Sounds catchy, doesn’t it?! Wonder if JK Rowling would like to borrow the title …
Ahem! Onto the blog. During last term I had a wonderful time planning lessons for our hatha classes based on quotes from Harry Potter. It sounds rather unlikely … Harry Potter and yoga? But as I was explaining in class, fantasy fiction type books and films often dovetail very neatly into yogic themes. It’s not just Harry and his Hogwart chums who teach us yogic wisdom, it can be found the Matrix films, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to name just a few.
So back to the point. Right at the end of the Harry Potter series of books, Harry has finally come to the ultimate showdown between himself and Voldemort, the “Dark Lord”, whose name must not be mentioned, except for the purposes of yogic elucidation. He has to face Voldemort alone in the certain knowledge that this encounter will bring about his death, which is necessary to save man- and wizard-kind. (Of course that turns out not to be the case at all, but that’s what he believes – rather aptly given the quote I’m about to present.) As Voldemort smites Harry with a huge bolt of dark magic from his wand, Harry falls to the ground …. and awakens in a space of light, only to see his old Headmaster and mentor Dumbledore, whose death at the hands of potions master Severus Snape he witnessed not so long ago. In the course of conversation in this beautiful place, Harry asks Dumbledore whether this encounter is real, or whether it’s just going on in his head. Here cometh the quote:
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
This brings us neatly onto the yogic perception of reality. Or rather, the yogic teaching that what we perceive as reality is not really so real, that our perceived reality is very often illusion: Dumbledore of course flipped the coin and asked Harry to say whether what he perceived to be illusion was really truth. The question being are we just taking perception, illusion and reality on good faith or are we really trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle of life?
In Yoga, the teaching goes that we all exist in a state of “Maya”, or illusion. There is a veil cast over reality which shelters us from the ultimate truth and unity of the cosmos, and what we choose to believe in order to get through our days is mainly chosen by ego for the sake of a comfortable and convenient life. Maya is made up of our memories, conceptions (or misconceptions), our judgements and biases, and whatever it pleases our egos to believe. This makes for the individual existing in a state of distorted reality, causing a separation between what we believe ourselves to be and our true divine selves. The ego causes us to become attached to the trappings of the material world, making us identify with our possessions (gotta have the latest designer handbag/trainers/mobile phone etc.), our perceived status in life (gotta be moving up the ladder, working harder and longer than anyone else to be able to achieve anything), resulting in a perceived reality of life which is skewed and ultimately makes us miserable, robbing us of our time, our joy, our peace of mind.
Yoga is one way to overcome this veil of illusion. By using yogic practices, such as physical practice (asana), taking positive action to help others (karma yoga), and immersion in meditation, we will gain the tools to help us see past the illusion and get to the deeper truth of who we are: that is not this body, not our relationships, not our beliefs or our backgrounds, but a divine soul existing and evolving in a physical form. This form will wear out and die: but our divine soul will transcend the physical limitations of the body and move towards union of the inner self (the Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman).
What, all through a few downward facing dogs and the odd spot of meditation?!! Well, not quite that simple. As with anything worth doing well, we must use our yoga first on the mat as a tool to study ourselves and our reactions, and then learn to translate our findings into our lives. We may work along the lines of holding a yin yoga pose for some minutes: our perceived reality of the pose may begin as soon as its name is spoken. “Oh no, it’s a backbend, I hate staying in backbends for long periods, it hurts!!” We then move into the pose, and we may find that a suggested modification or use of a prop has made it more accessible: “ok, this isn’t as bad as I was expecting”. Or maybe even “Goodness this is usually easy for me – why’s it so difficult today?!” As we hold the pose we realise what we thought its reality was when we entered it changes as we remain there for a few breaths or a few minutes. It can intensify, or it can deepen. It can strengthen us mentally and physically. It can cause us to say “not today, my body isn’t in the right place to do this now”, which brings us to a place of greater self-recognition and wisdom (unless we’re just using an excuse to get out of doing it!).
So, dear yogis, for most of us getting on the mat (or sitting for meditation or pranayama) is what is required first. Which brings us on to the Five Tibetan Rites. These were taught to me by my dear teacher Andrea some years ago, and I’ve used them in my own practice and in classes ever since. The key focus of the poses is the spine and its range of movements, and it is said that these practices were used by Tibetan monks, and subsequently published in the west by Peter Kelder in 1939. I’m sharing them with you here because they are very effective at building both strength and flexibility and only take a short time to practise once you’ve mastered them. Remember to start gently with maybe 5 or 10 repetitions and build up to the full 21 over time.