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Feel Good Every Day….
Perhaps you’re reading this article because you are interested in yoga. Maybe you’ve tried a few classes in-person or online and felt a tangible positive benefit. Yoga has an incredible balancing effect on us humans. Moving and breathing with mindful attention allows us to feel both steady and calm and at the same time, light, vibrant and energised. At the end of a weekly yoga class, many students might reflect to themselves, “why don’t I do this more often? If I did a daily practice, I could feel like this every day!!”
Yet, life gets in the way… the days pass by and before you know it you are back at your weekly class, wondering, “hmmm… why don’t I do this more often??”
Obstacles to Practice
The truth of it is, there are many obstacles to us undertaking a regular practice. They have been known to yogis for millennia and have been precisely studied and identified. Here they are outlined succinctly by Patanjali:
lack of enthusiasm,
craving for sense pleasure,
despair caused by failure to concentrate and
unsteadiness in concentration: these are the obstacles to knowledge.
How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
Ancient Practice for Modern Times
The first time I read this passage (as a student yoga teacher) I was shocked at its relevance to my own struggles to establish a regular practice. It was as if an elder Swami had just read my mind, seeing through all the excuses, struggles and procrastination that got in the way of me getting onto my yoga mat.
It seemed like these ancient sages knew exactly how it felt to be a modern person with very modern issues. Yet these verses were written around two thousand years ago. Evidently, procrastination has been with us humans for a very long time.
If we look at the list of obstacles given in this sutra, we can see they all have the qualities of lethargy, stuckness and dullness. In yoga philosophy, this state is called tamas. Tamas is one of the three gunas (qualities, or tendencies expressed in all of nature, including our human selves). There is tamas (sloth, inertia, ignorance); rajas(passion; activity; enthusiasm) and sattva (peace, balance, harmony).
Balance of Gunas in Life
The ideal is of course sattva. However, we need tamas to rest, relax and ground ourselves. We also need rajas to get moving, get things done and defend ourselves and others from injustice and harm. Tamas and rajas interweave with the calm wisdom associated with sattva and create the fluctuations of moods and energies that characterise the way we meet daily life and its challenges. Rather than being stuck in one guna, we want a delicate balance of all three that is responsive and appropriate to our current circumstances.
Tamas Inducing Habits
Yet, we can get really stuck in tamas. The activities that increase this quality are overeating; oversleeping; a sedentary lifestyle and passivity (for example overindulging in social media, gaming and TV). There are also certain foods that contribute to tamas. They are the usual suspects: too much meat; unhealthy fat, alcohol, sugar and processed foods. These activities and habits are distractions that induce a tamasic mood in us. We seek them out for the comforting, relaxing, gratifying feelings of satiation that they induce in our bodies and minds. Yet these tamasic distractions give rise to the obstacles that bar the way to us practising yoga.
Effects of the Obstacles / Distractions
Such distractions make the body restless,
the breathing course, and the mind agitated.
They result in suffering.
The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali; Translated by Alistair Shearer
When we experience suffering, our ego-mind (manas, or ahamkara) looks for ways to alleviate the suffering. Our culture peddles the quick fix, and we are sold these on an hourly basis through advertising and product placement. These ubiquitous tamasic “solutions” to our pains and sorrows flow incessantly around us: The food, the alcohol, the Netflix series that you can lose yourself in. We’re bombarded with adverts in the street, on the tv, on our computers, in our social media feeds. The problem with the quick fixes is that they only last for a fleeting moment of joy, a dopamine hit that quickly turns into a sense craving for more.
…Or Prolonging the Pain
These tamasic habits block us from cultivating our inner strength, the free flow of energy or prana which enlivens each cell. This influx of prana creates the impetus to lift us out of the doldrums and instigate our own healing. When we are stuck in these tamasic states our breathing (the physical manifestation of prana) becomes habitually shallow and fast, which negatively affects our health on all levels. On top of this (or perhaps because of this), our mind (manas) is all over the place, untethered, untamed. All of this makes it very difficult indeed to get to our mats and practice yoga.
Removing the Obstacles
So, how do we find freedom from the obstacles that block our way to feeling comfortable and balanced within? Here is what Patanjali says:
They can be removed by the practice of concentration on a single truth.
Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and indifference towards the wicked.
How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
Cultivating the Qualities of the Heart
The “single truth” is love. Or as Alistair Shearer translates… “the mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated.” Developing a sense of kindness towards ourselves and others is a simple and accessible key to freeing ourselves from the obstacles that we come up against in our journey towards health, freedom, balance and peace. When we cultivate loving-kindness within ourselves we are cultivating the state of sattva. In this balanced state, our mind is calmer, our desires for gratification are tamed and our nervous system finds balance, signalling to the body that all is well. In this state, our body and mind relax and prana can flow more freely.
Self Compassion is Key
Cultivating sattva must be simultaneously an inner and an outer process. The way we talk to ourselves inside our own minds can be very harsh, critical and downright mean; particularly if the tamas or rajas states are dominant. These two gunas act like fertiliser for the growth of the inner critic. So as we turn our compassion outwards, we must at the same time take care of ourselves. Be kind inside your mind. Be as tender and benevolent as you would be to another person, who is vulnerable and needs your help. Treat yourself and others, with love, care and attention, not only outwardly, but inwardly in your thoughts and feelings. Those inner voices are broadcast loud and clear at the more subtle levels of reality.
Don’t Go it Alone
To fully shine the light of our awareness of these inner voices is a huge process. Confronting the anger, hurt and sorrow that we hold inwardly can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable. The need to push the discomfort away can, of course, send us running for those tamasic distractions. We can find ourselves in a cycle of distraction and pain. It is wise to seek support from others, friends, family and therapists. It is nearly impossible to pull oneself up from one’s bootstraps. We need to make time to reflect and connect with others. Counselling, support groups, EFT, craniosacral therapy and healing are modalities I have found to be of enormous benefit in my own journey.
Love Wins Over Willpower
As loving-kindness becomes a regular practice, many people find that as they look upon others kindly, it becomes really difficult to treat themselves badly. Being in a state of love is a win-win situation – there are no losers if you are truly coming from the heart.
Loving Kindness Practice Guidelines
Patanjali is really specific about how to do this in a very succinct way. Broadly, he is encouraging us to make more time for our friendships and to be kind and supportive to people going through difficult times. He also recommends that we celebrate the lives of those who bring joy to the world. In addition, he advises simply ignoring those people who are greedy, hateful or untruthful. Here lies such incredible wisdom that we would do well to follow today. How much power would the tyrants of the world have, if no one gave them the airtime and the attention?
Practical Steps to Freedom
Following Patanjali’s advice requires consuming far less “news” and ensuring our time on social media is mutually supportive and kind. It involves spending more time with friends that help us feel good, as well as giving back to our communities. It means being there for those friends, family or neighbours who could do with a helping hand. As a yoga teacher, I can tell you that this is infinitely more yogic than doing 108 sun salutations, or putting your foot behind your head. What is more, these actions have a much deeper and more positive effect on your life and the lives of those around you. Loving-kindness cultivates sattva not just yourself, but in others – it’s contagious. In this way, we can encourage prana (positive energy) to flow amongst the community, rather than simply hoarding it for oneself.
Celebrating Thich Nhat Hanh
In the spirit of Patanjali’s advice to “delight in the lives of the virtuous” I invite you to take a little time to remember the incredible life of Thich Nhat Hanh, who died on the 21st January 2022. His life is an outstanding demonstration of the principles of nonviolence, loving-kindness and compassionate action. He has literally inspired millions to cultivate the sattvic state within, through his living example, teachings and writings. Watching this moving interview from 2013 with the fabulous Oprah Winfrey is sure to touch your heart. If you choose to watch it, pay attention to the feelings it creates in your heart. Notice if you are moving into a more sattvic state as you listen to Thay’s heartfelt words of wisdom, harmony and peace.
Dear Yoga Students,
I hope you are enjoying this new way of receiving the Holistic Yoga Newsletter. Thanks so much for reading, commenting, liking and sharing the articles. If you’d like to unsubscribe there is a link right at the end of this email. As you know, I actively welcome your comments, corrections, and the sharing and exploring of these ideas. You can comment on this article on Substack here.
Holistic Yoga – Classes and a Retreat in Sussex
If you would like to have an embodied experience of these ideas, please feel welcome to come along to my online (on Zoom) or in-person yoga classes (in North London). The classes are very gentle and accessible and tend to be tailored to people who have stress-related ailments, joint or back pain. If you are feeling tense, tired or achy these classes will be just right for you.
Tilton House – Early May Bank Holiday Retreat
Find out more about this heavenly Holistic Yoga retreat in the South Downs here. Booking is open. You pay a deposit online, and I’ll send you an invoice for the reminder. This is a really lovely way to immerse yourself in the practices and experience the settling of your own mind and body into the sattvic state.
Yoga for Back Care I’m hoping to launch this soon, but am having venue problems! It might be online, watch this space.
Saturday In-person classes (currently on Zoom)
From 26th February at Union Church, on Weston Park, Crouch End N8.
Usual time 10:15am – 11:45am (will be live-streamed also). Again I need to confirm dates, but these classes should be up on the timetable next week.
Let us conduct our discussions in the spirit of the yogic principle of nonviolence (ahimsa). Please be kind, respectful and open to the idea that we are individuals and have the right to think, feel and believe different things.