Saturday, November 25, 2006

Self Consciousness

Most of us associate self-consciousness with discovering you have the World's Biggest Pimple on the eve of your Matric Dance, or with being caught in your slippers at the garage shop by an ex-boyfriend. But there is another kind - the consciousness of your Self - of who you are, without the soundtrack of your mother's voice, without your possessions, without your physical or mental abilities. It is this self-consciousness that yoga aims to achieve, through the practice of asana and mediation.

This has huge benefits. I can credit the beginning of a serious daily meditation practice with having the confidence to quit my job, begin teaching yoga full-time, and make a living. It just never seemed like an option before. According to Dr Tracey Gaudet, in her book Consciously Female, women who make time to become more in tune with themselves report a significant decrease in PMS symptoms, and a recent study in the US on a group of 5th grade females tracked the influence of a 10-week intervention based on yoga, guided relaxation, and journaling. The experiment was aimed at possible prevention of eating disorders and found that the participants reported reduced feelings of body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness at the end of the study. Although not an exhaustive study, this gives us proof that yoga and other mind-body interventions offer a way to counteract the constant sensation overload we face every day - email, phones, TV, radio, magazines, bombarding us with ideas of how we 'should' be. Much has been said about the detrimental effect of mass media on women's self images, but the effect is spreading to men as well, with increased numbers of males presenting with eating disorders and depression in both genders on the rise.

Why do we feel that we aren't good enough as we are? We complete degrees, hold down jobs, look after our families, and still it is not enough. Yoga teaches the concept of samtosha - contentment. Being happy with who you are right now. Admittedly this concept has its roots in the strict Caste system of ancient India, where if you were unlucky enough to be born as an Untouchable, or for that matter a woman, all you could do was hope for was to be born higher up the ladder next time. But it has huge merit in our society. We have complete freedom to invent ourselves - we can choose any career, and the possibility of wealth and fame is open to all. We (at least those of us who are middle class) have more than we need, in fact more than we want a lot of the time. Yet we are still not happy. If the stuff isn't going to make us happy, what is? Indeed, what. This is what we need to work out for ourselves.

One of the best ways to do this is to start listening to your innermost thoughts and desires. Meditating, which can be as simple as sitting every morning, and observing your breath as it enters and leaves your lungs, is the ideal way to make space for your inner voice to be heard.

Even if you don't meditate, there are ways to become still and present in your daily life:

Watch your breath
As you sit in the traffic, notice whether your breath has become fast and shallow, or whether you are holding your breath. You don't have to change it, just become more aware.

Practice Silence
This is something I find particularly difficult. When it is not necessary to speak, don't. It's amazing how little we actually need to say. And here ladies, we can learn from men!

Try to do every task 100%
When you are chopping carrots, think about chopping carrots. Don't think about how you are going to do everything you need to do tomorrow, or whether you should have ice-cream for dessert. Just the carrots.

Observe you inner tape-recorder
Most of the time, there is chatter going on in our heads - and often it mimics a stuck tape recorder. Common themes include 'I'm too fat', 'I could never do that', 'I'm a bad parent' and so on. These little gems are often so ingrained, we don't even notice we are thinking them. In yoga we refer to these as samskaras, which are much like the grooves in an LP record. If you notice what they are, you can choose to replace the negative groove with something more constructive.

Be compassionate
It is an unfortunate fact of life in South Africa that we all experience some degree of compassion burnout it is impossible to survive otherwise, in the face of so much need. But if you are willing to think about why that driver expressed hi road rage at you has road rage, or that beggar is leaning on your car, you may find your response to their actions begins to change. And you may begin to understand why you react the way you do.

You may already have noticed a spontaneous deepening of your self-awareness as a result of yoga practice. For many people, yoga is a moving meditation, and I have had a number of students tell me they have noticed things about how they use their bodies that they never noticed BY (Before Yoga). The techniques above are just a way to extend your yoga practice off your mat and into the rest of your life.

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