[Sweet encounters. Part two]
First time I ever thought of getting into yoga was back in 2015, when I went through a series of medical investigations that made me further explore the human brain and the mind’s adaptive power. I didn’t start practicing yoga right then, though. I think it took me a little over a year to actually give it a try. I just woke up one morning, started Yoga with Adriene on Youtube and then it started.
As I kept waking up every morning at 7 a.m. and showing up on my mat, I started appreciating more and more this practice, understanding it beyond just the physical. I felt curious about other people’s experience with it and it made me aware of one important thing – yoga was helping people become kinder, more conscious about the world, about their communities, about themselves.
This is why, when I met yoga teacher Anna at Akasha Retreat, I wanted to know more about her own experience with yoga, especially because her classes were very different than what I experienced before. They were more meditative, philosophical in so many ways, like they were reciting poems about the human nature and the world.
Thus, my interview with her, that we started sharing a little while back, had to, obviously, cover the subject of yoga, meditation and how we can incorporate a philosophy of a more sustainable and responsible living in our own lives and communities.
On yoga & meditation
Anna, you speak so beautifully in your classes about the mind-body-spirit connection, that it makes people seek a higher purpose in their practice. Why do you think that’s important, especially in practicing yoga?
I think the connection between all three is super important for me personally, but I would say the mind-body connection is more tangible or digestible to most people as there is scientific research behind how the mind and body affect one another, and increasingly more so when it comes to the mind and gut connection.
There’s a great documentary called “The mind-body connection”, that uses case studies to show how a positive mindset, a sense of community and simple movements, such as yoga, can actually cure supposedly terminal illnesses more so than conventional medication can.
“It feels like coming home to yourself.”
Throwing the spirit into the mix makes people a bit more skeptical, and the word “spirit” means different things to different people. For some it may be related to the idea of a soul, but for me spirit means a deeper level of consciousness, pure awareness. A level of waking whereby you feel at ease and less disturbed by your mind’s negative thought patterns. Where you can breathe into the moment and experience joy and contentment.
I guess it’s a form of Mindfulness – you’re aware that your negative thoughts are there, but you give them space to breathe and choose not to judge, freeing yourself from a downward spiral and maintaining your base level of well being. It’s something you can tap into by familiarising yourself with both mind and body, it feels like coming home to yourself.
“All the answers are already within!”
I use yoga and meditation – the mind-body connection – as a way of reaching this state that you call the spirit-connection. Others may find the concept easier to digest by thinking of the ABC Model introduced by Albert Ellis in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy); he basically says that our emotions or reactions to scenarios (C) aren’t necessarily determined by a situation or life events (A), but by the way we cognitively process them with our belief systems (B).
So, actually taking time to look at your thought patterns and how you interpret situations can help you uproot negative reactions. Meditation and yoga gives me the head space to do this in a more fluid and aware way, and reach a deeper level than just looking at it logically – you use your inner wisdom and intuition more. All the answers are already within!
In your opinion, how can people become more aware of their strengths and their inner magic?
I would say just by believing in themselves and having the courage to try something new once in a while. There’s this concept “Tapas” in yogic philosophy, which simply means going outside of your comfort zone. Have the audacity to challenge yourself, because challenge is where the magic of transformation and growth takes place. Spending time with kids can be very empowering and inspiring, as they don’t think twice and hurl themselves into situations. We can learn a lot from the purity and simplicity of childhood.
“Have the audacity to challenge yourself, because challenge is where the magic of transformation and growth takes place.”
Going into some philosophical concepts now. What would you associate the “yin” and the “yang” with in your life?
I would say the “yang” part of my life was rather prevalent as I was growing up. I grew up in the English countryside and was always running around, building dens and being generally very active. As the youngest of four kids in a busy household, I found it hard to fit a word in edgeways, so I would always talk quickly, reflecting the fast-paced yang-like elements in my life. That said, as a young girl, my mum said I would happily skip along on my own, singing to myself and seeming very content to be quiet and in my own little world, reflecting my “yin” tendencies.
Since yoga has become a way of life, I have found a way to balance my more energetic extroverted personality traits (yang), with the more introverted and calmer part of me (yin). Developing a daily meditation practice has really helped me to find this balance. It’s super fun being energetic and hyperactive and laughing lots, but I also see so much value in taking time for myself, checking in with my emotions and how I want my life to develop. It’s not always a perfect balance, but when I achieve that level, it can be super empowering and comforting.
You often invoked ideas from the Buddhist philosophy in our talks and group debates. What drew you to it and what surprised you most about discovering it?
It kind of just happened, to be honest. I’ve always been intrigued by why we are all here, what’s our purpose. Even though I’ve always been a positive person, I went to India wanting to learn more about how to maintain happiness and meaning in life.
A few friends mentioned Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamshala and it felt right to go, so I booked onto a 10 day silent introduction to Buddhism course and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t say I’m a Buddhist per se, but I massively connect with the teachings. They give me hope on the world and are essentially a self help guide.
What I like about Buddhism is that you can delve as deeply as you want to into the teachings, it’s open to other points of view and actively encourage you to challenge the Dharma (teachings), rather than blindly believing what you’re told. I think that makes it different to any other faith I’ve experienced, it’s like making your own pizza and choosing your own toppings. The foundation, the pizza base, is always the same, but you can choose what flavours complement each other, depending on your own individual taste.
Buddhist Philosophy, Yogic Philosophy, Christianity and many other religions are essentially sharing the same basic insights and wisdoms. The Noble eightfold path in Buddhism is very similar to the 10 commandments in Christianity and the 8 limbs of yoga. I essentially believe in acceptance, love and Harmony, as I’m sure many people do; Buddhism is just my way of exploring how to cultivate more of those feelings into everyday life.
How can meditation improve one’s spirit?
Meditation, for me, initially, was just to calm the mind and find a sense of grounding. But, since doing my Buddhist Meditation Course and another Mindfulness Course, I have realised how meditation can be used to shape how you feel in everyday life, not just change how you feel when sitting on the meditation cushion.
Using single pointed concentration, or Shamatha, I allow my attention to rest solely with the breath. If thoughts arise, I don’t resist. I accept them and then let them dissolve into my breath, finding my focus again. This actually creates neurological patterns in the brain, so in everyday life, when I get distracted by doubts, worries or simply planning the future, I can use the breath consciously to stop myself indulging in those negative habits that distract me from the present. It’s great for focusing on a particular task or improving well being.
As Anna talks us through her own beliefs about yoga & meditation, I’m sure there are people out there who are trying to be as acceptant as possible to this practice, but find it hard to squeeze it into their busy lives, forever invoking the apparent “grudge” Father Time seems to have on them. However, it’s important to just … start. Give it 2 minutes a day. See how it feels. When you feel that anger or sorrow or self-pity knocking on your mind’s door, breathe it in and then patiently and consciously breathe it out.
These bits of teachings that Anna speaks about can be your gateway to a more conscious living, where you find your thought-line and make realtime improvements. Embrace whatever faith you believe in, with all your heart and with all your mind, and let it become your own individual language of love, acceptance, harmony and compassion, where you and the rest of the world find a common bridge to meet on.
On world and sustainability
The world, as it is right now, needs our best selves to come to surface. And for that to happen, it is imperative that we stop our imaginary timer, we stop our ungrounded urge to do things on a fast pace and just become aware of our thoughts and most importantly, our actions. Not only do our actions affect our spirits, but they trigger different effects in the world around us.
Our choices not only define ourselves, but they will most definitely define our living spectrum. In this line of thought, I asked Anna a few questions about her vision on the world and how we can live a more sustainable life.
What do you think we need more and less of in this time and space?
More love, less greed. Love starts with self love … so accepting yourself as you are so you can share your love fully with others.
Less greed in terms of selfishness, putting your happiness over others. Of course you need to help yourself before you help others, but it’s also important to cultivate your own happiness with the aim of helping others join you in being happy and fulfilled too. That’s the meaning of a Bodhisattva in Buddhism.
Boundaries. Where do you think they’re necessary and where they should be erased from?
I think healthy boundaries are important. There’s the idea of Brahmacharya in Yogic philosophy, which means moderation of desires. This could be related to food, TV, alcohol, materialism, sex…it’s basically about not overindulging in external things, that being short-term happiness. If you seek refuge in external things, you’ll be distracted from the eternal source of long-lasting happiness within.
How can we become more sustainable and conscious about the world and the environment – both on a spiritual and a practical level?
I think by moderating desires. The idea of sustainable development was introduced in 1987 in the Brundtland Report: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. By moderating desires we can stay conscious of how we act, what we do and how much we are consuming, so future generations can continue to flourish. In the process, it will also create a more aware, cohesive and giving society and improve well being, which is related to the social pillar of sustainability.
7 bits of joy from Anna
Finally, I thought of asking Anna to phrase 7 things / mantras / bits of good thoughts that she would like to offer to the world
And here they are:
- Take time to write self affirmations
- Take time to write down what you are grateful for
- Treat others how you wish to be treated
- Don’t push yourself or your body too hard tune into the Taoist idea of wu-wei meaning maintaining healthy boundaries and allowing time for rest
- Don’t judge others
- Take 3 minutes a day to focus on your breath
- Try yoga at least once
…One final question, Anna. What do you know for sure?
I know that there are so many religions, faiths, and beliefs in the world but at the root of them all is love. We all deep down have a sense of humanity and care for one another. Some are further along their journey of self acceptance so are more comfortable at expressing their love and light in the world, but ultimately we are all on the same journey towards our true selves.. uninterruptible, everlasting joy, Ananda!
In this world full of uncertainties and constant change, love will always be there. It might be a just a hope of mine, but that is, indeed, what we have for sure.
So my dear friend who reads this, I really hope you find yourself on your journey as full of love as you can possibly imagine. Find that higher love deep inside your heart. Give it the shapes and textures that your mind considers fit for you. But welcome it and celebrate it.
Things might not always feel fair to you, people might sometimes seem so full of crap it makes you throw a bowl of spaghetti bolognese in their faces, but there’s no quitting of love. Not in this life. Either you find your peace and strength in yoga practice or in boxing (or in both, like I do), or you explore your own ways, please do that.
Be grateful, be patience, be kindness, but most of all, be love.