The balancing act

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Finding balance in your life, in your mind, in your breath, in your personality, in your being – it seems to be something we all want. To me, it also sometimes seem like an utopia. When I find balance in part, I tend to lose it somewhere else. When I put in the work to balance one part of my being, I lose the time and effort in the other one.

However, I also believe it is possible!

Balance is not something you can find, it is something you create” – Jana Kingsford

In your life you will always go through highs and lows. It is inevitable. We cannot control the outside world, we cannot control the actions of others and therefore we will have periods of suffering throughout our lives. It is however the balance and connection inside the Self that will determine how off balance you get. And to understand when we are in balance we have to learn where that point is.

Don’t avoid extremes, and don’t choose any one extreme. Remain available to both the polarities – that is the art, the secret of balancing” – Rajneesh.

When we are kids we are constantly exploring our boundaries. We are figuring out our world by falling and standing up, by testing the boundaries of our parents and by making mistakes. The older we get the more consolidated and fixed our ideas, thoughts and ways of being seem to be. However, the search for balance inside continues. Over time we change and we constantly try to figure out who we really are. We dig into our past to figure out why certain highs and lows have impacted our lives, so that we can make sense of where we are now. So that we can figure out where our balance is.

In yoga we have a concept that talks about this search for balance, which is called Sthira Suhka Asanam (Yoga Sutra 2.46)

  • Sthira arises from the root stha, which means “to stand, to be firm, to take a stand.” It translates as steadiness, awareness, stable and firm.
  • Sukha arises from the root words su (good) and kha (space), so giving it the meaning “good space.” It translates as comfort, ease, pleasure, lightness.
  • Asana is translated as posture, attitude (mental, emotional, physical), physical exercise and seated posture.

So when we translate that ‘Sthira Suhka Asanam’ means the posture is firm/steady/stable AND comfortable/ light/ at ease.

So in our practice we look to be steady and stable, while light and at ease. We are looking to be rooted and strong, while being joyful, easy and gentle. The breath is our guidance in this process, by following how it changes with each pose we can get a better understanding of the impact a pose has on us. By working on keeping the breath and the posture stable, means you are in complete focus, you are in the moment and because of that the mind is still. The mind is present.

When we learn these qualities on the mat, by focusing on the stability of the mind and the steadiness of our breath, we can take the lessons learned with us off the mat and apply it in our daily life. Being aware of when you are in a high or low, will give you insight in what you need to develop more in your life. It is a first step towards a healthy balance, and we keep on practicing until we are able to keep the balance in all parts of our life, all the time.

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What about your Ego?

Yoga is martial arts

The ego is such an interesting thing in every human. Most people wish they didn’t have it, or think they don’t have it. But unconsciously our ego directs a lot of our thoughts and actions. And ultimately it decides if we feel good or bad about ourselves.

The reason why I find the ego so interesting is because it is an identity we have constructed ourselves, an identity, which is false, and not connected to the Self. We believe that our personality, talents, abilities and skills are the self, but in fact it is all artificial, it is created in the mind.

The ego is an active and very dynamic part of our personality and it just loves to create drama in our lives. It blurs our vision about who we really are and what we are really capable of. It always compares you with others and at times it will create a feeling of superiority, it will tell you that you are better, more beautiful, more successful, smarter, etc than the other person. Other times it will create feelings of insecurity, jealousy, not being enough, etc. It blames you for not giving it the attention it needs.

How I like to see the ego is like a little child. It needs constant care, if you don’t feed it, it will cry, if you don’t give it love, it will turn into a needy kid, if you don’t discipline it, it will become arrogant.

Lately I have become more and more aware of my ‘battle’ or encounters with my own ego. Teaching yoga has shown me the needs of my ego more clearly. When people are satisfied, I am happy, I feel good about myself. But when people do not return, walked off quickly or left class early, I start doubting myself, wondering if it is something I did or didn’t do.

Even though these feelings are the most normal thing to occur, it is also a habit pattern. Something that happens because you just don’t know any better. Because your whole life you have measured yourself to others, praised yourself based on that and created a feeling of self in correspondence to this.

The easy thing to say is: let it go. Don’t doubt yourself, stay close to yourself and all will fall into place. But how do you put that into practice? How do you avoid these feelings entering your mind, heart and being? One explanation that has helped me a lot comes from my beloved yoga teacher Kate Holcombe. She explained that the mind (read ego) is the blind man. He is strong, fit, healthy, but blind. The Self is lame, it can’t walk on its own, but it can see. The mind (ego) and the Self need each other and so the Self rides piggy back on the mind. Because of this, the mind now has the ability to see, and therefore forgets it is the Self who sees, not him. He beliefs he doesn’t need the Self and takes over, so he bumps into things, runs around without clear vision and creates suffering along the way.

So that blind man needs to be trained with discipline, via meditation, breathing and any other way you know to focus the mind. Because in the end, the mind (the blind man) is in a mortal body, it will lose strength, its health and consciousness. And therefore in yoga we focus on the immortal, the Self. So we try to see the two separate while learning how to use both in their own way. Don’t detach from the mind/ ego, become aware of its needs, understand how to control it and be learn to recognize when the ego takes over control. Because when you can let the one who rides piggy back (the Self) steer the body, you can let the Self decide where you go, what you do and what comes to you. That way you might be able to reduce the suffering caused by the ego and create space and freedom to connect to who you really are: the Self.

Your way to freedom

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With the 4th of July festivities of last weekend, the concept of ‘freedom’ popped right back into my mind. I know it might sound naïve, but the idea and meaning of freedom only became clear to me a couple of years ago. I was participating in a program at the university, which was called: Leaders for Economic Change. We were a group of 30 young people from all over the world. My small group existed of 2 Dutch people, one British person, one from Bangladesh and one person from Zambia. The Zambians name was Gift, and a gift he was. We were asked to discuss amongst us what freedom means to you. As an eager Dutch student I started, talking about Freedom when you are off work, laying on a beach, watching the ocean, reading a book and sipping a cocktail. It all connected and corresponded with my reality, my sense of freedom.

Gift however, had something very different to share: freedom to him was when everybody had equal chances, when every kid could have a proper education and because of that, have a real chance in life.

And wow, did that open my eyes, I really thought my version of freedom was universal, except for when you are in prison or at war. How little did I know!

At the same time I realized how lucky I had been, that my version of freedom comes from a care-free life. And this concept of ‘freedom’ can show you who you are; the definition of freedom is personal. One explanation is not better than the other, it is just different, it is you.

I am sharing this, because ‘freedom’ is also a big subject in yoga. In yoga we strive to be free of suffering. In the yoga sutras there is no discrimination made between sufferings. Every suffering is real; every suffering can make your life miserable, even if your suffering seems minor in comparison to others.

The yoga sutras (2.15) gives us four main reasons for suffering:

  1. Parinama: change, modification or transformation; Change affects people, objects and the environment. In the end nothing is stable in our universe, there is constant change, constant uncertainty, which are factors for irritation, instability and internal misery. Any change creates an opportunity for someone to suffer by holding on to what was, instead of embraces, allowing or accepting what is in front of them.
  2. Tapa: regret, guilt, torture; The thirst of wanting something can create an unfulfilled desire, which leads to regret, guilt, torture. A bitter regret over what we have done, or not done. A burning desire to repeat the past. All sources of anxiety that wear us down.
  3. Samskara: Routine, habit, conditioning; Some of our routines and habits are deeply rooted in ourselves. They are like a deep groove in wood, you can sand it down a little bit, but when you don’t take care of it, it will continue to get deeper and deeper. These grooves push us to act in stereotyped manner. Make us repeat patterns, which might not be the right response in a certain situation.
  4. Guna: Fundamental energy, quality, substance; The gunas reflect on the fact that we live in our body and the fluctuations and instability of the mind. The instability in our mind leads to chaos, negative judgments and inappropriate responses.

Suffering is ultimately a state of mind, your reaction to what’s happening, your reaction to what overcame you. We will always be faced with difficult times, but we have choice how to respond to it. We can choose how much we suffer from it.

In yoga we work on not creating new suffering, by realizing that we can’t change the circumstances, we can’t change what will happen to us. But we do have a chance to change our own response to it, the way we hold it, the way we let it take over our mind, body and life and how we move through it.

This way we are refining the mind, redefining our relationship to the mind and defining freedom in a new way. Because in the end, freedom is personal, there is no discrimination for the suffering you have, as long as you remember that you have a choice. The choice is liberating, the choice gives you your freedom. The choice helps you to be free of suffering, that choice leads you to happiness and bliss.

The other sort of yoga…

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My blogging schedule has been very off the past few weeks, but I am back, new routine, new energy and new ideas. So to start: we have arrived in San Francisco! However, the first few weeks of our time in the US we spent amazingly in a camper, traveling to Yosemite, Sequoia National Forest, Death Valley, Vegas, Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Route 66 and some beach time along Highway 1.

I had planned to do lots of yoga, running, or anything else that could keep me fit. Nature called for some amazing hikes, down into the canyon, or up to the tops of waterfalls. At every single one of them I was amazed by the beauty of this country and the vastness of the landscape. But apart from some stretches after the hikes, not much physical yoga happened.

It was either too cold in the morning (freezing), the space in the camper was literally too small (with dog plus husband), it was wet outside, there was snow outside or I had asked too much of my body already racing up down mountains.

I started to get a bit frustrated: this was the moment to really get myself into shape, to be ready for San Francisco yoga and to improve my personal practice. And then I realized, that yoga is designed for the mind. As the yoga sutra says: Yoga is designed for the mind, in order to reduce suffering and to feel better. And there I was, beating myself up over not doing the psychical element of yoga.

Once I had established this thought in my mind, I realized any moment of the day was a yoga moment. A moment to train my mind, to see how far I was able push it, or how much it tried to control me. Basically a moment to rethink and refine my chosen direction and by being in nature and making amazing walks, I was able to distract my mind from any unnecessary thoughts, fears or judgments.

The reason why I am sharing this, is because we often forget why we are doing things. What is our will and what is our mind telling us? What are our expectations and are they pursuable? What if things go different then planned? In the end, all these thoughts are in the mind, all these actions are based on what we think should be. What if we decide to let things be as they are, shift our perspective to what you have right now. Would that make you happier as a person? It most certainly did for me!! And that’s how I got content with my yoga practice, not the physical yoga we talk so often about, but yoga as a lifestyle, yoga as the way to reduce my suffering, yoga to make me feel better and also the others around me. Because ultimately, all I ever want is to feel the best I can, and isn’t that what everybody wants?

How yoga can help in difficult times

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As I am a Dutch person, born and raised, the news of last week’s plane crash, of the MH-17, hit me hard. 298 beautiful souls were killed in a plane crash of which 193 Dutch citizens.  Not that it should make any difference, every person on that plane had its own story and leaves behind family and loved ones, but all of a sudden a tragedy like this came a whole lot closer.

The day after the crash I went to my regular yoga class, I dedicated my class to these people, and it was then when it hit me. And instead of calming down, I noticed I started feeling more and more upset about this insane injustice. When I came home I felt the need to share some thoughts, which I did via Facebook:

” I am literally lost for words and sick to my stomach reading about the crashed plane. Shooting down a passenger flight with 300 people, for what exactly? To claim your land, to get what you want, to show who is the boss? It brings me to tears to know that this is the world we live in today. We kill innocent people to enlarge our ego’s, we kill innocent people over grudges we hold, we kill innocent people because we believe we own things. And the saddest part of it all is, that nobody owns anything. We all live on a piece of this earth, with our families, friends, neighbors, animals & plants. This land belongs to the earth and everybody that lives on it. Because in the end, when you die – like these 300 beautiful souls – we don’t leave behind what we own, that is not important anymore, we leave behind loved ones & memories. And they would turn in whatever you ‘own’ to get you back. So let’s take a lesson from this: let’s be extra good to each other, spend extra time with the people you love, be kind to your neighbors, connect with the nature around you and really see who else lives on that space you call ‘mine’. Share it with them and everybody else who comes along. I know I will <3″

I decided to see what yoga has to say about these occasions, these disasters, and this kind of suffering. And what I found was compelling and interesting to me. In yoga there is a word to describe this: Dukha, which means suffering.

In one of the oldest scriptures of yoga; the Yoga Sutra’s, there are some interesting insights.

Sutra 2.15: Parinaama Taapa Sanskaara dukhaihi guna vrittivirodhaascha dukhameva sarvam vivekinah

This sutra basically describes that every event causes some sort of pain. Suffering is in our lives, always, because we are on a constant search for happiness. The pain is caused by the amount of joyfulness we experience, because we will start craving for more. Because however joyful something is, there is a moment that it will end. And the greater the joy it created, the greater the pain when it ends.  The memories of this pleasure bring pain. The fear over losing it causes pain. Love creates pain, especially with separation.

So losing a loved one, is extremely painful, it causes a lot of Duhka, suffering. Losing a lost one over such a useless act makes it even worse.  The grief and the grudges we feel can create deep wounds. Wounds that will shut you down, wounds that will make you forget that you are alive – you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you have actual physical pain in your body and muscles.

Nothing can take this pain, disbelief and injustice away. However, there are some things we can practice to help us try to come to a state of mind where we can learn to accept, where we can learn to find a place for what is happening.

In this case, from the perspective of yoga, we can do the following:

  1. Calming our mind through breathing
  2. Practice compassion

Breathing

Breathing exercises practiced in yoga can help to calm our minds, create more clarity and create space. Through breathing we can stop our mind from lying to ourselves and give in to this suffering. We can stop repressing it and express it through our bodies.  We can start on the path to not undo what has been done, fight against the loss, but transform ourselves. Find strength and new different perspectives that can help us come out of our misery. Of course this can not all be done through breathing, but I believe it is a starting point.

Compassion

When we have found our way to calm our mind and work on coming out of our misery, there is a way to practice compassion. Even though in this situation it feels like an impossible act to practice compassion against the ‘bad guys’, we can practice compassion with our close surroundings and ourselves. The yoga sutra’s say the following about this:

Sutra 1.33: Maitri karuna mudito pekshanam sukha duhkha punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam

In our lives we see people that are happier then we are, but we also see people who are less happy, people who suffer even more. Whatever our attitude is towards these people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others being happy and compassionate to others who are unhappy, joyful towards the things that are praiseworthy and remain undisturbed by the mistakes others make, our mind can stay calm. This way we can develop traits in ourselves such as love (maitri), helpfulness (karuna), friendliness (mudita) and eveness of emotions or temper / calmness (upekṣa).

I believe that when everyone practices more compassion, the world will become a better place. We will share love with our loved ones, neighbors, strangers in the street, nature and animals. By simply smiling to each other we create a different atmosphere and we can make a small change in this world.  Practice to not judge, but taking time to listen and by staying close to our own emotions and feelings. By being compassionate we stop fighting violence with violence, but instead we choose for compassion and love. Does this mean that people can get away with horrible things they do (to others)? No! Justice will find its way to these people, one way or another. But by calming our mind, creating clarity in our thoughts and by practicing compassion and love, we do not let these 300 un-necessary deaths go to waste. We honor these 300 beautiful souls, by changing our direct environment, and with that the whole world.

And so, this blog will end as I closed off my Facebook post:

So let’s take a lesson from this: let’s be extra good to each other, spend extra time with the people you love, be kind to your neighbors, connect with the nature around you and really see who else lives on that space you call ‘mine’. Share it with them and everybody else who comes along. I know I will ❤

 

NOTE: I found it extremely difficult to write about this subject, since I am very deeply touched by the downing of MH-17. If I have offended anyone with my writing I sincerely apologize. I merely tried to share my opinion and my thoughts for what it all means and how to deal with such a tragedy.