Saturday, 26 June 2010

Tarot and Yoga - unlikely bedfellows?

I was asked recently why yoga and tarot work together? Although they are both things I feel passionate about and have been practising for a number of years, I hadn't really articulated how or why I think they go together. Certainly, any number of people from either field may object to the linkage, but for me they are both a daily part of my life and my belief system.

I love the physical practice of yoga asana, the breath, the sweat, the strength and flexibility I have developed. However, the spiritual aspect of it is largely left to one side in many classes. And where it is included, it sometimes falls into what I've taken to calling the "yogier than thou" attitude.

For instance, one person talks about eating a vegetarian diet, the next chimes in with being vegan, and the one after that eats only raw foods. Or the teacher who talks about how we should all be grateful that we live somewhere that we can attend yoga classes. Yes, that's true, but it's also true that we can still have problems that are very real. Just because I'm not starving and homeless doesn't mean I have a perfect life and no right to sometimes feel less than absolute gratitude to the universe.

Another issue is that most yogic philosophy is quoted in sanskrit. I can understand the idea behind this - that the language itself has a certain sacred resonance is not a claim restricted to yogis, as anyone who has studied anything to do with the Golden Dawn and Kabbalah will know. Still, as I sit and try to remember which is aparigraha (non-attachment), which ahimsa (non-violence) and which asteya (non-stealing), I don't feel a real connection to these principles of how to live a good life (though I'm working on it).

Also, this sometimes feels like an approach in which all the principles are given equal weight. How, then, can I be aware of which principle I need to focus on today? Sometimes it might be very clear, but other times I am not aware enough, or perhaps just don't have anything pressing for my attention.

Finally, in terms of meditation, many of the traditional practices of yoga are once again quite rigid or, dare I say, boring. Watching my own breath has never managed to inspire me. Gazing at a candle until my eyes overflow with tears is really hard work. And I don't seem to be very good at visualizations of that kind - I cannot clearly picture a lotus blossom, or even a flame.  While Ganga White, co-founder of White Lotus Yoga and author of "Yoga Beyond Belief", advocates that anything which encourages you to try to better understand yourself and the universe be counted as meditation (giving the example of a starlight walk) this is far from what many yogis teach.

For this spiritual aspect, tarot and other "psychic development" exercises come to the fore, for me. By choosing a daily card, I have a visual as well as mental focus for a practice of mindfulness. Because it is based on a picture, often of a person, it feels real and grounded, and I can relate to it.

If I'm having trouble knowing what's going on for me in a pose, or with a given situation, I can draw a single card or lay a spread and use what arises for me either logically or intuitively to guide my sense of how to resolve the issue, or what I need to stay present with.

As for meditation, I've had amazingly powerful experiences through entering into cards. Perhaps because it's a more playful method, or perhaps because it does not rigidly require me to stick to one sense or approach, I find it far easier to engage with this practice. If I'm not seeing or smelling or texturally feeling the image, I can perhaps still sense it in a more "getting the vibe" way. Not something I've ever heard of in a yogic meditation, but if it works, why not?

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that yoga isn't spiritual, or is too rigid. I'm just saying that much of the spiritual side doesn't really work for me personally. And so I find tarot supplements and supports that side of developing myself. Donna Farhi, another wonderful yoga teacher and author, says that all aspects of yoga practice will naturally develop in tandem, even if you just work on one. I think this is true, but how it is expressed can vary widely. So, my tarot practice is actually a limb of my yoga practice, and vice versa.

How about you? Perhaps reading tarot doesn't make you feel like standing on your head, but has it ever encouraged you to go out for a walk, or be more mindful of what you take into your body? This is all part of yoga, too. Maybe, then, you're a yogi/ni and don't even realise it! So, what does tarot or yoga mean to you, I'd love to hear your point of view!

The image above is "The Tree" (equivalent to the Hanged Man) from the Gaian Tarot.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Tarot journey into yogic philosophy 2 - satya

Continuing my journey to try to better understand yogic philosophy through the use of tarot cards chosen both rationally and serendipitously, the second yama (or restraint on behaviour with/towards others) is called satya.

The yamas are mainly defined in terms of our relationship to others, and satya is generally translated as truth.  Honest but kind communication is the bedrock of good relationships with other people.  To represent this in terms of tarot I chose the Queen of Swords.  This lady is very clear in her commitment to truth.  Yet unlike the King, she doesn't necessarily place it above people.  Hers is an understanding based on suffering and experience, and which can lead to compassion.  So, it is truth communicated with love.  I see the Queen of Swords as having cut the ties of social convention, so that she can speak with integrity and honesty, as well as empathy.

Once again, I drew a card from the Gaian Tarot to see what I need to look at in terms of satya in my life right now.  The Guardian of Fire is equivalent to the Queen of Wands.  In the card we see a man tending a log fire, while behind him a lynx looks on with interest, and above the forest around him a full moon shines down hazily.

I take a number of messages from this.  Firstly, this says that telling the truth from a place of compassion is a way to feed the flames of friendship and relationship generally.  Overall, though it may feel challenging, I believe that sharing my truth with people I care about, so long as it's done in a non-blaming, non-attacking way, will help us to come closer together.

Secondly, I hope the things I believe in and feel passionate about are things I can share with others: through speaking with people, as well as through media like this blog.  I think I need to trust that what I believe in is worthwhile, so that I can speak about it with integrity, and not worry overly about how people will take what I have to say.  If I speak from a place of deep-seated faith I will be inspired to say things in a way that others will be able to hear.

Once again, this is a message I need to work on and think about.  I have a job interview coming up, in which I will probably have to talk about my work as a tarot reader in an atmosphere that may not be very open to such things.  The problem is that my tarot skills and experience are directly transferable and relevant to the post, but I'm not sure that they'll see it that way.  So, I was thinking about couching my tarot work in euphemisms - guidance counselling, perhaps?  However, this reading suggests to me that perhaps I can explain clearly and passionately how I see tarot, and why I think it's relevant, rather than betraying my own beliefs.

This is quite a tricky area, I think.  Do you speak your own truth?  And if not, what holds you back?

Queen of Swords image from the Radiant Rider Waite Tarot. Guardian of Fire from the Gaian Tarot.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Yoga basics

Someone pointed out to me that often in this blog I take for granted some knowledge of both tarot and yoga.  So, I thought I'd write something on the basics of each subject.  There will also be a post on how and why to combine them :)

Yoga is a very ancient practice, written about in sanskrit texts from long before the Common Era.  However, there is much debate as to what exactly was meant by it in those days, and how much yoga has changed over time.  Some academic authors have suggested that in fact what most people think of as yoga - doing a sequence of bendy poses - is in fact a very recent development, established only in the last 150 years!

So, if not just about following a sequence of poses, called asanas, what else is yoga about?

In the traditional texts, and particularly the yoga sutras (aphorisms) of Patanjali, there is much talk of yoga being an eight-limbed discipline.  Eight-limbed is translated as ashtanga (sometimes spelled astanga), which many people have heard of.  Once again, though, what most people think of as ashtanga - a seriously dynamic, sweaty, difficult and set sequence of yoga poses - is not actually the origins of this term, either!  The original ashtanga refers to eight-limbs or practices of yoga.  These are:

Yamas - restraints on your behaviour in particular in relation to other people.
Niyamas - observances, inner directed behaviour.
Asanas - originally this just meant seat, so the idea of yoga as sitting meditating is probably truer to the concept as described in ancient texts.  These days asana is taken to mean any pose/position you take physically as part of a yoga practice.
Pranayamas - different breath exercises.  Many classes will start with one of these, while some styles of yoga actually call for you to breathe in a different way from normal through-out the class.
Pratyahara - drawing your attention inward, for example by listening to your breath in a yoga class, or at the start of meditation.
Dharana - focusing your attention, for example on staying with your breath in a yoga practice, or on a visualisation during meditation.
Dhyana - sustaining your awareness, so if your focus drifts you bring it back to what you were doing.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.
Samadhi - some people talk about this as being reaching enlightenment.  I also really like how Donna Farhi describes this: "The return of the mind into original silence."

This eight-limbed system is described in the sutras or aphorisms of Patanjali.  These are seen as a codification of all yogic knowledge up to that point (between 200 BCE and 500 CE depending on who you believe).  I have already blogged about one of these sutras: stiram, sukham, asanam.  So, one down, a hundred and ninety five to go ;)

As well as this eight-limbed approach to yoga, there are also different types of yoga, as well as different styles.  What I call types are taken from traditional texts, while styles are the different forms offered in asana classes today.  So, types include: 
Bhakti yoga - devotional yoga, prayer.
Hatha yoga - a "balanced" sun and moon practice - generally used to describe a physical practice of asanas. 
Jnana yoga - yoga of "knowledge" - study.  
Karma yoga - doing good works.
Raja yoga - the "royal" path, mainly referring to meditative practices.

As for styles of yoga, common ones include, but are by no means limited to: 
Ashtanga - a very dynamic, structured practice.
Bikram - class takes place in a heated room.
Hatha - a more "traditional" practice, with less emphasis on flow/dynamism/power.
Iyengar - the focus is on perfection of alignment.
Jivamukti - another dynamic practice, integrating chanting, breath work, meditation and a flowing practice.
Power - lots of standing work using the legs (biggest muscles in the body) to promote heat, and challenging upper body strength.
Vinyasa - a dynamic, flowing form of yoga, where the practice will be varied depending on the focus chosen for that class.  For example, the focus might be on hip openers, breath work, or balancing poses.  

As a general piece of advice in choosing a class, I'd say that the label given to the class is less important than the teacher.  So, maybe try different classes and see who suits you.  You might find you loathe the same "style" by a different teacher!

Also, there are some really good DVD's out there these days.  Click on the Yoga link to the left if you'd like some suggestions. 

So, peeps, had any experience of yoga classes you'd like to share?  Or how about things you've always wondered about yoga?  

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Tarot basics

Someone pointed out to me that in this blog I sometimes take for granted my reader's understanding both of yoga and tarot.  So I decided to write a short post on the basics of each subject.

The first European tarot cards were created during the 15th Century in Italy.  They were probably only used for a trumping card game in the beginning.  The first decks were all hand-drawn, so good ones were very expensive and only for the wealthy.  They were illustrated with images of the rich and famous, and gifted amongst the nobility.  For example, the earliest extant deck, the Visconti-Sforza, was created for a marriage between those two powerful families, and included images of various nobles, kings, and high-up members of the clergy.

These days there are literally thousands of tarot decks to choose from, and many are very reasonably priced.  However, you do still find special edition or out-of-print decks selling for a lot of money.  More importantly, though, is the fact that you can find a deck to match almost any hobby or occasion, from Star Trek to anime, from Halloween to Christmas, from Gummy Bears to Goddesses there is a deck for almost every taste.

In terms of structure, a true tarot deck is divided into several subcategories: Majors or Trumps, of which there are traditionally twenty-two; pips or number cards, of which there are four suits of ten; and court cards, which generally number four per suit.  The names given to the Majors and the courts, in particular, may vary from deck to deck, but this is the basic structure of most tarot decks, and arguably is what defines a deck as a traditional tarot.  There are also variations around this basic structure - for example one deck has removed the court cards, several others have five suits, some have a few extra Majors - but what I've described is the traditional pattern.

As for how they are used, originally the cards were probably only for games.  However, from about the 18th Century various esoteric writers and practitioners started adopting them and assigning different astrological, kabbalistic and magickal associations to the cards.

Today, many people think of tarot cards as a way of predicting the future.  For me, though, using them is more about insight and intuition.  The images spark ideas that help clarify what is going on inside me, and around me.  When reading for others, I use the cards to guide me in trying to do the same for the person I'm reading for, in a way that I hope will empower them to move forward with their life.

There are loads of myths around tarot cards, but ultimately I think you should do whatever you feel comfortable with when using them.  And especially, have fun!  In that spirit, this blog will try to explore ways of using and understanding tarot cards, and mixing them with other aspects of life, and yoga because that's what I enjoy.

So, if you use tarot cards, what do you use them for? 

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Tarot journey into yogic philosophy 1 - ahimsa

When yoga is mentioned many people think either of sitting in meditation or of practising poses that require great flexibility. However, there is a lot more to it than that. For example, in yogic philosophy the yamas (restraints to our behaviour in relation mainly to others) and niyamas (observances or inner practices) represent ethical precepts. The idea is that following these will help us be at peace with ourselves and the world.

So, as you do, I wondered which card would best suit each of these ideas.  For some I feel that they are best explained by their opposite, ie. seeing how not to do it, while for others the perfection of the idea is shown directly.

For each of the ten precepts (five yamas, five niyamas) I chose a card rationally based on what they represent.  These cards will include a mix of minors, courts and majors.  I also decided I would pull a card for each principle to look at how its energies are acting in my life right now.  Let's get started then on this strange journey of yogic philosophy combined with tarot!

Ahimsa - non-violence or compassion.  Choosing the Five of Swords to represent ahimsa, this is clearly one of the cards that shows the opposite of the precept in question.  In the Five of Swords we generally see one person smugly victorious, while others in the background are bowed down by defeat.   The Five of Swords shows us what our relationships with others can be like if we don't follow this restraint, if we are violent and uncaring rather than compassionate.  The smug victor may have won, but he certainly isn't popular, and if people do stick with him it's probably out of fear rather than love.  Swords cards are often taken to represent the realm of air, or communication.  So this suggests if we use our wit to hurt or best others, while we apparently win, we really lose.

Although the yamas are translated as restraints, and are generally seen as being the ways we should restrain our behaviour with regard to other people, this particular yama also has a strong internal element for me: that of not hurting ourself.  This would make it, in tarot terms, more Seven of Wands.  Not putting ourselves down, even in the privacy of our own mind, not lying to ourselves, hurting ourselves physically, or putting ourselves in dangerous situations are all aspects that spring to mind.

When thinking about this principle, I drew the Elder of Water from the Gaian Tarot (equivalent to the King of Cups).  In this card a mature man rows out into a bay in a skiff, with a seal swimming by his side and a mountain highlighted behind him.  The waters around him reflect the beautiful sunrise taking place.  He gazes upward, as though watching a bird in flight.

This old fisherman is in tune with the tides and seasons, and comfortable on the waters which represent deep emotions and the unconscious.  In terms of compassion, I see this card saying that this takes time to develop, and requires a deep understanding of emotions, both my own and those of others.  Therefore, I shouldn't beat myself up if I don't automatically understand these things, which are not simple.  This feels very relevant to me at the moment, when I am studying to be a counsellor.  We train to listen better, to not put our own emotions in the mix too much, to judge subtle emotions being expressed in ways that may not be our own.  So, if I don't always get it right, there's still time as I'm just at the beginning of my studies.

This card also reminds me that there's no point trying to push against the tide, and this is true with compassion too.  I must listen to the needs of those around me rather than imposing my own ideas of what they need if I am to truly be compassionate.

Which leads me to ask: what does compassion mean to you?  Do you find it easy to be compassionate towards others, but less so towards yourself?  Or do you think compassion is over-rated and we should look out for ourselves?

Image from the Gilded Tarot.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Using tarot cards to improve your yoga practice!

Inspired by my previous post on the Knight of Pentacles, I thought it would be good to explain a little about how it's possible to examine and hopefully improve your yoga practice using tarot cards.

In that post I created a spread, based on the yoga aphorism stiram, sukham, asanam, meaning finding a stable and joyful position. However, before we get to that, it may help to start with something simpler.

Say you've been having trouble with a particular pose - it hurts, or you're not sure you're doing it right, or you feel you can't hold it. Draw just a single tarot card, thinking about the pose, and see what it tells you. You can use book meanings, or let yourself be inspired by something in the actual image.

I've been having some back trouble, which has been affecting my practise of the pose Dhanurasana (Bow pose). They say your parents f**k you up emotionally, but someone should have told me your kids f**k you up physically! Anyway, I drew the Eight of Wands (shown above).

This card is often seen as representing things moving quickly. So, I interpret this as "It's OK to move in and out of this pose, in a flow, rather than trying to hold it for long periods. That way I may gradually improve my strength for this back bend, without damaging my back." Based on just the look of the card, I come up with, "Focus more on the downward energy of this pose, rather than the upward energy. Feel my pelvic bone pressing towards the earth."

Now, if you want to try something a bit more detailed, here's my stiram, sukham, asanam spread. The first card represents what's going on with the asana you're asking about. The second is how to find stability in the pose, and the third card is how to find joy in it.

Once again, an example of my own. I've never been a huge fan of Utthita Hasta Padanghustasana D (who has, come on, show of hands!) Sometimes in class, or even practising on my own, I've had leg cramps holding this pose. Being a standing balance pose, it seemed perfect for this spread.

The pose: XVII - The Star. This is a card of hope, so it tells me not to give up on this pose, or on myself. Also, when I look at the image I notice that she is on bended knee, with her other foot on water, yet not falling into it. Perhaps if I can imagine my leg being buoyed up by water it will feel less difficult to hold the pose, and my leg will feel less heavy - mind over matter!

Finding stability: Seven of Cups. Traditionally, this card is associated with building castles in the sky, or fantasies, and I've sometimes thought of it as "maya" (sanskrit for illusion, that which blocks us from seeing the divine reality of life). So, to find stability I need to stop my mind from thinking about what I should be feeling or how I'm not doing it right, and instead focus on using the pose to get in contact with my breath and with the divine perfection of all creation (well, I can hope, see the Star).

Finding joy: Two of Swords. Now this one's a bit tricky. The Two of Swords often indicates being stuck because you have two options, neither of which you like. Perhaps I feel I can either continue with the pose while hating it, or I can give up on it and feel like a wuss. However, with a stalemate of this sort the answer can be to think creatively, and find a third option if you don't like the two you have. So, I choose to keep trying with this pose, with hope in my heart, but without critical expectations. And where can I find this new, creative hope? I look at the image and see a woman whose eyes are covered. Perhaps I'll try the pose with my eyes closed! It might work and it might not, but it's worth a go.

So, dear yogi/nis, how about giving some of this a try? Tell me what pose has you riled right now, and if you can think how to move beyond this frustration with either of these techniques.

Images are from the Universal Tarot.

Knight of Pentacles - Stiram sukham asanam

Within a spread I did for myself, I drew the Knight of Pentacles. As I was already thinking about the link between tarot and yoga, what popped into my head was the Sanskrit phrase: stiram sukham asanam. This is roughly translated as finding a stable, joyful position. A good thing to aim for both when you're standing on your head, and in life generally ;)

While the Knight of Pentacles is sometimes seen as a bit of a plodder, I think he fits the bill here very well. His Knightly enthusiasm covers the joyful bit, while his Pentacle-y groundedness would help with stability. In the deck I used for the reading (the Shadowscapes Tarot) he rides a strange fantasy creature, which makes me think of riding a bucking bronco. Definitely another situation where staying firm and yet having fun despite the situation you're in would come in handy!

The Knight of Pentacles has never been a favourite of mine. Being myself somewhere between the Queen of Wands and the Queen of Swords I tend to prefer the King of Wands. However, seeing the Knight of Pentacles in this light, as someone full of joy, yet grounded, has given me a new appreciation for this trustworthy chap.

Thinking about this has also got me asking: "What helps me feel both stable and joyful in whatever position I find myself?" The love and support of partner, friends and family, and being able to practise yoga and draw tarot cards! So, another similarity between yoga and tarot ;)

This led me on to designing a tarot spread. The first card is the position/situation you're having to deal with, the second how you can stay stable while in this position, and finally, what will help you find joy while you're doing it. If you're a yogi/ni having trouble with a particular pose, you could give it a try, too (check out also this post on improving your asana practice through tarot cards).

Anyhow, I decided, why wait, and drew cards without a particular question in mind:

Situation I have to deal with: Five of Wands - feeling I have to compete, though in a friendly atmosphere. Well, that fits perfectly as I'm working on a presentation I have to give next week for a course I'm taking.

What will help me stay stable: Ace of Swords - communicating clearly, with passion but having marshaled my academic arguments well.

What will help me find joy in this: XI - Justice - OK, twofold. First, going into it with a pure heart and intentions - I mean to educate and share, not showboat. Second, trusting that I will be dealt with fairly - both by my fellow students and by my tutor.

OK, I like the spread, and I like the Knight of Pentacles, and with this advice in mind I shall try to stay joyful and stable in this situation.

What about you? How do you feel about the Knight of Pentacles? What helps you feel stable and joyful? And what do you think of this little spread? Let me know below...