In February, Persephone Singfield, 37, experienced a major earthquake for the second time in six months in Christchurch, New Zealand. Even when the very foundations of her life collapsed around her—her home, her property investment business, the hospital walls that housed her ill son—yoga managed to shed some light amid her darkest days of uncertainty.
“My one constant form of stability during the worst couple of months of my life has been my yoga practice,” says Singfield. “This has been a real lifesaver for me, it has allowed me a sense of being strong in the largest storm, a feeling of being able to cope with so much loss and continue to let go of life as I knew it.”
Support organisation Yoga4Christchurch was formed after the February earthquake and sprung straight into action, raising money through yoga events. Sponsorship from Yoga4Christchurch has enabled Singfield to attend classes at Christchurch studio Flow Hot Yoga until her family’s finances are up and running again.
Similarly, the global yoga community united to help those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March. The Yoga Aid Challenge held in Tokyo on 30 April, a yoga class led by 12 volunteer teachers, raised more than $35,000 in donations worldwide for Japan Platform, an emergency humanitarian aid organisation that is helping the Japanese rebuild their lives following the disaster.
“More than 550 people attended the event, including many children, and people all over the world were able to watch it via our first-ever live webcast [at www.yogaaid.jp],” says Sydney-based Yoga Aid co-founder, Eriko Kinoshita, who believes the collective compassion worked to restore spirits as well as the city.
“People in Tohoku [north-east Japan] have suffered immensely from the earthquake and tsunami, however there is a beautiful movement starting where the Japanese are saying ‘Ganbaro Nihon’, which loosely translates to ‘let’s all get together and support each other in Japan’,” says Kinoshita of the humbling new camaraderie post-earthquake.
The enormous success of such events not only shows strength in numbers, but also helps us to detach from the confines of our own hardships and see the bigger picture.
In the spirit of yoga, our ability to unite, to connect—not just in community, but also in mind and body, in nature and our true nature—helps us cope during such environmentally and economically uncertain times.
“If we can maintain a feeling of connection to others based on common humanity, it will prevent all these problems from arising,” writes His Holiness the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World (Hachette Australia, 2009). “People must decide for themselves the best and most effective way that they can make a contribution to building a better world. But cultivating a state of mind that motivates a person to make a contribution is clearly the first step.”
Nurturing ourselves is vital in our ability to nurture others and the world at large.
Psychologist and yoga teacher Michael de Manincor, director of Yoga Institute and president of Yoga Australia, agrees that nurturing ourselves is vital in our ability to nurture others and the world at large.
“Without caring for ourselves, we are not much use to anyone and we don’t cope that well with what is going on around us,” he says.
Despite the initial lure of a physical practice for many in the West, yoga is to exercise and heal our minds as well as our muscles, says de Manincor. “Yoga, in its traditional form, is essentially for a healthy mind, which helps us cope with the stress and difficulties we are facing in our environment and our world, and may only involve asana in a very minimal way,” he says. “There is so much more that can be incredibly helpful: breathing techniques, relaxation, visualisations, affirmations, meditation—they’re all part of the big picture of yoga.”
In a world where change is inevitable, it’s essential to move with the times. Sogyal Rinpoche, a renowned Buddhist teacher from Tibet, explores the subject of impermanence in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Rider, 2008). “What could be more unpredictable than our thoughts and emotions: do you have any idea what you are going to think or feel next?” he writes. “Our mind, in fact, is empty, as impermanent and as transient as a dream. The past is past, the future not yet risen and even the present thought, as we experience it, becomes the past. The only thing we really have is nowness, is now.”
At times we feel powerless to deal with changes in our external environment, but it is only realistic—and somewhat liberating—to acknowledge that certain life-changing events are inevitable, such as the impermanence of the human body. Perhaps change is not to be feared but embraced, to free us from the burden of future anxieties. After all, is our yoga practice itself not a vehicle for immense transformation?
Nikki Massaioli, founder of Sydney studio Yoga to Go, is no stranger to the matter of life and death, having experienced the loss of three loved ones, including her brother, under tragic circumstances within 18 months.“Yoga does not guarantee us a protected life, but offers us the skills to be able to trust that change is inevitable,” she says.
“We become more aware that we are okay just as we are, right in that moment, and the change that is happening is safe. We welcome it, we build our foundations of stability internally rather than clinging relentlessly to external indicators of stability,” explains Massaioli. “At first, I was terrified that I would never be the same again, yet today I pray that I never go back to who I was before.”
Closer To Nature
Sharon Gannon, co-creator of Jivamukti Yoga, believes the most meaningful response to our current environmental crisis would be to consider how we are living our lives today and how we could reduce our consumption of the planet’s resources. “We have lived our lives as if the earth belongs to us. We have made little or no attempt to learn how to live in harmony with the earth; instead, we have been at war against Mother Nature for the past 10,000 years or more. But the truth is, when we poison the water, we poison ourselves. When we spray toxic chemicals into our atmosphere, we poison ourselves,” says Gannon.
Classically, yoga practices were heavily based on worshipping the earth, but sadly much of that authenticity, that real connection, has disintegrated. Consider this: one of the main principles of yoga’s sister-science, Ayurveda, is the belief that the human physiology is, in fact, made up of the universal elements: earth, air, fire, water, ether. How then can we possibly view ourselves as superior?
“Be the change you want to see in the world”—Mahatma Gandhi
“The time we are living in now may well be the prophesied Apocalypse, which means ‘to uncover’,” says Gannon. “An Apocalypse may be just what we need right now to help reveal our great potential; what is underneath all the artifice, the trapping and pretence that makes us appear as apart from nature and special. If only we could use the recent so-called ‘catastrophes’ as a way to wake up and examine our way of life and find only what is essential and be brave enough to let go of all the unnecessary wants we have conditioned ourselves to identify with.”
Perhaps letting go of life as we know it and positively reconnecting with all things that fall beneath the nurturing umbrella of yoga, we can not only weather stormy seas but also prevent others from stirring. We can not only confidently adapt to change and move forward, but, in the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“The eternal truth that burns inside each soul is joy, happiness, love. It is our essential nature, it is what everyone longs for and it is our destiny,” says Gannon.
Stephanie Cranford, director of Sydney-based yoga events organisation My Heart Space, believes this universal goal of connecting with our true nature, and in turn with Mother Nature, requires us to first connect with our hearts. With this goal in mind, Cranford hosts nation-wide events such as The Earth Prayer, a powerful healing event led by Danish spiritual guide Deva Talasi, which attracted more than 250 people to its March debut (the next event will be held in Sydney on 11 November).
“It was a collection of yogis, dance communities, drumming circles, spiritual healers, meditation groups and devotees of different beliefs coming together in one space for one purpose,” says Cranford. That purpose was for people to unite in love and grace, and joyfully raise the vibrations through music, dance, heart meetings and prayer to heal themselves, one another and Mother Earth.
“If we move out of our mind chatter and live in our hearts, we connect to the Divine and Mother Earth, which transcends to all and heals the planet,” says Cranford.
Increase The Peace
Try these ways to help others and simultaneously enrich your life.
- Volunteer your time at a fundraising event—studies have shown that volunteering tends to make people happier and, let’s face it, happiness is what makes the world go round!
- Meditate or chant a mantra to invoke peace.
- Host a Yoga4Christchurch event (see www.yoganz.co.nz) or make a donation to Christchurch’s Flow Hot Yoga studio (see www.flowhotyoga.co.nz).
Keep Calm And Relax
Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, chairman of the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research at Ananda Ashram in India and author of A Yogic Approach to Stress (Dhivyananda Creations, 2007), offers these home practices to heal your head and heart, and put the wind back in your sails, so you can help others.
Hastha Jattis: Shake the hands, right and then left. Circle the hands at the wrist joints, clockwise and then anticlockwise. While shaking both hands, continue to move the arms all around so the maximum range of arm span is attained in front, side, up, down and back directions. This will help to release excess tension, increase blood circulation and Pranic energy and energise the Pranamaya Kosha (energy sheath or subtle body).
Brahma Mudra: Sit kneeling. Breathe in and turn the head to the right. Breathe out while bringing the head back to central position, making the sound “AAAH”. Breathe in and turn the head to the left. Breathe out while bringing the head back, making the sound “UUU”. Breathe in and turn the head upwards as if gazing up at the sky. Breathe out while bringing the head back, making the sound “EEE”. Finally, breathe in and lower the head; chin to chest. Breathe out while bringing the head back, making the sound “MMM”. Repeat 3-9 times.
Kaya Kriya: Lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose). Breathe in and roll the legs inward. Breathe out and roll the legs outwards. Breathe in and roll the arms outward. Breathe out and roll the arms inward. Breathe in and roll the head to the right. Breathe out and roll the head to the left.
Variation to relax the whole body simultaneously: Breathe in and roll the legs inwards (low breath), arms outward (mid breath) and head to the right (high breath). Breathe out and roll the legs outward (low breath), arms inward (mid breath) and head to the left (high breath).
Diana Timmins is a freelance writer and hatha vinyasa yoga teacher based in Wollongong, NSW.