What philosophy student hasn’t pondered this statement at some point in their lives?
When I first heard it I thought it was crazy to doubt that we existed. I can see with my own two eyes that others exist after all? Over time, though, I was shown the many ways that we fool ourselves into believing that what we perceive with our senses is a fact. Yogis have many metaphors to show us the illusory nature of our perceptions. One common example is that of the man coming upon what he believes to be a coiled snake in the dark of night. He is paralyzed by fear and unable to move. As morning comes he realizes that this is simply a coiled rope. When we consider our fears with objectivity we come to realize that they are no more than illusion in the same way as this example portrays.
Maya is a Sanskrit word commonly interpreted as illusion. Yogis believe that our world is maya. Does this mean that the computer monitor I’m looking at right now doesn’t exist? At this point in my spiritual evolution, I don’t think so. I think the computer monitor is really there. However, my perception of it might be different than yours. I think it’s a fairly large monitor and that the picture is pretty clear. Someone else might think the picture is fuzzy and that the monitor itself is far too small. My perception of the world around me is just that – perception. I overlay all of my biases that have come about based on my past experiences and apply some sort of quality or judgment to new experiences. Humans like to categorize things on the spectrum of duality. Something must be good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, for example (or somewhere in between on the spectrum). But what if we are able to go beyond that spectrum of duality – the maya if you will – and just experience things without those judgments? Will we start to see the “realness” of people and things we encounter? This is what we attempt to do when we become a witness to our experiences. Rather than seeing problems, we see opportunities for growth. We begin to ask ourselves why we are encountering certain situations with more objectivity rather than from an overly emotional place. Rather than “why me?” we ask “what do I need to learn here?” or “what sort of stepping stone might this be?” We feel the pleasure, pain, fear, etc, associated with a situation and then let it go. To become the witness means not being trapped in the illusion.
I think, therefore I am. All I can really be sure of is that I am a witness to my own thought processes which lead me to these conclusions. They may or may not have any basis in reality.
I’m cranky today.
There, I said it. Typically when I feel cranky I focus on the present and that helps. Today I’m remaining present, but I’m not in love with this present moment. Maybe I just slept wrong last night. Happens to everyone, right?
So, what do I do with this crankiness? Well, I have some choices here. I can dwell on it and let it build up inside. I can take it out on others around me- my coworkers would love that! Or I can stop trying to suppress the emotion and surrender to the feeling of crankiness; just feel what it’s like and not judge myself for feeling this way. Once I surrender to it and start to explore it maybe I can figure out what it’s there for (there is purpose to everything after all) and then the release can come.
Yoga asana (poses) can help to release emotions; sometimes when we least expect it. Nancy Gerstein outlined many of the emotional releases in her book Guiding Yoga’s Light: lessons for Yoga Teachers. Here are a few:
Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks such as inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.
Balasana (child’s pose) sends a signal to both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to relax.
Garudasana (eagle) helps to reign in and calm a scattered mind (as I often tell my classes during this pose – no matter how twisted we are on the outside, inside we can remain calm)
Ardha Matseyandrasana (half seated twist) calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.
Janu sirsasana (head to knee) helps to relieve anxiety, fear, and stress.
Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. Standing with the knees bent slightly raise an imaginary axe overhead and then bending at the hips bring it down between the legs. Let out a forceful “ha” as you come down for best effects.
Backbends are my “go-to” poses when I’m feeling cranky. All of the heart-opening…well… opens your heart. Who can be cranky with a wide-open heart? I will do my asana practice and I know that will help to release this emotion. But really I’m feeling better already. Sometimes you just need to name it to release it.
A mudra is a bodily posture or hand gesture that has some symbolism. We often see images of people meditating with the palm open upward, resting on the knee and the index finger and thumb forming a circle. This is a mudra. Different religions or traditions of yoga use different mudras, and they may all give different meanings to these symbolic gestures. Some of the more common hand mudras as outlined in Transitions to a Heart Centered World by Guru Rattana are below:
GUYAN MUDRA: Also known as Chin mudra, the tip of the thumb touches the tip of the index finger, which stimulates knowledge and ability. The index finger is symbolized by Jupiter, and the thumb represents the ego. Guyan Mudra imparts receptivity & calm.
The Shambhala Dictionary of Bhuddism and Zen offers this explanation for this hand symbol:
Dhyani Mudra: In this mudra, the back of the right hand rests on the palm of the other in such a way that the tips of the thumbs lightly touch one another. The hands rest in the lap. The right hand, resting on top, symbolizes the state of enlightenment; the other hand, resting below, the world of appearance. This gesture expresses overcoming the world of appearance through enlightenment, as well as the enlightened state of mind for which samsara and nirvana are one.
Asteya is one of the yamas, or restraints, in yoga and is a Sanskrit word interpreted to mean non-stealing or creating abundance. When we think of stealing what typically comes to mind is someone stealing your car or your personal belongings. We don’t usually think about stealing time and energy. This yama can be interpreted to mean that any time you take something that is not offered freely, you are stealing. For example, if you were habitually late for work and someone else had to stay late until you arrive, you would essentially be stealing their time as they have not freely offered it to you.
Another way of interpreting asteya is to look at our subconscious beliefs that we don’t have enough, that there is a lack or scarcity that in turn can cause greed or hoarding. This can manifest in many ways; among them overeating and overuse of resources like electricity or gas. It can also manifest in hanging on to whatever you have very tightly, in a fearful way. We see this in business all the time. Author and motivational speaker Mandie Crawford calls it a ‘scarcity mentality’. When we operate from this mentality, Crawford says, we make decisions based on what the competition is doing rather than creating our own visions. She says that the only shortages are in our own minds; there is enough business for everyone, and when we pool resources and knowledge, everyone benefits. She refers to this as co-opetition rather than competition. When we are able to shake the fear attached to helping others achieve, we will achieve more; we will create more abundance in our own lives.
I sit to meditate every day, images of the perfect meditation in mind:
The reality many days is more like this:
Seem familiar? So you’re human too! Yogis refer to the mind as a monkey mind, jumping from one thought to the next as if swinging from the trees. Some yogis say that most people only achieve 1/8th of a second of true meditation; when we transcend our so called reality and lose identification with our bodies, minds and are able to become the witness of our experiences with detachment. 1/8th of a second, that’s nothing! If you’re able to get any noticeable time you’re doing great. It’s important not to beat yourself up when you aren’t able to completely calm the mind. The more you berate yourself, the more stress you’ll feel and that’s counterproductive to what you are trying to accomplish.
There are some tools and tips that can be used to aid in meditating. Try them out and see if they help:
Remember that meditation is a lifelong practice. The more you do of it, the more moments of transcendence you’ll have. Regardless of how many of those moments you end up having, you’ll get physiological and mental benefits from practicing; as long as you aren’t using it as an opportunity to remind yourself that you aren’t perfect. If you have further tips please feel free to post them in the comments.
In very simple terms, meditation is the practice of observing the mind. The mind is constantly conversing with itself, replaying past events, planning for the future, analyzing whatever’s going on. If we are able to slow this mental process and start to become an observer of our thoughts we can gain some control over them. Yogis refer to the habitual thoughts we have as samskaras. We can develop samskaras that are helpful to us and ones that are detrimental. It’s important therefore, to slow the mind down enough to be able to observe what’s going on. When we label our thoughts without judgment we can sometimes let them go or change them. So a person who thinks of themselves as stupid, for example, might slow their mind enough to observe the constant chatter of “I’m so dumb, I’m so stupid, I’m not smart enough etc” and label it negative thinking. Then whenever they name that pattern, they likely will stop it, even if only for a few moments. They can also change those statements, the samskaras, to develop new ones- “I am capable, I am smart, I am able etc.” This kind of observation of the mind is referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere- while driving, while doing the dishes, while with people or alone- and it’s a form of meditation. True mindfulness meditation is the act of observing who you are and what you do- essentially to become present in every moment of your life. If you were able to truly achieve this, you would not need any meditation technique, as you would be living in a way that makes every act, every situation a meditation.
We all have moments when we’re able to be truly present. In those moments we stop identifying with our own selves as something separate from the world that surrounds us. Then we recognize that there is no separation, there is only God or whatever term you use to define God. In those moments we lose our identification with ego, with time, with space and we just be. When we have moments like these we feel really good, blissful. Of course, being human, we want to get that feeling again and sometimes become attached to feeling that bliss. As soon as we develop an attachment to it, though, we are no longer being truly present and we don’t feel it.
Mindfulness will allow us to have more and more moments like these. So the goal is to just keep coming back to observing our emotions, witnessing our samskaras without judgment rather than mindlessly repeating them. When we are able to keep coming back to observing our thoughts with detachment our thoughts become more behaved and we see less looping of thoughts, less going back over things that have happened and less trying to control what’s going to happen in the future.
Recently my workplace initiated a thank you project. They sent five blank thank you cards out to all employees so that they could send them on to anyone they chose who have made a difference, big or small, in the work environment. This was a lovely idea and, of course, got me thinking about gratitude in general. We often don’t say thank you even though we feel gratitude toward the people in our lives. Meister Eckhart says “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
Gratitude, when expressed, can bring joy to both the giver and receiver. When heartfelt it warms others. Feeling gratitude for the little things in life can shift your perspective away from what’s going wrong to what’s going right, bringing about contentment or bliss. Simply put, it can change your life.
I feel gratitude to my family, friends, to those who have supported me over the years even if they aren’t aware of how they’ve affected me. These people make life more rich, more meaningful and in bad times, more bearable. I’m thankful for the teachers who brought me long-lasting lessons of how to work toward peace, how to heal, and how to connect to spirit. I’m also grateful for some of the teachers that I may not have wanted in my life at the time. Looking back, it’s easy to see how painful moments in life can lead to events or circumstances that change your life course. I look back at the guy that broke my heart many years ago that inadvertently had a hand in my quitting drinking. I’m very thankful for that heartbreak as it lead me to a life full of spirit and bliss as opposed to fear and loneliness. I’m thankful to the boss who fired me once as it forced me to leave a job that I was completely unsuited to and brought me to a place where I earned far more money and had the responsibility I needed to feel more fulfilled. I’m thankful for the people that have appeared in my life, even if briefly, to plant an idea or bring a moment of happiness or share some wisdom. I’m thankful for this moment as I sit here writing, knowing that this is the only moment I have.
David Neagle says that dreams are what God wants to experience through us. Just sit with that thought for a moment. It’s beautiful isn’t it? When we start to believe that what we dream can become a reality, we start to make moves toward those dreams. And the more we move in the direction of our dreams the more things show up to help us on our way. The people, skills and resources that are needed to make it happen start to show themselves when we are open to the possibility.
Remember that everything that exists in form today once existed inside someone’s imagination. What’s in your imagination? What steps can you start to take, even if baby steps, to manifest what’s in your imagination today? Let go of fear and just start taking the steps as if what you want is right there, you just need to reach out and grab it. If you make mistakes along the way or experience failure, just look at them as learning or rerouting opportunities, not as a sign that you should give up on your dreams.
When you talk about balance with a yogi there are a variety of ways the conversation could go. You could end up talking about their favorite standing or arm balancing poses, about the muscles needed to achieve balance within a pose like headstand or you could talk about how to balance the different aspects of life: emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental are some of the big ones that come to mind.
Sometimes we end up trying so hard to fit everything in (because it really is all important) that we end up putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. This causes stress and we sometimes end up walking away from a practice because it just feels too big. When we are able to strike a balance with all of these parts of ourselves, we are much happier for it. When we set the intention to do something for our emotional, spiritual, mental and physical health each week we start to find the pockets of time needed to stay holistically healthy. Maybe you don’t have time to do a full work out every day, but there might be 15 minutes that you could do some light stretching and leave the full work out for a few times a week. Maybe you could fit in 5 minutes of meditation to address your connection to spirit. This isn’t a situation where ‘go big or go home’ applies. Look for the little bits of time where you can read something that’s mentally stimulating or send a text to your significant other with something other than a task to complete or just breathe. Don’t forget to look after yourself- when you take time out to address your own health you have much more to give others. Try not to think of it as being selfish, it truly isn’t- when we are nourished we can nourish others.
If you’ve never done this before, try filling out a balance wheel. Imagine the centre of the circle as being zero on a scale and the outer edge as being a ten. Ten will represent the ideal amount of time or energy being spent on a particular piece based on your own needs, personality or experiences. On the circle, mark a dot indicating where on the scale from 1-10 each aspect lies. Do you get a perfect circle when you connect those dots? Probably not! And it’s not likely that it’ll ever be perfect, but if you’re way out of balance on one of the parts, try to think of some simple ways you can bring more balance to your life.
The first niyama, or observance, of yoga is called Saucha, a Sanskrit word meaning purity. Purity can be about physical surroundings, our minds, our bodies, the food we eat, etc. When we think about it in terms of our surroundings, we begin by looking at clutter and cleanliness. When our space is clean and free of clutter we tend to think more clearly and our minds are more peaceful. Some tips for decluttering can be found here: http://zenhabits.net/zen-mind-how-to-declutter/
Saucha also takes into account the purity of our thoughts, words and deeds. It’s not about judging a person or our world as impure, but rather ensuring that our thoughts are harmonious with both our intentions and the world around us. Letting go of relationships that are sustained through gossip, sarcasm or other habits that affect the purity of our minds is a way to practice saucha. While this can be very difficult to do, especially when letting go of a long time relationship, it is important for your mental health. If such a relationship causes you to behave or think in ways that don’t align with who you want to be, you will likely experience some sort of inner turmoil. Ask yourself why you are attached to this relationship. What are you getting out of it? Judith Lasater, a long time yoga teacher, suggests that “If you embrace impurity in thought, word, or deed, you will eventually suffer”. If you surround yourself with people that are positive and kind, you’re more likely to have purity in your thoughts and deeds. It at least sets up the circumstances to support saucha. We all from time to time think negatively. Wayne Dyer has a simple technique to stop the cycle of this sort of thinking: whenever you have a negative thought, just say ‘next’ and move on.
When in asana class you can practice saucha as well. One way is to come to class with a clean mat and well-tended body (clear of impurities). Also, clear your mind before class. This can be done by centering, meditation or prayers before beginning. Often your yoga teacher will do something at the start of class to help with this. Another way to practice saucha during asana class is to fully exhale, ridding the body of more toxins. Of course, the asana practice itself will help with this too.