only form of exercise I actually enjoy – or so I thought, turns out boxing is awesome! – it has to perform double-duty.)

Anyway. I kicked, punched and kata-ed my way through 55 minutes of class, got suitably red-faced and sweaty and went back home to bask in my own self-satisfied, post-exercise glow.

The next day, my upper arms and shoulders felt much the same as after my very first Ashtanga class – that is, I could barely move them (though post-Ashtanga was much, much worse). So when I got home from work, I unrolled my yoga mat and set about my practice, the plan being to give my shoulders and arms a good stretch. The reality? I stubbornly ignored the aching stiffness and muscled my way through chatarangas, arm balances and binds. I did have the foresight, however, to give headstand a miss.

The Marichi poses, in particular, are a bugger at the best of times. Add in stiff shoulders and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and disappointment. I huffed and puffed (and not in a good way) myself almost to the point of tears, as my ego popped out for a cheery hello:

THIS IS MY PRACTICE! I ALWAYS BIND IN MARICHI A THROUGH C AND I AM BINDING TODAY, MUSCLE SORENESS BE DAMNED!

Please shut up, ego, you’re going to get someone hurt.

What surprised me the most was the ferocity of my reaction to “not being able to practice the way I always do”. I was more than frustrated. I was ANGRY. Something had come between me and my practice!

It was only after the muscle soreness had disappeared, and my practice back to “normal”, that I was able to reflect on what such a minor challenge said about me and my approach to my practice.

Attachment, attachment, attachment.

And, as most of us have probably figured out by now, attachment can only ever lead to suffering.

When you rely on a person, or object, or idea as a source of happiness or measure of success, and then that person, or object, or idea is taken away, you experience a sense of loss, sadness, loneliness, despair, failure. You suffer.

So when you rely on yout ability to complete a certain vinyasa sequence or achieve a certain pose as a measure of your ability and worth as a yogi, and then one day, for whatever reason, you fail, you feel disappointed, frustrated, impatient, angry. You suffer.

One of the great things about yoga is that we take the lessons learned on the mat, out into the world. Through our practice we learn that every day is different, that we are different, from moment to moment. Sometimes we can balance in headstand like a champion, other days we struggle to get our toes off the floor. Nothing stays the same. EVERYTHING changes – our practice, our homes, our jobs, our loves, our friends, our interests. And this is how it should be. This is life, moving us forward on our path.

Let’s also consider that everything – us, that favourite photo, your car – is just energy. And according to Physics 101, energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. So next time you feel that you have “lost” or “failed” something, remember this – you have also gained something new.

And while change is not something we always have control over, we can control how we respond to it – with fear, anger and resistance, or with grace, love and surrender.

Next time, I know which one I’m choosing.

Mindful in May

Just a quick post to let my lovely readers know that I will be participating in Mindful In May this year! By meditating for ten  minutes every day for the month of May, we are aiming to raise $60, 000 in donations to help bring clean water to developing countries.

I’m treating this next month as a personal challenge, as I’ve struggled for many years to maintain a daily meditation practice. So I’m planning to keep track of my progress throughout the next 31 days, and will be posting on here at the end of it to share my  journey.

If you would like to join me, or would just like to know more about Mindful in May, you can find all the info you need here www.mindfulinmay.org.

Om shanti! xx

Happiness…

Let it all go…

And just be…

buddha wisdom

Yoga as social activism

As a social worker, social justice, compassion and challenging the status quo rate pretty highly on my list of core values. I’ve spent seven years on the frontline, working with people experiencing homelessness, addiction and mental illness. It’s very much about being “out there”, in the world, focused on others and on alleviating suffering in any possible way.

So as a social worker AND a yogini, I’m absolutely fascinated by the way the aforementioned values manifest themselves in the yoga world, in a practice that is, ostensibly, deeply personal, inward looking and with a focus on inner transfomation.

But take a look around and you’ll find more yogis engaging in social activism than you can poke a yoga mat at. There’s Seane Corn and Off the Mat, Into the World; Kathryn Budig and Poses for Paws; Jivamukti and veganism. We now have annual events like YogaAid, and yoga classes in which we’re invited to Do it in a Dress.

So how did it happen? How did yoga, once practiced by ascetics and spiritual seekers secluded in ashrams, become a legitimate force in achieving social and political change?

While I’ve got no hard and fast answers (are there even any?), I do have a few ideas.

Yes, yoga is a personal and inward-focused practice. But it’s also practice for the world “out there”. Lessons in equanimity, balance, impermanence and the dissolution of the ego prepare us for our life off the mat. They transform us, create space for us to discover our true Self, open us up to new ways of perceiving the world and our place in it. We learn compassion, empathy and unconditional love. We learn that we are, in fact, all one.

Is it possible that this experience of inner transformation calls forth a yearning for global transformation – as within, so without?

Could it be argued that the heightened awareness gained from our yoga practice is on par with the consciousness-raising amongst feminists in the ’70s?

If so, just imagine what the world might be like if everyone on the planet unrolled a yoga mat once in while!

I truly belive our energy makes a difference in this world – and this is magnified by the collective consciousness, when we are bound by a cause or belief. Whether it’s sending peace to your loved ones whilst chanting Om Shanti; fundraising through YogaAid; or volunteering your services, karma yoga-style, we can all play a part in making this wonderful, and at times strange world an even more beautiful place.

Om shanti, my lovely readers.

Om shanti.

 

The little things…

I recently read an article about life wins – you know, those wonderful, small moments in your day when everything seems juuuuuust right, and you have a smile that stretches from ear to ear. It inspired me to look at my own life, to examine the minutiae of my day, to uncover all the little life wins I’ve accumulated, even on the craziest, gloomiest of days. It made me so happy, I just had to share it with you! And please, feel free to suggest some of your own! Because, let’s face it, you might have all the money in the world, but nothing, NOTHING compares to the sheer joy that jumping into piles of autumn leaves can bring.

 * Jumping in the car, turning on the radio, and hearing a song I haven’t heard in ages come on…and getting to hear the whole thing (no tuning in halfway through for me!)

 * Seeing the first blossoms on the tress whilst out for a gentle stroll, and knowing Spring is on its way

 * Dinging the bell when a service counter is unattended…maybe more than once 🙂

 * Being told “I love you”…and saying it back

 * Being told “thank you” by someone who truly means it

 * Reading a poem or passage in a book that makes your heart race, just a little

 * Massive, squishy bear hugs

 * Yoga (naturally)

 * Sharing a wholesome, homemade meal with loved ones

 * Singing in the shower (the acoustics are great!)

 * Feeling the morning sun on your face

 * That first sip of a perfect chai (or coffee, or whatever your beverage of choice is)

* Watching my tulips bloom

Your turn!

A beautiful poem

 One of the yoginis in my teacher training group emailed this poem to us. Read and enjoy!

Do what you love, and do it often.
If you don’t like something, change it.
If you don’t like your job, quit.
If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV.
If you are looking for the love of your life, stop;
… … they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.
Stop over analyzing, life is simple. All emotions are beautiful.
When you eat, appreciate every last bite.
Open your mind, arms, and heart to new things and people, we are united in our differences.
Ask the next person you see what their passion is, and share your inspiring dream with them.
Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.
Some opportunities only come once; seize them.
Life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them, so go out and start creating.
Live your dream, and wear your passion. Life is short.
Keep your eyes fixed on the sun.