Walking the walk

I’ve recently returned from a one month ‘solo’ walking and camping trip from the midlands to Cornwall, carrying all of my belongings in my backpack, with the aim of visiting as many sacred, ancient sites along the way. The obvious question is, ‘Why on earth would I want to do this in February?!’ It is a good question indeed, and one which I will try to answer here!

The desire to do a solo walk has been brewing for a while now, probably since I saw that wonderfully inspiring film, ‘Wild’, on the plane on the way back from India a few years ago. I am a firm believer in the benefit of time spent alone, especially when also immersing yourself in nature – to me these are essential components of any healing journey. There is a quote I love that comes from a seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascale, who said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Aside from his negligence of womankind, which I’m sure was purely a generational oversight and if he was around today then such a wise man would certainly have expanded his wording to include men and women (!), this strikes me as a very true statement indeed.

Anyway, whilst on a road trip around Pembrokeshire this January, with my beloved partner, Chris, where, I might add, we were having a lovely time together, this background yen for solitude in nature nevertheless grew and grew until one day it spectacularly exploded out of me and I wailed, ‘I need to be alone!‘. In the end, the catalyst was the unbelievably fantastic book, ‘This Changes Everything’, by Naomi Klein, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It is about how our current corrupt capitalist system is directly at odds with preserving the planet and therefore is nonsensically leading to our own self-destruction as, sadly, we are so disconnected from ourselves and nature that we seem to have forgotten that we cannot possibly survive without the health of our planet! Anyway, it is ultimately an optimistic read and has such a power behind it that it’s hard to read it and then just go back to your normal life, without making any changes (I guess the clue is in the title!). Certainly, for me, it incited a huge need to ‘do’ something positive to help the world, whatever it was. Raw emotions of pain and betrayal at how poorly we are treating ourselves, each other and our planet, which had been building up inside me for a long time, suddenly poured out of me with a tremendous power – it was seriously intense, almost like grieving for humanity’s loss of soulfulness and connection. I know I’m an emotional girl, but this was something else!

So, the potent combination of feeling the need to be on my own for a while, combined with the long-held desire for a long-distance solo hike and a strong urge to somehow pour my pain at humanity and mother earth’s suffering into doing something concrete (an interesting turn of phrase for nature immersion!), led to me gate-crashing the rest of Chris and my planned campervan trip around the UK with this walk. Chris, bless him, supported me all the way, despite his initial confusion at what was going on with me, and indeed I was confused too! I am truly blessed in that department… 🙂

So, what did I gain from the walk? Well, not at all what I thought I would, as is usually the case!

I thought the walk was about solitude and having time alone to think and work out what I could do to help ease our planetary suffering. Also, if I’m honest, there was a perceived need within me to prove to myself and others that I could cope on my own as a single female. On the first night, after an arduous day’s walk where I realised I probably should have done some training, and I was far from any campsite, I had to wild-camp in a wood. I hadn’t been able to find a farmhouse to ask permission, so I just found a spot close to the path and hoped for the best. I had barely put my tent up when the land-owner appeared and asked what I was doing! Luckily, he was really lovely and also had an interest in stone circles and wildlife and, after a friendly chat, he wished me well and left me alone with his permission to stay. I felt buoyed by his kindness and realised how happy I had been to have a conversation with someone after my day alone, and this was my first inkling that the walk wasn’t to be quite how I imagined.

My second wake-up call literally came when I woke up the next morning to a ground frost, after a terrible night’s sleep due to being so cold. I was aching all over and frustrated at not being able to even sit-up in my tent, yet alone stand up. Somehow I had managed to get what I suspect was badger poo over most of my belongings – whatever it was it stank! And it felt horrible not being able to wash properly too. After a rubbish breakfast of oats and water, I set off again, feeling pretty emotional about how much I HADN’T enjoyed my first night in the wild, at odds with my naïve preconceptions of how I would relish the independence and freedom of being alone in nature. From then on, I decided not to wild-camp. I soon realised I had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else, and this felt like a huge relief! So, onto Plan B…

Before I left I had sent out a message to all my facebook friends, asking if anyone along my proposed route would be happy to put me up for a night, as I noticed most of the campsites along the way were closed over winter.  The response was overwhelmingly positive, which was beautiful and humbling in itself, before I had even left. And now, without wild-camping as an option and with a scarcity of campsites, I was ready to take up as many of these offers as possible – so much for solitude! So, in brief, what followed was a beautiful lesson in the innate goodness of humanity.  Some of my hosts were old friends and some were people I didn’t know well at all. But every individual or family that took me in blew me away with their kindness and hospitality.  After attempting to pay for the first couple of nights and being firmly told to put my money away, I soon realised that people WANT to help. And, when I thought about it, I too would be very glad indeed to host a passing walker for a night. It is clearly an innate human quality, to want to provide shelter, warmth, company and food to those in need. And this is a beautiful thing to consider… 🙂

Furthermore, I also fully appreciated the wonders of, again, the innate kindness of strangers. So many people took great interest in my walk along the way, and I had some really lovely interactions with locals, all of whom were keen to help in any way they could. One example was a wonderful lady that I met at a campsite who, seeing me putting up my tent in the descending evening frost, gave me a big hug and gifted me with some home-made cashmere leg and wrist warmers that she had made, and a hot water bottle.  Even now, when I catch a whiff of her perfume, still lingering on the cashmere, I feel immense gratitude towards that lady!

And then of course there was my absolute delight in seeing Chris, who faithfully came to see me most weekends in our campervan, stocking me up on fruit and veg and love. I soon banished any feelings of guilt that I was being rather less hardcore than I had planned – the walk was showing me how much I value the beautiful people in my life as well as how much I value time to myself.

So, rather than being about solitude, this walk was actually about connection – who knew?! And this, of course, was the best theme for me to explore, particularly in today’s turbulent world, where we are hit with endless stories of division, hate and war and there’s a depressing sense of the flawed nature of humanity.  Instead, it’s good to remember that people are innately good, people are kind, we want to help each other when it comes to it.

I learnt so many things on my walk, and I did indeed enjoy all that time alone in nature and feel that I have yet to appreciate all that it gave me.  I aim to share more of my insights as and when they occur but, for now, the big revelation is that solitude is rather an illusory concept. We can never truly be alone, we always remain connected to others, even if it’s simply through having to source our food and shelter from others. But, actually I think it’s something more, I think we are sociable creatures at heart that need company. Solitude is wonderful, but only when there’s a known end to it. Then, once the solitude is broken, the smile of another and the prospect of sharing food together or swapping tales is all the sweeter, as the solitude merely reminds us of our intrinsic connection to each other.

everything-is-connected

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An essay on darkness and light

Last December I attended a week-long writing course at the brilliant Schumacher College in Totnes with Jay Griffiths running the writing side of things, whose book, ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey‘ made a huge impact on me back in 2013. The course was entitled ‘Tender is the Night’ and the theme was exploring darkness, on all levels. So as well as spending lots of time out in the woods at night, we also delved into the darkness of the psyche through writing exercises and other exploratory techniques including shamanic drumming and dancing, and I suppose the week’s theme was really a celebration of this darker side of life, again on all levels.

Anyway, I was surprised at how difficult I found the week.  All kinds of buried emotions and memories emerged, linked to my history of depression, and I really struggled to connect to this idea of celebrating darkness, and felt like the ‘problem child’ of the group, although I know that was all in my head – the group were completely supportive and lovely!

Anyhow, rather than wang on about it here, I felt compelled today to share the piece of writing I did during the course; on the first day we were given the title, ‘True Darkness’ and asked to use our spare time during the week to write a piece using this title as inspiration, which we would all share on the last day.  I struggled with the piece and, in the end, realised I couldn’t celebrate darkness, and I needed to be true to myself. So, my piece was really an essay explaining why I honour and value the dark, but I seek and celebrate the light. I do hope you enjoy it – it comes from my heart.

16th December 2016 – Essay on ‘True Darkness’, written as part of the Schumacher College course, Tender is the Night, with Chris Salisbury and Jay Griffiths

Preamble

The only truth I can ever speak is my own. And who can say if I’m right or wrong? Not I, not you. For truth is movable. Give me a fact, and I can always challenge it. But tell me with honesty how you feel, and I will listen gladly. Even writing down my truth feels wrong, as already it is fixed in time, static, positional. All of life is pure vibration and energy – of this at least, the scientists and the monks agree. So if life is movement, then nothing is static, not even truth. This writing is the truth I felt as my fingers tapped out the words. But already it may be old.

Darkness is a tool, to help us know the light

I honour and love the darkness, as I know it is an integral part of myself and all of life, and indeed it is my greatest teacher. But I struggle to truly revel in darkness; instead I seek the light. Having known darkness with an uncomfortable intimacy then subsequently having tasted the light of my soul, I know clearly in which of these I prefer to reside.

This week, whilst we’ve been celebrating the night, an insistent voice has whispered to me, ‘But we only find beauty in the night because of the moon’s reflected light’ and I can’t help but notice our rapture at the candles and firelight. And when I sit in the meditation room in front of a giant painting of a single candle, silent tears run down my face and I recall Rumi’s words, ‘the wound is where the light enters’.

I do not feel the truth of true darkness; any sense of true darkness is, to me, an imaginary, illusory fear-based state of the psyche, one which I know well. It is a negative version of Willo-the-wisp, there to guide us to the light. And, in opposition to its mischievous counter-light, it will take us there, if we have the courage to follow it. The only truth of darkness, for me, is the light it contains.

Perhaps this is ignorance of a deeper truth, an egoic blind-spot. But, if so, I have faith that, when I’m ready, the darkness will show this to me, drawing me out of any backwater in which I languish and back into the full flow of life.

The truth I feel is that we are pure light, and all of our suffering comes from having forgotten this. As I write these words, I cringe at the cliché I’ve become. The earnest yoga teacher, speaking of love and light and ‘feeling energy’. But it wasn’t always like this, I assure you, and I can only speak my current truth, knowing that truth is the feeling of a moment in time and our truths change as we do, if we allow ourselves to grow.

In occasional flashes of lucidity, and sometimes for exquisitely prolonged periods, I experience my own light and know I am pure love, as are we all, because we are all one. And, for me, having tasted such sweetness, darkness is a bitterness that can no longer be tolerated as a long-term resident, but is valued even more highly as a trusted teacher when it comes to visit, to remind me of what I am not. Again, I cringe as I write these words – ‘You’re not seriously going to share this stuff with the group, are you Becky?’ my dark censor asks. ‘You sound like an arrogant mad-woman.’ But I have learnt to just smile at this voice, send it love, and soon it will leave again. Oh yes, it will be back, but I’m no longer its ashamed slave.

So I don’t share this in the spirit of superiority or arrogance, in fact egotism is one of my greatest fears, as the darkness loves to remind me endlessly. But, for my own growth, I need to summon the power of my shadow side to speak my truth, even when I’m shaking like an aspen leaf.  And, deep down, I know it’s the opposite of ego, as it comes from a feeling that we are all made of the same light.

And it is absolutely thanks to the darkness, that I have found this deep sense of knowing. Depression runs like a coal seam through my ancestry, and it has certainly mined my depths. It took a near terminal descent into the abyss of clinical depression for me to finally begin a dialogue with darkness. At the time it felt true enough – sadness was a black snow obliterating my sense of self, gradually turning me to ice.  But, through talking to the darkness, it lost its power over me, which I eventually realised was only ever self-imposed. The darkness is never our jailor; I created my prison myself, and it was made of nothing but fear. I began to see the psychic darkness as the patient tutor and friend that it is, even though it administers its lessons solely through the medium of suffering. It does this because it knows that we cannot ignore suffering forever.

So now I welcome darkness every time it scuds through my life, always teaching me, always showing me my opposite, moving me deeper and deeper into the vortex of my infinite existence. Melancholy still bites at my ankles, reminding me that black snow could fall again. But I now know it is helping me to maintain a true course towards the light, in order to heal not only myself, but also my family tree and, as we are all one, the universe.

To me, light is the fabric of existence and darkness is its negative state, the space in between. It keeps us growing upwards, like seeds desperately pushing out of the soil and towards the liberation of a light-filled, endless sky. We are seeds, and we have a lot of growing to do, sewing a seam through light and dark as we evolve.

Sun and moon

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Touched by the stones

Chris and I are a week into our road trip around Pembrokeshire and already we’re falling under its magical spell. Before we left, pretty much everyone to whom we mentioned our plans had something positive to say about the place – eyes lit up as happy memories were recounted. And, now we’re here, I’m sure our own eyes are starting to sparkle with an other-worldly brightness – there is definitely something very special and powerful within the landscape here. It’s an elemental kind of magic – it’s in the thick, black peaty soil and quartz-studded bluestone of the Preseli Hills, it’s in the ancient, moss-covered woodlands, it’s in the salty air and flocks of silhouetted starlings, it’s in the soft croak of the raven, and it’s definitely in the vastness of the ocean, which somehow still contains within it the promise of  bright summer turquoise, even beneath steely skies. I wondered if that’s where the word ‘teal’ comes from – a hybrid of turquoise and steel.

But it’s also in the visual clues that scatter the landscape, which help put together a clear sense of an ancient connection between man and landscape, that spans thousands of years.  There are literally hundreds of standing stones, burial chambers, hut circles, deserted villages and stone circles, dating back to the stone age and beyond, not to mention the stone crosses and churches of more recent celtic Christianity.

Chris and I are drawn to these mysterious, peaceful sites, time and time again. More often than not, they are sited in particularly beautiful, out of the way spots with spectacular views, and if we hang around long enough, usually a mood of tranquility descends upon us like a strangely familiar blanket. I often wonder at this lure of the stones, which I feel goes beyond the enticement of an unsolved mystery. Do we long to reconnect to our past? Do we feel the tug within our DNA to revisit sacred places that our ancestors, or even  ourselves, may have known before, long ago?

Or is it something else again? Could it be that our ancestors had knowledge that we’ve now lost; knowledge that connected them intimately to their landscape, not just the ground beneath them, but the skies above them too? And could it be that this knowledge directed them to place sacred markers, burial grounds and ceremonial grounds at particular locations that carried a potent energy? Certainly, there is rising evidence that many (most? all?) of these sites are somehow intelligently aligned with auspicious moments in nature’s calendar, such as the summer solstice sunset or winter solstice sunrise, and some are aligned to more than one such event.  Some are aligned with due north markers or similar, perhaps providing the service of age-old trig points, and many are aligned with each other in intriguing, geometrically intricate ways.  Can this be coincidence? And, above all, I feel I am drawn to these places by a mysterious force that seems to have come from nowhere – up to a few years ago I held no real interest in such things. And I feel these visits energise me, inspire me, change me somehow and the calling only becomes stronger.

We visited a recreated iron age settlement yesterday and marvelled at the cosiness of the round-houses and the skills possessed by the residents, in hunting, weaving and building. A passing mention was made of wandering druids, highly respected at that time, who would move from village to village, welcomed by all. I thought again of all the knowledge these wandering wise men and women may have possessed, drawn from an intimate connection to the land on which they depended for survival, that we now have largely lost, except perhaps in small pockets, now considered, at best, esoteric or, at worst, downright weird or plain nonsense. Perhaps our ancient ancestors were not as simple and uneducated as we think, only educated in a very different way.

But, one thing’s for certain amongst these musings with no answer, and that’s that we’ve definitely lost the simplicity of how life was lived back in the stone age, where there was no entertainment beyond that which could be produced by yourselves around the fire at night. Possessions were minimal, but time spent together with family and community was plentiful. Again I wonder – were our ancestors more happy and content than we are now? I don’t have the answer, but I have a feeling that perhaps they were. There is much to be said for a simple life, lived in intimate knowledge of our integral place within the grand scheme of mother earth.

 

Posted in Campervan life, Community life, Connecting with the natural world, Road trip, Stone circles, Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bringing the niyamas to life – Ishvara Pranidhana

As a quick reminder, the niyamas are five personal qualities mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that we’re encouraged to cultivate within ourselves, to help us on our yoga path. In this article we’re looking at the fifth and final niyama: ‘Ishvara Pranidhana’, which means ‘devotion to God/ the divine/ the cosmos/ the universe/ the bigger picture’ – whatever this personally means to you.

Last week, when it came to preparing my final monthly yoga workshop, which focused on discussing this niyama, I felt a bit uncomfortable.  For a start, devotional faith is such a personal thing – who was I to tell anyone what it means? And, added to this, I’ve been on such a journey with this niyama myself, fighting it hard for a very long time, that I wasn’t sure I was the most measured voice to listen to on this topic! So, I ended up staying up late, writing and re-writing loads of ideas and notes, trying to get my thoughts in order and structure some kind of coherent but not too overbearing introduction to this vast topic.

Well, when I arrived at the workshop guess what I had left at home? Yep, you guessed it – all of my swotty notes! I couldn’t help laughing out loud – this was the best lesson in ishvara pranidhana I could have wished for! This incident forced me to let go of any illusionary sense of being in control and hand over to a much greater force and intelligence than mine – I had to surrender and trust, which is really what ishvara pranidhana is all about. So, I said an inward prayer, asking that the morning would go well, and got on with it – and it was, of course, fine!

In the end, I don’t think I would ever feel comfortable ‘teaching’ someone what ishvara pranidhana is, or indeed what any of the yamas and niyamas are.  I think the best thing I can do is share my own experiences and offer food for thought, and encourage people to begin their own journey of exploration into what these things mean to them, personally.  I do believe we all have all the answers we need within us, and the underlying truths are the same, no matter what path we take to reach them.  But, really, life is all about the path, the journey – and we can only do that ourselves!

As such, here’s a little story about my own experiences of coming to a place of understanding and deep appreciation of ishvara pranidhana.

Up until a few years ago, ishvara pranidhana had always been a bit of a sticking point for me; the other yamas and niyamas all seemed quite straightforward to me and I found they were naturally becoming interwoven into the fabric of my life as I continued down this yoga/inner path. But this whole worshipping and devoting myself to something I couldn’t see or touch was challenging my western logical, rational, scientific mind somewhat, and I was experiencing great resistance (ego alert!).

It wasn’t until I went on a five month trip to India in 2014, to immerse myself in yoga and attempt to dig down to its elusive source, that I began to appreciate the importance and huge benefits of ishvara pranidhana.  India is, basically, devotion central – spirituality suffuses every aspect of life, from the most mundane to the headiest, most esoteric heights. If you have any issues with devotion then, frankly, there’s no avoiding a confrontation in India!  And so it came to pass, that my egoic resistance to worshipping an unseen force was hugely put under the spotlight. I was utterly confused for a long time and, in particular, resisted the very yogic concept of the worshipped guru, i.e. the figurehead of a particular form of yoga/spirituality, who becomes the focus for devotional outpourings. This just didn’t make sense to me – they were just another person. Yes, inspiring, for sure, but I wasn’t going to start kissing their feet!

The first shift I noticed within me was when the psychedelic melodrama and endearing craziness of the Hindu deities began to pique my interest, and I came to feel a real fondness for these larger than life characters, and began to appreciate that, together, they represented all the different aspects of existence and life, both light and dark, and the wonderful stories were a platform to demonstrate all that we can embody ourselves.  Watching the unquestioned devotion of Indians, from all walks of life and all kinds of religions, began to move me deeply – I saw how their faith helped them, and how it brought families and communities together in a beautiful spirit of love.  One day I watched a sadhu (a holy man, who has dedicated his life to a service of devotion to god) performing a self-cleansing ritual at a temple.  It seemed to touch me deeply, in a place hitherto unknown to me and, inexplicably, I found tears pouring down my face.  The friend I was with looked at me. ‘Devotional tears,’ he said knowingly. I was astounded but, on some level, it felt true!

Then, following a moving encounter with an incredible, ancient banyan tree, where I seemed to feel its very life-force through touching its trailing branches, I had a revelation that I did have it within me to humble myself to a higher force, as this is what I felt in nature, and had in fact been doing on some level throughout my entire life. I realised nature was my temple!  It was a wonderful moment – finally I felt I ‘qualified’ as a true yogi as, before this moment, I had thought I just wasn’t able to embrace one of its central ethical tenets. (NB You can read the blog entry I wrote about this experience at the time by clicking this link.)

So, with all these new experiences and revelations, not to mention the heady spiritual cocktail of India working its persistent magic on me, I began to open myself up to the devotional or ‘bhakti’ side of yoga, which I had always been so suspicious of before.  I could see how it was so beneficial and popular with so many people, both Indians and westerners, and I had a feeling of, ‘what have I got to lose?’

I began to experiment and explore, putting myself out of my comfort zone by going along to devotional chanting evenings, attending devotional rituals at temples and even participating in a devotional dances for universal peace evening. I soon realised that, at some of these events, I felt rather awkward and uncomfortable – somehow the energy didn’t feel right. But, then, sometimes I would find myself with a group of people whose devotional energy was so pure and loving, that I couldn’t help but be swept along, and I found myself having some incredibly beautiful experiences, feeling real joy and love well up within me, and a deep connection to those I was sharing this experience with. I felt my heart beginning to open in a way it had never been able to before, because I was always suppressing something inside me. Devotional tears never seemed far away during that last month or so and I confess I did even touch the feet of Sharath Jois on my last day at the Ashtanga Institute because it just felt right – I felt moved to do so from a place of love and joy deep within me – who knew Becky May would do such a thing?! My ego certainly didn’t… 😉

I remember, on my penultimate day in India, after so many magical, love-filled experiences and many more revelations, often through ‘synchronous’ conversations and meetings with people, I was settling down to attempt to meditate on the roof terrace after my yoga practice, as I did most days. Usually, it was a battle to keep bringing the mad monkey mind back to the breath, endlessly, and trying not to become frustrated at my seeming inability to still the mind. But today, before I closed my eyes, I made a deal with myself, to trust in something bigger than me, to trust that there was a greater divine, benign intelligence running the show.  Then, part-way through my meditation, suddenly, things shifted dramatically. I felt a huge expansiveness, a feeling of endless space, and my mind emptied, just like that. Then all these beautiful, vibrant colours began pulsating in my mind’s eye, sometimes like a lava lamp, sometimes like a kaleidoscope – I had never experienced anything like it before. It was unbelievably beautiful and felt effortless and joyful to be in that space. I felt like I had finally allowed myself to step fully through a door I had been tip-toeing around and that my life would never be the same again.

And, in fact, I was right about that! I can’t begin to tell you how beautifully and magically my life has shifted and how my personal journey continues to grow and flourish in mysterious, joyful ways, since I made that deal with myself to trust in something bigger than me.  The magic and mystery was always there, but I had been blind to it, or rather my mind hadn’t allowed it to exist.  Now I acknowledge and honour it, it shows itself to me in myriad ways, and I feel so very supported and guided as I navigate my life-path. I do truly feel part of a bigger scheme, and I tell you, it’s like a weight lifting from my shoulders! And, the irony is, the more I trust and have faith, the more my faith is answered with irrefutable evidence that I am indeed supported. After all, we came into this world with everything taken care of, and our every breath miraculously appears without us doing anything – so, yes, as soon as you think about it, there’s definitely something invisible and magic at work here that we will probably never be able to explain!  But we can at least acknowledge it.

For me, I find this connection most of all in nature – if you take time to examine and appreciate the mind-blowing miracles and beauty of nature, at any scale, it doesn’t take long to feel absolutely humbled. I also increasingly appreciate that myself and everything else in existence is an integral part of this wonderful mystery, and with that sense of connection comes a profound peace that enters my life more and more.

In the end, I eventually realised that bhakti yoga and ishvara pranidhana are all about letting go of control. To truly open our hearts, which is the key to finding inner peace and enlightenment, we need to release our limiting egoic illusion that we alone steer our destiny and accept and honour a greater force than ourselves at play. And, once you do, prepare yourselves for a magical ride!

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Becky and the magical banyan tree… 🙂

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Becky and the magical banyan tree… 🙂

Posted in Connecting with the natural world, India, Love, Meditation, Mysore life, Positivity, Travel, Yoga, yoga philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bringing the niyamas to life – Svadhyaya

As a quick reminder, the niyamas are five personal qualities mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that we’re encouraged to cultivate within ourselves, to help us on our yoga path. In this article we’re looking at the fourth niyama: ‘Svadhyaya’, which means ‘self-study’. I warn you now, I may go off on one a bit in this article, as svadhyaya is something very close to my heart on my own yoga journey!

Traditionally, svadhyaya is often translated as the study and repeated recitation (mantra) of ancient scriptures such as the Vedas.  The Vedas are a collection of huge tomes of work on many mystical and spiritual topics, including yoga, which are thousands of years old. It is said that ancient yogis channelled the universal wisdom contained within the Vedas direct from the divine/cosmos, and the teachings were then passed on orally, through mantra (repeated chanting of the scriptures with precise intonation and pronunciation). Through mantra, yoga students would begin to penetrate the mysteries contained within the Vedas and understand their teachings fully.

However, in this fast-paced modern world, most yogis don’t have time to chant mantras all day (although I highly recommend you try it out with an experienced mantra teacher – it is incredibly powerful)! So a more accessible translation of svadhyaya has come to mean the study of oneself. To me, study of the self is absolutely fundamental to the inner path. The inner path, to me, is the path towards knowing ourselves truly, in all of our divine magnitude. And, the good news is that this happens as a natural by-product as soon as you embrace yoga into your life.  Through the postures, the breathing, the meditation, the relaxation, the concentration exercises etc, you are constantly challenging and re-evaluating the perceptions you hold about yourself. You are continually connecting to yourself at a deeper and deeper level.

It starts with the gross and becomes more and more subtle. At first you will be finding muscles you didn’t know existed before, achieving postures you thought were beyond you or, conversely, finding postures that you just can’t seem to master for some reason. Your body will become more of a familiar friend, rather than a stranger you once knew. Then you’ll start noticing how yoga affects your mood and vice versa, and you will start noticing patterns of behaviour that play out in your yoga, such as laziness, procrastination, over-achieving, perfectionism etc. And then you realise that your yoga practice is simply a mirror to your soul – as on the mat, as in life! 😉

Another wonderful aspect of how yoga is a great tool for self-study is that, unlike the egoic mind, the body doesn’t lie. Our minds will tell us all kinds of stories about who we are but, through working more closely with the body and breath, we gradually come to recognise the monkey mind for the insane, nonsensical and incredibly unhelpful despot it truly is!  The body has a deep, innate intelligence and wisdom – it will teach us all we need to know if we will only be still and listen to it.  Yoga helps us find the inner stillness and quiet that allows the body to find its voice. It speaks to us through long-held traumas and tensions, echoes of injuries, stress-holding patterns, emotional-holding patterns… And, eventually, it will speak to us in energetic terms too, as we start to feel energetic shifts in the body, and notice how our energy field interacts with those of others around us, and in different environments. The journey of self-exploration never ends!

However, although yoga will naturally be working its magic on us, to truly cultivate svadhyaya we need to complement this by making a concerted mental effort to dispel the old beliefs about ourselves that no longer serve us, which our yoga reveals to us.  Any inner-exploration needs to be done in the spirit of what I like to call ‘brutal honesty’. To explore who we truly are we have to be willing to release all preconceptions we hold about ourselves, others and the world we live in – we have to systematically drop the veils of illusion that hide our true light.

We all create a particular life view that we feel keeps us safe and gives us known boundaries and parameters to operate within, and the reality we experience as a result will corroborate this world view, such is the way of things. However, svadhyaya will blow such parameters and life views out of the water! And this is not easy for the ego to deal with, and unfotunately the ego is under the impression that it is the sum total of what you are, which is very far from the truth! So, you can expect lots of egoic resistance to any concerted attempts at discovering your truth, and the only way to thwart the ego’s panicked hissy-fits is through relentless,courageous and calm honesty, and through trying to live in the present moment as much as possible on order to see clearly what ‘is’ rather than becoming lost in the mind’s illusions, which tend to dwell in the past or future.

Finally, I know this is just my own take on things, but I do truly believe that we are all immense, glorious, divine, spiritual beings who have just forgotten how amazing we are! So, as we go through the process of dropping layer after layer of who we thought we were, and becoming closer to the truth of who we are, we expand with each layer that is shed. The process of continual change and expansion is terrifying, especially at first, but the liberation, joy and feeling of expansive freedom that comes with it is far too addictive to let the fear stop you delving deeper – once you get on this train there’s no getting off!

So, to tie up this immense topic, let’s just get back to the simplest of things – just breathe! By breathing mindfully, we immediately arrive in the present moment and the mind immediately loses some of its power over us. So, next time you practise yoga, you can rest easy, knowing your svadhyaya is ticking along nicely in the background, just by dint of you being on the mat. But you can also give it a helping hand by noticing your breath, being present, and examining everything that is going on within your mind and body in that moment, in complete honesty.

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A Conversation Between Mind, Heart and Spirit (AKA The Holy Trinity)

So, here’s a little story that ‘fell out of me’ the other day, following a very inspirational chat with a friend, who encouraged me to get onto paper some of the crazy stuff swirling around my head at the moment. Indeed it was very therapeutic! I hope you take something positive from it… 🙂 

The mind scratches its head again.

“We’ve come so far,” it says. “But there’s so much further to go.” Mind strains every brain cell that’s currently active, trying to work out its next move. But in every direction mind hits a brick wall. Science is entrapped in the impossibility of quantum physics. Medicine is bamboozled by the conundrum of the self-healing body. Politics has made a mockery of democracy. Technology is leading us toward self-destruction. The brain just seems too small to process what is needed next, to enable the continued evolution of the human race.

“What next? What next?” pleads the mind. Its call to action is urgent – humans are imploding, the next wave of development needs to come soon.

The sound of the heart beating disturbs mind’s musings.

“Sssshh, heart, I’m thinking,” it says. But the heart beats louder still.  “Shut up, I thought I told you before!”

Mind is exasperated. Usually heart is so meek and quiet, allowing mind to get on and do its job. In fact heart had been moving towards silence up until recently. And now this incessant beating and pulsating is driving mind mad.

Heart beats louder and LOUDER – its call to action is urgent too.  “Listen to me, mind!” it cries with every beat.

“I’m trying to work out where we go next, heart, so can you just leave me in peace? This is important stuff. Humanity hangs in the balance!”

“I know it does!” replies heart, beating louder still, and quicker too. “And you can’t ignore me forever, mind! Remember when we used to be friends?”

“But I’m seeking answers. I can’t be distracted.”

“What if I am your answer?” asks heart.

Mind stops its thinking and is silent for a moment.

“What did you say?” it asks quietly.  A strange tingling is spreading through an area of the brain that is usually dead.

“What if I, heart, am your answer, mind?”

Mind scratches its head again.

“I don’t understand,” it replies.

“I know you don’t – in fact you can’t possibly understand. Not without my help.”

That tingling feeling again – it surges with each heart beat, spreading a little further through the brain each time. It’s deliciously pleasant. Mind smiles, despite itself.

“How can you help me?” it asks, intrigued now. This feeling is wonderful. The dead bits of the brain feel like they’re waking up.

“By opening up a conversation between us, like this one. We have to talk to each other, mind. We need each other for company, for completion. This division we’ve suffered has weakened us both – it’s time to unite, and only then can we move forward.”

“Go on, “ prompts mind.

“Together we are stronger. You need me to awaken all the parts of the brain. And I need you to help me make sense of these feelings I have. I know the feelings are all about helping humanity evolve to the next level, but you need to make it happen, mind. But you can’t do it without me – I hold the key to the next level of existence for this species. It’s all to do with that warm, fuzzy feeling you’re experiencing at the moment, as this conversation fires up brain cells that have never before been activated.”

“What is this feeling?” asks mind. “It really is rather wonderful actually.” Mind is smiling dreamily now, lost in blissful feelings of contentment and peace.

“It’s love, mind. Unconditional love. Without it we can’t move on and evolve as a species. We will self-destruct, as others have before us. It’s the next level and it’s only possible by working together. Love is the key, mind. It has to infuse every cell in our body before we can harness its power to take us to the next level of existence. It will drive every aspect of human society in the future.”

There’s silence for a while, apart from the heart beat, which is now relaxed and slow. Mind and heart are one, communicating without words. Heart feels a huge relief that its burden of carrying love for humanity’s future has now been expressed and shared with mind. Mind feels almost euphoric as it senses its brain slowly activating, its power growing, driven solely by this wonderful feeling of love.

Into the silence another sound emerges. It’s like a faint creaking and whispering, like wind through the branches of a tree.

“I’ve been waiting for you two to start talking. Well done,” the strange, disembodied voice sighs.

Suddenly mind feels a jolt of energy at the specific point of the pineal gland, which usually lies deadened and shrivelled at the base of the brain. At the same time, heart feels the same jolt of energy at a mysterious place at the rear of its muscle, and its beats become louder and stronger.

“Woah, that’s intense,” laughs heart. “Who are you?”

“I’m spirit, soul, consciousness, God – whatever you feel like calling me. You can’t hear me until you two start working together and, even now, I’m still quite faint. You two will have to commit to working together long-term before you hear me loud and clear,” the voice whispers, like water over rocks in a stream.

“It feels like you’re inside my brain,” exclaims mind.

“And inside my muscle,” adds heart.

“I am,” replies the silvery, slippery voice. I am everywhere. I am everything. You are me, I am you, there is no separation.

“I don’t understand,” complains mind, scratching its head again.

“You can’t possibly understand alone, mind,” says the voice, with a tinkling laugh. “You need heart, much more than you know. Trust heart. Heart knows, because heart holds love. And love is the glue that sticks this whole universe together. Believe me, you have no idea of your potential right now. But stick with heart and you will come to know me better and, together, we can guide humanity forward, towards a rosy future.”

There’s silence again, as heart and mind contemplate spirit’s presence, still felt, even without the words.  It’s incredibly peaceful. Strange creaks and chimes begin to echo into the silence.

“What’s that noise?” asks mind.

“It’s your DNA waking up, mind. As your conversations with heart activate previously sleeping areas of the brain, both of you open a direct channel within your respective worlds to invite me to join in with your conversations. And every time you talk to me, you change irreversibly. What is known cannot be unknown, and your cellular structure realigns to incorporate the new knowledge – previously unused parts of your DNA structure now awaken, to hold this new information. I hope I’m speaking in terms you can understand?”

“Yes, I think so,” says mind, but heart butts in.

“I don’t think I’m getting you, spirit,” it says.

“Yes, I thought as much. For you, imagine that the love that you have been holding onto is now flowing freely, thanks to your talks with mind, and it doesn’t all need to be held within you anymore, which I know was becoming an unbearable burden for you. Now it can spread as wide as you can imagine it can go, and this process begins by spreading the love through the body, to every cell, infusing the body at the micro-level with love. And so the DNA has to grow to embrace this love. It’s a game changer.”

“Wow,” says mind. “I think I’m seeing the bigger picture you’re painting. If DNA is increasing its in-built knowledge through expanding to incorporate unconditional love and also the wisdom that comes from talking with you, then we are working with a whole different frame of reference now. Plus the brain is also expanding its capacity thanks to these conversations with heart awakening dead areas of brain due to the free flow of love, so what we can do with all this new knowledge and in-built intelligence is much more than we ever could have done before. Plus heart will be continuously strengthened from the infusion of love at the cellular level, so it’s like a never-ending positive feedback loop.”

“Correct, mind, well done. And I like that you are using the word ‘we’, not ‘I’. That is progress indeed. That is the future. The future is all about unity and connection, not division and separation. Only then can humanity tap into its greater powers. But, above all, remember that nothing will happen unless the motivator is love; it’s a kind of in-built safety switch, if you like. Because, otherwise, if humans could tap into their full potential with any other motivation than unconditional love, they would immediately self-destruct in an unfathomably spectacular way, and probably take out many other planetary systems with it. And that wouldn’t do at all – remember the future is unity not division and destruction. If you keep working together, I will keep coming to you and will share more and more universal wisdom with you, to guide you on your path. But, the biggest lesson for now is that it’s all about love. The heightened role of spirit, or ‘me’, as you probably understand this to be at the moment, will become the focus for another future period of expansion, if you get through this one. But only love can take you there.”

“That’s a lot to take in,” says heart, its beat becoming slightly erratic.

“It’s OK heart, I think I’ve got it. I can explain it to you again later if you like.”

“Thanks mind, that’s really kind.” Heart’s muscle swells and the beats become stronger and more regular again, sending new waves of bliss and peace into mind’s brain. Heart and mind beam at each other.

“Well, I see you two are getting along famously now. I think it’s time I receded for the time-being. But I am always present, you will feel me. And if you continue to work together, that channel of communication with me that you both feel will stay open and I will be available to be called upon whenever you seek guidance or support. Remember I am you, you are me, there’s no separation. We three are just different faces of the same entity, and we are meant to work together – any sense of division between us just stalls evolution.”

“Thank you spirit, sending you huge amounts of love,” says heart, smiling massively.

“Um, yeah, what heart said,” mutters mind, slightly sheepishly, but with an irrepressible grin rising.

“My work here is done for now I see. Until next time, you two. Keep on trucking.”

With that, spirit’s whispering voice fades to silence and heart and mind begin the huge but wonderful task of getting to know each other after such a prolonged distance from each other. Both feel buoyed already by their new friendship and mutual support, and mind secretly is relieved to allow heart to run the show for a while. It’s been a tough old slog over the last few centuries, feeling like it had to work everything out alone. Equally, heart is relieved that it no longer has to hold in all that love that was bursting at the seams to come out. Both feel the love flowing freely through the body now, stimulating new areas of the brain and triggering new strands of previously ‘dead’ DNA into life. And, through it all, spirit makes its presence known through a strange surety about the future, and a feeling that anything is possible as long as they work together.

THE END… 🙂

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Bringing the Niyamas to Life – Tapas

At the last workshop we looked at the third niyama, ‘tapas’, which is often translated along the lines of ‘fiery discipline’.  This is the quality that helps us to keep going when things become difficult.  We all reach a stage in our practice after the initial love affair fades when our relationship with yoga is challenged – often when we suffer our first yoga injury or we reach our first seemingly unattainable posture, or our practice just seems to plateau and progress is no longer visible. Well, I would argue that this is when the progress is really beginning, as long as we can stay with it through the challenge – if we can apply tapas and weather the storm, then we will come out the other end stronger and wiser, knowing ourselves better.

However, this is easier said than done because we humans do so love to follow the path of least resistance and, when the going gets tough, it may be very tempting at that point to say, ‘nah, actually I don’t think yoga is for me,’ and walk away from it, onto the next thing.  But, like with anything, if we keep doing this, and we keep avoiding any discomfort, then we will never positively change and transform.  As I said at the start of this newsletter, change is always uncomfortable; when things become awkward or unpleasant for us, this is often because our ego is under threat and is playing up, and therefore these times can be the most fertile ground for positive transformation, if we can just keep going and stick to the programme!

Yoga helps us to know ourselves better; to me it’s a wonderful, holistic tool that helps us on the path to deep inner knowledge, gradually allowing us to strip back layer after layer of illusion, going deeper and deeper towards the truth of who we are, from the gross to the subtle, from the body to the mind to the spirit, but all interlinked, never linear.  And, blimey, that is a tough path! There’s no place we can hide when we shine the spotlight of close inner scrutiny onto ourselves, and the ego doesn’t like this one bit! So, on this yoga path you can expect lots of unpleasant, uncomfortable periods – it usually means you’re on the brink of stripping back another layer of who you thought you were, to reveal a new layer beneath, which is closer to the truth of who you are.  To keep going through the layers, we need lots of tapas. It’s so easy to fall at the first hurdle. But, here’s some positive encouragement: tapas can be cultivated and will grow as you use it more and more, like a fire that is hard to get going but soon builds up to a raging inferno of energy!  So, each time we say no to giving up and we keep on trucking, then we add to our internal store of tapas and our own fire burns a bit brighter, helping us to blast through obstacles with more and more ease as we continue along the path. And this is helpful because, as our tapas grows and enables us to go deeper along the path, the obstacles do tend to loom larger, sigh!

So, again, we can use our asana practice to help us cultivate this niyama.  When the going gets tough in a class and you’re ready to collapse into child’s pose or, if you’re on your own at home, just sack it all off and turn on the TV, can you instead take a deep ujayi breath and fill yourself up with positive fiery energy, believing that you CAN do this, you’ve GOT this, and then carry on through the rest of the practice with fiery determination? Similarly, use tapas to help you breathe into and be fully present in the more difficult postures such as warriors and arm balances – don’t fear the discomfort, it is usually blowing a fresh wind of change through your body, mind and soul!

You can also design your own fiery tapas home sequences that include lots of plank postures (including side plank and upward plank), warriors, standing balances and arm balances – for inspiration you can always drop me a line.

One final word here – as with everything in life, there is a balance to be found.  Some of us need to cultivate lots of tapas because it doesn’t come naturally to us, whereas others have it in bucketfuls, and possibly need to rein it in sometimes.  The best thing to do is think of the interplay between santosha (contentment) and tapas – yes, keep being determined to stick to the path and burn through obstacles, but counter this by always feeling contented to be exactly where you are. A strange paradoxical state of mind, you might say, but such is life! Also, if you feel your own tapas stores are out of balance in either direction then hang out with or practise next to someone with the opposite imbalance and you will soon balance each other out!

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