Yoga Mudras: Who Are We Kidding?

This is how I often sit whilst meditating…

…with my fingers in Gyan Mudra: a powerful mudra (or hand position) practiced by yogis for thousands of years as it’s said to bring peace, calm, and spiritual progress.  It relates (and I quote from Spirit Voyage) “to the planet Jupiter. Artistic depictions of great spiritual masters such as Guru Nanak, Christ, Buddha and Mahavir are all shown regularly with this hand position.  In addition to its many spiritual qualities, Gyan Mudra has wide and varied health benefits, making it one of the most practiced mudras of all”.

Then I look at this short (6 minutes) but mind-blowingly magnificent video about the ‘staggering enormity of the universe” and I think ‘who am I kidding that the way that I hold my fingers whilst sitting on a little rubber mat is going to make any iota of a difference to my life and how it pans out’ – given how completely insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things.*

This is the kind of thing I was thinking about during my morning meditation earlier (that’s the thing about meditation – sometimes it’s very peaceful and focused and disciplined, and other times it’s like going down a rabbit hole – you never know what you’re going to find, and sometimes I actually choose not to return for a few tangents because what lies beneath can be so damn interesting).

I hate labels but it seems (after much research) that if I had to choose one for myself, it would have to be an agnostic atheist (think the two are mutually exclusive? Think again, or maybe have a read of this interesting definition if you want to become even more confused): I can’t claim to believe in a God, or the existence of one, or any, because I just don’t know whether it/He/She/they exist (I remain open to the idea but have yet to be convinced).

I increasingly find myself looking up at the skies – especially on a clear and moonlit night like tonight – and marveling at how completely and beautifully random this entire human experience is. I marvel at how uncertain it all is, and I take comfort and joy from the fact that being here, right now, standing tall and firm on this beautiful blue planet of ours, is enough for me. I don’t need any more than that, right now. This may change – it’s changed in the past – but for now, this is enough.

Sometimes it’s like a big old cosmic joke.

I have a giggle at myself, sitting on my mat with my fingers in a certain position, thinking that this is what is going to take me closer to the answer. Which is why my yoga practice to me (and it’s different for all of us) is a way of finding the peace and acceptance of the here and now, in a staggeringly beautiful and largely unknowable universe that we have no hope of controlling in even the slightest way. Not by chanting, not by praying, not by holding a rabbit foot for luck or not walking under a ladder for the same reason. I don’t mean to offend, but all these things – including my own beloved yoga practice – are simply man-made constructs to help us make sense of the world, and especially to bring us comfort and a sense of security when things go wrong, as so often they can, and do, and to hold us safe and warm and happy and fuzzy and balanced and ‘on the right track’ for the rest of the time. For me it’s a beautiful and ancient philosophy on how to live a meaningful life and how to contribute in a meaningful way to society as a whole as well as to learn to honour and respect ourselves and others. And I DO use mudras, and I do chant, and I am really clear on why I’m doing it – my yoga practice is and has been for over two decades my refuge, my safe place, a nurturing and uplifting practice and habit that keeps my more destructive habits at bay.

Will it get me or us closer to transcending the here and now? To enlightenment? To heaven? I’m not sure. Maybe one day that will be necessary for me to understand better, but for now I’m okay where I am. Sorry if I’m disappointing you. Gotta keep it real.

Don’t think me disrespectful of the great gurus and leaders and saints and learned ones that have gone before me and know infinitely more than I could ever hope to. I am not taking away from any of them and I am not being disrespectful of the practice, or of any faith or belief system. I certainly don’t think I have the answer. Maybe there isn’t one. But I have always loved the following quote attributed to the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama: ‘Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them’.

Maybe that is all we need to know.

What do you think? Do you use yoga mudras when you meditate? Why? What do you get from them? What do you believe in? Agree with me or disagree? Somewhat, slightly or not at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and apologise in advance for any offence I may have caused with this somewhat irreverent post.

More about Gyan Mudra, for those of you that wish to try it out or want to know more about why it’s considered so powerful: “Gyan Mudra does many things.  Stimulating the root chakra, it eases tension and depression.  It relates to expansion and knowledge.  It is extremely calming and brings the practitioner spiritual openness and ease in meditation.  Also known as Vaayu-Vardhak in traditional ayurveda, this mudra boosts the air element (Vaayu), thus stimulating the brain, empowering the mind, nervous system and pituitary gland.  Its many benefits also include stimulating the endrocrine system and through the air element it dries out joints and cartilage which might otherwise be full of fluid, causing pain and joint stiffness” (source: Spirit Voyage)

(*the greater scheme of things being the concept of the universe as described in the video – it resonates with me, and is the basis of my ramblings, but if it’s not something you believe in, I’d love to hear why in the comments section)

Journaling, Self-study & How They Helped Me Break The Chains of Addiction

  My children, dog and husband don’t often listen to my suggestions, so I am delighted to hear that some of the yogis that joined yesterday’s chakra realignment class have started journaling! Not just because it’s quite a novel and pleasant feeling to have someone pay attention but because it indicates a willingness on your part to take this journey of self discovery to a deeper level. 

As I mentioned, you will get wonderful benefits from simply attending the classes or starting a home practice of chakra balancing, as my beautiful friend and co-teacher Victoria suggests over on her blog. However by journaling, you are consciously investing yourself more in the process of svadhyaya, or self study: the fourth niyama in the 8 limbs of yoga

In Sanskrit, sva means “self’ and adhyaya means “inquiry” or “examination”. Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities, to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies. I should know about this one: as someone in long term recovery from substance abuse, I am wired to sniff out dangerous territory. More about that later. 

The better we know ourselves, the better we are able to choose circumstances that are most harmonious and productive for us, including lifestyle, social interactions, ways of learning and growing. Ultimately, this allows us to not only experience more joy but also to find ways of contributing to the world that fit our disposition and therefore are more powerful and beneficial to all.

In addition, greater self-knowledge also helps us be more aware of our “less-than-ideal” patterns, whether part of our inherent nature or from past conditioning. The more aware we are of our challenges and issues, the more mindful we can be when they arise, allowing us to guide them in healthful directions rather than falling into unconscious patterns, such as fear and anger, which tend to prevent us from thinking clearly. 

Here’s a personal story: svadhyaya (and professional help, ultimately) helped me to recognise a very dangerous pattern of self-medicating with alcohol when I found that I was feeling unsafe emotionally. It was a coping mechanism that had gone haywire – serving me (to a point) when I was a teenager, struggling to come to terms with being raped, refusing to go to therapy and unable to make sense of anything in my world. 

What started as a desperate clutching at anything to numb the pain ended up as a full-blown addiction. That’s a story for another day, but the practice of yoga and svadhyaya shone a light on all these patterns and is one of the main reasons I am where I am today, free from the terrifying chains of addiction.

Understood this way, what might at first seem a “self-centered” practice, ultimately becomes a bridge, not only to ourselves but also to others – that is, through greater awareness of our own issues, we can reduce the likelihood of falling into them during our interactions while also increasing our compassion, realizing even those who have very different issues are at heart wrestling with the same basic challenging process of self-awareness. 

At this point, you are probably noticing many parallels between self-study and therapy, and there are many. However, there are a few significant aspects which set them apart. 

I will be exploring these in my next post, so for now would love to hear any comments on how you are finding this process of self-study, any comments or thoughts. 

On Using a 6-year Old as a Meditation Aid

Danny and me

Danny and me

Since returning from India, I have vowed to become more disciplined in my meditation practice.

Hmmm.

The idea is to sit every morning for 20 minutes before I start with my official day. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Not just am I experiencing the most fascinating level of resistance to getting out of bed – despite having had ample sleep (another post on this very topic of resisting meditation is under way and soon to be posted) – but my children have inexplicably started waking up half an hour earlier than usual. I set my alarm for 6am and the theory is that by 6.30pm I will have finished my pranayama, meditation and be feeling that wonderful sense of quiet calm that comes as a result, and that it will carry me through the chaos of breakfast and getting the kids to school, and into my working day.

In the 3 weeks since returning from my trip, I have probably achieved that five times maximum.

I set up my spot the night before I go to bed – lay my mat out in front of the beautiful old sash window and wide windowsill that I use as my make-shift altar in my bedroom, and put out my beautiful scented candle and the very special bronze Buddha statue that is inlaid with turquoise and agate. My meditation shawl is folded on the mat and all I need to do is roll out of bed when my alarm goes off.

This morning, I was feeling sparkly and alert after three rounds of Kapalabhati and was settling into my meditation with something bordering on anticipation and exhilaration – “Here I am! Finally! I am going to get this right, even just this morning”. Brought my attention to the breath after mindfully scanning through my body. So, this is me, sitting, on my mat, breathing. Breathing in. Breathing out. And then I heard the slight creaking of the wooden floorboards in the passage leading to my bedroom and I knew that one of the kids was up. Back to the breath. Just breathe. A gentle tap on the shoulder and a whispered “Good morning Mummy”. Ah, Daniel. Maybe if I ignore him he will crawl into bed besides my sleeping husband – he knows not to disturb me when I’m meditating. Just breathe. In. Breathe. Out. “Mummy? Mum? (pause) Mummy, you look very beautiful when you meditate”.

And right there any attempt at ignoring this perfect little human being became futile. So I looked at him and smiled, and he gave me the most beautific grin and crawled onto my lap. He is only-just small enough still to be able to fit comfortably into my cross-legged position, with his legs dangling off the one side and his head lolling off the other, but he did it, and I tucked the shawl around him and we both took a deep breath and then I settled back into my meditation, but this time instead of focusing on the sensations of my own body I became aware of his: this perfectly formed human being lying on my lap. The curve of his spine pressing against my belly, the smooth warm skin of his face against my leg, the tousled curls of his head pressing against my arm. The slow and steady breath, about double the rhythm of my own, and the almost imperceptible beating of his heart, as we just breathed together and were peaceful. Soon enough my thoughts started flying as they so often do when it comes to my children: Is he happy? Does he seem to be balanced? Will he remain healthy? Am I a good enough mother? Is he doing enough extra-mural activities? Did I pack his swimming clothes into his backpack? Do I read enough to him? Are his tantrums normal? Am I setting a good enough example for him and his sister?

And then, as if reading my thoughts, he looked up at me and said “You’re the best mummy, you know”.

And then, “This is nice, isn’t it, Mummy?”

And I said, “Yes, my beautiful boy, this is very nice indeed”. And watched as all the thoughts drifted away and came back to the sensation of his small, warm body on my lap, the sound of our breaths, the sensation of our heartbeats, the weight of his head resting on my arm, the curvature of his delicate spine pressing against my belly, the flickering of the candle and the slow and easy peace of my home in the early morning.

 

My beautiful Buddha from Rishikesh, India

My beautiful Buddha from Rishikesh, India

**Photo of me and Danny taken by Shantelle Visser of Shantelle Visser Photography – highly recommended **

My Highlight of 2012: a 5 day Silent Retreat at Bodhi Khaya

I was fortunate enough to secure a last-minute space on the long-weekend silent retreat that Sue Cooper facilitated at the beautiful Bodhi Khaya in the run-up to Christmas, and it has got to rank up there as my number one experience of last year.

2012 was a year of huge change and upheaval for me, on many different levels, what with moving house twice, the loss of my very precious Granny, and a number of other personal challenges. So when I read about this retreat, entitled ‘Finding Balance in the Midst of Change’, I leapt at the opportunity to attend – even though it was just a week before it was due to run. Sue very gently let me know that it had been booked out for months already, but assured me that she’d get in touch if there was a cancellation. I can’t recall the last time I put as much energy into willing something to happen as I did that week, and with just days to go, I got the beautiful phone call to tell me that there had indeed been a cancellation, and I’d better pack my bags.

I’ve attended a semi-silent retreat before, with Cheryl Lancellas of SA Yoga Safaris at the Blue Butterfly Resort in Tulbagh (with my yoga besties, Nicole Shea and Leli Hoch) but never anything as intense as this promised to be, so there was an element of apprehension as the time drew closer, however this was replaced by a huge sense of relief, gratitude and curiosity as the day dawned. As I took the turn-off to Bodhi Khaya, between Gansbaai and Stanford, it struck me that this was exactly the road on which our very special family friends, the Harrods, used to own a farm called Grootbos (next door to what is now a game reserve by the same name), and as I drove into the actual gates of Bodhi Khaya, I realised that this was, indeed, the farm that the Harrods had owned a number of years back. It was an emotional realisation and led to an overwhelming feeling of coming home, of belonging, of being safe, and of being exactly where I was supposed to be. The last time I’d been on the farm was around 1998 or 1999, just before I left to go to London, and yet it felt like yesterday. At the time, I was in the process of getting over a very painful breakup, and I remember how the peace, quiet and beauty of the farm and its surrounds were like a balm to my raw emotions. And here I was again, feeling decidedly delicate, and once again almost felt that my breath was taken away by the natural beauty of the place.

The retreat was the most amazing, uplifting, healing and enlightening experience that I have ever had. The silence was simultaneously challenging and beautiful, and I honestly have never been in a place that appealed to my senses on so many levels and in such an intense manner. The crisp white bed linen, the green of the trees, the flavours and textures of the exquisite food that we were presented with each day, the blue of the sky, the silky feeling of the water in the two mountain ponds, the pinks of the water lilies, the breeze on my skin as we did Chi Kung under the swaying trees, the smell of the incense as we sat down to each of the many meditation sessions that took place each day, the sensation of the grass crunching underfoot as I walked to the horses’ paddock and the roughness of the path as I walked the labyrinth, the feeling of my yoga mat underfoot as I practiced every day, the sound of the chickens clucking as I lay on my back looking up at the clouds in the day and the sound of the night jars as I lay on my back looking up at the stars at night.. perhaps it was the silence that seemed to enhance everything about the long weekend. Whatever the reason, it was a tonic and a privilege to experience.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course – being alone with one’s self for such an extended period of time, and without all the usual distractions, means that you have no choice but to sit down with all the different emotions and issues that may arise, look them squarely in the eye, and figure out how it is that you are going to move forward embracing these things rather than trying to push them out of the way or pretend that they don’t exist. It was a safe and nurturing environment in which to do this, and I came away from it with a deep sense of peace and acceptance, as well as forgiveness – for others that I may have been harbouring anger and resentment towards for a long time, but specifically forgiveness for myself, for all the ‘wrong’ decisions and actions that I may have made and done in the past, and that I’m no doubt still going to make and do in the future. The theme may have been ‘finding balance in the midst of change’ but one of the biggest things that I got out of it was a rediscovery of what it feels like to be kind and compassionate towards myself. Sue, wonderful Sue, refers to ‘holding oneself in an embrace of compassionate awareness’, and this is something that I have carried with me every day since I got back.

On the last day, when we were permitted to talk again, I found that I just wasn’t ready for it. The chat seemed so noisy, so superficial, so intrusive. It took me a number of hours before I felt that I was ready to re-enter the ‘normal’ world, and to leave the magical playground of Bodhi Khaya / Grootbos behind, but of course life doesn’t stop – even though it did feel like a period of suspended reality – and now the on-going challenge is to attempt to maintain the same level of awareness, consciousness and mindfulness as I walk through my regular life. I have already signed up to go to Sue’s next silent retreat in the run-up to Christmas this year, and I cannot wait!

10 Easy Ways to Love Your Home Yoga Practice

From talking to my students at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch, I realise that many yogis are so daunted by the idea of cultivating a home practice that they simply don’t do it at all, rather waiting for their one or twice a week class at the studio, or in their minds they build it up to be an insurmountable task and feel so pressurised to get it ‘right’ at home that it becomes a slog rather than a pleasure, if and when they do actually get to it. It took me a long time before I really felt comfortable and at home in my home practice, and now I can’t imagine my life without it. Whether it’s a couple of rounds of Surya Namaskar in the morning before my kids wake up, a few cat/cow stretches before I go to sleep or a full hour of mindful movement, it’s what keeps me sane and centred.

So, it was a delight for me to find this lovely article by Cheryl Warrick. She puts it so clearly and concisely, and I just love her summary of how to fall in love with, and build upon, your home practice. Read on for inspiration and some simple tips…

You have a home yoga practice but, sometimes you worry that you are just not “doing it right.” Sound familiar?

I have great news for you.

There is no “right way” to practice yoga at home.

Each time you step on to your mat, you are opening a fresh inquiry into understanding and relating to your body, mind and spirit. Each day your body is different, so each practice is unique.

Here are ten ideas to help you practice at home with a sense of curiosity, playfulness and ease:

 

1. Set your intention.

Take the first few moments on your mat to settle into your body. Close your eyes. Draw your awareness inward and set an intention. An intention can be any simple and heart felt truth or desire you wish to manifest.

This practice helps you align with your higher self.

 

2. Ask yourself what you need from your yoga practice today.

Honour what your body and mind are asking for.

 

3. Keep it brief.

Sometimes we think we “should” practice for a full hour or more. Give yourself permission to practice just a few poses that you are comfortable with. Notice how it feels to do less instead of more.

 

4. Take your time.

Practice each pose slowly and mindfully. Become aware of your transitions between each pose. What do you notice between each pose?

 

5. Be gentle.

Notice if you have a tendency to be critical of yourself as you practice. Meet yourself where you are today and practice in the body you have right now. Can you extend compassion and acceptance toward yourself?

 

6. Practice gratitude.

Take a few moments in your practice to find something or someone to be grateful for.

Practicing gratitude helps boost your mood and helps anchor you in the present moment.

 

7. Pay attention.

Meet yourself with acceptance and non-judgement.

What do you notice about your body and your mind before you practice?

What shifted after yoga?

 

8. Journal.

Keep a small journal and pen next to your yoga mat.

After you practice make note of any insights from your practice.

 

9. Follow your breath.

The breath is a bridge that connects the body and mind.

Begin to notice how your breath feels as you move.

Gently anchoring your attention on the breath creates deeper awareness of the present moment.

Send the breath to any part of the body that feels stagnant or stuck.

 

10. Don’t forget Savasana (corpse pose).

Coming into a quiet resting posture at the end of your practice is one of the most important and most difficult poses.

The gift of non-doing allows your body to soak in all that you have done in your practice.

**

Keep your yoga practice going!

I’d love to know more about your home practice. What keeps you coming back to your mat? What do you struggle with?

Published November 1, 2012 at 9:20 AM

About Cheryl Warrick

Cheryl Warrick, M.Ed, RYT is a 200 hr. level certified yoga teacher, reiki practitioner, wellness coach and artist. She is the Director of Yoga Services for the Domar Center for Mind Body Health in Waltham, MA. Her passion is to inspire her students to discover and welcome a sense of curiosity, balance and ease in their yoga practice. To learn more about her go to www.cherylwarrickyoga.com .

‘Mindful yoga’ as therapy? Try it in 2012 for health’s sake

Just read a great article in Forest Grove News Times about how yoga can ‘help manage symptoms of chronic illness and restore functional capabilities’.  Authors Brant Rogers and Paul Salmon are experts in their field, and have been invited to present their work on mindful yoga for healthcare professionals and teachers at the Spring 2012 Annual Scientific Conference on mindfulness sponsored by the Center for Mindfulness, an affiliate of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

They write in today’s paper that a common refrain from students coming to class these days is “My doctor says I should practice yoga”. More and more practitioners are recognising how the ancient discipline of yoga can reduce stress, enhances recovery from injury and promotes overall wellness, and many are turning to adaptive forms of yoga as a complement to medical care and therapy.

They go on to relate how well-known surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose syndicated television show is watched by thousands each week, acknowledges that ‘while high-tech biomedical interventions are valuable, they can only do so much. He routinely recommends yoga to patients as a way to enhance recovery and promote wellness’.

What I particularly like about the article is the fact that it talks about more than just the physical dimension of yoga but refers to the many different dimensions that it encompasses, and has identified that those with the most value for professionals and patients alike are grouped under the term ‘mindful yoga’, which emphasizes connection with mindfulness, a meditation-based practice emphasizing moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness of life experiences.

They go on to discuss how practicing yoga mindfully can offer several benefits to patients, including ‘enhanced recovery, cultivating openness and curiosity about one’s capacity to heal, fostering awareness of the effects of movement (strength, balance etc.), and enabling better collaboration between patient and healthcare provider through greater awareness and interest’.

A lot more evidence is referenced, all of which show that this practice has the ability to affect our life as a whole. ‘It’s beneficial effects extend beyond fixing what is wrong to enhancing what is right in our inherent and global capacity for healing through heart, mind and body’.  Wow.  Even though I only have a little old yoga studio in Stellenbosch, this sort of article makes me feel part of a much bigger, and extremely powerful, community, and it feels good to read about how all these brainy people are endorsing something that to me has just felt so right all along!

For the full article, go to http://www.forestgrovenewstimes.com/news/story.php?story_id=132563319704985900.