A little bit more about our Manipura Chakra ... our fire centre or literally translated "city of jewels" that rests between our naval and solar plexus. When this chakra is in balance, we feel alive and have the self esteem and confidence to take action and be productive. When it is blocked or out of balance, we lack courage, may have low self esteem, feel stagnant or inert.
This chakra impacts our sense of belonging, mental understanding of our emotions, self-esteem and personal power. Working well, we have the will power, determination and stamina, "inner strength" to take action, feeling confident about our purpose and our direction.
Postures that balance this chakra tend to be heat building poses like sun salutations, warrior poses and twists.
Why is it sometimes so tricky to keep a promise? We say to ourselves "I am not going to eat rubbishy food" or "I am going to walk 4000 steps every day" or "I’m not going to drink alcohol for 4 weeks" or (shortly after that) "I’m only going to drink at weekends" or "I am going to stay calm with my children not matter what they do". Flash to Wednesday night, when you’ve reached for the red wine after a disastrous dinner in which you’ve not only yelled at your kids you’ve somehow eaten all their Haribo.
And that’s the problem. It is easy to do the things that make life hard and it is hard (sometimes REALLY hard) to do the things that make life easy.
But why is it so tricky to keep on the right track? I see it as a sort of complex formula, made up of determination (being really clear about what it is you want to do), discipline (being regular or consistent with your action) and something like devotion; making that “goal” more important than the other things that cry for our attention (literally and metaphorically). So there needs to be a sort of selfishness in it – we need to turn down or turn off the calls on our time, or the things that might pull us off course. And is that selfish? Well, sometimes yes. But if you don’t prioritise the things – the actions – which help you stay in balance or support you in living well then you do yourself and those around you no favours.
First love yourself, care for yourself. Only then will you have the energy, the patience and the ability to reach out and care for those you love, and to meet everyday challenges calmly.
And Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’ll match the yoga philosophy* with some family philosophy. My dear sister has a great ratio approach – if you manage to do well 80% of the time, you can cut yourself some slack 20% of the time. Another of her great insights is that if you start well on a Monday it sets the tone for the week. Miss that Monday morning swim though, and the week will run like sand through your fingers and it’ll be Friday and you won’t have swum a stroke.
So thank you to my sister for her wise words and to my dear friends Mairi and Steph, to whom I promised a yoga session ooohhh about three years ago. I finally fulfilled the promise and realised that all our good intentions – even our best intentions - only get put to one side when that’s where we chose to put them. Ladies, thank you for your patience and the inspiration your kind ways provide.
*Discipline and devotion (maybe they combine to make determination?) are two of the five niyamas or yogic observances, the others being cleanliness, contentment and study. The niyamas are the second of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. See here for an interesting article describing the niyamas in more detail.
I’m having to work very hard to balance this blog between yoga & some sort of sermon on the perils of habitat destruction . . . so please, do bear with me if I digress a little (or a lot). The main thrust of this story is about breathing and the present moment (yogic themes, I hope!) and not all about man’s crazy greed, wilful habitat destruction and the all to real human consequences.
You may have heard, or you may not, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are suffering from terrible 'haze' at the moment. This basically means, when we pop our heads out of the air conditioned apartment, we’re met with an air quality that is a bit like being in a room with a peat fire without enough ventilation, or beside a bonfire with some carpet chucked on it. It’s not nice but more in an unpleasant way than awful. The way someone falling in water is unpleasant, while someone drowning is awful. We’ve not got it as bad as many do, the Riasu province has had to declare a state of emergency (awful), while Singaporeans are being advised to avoid strenuous activity outdoors (unpleasant or simply limiting). The smoke is coming from huge forest fires, a slash-and-burn approach to land clearing, to produce paper and palm oil on (mainly) the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
In my years working for an environmental charity, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade people that habitat destruction was not just bad for the plants, animals and insects, but that it would ultimately effect us as a human race. Often, we would be lambasted in the papers for caring more about a few birds than employment prospects, more about some silly plants than the economy of the local population. And so we would say it again. If we destroy the habitat that this community is built around, we will ultimately destroy the community. Often, we had to circle and use money (so be it *shaking head* I guess long ago we collectively decided that’s where value lies) to make our argument. This wilful habitat destruction will destroy tourism, you’ll ruin the landscape and no-one will want to live here, never mind visit. Some would make the leap and see the longer game, many didn’t. And yet here, on the other side of the world, I am finding that same story in a nutshell. Only the effect is immediate – you don’t need to wait ten or twenty or fifty years to see the ramifications of habitat destruction. You don't need to have the ability to care about nature as much as money or yourself. The consequences are here, right now, in this present moment. People can’t breath properly. We are part of biodiversity (the variety of life) and if you damage one part of it, you effect all of it. Simply, we all need air to breath.
The ramifications for us personally, here in Singapore, are only limiting. We’ve had to spend a lot of time indoors and have ended up watching a lot of movies. I’ve enjoyed some of the old classics, The Lion Kingand The Jungle Bookand caught up with the Toy Storytrilogy, loving each new movie as much as the last (not often the case with sequels). And I found myself truly moved by these make believe characters and their imagined world - Woody, Buzz, Slink and co. holding hands as they descend towards the incinerator. Andy’s mum clasping her hand to her chest as she looks around her (now grown-up) boy’s empty room. And I felt a real sense of premature-nostalgia – that some day the floor will not be littered with Doggy, Blue Baby, Maximus and Miffy (Molly’s very own Toy Story gang). And Kenny smiles wryly at me tearing up over a kids’ movie and, while I am defending myself, I am finding it ridiculous . . . on about three different levels.
One. Why on earth am I feeling emotional about an event that will (maybe) occur in about 15 – 20 years time? Can I not just enjoy being in the present moment, cooried in on a sofa enjoying this precious time with my wee girl and my husband? In yoga, as well as in mindfulness practices, we are often encouraged to stay in the present, to stay with the breath, but that doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for the future, in fact, quite the opposite. We have to care about the present to shape the future we want.
Our past efforts have brought us to where we are today.
Our efforts today will take us to where we want to be in the future.
Two. Why on earth am I feeling emotional about an 'imagined' story? It is just a story! There are enough 'real' stories out there that are worth getting upset about . . . I am guilty as charged, I am as bad as the next person for getting sucked into a drama and spat out at the other side, truly in danger of living my life vicariously online or through the actions and manufactured storylines of box set producers and screenwriters.
I’ve always struggled with the belief that we should decouple from our emotions, that we should become like the still surface of a loch. Do we really want to become masters of our emotions? Well, in some ways, yes. We don’t want to become slaves to our monkey-minds, a servant to our emotions which can be plucked, tweaked and twanged by all sorts of real and unreal provocations. We want to be able to respond, not react. To breath in and breath out. To think before we act. So no, don’t switch your emotions off, but do guard them and guide them carefully towards being the person you want to be and building the sort of world, the sort of community you want to live in.
Stories serve us when we use them well.
Three. There isn’t an 'on/off switch' in the real world. In our comfortable, air-conditioned apartment we can breath easy. Outside, we can’t. There is an on/off switch for your social media channels and your TV. Use it. Live in the real world for a day – disconnect to connect - and see what is really happening on your doorstep, with your neighbours and your community. See what difference you can make, locally, nationally, internationally . . . otherwise, we’re all just drowning in stories.
Start with your breath. Recognise it for the great gift it is.
Now, what can you give back to the world?
And if you haven't already, check the labels in your grocery trolley and on your beauty products for palm oil.
Stop buying it.
Written while listening to Rachel Sermanni, Breath Easy, to listen, just click.
It has been a bit of whirlwind, moving to the other side of the world. Even although we staggered the move, with Kenny heading away first to establish base camp and Molly and I following eight weeks later there did end up being an awful lot of throwing things into suitcases, cramming in of last-minute visits and (embarrassingly) having to return to our already let-out home to retrieve bits of paperwork that were vital to the process of moving to Singapore (thank heavens for a calm and very obliging tenant!). But after the rather long flight and a couple of weeks of limbo-land (where the heat and new sights and smells make you feel as if you're possibly just dreaming the whole experience) we've settled in. We've found our handiest shops and fresh food markets, we've navigated our way across town by bus and train (amazingly regular, superbly efficient and economic) and spent a lot of time in the pool, astounded that some people find the water too cool for swimming (Really? Coming from a poor summer - even by Highland standards - the pool here has been a literal life saver, overheated toddler and exhausted mother transformed to happy water babies with one simple jump). And my excuses for not regularly practising yoga have all but disappeared.
Maybe yoga teachers shouldn't admit to this, but what with the too-long-to-do-list, clock ticking down to departure, bed-hopping round Scotland for farewells and then acclimatisation period, I failed to keep my personal yoga practice up. My usual rule of at least 30 minutes before bed shrunk to not letting more than two days go by without at least some yoga to a general acceptance that I was no longer a yogic chick. At the very time when yoga could have helped support both body and mind through the transition, I let it go. And while yoga is all about letting go, I took it a bit too far for my own well being. And because I feel like I'm on holiday - a lovely apartment, with handy agreeable-temperature pool - I've not sorted it out for myself yet at all. Which is crazy, because when I do manage to do some yoga (to help Kenny with his over-tight shoulders, or to try and recover from the jet lag) body and mind shout out "heck, we remember this, and it feels great!".
And it brings me back to the Eight Limbs of Yoga, more specifically to the Niyamas (Sanskrit: नियम). These are the positive duties or observances, the recommended activities and habits for healthy living, spiritual enlightenment and liberated state of existence.
So, needless to say, it's the two starred ones I'm needing to focus on right now. Like anyone who falls of their particular wagon (be it drink, diet or keeping-work-in-its-box related) I'm being disciplined about letting go of the guilt associated with letting things slide (we are all human, and the only true failure is not to keep trying to do the things we know will make life better). I'm being devoted to making time for some asana practice; to making my own well being a priority. I'm accepting that my past efforts have brought me to where I am today (with tighter hamstrings and more back pain than I have had in years) and that my efforts today will take me to where I want to be in the future.
Right now, that's switching off the laptop, rolling out the yoga mat and doing at least 30 minutes of practise before bed. Oh, and I've found some local classes to attend, but more of that in another post . . .
It's that time of year - short days, long nights, cooler weather and (very often) an absolute whirl of socialising, possibly combined with the over-eating and indulging that entails. It can be a wonderful season, bringing light and laughter to the darkest time of the year, but in all the rushing around, last minute present shopping and fine food preparation we can overlook ourselves and how we're actually feeling . . . that it might be nice to go to bed early, or curl up with a good book by the fire or take a long, uninterrupted soak in the bath, or long walk in the daylight. We might feel better for spending a day eating less rich food, ensuring we drink the recommended 1.6 - 2 litres of water and avoiding salt and sugar as much as possible.
I am the last person to suggest some sort of puritanical approach to the holiday season or life in general. In fact, one of my granny's best and most often repeated advice-for-life-statements was "My dear, if you do everything in moderation, you will never have any fun" and I stand - and occasionally fall - by it. But in what little spare time you have this holiday season, with my yoga mat out, I suggest you take a moment to reflect and ask the question "If my body could ask for one gift from me this year, what would it be?" and see if you can bring a smile to your whole self. Remembering that yoga-principle that we must first love and look after ourselves, only then do we ensure we have the energy, the stamina and the patience to take care and look after all the other people whom we hold dear.
Every day I try and do a little bit of yoga. Even if that’s only ten minutes squeezed in before the chaos of teatime, or the rush of getting ready for the day, I figure it counts. It’s better than no yoga. Today, though, I took a whole hour out . . . casting my eye around my very untidy bedroom, I decided that the task of righting the mess could wait. My body needed a good stretch more than my room needed to be neat.
After my yoga, coffee in hand and back at my desk I couldn’t help reflecting that it is little wonder my room is chaotic. At night it is a bedroom, by day it is an office (frequently with folders and paperwork spread on the bed and then dumped back on the desk when it comes to sleep time), a yoga mat is more often than not on the floor (just in case there is a chance for a practice) and there is a monumental pile of ironing on a chair in the corner (largely ignored). It is a lot to ask of a space, to make it work for three - if not four – activities.
When it comes to the body, we are forever “multi-tasking” though . . . fair enough we do tend to avoid swimming after eating (not because we’ll definitely get cramp and drown, just that it doesn’t feel great to be digesting a meal and splashing about) and do our best to focus on driving rather than phoning or texting. Yet every day, we push our bodies to perform repetitive and counter-productive tasks often at the same time. Answering the phone and working on the computer (shoulder in ear to pin the phone in place while we tighten our arms and hands to hit the correct keys), sitting forward on the edge of our seat, shoulders rounded as we search through documents or answer emails. We can even suffer excruciating pain in our wrists (or even our thumbs) from overdoing scrolling on smart phones.
We can’t really change the way modern society works, or office practices . . . but we can make sure we make space in our day for movement – whether that is a stroll in our lunch hour or some time on the yoga mat – or five minutes to sit back, rest, reset our posture and breathe. It’s a good use of time. The emails can wait five minutes. And so can the untidy bedroom . . .
In my yoga class today, I found myself aghast at how tight my hamstrings were (or rather are). While instructing the yogis around me to breath in and expand, exhale and let go I had my own internal dialogue accusing me of slacking over the festive break, of not only putting on weight, but losing what degree of flexibility I’d had . . . I was being my own critic, a parent scolding a child.
I should have eaten less cake. I should have stretched more, found time for my yoga practice, inbetween celebrating the darkest time of year with family and friends.
But what is the point in blame? What is the point in judging? It achieves nothing – we can recognise where we might wish we had done something differently, but we cannot go back. We can hope (or even promise ourselves) we will do “better” in the future. As for now – the present moment – which is really where we are living, what am I doing, rambling on about extra pudding and wishing I’d got up early for a yoga session? Stop those fruitless thoughts. If you listen carefully, you can hear your own true voice and its wisdom. Breathing in and expanding, breathing out and letting go. Letting go of the critic, letting go of the “I should have” and the “I will”. Focusing on the present moment. Our past actions have brought us to where we are today. What we do today – in this present moment, right now – leads us to where we want to be in the future.
"As I recall, you slept more than one night in those great oak trees, and when Mother found you the next morning you would swear you had seen fairies that flew like butterflies and lit up the night like lightening bugs. I remember with some shame that the rest of us teased you about seeing such spirits, but now my own grandchildren chase similar fancies and I do not discourage them. In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees."
Excerpt from "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey
Many ideas or plans we harbour can have incredibly long gestation periods. We can prevaricate and postpone, waiting for the right time to start a new project, be it a diet, putting up a shelf, tackling the loft, taking exercise, meditating, practising yoga . . . as a teenager I would put off tidying my room, even though I knew it had to be done and that I’d feel better for doing it. The same can be said for essays while a student.
By chance, when I was postponing the actual job of sorting through my groaning bookshelves to see what books it was time to pass on, in order to make way for the new, I lifted a copy of “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. I only delved as far as her first suggested meditation for beginnings. She suggests we focus on our best image of what we want to bring into our life, that we imagine starting it, how we want to feel emotionally, mentally and physically. Imagine the ideal. Next, we’re to be aware of how we feel right now, in the present moment and examine the gap – imagine the two selves, the here and now and the ideal. Do not judge, just become aware of the gap between where you are and where you want to be (or think you should be) to begin. Now imagine yourself beginning what ever it is you want to do, starting from here – the place that you are. See yourself doing it, maybe a bit tired, a bit distracted or uninspired . . . perhaps not perfectly or not as ideally as you first imagined it. Give yourself permission to begin.
Well, the books are still waiting to be sorted through, but I have made time in my schedule for a regular personal yoga practice – even if it is just fifteen minutes a day. The house does not need to be spotless to practise yoga. The ironing will still be there tomorrow. The books can gather a wee bit more dust before they find a new home. And making time for myself to do something I want to do, not putting it off until I’m a bit more on top of things or feeling a bit more in the “correct” frame of mind seems to somehow of made space for other things to happen . . . or made me realise we can start whatever we want to from here. It’s as good a place as any.
Wise words from Eknath Easwaran about living in the present moment. One of the things I love about yoga is its ability to root you in the present and appreciate the present as opposed to losing yourself in worry or day dreams about the past or the future.
Whenever we worry about something in the past or the future, we are setting up our own little haunted house and peopling it with our own special ghosts.
Most of us live very little in the present. If we could watch our thoughts, we would be surprised to see how much time we spend in the past or future – or simply daydreaming, out of time altogether.
Very seldom can we say we are fully present in the present moment. Yet now is the only time there is. The present is all we have. If we feel we don’t have enough time, the first thing to do is not throw it away. Instead of ceding it to the past and future, we can take steps to give our undivided interest to here and now.
Attention flowing to the past is not energy used; it is energy wasted. The same is true of the future: looking forward to things, worrying about what might happen, fantasising about dreams coming true is energy drained away. When the mind stays in the present, all this vitality comes back to us.
On and off the mat, yoga philosophy or principles can be applied. This blog catches those meanders as well as some of the extra bits that we don't have time to go too deeply into during class.