Ishvara Pranidhana - Devotion
In the last few days the city fell into excitement. It was busier, the yoga studios, bars and saunas filled up quickly, everyone wanted to enjoy their freedom one more time before the lockdown, or so it seemed. The rational is not very logical, but comprehensible. Since March we continuously adapt to ever changing regulations. The governments try to get a hang of the situation and do what they feel is necessary, while we listen, discuss and draw each our own conclusion how to go about the situation. Everyone I meet has her or his own way to oblige, facing their own sorrows and fears in regards to this new life we are living.
The last yoga class I gave, I talked about Ishvara Pranidhana the fifth Niyama in Yoga. It asks to devote oneself to a higher power, it asks us to let go of the wrong sense of control. What is happening to the whole world shows that we little humans do not rule the world. There was a time we felt, we had it all figured out, how to use the earth to serve all our desires, we got lost in our craving for more of anything and then all the sudden this new state entered and circumcises us in everything we feel we deserve, as part of our life with all possibilities and no limitations.
There are limitations, we can fight them, scream at them but nature is going her way without being evil or kind. The virus does not care if we get sick or not, it simply reacts to its environment without bad or good intentions. We are made to be humble, to give into this new life asking us to stay where we are, to interact with care and it teaches us that how we behave has immediate consequences. If we go back to our old ways, the numbers rise and the freedom of everyone is being restricted. My decisions have an immediate effect on the ones around me. Thus, we are being taught to lead our lives, while keeping the community in mind. Only nature can come up with these kinds of lessons, so profound and far reaching.
The past few days it felt like Christmas was knocking on the door, the hustle and the bustle in the streets. From today on things will calm down again, we will go for walks and talk more on the phone, one month maybe more. On Sunday, I taught my last class and I said goodbye to my students for an unknown period, we will all continue online, but it is not the same as sharing the room while practicing together. We will also experience other times, maybe become a little wiser, probably a little stronger because the excitement that is felt in the streets is also coming from the knowledge that the next weeks will be another challenge for everyone. It will be hard, it will tear on us, and nobody asks us if we agree, we can only try to act responsibly because our decisions have an immediate effect, pass through the confusion with softness and allow ourselves to adapt slowly.
Dukha, more than suffering.
Dukha is often being translated as suffering. What Dukha also means is the state of mind, where we experience a limitation of possibilities to act– a feeling of being squeezed inside our minds. When we are sad and cannot think of ways to make us happy, or angry and unable to listen to our rational mind trying to appease the raging voices inside us.
Often we experience Dukha, when we cannot get what we want, when life is withholding from us what we feel, we need. Dukha is this feeling of change not coming fast enough, when we feel like life is grabbing us by the throat.
Yet change is inevitable. Therefore, our experience of Dukha is an experience and not a permanent state. It teaches us that everything (even the worst pain) is exposed to change. Like the worst passes, also the best is only a temporary condition – the most stable things break and there is nothing to do except to let go. It is a hard lesson each time, but it allows us to meet the changing nature of life. No matter how certain we are, we learn over and over again that we will not see things in the same way tomorrow, as we saw them today. Constant change is the nature of life and the more we manage to make peace with it, the more empowering our experience of it will be.
We fall, we learn, we grow and fall again – yet never twice the same way. This is the beauty behind it, the jewel of our existence, the unravelling of ever new paths appearing with every breath we make.
Dosing Stress Homoeopathically
What we call stress often refers to this feeling of agitation, a tunnel vision that makes us focus on this one thing and feel annoyed by anything distracting us from it. In those moments adrenaline is being released inside our bodies to allow us to focus more vigilantly. In dangerous situation our survival can depend on our ability to be fully present, thus our bodies came up with this strategy of releasing a hormone to help us out. In our day to day life, we usually experience less life threatening situations, but feel a lot of stress nevertheless. This is connected to our lifestyle and the amount of information we overwhelm ourselves with. In order to release stress from our bodies we practice, for example, yoga.
While releasing stress is a good thing, demonizing it overshadows its pretty impressive abilities. As mentioned before, stress brings our bodies in a state of alertness and prepares us to focus intensely. The combination of adrenaline and focus enables neuroplasticity – our brains’ ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, in other words our endless ability to learn and develop.
Also in Yoga, stress is a necessary component to obtain health. By stress, I refer to the tension that we place upon our tissues. When a posture challenges us physically, tissues are being stressed. Stress is necessary to prevent atrophy. Too much of it, however, tears our muscles. Also our bones are anti-fragile and get stronger with stress as long as a certain threshold is respected: “comfort is fragilizing” as Bernie Clark said. This does not mean that it is good, or healthy to suffer, to push and to tear. We should never use our bodies to get into a pose, but always use the poses to serve our bodies.
Thus, it comes back to balance. When we practice yoga we set aside time to ourselves, to release the stress that our bodies store, and in order to do so we use: stress. As in Yin and Yang, we want to create balance between opposites and need this little point in the middle to do so. Stress is not bad, but necessary for relaxation to exist. There is no absolute yin without yang inside and vice versa. Each moment contains all there is, opening up to it allows us to give into the experience of something that is neither good nor bad, but the union of everything - or as it’s called in Sanskrit: Yoga.
Let go, or be dragged.
“Some things in life are simply shit, excuse my language…”, he glanced at me over the round glasses lingering on his nose. I nodded my head, grateful for his professional assessment.
My general doctor knows me since I was born, he usually does not talk this way.
“Don’t search for sense, where none is to be found”, he continued, looking at me urgently. And then: “Really, don’t go there. It will drive you crazy. It will drive you crazy.”
I nodded again.
Now, I am thinking about what he said: don’t search for sense, where none is to be found.
We all have this deep urge for answers, we want things to be explainable, we even need to ascribe them some sense to feel calm, because if they make sense we can also anticipate them in the future. Once I understood that dark clouds bring rain, I was able to plan ahead how to go about it – I could decide to put on a coat, to stay inside, or to soak up the rain. The same process of anticipation takes place in relationships – we try to read each other in order to understand if we should come closer or better beg off. Even though our future prognoses are often flawed (with regards to the weather, relationships and anything else), they are still necessary for us to feel in control.
On a physical level (annamaya kosha) we need to plan to ensure our survival. On a mind level (manomaya kosha) we search for the same sense of security. To feel save we make plans by projecting ourselves into different future scenarios of where and who we will be, we create imaginary future selves of us to anticipate what will happen and to prepare ourselves (mentally and physically).
When plans get changed against our will, we often experience nervousness until we come up with new ones. In bad times, our minds can take us in those moments of not knowing to disastrous scenarios of possibilities where we end up if we do not regain control by making a new plan (leaving aside our plans are always imaginary and not the forecast we take them for). The fear we experience in those moments is triggered by thoughts, but the physical repercussions they lead to are very real. Our bodies respond to save us from the situation our mind is bubbling about, our heart beats faster, we get angry or we freeze, no matter if the fear was triggered by an actual threat to our well-being or the imagination thereof.
In order to prevent feeling bad we make sure to have a home, a full fridge, and people we love in our reach. We make plans for our future and develop ideas, where we want to go in our lives. And this is exactly where the pandemic hits us: all the sudden we cannot anticipate how our future could possibly look like, we are blocked and cannot see those happy future versions of ourselves that are supposed to help us feel save. There is no sense in any of this, there are only lessons. The pandemic challenges us to go deeper; to experience what it means to not know, to not be able to fantasize about our future, to be amputated of our freedom to move between places (physically) and times (mentally). We can deny it, but not change it, we are not in control.
We are thrown into this together and this is about all the certainty we have. This time is an opportunity to connect deeper, to share honestly how we feel, to be brave enough to be vulnerable in front of each other, to cry and to curse together; to experience, whatever there is to experience, and to stop pretending that we are happy, productive and beautiful all (or even most) of the time. Almost no-one got spared of the anxiety of not knowing, and not even yoga can fix it (though it does help to hold it). We will always search for answers to feel save, we will never end up knowing, and there is no sense to any of it: “Let go, or be dragged.”, as a Zen proverb goes.
Working in versus working out
Yoga is not a sport.
It was never meant to be a sport. It does make you strong, though. It does not burn many calories. It does shape your body, though. Often people arrive in class to exercise, they expect to sweat and consider it a great practice only, if they outperform themselves (or very secretly someone else in the room). You can sweat, you can push yourself, and you can make your practice a workout, no harm done. The point is something else, though.
I will try to explain: The difference is about how we are supposed to practice versus how we do sports. In sports, we want to give a lot of effort, we bring our heart rates up, we sweat and speed up our metabolisms; we burn calories and build muscles. In Yoga, however, our main effort is to concentrate. While we move, we use our breath to slow down our heart rate, this way also slowing down our metabolism working inward instead of working out. The focus consequently is not on changing the shape, but changing your experience of the body.
Our focus helps us to be perceptive of our physical and mental needs to meet what makes us tick. Further, we use our bodies to train our minds; we develop determinism, will power and confidence by relaxing into difficult positions, enduring unpleasant sensations and relating to experiences without judgement. The strength we build is coming from within, we learn to move beyond the ideas we have about ourselves - what we can and cannot do, we learn to move through challenges without clinging our teeth and calling ourselves bad names.
Yoga changes people who practice regularly – most people feel happier, healthier and they become more confident. Their appearance changes because they treat themselves with more awareness and self-care. Yoga teaches us to listen, to become aware of our bodies and if we practice this regularly on the mat, it sticks with us also after. If we feel joy beneath our skin, we move different, we eat different and we act different. Yoga works from the inside out – while sport fulfils the external premises to feel good within. That’s the rub.
The transformation that Yoga brings into people’s lives is an on-going process, maybe this is why it is called a path. Your practice has no finish line: you practice, you are on the path; you stop, well you lose track. The good news about Yoga having no endpoint, however, is that there is nothing to be accomplished. No Asana needs to be fully expressed to succeed in Yoga – there is no scientific evidence that headstands lead to Enlightenment! Hence, it is all about practicing and this can look exactly the way you experience as suitable for you.
The Art of Giving up Trying
Yoga & Sleep
Our sleep decides upon our physical and mental well-being. When we are sick, we need more of it and when we are in love we don’t need any. In the article I will dive into the importance of sleep and what we can do to find the rest we need.
So, what happens after we close our eyes? While there is a lot of speculation what happens when we sleep there are also a few things we know about this mysterious world beyond our consciousness. First, we sleep in cycles lasting about 90 minutes each. Within those cycles, our sleep alternates between two kinds of sleep: REM and deep sleep. When we sleep, our brain activity lessens and beta waves of brain activity are replaced by the slower alpha waves putting us into REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, indicating that our brain becomes calmer, yet it is still on the verge of activity and creates dreams. This phase is superseded by deep sleep. Here the brain waves slow down even more, cortical arousal decreases and we enter a world beyond consciousness. Waking up in this phase is an unpleasant experience, we feel disorientated and grumpy. The Mandukya Upanishad calls this a state of egolessnes and the true centre our Universal Self or Prajna. A Yogi who is in his highest state of development can maintain consciousness during this period and experiences a state of semi-Samadhi (the preliminary state of Enlightenment).
For about five hours we usually alternate between the two sleep phases. Afterwards the deep sleep phases begin to fade out and at some point disappear fully. The longer we sleep, the more aware we usually are about the dreams we had and our need for many hours of sleep is more precisely the need to dream more.
Dreams are crucial for our minds to recover. In experiments scientists deprived people of their REM sleep with the effect that the experimental subjects became increasingly nervous and upset even though they were sleeping a sufficient amount of hours. According to Yoga Psychology, dreams are a tool to work through repressed, unconscious experiences. It is said that the subconscious confronts us with scenarios we experienced in some form, when we were awake, but did not properly digest. Everything we experience needs to go through us, thus when we block certain emotions, they will revisit us at night. The lack of sleep prevents our repressed experiences to be digested, which aggravates our health and often leads to physical or mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, migraines, etc. Conclusively, we need sleep to process what we experience, and the more we go through, the more our minds need to dream.
Since, a major part of our need for sleep is to process the unconscious; we need less sleep, if we are more present in our waking hours, Yoga Psychology suggests. Buddhist monks, for example, usually sleep less than four hours every night. Their meditation practice decreases their need for sleep naturally, because allows their unconscious to wash through them the same way dreams do - without limitations or judgment.
For the people unwilling to replace their sleep with hours of meditation, Yoga can be of great help. Falling asleep happens to us and cannot be forced. It happens when we fully relax and this is where we can act. The first step to relaxation needs to be, the release of all tension in our physical body. The Asana practice (Yoga postures) offers a wide range of options to release the tension in any body part, and can be adapted individually. Tension is nothing else but stress in the body and while some clench their teeth other crunch their toes. This explains why we have not come up with a universal sleep recipe yet. However, Yoga teaches us to listen closely, to get to know our physical body and gives us the tools to nurture our needs. Once the physical body becomes peaceful, it invites our minds to follow.
Sometimes however our mind is not willing to follow this invitation and even after we practice thoughts are chasing and prevent us from sleeping. To address our mind directly we can use the techniques that we learn in our meditation practice. In order to fall asleep we need to practice equanimity towards the thoughts that are broadcasted by our minds. As we lay awake, we analyse our past in order to solve riddles of our present and gain control over our future. Thus we need to detach and let go of the stories that we cling to and the riddles we try to solve. Once we accept that sleep preventing thoughts are nothing else but memory traces reweighing past events to lead us to believe we could attain some kind of control over the future, we can learn to let them go. “Sleepless-thoughts” can be compared to sirens singing about truths, born out of fears, and drawing us deeper into the ocean of an imaginary world. Lying awake at night we often think about negative past experiences, we face fears that we repressed during the day and now hold onto instead of just letting them pass by, afraid that we miss the truth they hold within. This wish to control the future creates anxieties in us and prevents us from falling asleep. In conclusion, it is our attachment that forms anxiety and keeps us awake at night and it detachment that will invite sleep to come. Often it is the thought “I need to sleep” itself that prevents us to sleep, so we need to detach from this belief as well. Sleep will come or not, it cannot be forced, but once you let go, and allow each thought to pass by without following it, it will not matter if you sleep or not, because your mind will find the rest it needs.