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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Finding balance with the Spring equinox

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The wisdom of the Spring Equinox…

There are few things in life one can be sure of, but we find constancy in the celestial bodies; every year, we move through periods of time when the days are longer than the nights and vice versa, and every year, we arrive at two points in the calendar when there is an equal amount of light and dark. We are currently standing at one of these points: the Spring equinox.

spring equinox

Tolasana – scale pose

The Spring equinox, or Vernal equinox as it is also known, marks the moment when the plane of the Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the sun.

Nature has a habit of establishing balance – a habit our yoga practice can help us to emulate. Indeed, if we break down the word hatha, as in hatha yoga (the physical practice of yoga, which prepares the mind and body for the practice of meditation), we get the Sanskrit words ‘ha’ and ‘tha’, which can be translated as ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ (or light and dark).

3 good reasons why humans need balance

  1. Enlightenment!

We find a very encouraging answer to this question in one of the most well-known contemporary texts on yoga, ‘Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha’ (written by Swami Satyananda Saraswati and published by the Bihar School in India):

“The main object of hatha yoga is to create balance between the interacting activities and processes of the pranic [energetic] and mental forces. Once this has been achieved, the impulses generated give a call of awakening to sushumna nadi, the central pathway in the spine, through which the kundalini shakti rises to sahasrara chakra, thereby illumining the higher centres of human consciousness.”  (pg 11, 1996 edition)

Wow!

  1. Physical wellbeing

spring equinox

Inhale and open…

Even without the promise of higher consciousness, yoga gives us reason to mirror the state of balance that comes with the Spring equinox. In a passage we can perhaps relate more easily to our day-to-day lives, the same text explains that the balancing practices of yoga (postures and breathwork) can help us maintain a healthy body and avoid fluctuations in our energy levels.

The sun salutations alone show us how yoga is fundamentally a practice of balance. We inhale and lift the arms, opening the body in the process. And then we exhale and fold forward, closing ourselves up again. We inhale as we step back with one leg and lift (open) the chest, and exhale as we step into plank and lower ourselves towards the ground. We open and we close, expand and reduce, inhale and exhale…

Anuloma Viloma, also known as Nadi Shondana pranayama, is a particularly helpful breathing technique for promoting evenness in both the mind and body. It can also provide a wonderfully cooling counterbalance to an asana practice which is designed to increase heat and strength in the body. Click here for full instructions on how to perform Anuloma Viloma.

  1. Mental stability

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer us further motivation to align ourselves with the Spring equinox, with the concept of Brahmacharya (the fourth of the five Yamas), which is widely understood to mean ‘moderation of the senses’. By learning to manage the way we respond to our sensory desires and aversions – by gaining control over them, by consciously choosing to indulge them or not– we are able to maintain a state of equanimity.

This is useful on a practical level because in life, there are ups and downs, some more pronounced than others. We can’t control all of these events, but by practising Brahmacharya, we develop the ability to choose how we respond to them. By becoming aware of our habits and tendencies, we can also see where our excesses are causing energetic and emotional imbalance – and alter our actions and habits accordingly.

One particularly effective exercise is to try giving up something with which you associate your happiness (eg. coffee, chocolate, Facebook, buying clothes, watching telly) – a challenge we set our yoga students every year, to coincide with Lent (you can read more about this in the previous Peacock Tree Yoga blog.

Vastu-samye citta-bhedat tayor vibhaktah panthah

I received a wonderful teaching at a Jiva Mukti class recently, which offers us yet another way of understanding objects and the way we see and feel about them. The chant written above tells us that each individual person perceives the same object in a different way, according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it.

Everything in moderation (even moderation itself!)

As anyone who’s tried it will know, giving up any of the pleasures of the sensory world, even if only for one week, is no mean feat – it’s easy to fall off the moderation wagon. This is all part of the exercise, since the experience serves to heighten our awareness of how we relate to things (“That chocolate bar will make me happy…”) and how our choices regarding them affect our mental and physical wellbeing (“…but now that pleasurable sugary moment has passed, I feel nothing but a dip in my energy levels”).

As long as we remain mindful of our choices – of how we respond to the objects and events that are happening around us – we can be ‘masterly’ in our behaviour.  And if we can master the art of equanimity – a state of being that’s given definition in Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful poem, If – we can stay calm and remain peaceful, come light or dark.

Spring clean your mind for Lent!

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Imagine what it would feel like to not want anything…

We’re not talking about the things we need to survive, like food, shelter and warmth. Rather, the things we desire – the ‘perfect’ dress, the latest iPhone, that lovely butter with salt crystals in it…

Being free of desire – and the resulting discomfort or pain we experience if that desire is not fulfilled – sounds liberating, and it is! But getting there does take effort. If you’re prepared to put some effort in (and the 40 days of Lent is the perfect opportunity to do so) keep reading.

Why do we have wants and desires?

Spring clean your mind

It’s beautiful – but your happiness is not dependent on it.

In life, we mistakenly think that our happiness is dependent on external factors, such as:

  • Where we are – school, home, work, the local watering hole…
  • The people around us –and what they all do and say!
  • Our possessions – the car we drive or the clothes we wear, for example.
  • What we eat – from the flavours we crave to the aesthetics of fresh produce.

And because we believe that our happiness is dependent on these external objects, we develop minds of attachment towards them – which makes us want them.  On the flip-side, we sometimes think our happiness is threatened by certain people, things and places, and we develop minds of ‘aversion’ towards them.  Minds of attachment and minds of aversion are very uncomfortable, as we ‘loop’ the same destructive, ‘sticky’ thoughts again and again.

How our minds work (and why it’s a good idea to Spring clean your mind for Lent)

It’s easy to mistakenly identify something as a gateway to happiness. We see an object – a beautiful item of clothing, let’s say – and our mind exaggerates what we perceive to be its good qualities. We imagine how good we’ll look in it, we imagine ourselves at events wearing it, what people will say about us... and our mind becomes ‘sticky’ towards it. We want it, have to have it, begin to formulate plans to sneak off and get it… And if that item is sold out when we go to buy it, we experience suffering, we feel loss.

What’s happened is, we’ve given that object power. Before we saw the dress, its existence was of no importance to us – it had no power over us.

How to remove an object’s power

We regain control over objects by practising not feeding our desires, and Lent provides us with an opportunity to do that – to install some self-discipline, to embrace a degree of austerity. It gives us a framework for the work we need to do to free ourselves from our attachments and to create a peaceful mind.

Spring clean your mind

Tap into your Tapas!

We can use the Yogic concept of Tapas to inspire and fuel our efforts, too. As one of the five ‘Niyamas’ (things we should do – The ‘Do’s’, as opposed to the ‘Yamas’, which can be summed up as behaviours we should avoid – The ‘Do not’s!’) Tapas refers to the fire we have within us that allows us to practice mental discipline, to get things done, to do what is good for us and the people around us. In short, Tapas gives us the power – not the objects!

Make a promise to yourself, to Spring clean your mind

Spend a bit of time contemplating what things you identify as sources of happiness, and choose one to give up for the duration of Lent. It could be any of the examples listed above, even something as seemingly innocuous as milk in tea. The point is, if you want it, try not wanting it – exercise your mental discipline! And tell the people close to you what you’re doing – it’ll help you stick to your guns.

Along the way, you will experience a sense of ‘mind friction’. Whatever you’ve chosen to give up, the next time you’re faced with temptation, your mind will be cross with you. Notice that, but don’t react. Tell yourself, “Thanks for that, but right now I choose not to have any.”

In time, your desire will fade and your mind will become more peaceful. You will experience a sense of liberation And that’s where you’ll find the kind of happiness that can’t be taken from you.