One of the topics we explored early on in the recent meditation retreat I attended was obstacles to meditation. These are handy to know because they can normalize our meditation experience. It can be pretty easy to get disheartened by how active our minds are or how little progress we seem to be making against some ill-defined yard stick of what we think meditation ought to be.
Knowing the obstacles means we can plan for them, notice them and develop insight into our habits. We can also apply the antidotes to the obstacles when they arise to help us come back to our meditation intentions.
5 different obstacles were highlighted by my meditation teacher, Mal Huxter. Our first task is to notice the obstacles when they arise, and often simply noting or naming the obstacle is a good way to then redirect our mind back to our meditation focus. However for each obstacle there are some specific practices we can choose to strengthen our meditation experience over time.
Obstacle one: Clinging, obsessive desire.
This is the mind activity where we get fixated on wanting something, eg we might be sitting in meditation but thinking about what we want for dinner, or a movie we want to see, or some other pleasurable activity we wish we were doing. Clinging is when we seek gratification from things, people etc outside ourselves. In meditation it can draw us away from our intention to focus the mind. Antidotes to this obstacle are contemplating the impermanence of all things, cultivating the attitudes of gratitude for what we already have.
Obstacle two: Aversion, or avoiding.
Essentially the opposite of the first obstacle, this is where the mind finds particular things distasteful and wants to avoid them. In meditation it might show up as boredom as we reject what is showing up in the present moment. We might then find it difficult to stay with our mediation intention because we don’t perceive enjoyment in the practice.
The ways to deal with this are to cultivate loving kindness, initially for ourselves. Staying curious and open is also a way of responding to this obstacle.
Obstacle three: Lethargy or mental dullness.
This is less about being genuinely tired and more about struggling to put the effort in to the practice. Meditation can be mentally exhausting, and a strong intention needs to be developed to persevere with the practice. We can find ourselves falling asleep, even when we are not actually tired.
Ways to overcome this include forming a strong intention to stay awake, sitting up rather than lying down, building up time gradually and slowly and forming an intention to be diligent with the practice of meditation. It can also be useful to experiment with having your eyes open, or use movement either walking or yoga as your meditative focus. Sometimes this obstacle comes from an energetic imbalance, and using pranayam or some yoga asana prior to meditation can also be of benefit.
Obstacle four: Restlessness and worry.
This obstacle shows up as a busy mind, jumping from thought to thought. We are often future focused, our minds replay scenarios and conversations in our head while meditating, or we start planning future events. These thoughts can easily trap us into the stories of the mind while meditating and take us away from focusing on the present moment.
Using naming and developing mindfulness of thought is useful to overcome this obstacle. For example, a past argument could be labelled as “the argument” or a “worry” or “that story again”. This stops us from following the train of thought and becoming distracted or drawn in to them.
Obstacle five: Paralyzing doubt.
These are the kind of thoughts that tell us we are not doing something well enough or make us question our technique, or the teacher, or the space we are in......These type of thoughts often end up in mental paralysis, we might go over the same thing again and again in a loop. It might even stop you from starting a mediation session.
To deal with this it is useful to be aware that developing mindfulness, which is an awareness of how the mind behaves, will help cultivate clarity and wisdom and can inform your choices about your life. Making this your intention to your practice can help focus the mind when doubt arises while meditating. Noting and naming doubt is also a useful strategy, as can joining in a class environment to gain encouragement and support for your practice from other students.
Sometimes in a meditation practice, all 5 obstacles will show up for me, or sometimes there will be one that I seem to get stuck on. As Mal says, the only bad meditation is the one we didn’t do. Just starting to be aware of what comes up for you as you meditate is a powerful way of developing mindfulness of thought.
Reflections on a silent retreat
I never realised how loud a herd of cows chewing is. Or how fascinating watching blades of grass being folded over in the wind could be.
Approximately 8 hours a day of formal meditation practice is a lot. This included morning yoga and mediation, daily instruction and guided practice for an hour and then three 1.5 hour periods of unguided self practice as well as an evening Dharma talk on the practices with Q and A.
Apart from these group sessions, we were silent. There were plenty of smiles and nods and silent and occasional whispered acknowledgements. Everyone supported each other in our shared intention, reveling in the anonymity, we didn't know each others stories, or often even each others names until the last day.
There was plenty of freedom to make the unguided times what I wanted. We were encouraged initially to sit for half an hour, practice mindful walking for 30 mins and another 30 minute sit. This was then extended to 45 min sit and 45 min walk. I was determined to try and sit for a full 1.5 hour period and managed 1 hour 20 before my urge to be kind to my knees gave way to child's pose.
Gratefully I was able to finally practice a 1.5 hour guided yoga nidra I have had for a while from an English teacher Christopher Gladwell, and was awake and aware for the entire time in that beautiful practice. I also practiced appreciative joy to marvel in this teachers skills to guide such a deep inquiry for that long!
One of the things I came to notice is that it's not so much as thought doesn't happen in meditation, but that I became less disturbed by them. They became just another phenomenon raising in the moment, like the magpie song or the smell of cow dung of the feel of my breath on my upper lip.
Mal Huxter, long time Buddhist teacher expertly crafted the retreat to allow us to explore a variety of meditations and to understand what they were and why they were important. We were also encouraged to notice the obstacles to mindfulness and I had many moments sitting with doubt and uncertainty and noticing the obsessive parts of my mind. I felt fully supported by Mal Amy and Lisa all psychologists who were available if we needed.
The last 10 days has given my mediation practice a much needed turbocharge boost and also reminded me of what I love about teaching yoga and movement- I was privileged to teach a yoga class one morning of the retreat. Mal has recorded the yoga nidra and it should be available on his website soon.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and am so pleased I went. Walking through the paddocks with the sound of the cows chewing and occasionally mooing was probably part of my favourite part.
I'm back teaching this week - come and join me as I continue to explore serenity insight and wisdom.
Someone asked yesterday what I hope to get out of my coming silent retreat. It was hard to describe, but- I'm going away to befriend my body and mind without needing to be someone's mother, partner, sister, daughter, counsellor, yoga teacher, neighbour, friend etc.
Its an exciting and scary prospect, as often we define ourselves by our labels, and like ourselves based on how well we judge ourself to be meeting the requirements of each role. And of course with so many different and competing roles we are going to fall short somewhere..
So I'm hoping to meet myself without labels, without any need to meet anyone elses -or my own expectations. And I hope to do so with compassion and friendliness.
I'm away on Friday morning for 10 days. Teaching schedule this week includes only the morning class on Thursday (tomorrow). There is no evening class for the next few weeks as I will be spending time with my family before heading off.
Will let you know what I find on the on the other side.
In the evening class we have 5 weeks of self care coming up. I've written a lot about self care in the past- if you haven't yet got my free self care e-book you can get it here.
This term I am distilling self care into 5 key components, or the ABC (D&E) of self care. We will focus on one component each week. Here is a brief summary of the skills and enquiries that will inform our weekly sessions.
A is for awareness. Awareness is key to everything we do in yoga and key to self care. How do you know when you need self care? How do you know your chosen self care activity is self care and not self destructive? Developing insight, attention and awareness is a skill that can be developed through consistent effort using both active( movement) based and still practices.
B is for breath. As I often say in class, you can't breathe in the past or future, so breathing is a useful mindfulness tool which brings us into the present moment. Diaphragmatic breathing also helps regulate the central nervous system to restore calm and relaxation. Learning how to breathe without restrictions is a great tool for physical health and emotional wellbeing.
C is for compassion. The attitude we approach ourselves and others is important. Can we be our own compassionate friend? What are the qualities of our inner dialogue? When we engage with ourselves compassionately what does this look and feel like? Turning towards ourselves with compassion can often be difficult and uncomfortable at first, but is a necessary element for genuine self care.
D is for Dharma. Dharma is a Buddhist word, which often relates to our life purpose or passion. It invites us to consider what are we contributing to the world, no matter how small it may seem. Alllowing ourselves to truly express our unique passions and gifts is an act of self care as we give the best of ourselves freely to others we also nourish ourselves. This is the element of Dharma.
E is for embodiment. How can self care be expressed in our body, in our thoughts and in our actions? How can it become second nature, not an afterthought, and free of any sense of guilt or shame that we dont deserve to be the best version of ourselves?
Through using yogic tools, movement, breathing practices, meditation, mindfulness, massage and relaxation we will explore these ABC's in class. Small micro meditations and practices will be offered as homework so you continue to nourish your self and develop the habit of self care.
A 5 week term starts Thursday July 25, and costs $60. Casual classes are $17. Concessions are available.
Looking forward to seeing you again soon.
The main channels are the central channel, ‘Sushumna’, the right dominant channel, ‘Pingala’ and the left dominant channel ‘Ida’. These channels are often described in ancient literature as the three lights, or the triple radiance.
The sushumna means graceful and is associated with fire and the rising breath. Pingala means reddish and is associated with the sun and exhale, while Ida means refreshing and is associated with the moon and the inhale. These two channels undulate across the body, crossing the central channel. The exhale breath is seen as a way of shedding light on the external world, carrying our attention out into the objects of our experience, just like the sun illuminates our wold during the day. The inhale breath is associated with the inhale, and like the moon reflects the light of the sun, so the inhale breath brings the awareness inwards. This is thought to be cooling, like the moon can bring cool relief after a hot day.
The central channel is visualised as a glowing golden column of light, and often as a slender stem, like a flower stem. It extends up from the pelvic floor to the crown of the head and is visualised through the very centre of the body, in front of the spinal column (it is not the spinal column itself).
Moving energy up the central channel is a way of us understanding ourselves better. Many of the traditional yoga practices were meditation and breathing and purification practices to facilitate this movement of energy into the central channel by rising a specific form of prana, often called kundalini.
There a number of techniques I have been practicing with my teachers Christopher Hareesh Wallis and Chris Tompkins, which focus on bring the energies of the sun and the moon into a perfect equilibrium into the heart space, one of the chakras, or wheels along the central channel. In the classical system of yoga in the trika system, there were many chakra systems. A 5-chakra system representing the elements, or the building blocks of our world were used for this practice.
The base chakra at the pelvic floor is where the earth element is installed. This contained the qualities of solidity. The second chakra is at a space about three finger widths below the navel. Here the chakra was often visualised as a bulb, ready to sprout. The element installed here is water.
In the coming workshop, Fire in the Heart, I will share some of these little known practices. My experience is when I bring an awareness of the element of fire into the heart space my sense of compassion for others (external) and also my sense of compassion for myself (internal) increases. I find I am able to access my inner wisdom more freely, and to make informed choices about my behaviour and actions.
In the modern way of visualising chakras, the element of wind is often thought to be located in the heart space. What we know understand through recent translations of old texts, is that the chakra system we have was never meant to be dogmatic, and that a range of systems and practices exist which we are only starting to comprehend.
It is my hope that in this workshop you will also start to explore the benefits of visualising fire here in the heart space for yourself. It will be held on the winter solstice, a day where the worlds energy is focused on the inhale, cooling element of a long night. We will bring balance to our system by the focus on the exhale, the warmth and the fire in the heart. I hope you can join me.
What are they really??
Autumn is my favourite time of year. It always reminds me most of the cycle of life, how in nature everything is always constantly changing, and renewing.
As you know, I also love yoga and meditation. I wanted to share this short guided asana practice with you all as an Easter gift. It's my current practice, so may not suit all bodies. There's a guided audio practice on my sound cloud station, and brief description following. As always, adapt for your own body or create your own sequence!
This practice begins in childs pose, imaging you are a seed. Then slowly allow yourself to germinate through extended child, some child to cat breaths and a squat. Slowly rise to standing, slowly exploring lifting your arms to shoulder height. Take some standing twists, eyes open, curious about your surroundings. Rest in standing mountain pose, then extend your arms, balance on your toes as you inhale, and as you exhale allow yourself to sink into a gentle standing squat, feeling alive and strong. Rest as you need.
Then allow yourself to softly surrender through a few rounds of a forward fold, taking 4 breaths to get the hands to the floor, then walking out to dog pose, resting here before coming to a few rounds of cat- winding down. Then back to extended child, and then child.
You can practice a few times, or rest in savasana ( corpose pose) or come to a meditation.
Whatever you do this Easter, I hope you find time to nourish your body and mind. Classes return Thursday May 2, 10.15am and 7pm. See you then.
I sent this as an email to people on my subscriber list, but thought I would also make it public here..
Is it time to press pause on the world for a bit?
It's been a difficult few days since the events at Christchurch on Friday. The grief of trauma imposed on any members of our global community is a hard thing to digest, and to discover that the perpetrator is an Australian created a visceral reaction of heart break for me.
Over the weekend we showed our support to the Muslim community by attending the vigil at the Marion Mosque, along with many others. We were struck by the grace and gratitude shown by the Islamic community, and their sense of hospitality and welcome as they handed out freely bottles of water to all who were standing in the hot afternoon sun as we gathered in their car park.
On Monday I gave a scheduled presentation through my day job as a counsellor at Flinders Uni to students on vicarious trauma. Later that day I discovered that my teenage sons had seen part of the footage of the killings, thanks to modern technology and teenage curiosity. I don't know about others, but for me, sometimes it can feel like too much all at once.
And of course I started thinking about how yoga can help in traumatic events. And I remembered our class from last week on Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga.
Pratyahara is withdrawing the senses inwards and away from the business of the world. The Yoga Sutra tells us that when we encourage the senses to draw inward, we can glimpse the inner light and dwell contentedly within. It is a perfect practice for when things are overwhelming, distressing or traumatic.
It doesn’t mean bury your head in the sand, or pretend that everything is perfect. Instead it encourages us to PAUSE. To retreat into the security of our inner world, to reflect. It is not a way to escape distress, but it is a way to digest distressing experiences.
Taking some time out of the world then helps us to re-enter with grace, to help us see clearly what needs to be done, and helps give us courage to act with conviction towards our values, for example to be able to call out racism, or work towards a world which is more tolerant, more just, or more sustainable, or whatever your calling is to contribute to the world.
Like much of yoga, it exists in paradox. Sometimes, only by withdrawing and pressing pause on the world, can we be effective in creating change in our world.
The practice of Pratyahara is often implicit rather than explicit in yoga. One of the main practices we do to encourage going inwards is yoga nidra, where we are encouraged to relax the body deeply, and rest in our inner being. There are also specific practices to gradually dissolve the senses into each other, like we practised last week. I also use a brief pratyahara practice during the day, sometimes just as simple as dropping in to my body and listening to my heart beat.
We will keep exploring these practices in class as well as gentle movements and nourishing massage to support our physical bodies. You are very welcome to come to the Church on Thursday, even if you haven’t been to yoga for a while. Perhaps this is the perfect time to take time out for yourself, to pause, and reconnect with your inner world.
In reality, all you need to practice are yourself and some carved out space and time. In practice, as with everything in life, we use variety of tools to assist us to practice yoga asana and meditation.
What tools are best depends on your intentions for your practice, your body and your available resources. I thought I would share how I use my favourite yoga tools and some thoughts on the pros and cons of common tools.
Yoga mats are useful to:
I use a range of mats, nothing fancy, and prefer my oldest mat I have had for 15 years which is grippy rather than sticky...
Mats that are grippy and sticky can sometimes inhibit smooth movement. I have found that the rectangular mats can make my practice linear and defined to a specific shape. I have taught classes and observed how people would modify their stance to the shape of the mat they were using in ways that were unhelpful.. and often unknowingly. More and more I find I prefer to put a blanket down to practice so I can glide more and move in a more of a spiral pattern.
Bolsters are cylindrical firm cushions that have a variety of uses. I use mine for sitting on in meditation as my hips must be higher than my knees or they hurt to the point I can't walk well after a long period of sitting. I also use the bolster in restorative poses, especially supported child pose and twists and backbends. I also enjoy having one under my knees in savasana.
Cons. They can be expensive to buy. They can take up space in your house and are awkward to store. There are alternatives such as using extra blankets, cushions, pillows or even chairs.
The yoga blankets I use are heavy but soft cotton. They fold up in a range of ways and are mainly a support in restorative poses. I can fold one high enough to support myself in meditation, see note about hips higher than knees above...I also lie a blanket flat on the floor for rolling practices and as a cover in savasana to keep warm.
Cons. Not all blankets will do all things. Some are just good for covering and not so good for props. Again, special blankets can be expensive and need storage space.
I use weighted eye pillows in a range of ways. People may be familiar with my practice to rest an eye pillow in each hand during relaxation. This is my favourite use as the weight helps the hands relax, which also softens the chest. I also like the weight of an eye pillow over my eyes to encourage relaxation through the eyes.
Cons. Not everybody likes weight on the eyes, or to have their eyes covered at all. Sometimes the eye pillows are scented which can be off putting for some. A light scarf can also be used if it's a gentle blocking of light that's required.
A yoga block can be helpful in exploring postures without over extending yourself. I often use blocks in triangle for example, to stop myself from the temptation of putting my hand on the floor. This helps me focus on the side rib opening here. I also like to support my knees with blocks when I am sitting with my knees out, or to engage muscles such as in the inner thighs in bridge.
Cons. They are not always as helpful as I think they will be, and often I get them out and don't use them.
My yoga belts are long with buckles. I use them to help support my body and to lengthen my arms. They are also good to help create an even space between the arms, when moving the shoulders in various ways.
Cons. Sometimes they can encourage over efforting, as they can make it tempting to pull our body into shape.
I use the insight timer app. I have an open enquiry yoga and meditation practice, so I don't usually plan out what I am going to do although sometimes I do. The timer helps set an intention and boundary. I use two settings - a meditation timer usually for 24 minutes with a beginning and ending bell....I have found the bells on insight timer to be quite authentic sounding. This app allows me to use a different preset setting for my movement practice, and I have set it up with with extra bells so I can move into relaxation after about 25 minutes of practice. This app also includes some ambient music which sometimes helps me find rhythm for my practice.
Cons. You have to spend time setting them, they require a smart phone and can be distracting.
Any tools that you use for your practice are optional, and must support rather than distract from your practice.
I am keen to hear what tools you use, how you use them and why?
Yoga is a process, not a thing. It's not about what you do, but more about how you do it. Practising mindfulness while you move can help you integrate different aspects of yourself...the nervous system, muscles, fascia, the immune system, our minds, the subtle body of prana...Helping you to have a healthy immune system, be emotionally and mentally resilient with a sense of well-being and choice in how your act.
This is possible when we slow down, develop mindful awareness, move with intention and allow ourselves to feel our body and synchronise with the breath.
Slow movements paired with the breath, and intentional holds are emphasised in Banksia yoga classes. Classes are different to a fitness focused class, but you will still find ways to develop strength, flexibility and grace of movement.
There are 3 main benefits of practising yoga in this way:
1. Slow practices build vagal tone in the body (our emotional brain in the gut), which helps us develop a healthy nervous system and increases our emotional resilience,
2. Slowing down increases proprioception and interoception skills, which increases our immune function, as we become more aware of how our body responds to internal and external stimulus.
3. When we move slowly, we can be more mindful, which strengthens the parts of your brain responsible for concentration, considered action and empathy.
Just like cleaning our teeth, mindful movement is a life long commitment. We can't expect to achieve the benefits without practice, just like we can't expect our teeth to stay healthy without regular brushing.
The good news is there is always a way we can show up for ourselves, and slowing down also makes it easier to find our own way to be in our body regardless of our circumstances. We can adapt the practice for heat, cold, grief, anxiety, tiredness, physical injury and illness. What is important is that we show up - regularly and with kindness to ourselves.
Join me - classes start January 31