My Teacher, My Guru, My Self

I’ve been in Rishikesh for almost two weeks now, and having attended just one yoga class in the whole time I’ve been here, I feel a reflective blog post is due. Rishikesh is without doubt a very special place. It welcomes in yoga practitioners and soul seekers from all corners of the world, hosting more teacher training courses than you could begin to imagine within these hills that rise above the sacred River Ganges. Magnificent temples line the banks around the areas of Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula, and another array of ashrams are scattered in the appropriately named Swarg Ashram.

In it’s raw beauty, the spiritual essence of this place is powerful. I’ve had a daily yoga practice for the past four years, but my meditation is only just starting to develop, which has been greatly supported by the whole atmosphere here. Though the streets are loud and crowded with tourists from India and beyond, slip away down a quiet side alley and you’ll find yourself on the water’s edge with the mountains rising above you and the noise dropping off behind. It’s here where I find myself resting peacefully in silence and alive with divine inspiration.

I haven’t been actively searching out yoga classes in Rishikesh, partly because finding the few that work for me would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Undoubtedly, there are many great yoga teachers here, but I’m only around for a short time and what I’ve come to realise is that actually finding a teacher in India probably isn’t going to serve my practice all that well in the long run. When I came out here, I thought I might find someone who I would continue to practice with for years to come, but after two months of intensive study with a handful of inspiring teachers, what I feel I need now is to digest everything I have learned so far as I continue my own practice in pursuit of an ever more intimate awareness and connection with my own being.

Initially, finding a teacher who can truly guide your enquiry in yoga might prove difficult, but there is one person who you can always learn from, and that’s yourself. The yogic lifestyle is important because it cultivates a healthy body and mind through which we can work towards a higher state of positive being, but no one call tell you exactly what you need to do to realise it. You see, no one knows you better than you know yourself, and yoga is but a journey of self discovery. Every individual and their journey is unique and we all have different paths to take, but if we create space in our lives to sit silently for a while, we create space to observe where we are on the road, from where it began and to where it leads.

The clues to guide us on our journey are always there, suspended in the mind and body oceans which encompass our existence. A yoga teacher can provide a ship for your adventure and teach you how to sail, but it is the wisdom of the soul within that will reveal these lessons to us at the right point along the way. We must simply be present and still where we are to see them as the ship passes through.

The Problem of Choice

How much time and energy do you think you waste thinking over the same issue again and again? For me, it’s a lot. Anyone whose ever had the unfortunate experience of shopping with me will know how awful I am at making decisions. If I’m scouting for shoes, I will spend an hour trying on 10 pairs and walk out the shop with none. If it’s food shopping, even if I write a list beforehand, I will go around the store 10 times until I’m sure I have everything I need/want. The problem is, I get so distracted by all the choices that I start to question if the option right in front of me is what I really want, or if there is something better available that I should perhaps consider.

I call this the problem of choice. If we analyse decision making behaviour, any individual will fall into one of two categories. Either you are a satisficer or a maximiser. The satisficer will opt for ‘good enough’, whereas the maximiser will try to assess the outcome of every possibility to rationalise which option will produce the best results. In this day and age, you might think maximising tendencies are preferable, because we always strive for the ‘best’, right? But let me tell you, I have always been a maximiser and it’s really quite unhelpful. The reality is that our minds cannot possibly pre-empt the outcome of every possibility because our knowledge is limited. So where a maximiser will battle with more intense feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) in the decision making process, satisficers are blessed with greater feelings of contentment and are less likely to kick themselves when they realise they could have made a better choice.

So, when faced with making an important decision, remind yourself what you really need/want from the outcome. Maybe there are three key aspects to consider. For example, I’ve decided to move to France this summer, but honestly I was going round and round in my mind trying to decide which exact spot to choose until my mind was silenced by an intense back bending practice this morning and I realised it doesn’t actually matter where I live as long as it has the main things I am looking for, i.e. is there a good community of down-to-earth young people? Is it an attractive place? And is it close to nature? Once you have found an option that meets your key requirements, go for it and don’t look back. This way, you’ll experience less anxiety in the decision making process and will be more open to making the most of wherever you end up without regret.

Afterall, what can you do with all your thoughts anyway? When did thinking about something for days on end ever actually get you anywhere? So save your mental energy and spend more time enjoying the moment you are in. Whatever happens, it will all work out for the best in the end. Your story is already written. You just have to live it.

Welcome Chaos

After deciding not to embark on another teacher training course in Varkala, it became clear to me that it was time to move on. I had a great three weeks on this little cliff where I met some wonderful people and I think grew a lot through some interesting ‘spiritual’ encounters that I won’t discuss here for fear of giving you a fright. Let’s just say the intensity was sometimes uncomfortable and chaotic. But the ocean is a powerful source of inspiration. I knew there was one lesson the waves were trying to teach me but I couldn’t fully grasp it until I arrived in Mysore a few days ago. This is where the inspiration for this humble piece of poetry came from. Take from it what you will. My personal reflections are below.

Oh sweet wave of chaos,

I see you coming.

My arms are held out wide in brace.

You take me, shake me, break me.

Oh sweet wave of chaos,

I feel you rising.

I take a breath and dive straight through.

You fall and break above yourself.

Oh sweet wave of chaos,

I hear you crashing.

My heart witnesses your wrath in peace.

The ocean is calm again.

Diving Deeper

Try to picture yourself in the ocean. The waves are pretty big and keep sending you under in consecutive strikes time and time again. Even if you see it coming, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and can’t escape this next bashing. But after a couple of blows, you come to see from where the wave starts to rise, and you know where it will crash. You position yourself at the wave’s entrance so you can glide through it’s smooth surface as it rises above you, and when you come through on the other side, you see it crash in all its glory.

From behind the wave, everything is so much clearer. You see, sometimes we don’t even realise we’re living in chaos until we take a step back from it. So, when you observe the wave from the peace of the ocean that lies behind it, you see it for what it is. Then it becomes obvious why everything felt so heavy before. You might even feel grateful for the lessons the chaos came to share with you.

You think you want life to be easy, but it doesn’t work that way. You have to learn to swim in the ocean and embrace the waves. And then you can decide what you want your experience to be. If you want to really feel it, hold your breath and let it shake you up a bit. When it settles, you will arrive on the shore. If you want to be free from it, you have to dive through and watch the waves rise and fall from behind. No way is right or wrong. So long as you know your place in the ocean, you will always be safe in the mist of welcome chaos.

Live the Life You Love

I changed my mind again, surprise, surprise! About this time last week, I had said I was going to do another 200 hour month intensive teacher training course to delve deeper into my yoga practice, but two days before the course was due to start, I started to get itchy feet. What I realised was that it’s not really what I came out here for, and by going through the course there would be other elements of my trip I would have to compromise.

If we’re lucky and we know where our core values and interests lie, we can find ourselves saying yes to everything that aligns to our personal mission. The danger here though is in being distracted by what we may feel other people ask of us, instead of doing what we really feel called in our heart to do. We only have a certain amount of time and energy, so from time to time, it is important to take stock to remember where our motivations lie and let that guide us towards the activities we undertake.

For me, the idea of committing to 10 hours of yoga a day was too much as I reminded myself that I came out here to give myself time and space to prepare a portfolio of teaching materials while growing my personal practice. As for my personal practice, it is a natural and effortless occurrence that needs not be forced or intensified. You see, the journey of personal transformation is not one aided by the driver who speeds along the highway because it is a continuous voyage, so it’s important to take in every moment and enjoy the ride. On the other hand, my trip here in India is short, so I do have to make the most of the opportunity to get things sorted in order that I am prepared to continue with my mission when I return.

So my plan for the next couple of months is to spend my time enjoying India and all the wonderful yoga it has to offer, while focussing on designing and creating the yoga programme that has been at the forefront of my mind for over two years. No more waiting. It’s time to wake up and listen to my heart’s call. It’s time to to manifest ideas into reality for the world to enjoy.

If you ever find yourself in a similar position, getting side tracked by what you feel other people are asking of you instead of doing what you really want to be doing, try to focus in on what your heart is calling you to do right now by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What would I rather be doing?
  • What do I feel the world needs more of?
  • What does it look like to make that change?
  • What skills and attributes do I have that put me up to the task?
  • Am I ready?

Maybe you don’t have time. Make time. Change what needs to change. Learn what you need to learn. Be brave. Be bold. Go for it and don’t look back.

Diamonds in the Rough

It’s difficult to summarise in a few words or even a few pages what yoga really is. There is a saying in the ancient text on yoga that ‘yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self’. But what does that even mean?

To steal an analogy from Brandon Bays’ guide on healing and liberation, we are all born as bright, shining diamonds. As we go through life, a load of rubbish gets dumped on us, and then we cover it up with a shiny varnish to make ourselves look more presentable. At some point in our lives, we will have a mild awakening where we start to see through the cracks and get a glimpse of something far more beautiful that lies deep down beneath the surface. But you know the task of clearing the rubbish is no easy feat. So, you can either keep covering the cracks with more varnish, or you can start to chip away in determination of being reunited with the brilliance that you were born into.

This is the journey of yoga. It’s a continuous process of transformation which can be beautiful and heart wrenching all at the same time. We all have emotional blockages that we have to work through to be released from the tight ropes that hold the rubbish in place, and often it is can be a difficult and painful voyage to embark on. But you keep going because every time you remove a heavy load a little bit more light shines through, inspiring the strength and motivation you need to carry on.

Over the past two weeks here in Varkala, a knot that was bound fast around me has been untied. An intense physical yoga practice opens up the body to free the mind like ferocious waves that transform hard rock to a blissful bay of sand. So, as I tumbled beneath the waves in a strong turbulence of emotion, I saw another glimpse of light above the surface. I saw that my heart is heavy because it so greatly wants to love, but its fire has been dampened by the doors which shut it out in the cold. I was angry, because I don’t want to live in a world where people have forgotten how to love. I don’t want to live in a world where my neighbour is quicker to hide his own rubbish than to help the community build a garden. I want to live in a world of open hearts that welcome strangers in to warm up by the fire.

So here I set the intention to open myself up to love, in giving and receiving. To dig deep and free the diamond to shine bright among us. I surrender myself to the divine heart that beckons from within, to the one that waits to welcome us home. Because I am that what I seek, and only in trust of something greater than myself will my heart be free to serve.

A Decision Has Been Made

After 2 weeks in the Sivananda Ashram, it was time to move on, so I packed my bags and headed for Varkala. I had been recommended a number of yoga teachers’ classes to try, so having become slightly bored of the daily routine at the Sivananda Centre, I was excited to explore a new place and shake things up a bit. Varkala is the kind of place travellers visit and end up staying for way longer than they expect. With an array of cafes, bars and restaurants enjoying beautiful views across the Arabian Sea and not short on choice for lovely places to stay, here you can retreat from the loud and vibrant India that lies beyond.

The first class I had here was exceptionally led by a man called Joseph who has been teaching for more than 30 years. It was a strong hatha class that challenged my body into positions I didn’t know it was capable of. I would have gone back had I not been directed towards Kamaraj’s vinyasa class the following afternoon. It’s happened a few times before, that feeling of complete inspiration and awakening when you arise from savasana, but this was on another level.

Kamaraj is one of those magic people who really knows what it means to heal; how to work through the body to release the mind and set a person free from whatever is holding them back. And you really feel that behind his teaching is an inspiration to give with total love and kindness. So after that class, I really didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else. Because when you find a teacher who understands you and is willing and competent to guide you to a higher place, you have to surrender and trust them completely.

The teacher is running a 200hr month intensive teacher training course in Hatha, Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga that starts on Monday 5th March and has been gently persuading me to join. I tried to resist, but of course he had to ask ‘Why?’ I answered I was afraid it would be too much. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone, and I thought two classes a day would be enough to work through some stuff. The full programme will be 5.30am-late, and I was scared of becoming too tired and emotional. But at the same time it kind of feels like something I want, or maybe even need, to go through, to discover a higher potential that lies within. It scares me but I know it’s the right thing for me to do now. Surrender and let go.

So, tomorrow I will move in to my teacher’s home with 8 other students and learn the traditional way – through the master, learning what I need to address my own wounds before attempting to carry my fellow warriors off the battlefield to be returned safely home.

Not Good Enough?

It’s a familiar feeling for many of us. The knotted rope that binds itself unforgiving in the core of our being, and the fire that burns in the chest denying the heart its desire to project it’s own warmth. Anxiety does not feel pleasant or kind. It feels oppressive and strong, holding us tight as we fight to escape it.

Since leaving the ashram 4 days ago, the effects of my daily practice have become more pronounced. The space created there has given way for a set of suppressed ideas and beliefs that have scarred my own subconscious to surface and present themselves. I’ve kind of been ignoring their arrival but I figured they were going to keep chasing me around until I said hello, so this morning, I sat uncomfortably with these strangers to ask who they were and where they had come from.

When I really sit with my anxiety, I imagine myself acknowledging it with someone I love and trust, who I know will listen to me and reassure me that everything is all well and good with the world. Usually, it’s my mum, or a close friend who knows me really well. So today, far far far from home, I pictured myself speaking with a couple of people who are really special to me and opened my heart to hear their response.

It’s funny how it happens, but after a couple of minutes of breathing and surrendering to the discomfort that surrounded me, I relaxed into the conversation and realised I just wanted to be loved unconditionally, for all my faults and flaws. For all my anxieties and worries. For all my highs and lows. For all the times I accidentally say or do something I should probably not have said or done.

If, like me, you have ever learned to believe that you are not good enough, not worthy enough, not strong enough, to handle life’s demands, self acceptance is a powerful antidote. It’s a difficult trait to follow when we spend our lives listening to other people and seeking approval from those around us, but you just have to ask yourself, ‘good enough for what?’ Not good enough to apply for that job? Not good enough to date that person? Not good enough to achieve that target? Who’s going to tell you you’re not good enough?

Let me tell you, you might not be ready yet, but you are good enough. If anyone tells you differently, don’t listen! Listen to the people who tell you you can. There are plenty out there who will rally behind you. As long as you put your mind to something and give it your best shot, you will always find what you need to bring your plans to fruition. Otherwise, perhaps its just not meant to be, and another opportunity will come along at the right time. The world is magic like that. Wherever you are, keep going and enjoy the ride because there is a beautiful sunset made just for you at the top of the climb.

Swimming In The Wrong Direction

There’s the most beautiful lake right outside the ashram here. You walk down a steep set of steps encased by tropical trees before meeting the opening at the water’s edge and gliding in to swim. I’ve never known such a warm body of natural water. The sun heats it up all day and floating on its surface grants an unparalleled sense of peace. With the Agastaya mountains climbing into the distance, resting here is like resting in a divine heart as your worries melt away.

Everyday, we swim across the lake and back on our break between classes. The swamis warned us that there might be crocodiles, but the locals swim here and no one has seen one since a lady’s arm was compromised doing her washing before sunrise 20 years ago. Nonetheless, I like to swim fast. On the first day, I put my head down, scrunched my eyes tight and didn’t look up for about 100 metres. When I stopped to assess my position, I realised I had somehow ended up swimming completely the wrong way. There’s a gentle current that pushes in from your right hand side, so if you don’t know it’s there you get pushed down towards the bottom of the lake.

I was with a group of friends who were gently making their way across the lake and were somewhat bemused to see me swimming off course. When I bobbed my head back up they asked where on earth I was going. I protested that there was a current, but they laughed and said I was crazy. I kept swimming but every time I looked up again, I found myself disorientated. So I made a conscious effort to keep my head above water and be more mindful of where I was heading.

It’s a bit like that with life sometimes. We find ourselves racing off into the distance, but somewhere along the way the current pushes us off course. If we don’t know it’s there, we might get carried away and end up somewhere we don’t want to be (perhaps with the crocodiles!). But if we look up and take stock of how we got to where we are and understand where the current is coming from, we can get back on track.

At this point, keep your eye on where you want to go, feel into the resistance and work with it. There’s always going to be a current, but if you can understand its force, you can muster the power to overcome it with your own strength and make it to the other side.

So here are some questions to consider if you’ve found yourself swimming in the wrong direction:

  • Where are you now?
  • What current(s) brought you here?
  • Where are you heading?
  • Which currents do you need to work with to arrive at your destination?

I hope this helps in some way my fellow wanderer. May God bless your journey.

Contending Truth in a World Full of Wisdom

It was a smooth journey from London to Trivandrum. The change over in Delhi involved a somewhat hectic shuttle ride to the domestic transfer terminal which instantly reminded me of the India I experienced 5 years ago. The manic roads, the heat, and the congregation of lively souls packed into small spaces. There is an order to things, but everyone rushes around and barges up against you as if there’s something to be missed if they don’t move fast enough.

I arrived late at the ashram, after the evening satsang had finished (which is a gathering for meditation, chanting and talks), so I quickly washed myself down with a bucket of water and went straight to bed. I laid in to recover from the jet lag, and started the yoga class at 8am the following day. I’m still struggling to wake up for morning satsang which starts at 6am and all activities in the tightly packed schedule are mandatory up until 9.30pm. I’ve been finding it difficult for quite some time to get enough sleep to carry me through the day, and this isn’t really helping. Still, I feel there is a lot for me to learn from being here in terms of the time it gives me to reflect and work through some of my own anxieties, so I’m hoping I’ll get used to the early wake up call before too long.

We have a daily lecture on what yoga is, which I enjoy a whole lot more when a contentious topic causes the class to break out in a dispute with the teacher who remains adamant that the teachings are absolutely true. Some of us feel our understanding would be greater for having a discussion rather than a lecture, but the teachers are just here to tell us what yoga says. A few days ago, we were on the topic of fear and blame. The idea is that there is no good or bad, but the way we perceive a situation in our minds relates to how we feel about it. What this does is place the responsibility on the individual to reframe the way they think and behave in a given situation, rather than blaming others for the way things are.

This reminded me of a recent event back home, when my friend’s delivery that had been ordered for next day delivery didn’t arrive before she went on holiday, and the courier was greatly unhelpful in getting it returned to her. It caused a lot of anger and frustration, and obviously Hermes was to blame! But when she discovered the person who was making the delivery had been called to hospital because her mother was taken in unexpectedly, my friend had more compassion and understanding which eased her own pain towards the situation. So one might say our mind’s remain more calm when we take on the responsibility to control our own minds, rather than expecting others to behave in a certain way.

This I can agree with on many levels, but someone raised an important question. If we are not able to hold others to account for their actions, if we just ‘let them be’ as the teacher suggested, then people charged with making important decisions on behalf of society in areas such as environment, health, and education, get let off the hook when they behave or act unreasonably. So where yogis don’t engage with politics because it unsettles the mind to bear judgement, many of us are rattled into a passionate debate because these issues affect the lives of so many people and we believe in a society that is fair and just. Yoga says if everyone does the right thing, the world would be OK. But it’s not that black and white, is it? Because everyone perceives the world differently according to their own experience, and that’s why I think it’s important to have an open discussion on the way we think things should be, rather than accepting things for what they are.

Thankfully, in a community of 170 guests at present, there are plenty of people who want to have these discussions, and I look forwards to sharing more of these conundrums in our quest for ‘truth’ over the weeks to come.

Om tat sat.