Masochistic Perceptions, Trials and Truths

These are my cyberfied cerebral synapses ricocheting off reality as I perceive it: thoughts, opinions, passions, rants, art and poetry...

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Balwin: A Memoir and Invitation To Explore

In the northeast corner of Edmonton lies a small piece of the Global Village. Balwin is an inner city K-9 school, comprised largely of immigrants, refugees and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

When Balwin is showcased in the news, it is typically with a negative slant. For several years, Balwin was rated at the bottom provincially in terms of academic achievement, and was known for having murders committed along its immediate boundaries four years in a row, the last being a decapitated human head. While these are facts, it sensationalises this northeast community in an inaccurate portrayal. Yes, there are issues here, just as in any community. I reside myself in the northeast in this same community and prefer living here, as I have for close to 20 years, over many other parts of Edmonton which lack character and a sense of themselves – lost in the quickly erected boxes of urban sprawl.

Perhaps more disturbing than having a human head found in the alley behind your classroom, was the students reaction – or lack of reaction – from such an event. Sadly, many of the students at Balwin have come from refugee camps and situations in countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq where they experienced unimaginable traumas. The evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is prominent in our student population, ranging from the inability to self-regulate to physical violence against staff and other students. Between the affects of PTSD, coming to a new country, new culture, learning a new language in addition to curriculum, and, for many, learning to be in a school for the first time, it has presented an incredible challenge for all parties involved, and, perhaps, sheds a bit of light on why Balwin often scores low provincially when it comes to raw academic scores. Students straddle between the new world in which they find themselves, and their old world which was rife with violence and, often, religious fundamentalism. Growing up is difficult in general. One of my students who, quite honestly, is more of a son to me than pupil, will tell me that “one day Allah is going to hit the world with a big stick and I am going to have to cut off your head”. When I ask why would he do this, does he not care about me, he replies “yes, but it’s not me doing it. It’s Allah guiding my hand”. The challenges these students face, and those who are desirous of assisting them to succeed academically, are immense.
I had a grade 4 Somali girl who went ballistic in gym class one day. She was growling like an animal, kicking and screaming, punching me and anyone close to her. For everyone’s safety, I had to physically restrain her. The next day she came to me before class and gave me a big hug, completely randomly. I said " you know that I love you, right?" She replied " I know. I love you too" this was quite a breakthrough for her. I know she's been severely traumatized back in Somalia and it has been alleged that her father is a physical disciplinarian. Much like one might sustain inguries from working with wild animals in an effort for their conservation, working with such a large group of children who have experienced severe trauma and culture shock can lead to a few bumps and bites along the way. 

I also had an Afghani girl who always said " I hate Canada" and prefaced most things with " I hate..." Part of it is her way of joking, and I would often tease her, imitating what she says. We were doing stuff for Remembrance Day one day, and part of what I shared was a video of all the Canadian soldiers who died there. I explained why Canada was there - to fight the Taliban and to make it so young girls like her could go to school. At the end, I approached her and said "So now do you understand why it hurts even if you joke about hating Canada?" She replied "yes. Thank you. I love you and I love Canada"

...That's what it's all about. The power of love and Education. Schools have curriculum and standardized tests such as the Provincial Achievement Test, but, often, we need to prioritize our work based on our specific student demographic and needs. This results in reflecting badly when it comes to statistics being given to stakeholders and the public, but is very neglectful in the important, significant and magnificent work being done at schools like Balwin.
Ultimately, this is a story of success. I have been teaching at Balwin for half a decade. Originally, I was hired as a Transitions teacher. This program, for which funding was recently ended, focused on students who specifically were new to Canada, from refugee camps and had little or no previous formal schooling. While my class was small and I had a cultural broker to assist me sometimes, there was seldom a significant difference between the students in my class and those making up the majority of other classes. Overall, we were looking at approximately 50% of students being English as a Second Language (ESL) school-wide, a statistic that remains about the same today (though I would say these statistics reflect a lower percentage than what I perceive to be the case in terms of numbers). These ESL students are not those coming from peaceful places with a culture similar to our own here in Canada. Instead, the majority of our students are of Somali background, with others coming from troubled or impoverished parts of the Middle East and South America. The resources to support these learners are quite different and extensive than supporting a newcomer who is from a place like France or Germany. In my first year, 5 teachers went on stress leave, fights were a daily occurrence – sometimes using rocks and pencils as weapons. There was often chaos and little learning happening. We had to assess how we could affect change. Given the situation, staff were dealing with children who came from what I would call “alpha” cultures – large families, interned in camps; a place where only the strong survived and the loudest were fed. In Canada, we do our best to nurture all students with inclusion and differentiation, often perceiving those attempting to become “alpha’s” in a negative light due to their aggressiveness and difficulty being a team player. Understanding the “why”, we could now ascertain the “how” to affect positive change. As we identify the problem, we can begin working on developing solutions.
With my class being the least restrictive in terms of curricular mandates and of a smaller size, but also of perhaps the most concentrated of negative and violent behaviours, I introduced daily Yoga and meditation. A practicing Yogi myself for nearly 20 years and a certified Yoga instructor, and also as a person with PTSD, I understood the value and impact that such a daily practice could potentially have on students. The movement of Yoga, coupled with the calming affect meditation can have and the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system, were, in my opinion, important first steps in helping students to withdraw from their fight or flight mode and engage in learning. From here, I needed to establish a set of classroom rules – which I referred to as “Our Classroom Agreement” – as a way to keep behaviours in check, develop community, empathy and create an environment conducive for learning. These rules were compiled based largely on the Tribes program which I had trained in previously, in addition to other readings and personal experiences. The result was the following:

1.            No put-downs
2.            Always listen
3.            Respect
4.            No fighting
5.            We all belong
6.            Never give up
7.            You control you

Success did not come quickly, and my first year was difficult. In all honesty, every year has pushed me to my limits. Still, abiding by my own rule #6, I continued to persist. A large part of making these ideas work was to develop positive relationships with my students and their families. At the time, most of my students were strong Muslims from Somalia, and accepting that meditation and prayer were different things did not come easy. 
However, over time and with more relationship building which included learning a bit of Somali myself (and, since: Serbian, Romanian, Farsi, on top of my smattering of Slovak, French, German and Spanish), and Balwin’s organization of monthly information nights for parents who were new to Canada went a long way in building bridges and making Balwin a community hub; as well as providing us with the rare opportunity to have translators and effectively communicate with parents. So, again, by never giving up, these strategies began to have a positive effect.

The Administrators at Balwin are incredibly progressive individuals. They will often tell consultants, when they come to our school, that they support the teacher’s judgment 100% and that they are the ones who need to be consulted with as they spend every day with the students in the classroom. After listening to my success stories, our Principal proposed that we do morning meditation with all the classes. So we did, with considerable success. Then we decided to take things a step further and agreed, in the interests of truly building a positive school community, that we should gather all the students from K-9 in the gym every morning for meditation. I can honestly say, five years in, that the impacts have been profound. School violence and conflict has reduced significantly as students utilize meditation techniques to calm down and self-regulate, and academics have increased in positive results. The staff presently at Balwin have been here a couple of years, and, despite having large classes, most often with no support in terms of Educational Assistants (EA) and still sitting at an 50% ESL population, they want to be at Balwin. It has been some time as well since a staff member has taken stress leave. That is not to say that our staff have not been through the ringer, because they have, and I know many of us have neared that brink of breaking and burnout. But their passion and genuine desire to be here carries them through. 
But this is only part of the story of Balwin and its resiliency. We did not stop at simply calming behaviours and developing sustained focus. At Balwin we know that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: student success. We were still faced with the dilemma of having a majority of students working below grade level, for no other reason than the misfortunate circumstances they were born into.
With no Transitions program anymore and classes lacking in EA supports, the staff at Balwin knew they must be innovative. Particularly, we looked at our Division 2 students (grades 4,5,6). Chronologically, students were assigned a grade. From the perspective of grade level of achievement for reading and writing, it was seldom that students were actually at grade level. Teachers asked themselves if it made sense to have separate grade 4, 5 and 6 classes where you would have to differentiate from a K-6 level in every class, most likely without an EA to assist with the implementation of the differentiated plans. What about curriculum – especially as it pertains to our immediate student needs?
So often we are asking our students to be risk takers that we neglect the fact that our staff are also huge risk takers and, sometimes the things we try fail terribly. Having the fortitude to start again, learn from what went wrong and collaboration keep us all on our feet, though we are always trying to find our sea legs. Several discussions about our grade level and chronological groupings eventually yielded a plan to create three separate classes, all comprised of grade 4, 5 and 6’s. All three classes were to cover the same topics, rotating through the curriculum starting with grade 6 (to ensure grade 6’s would have sufficient knowledge for their PAT’s), followed by grade 4 the year after and grade 5 the year after that. This model allowed for much inter class projects, allowing students to take leadership roles, mentor one another and, realistically, present a model of the real world where people of all ages and abilities have to interact and work with one another. For the most part, classes were grouped largely on reading levels, but there were also some students placed strategically for behavioral and social reasons, again, to ensure minimal disruption to learning due to behaviours.

My class was the “middle” group in terms of English language proficiency. I had in my class 23 students, 18 of which were coded ESL, Behaviour disorder or Opportunity (low cognitive function), and no EA. At times, this class was incredibly challenging. While medidtation, mediation (students problem solving themselves and figuring out how to repair the harm for negative behaviours) and our classroom agreement were tools, they did not solve ever issue adolescents have, not to mention when they are all vying to receive the most attention. The core of my teaching was based on 10 Words of the Week which would be a blend of necessary sight words and terms necessary to understanding what we were learning in Social Studies, Science and Math. At this point, cross-curricular pollination began and the fruits of this approach became evident as skills for each separate subject were interwoven and applied continuously.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of teaching a largely ESL population is they are too old for books written for small children. As a result, I had to create my own resources, using cultural references that would offer some familiarity, while introducing new ideas. Filling the learning gap in such formative years is taxing, and one can not delay in finding a sufficient hook to focus the learner. This led to the next point in the evolution of our practice: student driven learning (SDL).

The premise of SDL is that students pick topics that they wish to learn about. So often, with curricular topics, we become tied to the subject instead of the skills you wish to impart as a result of studying said topic. Student success begins with them being engaged. Once they are engaged with a topic, it is up to the teacher and student to work together and co-construct criteria. The teacher will know what the learning outcomes and skills are necessary to a student’s growth. Sitting down with a student and outlining what the student needs to articulate what they need to show is the first part of the process – the student now knows the “why”. The “how” then falls upon the student. How will they demonstrate their skill, comprehension and knowledge? This moves learners away from static worksheets to demonstrate learning, into something much more free and dynamic. Offering freedom is what education is all about, not restrictions. As soon as we tell a student to fill in a standard form, they will never find their ability to express themselves and will become mired in the culture of can’t. This is not a relinquishing of standards, but rather, opening the avenues of personal creativity and expression. The successful person has many tools and the sense of independence to build that which they will.

While in its infancy, the SDL style of learning is showing significant progress. It has evolved into off-shoots such as Project Mondays where all students from grades 4-9 are mixed to complete numerous tasks. Balwin is a school alive with dedication and passion – where students feel loved and a sense of community. Our mission is to make learning extraordinary, and Balwin is committed and diligently striving to blaze that trail of excellence.

As stated previously, Balwin is a story of success. It is a success founded upon a staff with a common belief and a community who has bought into what is on offer. Perhaps Balwin does not receive the accolades allotted to some of Edmonton’s schools renowned for their Arts programs or academics. It’s a shame, truly, as some of the best and most challenging work in all of Alberta is happening within Balwin’s walls. It would be a pleasure to open our doors to you and invite you to witness our journey.

The Duality of Education

I think that the biggest issue in Education today is that there are two minds of thought. On the one hand, you have Educators themselves who are on the front lines and witness what students need to be successful. On the other hand, you have Government and other stakeholders who need a justification for funding, and, to make such reports to the tax paying public, they require some form of empirical measures to present progress. The public, whose taxes support the system, generally can understand stats offered by standardized testing - much like reading the standings of a hockey team in a league. If the metaphorical team is in the cellar, the public asks why. If they are top of the standings, not much gets said. 
This view is very distorted, however, when viewing Education from the inside. Teachers will see growth in the classroom that can not be quantified in a letter grade or percentage. The needs of each learner are unique, and every school has a certain demographic where a single "apply all" district policy or curriculum is neither feasible, nor in the best interests of students. Most people have gone through school and that is the basis of their experiences in Education. Do we ever ask, truly, what is the difference between a 79% and 81% student in the broader contexts of skill, knowledge and ability? Does 100% or "A" mean that a student knows everything, while a 0% or "D" mean they know nothing? Sadly, it is a grading system such as this that leads to so many future doors being opened or shut. Again, we can see where the two minds clash. So often the brightest of students are not those sporting the highest averages, anymore that ranking schools by PAT results indicates the work and progress being done within the walls of each building.
Because of all of this, I do not believe that student's needs will ever truly be addressed by our Educational system. In the end, there are those wanting their taxes spent frugally with and to be quantified - which is fair. The only issue I have with this is that the public will never overcome its apathy enough to truly understand what teachers are dealing with, and the impacts of these works will have on the future of our society in terms of skilled labour, progress, incarceration rates and other social demands. Teachers, on the other hand, while being perceived as these folks who work 8-3pm five days per week with tons of holidays, will continue to live their realities of being Educators, social workers, parents, coaches, volunteers, etc. , all fuelled by their passion for the profession and love of those students which they serve. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory."

ISIS, Middle East and learning from Marshall

We can learn a lot from Hitler coming to power, and it directly relates to radical Islam. Hitler came to power because of conditions created by the Armistice of the First World War. Essentially, Germany was given the tab for the whole war and had many conditions placed upon it by the British and French. Germans had nothing to lose, were piss poor and wanted to believe in Hitler's words of greatness and being the chosen race of the Übermensch. The same can be said for Islamic fundamentalists. They are living in poverty with nothing to lose, so it is easy to buy into the rhetoric being espoused by the radical elements, giving the disenfranchised youth something to believe in and a sense of purpose - despite how false that is. They feel wronged and someone is telling them a way that sounds feasible - the offer of water to one dying from thirst.
After Hitler was defeated, instead of repeating history (though Germany was cut up by the French, British, Americans and Russians), the West put forth the Marshall Plan which, by rebuilding Germany and creating a better sense of unity within Europe's western nations, offered the hope of a sustained peace. The Soviet Union, as Russia still does today, didn't make that easy. Still, we now have a European Union. When you tabulate the amount of money being spent on war (Iraq cost the U.S. In the trillions alone), and ask: "what if we implemented a similar policy in the Middle East instead of creating more hate through the deaths incurred by collateral damages of dropping bombs on suspected terrorist bases?" When countries like the US brought aid to the areas of Pakistan after their massive earthquake a few years ago, the people were grateful and popular opinion for the West grew. What if we did more things like this - again, Education being paramount?
Simple truth: war does not beget peace. Yes, there are times when war is our only alternative - again, Nazi Germany is a prime example. But peace and Education - the teaching of tolerance and so forth - are the only lasting solutions.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

On Accepting

So much of what I read of the Buddha's teachings make sense. Difficulty lies in the acceptance of these teachings. How often do friends or family advise us on an issue, but we neglect the advice, even if it does seem to make sense? Every day we do things that we know may not be the healthiest or wisest of choices. This is part of being human, in my opinion. Our attachments do lead to suffering much of the time, and accepting things such as aging, ill-health and mortality still strike us harshly and oftentimes lead us to look for justifications. Using myself as an example, I have spent most of my life placing extreme physical demands upon my body, allowed stress to have a massive impact on my overall health and, when I do get sick it is usually really sick (I am presently overcoming a bout of pneumonia which hit me in early August) and, as a result, incredibly depressed. I need look no further than myself for that which transpires in aches and pains, illness, etc., and I am very aware that I need to make accommodations in my life to find a gentler balance if I intend to live to a ripe age... but still, my mind is set on living at a high intensity; driven like the addiction that it is. I must accept the nature of my being and accept that what I become is largely a part of the choices that I make. So much of what we see in the current Yoga and Eastern Philosophy is about stillness and "organic living" with a range of supplementation to replace the miracles of nature which have been washed from our foods - ideas that I embrace whole heartedly up to a point, wary always of the marketing and pretty labels. Stillness and mindfulness definitely lead one to being more in the moment and foster a sense of greater control - observing beauty that is often blurred as we rush about in the bustle of our lives. But, personally, my sense of being present has more or less resided in more masochistic undertakings - pressing up the side of a mountain, the rush of rambling over a technically challenging mountain bike route, clinging with fading finger grip on a rock ledge, pushing for the precipice. Ultimately, we all have our lifestyle choices. Mine might be read as being ego based, and, I won't deny that it feels pretty good when guys half my age struggle to keep up with my mid-life carcass. However, I do that which I do because I love it.

Hardest for me is the accepting that our lifestyle choices do not guarantee our perfect health and happiness. In the past two months, two women who are very dear to me, were diagnosed with breast cancer. These two individuals in their late 30's join another dear female friend of mine who had this disease in her late 20's, all of whom were/are active, healthy-lifesty oriented people (non-smokers, etc.). In my teen years, a friend of mine died of leukaemia, and, at present, a young mother across the street from us is in her second year of battling this horrible disease. My uncle, again, non-smoker and non-drinker, contracted liver and lung cancer, passing away at 65 years of age. Contrast this to my Aunt who smokes like a chimney, had bowel cancer in the late 1960's, breast cancer in the 1980's and is still growing strong at the age of 80. My Mother, also a heavy smoker and not the healthiest of eaters, had breast cancer 5 years ago and has since made some positive lifestyle changes. My father-in-law, a spry man in his 70's and probably healthier than most, has never had a cancer, smokes a pipe constantly, loves his fatty, rich foods, wine and meats. I am not saying that all the science we have on the hazards of certain things is erroneous, but rather that, ultimately, life is what it is - no guarantees. 

So how are we to view and live our lives? At what point to we negate passion and pleasures for detachment with the goal of negating the sufferings they cause? What are we truly capable of accepting, being emotional creatures? In the end, it is a personal matter, and we can only find those answers within our selves.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Meditation In Schools

An Experience

Meditation and Yoga have found their way into our schools and appear to be growing in popularity as research expands on what potential positives can be gained through such practises. Based on my experiences, I am a strong-but-cautious supporter of seeing this happen. 

I've been practising Yoga and Meditation going on two decades and am beginning my 8th year of teaching in the classroom. The two have often intertwined. Up until last year, I had focused primarily on adult literacy and teaching inner city junior high school special needs students. I would often employ Yoga and breathing techniques throughout the year, and usually offered Yoga classes during our health week, but did not have a daily practise for my students. I don't know why, as the students tended to enjoy doing it, and the change in classroom energy was often positive. Then, last year, I took on a new assignment, teaching in a special elementary programme for new Canadians. While teaching my students English is a big part of the programme, it was is your typical ELL class. The students in my class are from refugee backgrounds, many of whom had never been to school, so my mandate is to acclimatise them to a Canadian school environment. This was a task that is both exhausting and rewarding. As you can imagine, my students have been subjected to significant trauma (this past year, all of my students had fled the conflict in Somalia via a couple of other countries), and the life skills needed to survive in a refugee camp are often quite different than those social skills needed in a Canadian school. There is often violence and, sometimes, the strains of PTSD, living in a foreign culture and the stress of living in the inner city are evident.

So, at the beginning of last year, I introduced Yoga, Meditation and chanting. I was surprised at how quickly I got the students to buy in. 

The Yoga I introduced utilised primarily compression techniques that, through learning about dealing with behaviour and special needs learners, allowed a controlled focus of energies that might otherwise manifest themselves in negative behaviours. This gradually expanded into balancing asanas to assist in focusing the mind and poses to allow for a sense of release.

Meditation was a little trickier to bring in. First of all, my students were all devote Muslims and I had to make it very clear that I was not trying to make them pray to another god or convert them. So meditation started off as "statues" where I attempted to establish good sitting posture, making a game of who could sit the stillest and the quietest the longest. Once this was working, breathing techniques were introduced and, by the middle of the year, the students understood the science behind the breathing as it pertains to stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, regulating the body's stress levels and interactions with anxiety.

Finally, I introduced kirtan style chanting. This was based on tones and rhythms - body vibrations - as opposed to focusing on the words (many of the chants were Hindu mantras). I used chants that were primarily non-secular, though Krishna, Shiva and Hanuman did get a fair amount of spin. These children love to sing, and they would put their whole hearts into their mantras. From what I experience while chanting, the vibrations do touch the body in a profound way, and the energy created is quite lovely. I love sounding off the "Om" or "Aum" at the end of a Yoga class.

Just a small anecdote on this strand: at the end of the year I took my students on a marathon day trip to the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. The kids were getting excited as we were approaching our stop on the massive ice buses they have there, so I said "guys, relax and meditate". And they did. They all started chanting "Om Namah Shivaya". What made this particularly wonderful is that the bus was full of tourists from India who, upon hearing these small African children chanting in Sanskrit, were all smiles.

This practise is how each day was commenced in my classroom, and took us approximately 20 minutes first thing each morning. The impact was profound and positive and the change in classroom energy was incredible. Techniques from our morning practise extended through the day as "posture" and "breathing" were often employed as cues to calm down potentially negative events. I believe that it benefited the students and was a positive contributing factor to their successes. I also believe that it taught my students in particular, how to better respond when upset or agitated. This being said, it was not all roses and, ultimately, a practise - not perfection.

In my introduction, I mentioned caution in regards to seeing a wider application of Yoga and Meditation techniques in our schools. This caution lies in the fact that most teachers are not trained Yogis, and it is not a simple curriculum that can be read and implemented. A massive part in successful application resides in the teacher themselves having a regular practise and developing understanding of the techniques. Certainly we see this in the world of Yoga today which has become a fashion and is pumping out inexperienced teachers like Starbucks pumps out coffee. Ours is a society that often popularises and dilutes things as a way of capitalising on a prospective profit. School teachers are more often than not being asked to teach outside of their area of speciality. While many do a great job, others struggle and this trickles down to the students in the classroom. All I am saying is that teachers, if they are to bring Yoga and Meditation techniques into their classroom, need to have PD and support, but also need to be an active participant in the whole undertaking. If we do that, the results, in my opinion, will speak for themselves.


In my opinion, what sets human beings apart from other species is the part of us that seeks purpose or meaning in life. Perhaps purpose or meaning is merely a product of our imagination, but, that is neither here nor there as our perceptions become our reality. This sense of attempting to comprehend can certainly lead to arrogance and, as we have seen, give us the false sense that we are above and apart from all the things that make up our world. It is inevitable that we create our own order in order to gleam a sense of sanity. Oftentimes, however, I find this order causes us to wish that all things can establish themselves in the relative borders of black and white. We attempt to compartmentalise people and seek a justification for those things that come to pass: karma, god, natural consequence, bad luck, etc. This is not to deny cause and effect - I am not referring to the fact that if you hit your thumb with a hammer that pain will be the result. I am speaking more to the complexity of the individual; our expectations of our selves and others - the "why" of relationships. It often feels as though we wish people to be of a prescribed predictability, while, in our works of fiction set in novels, movies, etc., we seek a greater complexity of the characters. I must confess that I frequently look to fiction - perhaps more often than in my own life - for greater meanings and purpose, coming away with a mix of great satisfaction and savage disappointment. I'll read more about the heroics of others, feeling that my own pursuits pale in significance when held up to such dazzling lights and luminaries. This is a sad thing.

I am trying to live more mindfully and acknowledge the gremlin in our psyche that causes us to look to the grandeur of the sky at the expense of that which is at our feet. Accepting things as they are, as opposed to what they "should" be. Having the wisdom to discern between the imagination of fiction and the incredibleness of that which presently is. When you contrast a beautiful piece of music or well written novel to the infinity that is the universe, we can see the wonder of this one fragment, but must realise that it is a minuscule speck of the greater whole. Everything is magic. The nature of the universe is also chaos; indifferent and limitless. Such a beautiful thing, of which we are a part, and, in which, we may mould our own experiences; there is no failure. Perhaps, this would thus preclude that there is no purpose or meaning - a difficult and discouraging thought. But why dwell on definitions? On compartmentalising and seeking that order? Surely, we have seen as people try to define "god" that such definitions immediately limit that which would be limitless and attempts to comprehend that which is not possible to comprehend. We are what we are. That is all there is. Be happy, for that is all that truly makes sense and regulates our actions.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Keeping Regular

Life is so busy, it's often easier to neglect one's Yoga practice. We need to look at Yoga as a complete lifestyle, in my opinion, if one is to truly reap its many benefits. When I say this, I don't mean that we simply need to do asana every day or go to a class a few times every week. Often I state that Yoga is about all Eight Limbs, as prescribed by Pantanjali. Don't get me wrong, physical asana practiced daily is a good thing and a wonderful way to start. It is, however, easy to become consumed by the physical as it tends to be the most obvious and simple part of being a Yogi. However, like going to church, the synagog, temple or mosque once per week while not being mindful of the teachings presented there is not quite the same as living by the teachings of one's preferred path.

The path of Yoga is, by no means a simple one. I would recommend starting with one or two things to slowly transform one's self. Take, for example, ahimsa - practicing non-violence. On the surface, this appears to be telling us not to be physically violin or harmful towards others. One may believe, since I do not kick puppies, spank my children or get in fist fights to have mastered this concept. While this is a good beginning, it extends far deeper than this. Allowing aggressive thoughts towards others pass through our mind, forcibly pushing one further or deeper into a pose or consuming animals as food are all examples of not practicing ahimsa. Rather than throwing one's hands up in resignation, it is important to emphasize the word practice. This is what Yoga - and life - truly is all about. It's about the journey, not necessarily about the destination. We often react in a violent manner, whether it is toward the person who cuts us off in traffic or at another who truly aggravates us. Breathe - we are all human. The main thing is to be aware that we are acting as such and endeavour to "catch our selves" and decrease the frequency as to how we might react this way. Over time, like thinking about things being half full as opposed to half empty, or seeing the positives in adversity, we gradually become more mindful and adapt our selves accordingly.

Making the time for practice is part of being reflective, introspective and truly being in the moment instead of wishing away the daily grind for special occasions and more notable parts of one's life. If we are not present in our daily lives - in the moment - then where are we?

One must also be patient. Yoga offers no quick fixes and can oftentimes lead us into turbulence. This is the nature of our being as all states are temporary: happiness, depression, loneliness, ecstasy and so forth. Confucius stated that "everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it". Just as the sculpture sees the masterpiece through the rough stone or the paints on their pallet, by cultivating a greater awareness will lead us onwards. We have spent much of our lives getting to the conditioned state that we experience at present, and we may expect a lifetime for transformation. As we continue to cultivate our ways in the spirit of the Eight Limbs - being honest, not hoarding, not stealing, using our energy wisely, dedicating one's self to self-study, demonstrating discipline, devotion and practicing pranayama (breathing) asana and meditation - we may eventually break the cycle of duhka (hardship) and embrace the meaninglessness of conditioned existence known as samsara. We live from our memories, a condition that is not always conducive toward a happy life. It matters not where we come from, but rather where we are now. The past is the past and the future lies ahead of us. To be content and accept the present will make for a better life. As Krishnamurti states: "A man who is not afraid is not aggressive, a man who has no sense of fear of any kind is really a free, a peaceful man."We all love to be loved and to feel the tranquility and safety peace offers us. Despite our difficult lives, this remain attainable if we are willing to work in that direction. To live a life apathetically and as a non-entity is to not live at all. So take the time life offers you - it is all there is. Life is breath - it sustains both the body and mind. Take the time to breathe deeply.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Yoga for PTSD

When I was a child, I had a pretty traumatic upbringing. My Mother would often  beat me, abuse me psychologically by saying things such as she was going to kill herself by jumping off the bridge, and if I cried at her funeral she would haunt me until I died - this was at the age of 5. On my birthday, Christmas day, a drunk uncle held a loaded shotgun to my head. I was an overweight child, terrible at sports, and grew significant body hair all over upon hitting puberty, to the ridicule of many. I began to rebel as a punk rocker in my teens, but, through necessity, I joined the Navy later on so I could afford university. As a member of Generation X, life was hard as I did a variety of jobs to get by as I could not find work in my Educational field. One of those jobs saw me as become a Correctional Officer in a maximum security prison - a very difficult culture for me to adapt to as I am a very non-violent, altruistic individual who loves Art and Academics - where I was constantly exposed to trauma: riots, murders, suicides and suicide attempts, violence, etc. 

In 2003 I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.War, cultural conflicts, crumbling family systems, natural disasters and financial difficulties are all playing a part in the rise of individuals affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in our society today. PTSD presents itself in a variety of ways: depression, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, emotional numbing and volatility, intrusive thoughts, recurring nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating and efforts to avoid people, places, feelings, and events that evoke memories of the original trauma. Trauma survivors have a great need to find ways to work through their experiences and get a sense of meaning and understanding. While the majority of those who have experienced direct trauma or who have witnessed trauma can heal, even persons who do not develop full blown PTSD, will experience a number of the symptoms mentioned above.

There are a variety of treatments for those affected by PTSD. Psychologists assist PTSD patients identify the source of their trauma, provide coping skills to help one’s self when re-experiencing a trauma, understanding the physical side of PTSD, dealing with associated symptoms of PTSD and ways to regulate emotions. Many modern therapies are utilising Mindfulness meditation and applying concepts from Eastern Philosophy; primarily Buddhism and Taoism, as the platform for treating PTSD patients.

Yoga is another discipline coming from the Eastern cannon of Philosophy and Spirituality being used to treat PTSD, and the one that I have found to change my life. The practice of pranayama – Yoga breathing techniques – complements many of the strategies being used in sessions by psychologists as a way of calming the parasympathetic nervous system. With many PTSD sufferers, panic or anxiety attacks largely characterise their disorder as the “fight or flight” part of the body does not turn off when it is no longer required to keep the individual safe. The amigula, the part of the brain that regulates our body’s responses to danger, can be significantly affected by pranayama practice, re-setting one’s sensations back to a calmer state.

The practice of asana, – Yoga postures – can also assist PTSD patients to address PTSD symptoms by allowing them to give themselves permission to let go of worry, guilt and pain by focusing on the present moment and learning to accept that we are all where we are and that we are not our thoughts. Challenging asanas can assist in focusing the mind, while asanas requiring balance calm the mind. Asana affects posture, the central nervous system, massages internal organs and promotes the oxygenation of breath while flushing fresh blood into muscle tissue. While Yoga is not a quick fix, when the individual begins to maintain a regular practice and attempts to extend the Yoga techniques beyond his or her mat, the impact on their lives and condition as it relates to PTSD symptoms can be significant. This transformation comes through the simple re-acquaintance with one’s body.

I still suffer from PTSD symptoms, but am a far cry from the lows that I experienced over the past decade. In my present vocation, I teach in a special programme at the elementary school level. My students are grades 2-6 and have come from refugee camps, with no previous schooling and no English language skills. Every one of my students have been exposed to severe trauma, coming from the famine and civil war in Somalia, and now living in low-income Canadian neighbourhoods. Practicing what I preach, I have introduced Yoga and Meditation into my classroom with profound results. It is my hope that a collaboration project that I am presently involved in will eventual evolve into a piece that I can take to other schools to assist in the positive development of our youth who face a plethora of issues as they make sense of our modern world and try to find their place in it. Recognising the stress level on my colleagues, working with similar children, I also teach a weekly staff Yoga class. 

In closing, I am at peace with myself and my past. While it appears terrible - and many aspects of it were - it is also what made me who I am today and has, if anything, encouraged me to be that change that Gandhi spoke of in the world. Life is what it is. I am grateful for my life, those around me and the opportunities I have had. I hope that, in sharing this piece, others will find a way to find peace and their way.

            Stankovic, L. Transforming Trauma, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, No. 21, 2011

Williams, Mary Beth, Soili, Poijula, The PTSD Workbook, New Harbinger Publications Inc., 2002

Wills, Denise Kersten, “Healing Life’s Traumas”, Yoga Journal,

Bessette, Alicia, “Soldier’s Heart”, Yoga International

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Do I Believe In A Divine Deity?

I've been fascinated by religion and philosophy for ages. Despite feeling that I am largely an existentialist and have no a belief in a god or gods per say, I have been finding a spiritual path of sorts, largely through my practice of Yoga (and I completely admit to being a Yoga zealot), and readings in the Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Pagan and Sikh traditions. These traditions have left me feeling that I am free to explore my spiritual nature and I have taken aspects from each, as well as the western cannon of Philosophy and Psychology, to form the present day working document  of my beliefs. Certainly, I have given thought to the teachings of Christianity and Islam as well, however, I found their rigidity, vagueness, demands of obedience and leaps of faith to be too much for what I can accept from where I stand. There are wonderful teachings of peace and ideas of how to lead a spiritual life in Islam and Christianity, but the dogmatic nature of these faiths simply are not for me. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” This is how I see life - a subjective journey where change remains the only constant and, ultimately, all the elements for inner peace and internal chaos co-exist. It is how these elements arrange and manifest in the moment, and how we handle their manifestation that creates our reality and state of being. Nietzsche also wrote: “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.” While not intending to be elitist, I do believe in making life a journey of transformation, but understand that this may not look the same in the mind's of others. And so I try to live by the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

So, yes, all faiths allow one to seek a spiritual path through a belief system, senses of morality and sense of the divine; some with more guidance and restrictions than others.Bringing us to the ultimate part of all this - moving from the thought and action to the existence of things like a supreme conscious universal being- (G)god(s) and souls/spirits.

There is energy that runs through all things on the planet - Science shows us this: electrical synapses and currents in the brain cause us to experience everything that we experience. Movement is energy and, in order to posses energy to move, we eat, draw from the sun, etc., and we exert that energy back into other things which our exertions, music, sexual intercourse and pregnancy, body heat, etc. Energy is stimulated when we sing or chant "Om" - resinating vibrations throughout our system, knocking the gunk out of our internal structure and forcing vibrations strong enough to shatter glass and ripple water. Rocks, water - all things possess energy and conduct it. Energy runs through all things.

In the Yogic traditions, they have called this prana or kundalini, and Yogis seek  to manipulate the control of these things through the body (you may have heard of the Seven Chakras or Five Koshas) and to link them back out into the universe. There's something to be said about energy and how it may be manipulated to a noticeable effect. Certainly after doing a few moments of deep pranayama (big belly breaths) breathing with my Elementary and Middle-school  students in the past, even they could pick up on the noticeable drop in the classroom's energy levels from stressed  and hyper to serene. During Yoga and meditation, even a first time practitioner can notice a significant change in their bodies on an energy and, oftentimes, emotional level, and this can become the pursuit of one's life's meaning. Again, the co-existence of internal bliss and chaos are elements seeded within us all and of the nature of being fleeting. Thus, we may work to master our energy, however impermanence is the nature of all in life - we may experience orgasms beyond dreams and suffering that presses us to the brink of suicide - but both sensations, which are massive energetic manifestations, will not last forever.

Our mind is a chemical soup mixed with organic solids that, through the synapse, create all that we experience. The five senses, the cue for your heart to beat, all of those things are electrical signals. What alludes me in my sense of the divinity of this force lies in this energy's intelligence or potential consciousness beyond the self. We shed and gain new energy all of the time. Ultimately, there is a unification of thought and self maintained throughout all of this in life in our consciousness. The question is, when the brain dies with the body, does this prana, kundalini, life force, holy spirit or whetever you chose to lable it, disperse or remain largely intact, either moving into the cells of something newly created or mixing with other universal elements (god?) and continue an eternity of manifestation and altering form? 

Then there is breath. Breath, of course, sustains  life. Pranayama, Kapalabhati and Ujjayi are just three types of Yoga breathing in Yoga that, when practiced, have immediate affects on the body. Likewise there is mindfulness meditation through Buddhism and prayer in general in other faiths.The breath connects us to our selves and to one another. We all breathe the same air, and, odds are, the air that is in your lungs now, keeping you alive, consists of the breath of billions of others, past and present. Perhaps you have a few respiratory drops of Gandhi, Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, Hitler or Mother Theresa in you right now. I worked for years in a maximum security prison and shudder to think of the negativity I must have ingested, but I've also been in proximity to many incredible people, so I'm hoping it all balances out karmic-ally. When we breath in, that O2 enters our blood stream and circulates around our entire body, nurturing each cell, cleaning out cellular byproducts and then releases them with an exhalation out into the universe. So, you can see, that even Science shows that we are connected on a very deep level - penetrated down to the life of every cell in our body.The same principles, of course, include that which we eat and drink as well.

So, between the breath, and synaptic/electric charge that unites all things, the question remains as to the intellectual nature of this universal life force. This world/universe is an incredibly complex creation which, in my opinion, will never truly be explained in terms to how things came into being. I shy away from the notions of intelligent design, thinking more in the area of pure miraculous evolution and adaptations. I see our human selves to be creature capable of limitless potential and think a large part of that promise can be found through Yoga and working with Prana and Kundalini (enter, Feddy's "Superman"). This is a difficult sell as many do not understand Yoga, holding limited interpretations based on modern Yoga trends and magazines which seem to be more about work-outs, fashion and the odd feel good phrase (hey - I stated clearly that I'm a Yoga Zealot!), and, you are right: simply stretching ain't gonna bring the light. Yoga, for those interested in following this point up for their own interest, is truly a way of life (but not necessarily the way for all) and, is not just about a 1 hour class of stretching and breathing on a Yoga mat, followed by a Caramel Macchiato at the local Starbucks while cloaked in the latest of the Lululemon line. That can all be great and lead to happiness. It's just not what Yoga is about - nor is Yoga about Moksha Hot Yoga Inc., Birkram trying to copyright asanas and treating Yogi's like Gurmukh as a celebrity (went to two seesions this week with Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, and, while I'm very interested in pursuing Kundilini Yoga much further, I was sickened by the whole rock-star billing of the night. Not to insult Gurmukh's teachings as she has given much to Yoga and I'm certain she has her merits, but I thought her presentation was well below the standards I would expect from a seasoned guru of her stature. Again though, loved the practice)... and I personally love Starbucks - tall Americano...MMMMmmm!

Yoga consists of Eight limbs (written by Mara Carrico):

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is calledashtanga, which literally means "eight limbs" (ashta=eight,anga=limb). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
The first limb, yama, deals with one's ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The five yamas are:
Ahimsa: nonviolence
Satya: truthfulness
Asteya: nonstealing
Brahmacharya: continence
Aparigraha: noncovetousness
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice.
The five niyamas are:
Saucha: cleanliness
Samtosa: contentment
Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God

Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, "life force extension," yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practicepranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.
These first four stages of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment from, our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting fordharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. No easy task! In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. In asana and pranayama, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine-tune the many nuances of any particular posture or breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. The strength and stamina it takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don't give up. While this may seem a difficult if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the "picture perfect" pose, or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the "peace that passeth all understanding"; the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, "holier than thou" kind of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow find their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant.

In the end, as Pascal's Wager states: "It does not matter whether or not I believe God exists". This rings true as what I think and feel is prone to change and the impacts of my thoughts simply lend themselves to the impermanence of all things - speaking from my Existentialist mind. Again, I echo what Nietzsche wrote: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” In the end, I endeavour to nurture that connection within myself, to those around me and with the greater universe as a whole in a positive manner. No matter our path, it is our intent that truly defines us. As Guru Nanak stated: "Owing to ignorance of the rope the rope appears to be a snake; owing to ignorance of the Self the transient state arises of the individualized, limited, phenomenal aspect of the Self." As we look inside we may see several different things. The important thing is that we find a way to make this looking viable and fruitful. In closing, to support Guru Nanak's thoughts, here are the first few lines from Pantanjali's Yoga Sutras - the bases of the sutures that sew and stitch together that sense of self and universal discovery, while liberating one's self from our thoughts, connecting to the divine self in the Yogic tradition. In yoga it is the direct experience from practice, which educates our beliefs. Our beliefs must conform to experiential "reality", not the other way around. When our extrinsic view of the world corresponds to how it truly is-as-it-is (swarupa-sunyam), then the view and reality are synched in a profound mutuality acting as mutual synergists. Something clicks, a palpable shift occurs, and one experiences harmony, true happiness, and peace. Through body/mind integration, love, beauty, and wisdom manifests through the yogi in action .

1.1 Now, instruction in Union.
1.2. Union is restraining the thought-streams natural to the mind.
1.3. Then the seer dwells in his own nature.
1.4. Otherwise he is of the same form as the thought-streams.
1.5. The thought-streams are five-fold, painful and not painful.

Om Shanti

Sunday, October 23, 2011


One can not deny that human beings have made significant progress over the ages. We live in a world where we can fly, transplant organs and cure disease, access information in a matter of seconds and have such marvels and wonders as indoor plumbing, refrigerators, duct tape and so on. It is certainly an age of conveniences, technological advancements and wonder.

Perhaps the most incredible part about many of life's daily "givens" is how unimaginable they were not a very long time ago. In my 43 years I've witnessed the video phones dreamed up on The Jetsons become a reality through Skype. Don Adam's character on Get Smart has seen the concept of the portable shoe phone  become today's Androids and iPhones with apps to bend the brain in wonder! Can you imagine a world without such things? It would be difficult. Yet, I remember living in a time when these things were the works of Science Fiction.

Is it not incredible how such recent developments have become habituated and have formed the nucleus of present day society, particularly in the areas of communication? How is it that such ways of life, with such a brief time in contemplation and diversion from the "norm", have become accepted, while ideas of human rights and freedoms, which are ideas that have existed for thousands of years, have still not be adopted by the world at large? We accept technology as it can make life easier and many things convenient. Would not peace and equality not afford us a greater convenience - a life without fear, hate, etc.? We have put the Internet and cell phones into every corner of the world, but continue to oppress and discriminate. We invest more in war than education and healthcare. The oppression of women, child labour, executions of homosexuals in countries like Iran, exploitation and "killing in the name of" under the veil of religions of love re-play their tragic tale over and over again. Our communities are changing in ways that are leaving many feeling empty - where qualitative interaction is being replaced by less substantial sound bites and tweets. Where is our progress in the area that matters the most - our communities, civilisation and our selves?

Our world is changing and my existence is one so brief that I am in no place to state whether things are getting better or worse. I am simply posing the question and making an observation; seeking my own sense of this progress.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Age of Aquarius on Wall Street, Walking on Yoga Mats and Rocking in Unison With Our iPods on Full Blast

The Age of Aquarius is supposed to commence on November 11th, 2011 - an age of a more completed enlightenment, breaking free of the wheels set in motion by the Industrial Revolution and authoritarian rule, while striving for a more holistic and emotional based way of living. It is a lovely notion, but, unfortunately, my faith in such a global revolution is non-existent. Across Canada today and around the world, thousands rallied in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, demanding a cessation to the corporate domination of governments and absolute rule. Perhaps it is cynical to point out that much of this counter-corporate movement has been coordinated through the use of iPhones, Androids and a plethora of things sold to us by the dragon they wish to slay.

Things will change - this is one of the only certainties in life. But just as the uprisings in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Libya and the like are under the banner of freedom and democracy, we know that the likelihood of success is limited as the people in those countries lack the educational and social foundations for such a revolution to be a success.  A gradual transition and global support is the only path to realising such dreams, and this will always be shaded by the ulterior motives of... well... the corporations and the governments that they are in cahoots with.

The same principles apply to this anti-corporate movement made popular now in the West. Sadly, I believe that many people protesting today were motivated by the desire to be part of a movement made fashionable by the media and celebrities. It is like the armies of Yogis you see walking through the streets with their mats rolled up and decked out from head to toe in Lululemon garb - the magazines full of advice on how to "simply be" and "simply live" alongside elaborate Yoga holiday destinations, overpriced supplements and fashions which cost an arm and leg (i.e. a correction in this month's Yoga Journal stated that so-and so's dress cost $495 - OUTRAGEOUS! Yoga simplicity Inc. to the nines!!!!). That is not Yoga, it is fashion and watered down physicality. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's getting people moving, and it might send the odd person down the real path of Yoga, but THAT is not Yoga. I do not intend to sound negative or preachy here, but I feel like this must be a point clearly made - a bit like telling someone that yes, that looks like a stick, but it's really a crocodile!

If people truly want to end the corporate domination of all things, then it needs to come from one's changing of personal consumption habits. The fact is we have a choice, most of the time, of what we will buy or not buy. Accompanied this fact is another: corporations make money through what people buy and the contracts they make with governments that, in the West, we supposedly elect. This latter part is, logistically, the most difficult, though most people will find the immediacy of the former, myself included, to be the most taxing.

We live in a disposable culture of virtual this and that and perpetual upgrades. I love my iPod and the fact that I can carry most of the music I own on a small device. I love the fact that there are computers that allow for people to email and post their thoughts. And while the world laments the passing of Apple's Steve Job's and can not deny his brilliance and how much his products have changed our lives, he is a prime example of how certain corporations have made us their bitches. Look at the line-ups when the next new iPad or iPhone comes out. It seems to be a very costly routine every 6 months to year. Are they truly that much better and that necessary? I have owned a computer - PC - since about 1996. My basic use over that time has been email, the Internet, word processing and Powerpoint. Recently, I can add YouTube, e-books and iTunes to my list. Overall, while graphics, ease and speed have improved vastly over the past 15 years or so, does the perpetual upgrading of machines truly represent this progress? Personally, I don't think so. Yet, like it or not, every 4 or 5 years, one's machine becomes dated because of the technologies, and we need to fork out for another. That is painful as a family, but a killer when you reflect on the businesses, schools and other services all forced to upgrade. Again, does the bang match the bucks spent?

As for the political side of things... well, simply look around. In my country there is not leadership and low voter turnout. In the US, Obama gave us hope and the rest blocked any progress or success he might have achieved, flouting their Tea Party and suggesting that a total moron like Sarah Palin is the way of the future as walking in the the whole Creationist mentality toward the Rapture - something that does not sound quite so warm and fuzzy as the Age of Aquarius!

In the end, despite our lust for fireworks and a good rhythm sounding strong from the drum, this will result only in shattered glass, leaving us to pick up the shards. The true revolution will be one of subtle personal decisions in our day to day lives. We have become a culture, in the West, that no longer know of any other way than our present manner of living. To change, we need to gradually make modifications on how we do things, prioritise accordingly, and hopefully realise that organic relationships trump  the materialism and attempts to purchase pleasure and happiness. Perhaps the Age of Aquarius will slowly manifest as week seek a deeper state of being and try to understand our selves and our place/purpose. It is a taxing undertaking and, in our present state of convenience, will dissuade the majority from proceeding down this particular path. In the end, however, life is your journey to take. The corporations can never own that, though they masquerade as they might. In this - our selves - lies our emancipation and peace; the ultimate revolution.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Yoga Made My Body Dance
...Read on, this is not as cheesy as it sounds!

The one week intensive part of my 200 hour Yoga Teacher certification programme wraps up (no pun intended) tomorrow. I've thoroughly enjoyed this week, despite all my apprehensions prior to starting. There are noticable changes that I am finding in myself, which a week in such an environment with others will cause. In the evenings, I do not know if I'm mentally exhausted, or merely experiencing myself minus the normal anxious energy that keeps me running. Could this be relaxation that I'm experiencing? It's strange, and I'm not certain how much I like it. With my wife and daughter being over in England for a family wedding, I feel as though I've undertaken some form of monastic retreat, being with my Yoga classmates during the day, and then being at home alone in the evenings with only my two dogs and cat for company. I have not really spoken to anyone outside of this for the past week, save for the odd email, Facebook stuff and a couple of phone calls. I feel a strong sense of detachment and a slight heaviness.

With tomorrow's conclusion (though we will still meet as a class once per month for the weekends through January to complete our 200 hours), I feel quite sad. Going each day, and the routine established has been most pleasant. I feel as though I've really connected with many people in my class, and have a genuine fondness for every one of them; very strange for me as more often than not, I usually do not feel like I connect well in larger groups. The sense one feels at the end of a holiday or a summer camp is what I am feeling; in a way, it is very much a feeling of loss. But, in the end, such emotions only stress the necessity to enjoy every moment of your life and to appreciate those that you are with as nothing does stay the same. I certainly felt that when I bid adieu to my colleagues at my old school this June, as I move on to my new position. I feel fortunate to have known and to know many of the wonderful people that I do.

As reflected in previous entries that I have made on this site, it took me a long time to register for this course. I never do very well with joining things,  for a variety of reasons. Do I wish that I had done this sooner? Definitely not, as it would have been a completely different experience and with a completely different group. I think that I will always look back at this group of people much like I do on folks with whom I have experienced a lot with: university, basic training in the Navy, Correctional Officer training, etc. Intensity forges bonds much like high temperatures forges formidable steel. To continue with this imagery, this experience has made me "strike while the iron is hot"....

... To preface this, let me say that I am not a very graceful man. I was a lineman when I played Football, a forward when I played Rugby and a shield man on the tactical team in the prison. It would be an overstatement of my grace to say that I was as eloquent as a bison humping a camel on a frozen pond after an oil spill. The only dancing I have ever truly embraced was slam-dancing back in my Punk Rock days of the mid 1980's. Get the picture?

I have resolved to try to take life a little less seriously and see if I can not lessen the intensity that stress and anxiety take on me. This is the first part. Secondly, I have quite an open fetish for Bollywood films. I know, Bollywood films are longer than a Cricket test match matineed with a German Opera festivals over the tea breaks. They are very, very silly. They possess everything: romance, action, humour, political statements and spirituality in each one. Some are so bad that they are great - like "The Sound of Music" (a film I love) on steroids! The best part of Bollywood is, most definitely, the singing and dancing.

So, in a moment of the Yoga version of Dutch courage, I registered for a six week, one hour Bollywood dance class at the studio where I am taking my Yoga. I've joked about this for a while with others, but never had the opportunity to be there in the spot where dance classes were being offered, and having the teacher encouraging me to do this (it is a bit like getting drunk and a tattoo without really thinking about it I suppose in several ways... or when a colleague of mine convinced me to have my back waxed - she must have really hated me!). So, I thought about it. Then I put it on Facebook that I was thinking about it. After the response of many of my friends, there was pretty much no turning back. I figure after playing my guitar and singing in front of others both on my own and as part of my old Celt-punk band, PLAID FLAG - areas where I am not rich or abundant in talents - that I would have to find the next "high" of insane things for me to do in public. I am already feeling the mortification of it all (in fact, we've danced a few times in my Yoga class and I am so awkward and brutal that I cringe thinking of it). Needless to say, the "Masochist" in the title of this blog is most applicable, yes? Oh yes! Certainly living up to the mantra on my leg tattoo (which was very well thought out before committing to it): "Life is a daring adventure or nothing".

I also hope to learn to play the tabla over the winter when my broken finger is healed... though this will be a far less humiliating and much safer undertaking (appropriate word as I die of stage fright!). New things are good, and, sometimes, you need to truly exceed your comfort zone... in my opinion, anyway.

That is essentially where life finds me on this warm summer's evening. Life goes on and I feel fortunate for what I have experienced. Life is good. That's all I've got.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Centering Narrative
By Ed Meers

Written as a Grounding & Centering assignment for Yoga Teacher Training Certification course
***Please note: unless indicated otherwise, take a 10 second pause between each break
***Approximate duration: 5 minutes

Lie down on your back in Savasana, the corpse pose.

As you lie there, allow your body to relax and sink down into your mat, feeling the earth cradling and supporting your body as you prepare for today’s practise. (20 second pause)

Observe how good it feels to be here, letting go of all those things your mind has been busy with leading up to this moment, giving yourself permission to take this time for yourself, and know that there is no other place you need to be right now – everything you need is right here.

It feels so good with the earth supporting you. It reminds us that as long as we are able to lie above the ground and enjoy these sensations, that we are alive and have this moment to feel, to be ourselves without the weight of the expectations of others, and to seek the sacred connection we all share with the greater whole.

Now draw your attention to the breath. Simply observe your inhalations and exhalations, perhaps taking note as to where you feel your breath the most. Perhaps it is through the nose, in the throat or in the chest area. Do not judge the breath, simply be the watcher.

Perhaps, if visualisation helps you to establish focus, imagine the swirl of your breath as it courses through your body and leaves like the steam of your breath into the atmosphere on a cold winter’s day, gently rolling and dispersing into the atmosphere. Again, you are an integral part of the whole; of the universe... the coolness of each inhalation, and the warmth of the exhalation.

Now, as you lie there, bring your gaze inward and note the sensations of the body. What is your body telling you? Simply observe without judgment (20 second pause)

On your next inhalation, see if you can breathe into the belly area. If it helps, you can place your hands on your abdomen, and breathe into them, filling the belly as if it were a balloon.

See if you notice your hands moving. Perhaps they are moving apart on the inhalation, and coming together again as you exhale, pushing the breath outwards, using the diaphragm and sensing the naval as it travels back toward the spine, feeling the pleasant warmth of your body under your palms.

Now move your hands up to the rib cage area. As you do this, imagine your breath to be like a wave, gently rolling from the belly, up into your middle and lungs, ebbing and flowing. Can you feel your ribs and hands expanding out through the sides? Allow this wave to gently rock back and forth, from the belly, up and back again, massaging the internal organs. Again, observe the rhythm and soft cadence of this movement without judging.

Slide your hands up onto your chest area now, allowing the fingers to feel the area above the collar bone. See if you are able to continue the wave of breath, on an inhalation toward the upper part of your lungs, and then as it returns on its journey back toward the belly.

Try to lengthen your inhalations and exhalations now. You may want to count as you inhale slowly to four, pausing briefly at the top of the breath, and then follow for another four count through to the bottom of the breath.

Continue this breathing pattern, tracing the rise and fall of the breath with your senses, for another three cycles. (25 second pause)

On the next exhalation, allow the breath to travel freely, on its own accord once more. As you are doing this, again, check in with your body. See if you can notice any changes to the breath or how your body feels. Are you feeling more relaxed? Has your body yielded itself further into the earth’s embrace? Do you have the sensation of the universe’s energy cleansing and easing your body; your mind? (30 second pause)

At this time, begin to bring sensation back into your body. You can wiggle your fingers and toes if you like – whatever feels comfortable for you.

Stretch out the body if that feels good, and prepare for your asana practise, remaining mindful of the awareness and connections that you have created, and of how good the breath feels in your body.