As I get (ahem) older, my yoga practice is gravitating less towards what can I do with my body, and more towards how can I do less with my mind.
Meditation is my main practice. Movement is still important of course, but I have let go of poses, and their names and am more interested in strengthening my body for stillness, as well as moving with ease.
There are many reasons meditation is so important to me. As I practice more I am gaining a deeper understanding of my own mind scape, the types of habits, thoughts and beliefs that shape my inner world, and then my behaviour. This means I have greater choice to vary my behaviour as I understand my thoughts.
I practice a range of techniques, many of them based on tantric shaivism or tantric buddhism. I also practice the wheel of awareness developed by Dan Siegel, an expert in neuroscience.
This wheel of awareness practice is based on three pillars. I put kind intention at the forefront. This is where we develop the capacity to be compassionate towards our selves and others. My spiritual teachers often promote this pillar by dedicating the fruits of any meditation practice to the benefit of all beings.
The other two pillars are focused attention, or concentration and open attention.
Focused attention uses mindfulness and strengthens the mind by bringing your awareness to a cho se en point over and over. You can you chose an external focus, such as an object, or a sound such as a mantra, or you can use an internal focus such as your body or breath.
Open attention is a pillar I am still understanding. This I where we soften our attention and allow everything to come and go.
According to Dan Siegel, these three pillars help us to integrate the functional of the mind, which leads us to be more present to our lives. He sites a range of benefits from this including improved immune function, reduce inflammation, reduced stress response. One of the main benefits for me is increased emotional regulation skills, and an increased ability to chose our actions in the world.
I am offering by donation summer meditation sessions in January, focusing on the three pillars. Every one is welcome to join me.
I consider myself to be a constant student of yoga. I am grateful that I have opportunities to share my passion through my teaching, but I am also extremely appreciative to have access to teachers and teachings that continually deepen my understanding of yoga, and enable me to have an embodied and meaningful practice for my life.
Here are my thoughts on some of my most significant moments of this year...
The 5 day silent retreat I attended with Mal Huxter earlier in the year, was a game changer for me. Not only was the time itself extremely valuable, but it had a lasting qualitative effect on my daily meditation practice. I experienced a true light bulb moment following learning mindful walking. When I returned to real life I was able to shift my growing frustration towards my slow walks with my elderly golden retriever to a time where I value our morning meanders as an opportunity to take notice of the sounds and smells of the world, with appreciation and wonder.
Although, I love the natural world, I also am online a bit and feel fortunate to have an internet connection and access to world class teachers. I have continued my studies in classical tantric yoga texts and practices online with Christopher Hareesh Wallis, who has been a major influence in my yoga for a few years now. He is an academic in the language of Sankskrit and has translated many of these beautiful texts in ways that are accessible and meaningful for our modern world. Practices emphasising breath pause and subtle awareness of vibration are now core practices for me, and assist me to find moments of stillness, even at lifes most challenging and busy times. These practices help me remain in my centre when I speak to people in extreme distress in my day job as a counsellor, when I parent my four children, when I argue with my partner, or when I am scared about my ageing parents.
My yoga teacher mentor and friend Kristine Kaoverri Weber also released some online courses this year on the neurobiology of yoga, which have been satisfying the geeky part of me that is curious about how and why these practices can be effective. This learning has also helped my ability to explain the benefits and of slow, mindful yoga to others. I also now have a better understanding of why and how I need to continually adapt my practice to my peri- menopausal body, and love the opportunities to connect with my changing body through my yoga practices.
Thank you for being part of this journey with me. I would love to hear your reflections on what you have learned this year through your yoga and meditation practice.
Many of you who have practised yoga know that it "works". That it helps navigate the ups and down of life. We can ease physical pain with yoga practices, ride emotional highs and lows and navigate complex mental challenges all with Yoga.
But how does it work? How can one thing do all of this?
By not being "one thing".
Yoga is an umbrella term for an integrated system. It uses a variety of tools - movement, breathing, mindful awareness, relaxation training, mantra and meditation. Together these tools influence our human system.
The human system as defined by yoga is the complex inter relationship between our inner and outer worlds. I have written about the Koshas previously, and this model really is a good way to understand ourselves.
We understand that we are multi dimensional and that all of the layers, external, physical, emotional, energetic and mental each other. Permeating all layers of our being is our core essence that is inherently joyful contentment.
Yoga teaches us that we forget this core layer, or more accurately that this is obscured from us by obstacles in all the layers. Think bad posture, poor breathing, emotional dis-regulation, obsessive thoughts etc. All of these, regular everyday things prevent us from accessing our inherent essence.
Yoga and its various interoceptive practices help us to see and understand what our obstacles are. We can then learn what it is that we need that supports us to be well, content and at ease in life. Remembering of course that as life goes on, our obstacles also change. The practice of Yoga offers us ongoing opportunities for self discovery.
As obstacles break down we can then more freely taste that pervading essence of contented joy. The goal of tantric yoga practices was to learn to live in this state as a default state of freedom, to realise that we are the universe experiencing itself. Tantric Buddhism would call it enlightenment. You might just call it being ok with who you are.
Whatever your goal of yoga is, whether it is to manage back pain, grief, anxiety, or for preventative self care, or for spiritual awakening, know that you can use any of the practices offered by this wonderful holistic method towards how and who you want to be in the world, and it will most probably work!
Well, another September has flown past. Thank you to all those who participated in Self Care September in some way - those who came to the workshop of September 1, the wild flower walk on September 30, classes in between, or who followed along with the Self Care September face book group. Your feedback and encouraged was very appreciated.
Through the month, I practised the suggestion from my e-book every day, and every few days, shared a video of my tips and thoughts on the various mindful activities.
So what were my key take away thoughts this year?
Firstly, I realised that definitions are vital. In the workshop we talked a lot about how I define Self Care as an intentional act to nourish all the layers of our being. The layers of our being were discussed in the workshop and I have also discussed them here, but briefly they are:
The self care practices were designed to nourish us throughout all those layers, not just focus on one aspect of ourselves, such as our mental well being, or physical health. But part of the definition was about making self care intentional.
This year, I discovered that setting a strong intention was so important to maintain the momentum for practising. For those who struggled with the practices, it may have been this step that requires more attention. To hold an intention is to make self care a priority, even if days are busy, and things are tough and our body is sick.
My second take away was there needs to be a balance between planned activities and spontaneous moments. Often it is the small snatches of time where we can activate our intention to practice self care. I emphasised brief or micro meditations this year, over the longer practices. However having a longer practice at least once a week makes it more likely that the smaller practices will be available and effective for us. Things like pausing for a moment of breath, or feeling the wind on your face, or intentionally rolling the shoulders, are all micro practices of self care.
Thirdly, I was reminded that mindfulness is about being open and curious at all times. During our final day's walk where some of us came together to be guided through Belair national park, we paused often. We looked at the small details of the native wildflowers that are so easy to walk straight on past. We learnt how to identify a range of plants, but looking closely, by being curious, and by staying open. This was a great lesson in mindfulness for me, and a great reminder that we can apply mindfulness to every activity in life.
I would love to hear your thoughts, not only on how the month went, but how you are going to maintain self care as a priority moving forward.
The Self Care September group will remain on facebook and has a number of resources, including my various video thoughts and micro practices. You are welcome to head over and have a look at any time. Please give Banksia Yoga a like while you are there!
Many of you who have attended my classes will know that I like to often theme classes around the seasons and the natural turnings of nature.
Often in our busyness, we become very distant from nature and its tempos. We use artificial lighting and artificial stimulants so our natural internal cycles can be disrupted.
By noticing, and acknowledging the seasons of nature in a yoga class, it also gives us a chance to notice and honour our own natural cycles.
Some people love winter and the freshness of the breeze outdoors makes them feel alive and energised, and yet as soon as it becomes hot they need to slow down and retreat. Some people are the opposite.
In yoga we learn to tune in to both ourselves, and our environment. If we go completely inward, we can loose touch with the unfolding of life. Similarly, if we are too focused externally, too busy, we loose touch with ourselves.
My practice varies with the weather. I might do longer holds of strength building poses in winter to build heat in my body for example, as well as more restorative poses. In spring, I like to start being a little more active, using pandiculation and somatics to ensure that all of my body start to get moving. In Summer, I enjoy slow sequences, often with forward folds, and in autumn I like to prepare my body with practices that strengthen my immune system.
I like to honour the marking points of the turnings of the seasons, the Solstices and Equinox’s with special meditations as a way of re-attuning myself to my own rhythms.
The Spring equinox marks the time where there is an equal amount of day and night time. Soon, the days will be getting longer. Plants will start to put out new growth, and flowers smile at us from trees, grasses and every where in between.
In the coming spring equinox class I hope to bring us to a point of balance through the use of symmetrical and asymmetrical poses, becoming more active in our bodies and starting to release any stagnation from winter slowness. We will use a range of centring techniques to turn inwards, and end with a yoga nidra honouring opposites in nature and ourselves.
All welcome to join me.
Thursday September 20 @7pm
Here are my top 5 tips for offering yourself Self care. We will discuss and practice techniques for all of these areas at the Slice of Self Care workshop Saturday September 1 from 1pm - 4.30pm st the Upper Sturt Soldiers Memorial Hall.
1. Plan and prioritise ….We are all busy. Self Care doesn’t happen by accident.
2. Build positive emotions. Cultivate attitudes of friendliness, compassion, gratitude and kindness.
3. Take care of your body/mind. Exercise, eat well, drink water, practice mindfulness, laugh often.
4. Develop healthy resilience. Notice how you bounce back after a bad day. Accept that there will be challenges and set backs. Acknowledge difficult emotions and thoughts without getting caught up in them.
5. Create meaning. What gives your life purpose? How can you contribute to the benefit of others? What can you share from your Self?
As part of my day job, as well as speak to individuals about a range of things that are important to them in their life, I also give training on mental health. One of the things that I am always reminded of is that mental health is a continuum.
At one of the continuum we could be languishing, very mentally unwell. In this place we may not be functioning to our full potential. We may struggle to sleep well, eat, attend social functions, go to work, get out of bed. Our ability to deal with crisis may be diminished, and the number of crisis we face may increase.
Somewhere, in the middle of the spectrum, we are surviving. This is where we might be going through the motions, but there is still a lot of struggle. Things might be difficult. We might use a lot of caffeine, alcohol or other coping strategies, that may be good for a short while, but may not work out too well over the long term.
On the other end of the spectrum, we are thriving. Things are good. Not because every thing is perfect, but because we have the physical, emotional and mental resources to meet any challenges that come up. We have a sense of purpose and connection to life, and we are able to give back to others in a meaningful way.
Often, we move around this scale, and that is normal. Often when we feel overwhelmed, depleted we are in the surviving range. And it is exactly because we are too busy just keeping up with our to do lists, not sleeping well, putting out spot fires that we might stay in this range. Often in survival mode, we feel separated from others, we believe the various internal narratives in our own heads and get stuck in the stories of how we think life should be. The last thing we can think of doing is some self care. It feels indulgent, a luxury we don’t have time or energy for.
But here’s the thing. Self care is what we know helps with good mental health and well-being. We know its not rocket science. And maybe it’s because the strategies are so simple that they seem so hard. Many strategies involve planning to make time for things we enjoy, to appreciate the positive things in life and be grateful for the small things.
So how can yoga and mindfulness help. Often yoga and meditation just become another thing on the “Should” pile…But often that’s because our models for what yoga and mindfulness are a bit skewed in our modern life. We often think of these practices are a thing we need to do, make time for, or add to our life. Yoga in its broad sense however is a state of being.
The practices of yoga, and mindfulness can take the form of informal, as well as formal.
When we think in this way, we can make little acts of self care a part of our everyday lives. And that will help us to thrive.
Since returning from my retreat I have fallen in love all over again with my meditation practice, and love spending 20-30 minutes a day in silent stillness. I also include mindful movement as part of my practice, including walking and yoga asana, and on an ideal day will have a 20:20:20 ratio – 20 minutes of mindful movement, 20 minutes of seated stillness, and 20 minutes of mindful walking, so I aim for 60 minutes a day of formal mindfulness practice. The practices may be sequential, or they may be broken up through the day.
Meditation was explained by my teacher Mal Huxter as a way to cultivate a calm mind, and develop insight or wisdom. Recently, my hairdresser asked if meditation could help him with the mental dramas he was experiencing. So I explained how meditation helps develop the pre frontal cortex of the brain, that part of ourselves that can act rather than react. It leads us to be able to act purposefully and in ways that reflect our values and the heart qualities: kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
Starting a meditation practice can be daunting. For starters, there is the perception of equipment – do I chose a special cushions, bolsters stools. Guided or unguided practice? And how to listen if guided, setting up the equipment can take longer than you were planning to spend in meditation and can be off putting.
Meditation does take some effort. There needs to be a clear intention. Mindfulness, (a type of meditation) is remembering to pay attention to what is in the present, with openness and curiosity. In this, we can be mindful at any time, and any where, and of any thing inside our ourselves such as body sensations or the breath, or outside ourselves such as sounds, smells and sights.
Mindfulness, my teacher emphasised, needs to be applied with an ethical quality for it to lead to insight and wisdom. Cultivating the heart qualities is one way that these ethical qualities can be incorporated into practice.
While the practices can be informal, establishing a formal sitting meditation practice will help build mindfulness skills, and make it more likely that we can apply these skills more broadly to our everyday life. Formal sitting meditation includes a range of practices, and just like in our physical yoga practice there is no one size fits all practice.
There is a spectrum of meditation practices from those designed to calm the mind, to those designed to develop insight. Calming or serenity practices emphasise developing concentration and invite us to become absorbed with a chosen object of focus. Insight practices often are enquiry based, and include reflection, contemplation and curiosity as you explore into a question or into things that arise within our experience, such as a particular emotion.
Often, it can be useful to start with the calming practices, to choose a focus to ‘remember’, and to gently bring yourself back to this chosen focus any time you notice that the mind has wandered. During the retreat, Mal highlighted three things needed to practice serenity style mindfulness meditation:
Firstly, he emphasised letting go of tension. We can do this by being content in the present moment with whatever arises, so letting go of struggling. This is not the same as having no tension.
Secondly, allow the mind to stabilise by continually bringing yourself back to where ever you have chosen to put it. Initially, the mind will be wild, like a storm, blowing everywhere, but the more you practice, the quieter it will become, although there will always be some movement even for experienced mediators.
Thirdly, develop a sensitivity to your focus, so that it becomes more vivid and clear. For example, if focusing on your breath, you might become aware of the touch of the air as it moves over the small hairs in the nostril.
Effort towards meditation can be approached by setting an intention, and then remembering your intention. (This is having a mindful approach to the future). For example, your intention may be “I meditate between 7am ad 7:10am each day, in the chair on the corner of my room, remembering to bring my attention back to the breath in each moment”.
Here are my tips to develop your intention and start a daily practice:
Let me know how you go.
Practising meditation in a group can also be a useful way of developing mindfulness skill. You are every welcome to my weekly yoga classes, or my monthly home based meditations. And while this post focuses on developing an unguided meditation practice, if you would like to practice with a guided meditations, I have a number on my sound cloud page, or you may like to visit Mal Huxter’s webpage.
I have just returned from a silent retreat with my mindfulness teacher Malcom Huxter. I met Mal last year when undertaking Mindful Self Compassion training and was delighted when I discovered he was coming to Adelaide to offer a 5 day silent retreat. I was not disappointed. It was an incredible experience. 6 days and 5 nights at the Lokanda retreat centre in Point Pass, to Adelaide’s north in the middle of an April heat wave.
We practised meditation, sitting, lying walking. We practised with guided meditations, but much was silent sitting.
Mal is an interesting Man. He is currently a clinical psychologist, and in his youth he spent several years in Thailand and was ordained as a Buddhist Monk in the Theravada tradition. The focus on our retreat was the Four Heart Qualities, or heart abodes, or Brahma Vihara’s.
These qualities are loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. They are not unique qualities to Buddhism, and the yoga traditions of Tantra Shaivism also discuss similar ethics, as do all of the religious teachings from a variety of faiths.
Mal stressed that mindfulness can not be divorced from ethics, and that these qualities are skills we can cultivate and develop, not just towards other people, but also towards ourselves. Using mindful meditation is one of the ways to cultivate theses qualities. He emphasised that mindfulness meditation is a spectrum of practices, from calming practices absorbing ourselves on a single point of focus or concentration, to enquiry practices to develop greater insight. A range of practices can be used to connect with the heart qualities, and different meditation techniques will suit different people.
In evening dharma talks, Mal outlined the near and far enemies of these qualities. I realised that some of my compassion for example can often “miss the mark” and really be a sense of wanting to rescue people based on my aversion to unpleasant experience. He outlined ways to “kindle these qualities”, a bit like you use kindling to light a fire. You can then focus on and nurture these qualities and allow them to grow and develop.
For example, appreciative joy is the ability to feel genuine happiness for another’s successes. Its far enemies (opposites) are things like professional jealousy, spitefulness etc. Near enemies (things that look like the quality but aren’t quite; include what Mal described as nauseating positivism, and superficial celebration. One way to kindle this feeling in yourself is to reflect on someone who you admire who is joyful and cheerful, such has a spiritual teacher, or a friend you know.
The Yoga Sutra’s also give guidance on how to cultivate these heart qualities. Through the next term of classes, I will weave ways to cultivate these qualities into your yoga and mindfulness practice. I will post more detailed blog posts on each of the qualities over the next few months. Mal has a website with a range of free guided meditations and resources, and can be found at www.malhuxter.com