One day a charismatic yogi inspires, the next he seems like someone who talks too much: don’t stop questioning

Reawakening this blog after a hibernation of almost a year, I found it interesting to observe how my thoughts had changed on a couple of posts that I had felt quite passionate about when I first wrote them. My instinct was to rip down the posts, but in the end, I decided to let them lie, as a testament to the way my thoughts have evolved and continue to do so. Changing your mind is a good thing to do, particularly as part of a never-ending process of questioning everything, especially your beliefs .

The first big one that struck me was my account of Stewart Gilchrist’s vegan workshop. Looking back at what I wrote, I smiled at how wide eyed I’d been, thoroughly in thrall to a very charismatic yoga teacher. Having done a few more of his workshops, I’m slightly less wide eyed these days. In fact, I find his shove-it-down-your-throat verbosity a little too intense for my tastes; lots of inspiring-sounding words – too many words, in fact – to accompany what is, in essence, a very macho, gymtastic approach to yoga. It’s a schtick; it sells very well; good luck to the dude. For now, however, I’ve had my share of it, preferring a quieter, more measured approach to practice.

The next one was, coincidentally, also on a vegan theme, when I looked at ahimsa, or non-harming, in the light of something I’d read in Jivamukti Yoga by David Life and Sharon Gannon. I’ve since gone way, way off these guys’ words, indeed, off the whole Jivamukti thing. It’s corporate boutique yoga of a kind that I find particularly grotesque, rich old hippies gouging you for every penny as rarefied spiritual words burble from their lips like a mantra going, “spend, spend, spend”. Again, good luck to them; lots of people buy it, whatever gets them through the dark night etc. But it’s no longer for me.

And so on and so on, I see the examples of my mind changing. No doubt, some day what I’ve just written here will seem like another me. I hope so. Got to keep questioning and changing.

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Four years sober: Alcoholics Anonymous helps but it’s not the only weapon a recovering drunk has in the armoury

Demons & angels

From a deep inner darkness I emerged to find myself lying on my back on a pavement, bewildered and lost. The street was silent, iced in deep-winter frost, the night hazed in the orange light of the early hours. I had no idea how I had ended up here, or where I was.

Staring into the black hole of my memory, I faintly recalled sitting in a pub near Victoria station slamming down umpteen pints of Guinness and large Jameson chasers. Now here I lay. I made it on to my hands and knees, blinked at the world around me, and shuddered with relief when I realised I was a mile down the road from home.

Somehow, I had managed to cross a vast swathe of London. For all I knew, I had tripped through a rift in the fabric of space and time, but it seems more likely that, guided by the mystical forces that frequently watch over drunks, I traversed a couple of lines on the Underground, missed my suburban stop and got out at the next one down the line before falling to the pavement, where I had lain for an unknown period. This is speculation, though, because those few hours of my life are a void.

Some of that mile home I crawled on my hands and knees, some I stumbled sideways, hands scrabbling at walls, lampposts and hedges for support. I may have shed a tear or two – frozen to the bone and feeling broken, I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. I was relieved enough when I finally lurched through my front door to take a large whiskey before dropping back into that deep inner darkness.

This is not the beginning of a drunkalogue. It is a tale of sobriety.

That night was just one blackout among many over 35-odd years of remorseless drinking, but it was my last; my last blackout but not my last drink, because I carried on for another month or so.

Towards the end of those final weeks, I played the cruel trick – not for the first time – of passing out so deeply one evening that my wife and son, unable to detect any obvious signs of life in me in the morning, were considering whether to dial the dreaded three digits when my eyes flickered open and I blinked back from the abyss. This was not precisely a blackout, but it felt like something worse – like a premonition, as if the Reaper had breathed dank breath on to the back of my neck.

I had been warned and I knew, with a sense of certainty I had never experienced before, that it was time either to pay attention or prepare for the end.

And so to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It felt like a desperate measure but also inevitable. I had known for many years that I had a problem, (more…)

Donald Trump? Brexit? Whatever. Try this meditation to put things into perspective

Dance of Shiva

If you’re feeling a bit freaked out by the machinations of mankind this morning – Donald Trump as US president… what?!? – treat yourself to five minutes of quiet time by yourself and try this:

Lie flat on your back on the floor, close your eyes, relax your body, take a few moments to become aware of your breath and be with its rhythm. Imagine looking down at yourself lying there, your consciousness like a camera hovering above you.

Slowly, slowly pull the camera, your consciousness, back and upwards towards the sky, still focused down on you, observing how your body gets smaller and smaller; as for your thoughts, fears, dreams, etc, they don’t even register in the lens. Keep pulling back with that camera and observe how everything in the world around you as you lie there on the floor gets smaller too, increasingly insignificant.

And just keep going, slowly pulling your consciousness up, looking down; aeroplane height, eight miles high, you, and everything else around you, are already reduced to patterns. Keep going, through the stratosphere, and soon you see that iconic image of the Earth. You and the weirdos who run the Earth? From this perspective, they don’t even exist.

Still let your consciousness retreat, and by this stage even up and down become meaningless as space engulfs all; the Earth and its inhabitants are reduced to a speck, and eventually nothing, in the vast, black, star-speckled cosmos. Hang out up here for a bit. You, and everything around you on Earth, are a part of this, but not a very significant part in the bigger picture of this beautiful universe.

Appreciate this, don’t worry about this. Bring your consciousness back to Earth when you’re ready and carry on with your day with a renewed awareness of how insignificant the contortions of the world really are.

Take care; don’t let the madness freak you out. It’s nothing.

[ Picture by Prabhu B Doss, via Flickr; used under Creative Commons licence ]

Ahimsa: looking out for number one or putting others before yourself?

Not food but a sentient being

Not food but a sentient being

I got caught up in an awkward discussion with a yoga teacher I respect very much recently regarding the principle of ahimsa. This is non-harming, one of the five yamas, or rules for ethical living, outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classical-period text considered by many to be the foundation of modern yoga.

I’ve always interpreted that, as do many traditionalists, as a clear encouragement to follow a vegan diet, but the teacher I was talking to disagreed strongly, saying she had tried vegetarianism and that it had made her ill, therefore she was breaching ahimsa by harming herself. This struck me as unarguable, so I left it at that, on the basis of each to their own.

But I am discovering it is a relatively common view among yogis who seem to believe putting number one first is the most important element of ahimsa, and that this is frequently offered as a defence for killing our fellow sentient beings to eat their flesh. It strikes me as a peculiar way of showing compassion.

I have learnt to keep my views to myself on this one, but it feels like a lonely position in the world of modern yoga. It was therefore good recently to come across some words in a book that precisely express what I feel. I shall quote from the excellent Jivamukti Yoga, by Sharon Gannon and David Life, and leave it there as a bit of food for thought:

Some contemporary yoga teachers interpret ahimsa more as an observance than as a restraint, as a directive not to harm yourself. ‘Don’t be aggressive in your asana practice, be kind to your body,’ they say, or ‘Don’t restrict your diet with extremes like vegetarianism; it might harm you.’

“Not harming yourself is an aspect of ahimsa, certainly, but it is of less importance than the directive to avoid harming others. If you limit your practice of ahimsa to being kind to yourself, you will deny yourself the ultimate benefit of yoga practice, which is everlasting happiness. Everlasting happiness is achieved by putting the welfare of others before your own.”

Consumerasana and the Om Yoga Show: developing a practice towards equanimity

lululemon

A yogi performs in the window of  a Lululemon store in London [screen grab from Who Owns Yoga?]

A few days ago I wrote an article previewing next weekend’s Om Yoga Show in London [Oct 21-23]. It was a nasty piece of work, a bile-filled rant spinning out from the programme’s promise of “over 250 exhibitors specially selected to help you live the ultimate yogic lifestyle”. I also intended to attend the show and report back on this celebration of yoga as a form of worship at the temple of Mammon.

Just as I prepared to post my preview, though, I stopped, as if choking on my own rage at the consumerisation of yoga. And in that moment, pausing for breath, I realised how utterly futile my words were, little more than self-indulgent riffs of negativity that served no purpose other than, at best, to amuse those of a cynical bent.

The fact is, ranting about this kind of stuff is simply preaching to the converted; for many yogis, events such as the Om show are wonderful gatherings, and no amount of grumpiness will change their minds. And anyway, how arrogant to shit on their party; it’s certainly not going to convince anyone of anything other than the fact that I’m a bit full of myself, speaking as if somehow, my conception of a pure, traditional form of yoga is somehow superior to what most of the modern world embraces.

What’s more, wallowing in these strong feelings is the exact opposite of the equanimity I hope to work towards through my practice. Perhaps walking away is, in itself, a kind of practice; perhaps that’s just a pompous way of saying if you haven’t got anything good to say, say nothing.

Either way, there will be no preview here – other than to offer a link to the show’s website – and I will not be attending something I already know is not for me. I hope that whoever goes has an excellent time, and that the many businesses scratching – or even gouging – a living out of yoga do well.

By coincidence, a few days after spiking my preview I stumbled across the excellent short film Who Owns Yoga? It highlights precisely the kind of issues that trouble me about the monetisation of this venerable practice, and yet somehow it finishes on an optimistic note. The Indian yogi Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev puts it well towards the end of the film when he talks about a garland, where you can add whatever flowers you like to it, but you can’t change the essential thread that keeps it all together. This is yoga.

If you have 48 minutes to spare, Who Owns Yoga? (below) is well worth the time.

Throw This Book Away: A Disposable Guide to Beginning Meditation

IncenseI wrote this guide to the basics of starting meditation a few years back; if you are experienced, it is probably not for you – it is aimed at those who are totally new to the practice or in their early days. It is designed to be short and simple, and to emphasise the point that the only way to learn how to meditate is to sit and meditate, rather than reading about it or going to expensive workshops. If you would like to download an e-reader or PDF version, you can do so via this link; otherwise, you can read the guide right here.

Beginning meditation

It is a strange contradiction. I am taking the time to write this brief guide to meditation, and you are taking the time to read it. One of the most important things I have to say, however, is that you do not need this or any other guide. With meditation, you are your own best teacher.

So what are we doing here? My aim is not so much to teach as encourage a practice I believe is a tonic that enriches the human condition, and I’m trying to produce the kind of guide I would have liked to read when I first began – short, simple and practical.

Most guides spend a bit of time around this point saying why meditation is great, but I’m not going to bother with that. The fact that you are reading this suggests that if you are not already sold on the idea of meditating, and know something about the benefits claimed for it, then you are at least keen to investigate for yourself. That is, in fact, the best approach. Don’t believe the hype, of which there is plenty. Try meditating and see if there is anything in it.

Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake I spent 15 years making: endlessly researching meditation instead of meditating. I would read a book, or attend a workshop, try meditating a bit, give up; read another book, attend another workshop, try again, give up again, etc.

What I kept discovering – but couldn’t bear facing up to – was the fact that, while the basic practice is as easy as breathing, meditation is a surprisingly challenging discipline. It was far easier to keep searching for a golden formula than to accept that I already had it – as do we all – but that applying it would require dedicated effort.

It was only when I finally accepted this and committed myself to sitting down and meditating every day that I truly started learning how to do it. Thus, my belief that with this practice – as with many – we are our own best teachers.

A quick word about using this guide. I will start with a short list of points describing how to meditate, which should be more than enough to get you going. You could happily stop reading there and just meditate. Provided you practise hard, you will soon get the hang of it.

However, the bulk of what I have to say comes after the initial list of instructions. In essence, it’s a brief distillation of my experience in which I look at each element of meditating, and offer a few practical thoughts on overcoming some of the challenges you might face.

I suggest that you read the whole thing in one or two sittings, let the dust settle a bit, then start meditating forthwith.
(more…)

Stewart Gilchrist: why yogis should be vegans (and why true yoga has got very little to do with Lululemon pants, etc)

Badass yogi: Stewart Gilchrist [photo via Indaba yoga studio]

Badass yogi: Stewart Gilchrist [photo via Indaba yoga studio]

“Yogis are vegans too!” Indeed no, not the most inviting title for a workshop – bit smug, bit stating the obvious – and I speak both as a yogi and a vegan. However, when I saw the teacher for this one was Stewart Gilchrist, I had to go; the guy’s a yoga badass, and whatever happened on that workshop, in his hands, it would be good, something more than merely a case of the faintly upmarket London studio Indaba cashing in on a current dietary/lifestyle trend.

And so it was last Saturday [Aug 27 2016]. Indeed, at one point during the three-hour session, Gilchrist even mocked “the names they give these workshops”. He wasn’t referring specifically to the one he was conducting, singling out the more typical fare – Headstand Workshop, Twists & Backbends etc – but his own was undoubtedly included by implication. The suggestion was that all this was corporate marketing bullshit, shifting units to the many modern yogis who practice it as a sport to develop hot bodies while showing off designer yoga fashion lines and unnecessarily expensive rubber mats.

Gilchrist meant business, but not that kind of business; this was more on-a-mission kind of business. He stated the essence of it unambiguously and unapologetically: if you want to follow a true yogic path you have to be a vegan. It didn’t come over preachy; it was simply a logical interpretation of the principle of ahimsa – doing no harm to any living being – suggested in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a classic text on yoga that was put together around 400CE. It certainly strikes me as logical enough.

Of course, it’s important to remember that not everyone’s into this Patanjali malarkey, and this too was something Gilchrist took note of. He mentioned that he was in an awkward position running a workshop that was essentially an unashamed call to veganism. “They”, he said, meaning the powers that be at the studio, were not happy about this particular project; couldn’t he do one on headstands, or handstands, or twists, or anything other than veganism?

But no, Gilchrist pointed out a few of the ills in the world – war, starvation, the mass slaughter of animals – and asked, in the face of all that: “Who gives a shit about headstands?”

So here this Scottish radgie was, hoping, if not to inspire, at least to encourage a bit of thought about how people enslave and use animals for their own gratification, and how a yogi might deal with this in their practice. The awkwardness, he said, the thing that made the studio uncomfortable, was the fact that “probably 95 per cent” of their customers ate and wore dead animals.

A bit full-on? Yes, for sure. But important work, I think. Clearly, as a vegan, I am already convinced, but if I hadn’t been, (more…)

Brexit is a tempting protest against the EU Illuminati… but no, I can’t stand with loons

farage

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, and his notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster – the very one that persuaded me I could not back the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union

Here, finally, we are, on the eve of the great UK referendum that decides whether we stay in the European Union or leave.

The prospect of sticking two fingers up at the ruling bankers of Brussels is very tempting indeed. I have no doubt that the Illuminati – and I use the word only half figuratively – who run the world by the power of palm greasing and shady dealing are at the heart of the European project.

Unfortunately, however, voting to give these forces a fuck-you – probably a futile gesture anyway – puts you on the side of British nationalist head cases such as Nigel Farage and his mainstream front men Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

So no thanks, not for me; after a period of prevarication, then of seriously flirting with the Brexit cause as a protest against the EU establishment, I am voting to stay in this benighted institution.

It’s corrupt, undemocratic and accumulating power at a frightening pace, and yes… the Illuminati… but this is a time to say no, do not pass, to the guys whose posters look like Nazi era propaganda and would rise on the back of a British exit.

Breath is best for a yoga soundtrack, but Yoga Audio Temple is not bad either

yatThe studio where I take yoga classes often plays music during asana flows, and, inevitably, not every playlist is precisely my cup of tea. While I love the practice and the teachers, occasionally the aural distraction adds an extra level of challenge for me; it can be an opportunity to practise Jedi mind tricks, staying with the breath and the movements while tuning out the tunes.

Perhaps as a result of this being my first formal exposure to yoga, I initially came to associate practising with having background music playing, and went with this approach at home, although with my own choices. As my home practice has developed, though, I have begun to appreciate that the sound of the breath, unaccompanied by music, is perhaps the best soundtrack for yoga, leading – for me, at any rate – to a deeper kind of focus.

I’m by no means a fundamentalist about this and still occasionally put on a bit of music when I’m in the mood. I generally favour ambient electronic sounds – Woob’s 1994 classic Woob 1194 being a favourite, for example – but I have also found that some “yoga mixes” are not as dreadful as the genre suggests they might be.

My destination of choice at the moment is the blog Yoga Audio Temple, which has recently added a seventh excellent mix clearly put together by someone with taste. Yes, the playlists have a world-music electronica vibe, but not the same kind of faux Asian elevator dross that wafts through corporate health spas, and all over YouTube. Each is an hour-and-a-half long, and perfectly paced whether you’re going fast or slow.

Insight Timer: how a good app shot itself in the foot by introducing forced registration

You like forced registration? Maybe Insight Timer is for you...

You like forced registration? Maybe Insight Timer is for you…

Insight Timer is often hailed as the best meditation app for Android phones, and until a few months ago, I counted myself among its many fans. No longer.

A simple timer with particularly pleasing bell sounds to mark the beginning and end of meditation sessions, it was an important tool in my daily practice for years. With the latest update, though, it shifted its emphasis away from the timer function to its online “meditation community”, a feature I had always turned off because I had no need for it.

Frankly, I find the idea of virtual “friends” boasting to each other about when they are meditating faintly vulgar; as for the huge number of guided meditations churned out by the community, that too is not for me. Guided meditations can be helpful when you first start practising, but once you are sitting regularly, they are so much noise for the mind.

But hey, each to their own, and the app’s developer, Insight Network Inc, has clearly decided that this community is where the money is. Fair play to it.

What is not fair, however, certainly to loyal users who paid money for the Deluxe version of the app in its original form, is to cripple it by demanding email registration to carry on using it.

While the Google Play store listing for the app continues to attract mainly positive reviews, there are quite a few negative ones expressing annoyance at the forced registration introduced with the last update. The company has been dismissive of the criticism, cut-and-pasting a reply that amounts to: “Tough luck, sucker, you’re in a minority that doesn’t count.”

That is where I parted company with the app, strangely unsettled; weird how important a few digital bells that you use every day can become to you. Fortunately, though, I have found an excellent alternative to Insight Timer, and one that I believe is far superior.

Zazen Meditation Timer does exactly what it's supposed to do

Zazen Meditation Timer does exactly what it’s supposed to do

It’s called Zazen Meditation Timer and does exactly what you want a timer to do, without herding you like a dumb beast into an online community you don’t want to join. Its bells are easily as good as Insight’s for sound quality, and while at first glance it might not be as intuitive to set up your collection of meditation presets, it’s certainly not difficult and, in fact, offers a lot more control over many details. Oh, and it’s also free. In fact, I enjoy this app so much, I almost consider Insight’s kiss-off as a blessing in disguise, forcing me, as it did, to find something better.

ZenTime

ZenTime is another good alternative to Insight Timer

Another meditation app I’ve used and believe is good is ZenTime, which comes in both paid-for Pro and free Lite versions. The latter has the core functionality of the Pro version and no adverts, so will serve most users well (as far as I could tell, the Pro version is essentially an opportunity to drop a few coins into the developer’s hat and is well worth it). ZenTime offers all the non-community features of Insight (meditation stats etc; not my thing, but important to many) through a much more elegant interface. The only reason I chose not to stick with it is the fact that the sound quality of its bells, while good, is not quite as rich Zazen Meditation Timer’s.