Mindfulness or meditation?

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peace-of-mind-349815_1280Being mindful is very popular these days. ‘Mindfulness’ is a real buzz word.  It’s become mainstream in a short space of time in the way that ‘meditation’ never quite has.  ‘Meditation’ still has that slightly exotic taste to it, and conjures up the idea of sitting uncomfortably, or, as one of my students (wrongly!) once put it, trying to ’empty’  the mind.

So mindfulness just sounds a little more achievable. A bit more everyday. Our mind doesn’t have to be ’empty’, it just has to be noticed. We regain some control over our wayward minds and notice where it wanders off to, time and time again. Even more, mindfulness can be practised anywhere, any time…during any activity.

Of course, mindfulness and meditation are really one and the same thing, just like two sides of a coin. When I originally trained as a yoga teacher,  we were taught that, with regular meditation practice (that is, the formal, cross-legged kind!), the benefits would start to spill over into everyday life.  We would gradually apply the calm, spacious mind we experience in meditation to more and more of our lives – and, hey presto! that sounds just like mindfulness.

And so, when I teach meditation, I am also teaching mindfulness.  When I teach yoga, I am teaching mindfulness too.  Dru yoga, the style of yoga I teach, is soft, flowing and performed with awareness, finding the grace and ease of our bodies rather than trying to force anything. Joints are kept soft, not locked. We generally flow in and out of postures rather than settling in for a long hold. We listen to our bodies, which change daily, and the way we feel, and select the practice which seems right, in the moment. Mindfulness in action, in every movement, prepares the body and the mind for a more formal seated practice. We find the stillness in the movement, and also the movement in the stillness.

So now, when I teach mindfulness, I teach a whole range of things – from simple flowing movements, performed with awareness, to breath awareness, to meditation in both seated and standing positions, and lying down full-body and mind relaxation. I teach how to apply the principles of mindfulness to daily activities, to eating, to walking, to relating to others. I show how it can be hard, to begin with, and yet easy to fit in to our busy lives.  It can be as easy as bringing our awareness to the quality of our breath in a heated moment, as simple as savouring a lovely meal, or enjoying a hug.

I would love to read your experiences of mindfulness  – please leave your comments below!

Alison x

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Decluttering and looking after ourselves

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I have been thinking a lot about happiness lately – along with writing more and being more proactive in my business (Ok, I didn’t go into yoga teaching and therapies to do marketing and accounting, but I do have to accept that they are necessary evils!), taking steps to live a happier and higher-energy life is key for me this year.  It’s so easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by the many demands of life, and before you know it, you can feel less than your best!

Luckily for me, most of the things I teach – and use regularly – are hugely effective at lifting my mood.  Some energetic or relaxing yoga  can work wonders, as can a bit of reflexology, and Jin Shin Jyutsu in its simplest form is really the art of identifying and then balancing the subtle shifts of our moods.  And ultimately, for me, the key to feeling good, day by day, is to take time out for things I enjoy, and to live my life being ME – by my own standards, not anyone else’s. Even when you teach others ways to relax, to energise, to feel brilliant, it can be easy to forget to do this consistently, day by day, moment by moment. Despite my daily meditation and yoga practice, I felt that this year there was even more I could do….more reading, more writing, more looking after myself and earlier nights.  I have been taking a few minutes to light candles and nightlights around my home in the early evening, and have been doing a major decluttering, after reading the amazing The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever by Marie Kondo. There’s still a way to go, but clothes, books and paperwork have been having a complete sort out – the recycling bin and the charity shops near me have benefitted too!

In Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life,
Arianna Huffington writes of the critical need to reevaluate what we mean by success.  Her moment of realisation came when she collapsed from exhaustion, two years after setting up the Huffington Post.  She writes:

…after my fall, I had to ask myself, Was this what success looked like? Was this the life I wanted? I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage,and bring in investors. But my life, I realized, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful.  But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way.

The book goes on to look at the many ways we could redefine success, to include our wellbeing, and making room in our lives for wonder, wisdom and giving to others. So whilst there is nothing wrong in living a ‘successful’ life, in terms of status and money, if that is the kind of life that makes us feel fulfilled, we need to make sure we look after ourselves as well.

Sometimes it is argued that looking after ourselves is just a form of selfishness.  But I would argue that we are unable to look after others if we do not sometimes put ourselves first.  Yes, as parents we care for our children, as therapists we treat our clients to the very best of our ability, as professionals we do our job the best we can.  But, how can we do this if we are drained, exhausted, and lacking in energy? How can we be our kindest, most loving selves when we are tired and aching and just longing for sleep?  I’m certain I’m not alone in being more empathic when I feel good in myself, rested, vibrant and healthy. Have you ever tried being the perfect parent, partner, friend, employer or employee when you’re feeling rubbish?  With the best intentions in the world, it’s just not going to happen.

So, it’s time for us all to stop feeling that it’s wrong to take a break.  We owe it to ourselves – and everyone else! –  to live life to the full.  To explore our human potential to the limit, rather than trudging along, robot-like, just trying to get through the days.

Taking time out, being the best you can be….those are my keys (for myself, and those I work with!) for this year.  Let me know the steps you’re taking to look after yourself!

The importance of sleep

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We all feel so much better for a good night’s sleep.  But how many of us make it a priority in our busy lives?  There are so many things that can get in the way of us having enough time to sleep well and for enough hours.  I work with new mums, and remember well the effects of disturbed nights when my own son was small – nobody understands why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture so well as a mum who is up all through the night! In Sarah Moss’s book, Night Waking, the protagonist Anna muses during yet another night up with her son as to how many years of her life she would gladly exchange for a full 8 hours:

It depends on how long my life will  be.  Of a hundred years, I would give ten. I think about how much reading I might be able to do between being ninety and a hundred. I would be at liberty to live in what my mother used to call All This Mess and upon KitKats and salt and vinegar Hula Hoops.  I’ve always fancied sheltered accommodation. I used to cycle past some flats…and I’d peer in and see old ladies with flowery wing armchairs…reading or watching television in the middle of the morning. When they were in those kitchens I bet they were baking cakes for themselves….No, I’m not giving up a decade of sugar-fuelled self-indulgence, even for sleep….OK, five years of a hundred. As long as the sleep is in solitude and somewhere soundproof and I know that Giles is on call for the children.

Moving to a global scale, what would I pawn for sleep? Would I, given the chance, have peace for Palestine or twelve hours in bed?….It’s a good thing Satan doesn’t come and chat to the mothers of sleepless toddlers in the middle of the night.

It is not, of course, only mothers who suffer from lack of  sleep.  Insomnia, meaning the inability to get to sleep in the first place or waking during the night, several times or for lengthy periods of time, is thought to affect up to one in three people on a regular basis, according to the NHS website.

People who suffer with insomnia may frequently feel so tired that it is difficult to get through the day, lacking the focus, concentration, and the energy to accomplish what they wanted to, either at work or home. They may experience physical fatigue, in the muscles of the body, headaches and  low mood.  Insomnia may also be caused by low mood, stress and anxiety, creating a vicious circle which can be hard to break. Even if it is theoretically possible to take a nap during the day, some people will find that very hard to actually achieve.

Yet more people have no difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, but still feel tired in the morning because they didn’t get enough sleep to feel fully rested. They have gone to bed later than they meant to, or consistently don’t get to bed until 5 or 6 hours before they need to get up. They hit snooze on the alarm clock over and over in the morning, but those short 5 or 10 minute naps don’t cut it when what they really needed was a full night’s sleep.

So, how much sleep do we need? There is no set amount, as we all vary, and it will also depend on our level of exertion.  So some people might feel fully recharged after 7 hours or so, whilst others might need 9.  I personally fall somewhere in the middle, needing ideally about 8 hours to really feel I’ve had a good sleep. I get up early at 5am to do my morning yoga and meditation practice, so really would need to be asleep at 9 to achieve this – unfortunately, I don’t actually manage this all that often!  Especially when I teach one evening class which ends at 9.45! But I can get by on 7 hours reasonably comfortably – anything less, though, and I really start to feel the worse for wear!

I teach lots of techniques in my classes which can  help to energise us when we’re feeling a bit depleted.  They’re often particularly appreciated in my postnatal classes!  A good stretch to the back and leg muscles can help to boost energy levels, as in a standing forward bend, for example.  Dru yoga’s Energy Block Release 1 stretches the whole of the spine and the body in all directions, and is a particular favourite of mine on  low-energy days! But (and I know this is a real shame!), in the end there is no substitute for getting enough sleep, more often than not. We need to make sleep (and rest) more of a priority in our lives. We need to practice ‘sleep hygiene‘, cultivating habits which help us to switch off and get a good night’s sleep. Some of these habits include:

  • going to bed at a regular time
  • setting some time aside before going to bed to relax
  • having a warm bath
  • having a warm drink
  • not using screens and electronic gadgets before bedtime, and never in the bedroom
  • dim lighting
  • avoiding heavy meals in the late evening, try to eat earlier and not in the two hours before going to sleep
  • reading (for pleasure, not studying!)
  • gentle exercise like yoga,  rather than extreme exertion in the evening (but exercise daily!)
  • avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • practising meditation or a deep relaxation before going to sleep
  • getting up and doing something else for a few minutes if sleep isn’t happening, rather than getting anxious about the time, and how long it’s taking you to get to sleep
  • dealing with any anxieties before going to bed, and if you wake up worrying over something, write it down in a notebook and promise yourself you will deal with it in the morning
  • wear earplugs and an eye mask if light and noise are stopping you from sleeping
  • drink plenty during the day but decrease during the evening

If you’re reading this and thinking that it’s all very well, but you just don’t have time to take it easy in the evening, and prepare for a good night’s sleep, it might be worth thinking about the consequences of not making sleep a priority. It is becoming well-known now that inadequate sleep can increase our risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. What if you’re one of those people who is proud of how little sleep you need, and the amount of hours you put in at work? Well, I would suggest that, whilst you might get away with it for a while, in the end, lack of sleep will impact your wellbeing and the quality of both your life and your work.  I have recently been reading Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life, in which she talks about the ‘third metric’ of success – adding the idea of wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving to the traditional worldly way of judging success in terms of money and power. On the subject of sleep she quotes a 2013 study which showed that the brain has two fundamental states – one of being awake, totally aware, and one of sleep.  During the sleeping state, the brain ‘cleans up’, clearing out harmful protein wastes which build up in between its cells (Arianna Huffington ‘Thrive’ p76). These wastes may be associated with brain changes in ageing and dementia. So, if you want your brain to be fully awake during the day, you need to ensure it’s getting enough sleep at night.  And if that isn’t happening easily, try some (or all!) of the suggestions above to see what works for you. Catch-up naps in the day are also good if you have had a poor night’s sleep (without guilt!)

And, if none of this is working for you because you actually are a mum with a wakeful child – don’t despair!  Things will get better as your child gets older, but the age-old advice to sleep when your child sleeps is worth remembering – yes, even though the washing and ironing is waiting for you!  It can wait a little longer.

 

 

 

What is happiness?

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jumpforjoyI’ve  been pondering this question a lot over the past few weeks.  We all wish each other a happy new year, we all wish happiness for our friends, our family and ourselves. So, what do we mean by that?

Do we want ourselves, and others, to be jumping for joy?  Is that really what we want, all the time?  Is joy a sustainable emotion? Or is it followed soon enough, for most of us, by the inevitable not-so-wonderful experiences of our lives?  If moments of pure joy are really to be fully appreciated, they need to be just that – moments.  High points of happiness, in which we are bubbling over with pleasure, excitement, exuberance.  Which are all the better for the humdrum nature of much of our lives. And which are unsustainable in the long-term.

So, what is happiness?  Is it merely the absence of sadness? Can we define it only by what is missing?

For me, happiness is a calmer emotion than joy.  There’s a bit less excitement, a bit less disruption to my equilibrium!  It can be quiet and still, calm and peaceful, brought on by the simplest things – spending time with loved ones, cooking, reading, walking by the sea or in the countryside. By laughter. By yoga and meditation.  By being alone, and by being with others. It’s less fleeting than pleasure, which is ‘only the shadow of happiness’, according to a Hindu proverb.

Happiness, it is true, can be lost.  But happiness can also be found. It can be cultivated quite deliberately. Happiness takes practice, but can become a habit. It’s a skill that can be learnt, and relearnt. Even when you think it’s gone forever, it can creep up on you and surprise you.

As Matthieu Ricard says in his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill:

‘..achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill.  It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness and altruistic love’

So whilst some of us have a more naturally sunny disposition than others, happiness can be created, fostered, tended to. It can grow. In his book, ‘Buddha’s Brain’, Rick  Hanson talks about ‘taking in the good’, really noticing and savouring the good times we experience.  If things aren’t great right now, we can recall a time we felt truly happy and bask in the memory. And don’t let the good moments pass by without noticing. Notice what being happy feels like, right in the moment. Pause for a moment, and truly experience the sensations of happiness. Truly, madly, deeply feel that moment. And at the end of the day, recall those sensations, those feelings of wellbeing before going to sleep. Write about them if you keep a journal, express gratitude for all the good in your life. Deliberately, patiently and tenderly foster good feelings.  So that when things aren’t so great, your basic sense of wellbeing, your basic ground of happiness, isn’t rocked so violently as it might otherwise have been. So that you have resilience when things – inevitably – don’t go all your own way.

There will be days when nothing goes right.  There may be weeks, months or even years that are more difficult than others.  That’s life.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, life is the:

‘…full catastrophe….the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crisis and disaster, the unthinkable and the unacceptable, but is also includes all the little things that go wrong and that add up….life is always in flux’.

And we won’t always feel happy.  Not by any stretch of the imagination. Unless we have reached enlightenment! But with mental health such a huge concern, we can work to improve our underlying happiness.  We can build our happiness muscle as if we’re working out at the gym, being grateful for all the good in our lives. We can make time for things we enjoy, we can look after ourselves emotionally as well as physically. We can make sure we get enough rest, sufficient exercise and good nutrition. We can practise being happy.

The kind of resolutions I like…

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It’s the third of  January, and it’s a dreary kind of day outside.  The kind of day that makes you want to curl up by the fire.  It’s also far enough into the new year that you could already see yourself as failing one or more of your resolutions, if you made any, but also early enough in the year that you may not even have started, and so you could be wondering if it was worth even setting any.

Well, I really don’t like the kind of all-or-nothing resolutions which you could fail at this early on!  I mean, what’s the point of them?  It’s incredibly hard to start, or stick to, a new healthy eating plan when the house is still full of delicious Christmas leftovers!  If you haven’t started, why should a week or two into the year make any difference?  Why not start when the time is right for you?! If the blustery day puts you off wanting to go for a walk or a run, does it matter?  It’s not the only day of the year!  There are still 362 days left to do that!

I much prefer to look at the new year as a time to assess where I’m at in my life, and  keep moving forward. So rather than set myself ridiculous goals which I can succeed or fail at, I set myself realistic goals, and  see them as a continuation of what has gone before, a revisiting of my overall move towards better things.  It’s not a ladder I can fall off, more of a spiral staircase in which the overall movement is upwards but which curls around and comes back to the same spot, where I can go down a few steps but then back up.  I try to take small steps towards my overall goal, but I don’t try to do it all at once! As Lao Tzu said, The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Above all, I intend to be kind to myself this year,  so setting myself unreachable goals would really not fit that end. If you have already broken a resolution, or have not yet started, or not set any at all, be kind to yourself and just take one tiny step at a time.

A time to reflect and make plans

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I’m not the biggest fan of new year’s resolutions per se, as we so often make them, stick with them for a few days or weeks, and then go back to the way we were before when we realise we have been too ambitious, and other things get in the way of that punishing exercise schedule which seemed such a good idea before we went back to work after the holidays.  It’s so easy to get discouraged and then give up altogether.  But I do think that this is the ideal time to have a look at the year we have just lived through, at the achievements we have made, however small,  and consider how we would like to take them forward.  And not just our achievements, but also our failures, the lessons we have learnt this year and which we can use to help us in the coming year.

When we stop to look over the past 12 months, we might be surprised by how far we have come.  We might not have changed the world, exactly, but we may have taken our first baby steps towards something incredibly important in our lives.  So whilst I have not yet become self-sufficient in making my own clothes, I have started that process and made a few items, and whilst invisible zips are still a bit scary, I can imagine that they will keep getting easier with each garment (I hope!). I’ve made most of the birthday cards I’ve sent and all of our Christmas cards this year, so hope to continue this next year.  I have continued my daily yoga and meditation practice, and have resumed my writing after quite a long – and unintended – break. I have bought a Nutribullet and most days I’m  drinking a delicious and homemade smoothie full of healthy fruit and vegetables.  I  completely quit sugar last year, and then resumed it to some extent, but now Christmas is over I’m already looking forward to my January cleanse.  Mindfulness of eating has become too ingrained to overindulge for long!

So even if, like me, you have previously been discouraged by unsustainable resolutions, don’t despair.  Look at how far you have already come, and then think about what small and achievable steps you could work towards next. Optimism is great, but try to be realistic too, so that, come the end of  January, you haven’t given up altogether.

 

Time for a holiday!

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summer-814679_1280How long is it since you had a holiday?  And how long since you took a holiday before you were exhausted, when you could really enjoy it?

The trouble with holidays seems to be that they don’t come round quickly enough.  So when they finally arrive, we really feel in need of them – whether it’s a totally relaxing, lie-on-the-beach kind of break, a complete change of scene, or an adrenaline-rush activity holiday!  I once heard Caroline Myss talk about how some of us seem to need to justify our need for a break – you know, when you hear someone say, ‘yes, I really needed a holiday, I was so exhausted‘.  As if  apologising for needing to stop working for a while.  Her response was amusing, but dead right – ‘just take a holiday when you’re not exhausted, when you can really enjoy it!’

And how long is the optimum holiday?  Because for many or us, we are so stressed out before we actually go away, that it takes several days to relax and really start to enjoy ourselves.  So we might only really appreciate the last few days, and then, if life back home isn’t really something to look forward to, the last bit of the holiday can be spent dreading the amount of work which will be awaiting our return!  That’s if we haven’t succumbed to checking emails and making calls during our holiday, that is!

So, if holidays don’t come around soon enough, and then we don’t fully relax and enjoy them when they do, what is the answer?  Well, for me, it’s building regular breaks, or mini-holidays, into every week, and into every day. If I’ve had a busy week, or lots of stress, or not enough sleep – I stop and acknowedge that it’s time to take care of myself.  I might have an early night and read a favourite book, or I might give myself the luxury of an afternoon off to create something lovely (like a scrummy cake, perhaps!)  When my son burnt his hand a few weeks ago, and we took him to A&E that evening, and then had an early start to the specialist hospital the next morning, I had very little sleep, and, as you would imagine, plenty of stress.  I was a bit of an emotional wreck for 2 or 3 days, to be honest.  So when he went back to school, with reminders to be careful with his hand,  not to get the dressing wet, and so on, I  could have just worried about him all day long until  he got back home (that would have been so easy to do –  and of course I did think about him all through the day). I could have spent the day making up for missed time at work, catching up on all those emails, coursework and everything else that had been put on hold.  And I did, for part of the day.  But what I really, really needed was to stop, to take time out, and to calm my frazzled mind.  I had managed some meditation each day, just a little bit, and that had helped. But now I needed just to do something I would enjoy, and that would help me get back to normality.  So I got on with a sewing project, just for a couple of hours, something calm, peaceful and just for me.  I did a bit of yoga, and minded my breath.  I ate healthily, and generally took time out for myself.

And I didn’t feel guilty.  Because I knew I needed it, and that it would help me to cope with the hospital visits yet to come, and the support I still needed to give. It would help me to come back to my calmer, better self.  It would help me to feel well (in the true sense of the word, rather than just the absence of a specific illness).

I truly believe that everyone knows, deep down, when they need to have a break.  It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.  It just needs to be at the time that they need it. If you hear yourself proudly telling people how late you stayed at work, how many hours of ironing you did, or how little sleep you had, then your ego is far too tied up in achieving and doing.  So many stresses and illnesses can start this way. It’s time to look after yourself before illness makes enforced rest inevitable.  When you’re too ill to enjoy it.  Take time now, each week, each day, to do something positive for your own wellbeing.