Blog | Yoga with Manjunaga
These are a selection of Manjunaga’s monthly reflections sent out in his newsletter.
The late comedian and writer, Victoria Wood was reportedly to have told one last joke before she died, “Life is not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597”. In these wonderful few lines she managed, through her humour to capture the bitter- sweet nature of life and illustrate a very hard truth to swallow, which is that life is not always fair. We are each born into our own individual set of circumstances which to certain degrees will have an impact on our experience of the world. In my own life, as I have got older, I have tried to allow myself to accept that the life I have experienced so far has been bitter-sweet containing many wonderful moments of love, delight and laughter but also pain, loss and unhappiness.
I remember when my partner Elaine was dying, I would anxiously spend my time trying to control the situation, with a faint hope that I could control reality if I just tried hard enough. I remember breaking down and crying one day when I really understood that I couldn’t stop her from dying. In that moment, I felt a surrendering to the situation of our life together and a letting go of what I felt our life should be. We can take initiative with our life and the events we encounter, but life is far too big and complex for it to be controlled. So what can we do in the face of difficulties when they arise?
I believe that by learning to relax into our bodies and being with our vulnerability in the world we find a creative response. This may seem counter-intuitive because when we experience difficulties, often the last thing we feel like doing is allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable. But, there is a strength that comes from abiding in the heart and in our vulnerability. It connects us more deeply to ourselves and others and brings us into a deeper relationship to the world and soul.
What to Remember When Waking
by David Whyte
In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.
What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.
To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.
You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.
Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?
Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?
On 29th May 1913, when a new ballet was first premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the avant-garde nature of the music and the new modern form of choreography caused a riot as violence broke out in the audience. The music for the ballet was composed by a young unknown composer called Igor Stravinsky, with choreography by the famous Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The ballet was called, The Rite of Spring (‘Le Sacre Du Printemps’) and had a pagan theme centring around a young maiden who sacrificed herself by dancing until she died. By the following morning, the events surrounding the ballet’s opening night would become the stuff of myth and legend. Furthermore, Stravinsky’s music for the ballet later became recognised as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.
I recently had the rare opportunity to see the visionary German choreographer Pina Bausch’s version of The Rite of Spring performed by the English National Ballet. Bausch’s version was first performed in December 1975 as part of a full evening to Stravinsky and it soon became recognised as a landmark piece of dance. Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet said, “For me, Pina’s Rite is the most successful in achieving the closest feeling to the original piece of being raw, shocking and primitive”. The dance did present an unmistakable and visceral power. I felt it had a violent, sexual and primordial beauty to it. It was also very challenging and demanding for the dancers. A dancer who rehearsed with the English National Ballet in this production explained, “If you are not exhausted by the end, you haven’t danced it properly”
When The Rite of Spring was first performed there would have been set ideas and assumptions about the forms and tradition that existed in classical ballet and music. When artists such as Stravinsky and Nijinsky broke away and explored new forms of music and dance then something new emerged and a new art form was created. This departure from the familiar concepts of what dance and music could be like may well be what the audience in Paris struggled with when they first encountered The Rite of Spring.
I’ve shared this story with you is because I think it illustrates that strongly held concepts or ideas we hold about situations can sometimes stop us from experiencing the naked, fresh awareness of the moment. So often we bring labels and concepts of what is happening to a situation rather than just being with the direct experience, as it is. In my own life I am trying to allow myself to hold onto more loosely fixed ideas I have about myself and my life, and learn to trust my direct experience more fully.
“All the stability in our life is conceptual, all the change in our life is experiential”. – James Low Buddhist teacher
There is a beautiful song called ‘October Song’ written by Robin Williamson from The Incredible String Band who were a pioneering 1960‘s psychedelic folk band. From the first time I heard the song, I loved the verse:
“I used to search for happiness, And I used to follow pleasure, But I found a door behind my mind, And that’s the greatest treasure”
Happiness is something that we might all like more of in our lives and growing up, I spent a lot of time trying to find things, people and places that would make me happy. There are many books available today proclaiming ways in which we can find lasting happiness. I would argue that some of the popular psychology ideas about happiness could be misleading or even inaccurate. They could have the reverse effect of leaving you feeling less happy because your experience of life does not seem to match the idea of happiness being sold to you. My experience of happiness so far has been a very ephemeral experience; maybe it lasts a few hours, a day or week, even a month. However, at some point it changes and another feeling emerges for example, sadness, excitement or doubt.
Over the years, as my practice of yoga and meditation deepened, I’ve noticed that by being in the world and in relation to life itself, we will hear news that touches us, and we feel sad; then maybe later, a friend makes us laugh and a lightness enters our experience. So, the idea of a state of static happiness that we can finally ‘arrive at’ could be a very misleading view. Our experiences are constantly in flux and life is by its very nature, dynamic. If instead of chasing the idea of happiness, we could look for qualities of a life that has meaning and value. This may then offer a more helpful perspective that can support us through our journey in life.
“There is a there is a recurrent fantasy perhaps, that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness. Who does not long to arrive some distant day at that sunlit meadow where, untroubled, we may rest easy, abide awhile and be happy? Another perspective is the assumption that the goal of life is not happiness but meaning.”
- James Hollis, Jungian Psychologist
I recently came across an article by the writer Charlotte Lieberman entitled “Mindlessly Scrolling for Satisfaction. How to Navigate the Temptation of Distraction in the Information Age.” The irony of finding this article whilst scrolling through my Facebook timeline was not lost on me but I was interested to read what she had to say. I, (like many people I’m sure) have found that when I have some spare time it can be spent mindlessly scrolling through, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds in the hope of some vague sense of satisfaction. Having observed myself regularly getting lost in the internet over many months I tried to get a sense of what lay beneath my surface behaviour. I felt there maybe a number of reasons: a deep sense of avoiding the feeling of loneliness, sometimes boredom or finding it hard to be with difficult feelings like grief. I found these realizations very humbling, particularly as someone who has been practicing meditation & yoga for over twenty years. I also tried not to be too hard on myself as we are all fallible human beings.
In Charlotte Lieberman’s article she explored some of the complex factors that have led to our technological crutch and desire for distraction. She shared some interesting findings including:
“Did you know that Americans spend more time on email in the morning than we do eating breakfast? A recent poll in the UK found that one in seven surveyed individuals have contemplated divorce because of their spouse’s unsettling social media activity”
I think it can be helpful to be reminded that our habits and behaviour are often contextual. An example of this is being on retreat. This is an environment that encourages a break from social media and the internet and I often find that normally after a day has passed I have no real desire to switch my phone on and feel much more content and relaxed in my experience. Now, we may not all have the opportunity to get away on retreat so maybe creating helpful boundaries around our technology use might be beneficial to us. A friend of mine recently shared with me that she was going to buy herself an alarm clock, so that she would be able to turn off her phone and get out of the habit of late night scrolling. I too have been exploring not listening to music on my i-Pod whilst on the bus and trying to be present to myself and the world around me when walking outside.
Technology is such a huge part of our lives and it would be unrealistic to think we are all going to throw our phones and laptops away however I do feel we have an opportunity next time we feel restless or sad to maybe choose not reach for our phone or computer and see if we can just sit with our arising feelings. This is an opportunity to trust that if we can stay open, curious and patient something new will emerge that may meet our needs more fully.
“Enough. These few words are enough. If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to life we have refused again and again until now.
In March 1994 Melvyn Bragg did a celebrated interview with the playwrite Dennis Potter, who was then dying of cancer. The interview was later published under the title Seeing the Blossom. Dennis Potter spoke of how the imminence of death gave his experience of the world a heightened intensity. “At this season, the blossom is out in full now … and instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’ … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance. Not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.”
There have been times in my own life when to use Dennis Potter’s term I have experienced “The nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous” I have often found that these moments are not big and dramatic, but quite ordinary in their beauty and wonder. I remember in the last few weeks before my girlfriend Elaine died, we had managed to get away for a weekend break at a hotel in the lake district. One afternoon we sat on a bench together in the hotel garden. As the autumn light began to fade, from the hedgerows and trees small birds flew about serenading us with their birdsongs. In that moment I felt a sense of wonder and mystery in the ordinary beauty of it all. This simple moment sitting on the bench with Elaine, felt like a calling to pause, connect and come home to myself once again. For a brief moment all my anxieties an fears fell away. This is a quality of just being open to the present moment without trying to add to it, allowing the bare experience to be there, fully attending to it in a relaxed open awareness, tasting an aliveness, a vibrancy from the awareness of our lives as they unfold moment by moment.
Often these ordinary moments go unseen or unacknowledged. But if we are willing to honour these simple moments then just maybe the ordinary will come alive.
Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions. I had gone to watch a film that you can guarantee will be showing on TV or at your local cinema as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is Frank Capra’s classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Made in 1947 and starring a great cast including James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, Capra’s film has a Dickensian quality to it. James Stewart plays the role of a selfless man George Bailey who is much loved in the small town of Bedford Falls; it’s a story of redemption that follows his suicidal despair one Christmas night. Clarence the angel appears and shows George how much of a dark and sad place the world would have been without him.
I believe that the reason the film is so loved by so many people is (not only due to Capra’s masterful direction and story-telling) because it illustrates a deeper, fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The truth is: that every life is of value and is important. We can often feel powerless in our lives and insignificant, even isolated and alone. But we are all interconnected to each other and to all of life – the threads that connect us to others and the world are not always easy to see. Even after many years of practising Buddhist meditation and yoga I still find myself at times struggling to see and accept that my actions touch other people’s lives.
A small act of kindness or a harsh word or action can have a profound effect, beyond what we can imagine. We have a responsibility for the world we live in; we are not separate from it but embedded in a network of complex patterns of connection. It can be helpful to stop and reflect on our lives and all we have done through our actions – great and small. The small acts of kindness shown to others bring us into deeper relationship with the world. Think of all the different people in your life and how their lives would be without you, and then you will begin to see the profound ordinary beauty that is your life.
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
Clarence The Angel from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’
This blog piece first appeared in my December newsletter 2013.
The English author and intellectual Aldous Huxley once said you could sum up the history of every man and woman who has ever lived with the following words, “I see the better and approve it, the worse is what I pursue”. If we were merely rational beings, then our knowing would be indistinguishable from our doing. However, we are not merely rational, we can also argue we are also creatures of desire. Our emotions can sometimes be ultimately responsible for determining our actions and behaviour. We can have an idea that something maybe good for us to do, but find it hard to galvanise the rest of ourselves into action.
If I look at my own life I can see a huge chasm at times in my inability to bring together my head and my heart. This is perfectly understandable as we not a singular being, rather we are more made up of complex, multiple parts or voices within us that may express different and even contradictory things. The idea of the human psyche being multifaceted, even split in some cases is not a new one. Even in ancient Greece, in Plato wrote about the three parts of the psyche: ‘The rational’, ‘The appetitive’ and ‘The spirited’.
I have found that through my exploration of yoga, meditation and psychotherapy, that these practices have helped me to develop a deeper relationship between myself and my emotional body. By engaging with and bringing awareness to my emotions more fully I notice that my behaviour can change and my life can feel more congruent. I can feel a sense of bridging the gap between my head and my heart. I have an ability to be in relationship to both the complexity within myself and also the world around me.
By understanding ourselves, the landscape of our emotional bodies and by making conscious how we work with both our darkness and our light we can see more clearly that a creative dialogue can take place between our head and heart. We are then given a larger, richer context in which to examine just what it means to experience being human.
“When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”
Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Joan Didion wrote this in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, when her husband of forty years suddenly died and this month of October sees the first anniversary of the death of my beloved girlfriend Elaine.
What do you do when the partner you loved and planned to spend the rest of your life with dies? For me, the world as I knew it was destroyed and I found myself sitting amidst an emotional tsunami of the like I had never faced before, whilst all around me life continued. I have been very fortunate to have been surrounded by loving, supportive friends and family and although they cannot take away my pain and grief, their simple acts of kindness have made my connection to being in the world a little easier.
People sometimes use the phrase, “They never got over the death of…” and I have been reflecting on this recently. I feel that embedded within the phrase could lie an unhelpful perspective of transcendence in relation to the difficulty of losing a loved one. While we may wish for the people we care about to slowly move forward and not get lost in their grief, it could be more helpful for us to try holding the perspective that they may never get over the death of their loved one. Rather, the experience of loss is something that they will in time, learn to carry with them. The loss is now a part of them, it never leaves them but it also doesn’t define them as they begin to look towards the future, rebuilding their life.
Love, Tears, & Ginger Beer
I stood and watched you from outside the restaurant.
It was our second date,
You looked so beautiful, long golden hair falling down over your shoulders.
I gave you a gift, a book on archetypes.
If I had known what lay before us,
Would I have opened the door and stepped in?
We laughed and drank ginger beer.
You entertained me with your impersonations and funny stories,
I knew in that moment that I wanted to be with you.
The first time we made love you showed me your scars,
Where the surgeon’s knife had left its mark,
I kissed them tenderly in the hope that no part of you would feel unloved.
I look for you now in the morning bird song, your poetry, a photograph.
Then in the quiet stillness of the day, when I have exhausted all my longing
you come to me again.
Moist tears cover my body and I feel your love once more.
On June 5th 1956 a young relatively unknown singer named Elvis Presley appeared on ‘The Milton Berle Show’ at NBC’s Hollywood studio. This wasn’t his first appearance on TV, but his performance would become legendary. During this appearance he sang, ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’ before slowing the tempo down for ‘Hound Dog’, gyrating his hips outrageously with accentuated energetic, body movements. Presley’s gyrations created a storm of controversy and newspaper critics were outraged. Ben Gross of the ‘New York Daily News’ said “…popular music has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos”. It was these comments that led to the moniker “Elvis the Pelvis” a term he disliked yet lived with for the rest of his career.
The following year Elvis appeared on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and this was a huge deal. It was America’s favourite family variety show and it was during this show a bizarre act of censorship was introduced. Elvis was deliberately filmed only from waist up only. The idea being that if the American public did not see his pelvis moving, they would be safe from any indecency.
Reflecting on this story we may initially wonder what all the fuss was about. We could argue that we live in a media dominated world, fed on a diet of sex scandals, online pornography and Miley Cyrus swinging on her wrecking ball suggestively licking lump hammers therefore little shocks us anymore. However, in conservative post-war 1950s, where the world’s top singers were Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, Elvis moving and dancing in a sensuous manner was seen as very shocking.
I felt within this story there was a deeper theme emerging towards our relationship to sex and sexuality. The area of the pelvis in the body is a key intersection that connects our legs and lower body to our spine and upper body. The pelvic region is also the home for our reproductive organs. When Elvis gyrated his hips and moved his pelvis in a sensuous manner he symbolically expressed his sexuality and drew focus to the area of his genitals.
Society’s views on sexuality have changed throughout history and are continuously evolving. Each society has different norms about sex, the age of sexual consent, homosexuality and other sexual behaviours. Depending on family and cultural upbringing, from an early age we have received messages about what is acceptable in relation to sex and our sexuality and what is not.
I have made a conscious choice when in my role as a yoga teacher, when leading practices such as savasana and body scan meditations to include the area of the genitals when bringing people’s awareness to their bodies. I do this to acknowledge in a holistic context that we are sexual beings. Often in spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation there can be a tendency towards transcendence that can lead to a desire to repress or cut off from aspects of ourselves such as our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies. This can lead to a kind of censorship as seen on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in which we take on the view that certain aspects of our bodies are offensive to our morality or decency. We can then become bound by the conditioned beliefs of the culture we live in and we are not free. What we do on an external level as a society or culture is a mirrored reflection of how we might view ourselves on an inner level.
We may have certain thoughts, feelings and images that arise in our experience that we deem unacceptable and this may leave us feeling uncomfortable. By coming into relationship to the whole of ourselves and allowing for a healthy and positive view of bodies and our sexuality we are able to experience a greater sense of freedom in our lives and in our relationship to the world.
There are some singers who possess a voice we fall in love with. For me, Dusty Springfield is one such singer. Her rich, soulful voice makes her arguably one of Britain’s greatest female vocalists. Her run of classic 60’s singles such as the 1963 hit ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ and ‘Am I the Same Girl?’ in 1969 are just a few examples of her vocal talent. Dusty’s last, great single of that decade was ‘How Can I Be Sure?’ and in it she sang the lyrics, “…how can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing?”
The Buddha taught that that all things are impermanent, there is nothing fixed or solid in this world. Everything including our thoughts, body and feelings are constantly changing. This truth, this experience of life can sometimes leave us feeling anxious and we may find ourselves trying to control the world around us to make us feel more secure.
But, if we can try to adopt a more spacious attitude towards our experience, we can learn to trust openness. An image sometimes given to illustrate this spacious quality of the mind is that of the vast blue sky which is limitless and which can offer hospitality to everything within it. All the various changes in the weather from storms and showers to clouds and the sun, everything can just move freely through the openness that the sky offers.
I have found it helpful to be reminded that I am more than just my thoughts, my emotions and my body. I can value and appreciate all that they offer me but learn not to over identify with them. It seems more helpful for me to see them within the larger context of relaxed, spacious awareness which offers me a possibility of a more creative response to both myself and my life.