That’s all folks (for now)

on the road

Many more days ahead of travel, journal writing and reading to come

Quick update for any of my students or interested folks stumbling onto my website. I have officially stopped teaching a regular class for the time being – leaving the very wonderful Yoga Fever.

It has been a really amazing experience teaching at the studio in the last year and many students I’ve seen grown and develop over those months, teaching me a huge amount about yoga along the way. So a big thank you to students and to Cath and the inspiring team that make the studio a really special place to practice and teach. I’m also thrilled that Delphi will be stepping in – she is a brilliant teacher and who has a lot to offer.

I have not given up teaching totally but over the next few months I will only be teaching occasionally whilst I complete my Masters degree and start a new Yoga training course with Mandala ashram.

If you have a few minutes to add a review of my classes onto Yoga Trail I would be grateful for any contributions to that. Otherwise see you on the mat … or perhaps practicing beside you in a class soon. You can also stay in touch and follow my thoughts on yoga (and many other things) on twitter @ktbergson

Facing change

copyright B Gilmor

As much as I profess to love new experiences and challenges, the reality is that often I am a creature of habit. We all have our set routines, and our little ways of doing things that suit us. So when change sweeps in and demands we adapt sometimes like a stubborn toddler we dig our heals in and resist. Alternatively when we accept the change sometime we can feel unrooted and unsettled by the shift.

Change can take us by surprise with a shock that is total out of our control or at other times it’s a big decision we do have the control to make, but feels equally difficult as we know it may lead us down a radically different path in our life. Often it’s a million little things that shift bit by bit each day. For me I got thinking about change as I face a relatively small change of shifting my weekly yoga class to Sundays (rather than Thursdays) and a bigger change of starting a new placement as part of my university course. Both means meeting new people, changing habits and possibly encountering some unknown challenges.

Perhaps the thing that makes change difficult is fear and the unknown. There is an interesting theory called the End of History illusion, by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert. Which essentially suggests that people find it much easier to remember the past than to imagine the future. It’s tiring to try to think through the possibilities of how a change may alter our future. So we try to avoid thinking about it, or avoid the changes altogether.

So what has all this got to do with yoga? Well in the yamas and niyamas, a kind of yoga code of conduct written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find Aparigraha (non-possesiveness or non-grasping) and Santosha (contentment and acceptance). These are interesting ideas to explore in our lives – for more information on this check out the brilliant blog by Helen at Yoga Bright and the book How Yoga Works to see the Yoga Sutras guidance put into examples in story form.

Secondly our approach to change can mirror our approach to the physical practices in yoga: we are always looking for a balance between ease and effort (sthira and sukha). We need to find the sweet spot in the middle between wilfully forcing our way through change, and being like a piece of seaweed tossed and turned at the ocean’s whim. In my practice I find that requires attention and care to constantly negotiate that fine balance. Every time we get on the mat there are changes in our bodies, in our feelings and our practice. It’s important to be aware and open to these changes rather than slip into the mantra of ‘i should … be able to touch my toes’ or ‘i could… do this pose last week’ patterns.

Finally whenever I start to notice change in my life I return to practices that emphases grounding in yoga. The simplest way to feel this is to take note of your foundations – really feel the feet in standing poses, sitting bones in poses like dandasana or even the whole body touching the ground in savasana. For me this is effective because it shifts the awareness from your individual view of a change and how it affects you, back to a connection to the ground and maybe even a bigger sense of the earth that supports us daily.

Is yoga including everyone?

Help Others

I am interested in what happens when people look at either an image or video of a yogi ‘performing’ an impressive pose (like here). Clearly we can only understand the physicality of that moment how the body contorts or holds the person strongly. Usually we can only guess at that person’s internal level of calm and how their breath flows in that moment. I don’t wish to say that the yogis in these snapshots are anything less than zen. But we can’t really perceive it. There is an interesting debate about whether these things make yoga aspirational or potentially alienate people who feel that they can never live up to such ideals. Even those of us that possibly who have been studied well the ins and outs of yoga, and understand its not all about flexibility, may end up feeling inadequate as teachers like Charity Poole and Sarah Erzin describes in their blogs .

There is no denying that the backlash against the ‘typical yoga’ image has given rise to some great projects showing and practicing yoga diversity. But they are still only the small minority. The majority of media is still a depressingly narrow view of yogis as young, lithe, highly flexible predominately white and mostly female. These characteristics are not negative in themselves but they certainly don’t fully represent me or the students in my classes very well.

Arguably it also feeds into wider debates over whether yoga and meditation is elitist in western society. For me some of the most interesting projects happening at the moment are working with much more diverse students. In prisons like Prison Phoenix Trust, with homeless people and those suffering from addictions (see this TED talk) and with those who can’t access mainstream yoga classes (see local charity Yoga Mobility and Matthew Sanford a disabled USA teacher).

So I’m really pleased to be supporting the upcoming #yogaforwallich event. Firstly this will be a great opportunity to get to practice yoga with some of the most experienced teachers in Cardiff; Tori Lang, Ray Hussian and Sharon Davies to name just a few! Then you’ll also get the opportunity to raise money through taking on the challenge of 108 sun salutations.  So not only are you likely to have a great day but you’ll also get the warm glow of helping to raise money for a brilliant charity. The event demonstrates that yogis can live their values by caring for those around them, even the hidden parts of society.

Yoga students know the huge benefits of the practice on their body, mind, and wellbeing. But it’s worth bearing in mind that some people, possibly those who could most benefit from yoga, either think it excludes them or for practical reasons are not able to access it. The two issues need different approaches to find suitable solutions.

I think all yogis have a responsibility for promoting diversity if someone says I can’t come to class because I’ll be the only man, overweight, older or less flexible person challenge them to try it. Then support them when they do attend. Attitudes are slow to change but they will shift eventually. Teachers also have a responsibility to promote diversity. Yoga teachers must also be mindful of how these poses are taught and their use of language. Teachers, students and media share responsibility for strongly advocating that yoga is truly for everybody.

The second part of providing access to those with more physical barriers may not be as easy for everyone to support. But we can encourage projects and groups that facilitate this (see links at end of the article). Everyone can also campaign for a greater number of classes and facilities that gives wider access. I’m not naive enough to suggest it’s an easy process but if western yoga wants to evolve beyond the accusation of too much individualistic, or self-serving focus then we must continually push for that equality of access and diversity which is what makes yoga truly strong and powerful.

Some of my favourite projects and organisations if you are interested in finding out more:

Yoga for Wallich – takes place 10th May in Cardiff County Hall.
Off the mat – a US project encouraging yogis to engage in activism
Prison Phoenix trust – supporting prisoner to access yoga and meditation
Yoga mobility – Cardiff charity supporting greater access to yoga
Special yoga – London based charitable business supporting children with additional needs and training teachers to help create more of these classes.

The beginners mindset

Start finish at john o groats by Ilike

image copyright of ilike Flickr

This year I was asked to teach a beginners class at Yogafever, which in just a few months in has turned out to be as much of a learning journey for me as (I hope) it has been for the students who attend classes. I started practicing yoga 12 years ago so I scarcely remember my first experiences of yoga classes. But i do remember arriving in London in my early 20s and being somewhat mystified why the yoga teacher I approached suggested I did her beginners course. In my mind I knew my dogs, from my warriors, so what business would i have in a beginners class? I was wrong and I’m glad I took her advice. The beginners course gave me time and space to really experience what yoga was about for the first time.

Perhaps one of the feelings we least like as humans is the embarrassment of having to say I don’t know or I don’t understand. But actually turning that on its head being totally open to the beginners mindset can be useful for all of us. As a teacher beginners ask me more questions and that forces me to continually question my assumptions, practice and teaching.

Yoga teachers can be guilty of speaking another language (and not just the old Sanskrit names). So when I come to teach beginners groups I have to think how do I distill the beauty and exquisite depth of yoga into something accessible, without scrimping on the best bits. Recently I was doing some training with US teacher Jason Crandell when the same question came up. If students leave the yoga room with one thing what is it? There are an infinite number of important and correct answers to that question. But for me these are themes that come up again and again:

1. Relaxation

Everyone deserve time and space for themselves to really relax. For me and pretty much everyone I see around me, carving out time for relaxation in the midst of busy lives doesn’t happen as often as it should. If you can get that sensation on the yoga mat, it’s a valuable thing.

2. Embodiment

We live in a very ‘cognitive’ or thinking world these days. That can lead us to habitually live in the mind, largely ignore the body until out of the blue an injury or ill health comes along to remind us how important it is. So it is valuable to be able to reconnect with those sensations in the body. There is an important link between body and emotions (think of the physicality of gut instinct, heartache or joy). For me being connected to this body also helps me feel more aware and connected to my emotions

3. Integration

But it’s not all about the body. In yoga we typically think of three core elements-breath, body and mind. When I attend a good yoga class I walk away at the end of it feeling whole again. I’ve integrated these pieces of me back together.

4. Acceptance

Enjoying (or somedays just accepting) where you are at today. It’s almost certainly different to yesterday or last week. And it’s different to the person next to you. So being able to drop the comparisons and see if you can play with where you’re at now is a useful experience.

For those of you new to this blog there is a longer post on intentions hereWhilst yoga is something that’s been a significant part of my life for over a decade, I do have a little bit of understanding of how daunting it is to start from scratch. I recently started dancing so became a beginner student in that. There are some interesting parallels here – embodiment, focus, relaxation. It’s not easy to step into a room full of people you don’t know and try something new as a total beginner.

Yoga is also a vast subject to study. Thousands of years of development and even now  creative new forms are constantly emerging. So even when we’ve been practicing something for a long time it’s useful to be open to new ideas. I love the days when I can recapture my beginners mindset in yoga – to go woah that’s a new pose for me and to enjoy the process of exploring it.  So whether you’ve done one class, or five hundred classes, the beginners mindset can serve you well. Just as I have learnt so much from my beginners group, so too can more experienced students use the beginners mindset as a tool to stay open to new things and get a fresh perspective on old practices.

Disconnect to connect?

copyright davitydaveAs some you know tonight i’m giving a talk at Ignite Cardiff about turning off technology. This was inspired by my three weeks of technology disconnection over Christmas and New Years which was really enjoyable.

I’m not anti technology but I am part of a growing number of people who recognises that not all my habits to do with technology are healthy. My chief complaints with technology are as follows:

  1. I don’t really feel like quality of my relationships with people is improved via Facebook, twitter, text or email. Quantity or quality is a poor trade in. I hate that moment in social situations where everyone around you is staring at a screen epitomised so well in this video.
  2. I feel like i am training myself to be easily distracted and poorer at concentrating. Every bleep or flash or light or little box telling me I have an email pulls me off the task i was doing and into a whole different tangent. Joe Kraus calls this a crisis in attention in this amazing talk.
  3. It’s not good for my physical health – TV and computers are sedentary activities. We are all pretty much curving our spine through poor position during long hours on computer or looking down to our phones as we walk along. Not to mention the impact of blue light on how tired we feel and our ability to get quality sleep
  4. I’m too reliant on it. When my battery or phone conks out (which as my friends and exs will tell you frequently does for me) I’m stuffed. I have no access to my diary on my phone, I’m used to using the map to navigate myself and i don’t remember anyones numbers to call them.

Basically I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how i use technology and how i can loosen the grip of technology over my life. So i’m more mindful of when, why and how i use it. Jeremy Shure argues the case for this as well… he describes the all common situation of starting and closing your day with technology – and his attempt to break that cycle. I am also now dabbling with a day off from technology each week and actually leaving my phone off or even better at home somedays.

My time off from technology gives me space in my life to connect in better ways with those around me, space to look up at the vista, and space to do more things that are important to me – reading those books that have been sat by my bed forever or playing guitar more. It teaches me to just be more, without need to constantly stimulate and distract myself. It also teaches others that I’m not available 24/7 a dangerous habit i picked up in my old life working in communications.

My challenge this year is a weekly digital sabbath and more mindful technology usage. Maybe for other people once a month or once in a while works better. Maybe it’s a challenge that you want to take on too – if so let me know how you get on.

Turn and face the world

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I feel incredibly lucky to have started this year on retreat in a remote and very beautiful spot in the pyrenees mountains. No phone, no internet instead confining my attention and senses largely to the area around and the people with me.

But returning to life at home felt all the more strange as I came back into the technologically connected world, and to the news of killings and violence in Paris and genocide in Baga Nigeria. Undoubtedly there were many other incidents of violence happening around the same time that didn’t even make it onto the media (and therefore my) radar.

Faced with these frightening and horrific stories, there are a number of common responses:

  1. Turn away from it and dismiss it as something unimportant / unrelated to us
  2. Do nothing but feel anxious, concerned and powerless to comprehend it
  3. Do something – whether that’s ranting about it, cartooning to show solidarity with the team from Charlie Hebdo, organising a vigil or taking action against those perceived to be the offenders (on an individual, or more often, on a group level).

But somehow these often feel inadequate. Not enough to make a difference. Not enough to protect ourselves, our friends or our families. Some commentators have even warned that mass action could backfire and have the opposite effect. Violence is not the only serious challenge humans face in the world today. These feelings can equally be applied to say the rich-poor divide and inequality or the dramatic impact of environmental change.

One Buddhist concept we looked at a lot on retreat was equanimity. Google defines this as ‘calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation’. Guhyapati, the founder of Eco Dharma describes it as “deep imperturbability, which like the depths of the ocean maintains a profound calm, even as the waves on its surface swell and crash”. Seems like a good tool to have up your sleeve but what does it mean to really embody and practice equanimity? It’s worth listening to Guhyapati’s full podcast on the subject where he describes how sometimes in attempting to move towards equanimity we instead slip into the false friend of apathy – effectively taking the first option of looking away.

So what if we did something that makes an impact, even if it doesn’t change the world dramatically, and the impact doesn’t happen instantly? I found Matthieu Ricard’s TED talk on altruism an inspiring place to start. He talks about how even young children can be taught to be more kind to others and less discriminating.

We can begin with ourselves, finding ways to be resourced to deal with these difficult situations – whether that’s support of the community around you, dedicating that time to yoga or meditation, or looking after yourself (e.g. getting more sleep). From there it appears that there is a dynamic two way relationship when we become more altruistic there is a positive impact on both the receiver of that act and ourselves, as the giver (check out this NYT piece on it).

I’m not saying this approach will prevent those tough situations occurring. It won’t. But just maybe, inch by inch, we can use it as a starting point to make a difference in an authentic and sustained manner. In our fast paced world sometimes we neglect to notice how even the smallest action can create a positive ripple effect. I have really noticed how smiling at more people, whether I know them or not, seems to make the world brighter. We will never be able to fully understand what is going through the mind of those who commit atrocious acts of violence. But more people who feel like they are connected to their community, where people look out for them and give them love, can only be a good thing.

Fierce gratitude

So we’re often told to stay in the moment, and to practice mindfulness. And there is certainly a lot of virtue in doing just that. But personally i think sometimes a bit of retrospection and reflection can be good too.

As I got out my christmas cards to write to people this year it felt like there have been some huge shifts and changes around me. Friends that now have new husbands/wives, new homes, new jobs and new babies galore. As I write the cards I feel deeply grateful for these special things. There are also many people who have struggled with tough times this year. So i hope as they reflect on the year, they feel even a touch stronger and wiser for those challenges.

I recently watched David Seindl-Rast talk about some exercises in gratitude in this great TED talk. He starts by reminding the audience that we shouldn’t wait for happy things to appear to feel grateful about but rather be grateful and the happiness will follow that. One of the simplest techniques for this is writing a gratitude diary – every day before bed recording or maybe talking to your partner about what you’re grateful for. It’s a wonderfully  quick practice but that recognition of those good things somehow helps us shift out of the moany mindset and settle in a more positive place.

As many of you know I am heading off on retreat next week to Eco Dharma to practice the buddhist technique of Metta or Loving Kindness. So as i tie up loose ends before I head off, I am reflecting and working on cultivating my practice of gratitude. The last year has been a huge change for me moving to a new city (in a new country in fact), returning to studying and practicing teaching yoga in new ways, with new people.

I absolutely love the yoga scene in Cardiff and feel honoured to have taught and practiced with some wonderful people. Especially Cath and the team at Yoga Fever, Tori for the introductions and wonderful yoga meals, and Ellie La Trobe-Bateman for the brilliant Yoga Festival in the Gower. I am also incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful teaching mentor in Raquel Alves – check out her workshops and retreats if you get a chance.

No doubt next year will bring a fresh wave of new people, new challenges and new ideas. I look forward to meeting all those things on the mat in January.