Yoga and the Art of Receiving

If you come to York Yoga Studio, you probably know who I am, and you might have noticed that I’ve had a low profile here the last few months, and you may know that I’m now recovering well from a surgery.  It’s all good.  But I have had a bit of time where I’ve needed to rest my body and not do very much, and to accept help too.

During this time, I’ve been deeply touched by the lovely cards and gifts and messages from our wonderful yoga community.  My family and friends have really stepped up, and I’ve felt wholly supported, and super grateful for all the kindness and good wishes I have received.

This has made me think about giving and receiving….

We talk a lot about yoga and giving – most of us have heard about Karma Yoga, the ‘Yoga of Action.’ This path teaches us that by selflessly serving, we move towards our own spiritual enlightenment.  But my own recent experience has made me think not about how difficult it is to give from a place of selflessness, but how hard it is to graciously receive.  I had a tough time letting my friends and family cook and clean for me, to bring me things and entertain me while I rested.  I felt their love and compassion was a gift I should not take.  And we see this often: how many times have you shrugged off a compliment, replying something like, ‘oh, this old thing? I got it in a charity shop….’ Or ‘Well, I certainly don’t feel beautiful today!’ 

Why do we do this?  We are taught not to easily accept compliments or gifts in case we appear selfish or greedy or conceited or prideful.  We are also culturally dissuaded from really living in the moment, told to look ahead, and even more, to look for a balance, a sort of score sheet that we carry into the future.  This attitude can keep us from simply appreciating the fact that we are loved and cherished, and therefore connected to the lives of others in every moment.

So what happens when we shrug off gifts or compliments or offers of help? Well for starters we isolate ourselves, turning away from human contact.  We feed the cynicism and defensiveness which separate us from others. We give in to cultural overlays which do not help us to give and receive love and kindness.  In a way, we let the haters win and we do nothing for our own self esteem and sense of wholeness. All this because we want to be modest and selfless…

But the damage does not stop with ourselves.  Giving and receiving is an energetic and spiritual exchange.  Like two poles of a magnet, one is defined by the existence of the other.  To refuse to accept a gift is to deny the giver; it refutes their existence in a spiritual way; it prevents them from practicing their own Karma Yoga; it impedes their progress on their own path.  It is harmful.  It is a failure to practice the yoga tenet of Ahimsa on the deepest level as you do harm to yourself and to others.

So over the last several weeks, I have contemplated the cards and presents, the offers of help, the gifts of time and care, the messages of love and support, the loyalty of our yoga community and the compassion of relative strangers.  And I have been moved to a new understanding: it’s not all about me!  So I have accepted the need to simply open my arms and my heart and just say "thank you – yes please, I will accept your help, your love, your support, your kindness.”  I will accept your gift and embrace the connection that comes from being loved.  By practicing the art of receiving, I am more of a yoga teacher than any adjustment I can make in asana makes me. I become a more giving person.  I can help others to grow on their spiritual path, to practice Ahimsa and to experience the joy of selfless giving.   I can contribute to the balance of energy we need to be harmonious and stable.  We are all thereby enriched and connected, giving and receiving as equals, loving and loved.

Let your seasonal contemplation bring you to yoga...

This is the time of year when the trees draw their energy deep into their core, and the scarlet, gold and russet leaves carpet the earth.  The squirrels collect nuts and berries for their winter store, and the small creatures seek the comfort of warm hiding places.  The nights lengthen, the mist thickens, and we become aware of the closing of the year.  This is a beautiful time of clarity and stillness, and we turn our attention inwards to consider our lives and where we are going next.  We may decide we need to challenge ourselves to learn new skills, to become stronger, more flexible, and more confident in our physical bodies.  But equally, we might realise that meditation and mindfulness might bring us what we most need -  stillness, focus, and a quietening of the mind.  

This seasonal contemplation may bring you to yoga, as a good yoga practice helps you discover all these aspects of yourself.  Yoga brings the mind and body together with the breath, encouraging us to keep our awareness in the present moment.  The physical side of the practice brings many benefits such as strength, flexibility, better balance,  joint health and increased immunity, but yoga is more than just an exercise!  Yoga also means meditation and gentle practices that help you feel calm, centred and empowered. 

As you contemplate the new year, consider how you can best develop and strengthen your body, mind and spirit. Seek new ways to start your day, exploring an early morning practice.  Try varying your meditation practice by experimenting with the moving meditation of Qi Gong or Tai Chi.  Discover the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in your every day life.  Develop your physical practice by challenging yourself to learn new postures and new styles.  Rise above limitations with Gentle or Chair based yoga - there truly are no limits to what you can do.  If you can dream it in the deep midwinter, you can achieve it!

The key to your well being

When you're 80 years old, do you want to be able to reach the tin of beans on the bottom shelf?  Do you want to step into your pants unassisted?  Do you want to be relaxed and contented? These are the things which give us what we call 'well being.' Engaging in regular exercise throughout your life will positively affect the quality of your life in later years, and committing to your own well being isn't something you should put off.    

And well being also means your mental well being - we all need a sense of calmness, balance and serenity in the face of conflict and pressure.  Stress is a major source of illness, both physical and mental, so committing to your well being means taking measures to reduce stress and to find a way to cope with and reduce stress in your life.

So the key to your well being is to find something that you like that you can commit to. Something that you can do consistently, either in a group or on your own, that is not too expensive, that you can progress in without judgement or failure, that makes you feel stronger and more flexible, and helps you cope with and reduce stress in your life.  Does anything exist that can tick all these boxes??

Research suggests that yoga can do all these things - the benefits of yoga are almost too numerous to mention!  But in brief, yoga works on the physical body to give you strength, flexibility, balance, strong bones, increased lung capacity, stamina and muscle tone; and it works on your mind to increase concentration, focus, memory, powers of relaxation, observation and mood. AND it is an empowering practice in which YOU are in control, moving and progressing at your own pace, focusing on what YOU want to achieve. Above all else, yoga is about discovering yourself, learning to open your heart and your mind, finding your limits and accepting them while simultaneously finding the courage to press them back, to discover the endless boundaries of your spirit.  And isn't this really what's at the heart of well being?

Taking care of others is like exhaling. Taking care of yourself is like inhaling...

For many of us, looking after others is as natural a part of our life as breathing.  We raise our children, love and care for our spouses and our homes, give our all to our jobs, our families, our friends and neighbours.  We volunteer our time to worthy causes, we do favours for others, we care about what happens in the world.  And this is wonderful, this selfless support to others is a hallmark of our humanity.  But all this giving does come at a cost.... to you!  In yoga terms, all the giving is like exhaling, but if you never stop to inhale, to nourish and care for yourself, you will soon run out of breath, out of energy.  That will not be helpful to anyone!  So how can you stop, take a breath, and restore your own power?  Clearly you need to eat well and to sleep, to nourish and rest the body.  But we also need to take care of our minds and our spirits, and to give our bodies the kind of exercise that replenishes and restores, and for these purposes nothing is better than yoga.

Giving yourself an hour away from all the responsibilities of your life is an important step in taking care of yourself.  In your yoga practice you learn to tune into the messages of your body, to listen to your breath and to bring steadiness and calm to the mind.   This is restorative in the deepest sense of the word, returning you to the essence of yourself.  The mindful stretching and breathing awaken your muscles and organs, bringing vitality and energy to the body.  In your yoga practice, you learn to stay focused on the present moment, bringing a sense of perspective to the pressures you face in your daily life.  A regular yoga practice gives you time to really notice the nuances of your body and your mind and this awareness helps you to really feel alive and present.  This truly is the pause that refreshes!