Coming to meditation

A chance discovery of a book about Buddhism led me to a life where meditation and yoga took centre stage.

The Blessing in Disguise

My room was the smallest.  And I must admit I felt a bit disappointed. We’d just graduated from university and three friends and I had decided to live together for the summer in a shared house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Meditation can be seated or walking and focussed on a variety of objects
Photo credit: Sean Smith

It was a huge old clapboard building, grey-painted and elegant. A garden with big mature bushes ran around the house. 

We tossed a coin for the rooms.  I got the tiny room on the side of the house.  Just big enough for a bed.  It had large windows on three sides.  The fourth side was attached to the house and that wall was full of books. 

It turned out they were all books on Buddhism.  I had barely any concept of this, what I considered at the time to be an exotic religion.  But during that long summer, where I had little to do apart from my job in a photo lab, I gradually started to pick up these books. 

My first one was by the Japanese Zen master D.T. Suzuki.  I don’t remember the exact book, but I do remember the sense of waking up.  The feeling that here, finally, was a philosophy which matched my own unformed take on life.

Buddhism is more a philosophy of life than a religion and centres around practices to calm the busy mind.

What grabbed me was the emphasis on the individual.  How, within each of us, we have the ability not to do away with pain, but to see it differently.  I learnt that how we experience our situation is largely down to what we decide to emphasise in our thoughts. 

No outside god telling us what to do.  Look inwards and reflect.  Take responsibility. I learnt above all that our minds are malleable.  The young adult me thought this sounded just fine. 

Dukha

I had lost my mother when I was a toddler. We know now thanks to the work of Bowlby and others, that these early experiences can lead to feelings of low self worth and other issues such as difficulty with relationships.

I knew I carried around with me a sense of wanting things to be different. I was looking for answers.

To say I was a seeker is maybe a little of an over-statement.  But I was seeking something. I wanted to know that the pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction was escapable. 

The sacred bodhi tree, under which the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment by meditation on the breath, Bodhgaya, India

It was through Buddhism that I discovered that I was not alone in wanting to find a way through that feeling, that ‘dukha’. I discovered that pain – and the desire to become free of it – is universal. It was very comforting.

Later, when I was in Bodhgaya, India, in 1999, I met a young American woman who had converted to a life as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.  She had shaved her head and wore maroon robes. 

We were eating a vegetarian meal laid out for the pilgrims under canvas tents while the sun set, near the platform where the Dalai Lama had been speaking that day.  She told me that she decided to become a nun when she finally accepted that ‘Life is Suffering’.

Is it morbid? A Buddhist would say no. It is simply an acceptance of the way things are. And in that, there are glimpses of freedom.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that we can escape suffering by meditating and following the Buddha’s teachings
Photo credit: Vince Russell

Noble Truths

The first of the Buddha’s so called Four Noble Truths state that the nature of life is dukha, sometimes translated as suffering, sometimes dissatisfaction.  This can take 3 forms – the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change and the suffering of conditioning.* 

The first type of suffering is the ordinary painful way in which we feel suffering as a result of being alive:  birth, ageing, sickness and death are all recognisable experiences which we share. 

The Eyes of the Buddha look down on travellers on the route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal. Photo credit: Sebastian Pena Lamabarri

The second type of suffering is that which comes about as a result of the constantly changing nature of life.  So, when we gain nice clothes, a big house or fame, we feel satisfaction.  However, that satisfaction doesn’t last.  These things don’t bring us lasting happiness. 

Finally, there is a type of suffering which is conditional.  It comes about as a result of our ignorance (‘avidhya’)… We all know that we all seek happiness, and yet we live our lives following the very actions which lead to more suffering. 

Going for Refuge

I’d come to Bodhgaya in search of an answer.  I’d been working in broadcast documentary films for 15 years. It was exciting. And it was a slog.  Every job ended in a sense that I could have done more. 

No film I worked on matched my ideals to help change the world for the better.  I’d even made several films in Tibet, about the Chinese occupation there, to large international audiences.

But nothing seemed to reduce the immense suffering I saw all around me, especially in what was then called The Third World. 

I asked a teacher and friend in New York what I should do.  I had recently started practising yoga and I wanted to know if I should ditch filmmaking to become a yoga teacher.  Khyongla Rinpoche said, Go to Bodhgaya. Go and hear His Holiness talk. 

So here I was. The morning after my chat with the young American nun, I went to the Kalachakra talks.  10,000 nuns and monks had convened on the small Indian town.  I was one of a handful of westerners.  The 14th Dalai Lama led us all in a ritual called Going for Refuge. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, waving to our daughter on a visit to Mundgod, India in 2007
Photo credit: Sean Smith

It entails committing to what are called the ‘Three Jewels’, the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Sangha (your companions on the path). 

A couple of hundred feet from where the Buddha gained enlightenment, I gave voice to my aspiration to gain liberation, for the benefit of all beings. 

Retreat

A year later, back in the UK and now pregnant, I undertook the Buddhism Certificate at Jamyang in London, under the smiling, still and wise tutorship of Geshe Tashi. At the end of the course, I could not have been more honoured when Geshe Tashi came and sat in our garden and held our baby Maia, then a one-year old.

I didn’t – and still don’t – call myself a Buddhist (I fall so far short of the definition!), but I would say I am inspired by the Buddha’s philosophy.

I began to meditate more often.  10 minutes a day, Khyongla Rinpoche once told me, was enough to reconnect, to recharge and come back to what matters. 

I started to attend meditation breaks at Gaia House a retreat centre in Devon, studying under such skilfull, generous teachers as Rob Burbea, Catherine McGee and Yanai Postelnik.   These retreats – I went on maybe 15 during those years – were often silent.  Not a year passed in which I was not there at some point, recharging my battery. 

Going on a retreat, such as this one at Gaia House, gives us a chance to recharge. Credit: Gaia House

After my sister died in 2012, I went on a retreat at Gaia House on my own for 12 days, staying silent and immersing myself in my grief.  Meditation pulled me through. 

One River

My yoga training and my Buddhist meditation went hand in hand. 

The  first yoga teacher I stuck with over time – Vaccasin, who now runs Yogapoint in Brixton – was also a Buddhist meditation practitioner, in the Triratna tradition.  His asana (yoga posture) classes felt somehow different in tone, infused with a palpable kindness.   

I started my training as an Iyengar yoga teacher at the Iyengar Yoga Centre in Maida Vale in 2000, just after completing the course at Jamyang, when Maia was 5 months old. 

The yoga ‘asanas’ (postures) can help on the journey from the outside world inwards. Photo credit: Sean Smith

Never did I realise that these two streams of my life would converge in a river which carries me afloat still years later.  They intersect and infuse each other. 

Patanjali, whose Sutras written 3000 years ago are generally considered to form the basis of modern yogic philosophy, says that freedom from suffering can be attained in a variety of ways.  By: 

  • cultivation of the positive qualities (friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity)
  • contemplation of slow exhalation and the passive pause at its end
  • becoming engrossed in an object of interest
  • contemplating the luminous light within
  • imagining enlighted sages of the past
  • recollecting dream-filled or dreamless sleep or by
  • meditating on an object conducive to steadiness**

Although Patanjali comes out of the Hindu yoga tradition, his words are echoed by the various Buddhist cultures worldwide.

Buddhism has spread from India to many countries around the world, including Tibet, Sri Lanka and Thailand

Extraordinary ability

Over the years, I’ve watched happily as meditation has gone from being a fringe activity to a mainstream one. Now, stripped of its Buddhist origins, it’s generally called ‘mindfulness‘.

I am grateful to teachers with the extraordinary ability to put into words the deepest teachings of the ancient Indian sages.  Sharon Saltzberg is one of my all-time favourites. 

I went to hear her in North London.  I took Maia with me, who was about 7 at the time.  Maia sat quietly at the back of the room for the afternoon, reading Harry Potter I think. 

Afterwards, we went up to meet Sharon Saltzberg, who seemed happy to have had such a young audience member. I still have the book she signed for us that day***.  In it, she states the benefits of meditation as she sees them.  She says you will: 

  •  stop limiting yourself,
  •  weather hard times better,
  •  discover what’s really important to you,
  •  have a portable energy source,
  •  be in touch with the best parts of yourself,
  • recapture the energy you’ve wasted trying to control the uncontrollable and
  •  understand how to relate to change better.    
Abhijata Iyengar teaches to 1000 students worldwide during lockdown in May 2020

There is meditation in physical yoga too, where the ‘asanas’ become a kind of meditation in movement. These are challenging times. We’re reminded by Abhijata Iyengar, granddaughter of BKS Iyengar, of the importance of sensitivity both in our practice and in our daily lives.

Nature has forced upon us a time when we must reflect on what we have been doing all along.  If you only think about actions, you are not going to understand the responses.  You don’t know what you are being called for.  So look at this time as a teacher who is telling us to step back, to see what is happening and take the right step forward.  Please be gentle with yourself.’ ****

Billions of Aeons

Change will not happen overnight, but by remembering ourselves, our society and our earth, we can move forwards into a world where compassion counts most.

The Dalai Lama laughs when he talks about the speed at which we generally wish to attain clarity, peace or whatever you perceive to be the benefits of meditation.  There is no quick fix.  The exploration is endless. He says,

Prayer flags called ‘wind horses’ waft the wishes of Buddhists into the air in Nepal
Photo credit. Prateek Katyal

‘If you really want to practice Buddha Dharma then right from the start you must make up your mind to do so until the end, regardless of whether it takes millions or billions of aeons.  After all, what is the meaning of our life?  In itself, it has no intrinsic meaning.  However, if we use life in a positive way, then even the days and the months and the aeons become meaningful.’*

Om Mane Padme Hum

I teach a mixed Buddhist Meditation and yogic breathing (pranayama) class on Mondays.

References

*The Four Noble Truths, HH The Dalai Lama, Thorsons  

**Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I.33 to I.39, Thorsons

*** The Power of Meditation, Sharon Saltzberg, Hay House

****Online class, Abhijata Iyengar, 26th May, 2020

You are not alone: Are there upsides to online yoga classes?

The global pandemic has forced us all to adopt new habits. Yoga is no exception. So what are some of the upsides of online yoga classes?

Doing yoga in a familiar setting can lighten your practice.

The challenge of change

Lockdown.  It’s a strong word. For most of us, it implies a restriction.  We are bound to our homes.

Being at home offers new perspectives. Photo credit: Melissa van Gogh

There are challenges in these changes.

And for many, this time is very challenging indeed. Issues of money, health and safety are real concerns and, for some, causes of deep pain.

At the same time, old routines are thrown out. Our habits are in flux.

Going virtual

Many of our former in-person activities have gone online.  Yoga and meditation classes, for instance. 

Are these new methods obstacles? Or could they be opportunities?

Below, I outline some of what I see to be the major benefits of online yoga learning.

Lighting incense can lend a spirit of sacredness to the session

Leaping in

For the past 2 years, I’ve been been thinking about offering online classes and asking my students what would help.

Then lockdown happened.  I leapt in with both feet. 

There was much to learn, both on my side and on the part of the students.  And not just with the technology. 

There have been hiccups of course.

Getting to grips with the technology can take some time.

Adapting

What’s been the biggest change for me as a teacher going online? Well, it’s that now there are more blocks to two-way communication. 

As a student you may be frustrated by this too. 

You choose your practice setting. Photo credit: Paul Hanaoka

In a studio or gym setting, students can ask a question any time. And I can answer that question.

Online, it’s harder. But by using the chat box and ‘unmuting’ actions, we’re finding ways round the problem.

Poppy relaxes on the yoga blanket where I teach my classes at home.

Of course, it’s different to all being in the same room physically. 

But we’re adapting, step by step.  With patience.

You could say, it’s what yoga’s all about.

The upsides

Over the past month of trial and error, I have been gathering feedback from my students.  I’ve also been a student myself in various online yoga classes

Here’s what I’ve discovered:

Convenience

  • You don’t have to travel.  I used to travel an hour by bus each way to my favourite yoga class (a class for teachers).  By the time I’d attended the two-hour class and got home, half of my day had gone.  Now, you can click on a link and voilà!  You’re at your class.
You are still practising with others when you practise from home in an online class
  • You learn to use your space differently.  In a studio class, Iyengar yoga teachers use a lot of props, such as blocks and bolsters.  But at my online classes, I focus on how to use everyday items in the home.  So, practising at home, you might use a pile of books or some cushions instead.  It can lead to great creativity and a sense of fun and experimentation.  And it might give new life to your solo yoga practice

Flexibility

  • You can create your own atmosphere.  A studio or gym can be a bare and neutral place.  The benefit of being in your home as a student is that you can create your own ambience. Using candles and soothing lighting, you can make a scene in keeping with your mental and emotional state.  You might even practise outdoors

You could create a soothing atmosphere with candles. Photo credit: Charleigh Clarke
  • It’s more intimate.  In an online class, you can switch the video setting so that it’s ‘pinned’ to the teacher, i.e. that’s pretty much all you see on your screen.  You can be in the class as though in a one-on-one session.  If you’re socially anxious or suffer from body dysmorphia, this can be a much more comfortable setting than an in-person class. 

Tribe

  • You belong to a global tribe.  In my online classes, people join from America and sometimes from the Indian subcontinent.  In doing yoga, you are part of a community which practises worldwide.  It reminds us we cross barriers.  Yoga means ‘to link’:  In  our common pursuit of health and happiness through asanas, pranamayama and meditation, we are one
You join a global yoga community in an online class. Photo credit: Hannah Busing.
  • A chance to connect.  Some of you may be missing the get-togethers you had before or after a class in a studio or gym.  But now there’s a chance to make new friendships.  You can become a member of my Facebook Group, where you meet each other and ask questions. And we have monthly live ‘tea-time’ sessions where we exchange ideas and get to know each other better. 

Learning

  • Ongoing information.  On the Facebook page, I provide weekly short sequences, photos, descriptions of asanas and readings from yoga and meditation masters.  You also receive a recording of the class(es) you attended online.  It means you can go over what you didn’t catch first time round:  You learn in your own time, to your schedule, at your tempo and – most importantly – in your own place. 

Onwards

When this phase comes to an end and people start to return to a semblance of life as it was before, some of you may want to return to in-person classes.

Being in your home offers the chance to turn inwards in meditation and asana practice.

But I will continue to offer the online community and classes into your home.

And, going forwards, you might like to stay with the online classes as well.

You know you’re always welcome!

I’m personally so grateful for the opportunity to teach online.  I have the chance to help fill a gap for you, I’m learning a new skill and I’m connected to a tribe of beautiful and brave yogis. 

I hope to see you soon.

You form new friendships and strengthen old ones in an online class

“Change is not something that we should fear. Rather, it is something that we should welcome. For without change, nothing in this world would ever grow or blossom, and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they’re meant to be.” BKS Iyengar

To find out more about subscribing, go here.

Can I practice yoga outdoors?

If you are a practitioner of Iyengar yoga, with its emphasis on the use of walls, ropes and other props, it might feel as though you can’t just do your yoga outdoors.

Not true!

I love to practice with the wind on my face, the sound of birdsong in the background and the view of the clouds scudding across the sky. 

When at home and the sun is shining, I like to practice yoga outdoors

HEALTH IN NATURE

Yoga helps me to feel connected to Mother Earth and it feels completely natural to do the yoga asanas in the open air

In these strange times, not everyone can lay a mat out on a balcony or a terrace. 

But if you can, here are my recommendations: 

  •  Use a mat.  If you can get hold of one, put a mat down.  And take your socks off.  The feeling of gripping can help enormously with the earthed aspect of the pose, helping you to feel grounded and stable.  It is from a stable base that the steadiness in the pose is born. 
We’re lucky enough to have a terrace and we eat outdoors when we can
  • Use ground which is level and firm.  Practising on the grass sounds nice, but the bumpiness can make alignment and balance more challenging.  Needless to say, this can be a practice in itself!  Life is not uniform and even.  But if you’re working on alignment and correcting your own imbalances, levelness is key. 
  • Avoid direct sunlight.  In India of course, the light is usually really strong and there are very good reasons not to be in full sunlight, one of them being the risk of dehydration.  The traditional advice is to avoid the sunlight.  In the West too being in the sunshine can lead to dizziness and light-headedness.  Having light in our eyes causes our attention to wander outwards.  Whereas in asanas we aim for an internal awareness.
I grow flowers and veggies in our back garden, like these tulips which have just come up
  • Be warm enough.  If you are practising yoga in a cooler climate, it is beneficial to feel warm while in the more intense poses.  It helps with loosening the muscles.  But when we enter the restful forward bends and supported poses, the body starts to cool down.  You might want to put on another layer at this stage.  Doing asanas while the body is too cool can lead to muscle strain. 
  • Choose poses which are simple and don’t require yoga props or support.  Don’t be ambitious.  Decide on your sequence before you start or ask a teacher’s help if in doubt.  Standing poses are an excellent place to begin.  You might want to do the active part of your practice outside and move indoors for the more restful asanas. (For more about Iyengar Yoga, check here)
Going on a yoga holiday can give you ample chance to practice yoga outdoors
  • Lighten up.  Let things be a little more fluid than usual.  Don’t be hard on yourself.  You may want to use the breath more.  Allow the body to feel its own natural way in the poses and try not to be too rigid in your instructions to yourself. 
  • Meditate.  If you have a sitting practice, you can observe the breath as it enters and leaves the body, with a light awareness on the sounds around you.  Birdsong, wind effects and voices can be a beautiful way to notice the passing of all phenomena.  Just a note of warning though:  If you can hear the content of a conversation or a song, words can be distracting and take us off on a story, making it harder to stay in the present moment. 
  • Join a friend.  Yoga is often practised as a communal activity and many of us are missing the energy of being together in a class in these unusual times.  But you can make a date with a friend online and practice yoga together virtually.  You might inspire each other with new ideas, new postures and new ways of working
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 92844619_932152367243820_8146345804118884352_n-1024x768.jpg

With the weather warming up throughout the northern hemisphere, now is the perfect time to experiment with your outdoor practice.  And if you don’t have an outdoor space, throw the windows open wide and breathe in the fresh air.  

If you want to find out more about practising at home, subscribe to join our yoga community

Stay safe, stay well and enjoy!

Yoga poses and props: What equipment do you need for practising at home?

Furniture Yoga: Using props in Iyengar yoga poses

Teaching setu bandha sarvangasana with a brick

I want to talk about equipment in Iyengar yoga poses.  You may know that in Iyengar yoga, we tend to use yoga props in classes quite a bit. 

But what about if you’re practising at home?  What if you don’t have all this specialised stuff?  And what if you can’t get hold of it? 

Never fear.  I’m here to tell you about the alternatives. 

First, a bit of background. 

Iyengar yoga poses and props

If you go to a yoga class in pretty much any Iyengar studio in the world, you will be struck by one thing. 

You will notice that the place is very well stocked with a wide array of blocks, bricks, belts, bolsters and blankets.  There may be ropes hanging from the walls. 

The point of all this equipment is not to make the practice more complicated.  In fact, the props help simplify yoga poses for students at all level of ability. 

Many of you know Iyengar yoga as a rigorous practice which emphasises precision of action. 

Some people worry that they are not ‘flexible’ enough.  They may avoid coming to a class, fearing that they will be shown up for their lack of mobility. 

And yet, Iyengar yoga is a boon for those suffering from the pain which comes from injury and other chronic conditions. 

The emphasis on structural alignment gives relief.  The use of the props in yoga poses helps correct postural imbalances. It also helps regulate many other functions of the body in the process. 

For students who find it difficult to get into the more complex yoga poses due to a lack of flexibility, the answer is props

Even the most advanced Iyengar students use props at pretty much every practice session. 

Poppy enjoys the softness of the yoga blankets, set out for my Zoom class

For more about Iyengar yoga, check the UK’s professional body IYUK

BKS Iyengar

The use of props, now ubiquitous throughout the world, was devised by the Indian master, BKS Iyengar , acclaimed author of the bestselling  Light on Yoga

In his youth, BKS Iyengar was a sickly child.  He suffered from tuberculosis, typhoid and complications caused by malaria. 

He overcame his physical challenges through determined and continuous hard work (‘tapas’) in yoga poses.   The experience gave him compassion for his fellow human beings.  And a deep understanding of our frailties.    

The props were born

Iyengar realised that most people needed to train their bodies gradually.  He started out by experimenting on his own body in the yoga poses, using furniture and household items he had ready to hand at home.

Then he brought objects into his home from outside, such as bricks and blocks of wood.

Finally, BKS Iyengar began having friends make the equipment just as he liked it.

Props for health

Iyengar found that using these items allowed him and his students to be in yoga poses safely – and to hold the key aspects of those poses for a longer period of time.

Rather than jumping straight to an advanced pose, in Iyengar Yoga the body can accustom itself to new positions gradually and progressively.

Some people refer to BKS Iyengar’s groundbreaking yoga-with-props style as ‘furniture yoga’.

Today, the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, India, is a wonderful cornucopia of hand-made props built for all body types and every conceivable pose. 

I was there in November and witnessed first-hand, in medical classes, how even those with severe disabilities were able to stay in yoga poses which helped open joints and realign imbalances gently. All without risk of further injury.

Many are those who have passed through the doors of this centre ready to give up on an active life – and come out the other side transformed.

Invariably, they are deeply grateful to the man Iyengar yoga teachers call Guruji

I observed Guruji on several occasions practising inverted yoga poses and back arches in the large octagonal studio in Pune. He would hold them for long periods of time.  And he was supported by lots of props. This was when he was in his 80’s and 90’s. 

I myself suffer from scoliosis which I have had since birth.  I am convinced that I would live in perpetual pain were it not for Iyengar’s ingenious techniques. 

Yoga equipment at home

So, with such carefully designed equipment used in classes, how can we practice yoga poses at home if we don’t already own these props? 

Well, there are alternatives.  So, where you use a brick or a pile of foam blocks in a studio, you might find yourself a stack of hard-backed books such as thick cookery books at home.

Where you would use a yoga strap, a dressing gown cord or a long thin scarf would work. 

And where you would use a bolster or a blanket, a pile of beach towels or a cushion might do. 

If you do want to buy your own equipment, I highly recommend Yogamatters for all your needs. 

Adho mukha svanasana can be done with a chair, for those with painful wrists or shoulders

Online classes

I will be teaching most of my online sessions as much as possible without equipment. At least to begin with.

But I might start a gentle class by asking you to have handy a chair, which you would put against the wall for support.

Or I might suggest doing a pose with the back to the wall. 

From there, we’ll build up.  You’ll soon get the hang of it. 

You might even find you can manage more yoga poses than you’ve done before.

In the end, practising yoga at home can be fun and really creative! 

Have a look at a snippet of one of my live classes to see how they work.

Don’t worry. I’ll talk you through all of this when you join me on the Zoom.

And you might want to warn your housemates that there’ll be one fewer chairs for them to use that day! 

I’m looking forward to our session together. 

Warm wishes, Tor.

PS. If you want to order up equipment, I would suggest: a mat, 5 foam blocks, 2 bricks, a yoga belt and maybe a yoga blanket.