Tag Archives: breathing

Taking time out for ourselves

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womanstress  All the research shows us just how important it is to take time out, to look after ourselves, before we get sick. By taking care of ourselves at the very first sign of stress, we may prevent a whole range of mental, emotional and physical ailments. Yes, it can be hard to find the time, and yes, there may be others we need to take care of, but we will do that all the better for acknowledging our own needs.

If you’ve ever been less than patient with someone when you’re feeling down, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

If you’ve ever felt so tired, drained, and just plain exhausted that you have almost lost touch with that wonderful person you are on the inside, you’ll know how important taking care of yourself really is.

And if you have ever felt guilty about taking that time, you need to stop that guilt, right now.

Here’s why….

So many of our top diseases now are stress-related, and so many of us are  getting unwell, both mentally and physically, because of the way we live our lives.  Work, work and more work doesn’t make us happy.  It might (or might not!) make us rich.  But since when did money automatically make us happier?  Happiness is right here, right in this moment, not some time in the future when our bank account is a little fuller, or when we have that amazing new car, house, or tv.  It’s in the time we spend with our family and our friends, or pursuing our dreams, not only in the achievements and recognisable successes of our lives.  It’s in the whole process of life – and if it’s hard for you to find your happy side in all of this, I would encourage you to take time out and find a space in which you can get back in touch with that sense of contentment.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be fancy, it might be as simple as watching your breath, having a stretch or reading a few pages of your favourite book. It might be in listening to a beautiful or uplifting piece of music, or going for a walk.  It might be in looking at the sky full of stars on a clear night, or at the dew on the grass in the morning.

So, we don’t have to spend a lot of money, and we don’t necessarily have to spend all that much time; even a few minutes in which we are mindful of our surroundings, or of what we are doing, totally and completely absorbed in our breath, or the music, or the movement….even those few minutes can help to build our sense of wellbeing, and help us to relate more happily to our world and those around us.  Our empathy, our patience and our sense of connection to others are all strengthened, and we feel amazing!  Physically, mentally and emotionally, we feel stronger, more resilient, and able to handle the demands of our lives with greater ease. Thinking and decision -making can be easier, as all the mental chit-chat starts to settle down.

 

 

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Trying too hard

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elm-leaf-231857_1280We live in an age when continual work and huge amounts of effort are held in high regard. Many employees are expected to work above and beyond their contracted hours,  sometimes for no extra pay.  And people almost seem to compete as to who can work the hardest, or the longest hours.

And yet,  when we really look into this culture of competitiveness,  of excessive drive and ambition,  we can perhaps recognise that this constant effort,  the drive and ambition that characterise so many of us in our working lives,  can be counterproductive in terms of our quality of life. The sense of balance between work and rest, between giving and receiving, is so easily lost in this way.  And sometimes we put ourselves under the sort of pressure which actually makes us less, rather than more, productive.

In yoga philosophy, we now see a domination of the dynamic solar energy, the energy of the pingala nadi, affecting the majority of us.  When this dominance is allowed to continue, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated which induces stress, and may result in any of the stress-related illnesses.  Yoga practices which quiet this system, such as asana, meditation, pranayama (breathing practices) and yoga nidra (deep relaxation), help to recreate balance by fostering the qualities of ida nadi, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the serene and peaceful energy of the moon.

In Jin Shin Jyutsu, we learn to perceive the attitudes which underlie our way of being.  These attitudes are largely recognisable emotions; worry, fear, sadness or anger, for example.  Emotions which, when they become dominant, affect our whole perception of, and reactions to, the circumstances of our lives. Another attitude which affects many of us is that of ‘trying too hard’ – where everything is an effort, and life is not allowed to flow more naturally.  The quality of our ‘being’ is often overlooked, crowded out by the effort of  ‘doing‘. We can then fail to notice the way we are affected by the things we do, both on an emotional and a physical level.

So if you frequently feel exhausted by the daily effort you put in to your life, it might be time  to look afresh at the way you do things.  Is the amount of  effort you put in to a task disproportionate to the effort that is actually needed to accomplish it?  An Alexander Technique teacher once told me to  notice the physical effort I used during the simple  task of turning on a tap.  Sure enough,  when I thought about it,  I was using way more effort than needed, and way more than I had ever noticed until my attention was drawn to it. And of course, the same could probably be said of  many other simple  daily tasks.  The  key is to start to observe, to be more mindful of our actions and the way we live our lives.

And then there’s the huge amount of energy we can put into resistance.  ‘Trying to’ hold on to things the way they are, to maintain our sense of familiarity and safety with what we know.  And herein lies the attitude of fear, the attitude which is said to be at the root of all others.  If things change, we are scared that change will be for the worse.  But then we are stopping the natural flow of our lives, which just might get better if we can learn to  relax  all that effort and let go.

The following quote comes from The Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying
by Sogyal Rinpoche.  If effort and resistance to change is an issue for you, the exercise might be worth a try:

“Let’s try an experiment.  Pick up a coin.  Imagine that it represents the object at which you are grasping. Hold it tightly clutched in your fist and extend your arm, with the palm of your hand facing the ground. Now if you let go or relax your grip, you will lose what you are clinging on to. That’s why you hold on.

But there’s another possibility. You can let go and yet keep hold of it.  With your arm still outstretched, turn your hand over so that it faces the sky. Release your hand and the coin still rests on your open palm.  You let go. And the coin is still yours, even with all this space around it. 

So there is a way in which we can accept impermanence and still relish life, at one and the same time,  without grasping. “

I love this exercise.  Through our yoga practise, we learn to identify the areas in which we are grasping, striving, and holding on.  In asana, in pranayama, in meditation, we identify our blocks, and then we let go of the effort of holding on to them. We learn to flow with our lives, to use only the effort needed, and rebalance our bodies and our minds.  We gain a wonderful sense of space around us.

Nurturing ourselves

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It is so important to look after ourselves.  Many of us are ‘givers’ and  ‘carers’ rather than ‘takers’ from life.  We put ourselves so far down the list we may not get around to our own needs at all.  We may be looking after our families, our partners, our parents, our friends, and somewhere we can get lost in the middle of all this.

I have recently been reminded of just how much I take for granted, and put off for another day.  Becoming aware of the need to stretch,  to move, to ease my aches and pains, I will sometimes just soldier on with the demands of the day, putting off what I need to do until later – or maybe tomorrow; sometimes  even until next week.  By the time that need is calling even louder – perhaps with a muscle that just needed a little attention and is now in spasm, or with a migraine that I could have avoided had I listened to the earlier need for rest – it really is time to pay attention.

Going through a period of ill-health can be so enlightening.  It can remind us of how important it is to take care of, and nurture ourselves.  Yes, others may be calling us more loudly, but we are equally important.  It’s not selfishness.  After all, you getting sick is in no-one’s best interests.  I have been reminded in recent months of the very nurturing quality of the work I do, but which I hadn’t been making enough use of for myself.  Having all the tools at my disposal, but not always the time, I have  now been forced to make the time, to take time out for me.  I have been reminded again just how amazing the Dru yoga sequences can be for shifting my energy, for making me feel better and more myself – especially when done so much more regularly.  I have sought out reflexology treatments for myself with other therapists, and I have been giving myself time to apply Jin Shin Jyutsu treatments (almost) every day.  I have made time for daily meditation by getting up earlier, and am practising more pranayama than at any time since becoming a mother.  And I honestly don’t think it’s only me that has noticed the difference.  I am calmer, more focused, much happier than I was before.  And that has got to be better for everyone!

I’d love to hear how you make time for yourself, and what makes you feel  better.  Leave your comments below!

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.

Celebrations

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We are just coming up to a 4-day weekend for the Diamond Jubilee, and the flags and bunting are going up everywhere.  It’s a big event, once-in-a-lifetime (I was quite young for the Silver Jubilee back in the 70s, and don’t remember a lot about it!).  On top of this, we will be hosting the Olympics this summer, and most of us are feeling at our most patriotic.  We are fostering our sense of belonging and security at our base chakra, at a national level.

It is so important to have something to celebrate in our lives.  Not necessarily, and certainly not only the big things, but all the little things as well.  Our own birthdays, those of our families and friends, Christmas, Easter, whatever festivals  are in your own tradition.  It can be all too easy to get bogged down in the more humdrum aspects of our daily lives, and to forget the wonder that such events can bring.  As adults, we may say we don’t care about our birthday, it’s  ‘just another year older’ – but this sort of thinking can certainly make us feel older.  Children would never say such a thing – and nobody would get the chance to forget their day!  Now, I’m not suggesting that we should go and tell the whole world when our birthday is coming up, but rather that we take the time to think what we would like to do on our birthday.  Even if we have to go to work, to think of some small – or enormous! – way to mark the day.  To see or talk to our closest family and friends, to visit a place we love or would like to see for the first time.  If we most love to cook and share good food,  to do just that.  To have some quiet time if that is what we would truly value.

And, even on our ‘ordinary days’, to reflect upon the things that have made them special, whatever that may be.  It could be some goal that we have achieved, a book we have read, some music we listened to, a yoga sequence we have practised, a meal that we ate, a walk by the sea, the people we have spent time with.  Let us not assume our happiness comes only from the ‘high days and holidays’, but that it comes from within us.  And the more we notice and pay attention to the ways in which we can foster those good feelings, the more we celebrate that which is good about our daily lives, the better we will feel.

One of my yoga teachers once remarked that she has a little holiday every day.  By which she meant that, whenever she really needed it, she practised some yoga or meditation during each day.  What a wonderful idea!  Not feeling a sense of duty about our practice, but using  it to lift our energy and our spirits.  Sometimes it can take only a few conscious breaths to alter our mood and our perception of our situation.  At other times, it may take some movement, whether flowing or energetic.  We may need some quiet time in meditation.  We may need to listen to some uplifting or calming music, or to get outside in the fresh air. It doesn’t necessarily need to take very long.  With Jin Shin Jyutsu, we may use the finger holds (mudras), to subtly identify and change our dominant emotions.  It doesn’t matter what works for you, it only matters that you do something to make every day that little bit special, to give you something to celebrate and be thankful for at the end of the day.

What do you do that makes your day flow more easily?

Sculpting with yoga

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Once I was teaching and there were people arriving for a meeting in another room.  As they arrived, I was teaching a relaxation at the end of my first class.  When they left a couple of hours later, I was teaching relaxation again, at the end of my next class. Two men were heard commenting that ‘it’s all about lying down in there!’  Well, that was all they had seen, but of course there had been a lot more to it than that!  Another time, I heard an elderly lady explaining to her friend that yoga was about learning to go to sleep!

People do have preconceived ideas about what yoga IS, even if they have never attended a class.  They may be interested, or not interested,  depending on what  they believe it IS.  There are many different reasons why people take up yoga – it may be to promote fitness or flexibility; it may be to aid in training for, or recovery from, another sport.  It may be to help improve posture, and to relieve aches and pains. Others may come to yoga as an aid to relaxation, to relieve their stress.  All excellent reasons for taking up yoga.

Increasingly, though, people are taking up yoga to improve their body image, as the press is rife with reports of various celebrities using their yoga practice  to tone up and slim down.  Another great reason to take up yoga.  The many forms of yoga vary enormously, and some will veer towards the physically arduous, whilst other styles are softer and more flowing.

When we practise asanas, whether holding the posture or flowing in and out in a sequence, our muscles gradually stretch, strengthen and gain definition.  It’s like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone – the sculpture slowly emerges out of the mass of rock.  When we work our muscles, they will improve in their appearance as well as in their function.  Even if we can’t at first feel or see the difference, rest assured that just beneath the surface, the changes are on their way.

But the benefits of yoga are so much bigger than this,  even if it’s toning and body sculpting that you’re after.  The body becomes stronger, more toned, more flexible yes – but with yoga you can’t separate the physical benefits from the mental, emotional and spiritual effects.  This is true to some extent of any exercise – I know that running, swimming, dancing, team sports and so on can have an exhilarating, stress-busting effect.  In fact, just getting moving can be key to  our mental as well as our physical health.  However, with yoga we also learn to focus on the breath, to live in the moment,  to meditate and relax.  Yoga sculpts not just the body,  but also the mind.  When we practise pranayama, chanting or meditation, we start to cut through the clutter of the mind, to achieve a greater clarity in our thoughts, and to find the peace that is so often hidden by the endless chatter, the running commentary of our mind.

And we could go so far as to argue that this is what yoga IS – that yoga IS this growing ability to control and calm our thought patterns.  Patanjali does just this, in the first sutra, where he says that :

‘To block the patterns of consciousness is yoga’

~’Four Chapters on Freedom’ (1976) by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

It’s not easy, and there will be times when our mind spins off in all directions – remembering and re-running scenarios in our mind, getting ahead of ourselves with future imaginings, worrying about things out of all proportion.  It’s like a broken record, going on and on and on.  But with practice, it gets easier, just as the physical asanas become easier too.  If we are kind to ourselves when it all goes wrong, those times when we are not present and are swamped in our imaginings, we will gently bring ourselves back to a state of presence, of noticing where we are right now.

It doesn’t have to be difficult!

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Sometimes we set such high standards for ourselves.  We want to be the best, to achieve great things, in an impossibly short space of time.  Whilst it can be good to aim high, we need to practice patience and acceptance of where we are now.

So if we start something new, let’s try not to think we can perfect it straight away.  If we take up a new activity – a sport, say – we will usually improve slowly, remembering that we are meant to be enjoying the process, not just the end result.  If we have never run before, we won’t be running marathons in the first few weeks or months, and some of us never will. If we take up tennis, we hopefully will have a lot of fun, but most of us won’t end up as world-class athletes.

The same thing applies when you start yoga.  Sometimes people have said to me that they would not be able to ‘do’ yoga, as they are inflexible, or they can’t relax.  They feel that if they can’t yet relax or touch the floor, then there is no point  in attending a class.  Of course, yoga is partly about flexibility and relaxation, but these are not requirements for starting a class. They are more something to work towards, while we notice the small improvements and are kind to ourselves as we slowly move towards the things that seem out of reach.  What is more important than where we start is our enthusiasm and our desire to learn.  If we put off starting yoga until we are more flexible, or until we are more relaxed, we  may never start.

Nobody would suggest that you could not attend university if you did not already have a degree, or that you could not write a book unless you already had a book deal.  Once you have those things, you have proof that you can study or write  a book, but if you waited for that proof, you would never start.  So sometimes we just have to act on our own desire to change, our own belief that we can achieve our dreams.  Patanjali uses the word samvega, meaning the urge, the desire to achieve enlightenment, and suggests that it is this, rather than the difficulty of the practice we assume to get there, which is the most important determinant of success (Pada 1, Sutra 21 -22; Saraswati’s ‘Four Chapters on Freedom’).  So we needn’t wait until we can achieve a complicated asana or meditation.  We can start with something easy and comfortable, and the end result will be the same if we truly apply ourselves.  In Jin Shin Jyutsu, one of the attitudes is that of ‘trying too hard’, when everything seems too much of an effort.  We all have those times in life, where we need to  learn to slow down, take it easy and let go with our breath.  Yoga and meditation is the means by which we learn to accept where we are right now.  It should not be another source of stress, another area of our lives in which we push ourselves to achieve too quickly.  We relax and enjoy the process – each sequence, each asana, each breath.