When I look back at the past year – or two! – I have to say things have been challenging. Difficult, really. Just plain hard a lot of the time. On previous occasions when the challenges have come thick and fast, I have stopped taking care of myself. It’s been a definite pattern. I’ve taken care of others, yes, but myself no. On these occasions, I have been known to stop meditating. For years.
This time it’s been different. I know that’s my tendency, so I have been careful to maintain some form of my daily practice in whatever way I can.
I have expanded my business and opened my own yoga studio. Some of you reading this may have already come along for classes and / or treatments. The process hasn’t been easy but I am incredibly proud of the space we’ve created.
There have been personal health challenges, and in fact these have strengthened my commitment, as, along with super-healthy diet and lifestyle, I truly believe that yoga and meditation have directly contributed to moving beyond these.
There have also been family health challenges – and these have been more difficult. By necessity, when you are caring for another’s needs, time for yourself does disappear. My own energy levels and health were affected considerably, and there were plenty of mornings when meditation just wasn’t going to happen – because I’d been up all night and / or my day just started at 5am, full on, no time off.
But even then, I continued to practise in some way. Perhaps just a few mindful breaths now and then, looking at the view out of the window. Maybe a quick stretch, a minute or two, snatched when I could. A far cry from my regular hour in the mornings, but something. And always the intention to get back to my practice at the first opportunity. A resolve to look after myself again when the time was right.
And that time eventually came. Life still isn’t back to normal. But as a wise friend said a couple of months ago, it’s my ‘new normal’. The stress levels started to subside. My mornings could be reclaimed for my hour of yoga and meditation. So the stress levels dropped a little more.
And here I am, writing again. This hasn’t exactly been a regular thing over the past couple of years. But…..life got in the way.
Over the holidays we have been decorating and installing a new bathroom, a job which was long overdue. We’re not quite finished yet, but I can’t wait for washing to become a more spa-like experience!
Decorating is not something which comes naturally to me. I’m more of an ‘ideas girl’. I love to come up with the colours and dream about what the completed room will look like, but the actual painting isn’t one of my natural skills. I started in the airing cupboard, before the new pipework and cylinder went in – it was probably best I started there before getting to the walls people would actually see! It was very hot and confined in there, but in the end I did an ok job – not brilliant, but not terrible, either.
So now I’m on the bathroom. I didn’t think it would take all that long. It’s a tiny room, and a lot of the wall is tiled, so really, I expected it to be done by now. Not by a long way! I had completely underestimated just how much preparation goes into making a nice smooth wall to paint, particularly when that wall used to be completely tiled. We have filled and sanded twice over, I’ve primed and prepared, but the perfectionist in me can see this still isn’t ready – more sanding is going to be required (hopefully just one more time!) I am itching to see it finished, but I know it’s going to be a busy weekend, and maybe, just maybe, I might get to put the first coat of actual coloured paint on the walls!
But, all this painting is a good opportunity to practise some mindfulness. I need to be completely focussed on the task in hand (I don’t want to mess up my beautifully white ceiling that I have finished!) I don’t want to have to clear up sploshes of paint from the floor, the tiling or the window (which has already been beautifully painted, thank you very much!) Cutting in requires full attention! And, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found a much greater enjoyment in decorating than I had ever believed possible – and I’ve learnt to be patient with the time it’s taking to get to the end result.
In short, I’ve learned to enjoy the process, one step at a time, rather than being endlessly focussed on the end result. And this, if you’ve been wondering how the title fits this post, is where meditation and yoga come in. My morning yoga and meditation practice, each day, is a chance for me to listen to my body, listen to my mind, and select the practices which seem right for that very moment in time. I don’t have a goal, and some days the whole thing is more satisfying than others. When we start out in yoga, we may very well have a goal that gets us started – mine was recovering from a lengthy illness, as I wrote about here.
That goal may be less aches and pains, feeling fitter, being able to relax, better sleep, relieving stress, anxiety or depression – the list goes on. To start with, you’ll feel full of optimism and enthusiasm. But as you go on, you’ll realise, you need to relax and enjoy the process. You will keep moving closer to your goal, but the process itself can’t be pushed. For instance, if you want to be able to touch your toes when you haven’t reached past your knees in years, don’t expect to reach that goal on day 1! Don’t expect too much, or you’ll just get frustrated and feel that yoga isn’t working for you. If you want to meditate, accept that, initially, you may be continually having to bring your mind back from whatever train of thought it keeps heading off on, and wriggling around to try and find a more comfortable position. This is just a part of the process, like sanding my wall – yuk! – which we have to embrace in order to get to the other side (beautiful bathroom / peaceful mind and comfortable body!) If we try to rush things, and expect too much, too soon, we run the risk of giving up before we get anywhere.
So, by all means, have a goal. Just don’t rush things, take your time and enjoy the whole experience 🙂
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We all feel so much better for a good night’s sleep. But how many of us make it a priority in our busy lives? There are so many things that can get in the way of us having enough time to sleep well and for enough hours. I work with new mums, and remember well the effects of disturbed nights when my own son was small – nobody understands why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture so well as a mum who is up all through the night! In Sarah Moss’s book, Night Waking, the protagonist Anna muses during yet another night up with her son as to how many years of her life she would gladly exchange for a full 8 hours:
It depends on how long my life will be. Of a hundred years, I would give ten. I think about how much reading I might be able to do between being ninety and a hundred. I would be at liberty to live in what my mother used to call All This Mess and upon KitKats and salt and vinegar Hula Hoops. I’ve always fancied sheltered accommodation. I used to cycle past some flats…and I’d peer in and see old ladies with flowery wing armchairs…reading or watching television in the middle of the morning. When they were in those kitchens I bet they were baking cakes for themselves….No, I’m not giving up a decade of sugar-fuelled self-indulgence, even for sleep….OK, five years of a hundred. As long as the sleep is in solitude and somewhere soundproof and I know that Giles is on call for the children.
Moving to a global scale, what would I pawn for sleep? Would I, given the chance, have peace for Palestine or twelve hours in bed?….It’s a good thing Satan doesn’t come and chat to the mothers of sleepless toddlers in the middle of the night.
It is not, of course, only mothers who suffer from lack of sleep. Insomnia, meaning the inability to get to sleep in the first place or waking during the night, several times or for lengthy periods of time, is thought to affect up to one in three people on a regular basis, according to the NHS website.
People who suffer with insomnia may frequently feel so tired that it is difficult to get through the day, lacking the focus, concentration, and the energy to accomplish what they wanted to, either at work or home. They may experience physical fatigue, in the muscles of the body, headaches and low mood. Insomnia may also be caused by low mood, stress and anxiety, creating a vicious circle which can be hard to break. Even if it is theoretically possible to take a nap during the day, some people will find that very hard to actually achieve.
Yet more people have no difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, but still feel tired in the morning because they didn’t get enough sleep to feel fully rested. They have gone to bed later than they meant to, or consistently don’t get to bed until 5 or 6 hours before they need to get up. They hit snooze on the alarm clock over and over in the morning, but those short 5 or 10 minute naps don’t cut it when what they really needed was a full night’s sleep.
So, how much sleep do we need? There is no set amount, as we all vary, and it will also depend on our level of exertion. So some people might feel fully recharged after 7 hours or so, whilst others might need 9. I personally fall somewhere in the middle, needing ideally about 8 hours to really feel I’ve had a good sleep. I get up early at 5am to do my morning yoga and meditation practice, so really would need to be asleep at 9 to achieve this – unfortunately, I don’t actually manage this all that often! Especially when I teach one evening class which ends at 9.45! But I can get by on 7 hours reasonably comfortably – anything less, though, and I really start to feel the worse for wear!
I teach lots of techniques in my classes which can help to energise us when we’re feeling a bit depleted. They’re often particularly appreciated in my postnatal classes! A good stretch to the back and leg muscles can help to boost energy levels, as in a standing forward bend, for example. Dru yoga’s Energy Block Release 1 stretches the whole of the spine and the body in all directions, and is a particular favourite of mine on low-energy days! But (and I know this is a real shame!), in the end there is no substitute for getting enough sleep, more often than not. We need to make sleep (and rest) more of a priority in our lives. We need to practice ‘sleep hygiene‘, cultivating habits which help us to switch off and get a good night’s sleep. Some of these habits include:
going to bed at a regular time
setting some time aside before going to bed to relax
having a warm bath
having a warm drink
not using screens and electronic gadgets before bedtime, and never in the bedroom
avoiding heavy meals in the late evening, try to eat earlier and not in the two hours before going to sleep
reading (for pleasure, not studying!)
gentle exercise like yoga, rather than extreme exertion in the evening (but exercise daily!)
avoiding alcohol and caffeine
practising meditation or a deep relaxation before going to sleep
getting up and doing something else for a few minutes if sleep isn’t happening, rather than getting anxious about the time, and how long it’s taking you to get to sleep
dealing with any anxieties before going to bed, and if you wake up worrying over something, write it down in a notebook and promise yourself you will deal with it in the morning
wear earplugs and an eye mask if light and noise are stopping you from sleeping
drink plenty during the day but decrease during the evening
If you’re reading this and thinking that it’s all very well, but you just don’t have time to take it easy in the evening, and prepare for a good night’s sleep, it might be worth thinking about the consequences of not making sleep a priority. It is becoming well-known now that inadequate sleep can increase our risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. What if you’re one of those people who is proud of how little sleep you need, and the amount of hours you put in at work? Well, I would suggest that, whilst you might get away with it for a while, in the end, lack of sleep will impact your wellbeing and the quality of both your life and your work. I have recently been reading Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life, in which she talks about the ‘third metric’ of success – adding the idea of wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving to the traditional worldly way of judging success in terms of money and power. On the subject of sleep she quotes a 2013 study which showed that the brain has two fundamental states – one of being awake, totally aware, and one of sleep. During the sleeping state, the brain ‘cleans up’, clearing out harmful protein wastes which build up in between its cells (Arianna Huffington ‘Thrive’ p76). These wastes may be associated with brain changes in ageing and dementia. So, if you want your brain to be fully awake during the day, you need to ensure it’s getting enough sleep at night. And if that isn’t happening easily, try some (or all!) of the suggestions above to see what works for you. Catch-up naps in the day are also good if you have had a poor night’s sleep (without guilt!)
And, if none of this is working for you because you actually are a mum with a wakeful child – don’t despair! Things will get better as your child gets older, but the age-old advice to sleep when your child sleeps is worth remembering – yes, even though the washing and ironing is waiting for you! It can wait a little longer.
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.
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.
We 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.
“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.