What a Month in India Taught Me About Yoga

What a Month in India Taught me About Yoga
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Before I begin I want to make clear that the views expressed here are purely objective and that I’m only going on what I experienced, not an in-depth study or survey.

‘What are the differences between practicing yoga in the West and practicing in India?’

This is a question I’ve been asked quite regularly in recent weeks, having embarked on a solo trip with no definitive end on the basis of exploring the ancient practice and contrasting attitudes towards the study of yoga around the world (well in Asia, anyway).
To be honest, I came to India expecting (or maybe hoping) to experience some sort of revelation when it came to my yoga practice, the stories I’ve heard having inspired me to explore the places most attributed with the origins of yoga and somehow find or realise something I haven’t before by immersing myself completely in a strange country and alternative habits, values, and climates. I wanted to really push my boundaries and experience yoga as a lifestyle properly for a little while, embracing new aspects and styles with unfamiliar surroundings and people – places you don’t see on Instagram or enticing Google adverts boasting a luxury yoga retreat and 5-star accommodation. In a way, that’s kind of what happened.
In another way, it’s not. At all.

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It sounds obvious to me now, but the biggest thing I’ve realised since coming to India is that it really doesn’t matter where, when, why, or how you practice – yoga is both universal and intensely personal. Yoga is as unique to each practitioner as their individual height, weight, hair colour, daily nutritional requirements and sleeping patterns. Each person’s practice is their own, no matter where you do it, for how long, or at what intensity.

Or at least it should be.
Strangely, one of the things that brought me to this realisation was attending classes that seemed very impersonal, and I was surprised to find that some of the guided classes I attended in McLeodGanj (Dharamsala, North Indian province of Himachal Pradesh) in particular lacked in creativity. Disappointingly they felt like going through the motions of a standard fitness class in the gym back home. At the same time, I understood the reasons behind these elements of the practice.
After speaking with several yoga-instructor friends and enthusiasts alike, I came to understand that some of the more established Indian yogis (I won’t name names for obvious reasons) have been doing the same ‘routine’ sequence and practice every day for over 40 years. Because of this, it has become almost mechanical in its routine progression, and one could almost argue that anyone who’s attended enough of the classes to learn the routine by heart could in theory also ‘teach’ a class themselves.
I want to be careful how I vocalise this, but the truth is I found that this sameness has both positive & negative aspects.

On the positive side, the benefits of 40 years of consistent Ashtanga practice are blatantly apparent in the physique and steady, controlled way these yogis speak.
It’s also inspiring to see that the practice itself has become a sort of constant for them, in the way that prayer or religious devotion has for the many Buddhist monks and nuns inhabiting the Northern Himachal Pradesh Himalayas. It’s ritualistic, which can be a valuable thing in a modern world that otherwise lacks rituals.

On the negative side, the lack of creative exploration & facilitation for the fluctuations of the body from day to day during these routines flies in the face of one of my own beliefs about the practice of yoga – that it is a way of accepting and appreciating change with ease and grace, being open to and moving with it, instead of resisting.

I cannot help but marvel at the depth, widespread popularity, and general understanding and acceptance of the entire practice of yoga in India. I have already learned to open up and trust myself and those around me more thoroughly than I thought possible.
For me, this is what yoga is all about – opening up (both physically and mentally) and accepting what is. Trusting what you have and that which is constantly in flux around you, instead of creating unnecessary anxiety worrying about things outside of your control. A feeling of harmony in body and mind. Harmony within your place in the world.
This includes change.

Change and evolution are part of who we are, the only two constant reliable elements of life that we can depend on outside of our own minds. Being able to tolerate and adapt to natural and environmental changes is crucial for so many reasons, and it confused me to see some of the yogis upholding a practice that seemed quite stagnant and repetitive, unbending even. Maybe I’m just too used to attending creative classes that adapt and cater for the elements and our bodies – a rainy day class at home in Yogahub Dublin once focused on shoulder and chest-opening poses in response to the week of horrible weather we’d just experienced, hunched over and hurried pacing a necessity with disregard to posture or discomfort.
But it seemed to me that the whole ‘oh she’s gone to do yoga in India’ myth and expectation of self-understanding and epiphany-gaining experience is exactly that – a myth.

This is what I mean by having an evolving practice. India as a country is still evolving; it is a land of extremes. Colours, tastes, wealth, poverty, heat, rain…you name it, India has an extreme to meet it.

Avoiding extremes and finding balance has been part of my own yogic journey, and I found the almost extreme lifestyle and all-or-nothing vibe of several of the yoga studios and gurus I attended to be somewhat overwhelming and contradictory in their message. That being said, there were several teachers that were more supple in their ideologies and achieved a more rational balance between the unchanging ritual & the realities of a living daily practise, so I can’t be too generalistic here either.

My point in writing this was to express what I’ve learnt, and to disprove the theory that yoga can only be learned correctly or experienced fully by travelling to India. I’m guilty of harbouring beliefs such as this, although deep down I sort of knew the truth for what it is – that yoga is accessible anywhere, to anyone, and in whatever capacity you have to experience it and your own body. Even on a balcony in a tiny hostel in Sri Lanka where the cleaning lady tries to sweep crumbs and dust from within an inch of the mat around you. I’m still practicing. I’m still moving. Evolving, changing. And that’s ok too.

 

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On Perspective…Embracing the Power in Powerlessness

Your 2016 is within your power.

Today I witnessed an Asian lady purposely buy a tin of a now-familiar brand of instant-coffee that was sold by the mugful in cafés across Vietnam and Cambodia when I was there, instead of a regular cup of what we’d consider “normal” coffee. It was the very brand that only a few weeks ago I myself spent many trips into foreign supermarkets attempting to avoid, searching in vain for a familiar jar of Nescafé to mask the flavour and intensity of this special unique Vietnamese coffee that I just could not get used to. I could just imagine this woman’s face on discovering how different the coffee tastes over here, and I empathized wholeheartedly with the sense of loss and desperation that such a simple comfort as a cup of coffee not being easily attained when one strays so far away from home can bring.
I came home and poured myself a cup of my favourite coffee, or at least, what I’ve become accustomed to; an Italian blend of instant that may not be as good as the real thing, but which has become a staple part of my day and a relief after some of the frantic coffee-searches and disappointments in SouthEast Asia. I thanked my parents subconsciously for sticking with the same old, predictable and reliable brands, something I had recently become extremely frustrated with at having returned to a house that has remained relatively unchanged since I left.

Perspective is a funny thing, as it allows us not only to see others in a different light, but to see ourselves in ways we never thought we could imagine or be comfortable observing. Things that we may once have been afraid to try, or seemed impossible for us to embody purely because we said they must be so are all of a sudden as accessible for us as a cup of tea or coffee in the morning (this is provided you’re currently staying somewhere with a kitchen facilities of some sort!).
As we get older and look back on things we may have done or said in years gone by, it becomes easier to let them go, and to let go of the worry they may have induced at the time and anxiety they may have brought about since then. Letting go and embracing where we are right now becomes so much easier when you realise how powerless you are to change any previous actions; You can apologise. You can regret. You can remind and berate yourself again and again, over and over until you are consumed and defined by the very fact of this one occurance or circumstance. Or you can choose to accept it, and let go of the fact that it happened, that it was – for you cannot change it anymore. Only in the heat of the moment was it in any way changeable, and it was that very heat and urge to act which made it happen in the first place.

An effective exercise I have used to help myself rationalise things in the past can really aid in ascertaining your perspective on particular aspects of or current issues in your life which may be bothering you. It sounds simple (and it is), but even just taking the time it takes to complete it to be with yourself and acknowledge your thoughts and emotions can be of enormous help to someone struggling to escape a muddle of thoughts knotted up like Christmas tree lights after a year of being ignored in the attic.

 If we take a simple circle; the circumference of a cup of coffee, for example. Beside it, make a list of every important thing which affects your life or has significance to you right now, be it work; family; boyfriend; girlfriend; house; car; money; a certain aspect of each of these which may be suffering or proving particularly difficult at the moment, or elements of your own internal struggles which may not be obvious on the outside. Simply write them down; in bullet points, sentences, picture sequences – whatever suits you best. Make a list, and then inside the circle, place all of the things from this list that are within your control to change, help, fix, or solve in any way. Outside of the circle, list the things that are outside of your control. Be honest with yourself, and with the things themselves. Make a note of how it feels to place each thing in it’s position within or outside of the circle, and adjust yourself to accept that they have been placed there.

Above all what I realised from completing this task is that the things I was anxious about and spent most of my time concerned with solving or changing were just that; things. There were things that no amount of anxiety or worry was ever going to get rid of or solve, things seperate to my mind and body, and outside of any kind of emotional or physical control I could ever assert over them. Why on earth was I expending so much energy in thinking about them??
This made the things within the circle seem so much more managable and simple in comparison, and it meant I was able to direct a more intent and full attention toward improving them or ensuring their continued success. The things outside of the circle I was forced to accept my ignorance of and inability to change, and this in turn allowed me a sense of relief and power over my own life that I never could have imagined possible. They may have posed as issues in my life or things that I wasn’t particularly happy about, but they were not mine (and still are not) to change. I was powerless to change them, and so I began to let them go one by one each time I was faced with things, thoughts or people that called them into question. From this acceptance of powerlessness stemmed an almost ironic sense of actual power, that I now had the ability to let things go, to ignore that which does not serve me, and that which I am powerless to influence.

The availability of my favourite coffee in Asia is just a minor example of something which I had to place outside of the radius of my own influence, and adopt the perspective I’ve attempted to outline above. Once you stop forcing yourself and expecting too much of yourself, (in this sense, expecting and pressurizing myself anxiously to go and find the coffee somewhere, anywhere), it’s a relief to just sit back and relax, and let these things pass you by. They’re not going to disappear completely – far from it- but even just the ability to observe them as seperate things and thoughts instead of getting yourself wrapped up in solving them is an extremely empowering sensation. I’d recommend taking the time to do the circle exercise – it doesn’t take long. At the very least paint a mental picture of it and slot your various anxieties and issues into it accordingly, and who knows? You may surprise yourself with how much you’ve been hoarding in a worry-bank that doesn’t actually cater for some of the things you’ve forced inside it!!

Happy 2016!

Home Is Where the Art Is

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Time has temporarily come to a standstill. The heavy, consistent and reliable beat of activity, functioning, and output which I have been keeping for the past few weeks has ceased to be so persistant; yet I know it to be only a brief lull. I have returned home to the house in which I spent my childhood, teenage years, and adult life up until now, after living away and working for a short while. While gone, I couldn’t have even considered returning to the stifling atmosphere of being back here, so freeing and liberating was the work, not to mention creatively stimulating and socially consistent, the last thing I wanted was to be forced to spend any amount of time here among my old clothes, things and rooms which I know inside out and back to front – where is the imagination here? Where is the newness? Where is the potential for progression and growth?

I have been so preoccupied with moving forward, with moving on and nourishing change and growth that I have almost lost the importance of that which is at the core of it. Instead of rejoicing at the prospect of relaxing and being at ease with things being exactly as and where I left them, both in my room and in my parents’ lives, I had become anxious with anticpation of how stagnant it all can feel, and wary that I would be ‘sucked into’ it again.

That is how it has felt before, in times when I have been progressing and growing steadily by myself in situations outside of my home life – it has seemed almost counterproductive to return to this state of apparent sameness, the begrudgingly slow process of progression being stifled just yards after it has finally made some noticeable headway, and anxiety at it’s proximity overwhelming any sense of productivity.

This time however, the lull has been noted, and my awareness of the temporality of all things has been strengthened. The beating of the creative drum had a good run this time – things were written, recorded, conducted in ways and on levels of success I never believed myself capable of. But just as seemingly endless and frustratingly peaceful as this visit home has been, the persistance of such a contrasting level of frenzied output can only be maintained for a certain amount of time, and will only be possible once again if I take this time now to recooperate, recharge the mental and physical batteries with good nutrition, a decent amount of sleep, and a couple of hundred words written to aim to keep the nudging elbows of anxiety at my lack of creative output bubbling under the surface away.

Because I have realised now that creativity has to come from somewhere. It may not be a gift or a trait that can be readily bestowed upon someone, or found in any single library, concert venue, practice room, or gallery; but through correct environmental factors and an unknown period of time, I believe it can be coaxed into existance in certain individuals, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. My home and life experiences up until now have clearly provided the seeds and tools necessary to glean new understandings and to present unique manifestations, angles, and viewpoints of our environment and lives, something which can be achieved by something so small as this paragraph of words on your screen. This, really, when it all comes down to it, is the essence of creativity as a concept in itself. I have used the environment and experiences I have been afforded to the best of my advantage, and for now, for this present moment in time, this is the best I can present you with – a few hundred words typed hastily in the middle of a bedroom strewn with half-unpacked washing. In my work up until recently, I utilised the bustling, chaotic atmosphere around me to coax new ideas from my core and take bold risks that may or may not have resulted in disaster – the nature of such an environment, however, allowed for these risks, as even if they had failed, the movement forwards is swift, and does not take long for the failures to be learned from and forgotten. For now, for the time being, this is what I have to show – a short piece of chaotic, excitable and progressive thought captured within a room full of old teddies, in a house that has been the same colour since I was first brought into it 23 years ago.

‘Wilder Mind’

‘Wilder Mind’ – Mumford & Sons, 2015

The cherry blossoms are in season. It’s that confused kind of not-too-warm, not-too-cold time of year when going out of the house requires an assortment of potential necessary items of clothing, as the weather is as subject to change as my mind when I think about how I feel that Mumford and Sons have neglected to include the banjo in their newest compilation of songs, the highly anticipated ‘Wilder Mind’.

 In the beginning, I automatically adopted the generalistic hipster belief that any Mumford and Sons album not featuring a banjo somewhere amongst it’s folky depths should not have any right to call itself a Mumford album, and expect to have the same appeal to people.
It’s an easy side to take. It is different.
But man is it good.
I have tried to be unbiased in my judgement, which proved near impossible as my love for the London quartet is still so strongly rooted in good memories and positivity that I was forced to mentally detach myself from them in every way before listening to the album in full – a move ultimately made easier by the slight alteration in sound made by the exclusion of Mr. Banjo (*tear*).

The colloqiualization of the opening track ‘Tompkin Square Park’ invites us away from our present situations to briefly meet in this obscure location, and from the opening electric guitar riff sets the pre-affirmed tone of ‘different’ – undoubtedly giving hardcore critics exactly what they wanted within seconds of their listening. However as the track progresses, the reliability of frontman Marcus Mumford’s acute ability to capture complex emotions within a few short words is thankfully reassured with the line ‘No flame burns forever, you and I both know this all too well”, leaving a relatable echo of regret and a sense once again of the question of the Laura Marling love-affair as inspiration being left unanswered.

Believe’ and ‘The Wolf’ consistently follow, having been the first two tracks released from the album and subsequently the subject of much Mumford-discussion over the past weeks. Crashing drums and guitars further cement the progression of the bands’ sound to a more rock-fueled and bassline orientated expression of the same old beautiful melodies, Marcus’ distinguishable vocals ensuring it does not in fact stray too far from the Mumford and Sons we’ve grown to love so much.

The more I listen, the more increasingly difficult I find it to describe my feelings for the title-track ‘Wilder Mind’. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve actually pressed ‘repeat’, trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes it so damn incredibly special. There is a combination of truth, positivity, and natural beauty to the intense lyrics which suggest a deeply-rooted origin in mental health and the tribulations of having an uncontrollable ‘wild mind’, as it is in this sense, so aptly put. ‘You can be, every little thing, you want nobody to know”. …To me, it perfectly captures the potential and power of our own minds and the will to steer our lives wherever we wish. We are so easily influenced by external sources and beings that we so often forget and lose ourselves to the fact that we are all the masters of our own destiny, for want of a less cheesy expression. ‘You can call it love, if you want’ – it shows me that life and relationships and the world are literally what we each make of them, and that we ultimately are in full control of our own lives. It’s an empowering, emotional, and deeply-reaching four minutes of pure bliss to listen to, and I’m genuinely already excited to experience it live someday soon. I could probably do an entire post/review dedicated to this one song, but for now let’s move on.

 The album continues with its’ discussion of love and relationships with a somewhat dark-undertone, the likes of ‘Just Smoke’ and ‘Snake Eyes’ declaring young love to be a fleeting and unreliable source of happiness, yet with a more mature and knowledgable approach to the ever-present possibility of hurt – ‘it’s in the eyes, I can tell you will always be danger”. While this may seem negative, I feel it also reflects a sense of personal growth and strength as the realisation of one’s own worth and independent awareness is deemed separate and stronger than any relationship could ever be – an evolution of sorts from the earlier sorrowful ballads of ‘Sigh No More’.

Worth a mention aswell in the sense of personal growth and independent acceptance is the more upbeat ‘Ditmas’, the leading line of which ‘This is all I ever was” again giving a sense of positive contentment with one’s current existence, embodying the practice of mindfulness in a single line.

I could honestly discuss the ins and outs of each and every track on this masterpiece of an album, imagining hearing them live on a Summer’s day at an outdoor gig and being completely contented with life at that moment. ‘Hot Gates’ being the most recent release, the ebb and flow of the swelling bass echoing that of the earlier ‘Lover of the Light’ from ‘Babel’, I can perfectly imagine the dimmed lights and uplifting harmonies of the choir as it’s performed, a chilled atmosphere and sense of peace eminating from the extended bass lines and lyrics, once again suggesting a personal growth and final movement away from past hurt and troubles. The ‘Hot Gates’ that lead on to somewhere more positive and an acceptance of circumstance ‘There is no way out, of your only life, so run on, run on…’ really leave us with a sense of peace and positive progression as the album finally comes to a close, a sincere, honest, and flawlessly-worded message of contempt to any haters who doubted the bands’ change of sound, while also guaranteeing the validity and certainty of positive things to come.

While I never thought I’d manage to glean over 1,000 words writing an album review (and if you’ve actually kept reading this far, I thank you kindly for your patience!), I have to admit I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the analysation and excuse to intently listen to these songs again and again.

The falling petals of the cherry blossoms even celebrated the beauty of ‘Wilder Mind’ like confetti around me as I listened again on a walk home, and I realised that this album is in fact a flawless compilation of songs that will stay with and comfort me for a long time to come.