Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Mindful Journey

Anyone who knows me well enough also knows that I am a big fan of yoga. Far beyond just a form of exercise, yoga (whose 21st-century popularity negates the need for introduction) is a way of life for thousands of people, as it encompasses a philosophy of thinking, acting, moving, and ultimately living, that is refreshingly simple, providing refuge from some of the unnecessary complications of Western life.

When I was 15 years old, I attended an international summer camp in Denmark where each week, we would gather round a fire and our counsellors (camp leaders) would tell stories, sharing a little bit of their wisdom with us. I remember being struck by a speech which was truly unexpected, coming from the slightly eccentric and reclusive camp chef.

He was basically talking about how when we are faced with a tedious task - like washing the dishes - we have two options: The first is to allow our minds to take over, filled with thoughts of boredom and reluctance to the task, racing ahead, thinking, 'what am I going to do after this?', making washing up a miserable experience from beginning to hurried end.

Alternatively, we can make a conscious effort to stop our thoughts from infiltrating, and instead focus, with a quiet curiosity, on the way the warm water feels in our hands, the turn of the ceramic plates and metal pots and pans in the sink, and anything else that is sensory, moment by moment. This way before we know it, the dishes will be clean, and the 'dreaded' task transformed into something neutral, perhaps even enjoyable.

Back then, this unexpected dishwashing anecdote was a striking bit of insight that struck a real chord with me for all its simplicity. I remember thinking, 'this makes so much sense!' It was later that I realised that this was my first 'raw' encounter with the philosophy of mindfulness that is the foundation of a yogic world view.

Years later, when I was writing my BA dissertation and studying for my final exams, I thought it would be a good idea to try a yoga class to counteract being hunched at my desk for hours on end. My mum had sworn by yoga for years, and I always thought I would just find it too slow and wishy-washy. Within a couple of classes I was hooked, mainly by how loose, light, energetic and focussed I felt in the evening afterwards.

With time, yoga's effects on me extended far beyond the physical. Beyond being just a (remarkably) good stretch, I started to notice my daily temperament changing. I was beginning to take life step by step, or movement by movement, as I did on the mat in my classes. I began to feel myself slowing down, losing my ties to predisposed thoughts, frustrations and prejudices, and simply reacting organically with each passing instance. These 'calculated' reactions were made possible by the cultivation of a deep awareness of my body, stepping away from my mind.

The cumulative effect of these classes, as well as reading further into topics of mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and Buddhism, was transformative in every sense. It gave me a strong sense of purpose and direction, as I felt that every practice was making me a more open, kind, healthy and happy human being. It also provided me with a solid foundation within myself, to turn to when things didn't go to plan, or when something made me unhappy. I felt my reliance on external events and commodities wither away, finding peace and contentment in quiet, contemplative moments, alone or with other people.

The best thing about yoga is that it is a journey ('of the self, through the self, to the self'), and one that never ends. Yoga allows us to look at life for what it is, cleaning away the clutter we build up in our minds. In the same way my camp chef explained that we could be mindful about washing dishes, we can find the deepest joy in something as simple as a touch of grass, a hot cup of tea, or a subtle stretch. Yoga has opened my eyes to the reality that these simplicities are already enough to live a life full of meaning and purpose.

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