Healing approaches

Finding your Witness: The power of the ‘neutral mind’

meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

When chatting with a dear friend the other day about coping with personal challenges, we wondered what it must be like to go through hard times without “The Witness.” I know I must have done so at some time in my life, but I could not tell you exactly when my Witness showed up – it was definitely post-children but only just. Which is a great blessing because, for me, becoming a mother has definitely triggered some intense personal challenges.

I am aware that I bang on about self-care as well as the benefits of yoga and mediation and having a regular practice, but I do not necessarily focus enough on why. My fear is that yoga and meditation have been so hijacked by consumerism that many people have already switched off and tuned out. These practices have lost some of their sacredness and potency, which is a real shame because we need them now more than ever – not least because we all need a Witness to support us through the hard times.

So what is ‘The Witness’? Although the Witness is the most meaningful term to me personally, in the kundalini yoga tradition, it is also known as the ‘neutral mind’. World-renowned kundalini yoga master and spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, defined the neutral mind as the global positioning system of the Aquarian Age.

He described it as “the part of the mind that has direct connection to our Soul’s guidance…Until our mind is clear, we are a slave to the emotion and commotion that makes us reactive to [the] unknowns that we meet on the road of life.”

In other words, the Witness is objective, balanced and is all about right action rather than reaction – and it is why I practice every day, not just when I feel bad. This is what it means for me:

The Witness is always available

It doesn’t matter how dark I feel or how completely consumed I am by frantic, looping thoughts, the Witness is always sitting in a corner, watching and waiting to be called upon without judgement or a need to be invited to participate in the conversation.

I will never forget the morning of the Paris bombings in 2015. It was a Friday. I was crossing the road with my children on the way to school and one of them stepped out too soon. I yanked him back in plenty of time, but it triggered a dread of the darkest proportions. The feeling intensified as the day went on and by next morning, I could not get out of bed because I felt so sad and terrified.

At this point, I was not aware of what had transpired the evening before, but on reading the news, it felt as though my antennae had picked up the sorrow and fear of the entire world and was downloading it straight to my heart. That weekend I did not leave the house, mainly due to my uncontrollable weeping.

But through all the despair and terror, I also knew this time would pass and that, despite the depth of my feelings over the state of the world, it would change nothing – only action would do that. I also understood that this tragedy, so close to home, was happening in other places all over the world in one way or another, and that every heartbreak was a projection of the human race’s collective suffering.

And yet, I also believe that progression towards a kinder, fairer, more tolerant and collaborative way of being was, and is, inevitable. Change is inevitable. Evolution is inevitable. Fact: Every day, someone somewhere awakens to their own consciousness, and it is like lighting a candle in the dark. So every day, the world becomes a little brighter.

Wheel of Life mandala

The Witness helps us heal

Here is the magic: The fact that the Witness knows all of this is what enables us to fully embrace the darkness, to visit the pain without being held back, so that we can move through it.

Without The Witness there to hold us in its unconditional presence, we can never fully feel our feelings enough to integrate them and heal. My Witness did not save me from the utter darkness of that time. I still thought all my fearful thoughts and cried my tears of grief, but I also knew, simultaneously, that everything would be OK. And lo and behold, it was.

The Witness enables us to change

Some say that the definition of insanity is repeatedly behaving in the same way but expecting the result to change. But achieving real, lasting shifts are tricky because we are hardwired to maintain the status quo. Our biology would suggest that such habits are efficient – but only if they continue to serve us.

The Witness is the element of the mind that says: “Hey, I thought you weren’t going to think that thought anymore. It’s self-abuse.” Or: “Hey, I know you love sugar, but it makes you feel unwell, so do you really want to eat that?”

For a long time, I heard The Witness loud and clear but chose to politely ignore it. Slowly, gradually, after many hours on the mat, my Witness has become stronger and louder than my ego-mind. More often than not, it overrules the habitual, unhelpful impulses that have kept me stuck in patterns that no longer serve me.

And I have changed. I have fewer looping thoughts. I feel lighter, clearer, and my thinking is more ordered. I am able to experience real, authentic joy and act on my creative ideas. I also feel more connected and loving and yes, cliché as it has become, present, in my relationships.

How to meet your own Witness

As to how to gain an introduction to your Witness, meditation is the exercise that will help you do so, and yoga is the practice that will condition your nervous system and endocrine system to follow its wisdom. And once you have found it, it will always be available to you.

You will know it because it has no capacity for emotion, even though it fully allows you to experience the depth of your emotions. It has no agenda, except that which is true, or in alignment with your highest purpose in this lifetime. It has no aim other than to reveal all those fractured parts of yourself, which are rooted in shame, grief and fear and need to be brought into awareness so you can integrate them and continue on your journey towards wholeness.

Your Witness can be your Best Friend Forever. It is the relationship with yourself that yoga and meditation can provide. So if you have switched off and tuned out to the promise of what a personal practice could offer, now could be the time to reconsider?

Sarah Stollery

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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Healing approaches

Kundalini yoga: Helping you evolve towards love

love

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

Although I have forgotten many of the things I learned in primary school, one that has always stuck with me are the mechanisms that drive evolution. For the most part, species evolve very slowly – until, that is, some cataclysmic change in the environment triggers a rapid shift

Right now, we are on the cusp of one of those cataclysmic movements – and I am not only referring to our physical world as a result of climate change. Our cultural environment is also undergoing a major overhaul.

Human beings have become hyperpolarised. Some of us are angry – we feel cheated, unfairly treated and as though we have no agency to affect our lived experience. For people who feel this way, tolerance and compassion are at an all-time low.

Some of us feel heartsick – we see the earth drowning in plastic and pollution, and fear that the planet’s sixth mass extinction event is well underway. As part of this situation, we feel the exhaustion and sorrow of collective suffering.

Our tolerance is also low as our energy to affect change is zapped by the need to care for ourselves in these tumultuous times. Some of us may not be aware of the collective mood (although we are still affected by it) because we are dealing with the same challenging themes in our personal lives. This situation likewise leaves us with few resources for action and empathy.

But what is at the root of this deep discomfort? Fear. Fear of change as old systems die and new ones arise. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being displaced and, ultimately, annihilated. And it is this deep fear, sometimes masquerading as anger, despair or stress that will provide the necessary trigger for humans to rapidly evolve. 

Within the broad spectrum of yogic philosophy, there are several theories regarding the anatomy of fear and anxiety. Some schools of thought believe these emotions are connected to the psoas muscle, sometimes also known as ‘the muscle of the soul’. Others believe that fear and anxiety can be affected by strengthening the vagus nerve, which plays an important part in the gut-brain connection.

Within the technology of kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, the role of the physical body, particularly the nervous and glandular system, is fully acknowledged. But the fear and anxiety within the systems of the subtle, energetic and mental bodies are also recognised as well.

mindfulness

Moving beyond fear

According to kundalini yoga technology, each individual has 10 bodies, only one of which is the physical body. The most important ones for the sake of this discussion are bodies two and three, that is, the negative and positive mind respectively, which roughly correspond to the ‘gut’ part of the brain-gut connection mentioned above.

The role of the negative mind is simple: its objective is to keep you safe. The negative mind says “no” and is risk averse.

The role of the positive mind is to say “yes.” When strong, it sees all of the possibilities available – it is the mental force that drives you forward in life. But when the positive mind is weak, it is fuelled by fears buried in the subconscious.

Together, negative and positive mind send the message to the conscious ego mind that all is not well. A feedback loop is established between the brain and the gut reinforcing a perpetual sense of dread and foreboding.

Of course, some anxiety comes from our own real-time lived experience or from past trauma. But many of us are also affected by the collective mood, which is further exacerbated by the overabundance of terrifying information we are exposed to daily via social media and the news. So how do we break the cycle?

The way forward is to move beyond our fear-based nature and grow beyond the feedback loop between gut and brain by bringing our heart into the mix.

The fourth body is the neutral mind and the fourth chakra is our heart centre. The neutral mind is the objective witness of thought and action. It is entirely free of emotion and can always see fear for the illusion it is.

The heart is another form of mind, or brain, but one that most of us have forgotten how to use. When we begin to drop into our heart space, the feedback loop is interrupted. So we touch into universal love by shining a light into our dark place of fear. 

By developing a neutral mind, we cultivate the awareness required to notice when the fear-based loop is active, which enables us to make an active choice to break the cycle with our practice. There are many established ways to drop into the heart space but this is my current favourite:

Woman meditating on a mountain

Sighing

Posture: Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Place your left hand over your heart and your right hand over your left hand.

Eyes: Closed or partially open staring at the tip of the nose.

Breath: Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth, making a deep sighing sound as you drop your awareness down into your heart. As you continue with this practice, sigh the sound ahhhhhhhhhh. Hold the breath out for as long as is comfortable before taking the next in-breath.

Simply witness and feel any emotions or thoughts that arise.

In her best-selling book, A Return to Love (page 43), Marianne Williamson said: “Our fear-ridden ways are threatening our survival. A thoroughly loving person is like an evolutionary mutation, manifesting a being that puts love first and thus creates the context in which miracles occur. Ultimately, that is the only smart thing to do. It is the only orientation in life which will support our survival.”

By making it a regular practice to enter the heart space – in other words, connecting to the love within us – we have the capacity to heal the separation, or polarisation, that is at the root of our individual and collective fear. And being sufficiently motivated to heal our own fear and anxiety could just be the thing to trigger the mass evolution that would see us morph into a more loving, compassionate, empathetic and peaceful species.

Sarah Stollery

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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Healing approaches

Kundalini yoga: Taking on the challenge of transformational change

women s white top and orange floral skirt
Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

As the turn of the year approaches once again, how many of you have started thinking about New Year’s resolutions – even if, quite often, they are not very new at all? In fact, all too often, they are actually the same ones we made last year but did not stick to.

Which begs the question of why bother? Change is hard work. So shouldn’t we just accept ourselves as we are and let go of the idea that we could create a better version of ourselves?

Loving and accepting ourselves for who we are is certainly a worthy aim. But even doing that meaningfully can require transformation of a kind – a transformation in our thinking.

And what about those resolutions that really would support us in living more fulfilling, connected and joyous lives? If you are stuck in a job you hate, it IS important to make 2019 the year you find a new vocation.

If you are feeling stifled creatively, 2019 IS the year to find a satisfying outlet for your passion. If you are chronically stressed and exhausted, 2019 IS the year to find a more balanced and sustainable way of living.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

Transformational change

But change is challenging, and sometimes the best intentions in the world are simply not enough to ensure temporary change becomes lasting transformation. That is where kundalini yoga and meditation come in. They act as tools to help bring about authentic, lasting transformation by working on multiple levels.

Habits, both good and bad, exist not just in our subconscious and unconscious minds, but also in our cellular memory as well. So, to delete old habits and create new ones successfully, it is necessary to work on all of these levels. Kundalini yoga can help here by:

  • Rewiring our nervous system to remove old habits and embed new ones;
  • Rebalancing and reprogramming our endocrine (hormonal) system to support us through the emotional challenges that change generates;
  • Cultivating a neutral mind so that we have the necessary awareness to make conscious choices untainted by ego, which resists change;
  • Developing an achievable daily practice that specifically targets the changes we wish to make;
  • Providing us with a supportive community of fellow yogis, who are also working towards making change and so help to keep us accountable.

Life is too short to write off effecting transformational change in the name of loving and accepting ourselves as we are. It is important to remember that we cannot fully love and accept ourselves if we are not living an authentic life in which we recognise and honour our own needs. So it is vital to put in the hard work required to ensure those needs are met by creating the necessary change.

If you would like support in making such changes real and lasting, check out my new six-week Kundalini Yoga and Meditation Course starting on 16 January 2019 at the Mokshala Yoga and Meditation Centre in Saffron Walden, Essex. You won’t regret it.

sarah stollery headshot

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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Healing approaches

The transformational power of personal yoga practice

backlit beach dawn dusk
Photo by Cedric Lim on Pexels.com

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

My experience with the practice of yoga began many years ago when I first moved to the UK in 2002. I began by attending a weekly class at a rented space in Cambridge taught by the amazing Louise Palmer Masterson, who went on to found CamYoga, a chain of excellent yoga studios in Cambridge and the surrounding villages.

Mostly I enjoyed the exercise and the similarities that yoga shared with dance as that had been my favourite physical/creative outlet when I was growing up. But it was also technical and required a level of dedication and passion to progress that I did not feel I wanted to pursue at the time.

I dabbled with different classes and teachers over the next few years, liking the idea of yoga more than the actual practice itself. Looking back, I realise I had failed to truly understand the essence of yoga at all. At the time, it was simply another form of physical exercise to me.

But a few years later, a very dear friend told me about kundalini yoga and meditation. She explained that it was different to the hatha yoga I had been practicing and it had changed her life.

I was intrigued and so found a teacher in Cambridge. After my first class, I knew a seed had been sewn. I had no idea what would grow out of it, but I knew that kundalini yoga was part of my future somehow. The only problems were that classes were very hard to find and Cambridge was a challenge for me to get to, but I still felt drawn to learn more about the practice.

And so it was in October 2014 that I decided to train to become a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher. Up to this point, I had followed the odd DVD and sporadically meditated here and there, but it wasn’t until I took on the training that I began to practice regularly at home as it was a requirement of the course.

Leap of faith
Leap of faith

Things holding you back

Some of the things that had stopped me practicing at home before I started training were:

  • The belief that I did not have enough experience or knowledge of yoga;
  • Feeling like I did not know what to practice, when or how. In other words, what did practicing on my own actually look like?
  • Believing I needed a teacher watching over me to make sure I was doing it all correctly all the time;
  • The mindset that my practice should resemble a full 90 minute yoga class, which I did not have time for.

But very soon after I began practicing at home, many things changed including, most significantly, my perception of yoga itself. Instead of it simply being a set of exercises I liked the idea of, it became like a best friend. It became a relationship.

It also became a source of comfort – and sometimes discomfort! – a container that allowed insights about myself to come to the surface and enable me to change my behaviour for the better. Most importantly, it became a tool – THE tool – for managing my wellbeing.

I came to realise that yoga is not just something you do on a mat for 30 minutes a day. It is a deeper, enriched and ever-evolving relationship with yourself that truly begins the moment you commit to spending time with yourself.

It really is that simple – and as soon as we make it more than that we risk creating the limitations that stop us from practicing on our own. Attending a class is still vital to make progress, provide community and expand our knowledge base. But the real gold, at least for me, comes through the constancy, silence and stillness that often happens at 10.42 pm on a Sunday night in my own living room.

sarah stollery headshot

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of  The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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Kundalini Yoga: Awakening to a new truth

 

Woman meditating on a mountain
Meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

In factual terms, Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, who first revealed the formerly secret practice to the West in the late 1960s, may be defined as:

  • The yoga of awareness;
  • A practice that prepares the body to release Kundalini, or life force, energy, which is coiled at the base of the spine and holds your energy field in stasis. When activated, this energy travels up a number of primary energy channels and merges with the crown chakra, bringing your spirit into union with the infinite, eternal essence of the cosmos;
  • Incorporating pranayama (breathing exercises), kriya (a series of yoga postures that work towards a specific outcome), meditation and mantras (chanting);
  • A non-religious practice, although it does include elements of, and teachings from, Sikh and other major world religions;
  • Embracing seva or selfless service to others.

relaxation sitting reflection statue
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What does Kundalini Yoga mean to me?

To me, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of opportunity. It is an invitation to get to know yourself – both the light and shadow sides in equal measure. It is a chance to find healing and liberation from the traumas that all of us carry with us but often fail to integrate into our being.

But unlike some other modern day spiritual paths or self-help schemes, Kundalini Yoga does not promise a challenge-free path to freedom, which is why I believe it remains fairly niche. It is an approach that challenges and provokes as much as it elevates.

Above all, however, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of connection: to ourselves, our families, our communities, all life on earth and finally to the universe’s truths.

My teacher Guru Dharam once described it as “a blueprint for an experience of you, but how you manifest that experience is entirely down to the individual. Embrace this challenging and unique path with commitment and heart, and the prize will be knowing yourself in this lifetime”.

Let me share with you a special experience I had half-way through my teacher training:

It is 5am on a Sunday morning in the middle of January. I, along with 40 other Kundalini Yoga teacher trainees are sitting, spines upright, eyes closed, waiting in silence for the recitation of Japji, one of the five daily Sikh prayers, to begin.

This morning, we find ourselves in a cavernous, converted barn, usually reserved for weddings, instead of the usual Elizabethan manor house where we live and practise as there are too many people to fit. The sub-zero temperatures outside mean it is not much warmer inside, and we can just about see our breath in the low lighting. My thin mat is proving poor protection against the freezing cold floor, and I find myself wishing I had a sheepskin mat like some of my friends.

But then the Japji begins and I become lost in the lyrical rhythm of its words. It is the start of the Aquarian Sadhana, a two-and-a-half hour practice that Yogi Bhajan gave us in 1992 to help with the transition into the Aquarian Age.

After Japji, we tune into the golden chain linking us to our teacher and to all the teachers that have come before by means of the Adi mantra, before launching into the kriya for this morning’s practice. By this time, I am grateful to have the chance to move. Heat begins to spread through my body as a combination of the stiffness from Saturday’s yoga, and the cold, starts to ease.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

A new truth

Following this yoga set, we relax in savasana (lying on our backs) for a few minutes – just long enough for the cold to seep back into my bones. But I don’t mind as my favourite part of the sadhana is just about to start: it is time for Long Morning Calls.

We chant the mantra seven times in seven minutes and, even though I have hardly moved in that time, the cosy feeling in my body and the space around me is like warm honey.

We now move our mats, blankets and sheepskins closer to the front of the room, where my teacher Benjahmin is setting up his harmonium and guitar. He starts to play the first six mantras that make up the playlist of the Aquarian Sadhana. As I hear each one, I am convinced each is my favourite.

But the penultimate mantra actually is. As we move into virasana (hero pose), I reaffirm to myself that this time I will remain in posture, sitting on my left foot with my hands held in prayer, for the whole 22 minutes.

Benjahmin plays the opening chords and my heart melts as the weight of what I am about to shed from my being starts to thaw, ready for release. I begin to sing and cry at the same time. As the music builds, so does an indescribable feeling in my heart. It feels as if all the love and pain that ever was and ever will be is exploding in waves of ever-increasing mass and energy, crashing into every thought, every cell and every breath.

Halfway through, I stop singing to allow myself to truly feel the intensity of the experience. I am of my body but not in it. The boundaries of my being have disappeared and I have merged with the space, the other souls around me and the essence of the sound or naad.

All thought has stopped. All I can do is feel. And now it comes – an awareness that has been lurking at the edge of my consciousness since I came to my mat two hours ago. I now know something, not with my mind, but with each of my 10 physical, mental and energy bodies. Because it’s not a thought so much as a truth firmly lodged in my being: “There is no suffering without purpose.”

What this actually means to me will be the subject of a separate blog but suffice to say, it is a knowing that continues to unfold daily and my absolute certainty in this truth is as strong now as it was on that icy morning three-and-a-half years ago.

sarah stollery headshot

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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