Asteya, Small Talk and Connecting from the Heart

Asteya – The third yama, or principle in the traditional Yogi moral code. Yamas are the rules and restraints that are meant to help us live in society whilst remaining Yoga practitioners. Asteya stands for: non-stealing, non-misappropriating.
[Taken from, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S Iyengar]

Our Yogi moral code may sound quite generic for the reader who just begins to explore the traditional texts. It preaches the same principles all religions and common sense stand for: don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, etc.

I think that those are quite obvious and are not too necessary to be written. Our human heart guides us to be kind before we learn how to read rules; it is after we start reading and communicating that our minds begin to change.

The meaning of the Yamas is much deeper than the obvious. Like everything we read in Sanskrit—the ancient Indian language in which the traditional texts are written—the Yogi moral code contains various meanings in each word.

Today I wanted to write about asteya, non-stealing.


Asteya does not stand only for non-stealing possessions or wealth as it directly translated in Iyengar’s elaboration on the sutras. It also, as my first teacher once said, stands for non-stealing time or peace of mind.

This more delicate stealing is a sin we are all susceptible to fall into easily. An example could be talking about ourselves and our own worries to another person; it is after all his time, that he could spend in peace, that we are wasting. Each of us is full of his own sufferings which he inevitably must bear. Spilling these sufferings to another is adding negativity to his life, or to few moments out of it. This process thus considered not kind or not helpful.

Sounds a bit hostile, doesn’t it? Thus to elaborate, we must differentiate amongst several kinds of sharing. Sharing our troubles with a friend who has chosen to listen to us is one thing, constant complaining and communicating to a person whilst coming from our own, unresolved, negative place is another.

If another being chooses willingly to hold space for your troubles, this is the biggest gift he can offer you; he gives you his time and sacrifices his peace to help you find yours. Friends like that, in Shakespeare’s words: ‘Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel’.


Another thing to consider is whether our communications are truly helpful or are we spilling empty words. A classic example of an unnecessary conversation between two girlfriends will be as follows:

Girl A: ‘I’m so upset I just fought with my mum, I’m not sure what to do.’

Girl B: ‘I know, me too: I just broke up with my boyfriend.’

So basically, each person in this conversation just dwells on her own problem without listening or helping the other. Saying that, both might come out of this feeling content as they had used this opportunity to vent. They stole each other’s time but they are feeling happy about it, so really, who are we to judge?

Even though venting can be fun, on our Yogi path we want to reduce unnecessary communication to minimum and commit to connect to others from the heart. Connecting from the heart means communicating on a deeper level: sharing what is meaningful to us with those who matter. And even more important, to avoid stealing time and peace of mind, we must restrict our communication to be only honest.


It is traditionally believed that the community of Yogis is a community that comes together from a place of truth. There must be no cynicism in this community, no hypocrisy. The Yoga shala is meant to be a safe space where one can be vulnerable and reside in one’s own authentic being. After all the ultimate goal of the practice is to reach closer to yourself; to achieve a state of mind in which according to Patanjali, ‘the seer dwells in his own true splendour’. Thus it makes no sense to restrict the self, by stealing truth, from fulfilling itself and finding its most divine manifestation.

I find that in our western, busy, competitive world truth is often misunderstood. Maybe many readers could think that I meant by being honest: being polite to each other and avoid lying. But no, those again are really obvious principles that don’t require elaboration in an article. There is nothing unique about those values and they should be maintained in any community or society.

But what makes our Yogi space different is that it allows real honesty: the one we don’t have time for in daily life.

We live in a world where being honest is considered crazy; I mean really honest, like crying in public because you are hurting, or exhaling loudly when you need to let go, or allowing all thoughts to cross through your mind without judging yourself for them being there. These are all things that are so common in a Yoga class and so rare in the life outside our mats.

Honesty is speaking on a deep level and not just asking another, ‘how are you?’, whilst you don’t actually expect a sincere answer from him.

Here in Australia I find people getting sometimes offended when you don’t answer their greeting with, ‘good thanks. How are you?’. But real honesty is not to answer back in that manner.

I am rarely just ‘good’, so I don’t want to lie but I also don’t want to steal a brief acquaintances’ time to tell him all of my troubles. I also not necessarily want to hold space for anyone who wishes to spill their life story to me. So I rarely ask, ‘how are you?’ unless I am actually interested to hear a detailed reply, because I see it as a little lie.

In that way I believe I hold to my truth.

When we are not honest within ourselves we are stealing our own inner peace; living a lie, even in its smallest manifestation, is truly a waste of time. And it is against the principle of asteya

In general, I never liked small talk. But I think that accepting asteya as a value protects me from being annoyed by those meaningless words. Some call me brutally honest or cold, but those are features that I find positive and I myself search for them in people whom I wish to accept into my life.

So you can imagine it took me a while to get used to this hypocrisy that is embedded in the Australian common greeting. It’s just a cultural habit and I don’t expect anyone to change it. But I think it is important to always question our behaviours and notice how much out of our time is wasted on speaking in lies.

As a teacher I wish only to see my students in their purest manifestation. I wish to deny all of their labels and greet them from the heart to a space of safety. Thus I don’t want to do small talk with them.

My teacher once asked us, her students, ‘don’t talk to me before the class because I am not always open to listen at this time’. Some considered this request to be rude at the time but now, being a teacher myself, I really relate to these words. It is the commitment to asteya that makes me want to talk to my students only on the level that I want to encourage them to reside in during their practice. I want to talk to their souls through teaching, I don’t want to waste their time. So it needs to be done when there is the time and the space for such a conversation.

We shouldn’t small talk with our students, we shouldn’t trade honesty for politeness, otherwise we are only a business trying to attract clients and not also teachers who seek to hold space for our students’ divine selves.

I know that those ideas are not necessarily doable in our society. We don’t live in an ideal world and you don’t have to agree with my elaboration on asteya. But maybe it is something for us Yogis to think about, both teachers and students. How much of the time we spend talking is really ours? How much of inner peace we suck from others to dwell on our own negativities? How much out of our conversations with each other are meaningful? And more important, do we really appreciate those who listen and the space that is held for us?

 

Namaste!

 

 

Change, Self-love and the Price of Happiness

Lately, I wrote a lot about stillness; I talked about maintaining calm state of mind in a shaky world. This time I want to talk about flowing through stagnation, about the necessity of change in order to progress. I also want to talk about the challenges that drive us to make changes, the experiences that force us to adapt, the tragedies of our shaky self in this unbending world.

I found the path of Yoga after many years of practicing martial arts. The two practices are very different and for a while I found them complimentary to each other. Later, I let go of my martial arts practice and devoted my time entirely to Yoga. One thing I found similar in both practices, is the importance of change as a step to moving forward. In fact, this principle comes back to me in so many aspects of my life, not only in my practice.

My martial arts teacher used to say: ‘one must always start the battle with a well-practiced technique, but one can only win with a change.’ A warrior should practice with discipline and devotion, and aspire to master the most complicated fighting technique; it will push him through the battle with dignity. But to win, or move forward, something has to change. Chances are that if you have a suitable opponent, he knows the same technique you are working with. Or by observing you for a while during the battle, he can quickly learn your school of thought and remember which moves you have the most polished in your practice. So, to win you have to do something different, something that haven’t been done before in this battle. There must be an element of surprise. And it is a life-long practice to know how to create change and to adapt to the surprises your opponent, or life for that matter, throws at you.


A similar thing happens in our so-called peaceful practice on the Yoga mat. If we are getting used to practice the same postures and sequences, if we stick to only one preferred approach or style, we may perfect our technique in some aspects of the practice but we might lose the important ability to truly flow. Our practice needs to keep changing, evolving, so the body will keep learning to adapt and the mind will keep learning to accept. Saying that, there is nothing wrong with traditional doctrines, our mind just must remain open to the evolution of the practice. We should aspire to always learn something new, try postures that challenge our body and mind.

We practice Yoga to gain better connection with our body, and connections always strengthen through challenges. We are trying to build a better relationship with our self, and it is through challenges and hard experiences that relationships are built and grow into love. Love can mean: romance, trust, friendship or self-love.


It brings me to the second thing I wanted to discuss in this article: the price of self-love or contentment or happiness or success. Self-love is easier to obtain if it is earned by suffering. The sufferings that earn us a connection to the body can be only as bad as a painful stretch or a dizzy cardio breath; in the worst-case-scenario, we pass through an injury or illness as a step to understanding our body. But the true connection to our own, deeper self, the contentment with our own character, the confidence to be ourselves, is usually gained by much graver challenges, such as: traumas, tragedies and truly overwhelming experiences. It is the real, brutal hardships that push us to change and teach us to move on. Unfortunately, those whom I notice to authentically love themselves the most are those I know to have been through the hardest traumas. (Let’s differentiate here compassionate, authentic self-love from pure arrogance)

 It seems to me that we either earn self-love through hardships or live with a constant self-doubt: why is it that I have everything but I am still not happy? These two troubles are completely opposite and none of them is easier to bear than the other: we either grateful for knowing the worst is behind us, living side by side with darkness, or we are unsatisfied. 

So why can’t we be healthy and happy and content? Dostoyevsky in his novel, Idiot asks the question: is it better to be ignorant and happy? Or to know and suffer? But ‘the ignorant’ still have their share of pain and the ones who know are holding on to solace or redemption that is deeper than simple happiness. There is a sort of acceptance, a sense of self-worth after overcoming a tragedy that those who hold the lucky cards can’t have.

There are no journeys on this earth which are free of pain. Each experience has its price and its rewards. I wish us all to honour the paths that were chosen for us, they are all connected and are here for a reason. Let’s make our journey through life, on and off the mat, an experience of moving forward: through change and pain and acceptance and gratitude.

Namaste!

 

 

Kundalini, Creativity and Opening the mind

Kundalini– Devine cosmic energy. Kundalini is believed to be an energy that rises from within and gives life to the practitioner’s own creativity, intuition and even supernatural powers.  


‘Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.’ B.K.S Iyengar

Yoga is a practice that brings its benefits over time; it does not offer immidiate results, like other forms of exercise. Flexibility and body strength can progress noticably in only few months of consistent practice, however more important benefits such as higher physical awareness, might take years to be truly appreciated. The ability to be mindful and in-tune with your body, which is what yoga offers, is something that allows a fuller experience of life. As we progress in our practice, we notice the experience of life through more layers and textures; the body and the mind become more sensitive and each everyday event has more to offer than just one point of view.

Relying on traditional Yogi literature this rebirth into a more authentic state of mind can be attributed to the awakening of Kundalini energy. Kundalini energy can be awakened through specific practice such as: Chakra meditation, Pranayama and Kriya. These are all great practices but I must say that even our more “westernised”, active practice of physical postures can bring transformation to the way the practictioner sees his own world.

Speaking from my own experience, I admit that yoga truly opened my mind. Being naturaly fit and flexible, I noticed improvement in my body shape and its range of movement only after more than a year of practice. I believe that a change in my mind came even later.


It was probably five years into my practice that I suddenly woke up one morning with an erdge to paint. Since early childhood I enjoyed expressing myself through writing and inventing stories but drawing or painting was never my thing. I never knew how to write in full, rounded letters or decorate carefully with glitter; it was always about the words for me, not their presentation. That morning, however, I craved spilling buckets of colour on a large piece of canvas. I imagined it all to be bright orange and pink and toxic green. By the time I left the house, I already had three different ideas for paintings that I wanted to preform. I went straight to an art supplies shop and spent around $200 on canvases, brushes and acrilic colours; I even bought a stand for my canvas. I had full confidence that I will use all of that, frequently and thus it’s worth it. I imagined myself standing in front of my elevated canvas, mixing colours on a palette. The images I wanted to create were so vivid in my imagination that I had no doubt I’ll nail it. And I believe I did.

That year I created around 20 different paintings. I sold two of them and exhibited a series of paintings in an artist’s café by the end of that year. Not to say that I am a brilliant artist but I truly believe that I put a lot of my own passion in my work. And that what made it successful to me. Being tuned in with my body and thought, the ability to imagine really vividly, the courage to share my volunerability, those are all skills that I believe I gained through my practice. Without those skills I would have never succeeded to create those images.


I don’t know if I ever awakened my Kundalini. After ten years of practice I haven’t gained any super-powers and frankly, I lost any interest in reaching any sort of supernatural or recreational states of mind; the colourful experience of my everyday became enough for me.

Arriving on the mat is an opportunity to get to know ourselves better. As we become more sensitive to life, first from getting to know the body and the breath and then through learning to control and accept our mind, we are also able to express ourselves better. We start appreceating smaller beauties and become drawn to creative arts or other expressions of subtle joy. Open-mindedness is not about experiencing an explosion, some mindblowing supernatural ability like hovering of the earth or getting into recreational drugs. It is much more subtle and we don’t need to go very far to find it: just be still and listen.

We start from the body. The most primal essence we own. Listening to the breath: that one thing that is always there. You can start right now! Try to sit down and close your eyes. Find stillness in your posture. Breath only through your nose. Try and detach yourself from all noises around you and any other thoughts that run through your mind. Notice that when you inhale, cold air is coming in through the nostrils and when you exhale hot air is coming out. Then maybe slowly you will be able to notice more and more details: the rise and fall of your chest, the broadining and contracting of your abdomen, the clarity that comes to the mind as you concentrate only on the breath.

Physical intelligence is one of the biggest benefits we can gain from our practice. The ability to understand and connect to the details of our body gives us incredible control. We learn to know exactly where each toe is at any moment and to notice all the subtle changes of our breath, instead of just taking it all for granted. As we listen more, we can hear more, even if nothing around us changes.

Through this practice of observation, our experince of life becomes richer, full of both bright colours and also darker shades. It all becomes more dramatic, but we learn not to judge it for being so. Life is worth living exactly for its crazy tragedies and incredible triumphs, not for the long ordinary bits. If you don’t accept the resistant edges, you can’t truly balance in the centre. If we don’t commit to take all out of our experience, for better or worse, what’s the point of having those experiences in the first place?


Eventhough it sounds as a drastic transformation, usualy our life will just become a bit more reserved; we will need less to have a meaningfull experience. You probably won’t get a new house through practicing yoga but you will definitely start loving your old one more. We won’t have to go on a wild trip overseas to experience joy, we might find it in a quite night at home. We will stop relying on the holidays to fill our void, we will truly enjoy the everyday.

We might also get melancholic more easily; we might feel really sensitive and fragile. This is mainly because we are learning to understand our feelings better and eventually we will accept them as they are.

 No matter what you encounter in your observation, look at this journey as a positive one! For better or worse, we are only coming closer to our own truth.

Namaste!

Drasta and Finding Stillness 

Drasta – The seer, the observer, the one who sees clearly.

Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam –[through the practice of yoga] The observer can see his own true being. (From: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)

It is a good skill to have: the ability to find stillness, no matter what. The Yoga practice is offering us improvement in this skill, alongside many other benefits. The practice of stillness in Yoga happens both on the physical level (for example, holding a balance or remaining still in shavasana, full relaxation) and on the mental level (maintaining a still state of mind).

I often start my Yoga classes by encouraging my students to find in their minds the space of the observer, drasta. The observer uses the practice to learn himself better and not to judge his own flaws or to get too attached to his success. Observing and not reacting is exactly what staying still is all about.

This space of the observer is both detached from the self -ꟷor more accurately: from the dramas of the egoꟷ- and deeply connected; only when we step outside the ego and observe without attachment, we are able to identify our own true being. Through observance we find stillness, or clarity.

But what exactly I mean by stillness and why do we need it in our daily life?

Stillness means, physically: not moving and mentally: not being distracted. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are really happy while being still or content or within agreement with what is going on around us; it just means that despite everything, we choose to stay still and commit to it.

It is now a common knowledge that we can’t always control the way other people treat us, or the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can control the way we react to them. I believe that some of us can follow that proudly, however, I must admit that I am rarely feeling in complete control of my reactions to the hardships life throws at me. Coming out of a major rollercoaster in my personal life this past month, I look back at my reactions and many of them I consider rapid, dramatic or even hysterical. And yet, if faced with the same situation again I believe I would react similarly. No, I don’t think I always in control of my reactions; I am still not there. For example, if now I will be faced with a nasty break up, a really mental reaction is most probably to be expected, and this is after ten years of Yoga practice… So if you are like me, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is another solution except choosing our immediate reactions; it is choosing to maintain still, and not react at all.

We don’t have to be superheros and transform our minds into a state of stillness as our immediate reaction to a conflict; it will still help us to find this space after the catharsis happened. Sooner is of course better than later, but later is better than not at all. It doesn’t matter as much if you commit to your stillness before, during or after a rough edge. What matters the most is that you eventually stop and let things happen. You observe, even if you don’t always like what the lance of your mind project. You observe in order to get to know yourself better, to learn. Eventually, even if it will take a thousand moments of stillness like these, you will one day wake up and move on.

On our yoga mat we practice the tools to find stillness. We try and reach the space of the observer through a demanding physical practice. In a flow the mind is so busy with the movement of the body and with following the teacher’s instructions that it inevitably stops and commits to a meditative space of clarity. Thus I tend to call the Vinyasa flow practice, ‘a moving meditation’. A similar effect on the mind happens in a more static practice like Hatha or Iyengar Yoga. The constant movement of the mind is lost in its quest to be attentive to all the details that each posture demands, this time focusing on each posture at a time and not on the flowy movement between them. Stillness happens when we completely commit to a challenging pose and losing our mind in the effort to hold it. It happens as well in shavasana, full relaxation, where we mindfully choose to let all thoughts go and resist movement.

Our practice also trains us to get better at stillness. We are challenged in our ability to remain still when we are confronted with distractions such as: outside noise, our own laziness or our neighbour’s sweaty odour. Our postures are structured in a way that they require physical awareness and balance in order to stay still; it does not happen automatically, it is a hard work. Yoga offers us a little ‘boot-camp’ for stillness and then as we get better in staying still in practice we are more prepared to finding stillness in real life. We practice finding stillness no matter what distractions surround us, no matter what traumas and challenges life throws at us. When we conquer it, the space of stillness is always there for us. It comforts and supports us on the way to move on.

Namaste!

 

Sangha, Supported practice and embracing help

Sangha– Association, coming together. A community of practitioners growing together spiritually whilst learning the path of Yoga.

I started my journey of Yoga at a studio where the practice was focused a lot on the use of props and adjustments in pairs and small groups. Those techniques, as I been taught, should be used to support and deepen the practice. It allowed me to reach a high level of physical intelligence and learn each pose through many different variations. This is a knowledge which I am now really passionate about sharing with my students in various workshops that I lead.

Even though I am a great believer of using props and adjustments in practice, I rarely apply those techniques in regular group classes as the time frame is short and the pace is expected to be quite quick. Also, unfortunately, the way we practice Yoga in the west and specifically in Melbourne, the sport’s capital, is not really welcoming supported practice.

Even when I do offer the use of props or modifications, I see that most students choose to avoid them. I believe that our western minds still fail to identify the Yoga studio as a non-competitive space. We want to succeed in the most challenging pose and we want to be better than other practitioners. We still fall into seeing Yoga as a type of exercise or a sport. We also don’t want to use props because we believe that we can do better without them: that we don’t need help or support.

As people we have this illusion of independence and individualism, which is probably crucial to survive our competitive western world. I believe that there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe being competitive makes us more productive and motivated, however, our Yoga practice has nothing to do with our ability to function independently, it rather here to teach us something else.
The Yoga studio, traditionally, was not meant to be a space for competitive individuals. It was meant to contain Sangha: people that come together and form a community of practitioners.
Patanjali in his ancient guide to the practitioner, The Yoga Sutras, encourages friendliness, Maitri. According to Patanjali, to succeed in our practice we must acquire genuine interest and compassion towards the beings around us. The practitioner is not meant to be lonely and abstinent, he must be of service for the well-being of society as a whole.
Our practice is meant to encourage the identification of the self as a part of something larger. Yoga unites the self with all which is around it. It helps the practitioner to detach himself from the illusion of individuality and see the truth, which is that he is connected to all other beings.
One of my favourite Yogi fables is the comparison between the human subject and a drop in an endless sea:
 The man is like a drop of water in    an endless sea. He is floating through life thinking that there is some kind of force, a leader, a wave that driving him through his path. He thinks there is a destination designed specifically for him, as he is a one unique drop. But the unknown truth, the secret of life is simple: there is no wave, as the wave is all made of drops. The drop is the sea and the sea is the drop.


In my workshops I have the space to offer my students more of the Yoga I was initially trained in. I teach my students to use props and modifications, I also let them engage with each other: working on postures in pairs and small groups, adjusting each other and observing each other’s practice. In that way they have time to ask questions and even though they get to practice less postures, they deepen their understanding of each pose and the broader principles of the practice.
One of the main misconceptions I aim to break is that ‘we can do better on our own’ or that ‘practicing without props or assistance is a more advanced level of practice’. Our blocks and bolsters are not there to assist the beginners and the injured. They are not there to make our practice any easier either! The props, when used with the right intention, are there to teach us something about the pose and thus to advance our practice. I know from my own experience that sometimes working with a prop makes the pose much harder, as it forces our mind to attend to details; similarly, accepting or offering an adjustment allows us to learn the pose better.
In one occasion I guided a student to adjust another in child’s pose. The student that was summoned to adjust, looked a bit puzzled at first and asked, ‘so is this a pose for both of us?’ Yes it is! We learn so much from observing another practitioner and helping him in his practice. Just because we are not getting a stretch does not mean we don’t practice and improve. We need to learn from our practice, and not just do it. It is an opportunity to understand our body and mind better. We also must accept the fact, that the practice is not only about ourselves and our own improvement, it also about being part of the group and maybe help someone else grow.
Using props and practicing together teaches us to embrace help and support others. It encourages kindness towards our own body and our fellow Yogis. When we sit on a block we support our body in the journey of learning how to sit up tall, this support remains beneficial even if we can do the posture without a block. Even when we can hold our back straight easily, we may choose to sit on a block to experience a sensation of a longer spine. This kind of an experiment might give us some understanding about length in the body or take us deeper into a variation of the pose, such as a sited twist. Similarly, when we seek advice and accept support from other people, we are most likely to make better decisions.


I was always a bit of a loner: I like to study alone, I tend to choose to travel alone and I have been living alone happily for the past two years. When I first arrived in Australia I was completely alone; I had no friends or family on this side of the world. I had, however, a carefully made plan. I was determined first to find a place to live, get enough work to survive and then when I am more relaxed and settled, start making friends. I was determined to do it on my own; asking for help didn’t even crossed my mind.
I saw pictures of Melbourne on the internet, it was all tall buildings and main streets, so I imagined it will look like my home town. I read that my University is in Burwood, which is somewhere in the east of Melbourne, so I assumed it will all look the same. I imagined that I will just get a flat at one of those buildings somewhere close to the University, walk to a close by supermarket to get some food, then try and find a gym to teach in and start making some money; only after all that I would have time to get out there to meet people. I was definitely not expecting suburbia…
Everything turned out to be flat and far away. It all felt so remote and empty. I remember walking for hours and passing only ten private houses or so, no shops or gyms yet and it didn’t look like there were any buildings in the horizon… I was terrified. After about a week of fruitless attempts to figure out where I am, where to live or where to work, I found myself crying at a coffee shop; the first one that at least had table service. I couldn’t even imagine paying for more than a coffee, I had no idea what to do or where to go next.
I planned this journey for months but only when I finally was confronted with it, I realised the importance of the support of a Sangha. No path was meant to be taken alone. I understood then that I must ask for help and advice. Not because I can’t do it on my own but because this is the right way to do things. I searched the internet and found a guy from my country that was apparently living in Melbourne. I called him crying from what I thought was the middle of nowhere and he invited me to come to the city for a beer. Instead of walking alone, I made a friend that still supports me on my path.
I wasn’t accepted to teach in any gyms or studios until few months later, I had to adjust to the local ways first. The first class that I taught in Melbourne was a by donation, community class in a lovely space at the city. I haven’t made any money but it charged me with the energy to keep going. Supporting others on their path of Yoga, even when I was myself completely lost, provided me with knowledge, confidence and joy. Two years from now, I changed my timetable endless times as all teachers do but I never gave up this class.
Embracing help doesn’t make us weaker and supporting others is not a waste of time. It just keeps us in tune with our role as a part of something bigger, as a drop within the sea and not outside of it.
Namaste!
Source used: Iyengar, B.K.S, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1993, HarperCollinsPublishers.

Sankalpa, Proactivity And Letting Life Happen

Sankalpa– Determined decision, intention or wish. Traditionally one must repeat the Sankalpa three times in one’s mind at the beginning and the end of the practice. The decision should come to mind naturally, this is our internal simple wish.
Starting the year we tend to set ourselves goals, take decisions and make plans. Our practice supports this process, it also can assist us in pursuing those goals and actually fulfil our decisions and plans.

Even though I tend to preach to my students that the process is much more meaningful and fulfilling than the actual result, we also all want to achieve our personal goals and advance our practice on both physical and mental levels. Letting go does not mean to be passive when pursuing our intentions, it is just another component that supports the hard path towards any kind of success; this path must be a proactive one.

I tend to see new students surprised when they discover that Yoga practice is actually a hard work. People say things such as, ‘I heard Yoga is very relaxing’. Relaxation or stress-relief might be chosen as our final goal in practice, but there is a long journey to reach there. A journey which is not necessarily relaxing; it is a physical and a mental workout.

During practice our mind should be always alert and we must maintain full awareness of the movements of our body and our mind. It might shock a few dedicated practitioners but I don’t believe in practicing Yoga postures with closed eyes (except perhaps Tadasana Samastiti and Shavasana – final relaxation). Closed eyes encourage a relaxed and sleepy state of mind and distract us from focusing on the details of the pose we are holding. Even Shavasana is intended to be an alert pose. As I mentioned in previous texts Shavasana is a conscious relaxation. We want to find the centre between stillness and complete letting go or falling asleep.

To make a bit of order in all of this, we might look at our practice as any other process of goal setting, progress or change in our life. Say we start from some kind of a less desirable state that we are interested in altering. We then make a conscious decision to change, we work hard and pass through obstacles on our way and then eventually we achieve some kind of improvement or a more desirable state. At the last stage in this process we want to be at peace with our final achievement. We should let go of any attachment to it and accept the place we have reached. This kind of acceptance will only come after hard, focused, proactive work.

Similarly, we all arrive to our mat with some kind of a back story. Perhaps we are seeking to distress or make a change in our life. Maybe it is only a change towards higher physical ability such as improving our flexibility, strength or fitness level. When we start our practice we take Sankalpa – set an intention, a determined decision that we want to work with in our practice. This is a decision that comes naturally to our mind; it will always be something that we already carried with us from the world beyond our mat. Taking Sankalpa, however, is only the first step. We then must work really hard and practice with an alert, aware mind. We must practice with devotion, we must trust our teacher and yes, sometimes we must practice letting go or acceptance. We must focus on the process − it is not time to relax! We must be aware of all the little details of our body. When we are focusing on the little details, we are establishing a more delicate, sensitive relationship with our body -ꟷ the tool of our practice -ꟷ and thus we learn to use and control it in a better way. We finish our practice with some sense of achievement. As more we practice as more sensitive we become to the changes in our body and thus we notice more and more progress in it. This improvements might not be as visible externally but when we become better observers we need less advancement in order to be satisfied. A sensitive mind is more susceptible to happiness. We find more beauty and joy in things that first seemed insignificant and thus we start finding it easier to surrender and accept our practice and our life as it is. The result becomes more satisfying even if it doesn’t change.


More specific example can be observed in one of the most mentally difficult postures in our practice:   Pashimotanasana – sited forward fold. We sit down and begin the pose with some kind of preconception about our ability to do it, then we set ourselves a goal. I guide my students to aspire to move their heart forward, towards their toes. This is ironically an unreachable goal that allows us to explore this act of moving forward with devotion to the process and not the result. I guide my students to put maximum effort, look forward at the direction where they are going and recruit the whole of their bodies in order to move their chests forward. Then I tell them to reach as far as they can and release the head down. At this point there is no more movement forward, it is time to let go and accept where we are. If we want to move forward we need to lift the head again and reach for our goals. Serenity is part of our process, it supports the process, specifically at the stage of reaching our final result, but it is not what gets us there.

Yoga is not some kind of a magical path where we surrender and suddenly reach enlightment. It is a hard work and a journey full of challenges. But when our practice matures we can see the joy and the fulfilment that is contained in this beautiful process of growth. When we arrive in this state we don’t need the result anymore. And then, where ever we arrive as our final destination, we more easily find our acceptance and fulfilment. This place of maturity, however, will never come to us the easy way.

Another way to explain those processes is through the theory of the three Gunas. Humans, nature and all that exists within and beyond those notions is traditionally believed to consist of three Gunas, essences or energies. Those are: Tamas, Rajas and Satva. Everything contains a portion of those energies and every object or subject will incline at different times to one of those broad directions. In short: Tamas is heavy, grounding energy; Rajas is active, dynamic, moving; and Satva is calm, clear or harmonious. Usually as practitioners we will aspire to change into a state of Satva, harmony. Perhaps attempting to overcome some kind of heavy experience, for example: loss. Some practitioners will walk an opposite path: arriving to the mat with a very light, fluid mind they will seek Tamas, grounding and focus. In both occasions, as one of my teachers used to say, the path from Tamas to Satva or the other way around can only be through Rajas, action. There is no change without action. There is no progress by only letting go, we must make a decision to change and then be proactive and not just let life happen.

If I look back at my life I find so many of those processes of self-discovery. I had many failures and successes. Looking back I can see where a wrong approach to the process derived an unsatisfying result. At other times, I was mature enough to accept the result and find the joy in it, and thus I arrived. One example is my journey to Australia.

I grew up in a family of Russian migrants in Israel. Moving countries at a young age and going through the usual hardships of fitting-in in a foreign culture, I always felt displaced. I never considered Israel to be my home and always aspired to come back to Russia, where I was born. Every time I travelled back to my home country, however, I felt that the locals saw me more as a tourist rather than as one of them. This process of fitting-in or rather coming back home always seemed to me unsatisfying, it always turned out to be a failure. It seems to me now that I wasn’t focused enough at the time, on either direction. Years later I took a determined decision to move away. I moved alone to Australia where I had no family, connections or heritage. I worked hard to settle down, to make friends, money and grow my own business; I started completely from scratch. It was a very hard process that required me to be entirely devoted, it left no time for serenity. I had to be proactive and not just let life happen. I don’t feel like I reached my final destination yet, however, I do feel I have arrived. I am much happier and more satisfied then I ever was. Even though I have much less, I am in a much more harmonious, Satvic place in my life.

The way from Tamas to Satva is only through Rajas. The path from struggle to acceptance must be proactive. One must act to reach acceptance and joy. Must work and not only relax. Fulfilment lies more in the devotional journey than in its final destination. It is a misconception that all Yogis are so happy because they are so relaxed and know how to let go. No, our practice is a hard journey of spiritual awakening; a journey that it takes time to find the joy in. A process that must start from a determined decision to change and take responsibility over our life.

It is not too late to start this wonderful journey and there is no better excuse than the start of a new year!

Namaste!

 

 

Bindu, Discontentment and Craving for more


Bindu– The source of creation, is beyond the realm of all conventional experience. The storehouse of all previous life karmas, memories and desires. It is the ultimate source out of which all things manifest and into which all things return.

 

We always want more. Being human means being forever unsatisfied.

The Yogi take on that comes to this: the energetic layer of our body contains a little seed or a drop, somewhere close to or within the crown of the head. This seed is called in Sanskrit, Bindu. Bindu is the cause of the creation of meaning; it is what makes us remember our source of existence, our connection to some supreme divinity we not necessarily can grasp. It is a little falling drop of the universe which is contained within us and craves to comeback and connect with the rest of the universe beyond us. We don’t need to understand it in order to crave this process of reunion.

Bindu always reminds us where we come from and makes us want to come back there. Our mind, however, fails to interpret this craving. Thus we are continuously have the desire to move forward and accomplish something without being certain what exactly is this thing we want. This craving is what keeps us unsatisfied. We want a new car, a new wife, a better house, a prettier pigeon pose… But the tragedy is that no matter what we have, it is never enough; as we accomplish one goal we straight away start craving another. Our mind fails to comprehend that what we really want is already within us, we just need to let the union happen, to connect back to the universe around us. Reaching this kind of satisfaction is a life long journey to spiritual awakening, and it starts with the acceptance of our inevitable discontentment.  

This discontentment can also be explained as the god within us that wants to unite with the god beyond, or maybe our natural human arrogance. Contemplating upon the latter of those explanations, I conclude that a little bit of arrogance is crucial for us to survive. It is paradoxically the source of our Yogic humility and trust in the universe. A trust that comes from the belief that we are very close to or even contain some kind of divinity or a god, and thus we are part of something greater. It gives us a reason and a since of meaning.

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Bindu is ironically located so close to the skull, almost reaching to break free away from the physical body and out to the filled with abundance sky; it is so close to its destination. In a similar way, a newborn baby lies head down in his mother’s womb, aiming to break through the cervix. His Bindu leads him on the way to unite with the universe that is out there. Most of us succeed in this very first challenge of life, only to discover it to be the beginning of a much longer journey. A teacher once told me that a breeched baby, lies in the womb with his head up because he aspires to reach closer to his mother, or perhaps he is not yet ready to come out to the world and start his journey.

Therefore from infancy we learn that to get what we want, we must dive for it head first, leading the way with our hidden point of desire. When we are ready to conquer fear, we dive to the ocean head first; when we are ready for love we rush in it “head first” rejecting all hesitations.

In our practice, we want to go head down to a forward fold (such as Pashimotanasana) and reach our legs. We mistake our Bindu’s craving for spiritual awakening with the desire to reach palms to toes or head to knees. Even when I encourage my students to lead their movement from the heart or the chest, they struggle as their mind craves satisfaction. I remind them that this is a “forward” fold and not a “down” fold, that it will never be satisfying because no journey forward ever is.

We should surrender to the fact that we will be forever discontented. We should stop searching for satisfaction but rather focus on experiencing the journey that is given to us, to the fullest. Discontentment is also part of it, it reminds us that we are moving forward and not down.

Namaste!


Source used: Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga, India, 1984.

Shavasana, Serenity and Trust

Shavasana- Corpse pose. Full relaxation. A posture most commonly practiced at the end of a Yoga asana sequence. 

B.K.S Iyengar ꟷone of the most influential Yoga teachers in the worldꟷ prescribed in his famous book, Light on Yoga to leave 15-20 minutes for shavasana at the end of each practice. In this posture, as Iyengar writes, the practitioner should imitate a corpse. He should maintain stillness of both body and mind. The practitioner must remain in complete consciousness in order to learn how to consciously let go.

This posture is one of the hardest in our practice. Therefore it is not surprising that contemporary practitioners are drawn away from Iyengar’s instructions to it. Light on Yoga was first published in 1966 and it is considered to be one of the best written sources in the field; it summarises a lot of principles that were not published as explicitly before and many that didn’t take the written form at all for centuries.

Thus it seems right to assume that practitioners used to practice long shavasana at a certain age and time. So what is happening now?

I would love to share with you two very different experiences I had while teaching this pose:

1. Once I was teaching a class and have finished all of my planed sequence about twelve minutes before the end. Consequently, the students got the treat of a longer shavasana. I probably missed something or just changed my mind in the middle about what posture to take next, like always. Anyway, the time planning did not turn out perfectly. The class was taught in a gym environment where I am expected to give a maximum of 5 minutes shavasana at the end. We were on minute number 3 and I was already sure that all of my students are a sleep or just waiting for it to be over. I woke them up and ended the class few minutes early.  

2. Another time I guided a 3-5 minutes shavasana, at another gym, to the tunes of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonnet’, my favourite shavasana music. A student I haven’t seen before came over after the class and thanked me. She said that she experienced unique sensations during the shavasana; she described a vision of blue and purple colours and a floating sensation. She said it was a shame that we couldn’t have a longer shavasana, as the class is only 60 minutes long.


Through my ten-years-experience in Yoga, I have never practiced or guided shavasana for longer than 10 minutes. In more traditional studios an average shavasana lasts 5-10 minutes. After arriving in Melbourne I had to adjust to most local studios’ requirements of a maximum 5 minutes length relaxation. In some studios I was asked to guide a 3 minutes relaxation and then leave the room after the class to the use of students who wish to stay longer in shavasana. I frequently see students use the time of shavaasana to practice other postures, to get dressed or gather their things; sometimes students will thank me and leave the room during shavasana.

At the same time I must say that the requests for ‘hard’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘challenging’ postures only rise. Students enjoy me demonstrating a very tricky arm balances. They love to sweat and try new things. Binds, inversions and balance postures are gaining more and more popularity in my classes. It seems to me that contemporary practitioners are embracing the physical challenges of the Yoga practice. I even sometimes feel like I need to keep advancing my own physical practice in order to keep up with my students expectations. I should thank my students for the significant progress in my asana practice the past few years; I indeed am grateful for that. Asana is a major part of our practice and I always encourage my students to keep challenging themselves to find those postures that they still can’t do, rather than staying attached to the postures they have mastered. I preach it to my students but I actually feel that I have learned it from them more than from any other source.

I think that my role as a teacher is mainly to assist in guiding the student in the path he chooses himself. Many of us choose this challenging path of conquering the Yoga asana. We are a competitive, success driven society, we are up for all that is challenging and hard. So why aren’t we as driven to challenge ourselves and conquer shavasana? It is obviously harder for us all, this day and age, to let go and relax than to hold a dancer’s pose. Maybe we are actually avoiding the harder task of lying down with closed eyes and convince ourselves we are challenged more by standing on one leg.  

I sincerely think that the fault for abandoning traditional shavasana is mainly on us, Yoga teachers. We are not very good at selling this pose! And it is probably because it is so hard for us to conquer to. It is hard to practice and it is hard to teach.

As teachers, if we want our students to enjoy shavasana, we need to market it in the same way we market other more ‘sexy’ asanas. In my classes I started to approach shavasana as a challenging posture. It is not enough to say that shavasana is the time to ‘heal’ and ‘recover’ and ‘relax’. These are not ‘sexy’ activities and they don’t imply any benefit to our contemporary student’s mind. I rather started to present shavasana as the hardest posture in our practice, as the time to challenge our mind and not the body. It is a posture that has a goal, it is done for the body and not by the body. It is the time for the body to absorb all the benefits of the practice and to gain self-learning; it is a process in which the mind must not interfere. Shavasana is not a time to ‘rest’ it is a time to ‘practice’ stillness, presence, non-attachment to the ego.   

Shavasana is all about surrendering and letting go. As a teacher I guide the students to let go of all thoughts and sensations, and commit to not making this posture all about themselves, what would be serving only the ego. At the same time it is me who has to step back and surrender to the pose. I need not to interfere and let the pose do its own service to my students. I need to stop talking and guiding and making it all about me. I need to let go of my students and give them their space. In the case I described earlier (number 2) I have created a space for my student’s spiritual experience. Her experience could have lasted longer perhaps, however, it is only because I let her go she had the space for this experience at all. I stopped talking and guiding and gave her time to tune inwards where she found space for her own spiritual practice. This is why I believe that it is a good technique to leave the room during the shavasana or maybe enter shavasana with the students, setting a timer for myself. 

Shavasana is also a lot about trust. Trusting the posture, trusting the teacher, trusting the space. We enter shavasana ꟷa state of nothingnessꟷ and we trust that we will come back from it and not disappear. Otherwise we can stay only on the threshold of the pose. As a teacher, I must trust my students when guiding them through the pose. I shouldn’t assume that they don’t have a full experience of relaxation. I don’t know what goes through their minds and I should trust them that they practice the pose in the best way possible for them, on that particular day on the mat. I sincerely think that it is me who made shavasana boring that time I described, in experience number 1. I did not trust my students enough. Maybe somewhere I still feel like I am doing something wrong if I stop talking; a moment of silence still might feel like forever. Maybe I am also falling into this popular judgment that if a class or a posture is not hard or active it is not good enough, not interesting enough. Or this common, ego-driven misconception that if a class is harder, it is better. I don’t know if that is something that we ever grow out of. My students are definitely those who inspire me to keep up and improving in this layer of my practice as well.

There is so much of a Yogi mental practice I discovered as a teacher, so much processes to observe on myself while teaching. I encourage my students to observe themselves while practicing, and I join them in this process. The realisation that I can still feel like I am a practitioner, a student, even while I am teaching a class, fills me with joy and gratitude.

Namaste!

Ahimsa VS the Vegetarian Choice

Ahimsa- The first ethical discipline of Yoga. One out of ten disciplines called Yamas and Niyamas. Ahimsa can be translated as: non-violence, harmlessness, non-interference.

 

When I accomplished my first Yoga teacher training, I was determined to live a vegetarian lifestyle. My teacher was a strict vegan, so were most of my peers. Our teacher training sessions included a joined lunch made of the trainee’s offerings. Slowly everyone started to bring only vegan or even raw food treats to lunch. I learned a few tricks from those gatherings and thus I started to cook vegetarian at home and was determined to commit to this diet. I had not necessarily occupied myself with the matter of animal cruelty at the contemporary meat industry, rather it was the natural path I felt I should take as a Yoga teacher. I was taught Ahimsa: do not interfere in other creature’s path; I was taught the health benefits of the vegetarian diet; and I was given quite a few good recipes.

My family’s reaction to my new ideas was not favourable.  My mom kept cooking lunches that included main meat dish and a side of pasta or rice without a sauce. As I rejected the meat, I was left only with the side dishes and consequently I was hungry each time I stayed at my family house. My mom argued that she can’t go through the hustle of cooking an extra dish just for me; she didn’t know how to cook vegetarian; meat was what everyone always ate. In my family it was considered right to always clean your entire plate as you eat and not complain about it. Therefore, I felt that I was always judged as selfish and impolite for my choice.

Once I raised the question with my fellow teacher trainees.

                ‘What if you are invited to another person’s house and all that is been served is meat. Wouldn’t it be impolite to refuse the meal?’ I asked and confided them with my struggle.

                My teacher laughed heartily and said that I think so perhaps because I was brought up in a Russian family. One of my friends even stated, ‘if your hosts know you are vegetarian and still serve you meat, one might question THEIR manners instead.’

Somewhere during those two years of training, between my mom’s kitchen and my teacher’s lectures, I became what I call: a ‘bad vegetarian’. I indeed ate mainly healthy vegetarian food, except sometimes some fish, which I was beating myself for. I used to claim that I am ‘not fussy’ and when I was served meat I ate everything around it. I preferred to pick at my food instead of putting my hosts in a position where they have nothing to serve me with. Sometime during this period, I heard my favourite Yoga teacher declaring that she still eats meat; it gave me some validation at the time, but it wasn’t enough.

Three or four years since, I am now living in a continent far away from my family house. I am rarely hosted as I don’t have that many contacts hereabouts, so I have the privilege to choose what I eat most of the time. I cook vegetarian because it is cheaper, easier and it is gradually became my favourite food. As a Yoga teacher I understand and respect Ahimsa: not interference, all creatures have their own journey to follow in this world; one should not hinder the path of another for his own good.

Few days ago I was traveling in a mountains area and stopped for the night at a very small country town. My navigation skills were never my advantage, thus I got a bit lost and ended up driving at night through the bush. I arrived at my motel only after ten pm that night and the elderly hostess unlocked the door for me. With sleepy eyes she said she was so tired because she only opened the motel recently and there was so much work that she has to get up every day at half past four. She gave me the keys and added, ‘your room is upstairs, I’m sorry I won’t come up there with you. I waited for you to arrive safely until now and I wish to go to sleep.’ I bided her good night and agreed with her on an hour in which I’ll come down for breakfast the next day. She didn’t asked me if I am vegetarian or vegan or gluten free or don’t like some kinds of spices; she was a bit simpler than that.

I was expecting breakfast to be a buffet from which I would be able to pick the goods that suit my diet. However, a brief moment after I entered the dining room another lady came out of the kitchen with a piled up cooked breakfast dish. She was at least in her sixties, she placed the plate in front of me and said, ‘please, enjoy your meal’. The plate consisted of toasted bread with piled up bacon, eggs, mushrooms and sausage on top of it; it was all over each other in a one big mix. After a quick reflection at my situation I ate the bacon. The next day I ate the sausage as well and cleaned up my plate. 

One of the best teachers I had the luck to be exposed to lately said that because he leads a traveller’s lifestyle, he can’t always choose what he eats. It is a similar example, however, he is quite privileged in his lifestyle. Many people are really CAN’T choose what they eat; some perhaps don’t experience the privilege of having food at all. At this New-Age of ours where embracing vegan diet is so available for us, we must remember the fact that it is only because we have that choice that we take it. In some snowy northern villages, people still survive only on hunting animals, for others eating meat is part of a traditional ritual which is deeply meaningful to them. I guess that at this motel’s homely little dining room I suddenly thought, ‘who am I to refuse the food this old lady made for me?’ I suddenly felt that rejecting her kindness would be a severer case of breaking Ahimsa than eating two pieces of meat.

In my own home, my own sanctuary, I can choose any diet that is in the latest fashion. We must not forget that food is such a precious matter for many of us, it is part of our path. What we eat, and how we eat, and how we make it, and if we eat at all. Especially if it so for you, you should respect other people’s sanctuaries. I understand now the value of cleaning up my plate. A tradition that is not only taught in my Russian family, but was embraced for centuries by so many cultures. It is also comes from Ahimsa: non-interference in other creature’s path in life. It is about not rejecting someone else’s offering, an offering that perhaps came with good intention or an intention that is unknown to us. It is someone else’s journey you cross pass when you arrive at his table as a guest and you should respect his journey.  What purpose one serves when one refuses the turkey some grandmother made for a Christmas dinner? What I would have achieved if I refused the food my hostess hustled for? Except vexing a soul that reached to offer kindness, I don’t see any. Food is the essence of life, each has his own taste, but we should not claim it as a value. Being a kind person is a value, so is embracing the kindness of others.

With food, like with all matters of importance, one should be flexible and sensitive. One is not what one eats. Being vegetarian doesn’t make me a better person or a better teacher. The intention behind our choices is what matters. What we eat should be a choice made by the same criteria as any other. Does my choice serves others? Or the universe? Does it makes me happy or not? Does it makes anyone else happy or not? If the answer you find within is positive, just keep it simple and eat the bacon.