Our fear of death is unnecessary. Nobody knows what is going to happen when we die. This is the crux of the matter. There is not a single living soul on this planet that knows for sure, not one. All scientists agree on is that we have consciousness but what it is exactly they don’t know. There is no scientific evidence to show what happens to our consciousness after we have taken our last breath. No one has ever come back from the great beyond to tell the tale. So how can I possible fear something if I have no clue what it is I am supposed to be afraid of? Is it going to hurt? Will I go to hell? Will I be judged and punished? Will I be alone? Gone for good? Questions, doubts, assumptions, anxiety but no true knowledge. So why should I be scared? Well, I plainly refuse.
Because what if I spend my entire life fearing death and then it turns out to be a gift? The most beautiful experience I will ever have? What if there will be infinite joy at the end of the tunnel? Incredible lightness? Unconditional bliss? The end of suffering, fear and pain? What if the reason that no-one ever came back is that they’re having too much of a blast? "Stupid", you may say. But what's so stupid about it? You don't know for sure that I am wrong. I may be right. I may not have proof but neither have you. Most people who have had a near death experience have nothing negative to say. For many it was pleasant, magical even.
So where does it come from? This fear of death? It is how we are influenced by society, where anything to do with dying is laced with dread. We learn resistance and denial. Hush hush, best not talk about it. Better avoid the subject. Everything to do with death or dying is hidden away. We even put make-up on our corpses to make them look more alive should they be put on display. No wonder we do not want to be reminded of our own mortality. So we push it into the furthest corner of our minds where it lies dormant on the surface but always ready to haunt us deep within. For most of us this is the normal way to live. We are not even aware of how it shapes our lives.
But how can we live totally if we deny our own mortality. To avoid the awareness that we exist only temporarily in this world results in the madness of postponing life. We surrender to the daily grind of working, paying bills, consuming and existing for weekends and holidays. We inhabit a vapid comfort zone where uncertainty is not welcome and our lust for adventure is suffocated by an illusory sense of safety. We promise ourselves that we’ll do what we really want to do sometime in the future. We fail to enjoy all existence has to offer. I’m always at loggerheads with friends and family because of this. To question our way of living and confront our fear of death is uncomfortable for most. But I strongly believe that it needs to be questioned because life is so much more than a comfort zone and a pension. It is so valuable and needs to be experienced now because tomorrow is an illusion. We have to wake up and realize this so we can start honoring our life for what it is: The most precious gift we have.
A good start is to be readily aware of our mortality and become comfortable with it. It is entirely up to us. We don’t have to stick to what society thinks or wants us to believe. We could just make up our own minds. We could decide to live our life without fear. I am not here to convince you that there is life after death. I simply don’t know and until the time comes - I don’t even care. But just imagine how our world would be if all of us had grown up differently. If we had been taught not to fear death or uncertainty. If we had learned that death is a mystery – neither good nor bad. Not something to be feared but something that can be accepted fearlessly. That life is extraordinary but not forever and every moment should be experienced totally. I wonder how we would live. Would we live our life the way we do now or would we do things differently?
Could I be a Moment
And rise into the sky
Float through the air
Like a sweet lullaby
Just a wink of a Moment
In somebody‘s dream
Ever so lovely
And ever so keen
Light as a feather
Just drifting along
No need for forever
No need to go on
A hint of existence
No more than a sigh
Swept into the distance
And gone with the tide
The whisper of a touch
So frightfully free
Then fading away
Which once was me ...
One just needs a little alertness to see and find out: Life is really a great cosmic laughter – Osho
The above quote sums up our existence. The fact that we are transient and only here for a limited time brings an incredible lightness to our being. I love this quote. I live this quote. It is the first thing that I choose to put into my mind when I wake up! Although I am fully aware of my mortality, I can feel the incredible energy that I am – that we all are. It is wonderful! Yet sometimes I wonder – am I the only one?
I am often accused of taking life not seriously enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Precisely because my time here is limited, I am taking the quality of my existence very seriously. I want to experience this life so totally and I want to be so complete that when death comes - I’m done. This does not mean I need a lot of money or stuff. This means I am going to celebrate each breath I take and vibrate in tune with all life around me. I want to be playful and spontaneous. And I want to do it all right now. Is this not what our existence is all about? How can it not be? It is only for a short while.
I don’t want to waste my time worrying about the future because I do not have a future here. There is no safety in money or stuff. There is no safety full stop. No matter how hard we work, plan or prepare at the end of it all we are going to have to let it go. It is as simple as that. Most of us live in denial. We do not want to know this. The treadmill of our conditioning has filled us with fear and anxiety. We fear dying, the unknown, uncertainty and what other people may think of us. To work all day to pay our bills and get stuff has become our life, our reality. But being able to buy a Porsche will not set us free - not needing to buy a Porsche will. It is time for us to wake up and realize this.
“Well, that’s easy for you to say”. This is what I hear a lot but why is it easy for me? The truth is that I am just like you. I am neither rich nor famous. I am of no importance. I have my shit going on. In fact, my life is falling apart just as I am writing this. To suffer is the nature of this world. Every creature suffers at some point in its existence. It is what gives us depth. Suffering comes and goes. I accept it but I do not make it the center of my existence. I do not identify with it. Our life never consists of suffering alone.
There is beauty and joy everywhere and always. We are practically surrounded by it. We are it. We are adorable creatures capable of so much love and beauty. Every one of us is precious and complete. Just like a beautiful flower can we not be improved yet we keep trying. We have been conditioned to do so for eons. It is an impossible task. How can you better that which is already complete? Why not stop for a minute and consider this? Everything nature creates is perfect. About this everyone agrees. Yet we are also nature but no-one seems to want to notice. We are not separate from it. We are nature and we are perfect. So, what is the rush? What is the stress? What is there to be achieved? What is really needed? Nature never rushes and everything works out perfectly.
So, when you wake up tomorrow morning why not take an extra breath before you think about your troubles or worries. Look within yourself and feel the incredible energy that you are. Then try to remember: Life is really a great cosmic laughter – that is all.
The first six years of my ashtanga yoga practice have been my most formative. It was shortly after I joined a local yoga shala that I met my first true ashtanga yoga teachers who were holding a workshop there. They are based on a Greek island, which meant I had to travel to study with them. Their shala is small, dark, very hot and very crowded. The floor is concrete and the ceiling low. No props and blocks tolerated, no wall for handstands allowed. You practiced handstands with the teacher and when it was deemed fit, had to do it on your own – no wall. You only moved along in the series when an asana was mastered comfortably, no variations and excuses. I was totally hooked. Every year, for roughly 6 years, I travelled to Greece to sweat and suffer in that shala. In addition, I followed my teachers on their workshops throughout Europe. I soaked it all up.
For the rest of the year, I practiced alone at home. Just as I learned it from my teachers. No probs, no wall and no messing around with asanas beyond to what I was given. I never questioned this approach. For years I got up at 3 am before work and went on my mat to face my demons. At the beginning, I felt very rigid and vulnerable and my mind was on party overdrive. At times there was so much stiffness and pain that I cried in savasana. I swore I would quit, only to get up again the very next morning for more of the same.
I don’t know why I carried on but eventually change came. Since I was on my own with no-one to turn to, I had no choice but to look within. Slowly and reluctantly my busy mind silenced. My focus turned deeply into the pain and stiffness. It was then that I found complete stillness. It was then that I found relief. I thought nothing and I felt nothing. I was floating in stillness and surrendered. My muscles relaxed – I was home. I faced my weaknesses relentlessly and then let them go. It was a slow but steady process. Whether it is complete I don’t know but part of me is always resting in that sweet stillness – that is my home. Asanas come much easier now but matter much less. I have grown unattached to the world.
In the years that followed I travelled beyond Greece to India including Mysore as is expected from a dedicated Ashtangi. I participated in major workshops and obtained a teaching certificate. I met many lovely people and generally had a blast. The ‘Yoga Community’ is fun and supportive just like any other interest group. I used to be a passionate sailor and the community was the same and that is fine. It is good for people who share the same interest to come together and support one another.
Yet unlike sailing yoga is not a social affair. It is a journey deep within that if you want to succeed you have to eventually undertake alone. It is where fear ends and love begins. To practice with likeminded people is a joy but can quickly turn into a comfort zone. To deepen the yoga practice and go beyond asana it is important to have that ‘alone time’ as much as possible. This is tough for sure. It is tapas. Yoga in practice is tapas, self-study and surrender. So it says in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Ashtanga Yoga System is a wonderful tool that when learned correctly and then practiced mindfully will take you all the way to the center of your soul. But you can only go there alone. It is your soul.
Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus. - Pattabhi Jois
Most of us know that feeling. A strange sense of unease that something is not right. That something bad could happen but we can't quite put our finger on it. A feeling of insecurity ... of anxiety, even fear. It is always there lurking in the background. Some of us are so used to it that we don't even notice it anymore. We live with it or rather spend our live living according to it. It has become normal. We have plans for the future that we hope will make it go away. Once we have more money, a better job, more stuff etc., everything will be perfect and we will be ok .... we will be safe. This kind of living is extremely limiting and disquieting, particularly because the future does not exist. It is a just a concept - we are chasing a ghost.
Have you ever asked yourself what you would do in your life right now if you weren't scared? Worried about consequences? Are you truly living your life or are you being lived by your fears?
This fear has nothing to do with the world around us. Most of us are seldom in immediate danger. It has something to do with the world within us. The source of this obscure unease is our own mind. Most of us are not aware of this which is why we seek relieve in the outside world. And this is also why we fail to get it. We have a constant thought monologue running in our head that takes up most of our attention. We identify with it. We believe we are it. For most people this monologue is negative. It paints a bleak picture of the future and/or laments over the past. It creates all sorts of drama based on our personal conditioning. That's why it is so successful in keeping our attention. It knows how to push our buttons. We're living a bad dream.
The question is whether we are ready to leave the comfort of our treadmill. Yes, there is also an element of comfort in suffering, complaining and procrastinating. If we have identified with our fear and drama we may even want to protect it. We get angry if it is questioned. Many people are so scared of change that they rather stay in the comfort of the familiar drudgery and suffering.
But it is not human nature to be negative, judgmental or anxious. That is ego's nature. There will always be challenges in life. It is how we grow. But they never last. By transcending our conditioned thinking, we can free ourselves to meet life's challenges in the present moment where they can be dealt with. We cannot deal with an illusory problem. We have to suffer it. To free ourselves is simple but not easy. It requires much discriminative power to get out of this mindset because we've been stuck in it for a very long time. But it can be done. People are doing it all the time and so can you. Are you ready?
I'm a seasoned ashtanga yoga practitioner and I practice in solitude. Everyday, I set the alarm early in the morning, sometimes very early, and half an hour later you'll find me on my mat. Many people find that strange and even call me extrem. But this has nothing to do with extremism. I am very passionate about my yoga practice, this is true. This is why.
Early mornings have a certain atmosphere, a stillness, that speaks to me. It makes me feel at home. I step to the front of my yoga mat in samsthitih and chant the ashtanga mantra. I begin the ujjayi breathing and see how it feels. Sometimes breath comes easy and sometimes my chest feels a little tight. On the inhale, I press my feet into the mat, pull in my lower belly and stretch my arms up towards the ceiling - drishti thumbs. And so practice begins.
I count each movement - each vinyasa - in my head. I feel my breath moving through me and energizing my body. I keep part of my awareness fixed on the muscles of my lower belly and feel control of my center of gravity. It becomes the center of my universe. My eyes follow the proscribed looking places and my mind clears. There is no thinking. I perceive my breath, my muscles and I see my looking place. My head is filled with numbers: ekam inhale, due exhale, trini inhale ..... I can feel my spine stretch, twist and bend. It tingles, it feels alive. There are butterflies that ever so lightly touch the muscles around my spine when they move. When they stretch it feels so good that I want to linger. All the while my body is filled with air, with lightness. As I get warmer my movements become like liquid, smoother and sometimes faster - more energy.
After a while my chest opens and I flex my heart to the world. I love all life. I am fully present. I am happy. I am free. Thinking is reduced to a minimum. My physical organism takes control and I am the watcher - that's all. I am alert. I am aware, I am moving with my breath. My world is simply reduced to what is and that is fine. After practice this feeling lingers through the day. The time on my mat is real, it is life, it is the now. The world I enter after practice is transient and volatile. It often lacks depth. I can easily accept that because I can feel the depth inside me that is the happy place which lives in all of us. Always.
I am not an important person. My life is not very exciting. Nothing about me is special or particularly interesting. I don't have much stuff and nothing of great value. Yet I wake up in the morning with peaceful stillness in my mind. I delight in feeling my breath move through my body. I stretch my spine until it tingles. When I get up I move mindfully and enjoy each motion. I find pleasure in the little things. I see magic everywhere - I see nature everywhere. I don't linger on past events and I spend little thought on the future. I don't worry much because I don't need much. I love all life. I am happy.
Happiness is the ability to consciously feel the eternal bliss of life. This is what everyone is unknowingly searching for. To feel life or to feel alive. Dancers feel alive as soon as the music begins. Skydivers feel alive as soon as they're in the air. They are in the present moment. Their focus is completely in the now. They are happy. A moment of simplicity. These are just two examples of many. But what if the music stops or when back on the ground? We are quickly drawn back to life's drama: the virtual world of our thinking mind. This upsets our connection to life's energy.
Is it possible to be happy all the time? Sure. Even when challenged by life, if you can keep your connection to life's vibrancy, you will be able to meet your trials from a much more confident place because you feel your own potency. To keep the connection you need to be aware when your mind tries to draw your attention into the drama world of speculative thinking. Resisting this pull requires strong power of concentration and mind control.
We have been conditioned to believe that happiness comes with a price tag. The more money, power or stuff, etc. we have the more joyful we will be. This is largely how our world functions. But happiness cannot be found in the outside world. It is a matter of our inner world. It is available for free. Nobody has the power to sell it to you and nobody has the power to withhold it from you. It is already in you. Happiness is not having a Porsche or a Gucci bag. Happiness is not needing a Porsche or a Gucci bag.
Every year Lino Miele gives a workshop in Kovalam, India. It takes place over the months of December and January and students from all over the world welcome the opportunity to study with one of Guruji's most senior teacher. Because it takes place in India, it is more affordable to go for the entire two months should you be lucky enough to get the time off. Although the shala is fairly sizable, it can get pretty crowded during peak season. So students get time slots when to begin their practice to cope with the sheer number of them. It's a bit like Mysore - only a little smaller. If I am there, I am usually put in the first slot early in the morning which is fine as I'm used to practicing early and the temperature is still pleasant at that time. When I get to the shala, there is always a number of students warming up with stretching exercises. It feels like coming into a gymn rather than a yoga shala. The atmosphere seems filled with expectation...
Pattabhi Jois always used to say: "no stiff body - stiff mind". If you go to practice in Mysore, stretching before practice is a big no-no. If students waiting for their practice turn start stretching, Sharath is quick to tell them: "no stretching - just sitting." In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it says that posture is mastered by reducing the tendency for restless-ness and meditating on the infinite.
We "modern" practicioners are always quick to say that a little stretching and warming up the body can't hurt. But can it? Don't Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and Sharath know what they are talking about? Is it ok to just dismiss what they are saying? Will yoga still work or is it even still yoga?
Yoga chitti vritti nirodah- We practice yoga to gain a one pointed mind. To control our mind and to stop random thinking which results in needless suffering. To train our mind we practice the asana system. With total focus on moving with the breath, control of bandhas and observing the drishtis. Doing this slowly and mindfully our muscles with strengthen and lengthen in their own time. The focus is in the present moment without the desire to achieve anything in particular. If we feel the need to stretch our muscles before practice, maybe we should ask ourselves why. Is it because we want to avoid pain because we are practicing too hard? Do we want to achieve a certain kind of asana level?
Are we shying away from were the real stiffness sits? How can we learn to control our mind if we avoid going there?
If when doing asana we concentrate too much on muscle and too little on the mind our development is going to be very limited. Our body will only go as far as our mind will let it. A good teacher may be able to coax you into letting go so far but in the end it's up to you to challenge the rigidity, fear, and doubt that is your thoughts - your thinking mind. It takes honesty, strength, faith and patience to do this. But first and foremost we need to be willing to face the reality of our stiff mind. After all, who tells the muscles to tense in the first place. It is not the muscles themselves that decide to do so. Our body is neutral. It reacts to messages from the nervous system which in turn gets its instructions from our very own brain. So to do warm-up stretches or even preparatory asanas in the yoga practice is avoiding the issue. It is a comfort zone. A knowledgable teacher will know this and (try to) stop their students from stretching prior practice.
Maybe that is why all the stretching stops the second Lino enters the shala ...
The purpose of ashtanga yoga is to gain a one-pointed mind. This is what it says in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. To have a one-pointed mind means you are free of compulsive conditioned thinking. To get there we need to train our mind to focus only on matters we choose and stay there. This is not easy. The ashtanga asana method is a practice system that when used correctly can arrest our mind. This is because next to focus on breath, bandhas and drishtis, there is not much time for random thinking. To be effective this practice is to be performed 5-6 days a week for a long time - preferably for life. In this way we are creating a new mind pattern that in time will enable us to focus and keep the focus on a subject of our choosing. This is also called meditation. It will set us free from the constant and often negative mind chatter in our head.
Asana practice is just part of the way to achieve this but it is not the only way. Yet, the asana system of ashtanga yoga has been mutated into a yoga form just by itself. It has its own industry, community, rules and regulations, kings and queens, global events, tv channels and plenty of stuff to buy. The yoga community bickers among another, people are mobbed, discredited and punished for not obeying rules...... just like in any other community. This is the work of compulsive and conditioned thinking. It is the pattern of the world. The pattern we would like to get away from which is why we are doing yoga in the first place.
It is not surprising that this asana system has become so popular. On a purely physical level, this practice increases strength, flexibility, stamina and overall health. I love my asana practice! It is beautiful to do and to look at. Once the system has been learned you can do it alone at home, go to a shala or join a practice group. You can discuss and compare your 'progress' with others. You can hunt and excel in certain asanas and show off, be better than others or even be the best....
Still - we should not forget its purpose and its place in the overall Ashtanga Yoga System. The aim of this practice can be achieved with the simplest of asanas, even with easiest beginner version of sun salutation A, if practiced mindfully, for a long time and in harmony with the breath, bandhas and drishtis. We are clearly exaggerating the importance of asana. Taking it too serious. We are overegging the pudding and as a result our mind is stiffer than before. Ashtanga people can get very intense. One wrong word can set of a mighty shit storm. But this is how it is - the pattern of the world.
The heart of every true spiritual practice is to be present. To be present is to focus your attention right here on this moment and on what you are doing right now. Because this moment is the only moment there ever is, the only moment you will ever have. It is your life. If you are not fully aware of and present in this moment - you miss life. This is the fundamental truth.
Why is it so important to be in the moment? The past does not exist. If you don’t believe it just look around and see if you can find it. There may be results of the past around you but the past itself is not there because there is only the now. Ever. The same applies to the future. See if you can find the future right now. You won’t. Nobody ever has. If the future is here it is the now. Always. The past and future can only be summoned in your mind. A non-reality. Because what is real is only ever here and now. That is why the past can never really hurt you, except if you bring it back into your mind. The same applies to the future. How often have you been scared of a future event and it never came to pass? The only thing that was real was your fear, your suffering, because it was in the now. Unnecessary suffering. How much less suffering would there be without an imaginary future or rehashed past?
If you do not pay full attention to the now but focus on the thoughts in your head, you have lost connection with life, to what is, to reality. To focus on the thoughts in your head is mostly a waste of time. Our mind produces thoughts incessantly. This is what it does. Just like our ears hear or our eyes see. We can choose what we look at or listen to but most people seem to have lost the capacity to control the thinking mind. Just like we seem to have no control over our own heart beating.
If you were to realize that your are not your thoughts but that you just believe you are, your life would change. You would see that the constant commentary in your head is not reality but a by-product of your mind. Something of little or no importance. If you were to learn to use your thinking capacity only when really needed - your life would change. The decisions you’d make in life would have a different quality. The way you handled situations would have a different quality.
Your life would have a different quality - it would be better.
Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois has a very practical approach. This makes it very effective for the human mind. It only works though if it is practiced correctly. Some say that this practice is very rigid and repetitive which makes it hard to stick to. This is a matter of perception. I find it not rigid but simple. It tells me exactly what to do, how to breathe, were to look, what to listen to so that my thought producing disposition is arrested. It forces me to be focussed, to be present. Of course it is repetitive. It is a spiritual practice like the repeating of mantras, Pranayama or meditation. If you confuse it with sport or a hobby, it will seem rigid, repetitive and boring.
Doing the same movement, breathing, looking place etc. everyday is a great tool to quieten and bring under control the thinking mind. If we stick to it and can surrender to the repetition and let go of the desire to be entertained, we can in time still our thought stream. Then we can have access to the true intelligence of our being. The constant chitter chatter in our head is not it.
Ironically the practice of this method is often changed to make it more entertaining. If we carry on entertaining our thinking mind it will absorb all our attention. This is defying the purpose of Yoga. The movements in this practice must be carried out in harmony with the breath, bandhas and drishtis. If a posture is difficult, don’t go into it so deeply or stop at the one beforehand. The practice becomes rigid and tense when you have to use all sorts of tools to do an asana perfectly or at all. If you set yourself goals to perform advanced asanas at all costs, you’ll be taking your attention to a future point in time where you might be able to do the asana. You won’t be present. It is not yoga. Your life won’t change with the possibility to do a handstand in the future, it will change with peace of mind now.
“The state of mind that is steady in flow, is the source of happiness; it is but peace. He whose mind is steady, finds all success at his door. We with a scattered mind must find the path of yoga, our only door.”
—Sri T. Krishnamacharya