'It takes courage to be kind' so the quote says.
This idea is something that has spoken to me deeply in the last month and as such has been a focus in my own personal practice. When we think of courage, we may conjure up images such as a fierce male lion evoking Narnia's Aslan, or maybe a strong and fearless warrior ready for battle. Yet we rarely think of the ordinary, everyday folk and certainly not ourselves.
Courage, I think is often misunderstood. We have been told the tale that courage is the complete opposite of fear; to be courageous is to be fearless. However, when you really think about it, courage is born out of fear - without fear, there would be no need for courage at all. For me, courage is a very specific blend of fear, love and more specifically, passion. Love for something creates a passion that drives you forward, urging you to rise above and beyond the fear. But the fear is still there, underneath it all, quietly fuelling the action of our courageous endeavours.
So what has this got to do with yoga?
For anyone on the path of looking for a balanced, joyful and richer experience of life courage is everything. Yoga is often suggested as a catch-all practice to anyone experiencing difficulty in some part of their life. Bad back? Dodgy Knees? Stiff joints? Go to Yoga. Stressed out? Weak Pelvic Floor? Depressed? Go to Yoga. Want to feel more fulfilled and at peace? Get yourself to Yoga! Whatever reason prompts us to that first class, stepping on the mat is a choice that requires courage. When we do, we have made a choice to invest in ourselves and often this is not easy. In those moments when we have had a busy day at work, or have been shuffling the kids from one place to another, keeping on top of domestic duties and know that there are still things to do before the next day comes, we can fear that taking an hour out for a class will cause us to drop the plates we have been spinning.
And what happens if we drop the plates?
We fear this, I know we do because I do too. It's that fear of letting others down, or of being judged harshly by those whose plates appear to spin of their own accord... (We all have at least one person in mind here, I am sure). The funny thing is, I am fairly confident that we are all in the same boat - even those multi-tasking, ball juggling ones that still manage to look as if they have their s**t together. This is where the courage comes in. The love and passion for yourself, for a better way of living, for a deeper and more joyful experience of life has to be greater than the fear that holds us back. The teachings of Yoga offer us a way to cultivate this, through the practice of 'Ahimsa'. On a basic level this is the attitude of 'no harm'. In general, it is the attitude of not harming any living thing, this includes ourselves. The best way to do this is to cultivate an attitude of kindness. When we practice Ahimsa on the mat, we adopt an approach to our practice where we look after our body by listening to it, by not taking it beyond its limits, yet still seeking to find a comfortable challenge that will bring us greater health & vitality. It is also about being mindful of the critical voice that may offer stories like 'You are not X enough for this' and offer a kinder alternative to that voice. Another aspect is to value our time on the mat enough that we create the structures in place for it to happen and ensure we take time for it. It may also be saying a huge 'yes' to ourselves, which may involve a 'no' to someone else. When we begin to practise Ahimsa on the mat, we begin to embed the teaching into our body, making it more likely that this attitude will infiltrate into our lives off of the mat.
Practicing Ahimsa off the mat, poses a little more of a challenge as we want to find a balance between being kind to ourselves as well as kind to others. We have been culturally taught to place other's needs above our own and so the fear we experience when choosing ourselves is intertwined with the shame of not being there for others. Yet, what would it be like if we could give our time and energy to others when we already feel full and abundant in ourselves rather than depleted? To my mind this is where boundaries come in and having boundaries that look after you and your people require bags of courage. Boundaries are how we create the spaces in our lives for things we want to bring in and things we want to keep out. Practical examples might be 'ring fencing' off a specific time in your day/week for exercise and saying no to anything which tries to take over that slot. Another example might be getting to bed by a certain time, or asking for help with certain tasks in the home which you find difficult to fit in to your schedule. It could be making difficult decisions about friendships that deplete us, or letting go of roles that do not nourish us.
Living courageously off the mat requires us to be honest and in line with ourselves. 'Satya' is the teaching that asks us to live in truth and integrity. To live in a way which allows things to be as they are - no hiding. So the attitude of kindness to ourselves invites us to get into the nitty gritty of us. At its deepest level, it guides us to be exactly who we are - no veils, or roles or expectations. Just us. How often do we take an action based on the 'I should do this...' or 'I really ought to' story? Asking yourself what you need, is actually the question 'What do I really need?' and 'what do I really want?'. This can be really tough to connect with and we might feel like we don't have the answer, or feel unsure and this is okay. When we practice repeatedly coming back to connect to our deepest selves, it becomes easier to find the truth. This kind of work also reveals repetitive patterns that we carry - and trust me, we all have some kind of pattern that can hold back our own growth. For example, you may be the person who keeps on pushing yourself and who fears slowing down when in fact you need that the most, or you may be someone who is overly cautious and resists stepping out of the comfort zone, or perhaps you have people pleasing tendencies that get in the way of ever pleasing yourself... Heck, it could even be all of these and more! Its okay, if this is the case. There are many patterns that can play out in us, unpicking them and learning to accept and love ourselves anyway is part of the journey.
How can we truly know what we need?
There is no quick fix here if you are new to the inner practices of Yoga, but by committing an attitude of kindness and honesty is a great start. Continually coming back to yourself, connecting with your body, your heart and your gut. Becoming in tune with that feeling that rises within you when you know something is wrong (or right) for you. By questioning those things that you do when you feel you 'should really' and also allowing yourself to make mistakes when you forget all this and loving yourself anyway. This really does require bags of courage...
This can feel like a big undertaking and is why Yoga is a great place to begin. If you feel daunted, just start with that hour a week - just you, your mat and your courage. Moving, breathing and being in your body with kindness and honesty. Over time, you may just find this seeps into the rest of your life and brings with it exactly what you hoped for.