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Yoga Beyond Fitness Blog


About Karin

Yoga teacher, practicing yoga since 1997, teaching since 2003, writer/translator, global soul, world traveller (and sometimes beyond), passionate about eastern philosophy and western psychology, especially its application in mind-body practices such as yoga and somatic movement therapy, deeply in love with life, knows that our greatest teacher lies within, also sometimes a total mess - it's part of the package!

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    Recent Entries

    Green Living

    Saturday, February 21. 2009

    You do not inherit the earth of your ancestors, you borrow it from your children. ~Antoine de Saint Exupéry
    The way we use the planet’s resources makes up our ecological footprint. If you're worried about your impact on the environment and want to make some simple changes to reduce your ecological footprint, the WWF Ecological Footprint Calculator will work it out for you. Use it to measure the Earth's resources required to sustain your household.
    Ecological Footprint Calculator
    Calculators for your specific country and to find out what YOU can do to reduce carbon emissions can be found here.

    Sit Still and Wait for Lift-off

    Monday, November 10. 2008

    Why sitting meditation is absolutely useless to understand the true nature of reality and the human mind—a thought-provoking perspective on the potential of sitting meditation as a catalyst for personal transformation.

    Before continuing, I suggest you first read the Zen story Whipping the Cart or the Ox. The following will make more sense, if you have read the Zen story.

    Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism known for its emphasis on mindful acceptance of the present moment and its belief that enlightenment can be attained through direct intuitive insight. Zen emphasizes intensive periods of meditation. Although any meditation posture (including walking) can be applied, the core of the practice is seated meditation. Practitioners usually assume the Lotus or half-Lotus position. The posture recalls the position in which Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. The meditation itself focuses on the elements of mindfulness and concentration, which are part of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path is said to be the way that leads to the achievement of self-awakening and enlightenment. It is used as an instrument of discovery to gradually generate insights unveiling the ultimate truth of all phenomena.

    Zen teaches that all people possess the Buddha nature inherently—it's because of their ignorance that they do not perceive it. Therefore, Zen practitioners are urged to find within themselves the answer to any question raised within because the answer is believed to be found where the question originates. This practice is called self-liberation. The best way to achieve this is through meditation on a Koan, a riddle or fable that defies conventional logic or explanation.

    Meditation on a particular Koan can involve sitting for long periods of time. It can therefore be hard for beginners to get used to the classical sitting posture that requires to sit motionless, or at least, make physical movement undesirable. Which raises the question: Why is the practitioner required to sit? Why is sitting so important to gain clarity of perception and to understand the true nature of the mind? One does not gain great wisdom through the very fact that one is sitting. Buddha did not attain enlightenment because he was sitting! Or did he?

    Don't take my word for it but the truth is—and the Zen story about whipping the cart or the ox illustrates it—sitting in meditation serves no particular purpose. Sitting is done for the sake of sitting. There is no benefit or usefulness. The only reason one sits is because one loves to sit.

    At this point, those experienced in meditation might argue that they sit to make sure they are not so comfortable that they fall asleep. That might be so but still, the question remains: Is the very fact that one is sitting in meditation conductive to understanding the true nature of reality and the human mind?

    Some yogis and yoginis teach that sitting, especially sitting motionless, is important because it is a method for exploring physical sensations and invite a deeper release of tensions that obstruct energy pathways and clarity of perception. Indeed, I myself am quite familiar with this type of physical exploration (see below) but how do I stop obstructive physical sensations to interfere with my concentration?

    Some hard-core traditionalists are adamant that sitting upright and crossing the legs in Lotus posture is essential. They say it reduces "poisonous" thoughts and feelings of desirous attachment while it allows all vital energy to rise upwards through the spine to the highest energy centre, the seat of wisdom and insight. Hmm…

    I must admit that throughout my own spiritual journey I struggled meditating motionless in sitting posture. Forty five minutes of pins and needles in my right foot required a lot of patience and composure! Besides, if it was not my right foot, then it was the cushion I was sitting on. It started itching. Or it was a clingy fly that wouldn't stop buzzing around my head. Or I had to go to the loo… I couldn't wait for the moment meditation came to an end, stretch my legs and lower back, and feel some sense of freedom and control over my body again. The very fact that I was so uncomfortable and impatient interfered with my ability to calm my thoughts and find that peaceful centre within. How many decades of sitting are useful to dissolve all obstacles and realize the true nature of the human mind?

    Ultimately, for me, the rewards of a dedicated meditation practice with a numb foot and an itching bottom were tremendous! The break-through came one Sunday morning whilst enjoying breakfast in bed and getting totally absorbed reading a book, the title of which is totally irrelevant for the purpose of this blog post, although I am sure, some wondering spiritual seekers out there might disagree with me. And whilst drinking my tea and munching my fruit salad, it came to me: Do not confuse the means of the practice with its goal—for indeed, I had whipped the cart instead of the ox!

    Meditation for the purpose of cultivating insight and clarity of thought is not dependent on being skilful in any particular physical posture. It concerns first of all the mind, not the body. It is a practice of introspection to gain clarity of thought, perception, reason and knowledge. The initial aim is to reach the most settled state within, where one transcends all mental activity to experience the simplest form of awareness. This state of intrinsic awareness is said to be the stepping stone for personal transformation. Sitting still in meditation is therefore just one of the many possible tools on the path to reach that state but it is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the realization of the true nature of the self, reality, and all phenomena. And this realization can happen slowly and in stages or suddenly and rapidly—even when one is not sitting, even when one is not meditating. It happens when one catches a glimpse of or experiences the simplest form of intrinsic awareness without grasping or becoming attached to it. It's a sort of letting-go of everything. And like the Zen story about whipping the cart or the ox illustrates, it happens when causes and conditions harmonize.

    Therefore, do not become attached to any particular way of sitting in meditation. Do not become attached to any particular method of meditation either. In fact, do not become attached to anything! There is no right and no wrong way to follow your path. Explore what works best for you. If you want to meditate, then meditate. If you want to sit in meditation, then sit in meditation. If you want to sit motionless, then sit motionless. If your foot hurts, move it. If you want to scratch your bottom, scratch your bottom. If you want to walk, walk.

    To become attached to any posture, any method—any particular action or non-action—is to fail to comprehend the essential principle, and that is to understand that the true nature of reality and the true nature of the human mind comes as a breakthrough in everyday logical thought.

    And even if sitting still in meditation might make it easier for some practitioners to maintain their concentration—after all, the physical movements that otherwise could disturb one's practice will forcibly be reduced to a minimum when sitting still—the fact that one sits still is however not essential for the goal.

    We imagine that one day, when we catch a glimpse of the true nature of reality and are astounded by the personal transformation that it creates, there will be something like ecstatic bliss, intense moments and direct encounters with the divine. But we forget that divine grace doesn't come from the outside. Nothing comes from the outside... in fact, divine grace doesn't even exist… another long topic, the details of which, for now, are not of interest.

    Understand that everything derives from the mind, and from the mind alone, that's all you need to realize the true nature of reality and all phenomenon. Then, personal transformation can happen in the most banal of daily experiences: looking up into the sky, listening to music, waiting in a traffic jam, putting your feet in warm sand, drinking a glass of water, smelling a flower, reading, walking. One day your mind and body naturally begin to work together and in harmony.

    Therefore, meditate, meditate, meditate … sitting, walking, swimming, cycling, whatever ... simply meditate ... without becoming attached to or abandon any particular part of it. It is wonderful, essential, and completely useless to understand the true nature of reality and the mind. Why? Because understanding the divine comes in the most unexpected and mundane of situations and everyday experiences, and not when sitting still on your cushion. But meditate you must.

    Meditation cultivates inner silence. Inner silence can't be captured by the mind – it can only be experienced. That's why yogis say "stillness in action" is the trick!

    But as I said, don't take my word for it.

    See whether it is like that or not, and understand the matter for yourself. :-)

    Whipping the Cart or the Ox

    Monday, November 10. 2008

    A Zen Master noticed a young man meditating every afternoon. Since the man seemed to possess Zen wisdom, the Master asked him kindly, "My friend, what are you doing here?"

    The young man obviously did not like being disturbed and reluctantly answered, "I sit in meditation."

    "Why are you sitting in meditation?" asked the Master again.

    Quite perturbed, he nevertheless replied, "To become a Buddha!"

    The Master continued to pursue his questioning in a kind manner, "How can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?"

    This time, the man ignored the question to show his disdain for the talkative old monk. Since the Master could not attract the young man's attention by talking, he found a brick and began to rub it on the floor while sitting next to the young man. In the days that followed, whenever the man came to meditate, the Master would return to his task of rubbing the brick. Finally, the young man could no longer suppress his curiosity and inquired, "What are you doing here every day, if I may ask?"

    "Polishing the brick." the Master declared.

    "Why?" he queried.

    "To make it into a mirror," replied the Master.

    "How can you turn the brick into a mirror?" the young man asked.

    And the Master replied, "If the brick can't become a mirror by being polished, how can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?"

    The young man was astounded by the response. This simple question completely rid him of his arrogance. He immediately stood up and prostrated himself respectfully before the Master, imploring, "What should I do?"

    In reply, the Master asked him gently, "Let's say you're driving a cart. If it doesn't go forward, should you whip the cart or the ox?"

    Upon hearing this, the young man prostrated again and then knelt down, saying, "Master, how can I be free from all bondage and attain enlightenment?"

    "Your study of the doctrines of the Buddha is like sowing seeds, while my explaining to you the essence of the Dharma (meaning: the teaching of the Buddha; the path; the true nature of reality) is like sprinkling sweet dew on those seeds. When causes and conditions harmonize, you'll be awakened to the path."

    After hearing this, the young man became enlightened.

    Later, he became a famous Zen Master of all time, Ma-tsu Tao-i.

    Further reading: Why sitting meditation is absolutely useless to understand the true nature of reality and the human mind—a thought-provoking perspective on the potential of sitting meditation as a catalyst for personal transformation.

    The Dilemma of a Modern Yogi

    Sunday, October 26. 2008

    Utthitahastapadangustasana - finding your balanceModern life seems to present today's yoga practitioners with dilemmas undreamed of by the Indian sages who created yoga several thousand years ago. Practitioners today, especially if they are new to yoga, are often told that the principles of ancient yoga philosophy must be applied at all times in order for it's full potential to be experienced: annihilate all desires, slay egoism, destroy all attachments - now meditate and practise yoga!

    Although such statements may be true within their own context, they have done little to help to integrate yoga into our modern life and culture, and to make the benefits of yoga accessible to as many people as possible. On the contrary, they probably resulted in a rapid loss of interest for many beginners and intermediate practitioners, as they all struggle at one point or another with the dilemma of choosing between their conscience or a career, salvation or success, meditative quiescence or material gain, and much more...

    For all practitioners, regardless of level of conditioning, the act of forcing oneself to follow ancient yogic principles contradictory to their own current concepts only seems to reinforce the belief that a lifestyle based on yoga philosophy is somewhat inappropriate in today's modern society. The inevitable result of this belief is that anyone, who has a hard time to identify the desires that they will permit and the desires that they are determined to slay, is faced with an internal struggle. And this internal struggle implies resistance, which in turn prevents clarity of mind.

    Thus, imposing seemingly unrealistic values, ethics, and principles upon ourselves only makes us struggle even more resulting in an even greater effort to curb our desires and to integrate exactly that which we so much fear. This leads directly to the question of how practitioners, regardless of their physical and mental conditioning, can learn to integrate yogic principles into their modern lifestyle when they are not yet (!?) ready to live in seclusion, free from modern day desires, pleasures and possessions?

    The answer is quite simple: do not ignore that which pleases you!

    In his 196 Yoga Sutras, Patanjali called this Ahimsa. It is one of the five Yamas (restraints) which make up the code of conduct for yoga practitioners, the first of the eight limbs of yoga. Ahimsa means to refrain from causing harm to yourself and others - physically, mentally or emotionally.

    So, tune into your mind, learn to listen to your body, and adapt to your heart's desires, instead of imposing disharmony and unrealistic expectations and projections onto your body, mind and soul.

    Practice these simple steps on your mat, initially through synchronizing the breath with a series of postures held in accurate alignment. Eventually, the progressive development of physical strength and flexibility, stamina and focus, balance and breath control, concentration and mindfulness, will promote mind-body awareness, quiet focus, and inner stillness. This provides opportunities for introspection and reflection, and the subtler levels of the higher states of consciousness, inner peace, human functioning, and virtuous actions.

    So, instead of imposing from the outside, practice manifestation from within.

    And this is what yoga is all about: be open instead of imposing constraints, listen instead of looking for the 'right answer', and honour instead of annihilating that which pleases you.

    As you develop the practice of inner listening and acquire the trust and courage to live your heart's truth, clarity of mind is achieved and struggles resolve, enabling the intellect to assert its role and gently lead the mind to the soul making natural - not willful - surrender possible.
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