In creating space, I wrote about what happens to me during yoga and meditation and how I have learnt that on the yoga mat when I am struggling, I can stop, breathe, and create space to reflect on what to do next, which can actually change what happens next.
Taking it off the mat and into the world
This is starting to happen in real life too. I have learnt that when I am having a conversation with someone either in real time or online, I can do exactly what I do on my yoga mat. If someone says something to me which presses my buttons, or something which is the complete opposite of what I believe, I can breath and give myself a space to reflect on why I am so upset, and then I can be more objective and respond better. I know that nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is about them and not me, they haven’t said it to purposefully upset me, and vice versa, when I respond with anger/fear/hurt and a desire to upset someone it’s about me not them, so there is no need for me to get my yoga pants in a twist in that precise moment.
My repetitive thoughts
I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong, I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space.
It is the same in my meditation practice too. I don’t ever manage to clear my mind, but what I can do is recognise my thoughts as they arrive when I am sitting still. I have a lot of repetitive thoughts on a loop which cause me pain and when I am supposed to be quiet and observe them, they are so strong that I follow those thoughts straight into my mind, out of the quiet space. I hear the old negative self-talk, the he-shouldn’t-have-done-that-to-me series, and all the others which have crossed my mind so often and are so familiar I am off before I have had time to catch myself, and I can spend a couple of minutes in the same-old-same-old before I come back to meditating. Thankfully now back in my daily life, sometimes I start thinking something which isn’t good for me from that list of familiar thoughts, and I think: Ah ok, I don’t have to think that thought right now, I am doing ok without it. There is a space within in which I am kind to myself and in which I feel free.
Tolerating bad behaviour
Then, there are the patterns. Often, I will tolerate behaviour which bothers me, because instead of just saying: Can you not do that? I don’t like it. I second guess myself and hear all the voices from childhood telling me to stop making a fuss. But the truth is, if someone is doing something that I don’t like, I can ask clearly, it isn’t making a fuss. It is about feeling comfortable with how people behave towards you. If it bothers me then it is important.
So, just last week, I asked someone to stop touching me. This is someone who greets me everyday by kissing me, hugging me, and touching my hair, which in the given specific circumstance, I find over familiar and uncomfortable. I had until the moment I spoke, hoped the person would have noticed that I flinch every time. Did I ask well? Not necessarily, but it was a first step. Did it go down well? No, the person was offended, and immediately walked away, and hasn’t really spoken since, but then that is their right. However, I got what I wanted, someone stopped invading my boundaries and manhandling me. I also stretched myself further and did something I have never done before. Normally, I apologise for saying what I really think or for asking someone to do the right thing in order for me to feel comfortable. This time I took a deep breath and didn’t apologise for wanting what makes me feel comfortable. So, I sat with the discomfort that I spoke honestly and that this person might not speak to me again.
But then, I did the other thing I do when I feel uncomfortable, I had to seek validation for my behaviour. I told someone else what happened, but picked a person who said: You shouldn’t have done that. Now! I knew that person would respond like that and I wouldn’t feel better. So why did I do it? Why? Because, I still don’t listen to myself. Or perhaps I listen to myself – well my thoughts/my ego – too much, and know exactly what to do to back them up.
All the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves.
Spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant says that all the relationships and interactions in our lives reflect us, and how we feel about ourselves. I definitely believe that. I am proof of that. I went out and asked the exact person who would reflect what I was thinking: I shouldn’t have done that. Even though in that deepest part of me, that most pure, innocent part of my heart, which I access in those moments of space I create, I know if something bothers me, I am allowed to say: Enough, please treat me better. Regardless of what the other person thinks, if it bothers me, and if they care about me like they say they do, then they won’t do it.
However, this is a recurring pattern, as Iyanla says, and it will play out again and again with the same story but different scenarios, different actors. I will have the chance to learn this lesson again. What I can do is adopt Byron Katie’s approach in the work and say: I look forward to it happening again, so that I can look at it as an opportunity to create that lovely space in which to question it, free myself and feel better, so that I can learn a new pattern of less compromise, less mental chatter, less external validation. I can hardly wait.
To me, up until that moment, that phrase has meant that I stretch up and literally create space between each of the vertebrae in my spine before bending forward. When I do this I can see my body change shape in front of the mirror.
Today though, on rounding forward, my sweat was stinging my eyes, my throat was choked so I couldn’t breathe and my tummy was sucked right in – again to create space – so when I arrived at the halfway point just before she said: Create space, I began to panic as I have scar tissue left over from surgery which sometimes hurts and leads to the thought: I can’t bear it.
Giving up the struggle
However, I didn’t want the panic today, I wanted a different option, and not that woe is me thought which sometimes comes up either. So, not really knowing what to do for the best, or how to create any more space, I stopped. I didn’t roll back up or press on. I stayed where I was, halfway to the full expression, and all the way to full panic, and then I took a couple of deep breaths in and out (always through the nose in Bikram) until something magical happened.
I was completely present in that moment with an ease and joy that I can only describe as life affirming, which enabled me to continue into the final expression with grace.
Everything shifted and released. In that moment I created space instead of panic and I let go of the sweat, the stinging, the precious scar tissue, the choked throat, and the need to get into the final expression of the pose. I was completely present in that moment with an ease and joy that I can only describe as life affirming, which enabled me to continue into the final expression with grace. I wanted to laugh out loud!
A new but not new discovery
This felt brand new, because in that moment, which up until then was just like all the other times in that pose and panic, I chose a different option – I overcame my embodiment – and it was brand new. However, the fact that I can create space is not a new discovery or at least, theoretically, it shouldn’t be as I have been meditating twice daily since 1st April, after attending a two day course with the amazing davidji.
Or perhaps, it is the other way round, because I practice connecting to my breath twice a day, it is easier for me now to take a moment to breathe even when I am distressed and about to do something which I have done many times before which didn’t end well.
Meditation is not supposed to be blissful or peaceful, it is boring and painful and we do it so that when we open our eyes we are less demanding of the world.
At this point, I wanted to quote Einstein’s: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result here, but apparently he didn’t say it.
However, I managed as davidji says: To create a pattern interrupt into [my] default mechanism (or response) which led to new possibilities, and this is all thanks to meditation, of which davidji says: Meditation is not supposed to be blissful or peaceful, it is boring and painful and we do it so that when we open our eyes we are less demanding of the world.
The best version of me
That is what happened to me during Dandayamana Bibhaktapada Janushirasana, I became less demanding that the moment should be anything than what it was, or that my body, or the way I felt, should be anything than what they were.
It felt like freedom because now I know that potentially, in any difficult moment, I can create space for myself, and a space for me to consider how best to respond and become the best version of me.
I might not always be able to do that because I am not the Dalai Lama, and I have big buttons that people manage, inadvertently I’m sure, to press on a daily basis. But, just the thought of me being able to create a little more space in my life where I feel ease and joy as I do difficult things with a grace which makes me laugh out loud, is so empowering, it makes me feel like all things are possible, I could be the next Dalai Lama. Watch this space! Or better still, meditate, and create your own.
Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door. If I stay here……the plot can’t move forward, the story ends. Also if I stay here, I’m late. – Prof Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction (2006)
In life, stories are the way we communicate, so much so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to a story pattern are the most likely to be believed as truth.
In these uncertain times, thankfully we are questioning the news shown on TV and in the newspapers, because media companies have long used the old adage first uttered by Mark Twain: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
But, what is truth? Semiotics, the study of how meaning is created, is the only measure of truth human kind has been able to devise encapsulated in the question: Does it feels right? When the answer is yes, this is because the new data often fits with standard or known truths that we refer to already. It feels true, it is familiar, it adds to our understanding of meaning.
Meaning comes from contrast. The greek god Agon (agony) represents the struggle and wrestling we do in order to create meaning, from light and dark, good and bad, love and hate. We use polarity to organise our thinking.
It works the same way in fiction only in a tidier, yet larger than life, fashion. We have our goodies and baddies. We have our agony and ecstasy. And we, the readers, figure it out because we interpret the polarities and the story structure to derive meaning.
Narrative or story structure
The story of any individual in any narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator.
Normally we have a protagonist (our goodie) and an antagonist (our baddie) in polarity. As the goodie’s situation improves, the baddie’s will deteriorate. The narrator can invert this relationship and create a tragedy. When we are looking at the baddie as our main protagonist from that point of view, we are sympathetic to their plight, they become our goodie. If they do something morally questionable we go on an exploration with them. Often this a cathartic one. Their story helps us negotiate our own conflicts unconsciously or otherwise. Some of our most sympathetic characters are baddies, like Macbeth, nothing he does is admirable, yet we are there feeling for him until the end.
Sometimes the main protagonist gets improved by something coming in from outside the narrative. If this is near the end of a story then we can feel unsatisfied, because it does not feel true, like the Greek deux ex machina (literally machine of the gods), the equivalent of then we all went home for tea. This rarely happens in life so it doesn’t feel true, unless it happens in comedy like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In that story though it doesn’t really matter how our ‘hero’ gets saved as we know he would be much better off anywhere else than where he is. It is ok. Comedy aside, if we don’t get to live through the full range of emotions, we don’t get closure and we feel dissatisfied with the ending.
Closure is a psychological term first suggested in Gestalt which explains how incomplete shapes are interpreted by the brain as whole. From the 1990s the term has been used with respect to relationships. So, when a relationship is over, sometimes we need closure to find an answer especially if it ended ambiguously, so we can learn from it and manage our world or people next time, or so we like to think.
This is because according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we need certainty. We need to feel certain that our physiological and safety needs are met, this in itself feels like a reward. Consequently, in a story we are rewarded by the plot unfolding in a particular way.
But, we are complicated and only want certainty up to a point. Social media shows us that the information we share most often is surprise. For more than anything once we have a low level of certainty we need to be lifted up and inspired. So, in any given story we want it to follow a specific path (certainty) but have surprise twists in the tale. This enables us to transcend ourselves.
It doesn’t matter what story is being told, it matters if it is being told in the right way. As Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: We don’t need a why, we just need a how. The medium is the message or form follows function, the actual content is to a certain extent, irrelevant, as long as it hits the main beats and has the right scenes with enough surprises in them to follow the story pattern we are expecting but with a freshness that transcends both the story pattern and our thoughts.
We have models to explain the world around us, ourselves and our behaviour. It is the same when we are being entertained. We construct the pattern and the meaning as we go along so that even if a certain narrative merely infers something off screen/scene, we still know how to automatically assimilate it into the rest of the narrative to make it into the complete story. So, when something inexplicable happens either in fiction or in real life, it leaves us baffled and without a way of incorporating it into our explanations.
Ups and downs
The general pattern of life is that we work up to something, we have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The momentum gets going, we have highs and lows – those moments of great joy and those moments when we think we can’t stand it a minute longer, in all of our activities from sex and childbirth to prolonged hospital treatment, shopping in IKEA, and even meditation. Our emotions follow this pattern too. Think of laughter, of crying, or a wave of grief. It is the same so it seems logical that our stories would follow a similar pattern.
Thriller editor Shawn Coyne in his book Story Grid refers to Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief as a useful tool to model change, as all stories are about change and says: Even those wonderful literary novels in which nothing happens… the characters’ moods and ideas are constantly changing.
Patterns and genres
Depending on our reading tastes, we know the stories, we know which pattern to follow and it doesn’t matter where it sits on the often debated scale of entertainment: genre or literary, all action or internal, we feel when something is emotionally true because it is meaningful to us.
Here are some random patterns to think about:
Hero’s quest: The hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, has trials and tribulations, allies and foes, nearly falls at the end, returns home to great reward.
Chick lit: The girl has problem in life, there is a cute guy, the problem becomes much bigger, everything looks bleak, she pulls it together as she is smart, solves her problem and gets the guy.
Thriller: Personal stakes life/ family/career are high enough to make the reader sweaty, often internationally the protagonist is chased about, has a show down with the antagonist, and wins.
Bildungsroman: A sensitive soul suffers a loss or tragedy, journeys to fill that vacuum with experiences, gains maturity gradually, struggles then accepts values of society.
Love story: Two people meet, hit it off, something gets in their way, they are separated, and get back together at the end. Or don’t (tragedy).
There are many others: rags to riches, revenge, forbidden love, unrequited love, sacrifice, rivalry, disaster, recovery from grief, transformation, and so on.
Sometimes these patterns are combined into bigger patterns and in a different world created on another planet or fantasy land, or supernatural events occur. However, even if the landscape and events seems totally alien or paranormal, the emotions and behaviour of the characters are always human, always meaningful, and can always resonate.
If they don’t, we stop reading.
Formula or familiarity
It may seem formulaic but Christopher Vogler says in his book The Writer’s Journey: Unconventional art does not intersect with commonly held patterns of experience.
Rather like design, a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wider audience who will expect to enjoy it so long as it has something fresh going on within the constraints of the formula. Vogler says that film studios use story design principles to evaluate scripts because they do so many, and the stories which capture us as an audience, capture our shared experiences:
We are all looking for ourselves in a dark wood, in the mirror of others, in the stories of life...
Which is why when we pick up a book or watch a film, we want to connect to a story which has meaning for us or at least for the characters in it, and that meaning is found in structure.
You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny. – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which he proposed in 1943 is still a popular theory today for explaining human motivation, especially in management. At a first glance, it seems quite similar to the ancient Hindu Chakra system, especially when some of Maslow’s pyramid diagrams are colour coded using the rainbow, rather like the above picture. The chakras were first proposed in the sacred Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, which were orally transmitted since, what seems like, the beginning of time, and were first written down around 1900BC.
Maslow’s theory came from studying people he described as exemplary, or inspirational – people such as Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also studied exemplary people and found that these people regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow, or in meditation terms, they lose themselves in the gap which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. The gap is the place where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility.
Connecting to Shakti
The chakras are seven energy centres which run from the base of our spines to the top of our heads in our bodies. They are gateways connecting us to the world we live in and beyond to the universal life force known as Shakti, the most magnificent expression of flow, a place of infinite possibility.
We awaken Shakti energy and activate our chakras through meditation. Indeed, the ancient texts have described masters of Shakti being able to meditate during a storm, control nature, and command supernatural powers.
If this sounds rather far fetched, research in neuroscience has shown that meditation can help rewire the neural networks in our brain which in turn reduces the amygdala or lizard brain – the prehistoric part of our brain – where we register emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety, thus the end result makes us feel more at peace and at one with ourselves and the world around us – powerful stuff. We can calm our inner storm and be still when all is not.
And even less esoterically speaking, the chakras are where our nerve endings collect and our blood vessels are concentrated, which affect our hormones, our immune functions, and our vital energy. Focusing in on the chakras and awakening Shakti through meditation can make us feel emotionally balanced or even enlightened. The word enlightenment has many meanings, but one lovely definition from the Buddhist tradition is we become enlightened by knowing ourselves.
Who am I?
When we feel more self-aware and less emotionally agitated, when we sit quietly with ourselves and breathe deeply, it is easier to answer the question: Who am I? A difficult question to answer, perhaps. But, once we tolerate, love, and have compassion for our own dear selves, it is easier to extend tolerance, love, and compassion to others.
Inversely, when we are intolerant of ourselves, we are intolerant of others. Jesus knew this when he said: Love your neighbour as yourself. You cannot love someone if you do not know how to love yourself. You cannot give someone something you do not have, whether this is food and shelter, or love and compassion.
Maslow’s pyramid echoes a similar journey. At the most basic level, our needs are physiological – we need food and shelter, for without them we cannot function and their lack makes us fearful and anxious. Maslow called all four of the bottom needs deficiency needs. Along with food and shelter, we need safety, love, recognition and esteem from others, otherwise we feel deficient, and this makes us strive to find our place in the world. It is only when we are satisfied, and feeling fulfilled can we self-actualise and share that by deed or word.
No striving only surrender
The main difference between Maslow’s theory and the Chakra system is that Maslow looks outside of us to satisfy needs, to work for our food and shelter, to work for our community and love, to strive. In contrast, the chakras encourage us to look inside to connect to Shakti or flow to meet our needs. There is no striving, only surrender.
When we are at one with all things, we respond and interact. When we are separate, we tend to react and contract. Mahatma Gandhi was aware of this when he said, Be the change you want to see in the world. You can literally change the vibration of your life and what and who goes on around you when you behave differently.
Aligning Maslow’s chakras
Maslow and the chakras contain many similarities, but we need to look inside ourselves, not outside to others to make us feel or be different:
Physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter which make humans think of little else are found in the Chakra system at the Root chakra represented as ruby red and the earth, it is our foundation, it’s mantra is I am; and the Sacral chakra which is orange and water, it is nourishment, purity, and protection, it’s mantra is I create.
Safety needs either personal or job security are found at the Solar plexus chakras represented as yellow and fire. It is our power centre where our emotional and physical fires burn bright with transformation, intention and desire, it’s mantra is I do.
Social needs such as belonging to a club or a family, to give and receive love are found in the Heart chakra which is green and air, it is innocence and pure, a connection to the infinite, the divine, it’s mantra is I love.
Esteem needs to respect ourselves and have others respect them are at the Throat chakra which is blue and space, it is connection and communication, it’s mantra is I express.
Self-actualisation needs are when humans want to do realise their potential, and feel fulfilled, this is seen in the Third eye, or Brow chakra, it is purple and light, it represents clarity and judgment, it’s mantra is I see.
Transcendance needs were added by Maslow later on, and aren’t shown in the pyramid above. However, they correspond to the Crown chakra at the top of head, otherwise known as the thousand petal lotus, it is ultraviolet or white, it is about connecting to source, to feel unity with the great consciousness, it’s mantra is I understand.
The secret of eternal youth
People who have awakened or connected to Shakti tend to be constantly evolving and expanding. They are energetic and are often described as young or youthful. It is easy to lose this expansion and delight with life, as we grow older and, I think this is why we are culturally obsessed with youth. Our young constantly evolve and expand, they are full of potential and promise, unlike the older members of our society who have had responsibility and routine creep in, making their potential and promise options seem fewer.
However, it is not too late. It is possible to reclaim that promise if we surrender to the flow, to that divine Shakti energy, and remember our desires, which we are told in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad can lead to our destiny.
You’re never too old, never too bad, never too late and never too sick to start from scratch once again. – Bikram Choudhury
Let’s dive deep and reconnect to our driving desires.
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. – Lao Tzu
When I first turned up to Bikram, I couldn’t believe that I would have to look at myself in a mirror for 90 minutes whilst I got hot, sweaty, and contorted myself into various positions.
I have always preferred my yoga super quiet with the lights down low because that is the only way I thought I would be able to concentrate on me. However, nearly a year on, from when I first committed to doing Bikram yoga, I now see that having mirrors in the yoga studio is genius.
To stand in front of a mirror and to truly accept myself exactly as I am and not cringe, not feel embarrassed and not want to change anything about my own dear self, is the first step, and could well be the only step, to inner peace.
I have a lot of grey hair which I have been covering up for years, but six months into my practice I stood on my mat one day and looked at my hair and asked myself why. Why am I pretending my hair isn’t grey? I am not 20 years old – well I had grey hair then too (but that’s another story). Why do I need to look the way I did when I was 20?
Then, a couple of months ago I swapped my t-shirt for a yoga bra which allowed me to gaze upon my midriff in an act of unbelievable not me-ness, because I have always thought of myself and my midriff as an Egyptian scribe.
In Egyptian times, only scribes could write and were well paid for their services, consequently they had prosperous rolls which would be on display in the market place as they sat doing their job. Nowadays we tend not to admire prosperous rolls so much, which is one thing, so to get them out in public and look at them without judgement, well that is another thing altogether.
It has also been a good way of seeing whether I really am following the script’s command of suck in that stomach which one teacher then followed up with basically forever, which makes me laugh even now. And, I have learnt to take that off the mat and do it wherever I go. It is a way of standing up taller and taking up the space that I am entitled to, which us women sometimes are unable to do (and is a whole blog in itself, coming soon). Of course, now that I have engaged with that part of my body, admired my prosperous roles, sucked it in (or mula bandha-ed it), my core is stronger, which makes me admire that strength and that part of my body in a way I never did before.
At certain points in class the teacher might advise me, and everyone else, to let go of the mirrors, because sometimes I need to bend right back and trust my body. Also, sometimes when I am trying to attain a position, I am striking a pose instead of feeling what is going on in my body. And, some of the 26 poses especially in the standing series are very cool and very dramatic, and getting into them and doing them well is pretty fantastic. However, it is not about the glory of the pose, as one fabulous teacher puts it, it is about the shift taking place inside and it is about going to my edge – the area just outside my comfort zone – these things are not reflected in the mirror at all, so I have to let go of the mirrors to look inside.
Sometimes, a teacher might tell us to just let go, which is all powerful, all encompassing. I might have done a great pose, or I might have not quite managed it, but either way it is over now. I have to let it go to give myself the mental space and energy to do the next thing. In the same way off the mat, I have to let go of the thing I wish I had said, or hadn’t said, or the kindness or unkindness I did or didn’t do. That moment has gone. I have to let it all go. I am in a brand new moment which is the only moment I have. I only have the now.
Only what you are not giving can be lacking in any situation – A course in miracles
One day I was doing my usual thing of what I now call mental bartering, which sounds like this: If I do this pose, then I can have a rest, and miss the next one out, and do the one after and then I will a lie down and I will look like I am trying. It was a long monologue in my mind mainly about how hot, how tired, and how I wished I was anywhere else but in the studio. Then the teacher said: Pick up your foot, which I am guessing no one did, who knows for sure, I was busy talking to myself. And then she said: Just pick it up. Don’t think about it, just pick it up, and, she made us practice picking up the foot. It was a revelation. I became free. I had not been giving my full attention to the script and that was what was missing, I was busy mentally hoarding my energy, but by giving it up – the energy, the thoughts, the bartering – and giving my all to that moment, instead of spending all my energy, the act of giving up seemed to free up infinite energy. I picked up my foot in that moment, and every moment afterwards and I was and I remain gloriously free. When I am spent and have nothing else to give, I lean in, and trust that the momentum of picking up my foot will carry me further and create anything I desire.
Taking this off the mat, in the moments when I feel afraid, when it feels, for example, like someone not giving me what I need, instead of getting angry and aggressive, I can lean in, and listen to that person, or to myself and ask: What is missing? It is not easy, and I am not always successful. However, this is what I have learnt: If I am looking to someone else for something, it is that I believe that I will feel better in the having of the something that someone has to offer. But that is just not be true. I have everything I need. I don’t need anyone else to make anything better for me. No one else is in charge of my happiness.
No one else can pick up my foot. No one else can stop the monologue in my head. No one else can listen to the script for me. It’s me who needs to give that which is missing, either to the situation, to the other person, or to myself, and then let the momentum of the giving create the very thing I desire.
To stand in someone else’s shoes you have to stand in your own shoes first – Pema Chödrön
Bikram’s mirrors are like life itself, it mirrors me. I am embodied so I see and interpret the world in terms of myself and my past experiences. I thought I needed silence and the lights down low to do yoga to concentrate on myself, because that was how I had learnt to do yoga, and where I got the best results. However, I have since learnt that there is nowhere better than when the heat is on and the lights are bright to connect with myself. To look at myself openly and honestly, with compassion and acceptance, and to take that off the mat and into my daily life, well that has been the greatest gift that practising Bikram yoga has given me, and I know, I have only scratched the surface.