Tag Archives: peace

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

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

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

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.

Autumn mornings

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I’m really enjoying the cool, dark mornings this week. Tiptoeing through the dark house, setting up my space for meditation, has taken on a new aspect and a new element of ritual, as I turn on the heater and light my candles and incense, before wrapping myself in my meditation shawl and settling into my practice.

I’ve been waking early, too, meaning that the house is in total quietness for much longer, and I’ve had longer for my meditation than I’ve managed in the week this whole term. Sleeping poorly at the beginning of the week has been a blessing in disguise, as I have rediscovered the bliss and peace of an hour (or more when I can!) of meditation. And it’s dark enough to practise Chandra namaskara (moon salutations) without feeling it’s the wrong time of day!

Adjusting my routine has proved a little more difficult than I hoped when my son and I started needing to leave home at 7.30am back in September. I was already waking at 5.20 before that, when we had extra time at home in the mornings, and pushing back to 5am to keep my meditation practice the same length of time just seemed too hard!  And I think I really needed to break that resistance, to learn that, for me, an hour of meditation is so worth a few minutes less sleep and a bit more rushing around! And considering I’d had so little sleep that night, my hour-plus to work deeply in meditation got me through the day with far more energy than I sometimes have with a full night’s sleep and a short meditation. So in a strange way I’m grateful for a night where sleep wasn’t happening…..it’s helped remind me of what I already knew and set me back on the right path.

The heart chakra

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I just wanted to share the following response I received to my earlier post, ‘Entering the heart space’ :

Hi Alison

Thanks for your blog post on heart chakra meditation and for publishing
this quote:

    ‘The little space within the heart is as great as this vast
universe’

    ~Chandogya Upanishad

A I practise a bit of yoga and meditation and recently my local buddhist
centre gave me a set of keys so I could use their meditation room before
work in the mornings. It’s a lovely big room with a shrine with about 15
buddhas. It’s a joy to sit there alone.

On wednesday moring I did a heart chakra meditation and when I opened my
eyes I realized that the space in my heart and the room I was now sitting
in were the same space and the thing that separated them was just my paper
thin sense of self.

I was searching on line for a similar experience and found your blog post
and the quote.

Namaste

Richard

Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to contact me with your experience.  Although not every meditation can be wonderful, those that are can be so amazing in their spaciousness and peace, and I love your description of ‘the paper thin sense of self’.  To those who are  just starting to practise meditation, and just starting their journey through the chakras, your story is an inspiration.

A place of peace and stillness

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Recently, a student asked me what  are the benefits of meditation. I answered truthfully, from my own experience, but felt afterwards that my answer had perhaps been inadequate in conveying all that meditation means to me.

The answer I gave was that meditation helps me to attain a calmer, steadier state of mind, and that a regular meditation practice helps me to carry these benefits over into the rest of my day.  All true, but there is so much more.

When I first established a daily practice, many years ago, I found that over time I became less reactive to the events of my life, dealing more calmly with the unexpected, and becoming more resistant to the ups and downs that we all experience. I found a new equanimity, calming the attachments (raga) and aversions (dwesha) to which we are all so prone. The ceaseless chatter of my mind was stilled, first in formal meditation  and subsequently in my wider life.  I found a deep and pervasive stillness and peace within myself, and a clarity of mind that would be impossible without taking the time to stop and simply be.  I developed a more tangible awareness of my chakras and began to truly experience the subtle movement of energy around my body. In truth, I became a different person.

But over the years, it became harder to maintain such an intense daily practice.  Long working days, marriage and parenting made it difficult, if not impossible, to find an hour a day to meditate, as well as another hour for asana practice. At first, I found that with missing the occasional day, I was able to maintain the benefits. But of course, with motherhood, I rarely had time to sit in formal meditation. I continued to chant, and to practice mindfulness, but it wasn’t entirely the same.  My sitting would get interrupted, and I learned to deal with the interruptions in a mindful way, but my practice wasn’t so profound.  Over time, that inner peace started to become more and more elusive.

I missed my daily practice dreadfully.  Whilst I loved my new life, the challenges that parenting sometimes presented would have been so much easier to deal with from that calm, centred place within.  And finally, it became essential for me to renew my commitment to my yoga, and to my meditation, in order to regain my full self.  Going back to a daily practice has been a revelation,  all over again.  I have been reminded of the healing and nurturing that can happen in deep meditation.  In meditation, in the stillness, I become fully aware of the work I  need to do on a physical and an emotional level;  I become aware of specific Safety Energy Locks (SELs) that are in need of some attention.  So as well as providing me with a tremendous sense of space and peace, my meditation practice also informs my asana practice and my Jin Shin Jyutsu practice too.  So much valuable information which would be hidden in the hubbub of daily life, but which makes itself heard in the silence of meditation.  Once again, I find an increased equanimity and a capacity to deal more calmly with the challenges of my daily life.  Once again, my intuition is enhanced.  So whilst I stand by the belief that something is better than nothing when it comes to yoga, and empathise fully with anyone who, like me,  has found their practice gradually squeezed out by other commitments, there does come a time when we all have to find a way to move our practice  forwards again, and to fully commit to that.