Tag Archives: calm

The ‘magic’ of meditation

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It’s often said that, if you can find the words to describe your meditation, then you weren’t really meditating. That is certainly the case. In the very deepest meditation, there are no words. Just feeling. Just peace. Afterwards, the meditator is left with the feeling of calm, but the experience itself cannot be fully conveyed to someone else. A meditation practice is deeply personal, and deeply transformational.

Which makes it all the harder to explain why meditation makes such a difference to daily life. If you can’t put into words how you feel, what that elusive ‘bliss’ feels like, then how can you explain why it’s so important? The only way to know is to experience it for yourself. But how do you know if you even want to experience it if you don’t know what to expect?

But, what you can describe is how you feel as you enter the state of meditation. The word ‘meditation’ is often used to represent the whole event, the act of meditation  – sitting down in your meditation posture, getting comfortable, focusing on the breath, slowing down from your busy day. But it can also refer specifically to the state of meditation, the moments of utter peace and ‘bliss’ which may make up a much smaller proportion of the total sitting time. You may sit for 10 minutes some days before there’s even a hint of the state of meditation. Maybe longer. Maybe much less. It varies from day to day.

So at this stage of the act of meditating, there are still words. There are thoughts (usually too many!), there are feelings, there are impressions. There are sounds, smells, all manner of physical sensations. There may be the sound of a buzzing insect, birds outside, rain on the roof, children playing, a lawnmower…… There may be the smell of coffee, or baking bread, or dinner being prepared….. There may be an ache in your ankle, your back, your shoulders….. There may be thoughts racing around, a shopping list, yesterday’s argument, a dream you woke up from this morning, what to cook for dinner, how long have you been sitting here for, is this really what meditating is supposed to be like?

But then, something starts to change.  All these things are still there. But there’s a distance. A space starts to open up. They all seem further away. They no longer grip your awareness. There’s something else, deeper, more profound. The body may feel like it’s letting go, sinking deeper, whilst at the same time feeling like it’s lifting taller. You may feel both heavier and lighter at the same time. The thoughts are there but there’s a detachment now, they don’t have the same power over you. There’s not the same emotional involvement. There’s not as much narrative going on.

There’s a sense of relief, of rest, of space, of peace. Before words are no longer there.

At least, that’s how it is for me. You’ll have to try it for yourself!

If you would like to read more articles like this one, as well as information on yoga and meditation classes, why not sign up for my newsletter? You’ll also receive a FREE relaxation recording!

Alison x

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

Blue Monday

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Today is Blue Monday, the Monday which is supposed to be the most depressing of the entire year to come.  Several years ago, the third Monday of January was decided upon for this dubious honour, after taking into account the weather and the time still to wait for spring, the time since Christmas and the debt we may have accumulated over the festive period, as well as – for many of us – having had long enough to have given up on our New Year resolutions.  But as I wrote in a recent post, we can resolve on positive change at any time of the year, so we can start anew at any time that suits us – and spring is often a great time for doing just that, when we have the whole of nature joining with us!

And as for the weather, well it is snowy and cold, but it IS January, and it could be a lot worse!  I am definitely in the wrong country for year-round blue skies, but I like the variety of the weather through the seasons, which is often echoed in our own mental states.  It isn’t all that realistic to expect to be happy all the time, and in fact our pursuit of happiness may be what causes us the most distress.  We try to hold on to the things which we perceive as making us happy, whilst pushing away those things which make us miserable.  But to experience true moments of joy, we  need to embrace all aspects of our lives, not just those we label as ‘good’.  We have to have winter as well as summer, we need Mondays to follow the weekends, and life cannot be one long holiday for the vast majority of us.  And so true happiness involves acceptance and an ability to flow through the seasons as well as allowing our feelings to come and go without trying to hold on to the moments of happiness.  In ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’, journalist  Oliver Burkeman questions the validity of happiness as a goal, being as chasing after happiness can make us so unhappy.  This insight is fundamental to the practice of both yoga and Buddhism, and perhaps we would find happiness easier to achieve if we practised acceptance of all our states of mind,  of  all the events of our lives, not just those we label as good, but of those we might initially consider ‘bad’ as well.  We would likely achieve a more balanced and calmer mind, and that in itself can lead to greater contentment with our lives.

Keeping the waters flowing

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In my post ‘A feeling of belonging’, I wrote about the sense of security which we find when our base chakra, mooladhara, is strong and open.  When we feel secure and grounded, we find it easier to move and flow with the events and circumstances of our lives, and to deal with strong emotions a little more easily (they will always be a challenge!).  When we come to our second chakra, svadisthana, situated at the sacrum, we come to the element of water – as opposed to the solidity of the earth at our base.

Water should flow.  That’s what it does.  And at this very emotional centre, we can learn to flow like a clear river or stream, rather than stagnating like a muddy pool (yuk!).  We learn to allow our emotions to pass through us, to truly feel them, and then to let them go.  We learn to be flexible in our lives, and to be truly in the moment, adapting to where we actually are, rather than dwelling interminably on where we hoped to be.

Svadisthana is the chakra which will be rocked by grief and its less intense cousin, sadness.  When you are dealing with watery emotions, particularly when you feel blue without any idea why, you can be sure that swadistana may be needing some attention.  Equally, if you find it hard to cry and to show your emotions, you may be experiencing a block at this level.  This chakra, together with Vishuddhi chakra at the throat, is also associated with our creativity, with birth and renewal.  And if you have experienced grief  or depression, you may have noticed how these emotions really dull your creativity.  They are stultifying emotions, extinguishing the ability to create new possibilities for ourselves. If we think of our creative impulse as a spark, then the waters of an imbalanced second chakra may quench the spark before it really gets going.

If you are working with the chakras, it is always worth working with an experienced teacher, who can help you deal with difficult emotions as they arise.  Sometimes, there are current circumstances which elicit these feelings; at other times, they arise seemingly out of nowhere, or previous experiences may come back to the forefront of our minds.  But when we work on svadisthana, through yoga asanas, sequences, meditation or concentration (dharanam), we learn to calm the turbulence of our emotions, as if calming a rough sea.  In yoga, we may use the Moon sequence, Chandra Namaskara, to help balance this centre, visualising the moon shining serenely over still, calm waters.  We may work with forward bends, such as Paschimottasana or Padahastasana, which powerfully affect the lower spine. In Dru yoga, we always precede intensive postures which will activate the lower chakras with heart-opening moves, so that any emotions released at the lower centres can be transformed at the heart.  After a forward bend, we will stretch upwards, extending the spine and bringing the energy up through the spine to the higher centres.  We balance our practice not just on a physical level, but also on an emotional and energetic level, simply by pairing our forward and backward bends.

 

Finding time to be present

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In my yoga and therapy practice, particularly in my work with new mothers, people often say to me that they have no time to themselves, and certainly no time to sit in meditation.  I know from my own experience of early motherhood that there really was no time to call my own in those early weeks and months.  Yoga definitely took a back seat!

So it might seem that new parenthood would be the very worst time to try to start a meditation practice, when the demands on our time are so vast and often so overwhelming.  But the benefits of even a short meditation can be even more beneficial at this time.

In fact, the opportunities for meditation are rich and varied  for a new parent.  Simply practising mindfulness in any activity, being fully present in that moment, is a form of meditation.  Take that overwhelming feeling of connection with a young baby that a parent experiences.  Total mindfulness.  When calming an overtired infant, it can be helpful to calm yourself, simply focusing on your breath, slowing it down, and watching the effect this has on your child.  Pranayama in action!  At the very least, a parent can cope better with what is often such an emotional strain when they take a few conscious breaths.

Being fully present when feeding, instead of being tempted to read, watch television or check social media on your phone, can be a form of meditation.  Even if you only manage it for one feed now and then – simply allowing yourself some time with your baby when there are no other distractions.  None of us can aspire to be mindful all of the time, but we could try to choose a particular activity in which to practise presence of mind – ideally something we do several times a day.  Even a mundane task can be a chance to remind ourselves, to simply be in the moment.  So we can be mindful when we’re washing up, preparing or eating a meal, or doing the housework.

Buddhist author of Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children, Sarah Napthali, recommends what she calls ‘the one-minute grab’:

‘During a full day with children, you occasionally find time to yourself which typically lasts about one minute.  I often use this time to practise mindfulness of the breath and am constantly amazed at the results that even one minute of focussing on the rise and fall of my breath can achieve.  It’s calming and somehow leaves you feeling more positive.’

Even when our children are older, we find that the minutes we grab for our yoga or meditation practice are frequently interrupted.  An active baby or toddler finds mummy bending over or lying on the floor an irresistible climbing frame and potential playmate.  An older child might want to join in with our practice. Whilst it can be frustrating at times and all our peaceful feelings might fly away instantaneously, I love the point made by Tibetan Lama Choedak and commented on by Napthali in ‘Buddhism for Mothers’:

‘…practice and parenting should be as one and…we needn’t compartmentalise one from the other.  If your child cries when you are halfway through your meditation, your concentration needs to flow smoothly, without resistance and mental comment, to what is required of you in that moment: comforting your baby.’

So we flow from our practice into the demands of our family life, so that they become indistinguishable.  Instead of wishing things were other than they are, and that we had completed a wonderfully relaxing meditation or invigorating asana practise, we flow with the reality of the present moment.  We accept our daily life and make it a part of our practice.  We learn to simply be with whatever the present moment brings us.

If you have tried to maintain or begin some kind of yoga or meditation practice whilst bringing up your family, I’d love to hear about your experience – leave a comment below.