What is Yoga? And really, what is it for?

It’s not often that I post ‘yoga’ photos, as yoga for me is about so much more than the body, and I’m not into promoting yoga as ‘image’, fitness or even ‘spirituality’, when it’s seen as a commodity or a ‘lifestyle’. Of course it can be those things, but moreso, it is the deepest quest that emerges naturally in the heart of human beings, for truth, for love, for peace and for the mystery of life.

But I am unbelievably grateful, because the practices and philosophies of yoga have been a huge part of my unique, winding life journey that has brought me home to my Self, allowed me to know and rest in a peace deeper than the ocean, and shown me that one thing can be as vast in shape and meaning as all this universe contains. And by this, I’m talking about both Yoga and the Self. ‘One’ thing that is vast and diverse in appearance and expression. And so I share my ‘yoga’ through quiet and simple images of my everyday. Of nature, of inspiration, of people, of ideas that remind me of connection, of beauty, of love, of the Self.

It is of course also one of the most powerful tools for healing, for remembering, and for celebrating life. And today I am celebrating slowly recovering from a shoulder injury that had me unable to move, lift my arm over my head or weight-bear much for many months. It just feels good to move!

And this is something I’m also committed to sharing with the world. This is how Yoga for Humankind began, a international social enterprise yoga school offering trainings in traditional and contemporary hatha yoga, trauma-informed and community yoga – as a platform for cultivating and sharing a ‘yoga’ that is accessible, suitable, empowering, compassionate and brings true well-being for all, at any stage of life, with our unique personal histories and stories. It is for connecting and cultivating community, and for recognising the Self that is at the heart of all our individuality, uniqueness and diversity, and that is our common humanity.

If this speaks to you, I wholeheartedly invite you to get in touch join our community at Yoga for Humankind – either through a training (200+hr foundational training in Bali Nov 2018, and advanced trainings in 2019), our upcoming community retreat in Bali July 2018, or in conversation.

Much love,

Mei Lai xo

Devotion is a dirty word

Devotion is the last thing I ever thought I would be into. I don’t know if it was my saints-in-devotionnon-religious upbringing, the scientific mind-based culture I was born into, or my innate disbelief (from childhood) in an all-powerful male God, but for the longest time ‘devotion’ just felt like a dirty word. Mostly, I realise now, I just had no idea what it was. And I had learnt to be cynical.

As a teenager, I was deeply interested in the ‘spiritual’ – crystals, candles, seances, psychic readings, early attempts at meditation that consisted of sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor with my eyes closed until my head fell back and I imagined that something had happened. I would spontaneously go into strange ‘moods’ (which I now recognize as altered states of consciousness), and would find socializing difficult; and when I tried to talk to people about it, they definitely thought I was weird. I participated in the first levels of reiki training when I was fourteen, and was naturally excited to test it out on those around me. One response I received from someone close was, “Don’t touch me, you freak!”

These early experiences had a huge effect on me. I stopped talking about my experiences and interests in the spiritual realms, and I became cynical of the light and sweetness inside of me. It was challenging and paradoxical: I believed in these things on the deepest level (I had experienced too many things to believe they weren’t real), and yet I was somehow also in denial. Self-protection is a powerful thing.

golden-kirtanEven when I became deeply engaged in meditation and Buddhist practices in my late teens and early twenties, learning about love, compassion, virtues, and service, a part of me was entrenched in a deep cynicism. Even as light and love were growing within me, I was too afraid to let them show – for fear of judgement. And so I judged myself, I judged those who expressed freely (“f*&%ing hippy bhajans” was my standard internal response to people singing devotional songs), and I kept my heart in lockdown.

But the beauty of dedicated spiritual practice, is that ultimately it works.

Fast forward to my early thirties… I started to open to kirtan (devotional singing) through a boyfriend who loved and shared it, and began to experience both the full force of my resistance and the radical joys of my heart. And then on a retreat in India, where the divine Geoffrey Gordon was sharing daily nada yoga and kirtan, my heart cracked. One morning, during a silent ‘listening’ meditation where Geoffrey was singing a song to the divine duo Rama and Sita, I spontaneously started singing with him, tears streaming down my face, and the words echoing in my head, “I just love God so much!” It was done. My heart was open and the light started to pour out.

kirtan-with-geoffrey-india

I’d had no idea that my heart was a heart of devotion. That I loved the divine, I loved the light, and I loved love. And that revelation and transformation would come through allowing it to pour out, fearless and unapologetic.

But as things often go with spiritual practice, we have these moments of deep insight, that often mark the beginning of an intense upheaval, and then take time to mature… So devotional singing cracked my heart open, and I found myself plunged into a period of despair. Then from touching the depths of darkness and desperately seeking a way out, I started to slowly open to love and devotion. I started praying every day. It became my mission to master love, to see with eyes of love, to live as love, to be love. I realised this was my deepest purpose, and would lead me to my greatest happiness – because then it wouldn’t matter where I was, who I was with, what I was doing – I would be in love. And so began my path of devotion.

So what actually is devotion?

Many spiritual paths ultimately offer devotion as the highest practice. In the yoga tradition, devotion is bhakti – a yearning for the divine, a deep love of God. And what is God? My personal experience of God, which connects to the non-dual teachings of yoga and tantra, is that God is consciousness itself. God is love itself. Everything in the seen and unseen world is made of this same fabric of consciousness, manifest in a divine play to experience its own nature and its own awakening. This is the yearning that stirs within us for awakening, for liberation and for love. It is the journey of the self to the Self.

So if we experience the divine as love itself, then devotion is a deep love of love, a commitment to love as the highest path. It is the path of the heart. But more than that, it is a practice of deep offering, surrender, and trust.

intention-of-loveThis is the practice of ishvara pranidhana – surrender (pranidhana) to a higher source (ishvara) – that is offered to us in two of the great texts of yoga, the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. It is a way of getting out of our own way and dissolving the personal ego that we battle with so much. It reminds us to open to life, in all its mystery, and allow grace to pour through us.

In the words of my great teachers, “Everything is conspiring for your awakening.” So when we trust in this greater force, whether we call it God, love, or the divine, we recognize ourselves as a small part in the great play of life, that is ultimately bringing us towards our own greatness. We bow down humbly, offering ourselves to the will of God, to the highest good, to love. And we listen. The practice becomes both the offering and the listening, for the voice that guides our next moves. And as we do this, we begin to experience grace and synchronicity, a deep sense of trust, and an often radical shift in perspective – even the hardships have their place, and as we willingly surrender to them in great trust, there is an ease that pours through us.

So devotion might seem like a dirty word, because it is in so many ways the unknown. And it demands that we drop down into the mysterious space of the heart and surrender the constant grasping of the analytical mind. Challenging in a world that triumphs logic and science. When we walk the path of devotion, we open to the great mystery of life. We walk the razor’s edge, because we know that we don’t know. We have to be willing to sacrifice our ego, to have our heart cracked open, to trust life and go where it asks. It’s the most daring and courageous path I know. But the gift is an ever-greater love that begins to awaken within us.

***

For the Love of Kali

As we move into autumn and the shortening and darkening of the days, the shadow themes have still very much been circling in and asking for attention. Where previously this might have brought  unease, I’ve been consciously shifting my perspective to see what might happen if I embrace the shadow aspects before they become catastrophic. You know the point at which that happens? Usually when you are so stubbornly forging ahead, either not willing to let go of something or being reluctant to embrace the change you know you really need, that the only way to bring you back to your true course is to smash you to pieces to get you to pay attention. Ouch. I have been pretty familiar with this in the past.

Kali FB imageSo this time, as I have felt Kali get close to me, I have instead reached out to her lovingly and invited her in. Every day, I have been chanting and praying to her, the Goddess of Transformation, of Death, Destruction – and Liberation. I have willingly, daily, invited her to weave her magic of surrender and release, to reveal the truth and the essence of what really matters. At a time when everything is flowing beautifully, rather than waiting until everything has gone to pieces. As we embrace Kali, we invite ourselves to strip away whatever no longer serves us. It’s a daring move, as it often means surrendering things we love or are attached to. And it’s one of the most powerful practices I have ever done.

What I’ve come to realise through this practice is that I’ve been holding back for a long time from offering my deeper experiences of yoga, meditation, ‘spiritual practice’ – from fear that people might think it’s whacky, hippie or inauthentic. I was judged quite hard as a teenager for this, and well, it sticks. So in the end what I have been offering is in some ways what feels to me a fairly ‘kosher’ practice of yoga. But what I realised recently is that I have been holding back from sharing what have been some of my own most profound and transformative experiences. And many of these sit in the realm of the ‘mystical’.

So my daring is to offer what is closest to my heart, to Fearlessness-Quotenot hold back. After all, yoga isn’t really about alignment and inversions. Yoga is about the deepest inquiry into life, the greatest bravery of the soul, the passionate unbridled revealing of the heart. This is what I want to share, because this is what I think is really important. It doesn’t mean that the functional and structural bits will be thrown out, but they’ll just be put into perspective.

In honour of Kali:

Aum aim hrim klim chamundaye viche swaha

May the bonds of ignorance and ego be severed, may we rejoice in transformation, wisdom and truth.

If this calls to you, I would love to explore together this passion for life, mystery, truth and bravery. It’s the theme of my Bali winter retreat “Radical Freedom” (1-6 August – early bird ends 30 April), and it’s what we will explore in my upcoming workshops in May and June.

Death, darkness and ‘spirituality’

candleOn Friday, along with around 500 others, I attended the funeral celebrations of an old friend. Although we hadn’t been really close, over fifteen years we had woven in and out of each others’ lives between Melbourne and Alice Springs, shared dance floors and good food, campfires and stories, theatre performances and communities of friends and loved ones. Trish was one of the most vivacious, loving and brave women I knew. She lit up hearts, dance floors, and a deep love of life in each person she touched. What I didn’t know was that she had been suffering a deep depression, and in the end it overwhelmed her. Despite being surrounded by love. Despite reaching out to close friends and family.

Over the last week, I’ve had many conversations about suicide, loss, and the challenges of mental illness. Working especially with asylum seekers and victims of family violence, it’s hard to comprehend such deep suffering in someone whose outer life seemed so wonderful, rich, free and full of love. But it’s more common than we think. Dark periods can come like a mystery – and they may or may not be triggered by external circumstances. Some of us seem just to be sensitive souls who feel things too keenly, who search deeply for the meaning of this unfathomable life, and who sometimes become overrun by the tyranny of a wild mind. It may be biology, chemistry, spirit or soul, I don’t really know… but death, darkness and suffering are some of the mysteries that are as inherent a part of life as creation, beauty and delight.

I consider myself fortunate to have known a few of these dark periods.

They taught me Beautiful Transformationdeep humility and compassion, and they guided me towards a deeper search for meaning, strength and wholeness. I feel even more fortunate to have made it through.

In my early twenties, following a period of intense meditation and Tibetan practices, I had an immense ‘breakdown’ – a complete crisis of meaning that took me years to recover from. Though deep down, I knew also it was a spiritual breakthrough. Had I sought ‘professional’ help, though so necessary for some, I’m quite sure I would have ended up with a ‘diagnosis’ that I might have attached myself to for a lifetime. What I had instead was a wise friend with a kind ear, an overwhelming lack of judgement, and a soothing pot of vanilla green tea whenever I arrived at his door. It was his unerring support that initially got me through.

At the time, I punished myself so severely for not being able to live up to the spiritual ideals in my head, all the Buddhist teachings of righteousness and equanimity, that I completely shattered. Until finally I had to realise that whilst my mind might be lightning quick and so clever, and my moral high horse so high, my emotions and my heart needed time to catch up. They needed to be heard, they needed to be accepted, and they needed to be loved. I needed to become human – in all of its mess, its beauty, its confusing paradoxes, and its pain. I discovered that ‘spirituality’ isn’t a set of ideals and practices to be followed. It’s the process of becoming fully human. And it’s a journey that is unique to each of us.

It was in this first years-long recovery period that I discovered yoga. It was the practice I 055needed to get me out of my head and into my body. It was the practice I needed to strengthen my sensitive nervous system and to find ground. I was also fortunate for extended periods of vipassana meditation, that gave me the mental strength and insight to let go. To trust that I could let go of a thought rather than clinging onto it and riding it like a wild horse in a frenzy for days. And when I did that, I discovered nothing bad would happen. And even better, it would eventually pass. Letting go was actually the sweetest blessing. A challenging practice at first, but with the practice of coming back to the moment, to the breath, to simply observing and accepting what was happening within my body, I eventually found a freedom and a strength that I would not have believed possible.

When later breakthroughs (read: ‘breakdowns’) happened, I could knowingly sit in the immensity of pain, grief and inner torment, and surrender to the destructive force of life that clears the way for new growth and beauty. With patience and practice, it can come. Yet even in the trust and surrender, it was terrifying and exquisite at the same time.

It’s a terrible thing to be so sensitive, to be so inquisitive about life and so questioning of the ‘reality’ and the measures of ‘success’ that are presented to us. But it can also be a gift. Through our lack of satisfaction, through our darkness, and through the tender experience of our own deep suffering, we can learn great compassion and we can shine great light. We can plumb the depths of what it is to be human, and hopefully rise again to the surface with jewels that shine a brilliant light for others to follow.

follow your bliss womanFor those who have done this, we must reach out to those who are still struggling in the depths, with love, compassion and the tools that might begin to weave a web of wholeness again. And hope that this is enough.

But ultimately, life is a mystery. Without judging, accept. Even in the midst of the deepest pain, seek grace. Go sweetly in the not-knowing, with love and with compassion. And as my beautiful friend Trish would say, be kind to others, for you don’t know what pain they may be suffering.

 

The A to Z of Yoga: F is for Fire

fire phoenix

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire burn and light up this wild, precious life
passion in my heart
desire in my soul
I know to stoke your unforgiving flames
so you will shine as a constant light
when things would
crumble.

Burn away the debris
of what I no longer need –
and never needed.

I know it is you

that stirs forth creation
from beginning to end and beginning
again
so that I rise up renewed
as pure essence
refined like the purest gold
in your searing furnace

nothing less and nothing more

I offer to you my strength and my weakness
my purity, my defilements
the beauty and the ugliness
of my light and my shadow

your brilliance of not discriminating
is the gift of your flame. Take it all.

Sun of my heart
may you turn my offerings to ash
and ash into gold
as phoenix wings rise iridescent
and eternal.

Burn in my heart as fierce, soft love
My love.


 

Yoga takes us into the essence of life, the essence of self, the essence of creation. Like the sun, fire is at the source – it is the force that transforms, energises, cleanses, ignites, inspires and keeps us going. It is the source of our desire, our will, our determination and dedication, our undying, eternal, essential love. This is tapas.

Genuine tapas makes us shine like the sun. Then we can be a source of warmth, comfort and strength for others. – Georg Feuerstein

 

sun in the sky 2

 

Hungry for more?

Here are a few more F-words to add to your yoga lexicon. Let these words take you down the rabbit hole of your own research, exploration, contemplation and experimentation!

Freedom, focus, foundation, faith (shraddha)