Tag Archives: stillness

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

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.

Entering the heart space

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You may have heard of the ‘heart space’.  If you’re lucky, you may have encountered your own heart space during meditation.  It’s that space in the chest, around the heart chakra, anahata, which feels supremely still and peaceful, and which – on a good day – we may find in our meditation practice.

But it’s not really just in the chest.  There is such a sense of spaciousness that it cannot be contained within our physical body.  It is a space which transcends the physical heart, in which we feel boundless joy, peace, equanimity, love and compassion.  It is, like all our experiences of meditation, hard to describe fully, as it is beyond mere words.  But my own experiences of the heart chakra in meditation, and my reflection upon these experiences, has led me to some interesting realisations and insights into the Safety Energy Locks (SELs) located around the heart and chest area, and which I use when treating with Jin Shin Jyutsu.

The only way in which we enter the heart space, and attain an experience of our heart centre, is by letting go of our attachments to the way things should be.  By gaining an acceptance of what is.  By letting go of our overwhelming emotions that live in our lower chakras.  And so it’s interesting that SEL 9 is located at the lower end of the shoulder blades, within the heart area, and is associated with ‘the end of one cycle, and the beginning of the new’.  Whenever we feel ‘stuck’ in our lives, trapped by familiar patterns of behaviour and reactions, we are trapped in the lower energy centres and are resisting the natural flow of energy in our lives, and in our physical bodies.  At these times, we are less likely to experience the peace of our heart space!  But when we let go of our resistance, and move through whatever is blocking our peace we step into this vast space.  So it’s really interesting that the next SEL, half way up the shoulder blades, is SEL 10, known as the ‘warehouse of abundance’.  If we are not feeling abundant in our lives, we  need to let go at SEL 9, and step into the peace and joy which is waiting for us at the heart.  We learn to recognise that:

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

~Chandogya Upanishad

Another Safety Energy Lock situated in the region of the heart chakra, at the level of the third rib, is SEL13, which teaches us to ‘love our enemies’.  To develop unconditional love and compassion- maitri – for others and for ourselves.  To see ourselves and others clearly, with all our faults, and love ourselves anyway.  To embrace the lessons others present us with, rather than pushing them away,  and to see the blessings within all the events of our lives,  without labelling them ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’.

When starting out in meditation, it can be hard to rise above the churning of emotions at our lower centres, but once we find the stillness and the joy of the heart, we are encouraged along the way.  If you have a lot of emotional issues surrounding the heart centre, it can take time and perseverance to step into the peace of the heart, but rest assured that it is there, just waiting for you to let go, and to step into your warehouse of abundance.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.