Tag Archives: flow

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!

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Alison x

Why a daily yoga practice matters so much

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Everyone needs time for themselves. For some people, that might mean some time for reading, watching a favourite programme on TV, creating something useful or arty, playing a musical instrument. I like to do all of these things at various times, but even more, I need my daily yoga practice.

When I started yoga, back in the early 90s, I practised probably 3 times a week. I was recovering from a lengthy illness, and yoga was one of the ways I gently eased myself back into exercise and towards better health. But, after a while, it became clear to me that I felt much better – more energetic, less achey – on the days I had practised yoga. And so, for me, it was a logical step to practise everyday.

Yoga can be addictive. The feeling you get in a favourite posture, or when sitting in silent meditation, is something you can come to rely on. I certainly have! I remember when my son was small, my daily practice got very very squeezed, until it was practically non-existent. I was tired – as all new mums tend to be – and I was aching. I was stiff, and my muscles felt weak (not many of us get through labour with our core strength intact!) So I gradually built my practice up once again. It took some years before I could honestly say that my practice time was mine alone; there were, of course, interruptions and days I didn’t get a moment to myself, that’s parenting! But there were also a blissful few weeks where my son relaxed best at night if I was in the room doing a few yoga moves (sadly, it didn’t last for long!)

As I have written in other posts, taking care of yourself when you’re a parent is extremely important. We are able to be more patient, more in tune, with our children when we have taken a little time to relax. So it’s far from selfish to work on building up your own home practice. You will notice the difference so quickly if you take even 5 or 10 minutes every day to practise a few simple movements and postures,  and maybe find a few moments for meditation. There are lots of online classes and videos available, or even better attend a local class you love and gradually build up a ‘library’ of moves which you can draw on at home. If you have to just do one thing, do that one thing. When you find more time, you can add more.

Even now, despite teaching classes pretty much every day, I still need my own daily practice. Perhaps even more so. I need the time to flow through the sequences and postures as they come to mind, rather than planning around the needs of my students. I need the time to work in silence and listen to my body, observing my own state of mind, focusing inwards rather than outwards. To counteract the talking through postures, the demonstrating, the observing, of a group class, I need the quiet, the flow, the inner awareness of my own practice. This makes me a better teacher, a better yogi, and, I hope, a better parent.

If you need some inspiration for your yoga practice, why not come along and try a class? http://bit.ly/sunfishhome.  If you desperately just need some quiet time to relax, you can download my FREE relaxation here…you’ll also receive articles like this and tips on yoga and wellbeing direct to your inbox (it’s like a double freebie, but you can unsubscribe at any time).

Finally, do ask any questions or offer feedback on this article below – I look forward to hearing from you!

Alison x

So thankful for yoga…

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This weekend, I had an accident – nothing too major, but just a fall at home.  I’d like to say I fell slowly and gracefully, as would befit a yoga teacher, but sadly, no, it was far from graceful and I hit the ground with a definite thud!

I was a little bit shaken but otherwise fine, until later that day, when I first noticed the aching in my lower back, my hip and my leg. Really not what I need at all, when I’ll be teaching classes every day. Fortunately, however, I know from my training that it is far better to move gently than to stop completely, and, in the absence of serious injury, it is more than safe to continue with my practice.  Even more fortunate, perhaps, that I have recently returned from the Dru yoga back care course, and so had a fabulous range of movements and postures to practise specifically to prevent the stiffness from setting in. So two days later, I have a very slight ache in my hip but otherwise feel totally fine and have taught the first class of the week with no issues.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I like getting injured or enjoy pain, far from it, but there have been many things over the years which afterwards I am grateful for, as they show me, time and time again, how lucky I am to have the career and knowledge that I have, and help me to help others  even better.

It can be so easy to have a minor accident like this and then, at the first sign of discomfort, start to move gingerly, protecting or ‘bracing’ against the pain. The stiffness then escalates, and the muscular tension which results can cause even more significant pain. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you fling yourself around if you have an injury, but it is worth knowing that even injuries like prolapsed discs  are likely to heal within a relatively short space of time, and that ongoing pain can result more from the muscular tension and stiffness of reduced movement over the long term. I’ve been there – I had a lumbar disc lesion and then a cervical disc lesion in my early to mid twenties, and on both occasions was advised total rest, and to ‘stop doing my yoga’. On both occasions, the pain lasted way beyond the time you would expect for healing to take place – even for quite some years, in the case of the neck injury. In the end, the only thing which really helped relieve the pain was movement, and the gradual resumption of my full yoga practice.

Of course many yoga postures are strenuous and best avoided for certain conditions, but luckily there are a whole range of  soft, flowing movements, combined with strengthening moves, included in the back care classes. Whilst still feeling a bit of a numpty for falling over in the first place (!) I am pleased to have gained first hand experience of just how  beneficial these classes can be for those with back pain, and can’t wait to share them with my students.

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A ‘typical’ yoga day…

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person-1281607_1280As part of a business challenge this week, I’ve been evaluating my working day – frequently so busy it’s a smoothie for lunch (yet again!) and often fairly unpredictable! On one day last week, I wasn’t sure if I had any bookings at all, all were dependent on whether babies had arrived or not, or on childcare arrangements…. I could have had three visits, or none (in the event, there were 2!) From a business point of view, it can be hard to plan ahead, aside from the definites such as group classes. It can be hard to know for sure when the downtime will be, when there’ll be time for accounts, marketing, writing this blog…and even eating!

But I won’t bore you with the business side. What about the yoga? What about making that time for myself (that I’m always banging on about for those I work with!)? For every one of my students who builds up a daily practice, there must be at least another ten who just don’t know how that could ever be possible.

So, it’s all about discipline – but also flexibility. My work schedule means that often things will crop up unexpectedly, or, at times, cancellations happen and I can seize the moment rather than  wasting that time. I have discipline in my morning routine – waking early to fit in  my first practice of the day:  a little movement – activations, energy block release (EBR) sequence,  perhaps a posture or two – and then meditation to set me up for the day. I really need to have this time: despite all the hours of teaching I do each week, my own practice is a time to work on the things I need the most. Without it, it’s hard to function at my best for the rest of the day.

Throughout the remainder of the day, it’s the flexibility that helps. Yes, it would be great to stop and  practise yoga whenever I felt like it – but that’s not the reality of my life! So, instead of writing off the whole day if I don’t have an hour to set aside, I might spend a few minutes being mindful of  my breath at odd times during the day, I might do some chanting in the car (silently if I have company!), I may stop and practise a flowing tree posture whilst hanging out the washing! If I’m in the middle of a day of therapies, I might take a couple of minutes to stretch  into a back bend and then a forward bend, or twist a couple of times, between clients, to stop that stiffness that likes to build up in my shoulders! I’ll do the same if I’m at my computer, catching up on emails, writing, doing my  accounts….

I practise mindfulness or a breathing technique when I’m cooking the dinner, and washing the dishes afterwards. I do also like to stand in tree pose while washing up!  And at bedtime I’ll usually practise a short relaxation, tensing and relaxing each muscle group ready for sleep. So much can be fitted in to a  busy day, without devoting hours that most of us just don’t have. The more you do, the more you’ll want to do, so these helpful practices will stay at the forefront of your mind, ready for you to take your pick according to your mood and what you’re doing at the time. So while you might need to make a huge effort to remember in the beginning, it will become more of a natural response to the demands of your day. You’ll start to know what your body and your mind are in need of as you build up a repertoire of favourite practices. So yes, do try to attend a class. Do read books, blogs, anything you can, but most of all, find what works for you.  It doesn’t have to be lengthy, it doesn’t have to be difficult, it just needs to work with your life.

For lots of ideas for things you can try at home, take a look at my facebook page http://bit.ly/sunfishfb or website http://bit.ly/sunfishyoga.

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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

Everything must change

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Accepting change is never easy for any of us.  But change is the nature of the universe; nothing stays the same.  Mary Burmeister, who brought Jin Shin Jyutsu to the West, used to say that ‘movement is harmony’, referring to the energy in our bodies which should flow easily but all too often stagnates,  causing mental or physical discomfort. I like to think of this phrase whenever I become aware that I am trying to hold on to something in my life, and remind myself that change is essential,  even when it may lead us in unforeseen directions, and take us away from people, places and circumstances we have known and loved.

At times, change can be hugely exciting and feel totally positive – a new opportunity coming our way. But at other times, the change is not of our making; it is thrust upon us against our will, and it is hard to see the bright side. And yet, so many times we can look back, even years after the event, and realise what that change was making way for.

And if the change is for somebody else, but affects us, it is easy for us to feel left behind, more concerned with how it affects us rather than them.  We can forget to truly be glad for them, and to rejoice in their opportunity, whilst we are too caught up in our own reaction, our own emotions. Our challenge, then, at such times is to be grateful for the times we have shared, to treasure the memories that we have, whilst somehow managing to flow with the changing tide of our lives. And, seeing the bigger picture, we can genuinely be pleased for those we love when they need to move on, rather than trying to hold on to the way we wanted things to be.

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.

Wishing you a Happy and peaceful New Year!

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Despite writing an earlier blog entry on how much easier it is to adopt new patterns and positive habits in our lives in the spring time than the depths of winter, I cannot resist the new year.  I relish the opportunity to start anew yet again, to try to do better than last year, but also to look at the positives that have come out of the preceding year. 2012 has been a good year on so many levels. Nationally, we have celebrated the diamond jubilee, closely followed by a spectacular Olympic games. We have every reason to look back fondly on the past year. And the world didn’t end last week, which is a huge bonus!

On a personal level, this has been a mixed year, one in which I have experienced both highs and lows, both loss and gain, but one in which I have learned to see the blessings in disguise, the lessons in the events I’ve been tempted to call ‘bad’, and have learnt to lessen my attachment to the ‘good’ things. I have learnt the importance of taking better care of myself, so that I can take better care of others, and to that end have renewed my commitment to a daily yoga and meditation practice – something which has been ongoing  for several months now, so if you find your resolve weakening over the next few weeks, you always have another chance to start again, whatever the time of year.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a daily practice of Kriya yoga, which requires me to learn a new practice each week, whilst reducing the number of rounds of previous practices. Prior to that I was working on specific exercises for individual chakras for a month at a time. Several times, I’ve found a particular practice so beneficial that I haven’t really wanted to move on, but I find it helpful to continue to follow my practice schedule, thereby not allowing myself to get too attached to one specific kriya, but instead flowing from one practice to another, accepting the individual benefits whilst still uncovering the secrets of the whole picture.

When first learning to meditate, we may feel nothing until one day we suddenly experience something which makes us understand why we are doing this in the first place. And then we may wish for this experience every time we practice. And it won’t come! It may take days, or weeks, before we feel that way again. But we persevere. We accept that our meditation practice, just like life in general, offers us the highs and the lows, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. We learn to see beyond the way we usually label things; we see both the good in the bad and the bad that sometimes comes from what we see as good in the first instance.  We learn that we don’t always know if things are good or bad, and so we learn acceptance and equanimity.

So this New Year, I resolve to maintain and develop my practice, and to foster these qualities of acceptance and equanimity as much as I possibly can. And to be kind to myself on those occasions I don’t manage it, but to allow myself to start anew again and again!

Finding balance

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Some yoga students find balance postures easy.  But many, many more find them difficult.  And even once we master a particular asana, on some days they may still prove more challenging than others.

I think balance is like this.  We can be drifting along, happily centred and relaxed with the way things are in our lives, and then something happens, maybe even something quite small, which rocks us and knocks us off balance.  A little irritation, a cross word, an unexpected traffic jam, anything which interrupts the natural flow of our day can throw us off course and make us lose our balance.  Imagine that you are walking along a nice, smooth path, which you’ve walked many times before, and then – bam! – you land on the ground.  You’d never noticed that patch of uneven ground before.

Maybe we weren’t ‘in the moment’.  Perhaps we were concerned with other things than the here and now.  Maybe that’s what tripped us up.

We can be ‘tripped up’ in our yoga practice, too.  We can think yes, the tree is a cinch, I really get it!  And then comes the day when it’s just too much to concentrate, to focus, and it’s not so easy.  The tree is wobbly, it’s a real effort.  It’s harder to stay grounded through the foot while reaching up with the arms than it should be, than it normally is.

Maybe what we tried to do was to set a moment in stone, instead of noticing the flow of our life.  ‘I can do this posture, it’s easy, now I will be able to do it forever’.  And then we can’t!  Instead of getting irritated with ourselves, and getting even further from our centre, we could remember that everything is changing, and practice acceptance of where we are today, in this moment, in this class, right now.  Not last week, certainly not last month or last year.  And when we do master that posture again, to try to relax into it, not to grasp after that success, not to cast it in stone, but to live in this moment, the here and now.

Sometimes, we can take our practice away from our normal environment.  Practicing in nature, maybe on the grass or on the beach, can add in the challenge of uneven ground.  Then we need to step up our mindfulness, and ease up on the need for perfection.  We can feel the movement in our body as we try to find equilibrium, without leaning into any wobbles and making them worse.  In our lives, when we encounter those irritations that disturb our peace of mind, we can learn to stay in our centre, rather than lean into the wobbles of our mind, and worsen things by our unhelpful reactions. We take the lesson from our yoga on the mat, and use them in our lives when we are off the mat.

Moving into stillness

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When we are busy and rushing around all the time, it can be too hard to simply be still.  Some of us are never still unless we are asleep.  This difficulty can put people off taking up yoga or meditation.  They would prefer to do some high-impact, high-speed exercise than to risk being unable to find the stillness which is buried deep within them.

And so when someone starts yoga, they need to learn to ease into that stillness.  Nobody can move from fast to still that easily.  We have built up a momentum in our lives which will take time to slow down.  So for most of us it won’t work if we rush in from our hectic day, sit or lie down and attempt to empty our minds.  It will take a bit more effort than that, a bit more preparation.  We make our slowing down a gradual and enjoyable process.

In class, we will generally start with some faster, rhythmic movements, which help us to initiate that process of listening to our bodies, co-ordinating our breath with our movements, and easing out any stiffness and tension.  Then the movements will slow down, moving into gentler, flowing sequences and a series of stretches and asanas.  Asanas may be held or we may flow in and out of them.  We are approaching that stillness in our bodies now, and moving towards a clear, calm mind.  Our physical practice can, in itself,  be a form of meditation.  One of the main reasons I chose to train in Dru yoga was because of the meditative, inward focus of the Energy Block Release sequences and the flowing postures.  Each part of the movement can be performed with awareness of different chakras (energy centres), with awareness of our breath, and of our state of mind.  Often we will pause at the end of a sequence to close our eyes and really tune into the effects we are experiencing from the movements.  The stillness follows naturally from the movement, without being an effort.

Only after this part of the class do we move on to meditation, pranayama or yoga nidra (deep relaxation).  The mental stillness follows naturally from moving and resting the physical body. Once the stillness is truly established, we may then – and only then – find an awareness of the subtle movement of energy in the body.  So just as movement naturally leads to stillness, so stillness will lead us into a deeper awareness and experience of our inner selves.