Where do you look for inspiration in your yoga practice? Or in fact in life?
I’m not the first to be dismayed by the many images across social media of people doing challenging and complex yoga postures, with their beautiful bodies usually in some fantastic location.
However, social media, if you’re discerning, can give you access to thought provoking, inspirational and downright amazing people who aren’t afraid to share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of us. Almost as if we’re chatting with them over a cuppa!
So I’m sharing my Top Three Take-My-Breath-Away Facebook Posts from this year. Each of them has stayed with me and continue to inspire me each and every day and I hope they do the same for you…
1) People like you and me
If we choose to really see the people around us instead of judging ourselves against them or allowing ourselves to feel lacking because we don’t have what they have, we don’t have to look far to find inspiration.
I met Samantha a few days after arriving in Mysore to practice with Sharath at KPJAYI in 2011. She’s a fabulous, ballsy New Yorker with the dirtiest laugh ever (some of you might remember her – she’s the one who introduced me to James Boag)! She generously took me under her wing, showing me around and helping me find my way. I can honestly say my three and a half months there wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same without her…
Earlier this year Samantha and her husband were travelling around Scotland and Samantha was involved in a terrible accident which resulted in the amputation of the lower part of her leg. Simply awful.
Now I have no doubt that the last few months have been unimaginably difficult and painful. However, Samantha has chosen to show up with courage – sometimes with tears and sometimes with smiles – but always with a strength and a vulnerability that’s truly ball-breakingly inspiring.
I could have chosen so many of her own FB posts to show you what I mean, but the one that for me flew straight to the heart of yoga was this post by Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbour where Samantha gave her first public talk since all of her surgery this past weekend (see the original FB post here). The emphasis is mine – that’s the line that took my breath away with its simplicity!
Today Samantha Lucas visited the shala for led class, and gave her first public talk since undergoing major surgery this summer. Samantha left a strong positive impression on all of us, sharing her discipline and devotion, as well as the message that practice gives her mental and emotional strength every day she has the determination to follow through. Practice is a way of taking care of the mind and heart, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Samantha also spoke about the freedom she has found within her body by approaching her practice with curiosity and experimentation, knowing it is fully her own. She is radiant and her insight is profound. Thank you so much Samantha for the gift of your presence, your practice, your teaching, and your being. You have all our love and respect.
2) Our teachers
Of course we look to our teachers to inspire us as well as give practical help and support. And as long as we remember they’re messy human beings too and simply doing their best, just like we are, that’s ok. In fact, it’s pretty much what I’m looking for in a teacher – someone who lives smack bang in the real world and makes their yoga work that way.
An important concept in the Ashtanga tradition is a thing called Parampara. It’s described on the KPJAYI website as:
..knowledge that is passed in succession from teacher to student. It is a Sanskrit word that denotes the principle of transmitting knowledge in its most valuable form; knowledge based on direct and practical experience. It is the basis of any lineage: the teacher and student form the links in the chain of instruction that has been passed down for thousands of years. In order for yoga instruction to be effective, true and complete, it should come from within parampara.”
Because I practice a lot on my own, this idea has always worried me. Does it mean that because I don’t see a teacher daily, weekly or even monthly that I am somehow not practicing within this tradition? That my practice and my passing on of the tradition is somehow invalid because part of this concept is that knowledge can only be transferred after many years of study and practice with one teacher?
Out of the blue Peg Mulqueen of Ashtanga Dispatch posted the following words on Facebook on a day that I was feeling particularly disturbed by these thoughts. And I actually gasped out loud as I read it! If as Peg says Parampara is a sacred thread of love that’s meant to be shared, it doesn’t matter that I only see my teacher once or twice a year, or even if the thread of love is shared with me from more than one teacher. And as a teacher all I’m doing is sharing that same sacred thread of love with my students.
Here’s Peg’s FB post…
“Parampara isn’t just the handing down of a series of postures – but a sacred thread of love that’s meant to be shared.” @pegmulqueen
That’s an excerpt from my journal earlier this year. I have struggled both as a teacher and as a student to understand this relationship and what it means. Especially when I’ve seen it misused and even abused too many times – it’s almost foolish not to question its role in yoga here in the west.
And yet, when I think of those teachers who have had the greatest influence over me – it’s not the asana I remember. It’s the love they shared. The love of the practice and the unconditional love they’ve shown me.
In other words, it’s just like any other relationship we want to cultivate. Yoga is liberation. And why it’s important we not chain ourselves to some idea of hierarchy or power that can only lead to the very destruction of what we’ve come here for.
Love is the only thing that should ever thread us together. Nothing else. Least of all, postures in a series.
3) Freedom to choose
Elizabeth Gilbert has been a real favourite of mine since the days of Eat Pray Love. Her bravery, her humour and her downright human-ness (is that even a word??!) is what keeps me coming back for more.
So when she asked “Who do I want to be in this situation?” in a FB post it stopped me in my tracks. What? We get to choose who we want to be in any given situation?
I don’t mean we get to pretend to be something or someone we’re not (although sometimes faking it ’til you make it has value!). I mean we get to choose which version of our real selves we show up with when life’s chips are down. Are we despairing and defeated or do we show up and move through whatever it is with dignity and courage? Absolutely we’re acknowledging, accepting even embracing our darker feelings and emotions – they’re as much part of us as all the other stuff – but we’re just not letting them be all of who we are and how we behave.
We’ve got the freedom to hold our better qualities in our minds and in our hearts even when the going gets tough – love, peace, gratitude, giving, kindness…
Here’s a big chunk of the original FB post (again the emphasis is my take-your-breath-away lines) and I hope it gives you a leg up towards freedom and understanding too!
Around 11pm, I found myself in this state: Huddled on the couch in the fetal position, clutching a pillow, eyes wide, speechless, paralyzed with fear.
That’s never good, right?
I’ve been there before, and that is NEVER good.
At that moment, I closed my eyes and asked myself to observe what was going on my physical body — my animal body. What I felt was a sickened stomach, shaking hands, a clenched chest, shallow breathing, a wild and uncontrolled mind, and an elevated heart rate. This is exactly what happens to an animal when it is being hunted.
At that moment, I asked myself, “Is this a helpful response, Liz?”
If I believe that I am here to serve the world (and I DO believe that I am here to serve the world), then how does it help anyone if I am feeling and acting like a hunted animal? Answer: It doesn’t help. Feeling hunted and trapped doesn’t serve me, and it doesn’t serve anyone.
This is when Rayya and I made a decision to turn off every single electrical device in the house and GET REAL. We stepped away from the television, from the social media, from the phones. Because we knew that RIGHT NOW, we needed to find calm. These are the moments when it’s time to find out who you really are — and who you can really be.
We lit a candle, sat with each other in quiet prayer for a while, and then we each asked aloud the big question: “Who do I want to be in this situation?”
This is a question that we ask in our house a lot these days. This is a question Rayya has taught me over the years to always ask myself, when shit goes down, or when the world goes crazy, or when the panic starts to rise: “Who do I want to be in this situation?”
This is the question that Rayya and I asked of ourselves six months ago, when the doctors found signs of tumors on Rayya’s pancreas and liver, and it didn’t look good. I remember the day she went in for her CT scan, to confirm just how bad the situation really was. We woke up that day in a panic. We were both experiencing the standard human response to scary situations. We were undone. We both felt like: “We are terrified and anxious, and we will be terrified and anxious until we find out the results of this CT scan. We will not be at peace until we know what’s going on. And if the results are horrible, we will totally fall apart.”
But then we stopped, checked ourselves, and we asked, “REALLY?”
Was that true? Was it true that we could not be at peace RIGHT NOW — even if we didn’t know the outcome, or even if the outcome promised to be horrible?
So we got really quiet that day, and we each asked: “Who do I want to be in this situation?”
The answers came, same as ever:
Once we answered that question, we found our peace. Because THAT PART was up to us — who we would decide to be, regardless the outcome. And once we found our center again, we were able to walk into that hospital with relaxed breathing, clear eyes, steady hands, and resolute hearts. We were able to find peace BEFORE we even knew the results. And a few days later, the results came: CANCER. Not just any cancer, but terminal cancer! But by that time, we were were at peace. We were ready, because we knew who we were. And once again, facing this difficult situation, the only question on the table became, “Who do I want to be in this situation?”
That is the only question that EVER really matters.
I insist that we can learn — with practice — how to choose our emotional state in all situations. This has to be true. If this isn’t true, then we are TRULY AND THOROUGHLY FUCKED — because our state of being is literally the only thing in this world that we can control.
This is not denial. This is not complacency. This not me cheerfully saying, “Oh well! I’m sure everything will be fine!” Sometimes things are not fine. Sometimes the diagnosis is terminal cancer. Sometimes the dark forces win. Sometimes the outcome is dreadful.
But all our practices in peace and grace and equanimity and courage are for TIMES LIKE THESE — for times when you do not get the outcome that you want. This is when it matters. When the shit goes down, and the shit goes wrong, and when the shit gets real — that’s when the shit gets interesting. That’s when the test comes: Who will you be now? Right now. Right this moment. Because that’s the only part that is up to you.
The irony of posting the posture-pic above doesn’t escape me! However, I chose to post it anyway because it’s REAL – it’s not posed or filtered, we’re properly in the middle of our practice!
We’re practicing with the beautiful Ashtanga teacher Petri Raisanen who is sharing the sacred thread of his love with us. And I am honoured to be practicing with the two strong, beautiful souls of Rose Ann and Susan who are friends, teachers and students and who continue to inspire me every single day.
PS If you’ve found this post of interest please share as other people you know may find it interesting too…