This blue marble

– and yet it spins



retreatFor just one day I checked out of my own life. I reconnected with the person living that life instead. Under the skin of the person who travels 2-3 days a week for work, and consciously has to carve out time for life beyond a job she loves, are ants running around. The trick is, one only discovers them when one stops for a moment.

So today I sat down on my zafu and said hello to the ants running across my chest, on the inside of my skin. As I practised my walking meditation in 20 cm snow underneath sleeping apple trees, I could feel the ants go to sleep, too.

While I consciously choose to live than just to exist, in this context and in our culture, truly “living” usually means being active. Sometimes it is good to just let the world pass through us and truly feel it. The good, the bad, and the antsy.

(Kirkkonummi, Finland; January 2018)

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Calm like a crab’s heart

watersedge.jpgSitting in the shade of coral rocks on the beach. A crab is cleaning out its dwelling in the sand, after the receding tide swept its front door shut. My dwelling is a simple bungalow with wood worms eating out my bed from the inside. Nature is (still) everywhere on Zanzibar.

I am trying to tell my mind to not be everywhere and to just be “here”. It is not easy, but yoga is helping. One of the core mantras of ashtanga yoga is “practise, and all is coming”, meaning that even if one is only instructed in asana (poses), the other 7 limbs of the practice will find their way into one’s life, too. This balance of spiritual vs. physical instruction is what I have been searching for in ashtanga practice since I started. I am too impatient, too demanding, too curious. Twice I thought I found it with an instructor, but both times I have been turned away by the ego of the teacher.

A yoga teacher acquaintance once told me that there are many people who seek for a personal guru for a long time, discarding one “candidate” after the other. I think he meant that many (including myself) hope to find a perfect person to follow, when such perfect persons do not exist. In the end, we all have within ourselves the key to the answers. Perfection is not a requirement for knowledge.

Before each practice here on Zanzibar we are asked to set an intention. The one I set myself every day is to calm my heart. I think the crab digging out its beach house has a calmer heart than I have.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Back to the mat

nungwideckSomehow this holiday also became a holiday from ashtanga Mysore practice. I am exploring new things in yoga after a challenging experience last year on Bali that subconsciously dragged down my willingness to adhere to the practice. I confess I have practised very little since then. And before this week, I have only two (very unpleasant) lead vinyasa flow experiences under my belt. Performed in a gym with instructors who lead us like we’d be doing aerobics. But now I am signed up for a week’s vinyasa flow, once in the mornings and once in the evenings.

Ashtanga Mysore is an individual practice, where you accept one main instructor into your life, and where that instructor gives you poses (asanas) when he or she feels you are ready for a new challenge. And in the meantime you repeat the same poses in the same sequence, at your own pace of breath. Ashtanga Mysore is about learning an order of poses so that it becomes muscle memory and there is no need to think, only to be.

Vinyasa flow is a class where the instructor calls out poses and shows how to flow from one new pose to the next one. Flow being imperative, although I mostly feel like a stumbling elephant. Even with spending some 30% flowing through the sequence we’ve learned that week, every class is different and thus I find it difficult to focus on breathing and stillness of my mind.

In Mysore practice one must be a good student and only try out new poses given by the teacher, in the same order as for everybody else. Here on Zanzibar I have tried entirely new poses: Cow, Half-Moon, Dancer. I move my body in different ways, finding out things I thought I could do but cannot, and things I did not think I could do but can.

And so here I have gone from almost no practice for an entire year to 3 hours of daily, new practice. Considering the starting point I am doing well. It is obviously not thanks to strength (which I do not have) but thanks to the good foundation I have been given by my Mysore teachers. Tackling new poses is easier when I have a sense of alignment and body awareness (when is my body part horizontal or vertical), and the focus on channeling strength into every poses. I see people try to just bend into the right-looking shape with movements that look risky, and even if I love our teacher she does ask us to do things I know are bad for most knees.

Ashtanga Mysore is the form of practice you can injure yourself at most easily. But it is also the practice you are taught how to protect yourself and move in a correct way. Vinyasa flow has an entirely different risk of injury because the teacher does not correct every person’s detailed movements, hand placement, alignment etc. He or she also does not teach us how to safely set up a pose. Most injury comes from doing things in the wrong way once too many times, not from doing a new thing wrong once. Perhaps the nature of the ever-changing, lead class protects from highly repetitive activity, where injury might happen more easily.

But here the pace is unhurried and meditative. We begin with shavasana, the last pose of ashtanga Mysore: just lying down on our backs, calming down our minds, and setting an intention for the practice. In the morning we continue with pranayama, or breathing exercises. Our lovely teacher sings to us some nights, as we lie down in stillness, listening to the waves crash against the boardwalk edge.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Breathing, above and under water

beachtoes.jpgSwitching gears: from diving to yoga and one last week back in Nungwi. For this very week I have hauled my yoga mat around Africa for nearly two months. I could (and should!) have practised during those months, but either the room was too small or the schedule was too packed or the company was too good, or [insert other well-curated excuses here].

The leap from diving back to yoga is really not that great: in essence they are both breathing exercises, with focus on being 100% present in the moment. Mindful oxygen consumption underwater is really yogic breathing: deep, slow, calm breaths, with focus on the flow of breath so one never holds one’s breath underwater.

There is a contrast, though: yoga asana is done with no or minimal equipment, whereas diving is mostly all about equipment that facilitates staying and breathing underwater.

Both yoga and diving are about awareness: that of our own bodies’ capabilities and limits, as well as awareness of our own space in this world. With these similarities in mind, there is an increasing number of companies combining diving and yoga, which to a start sounds random but really isn’t.

And so, this last week I am going back to my basics and focusing on breathing above water, enjoying the open-air yoga shala and the sunset. Every night, for seven days.zanziyoga(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Just sit

morskieoko“Just sit”, the late meditation teacher Michael Stone used to say. “Just sit, once a day, every day. That is all it takes”. But what if there are early morning flights? I am not good at sitting at 4.30 am. And what if when I get home and sit, the cats sit all over me – or alternatively break into mutiny on the other side of the door? What if, when I finally sit, I almost fall asleep? There are days when just sitting is fine. And then there are those other kind of days.

Thank goodness for the Headspace app. I now just sit in the airplane, unbothered by announcements. And I just sit in the solitude of my office, before that last teleconference or before leaving. Not because I could not sit without a mobile app. But because it reminds me with a little quote at any random time. And because it is a guiding voice when just sitting in silence does not work. And for those moments when there is no ocean or mountain lake in the vicinity.

(Photo from Morskie Oko lake, Poland; summer 2015)

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Interlude: from the Land of Snows

wordsLama Patrul Rinpoche says many wise things. But he also says that the reader should get rid of all his/her belongings, move into a cave, and eat leaves. That warm clothes will be found, and that no saddhu has ever died of starvation. Maybe so, but this is hardly an egalitarian view, as it does not promise everybody the possibility to follow the right path in this lifetime. Otherwise we had nobody to rely on food or clothes.  Tibetan Buddhism is tough stuff.

According to Patrul Rinpoche, living a good life and striving for good deeds is not sufficient. Instead, one must actively choose (every day) to strive to leave this level of existence, not for a higher level of existence but for an exit from samsara (the cycle of life) altogether. One’s most heartfelt wish must be to check out and to fuse one’s individual soul with the world-soul. Tough stuff, indeed.

I got the Words Of My Perfect Teacher because I walked into Pilgrim’s in Kathmandu and asked for a book that would help explain why so many people are attracted to Buddhism. I was told this one was popular. I can understand why, as it is full of little pearls of wisdom. But it is also a demanding teacher. Patrul Rinpoche tells a story of an enlightened being who, without knowing it, stepped on a little bug. He went to hell in afterlife.

I am still not sure I understand why Buddhism feels right to so many. But I am not giving up yet (to be continued).

(Helsinki, Finland; January 2017)