"When we discover that place with our yoga practice where we no longer identify with thought, but rather experience the body and the self as one, we enter a space between past and future, a space referred to as the present moment."Listen to audio version:
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The big question every yoga teacher asks themselves when they first start teaching is, with all the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired - what exactly is it I’m going to teach? Unfortunately for me, when it came time to answer this important question, I knew I had a problem - and although I considered it to be a good kind of problem, it was definitely a problem nonetheless.
As someone who took up yoga after years of combating addiction, chronic stress, and depression, it was hardly surprising that my initial attraction to yoga was based around trying to find the most physically demanding classes I could. As a then thirty-something who had already proven to have a habit of doing things to extremes, it wasn’t long before my once-a-week yoga class had turned into my new healthy obsession.
Although it might have been natural for me at that age to relish something so physical, I realise now that a lot of my attraction to yoga at the beginning was based around my ability to release such a large amount of endorphins – the feel-good hormones that act as the body’s morphine. Of course, looking back I’m just happy that something, whatever it was, got me into yoga because now I consider it to be one of the most significant turning points in my life.
I’m not sure if it was as a result of doing so much yoga, or simply a mellowing with age, but it wasn’t long before I definitely felt my new passion was starting to have some profound effects. The more I did yoga, the more I found myself being drawn towards the philosophy that underpinned it, and the more I got into the philosophy, the more I found myself appreciating many of yoga’s softer and gentler styles – styles that often led me to experience the kind of peace-of-mind I hadn’t experienced in years.
Teaching at Triyoga
So when as a relatively new yoga teacher I got an opportunity to teach at a newly opened Triyoga back in 2000, I realised from the start that I had a problem. You see, the way most yoga teachers choose what they want to teach is that they pick a style they like and are familiar with and go from there. But I wasn’t interested in teaching a style. Instead, I felt I wanted to teach something that was based more on an intention, an intention within the practice that would lead people to discover the same kind of peace-of-mind that I had come to find so valuable in my practice.
I soon realised that changing the standard format of a yoga class to focus on an intention and mental well-being – well this just confused most people. You have to remember that the idea of mental health wasn’t anything like it is today and no one back then was openly talking about stress and anxiety. But I had a feeling that all that was about to change and with a little explaining I managed to persuade Triyoga to switch my then “Yoga Gently” class into the UK’s first drop-in yoga class designed specifically to address stress.
I admit that at the time it did seem a little unusual to have a class on the schedule that was not your typical yoga class – but for me, I just felt I was doing what I had always done. The main difference was that with a new title like “Yoga for Stress” I thought it would not only make sense of what I was trying to do, but would also give me a chance to go deeper into many of the powerful tools yoga has at its disposal for managing stress, which by now I had come to believe lay at the heart of this ancient tradition.
The Tradition of Yoga and Mental Well-Being
Anyone who has ever been even slightly interested in learning about the origins of yoga knows just how frustrating it can become. This is partly because yoga’s history goes so far back to a time when what was being taught was only transmitted orally, but also because much of its history has been buried under so many myths and misconceptions.
But there is one historical text that is often regarded as one of the foremost works on yoga: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In it, the author Patanjali lays out a series of sutras or aphorisms that are designed to lead to spiritual enlightenment. In his second and perhaps most important sutra, he clearly lay out the definition of yoga as “Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ”. Which roughly translates as “Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind”.
This, of course, can be confusing to even the most devoted student as it has nothing to do with either the body or what you should be doing within a position. However, it is worth pointing out that Patanjali’s idea of yoga back in the second century CE has very little to do with what we do in a yoga class today. Nevertheless, I have always felt that this one sutra is extremely important especially when it comes to appreciating what yoga has to offer beyond being regarded as something purely physical.A lot of how we view as yoga today I feel has come from a more recent free-spirited attitude of yoga being whatever you want it to be – which I don’t have too much of a problem with. The only thing I find as a result of adopting this free-spirited approach is that we’ve quickly lost sight of what yoga has to offer mentally at a time when we perhaps need it more than ever.
At its deepest level, yoga has always been about developing self-awareness, where it instructs the person practicing to observe herself or himself objectively through meditation and introspection. The main premise is that by increasing one's self-awareness you have the ability to change your emotional state through the simple realisation that you are not so much your thoughts as the entity behind them.
Of course, the majority of us spend our lives without giving our inner self any extra thought. However, when we do start focusing our attention on that inner self, we soon realise how much of our thought process is made up of either going into the past or projecting into the future. The ability we have to recall what happened in our past or imagine scenarios in our future is limited to us humans and gave us an important advantage over other animals.
What Really Causes Our Stress
But in our fast-paced, 24-7 digital world, filled with so much uncertainty, this special ability to project our thoughts forward to a scenario that may or may not even happen often becomes the cause of our stress and anxiety. I’ve always thought the best explanation of how this works comes from Mark Twain when he said, “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Without self-awareness, or what has more recently come to be known as “emotional intelligence”, it’s easy to think the cause of our stress comes from external events or actions. But in reality, any external events or actions are just that, an event and action, and in themselves don’t come with any level of stress. Rather it is the way we perceive an event or action that determines whether it becomes stressfully or not. So for example, what might stress one person out might not stress someone else out and vice-versa. This also means that if it is the way we think about events that makes them stressful or not, then presumably we have the ability to do something about it: all we have to do is change the way we think - easy right!!
Changing Our Relationship With Thought
A part of self-awareness is also understanding just how hard it becomes to try and change a thought or understanding, which by now has become conditioned, by replacing it with another thought from the same conditioned mind. Or as Einstein beautifully puts it, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
And this is where I find the practice of yoga so amazing – because it takes you to the only place you can go to solve this on-going dilemma of the human condition – and that’s to the body.
Yoga has long worked on the understanding that the mind and body are one and what goes on in one affects the other. It also recognises a subtle intelligence within the body that is at least equal to or perhaps greater than that of the mind. It’s an intelligence that has evolved over millions of years and communicates through a language of chemicals that ultimately has no interest in what day of the week it is, or what our workload is or what a family member just said.
The Beauty of Being in The Body
So when we are able to use our yoga practice as a way of simply connecting to our bodies with kindness and curiosity, rather than seeing our body as a tool to achieve a position or goal; when we are able to just be in our body without judgment and without having to control or fix anything or view anything as being right or wrong, good or bad; when we able to experience the breath as a pure life-force within the body and follow it with our attention; when we can listen to our body and hear what it has to say rather than constantly focusing on stories the mind is telling us; when quite simply are able to feel instead of thinking … then our practice is no longer separate from meditation, but rather becomes a form of mediation in itself.
When we discover that place with our yoga practice where we no longer identify with thought, but rather experience the body and the self as one, we enter a space between past and future, a space referred to as the present moment. If we can allow ourselves to drop even deeper into that sense of space and stillness, then we discover a part of us that is beyond thought, a part of us that the ancient yogis would describe as, “the part of us that is never born and never dies” – our true self!
Not All Stress is Bad Stress
It’s not that we want to eliminate stress from our lives completely. After all, in many ways a life without stress would be extremely boring. Plus, stress also plays a crucial role in helping us to grow, as pointed out in the well-known saying, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” But it’s important in hard periods in our lives that we find ways to keep our stress in check so that it becomes intermittent rather than letting it build and become chronic, where it can cause us problems both mentally and physically.
Stress and Anxiety In The Face of Covid-19
I suppose this brings us to where we are now. It has been said many times that we find ourselves living in unprecedented and stressful times, but it’s important to understand the role stress and fear has to play in managing the effect of a pandemic like Covid-19. There is a need for all of us to be slightly more stressed and anxious than relaxed right now. Otherwise we won’t be willing to make the type of changes needed to get on top of this terrible virus.
That being said, it is also equally important for all of us, especially those directly affected by Covid-19, to find healthy ways to address the stress we find ourselves under. So that when we do finally come out of this challenging situation, we come back stronger in order to allow ourselves the opportunity to build a better world for ourselves and others.
Details of Both My Online & In-Person Triyoga "Yoga For Stress" Classes
The time of my new at home yoga for stress class is on every Wednesday from 7.15pm – 8.15pm GMT. For online booking: bit.ly/2y3sWlW
Assuming the Triyoga timetable doesn’t change as a result of a “new yoga normal” (the subject of my next blog) my regular in-person class when it resumes will be at Triyoga Camden on every Thursday 4.45pm – 6.15pm GMT.
Self-Awareness Through Yoga
Yoga for Stress