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
It's hot. I'm sure you have noticed. It can be hard to maintain our practice on days where we may feel lethargic, dull, achy. For those of you wanting to do some practices despite the hot weather, here are 5 practices that might be suitable. You can do them individually, or you could put them together for a short hot weather practice at home.
1. Body scan
This is a useful mindfulness practice. Remember mindfulness is NON JUDGEMENTAL awareness of the present moment. Pause and bring your attention into the body. Notice what parts of your body might feel hot. Is it your forehead? Your chest? Your organs? Now notice any sensations of coolness present. Maybe there is some airflow from a fan or air conditioner touching your hands, feet of face. What else do you notice? Accept what is in this moment.
2. Sheetali breathing
This is a useful pranayama (breathing) practice for hot weather. It is a bit like a dog panting, we draw air in through the mouth, either over the tongue curled in from the edges like a tube, or over the teeth. Either way looks silly, and its genetics that will determine if you can make the tongue tube. We inhale through the mouth, gently moving the head upwards at the same time. We then retain the inhale momentarily and exhale through the nose. Try just a few rounds, perhaps a maximum of 9.
3. Hand massage and mudras
I find that I notice swelling and aching through my hands in this weather. I like to do some gentle hand massage and wrist rolling movements to ease through the joints. Mudras are also useful in this weather. One of my favourite is the Hridaya Mudra for the heart centre.
From a comfortable seat, place the tips of your middle and ring fingers to your thumbs. The index finger curls inwards towards the base of your thumb, and your little finger extends out straight. Pause and breathe here. This mudra is said to energise the heart centre, and is useful to release emotional energy.
I love practicing gentle twists in this weather. Simple wringing movements feel good in my spine. Either from a supine position on the floor, allowing the legs to gently roll from side to side, or a simple chair twist, held for a few breaths each side.
Legs up the wall (or chair) pose
Let's remember how useful this is for establishing a good sleep routine. Perhaps before you go to bed, place your legs on a chair, or on the wall, making sure you feel completely comfortable and relaxed. I have been known to fall asleep, so perhaps it might be good to use a timer to tell you to come out after 5, 10 or 15 minutes.
I hope these suggestions are useful. Take care and stay cool
Body Sensing Practices that I have been exploring in my personal practice are based on a number of principles. Here are the five main principles that will guide us over the next few weeks of the Body Sensing yoga and mindfulness course.
1. Develop interoceptive awareness with slow mindful movements
Moving slowly helps to train the nervous system of the body. Often our fast paced life impacts on our nervous system in a number of ways. We push through even though we are tired, use stimulants like caffeine to keep going. Moving slowly, and combining smooth even breathing with our movements helps us retrain the nervous system. Its not enough to just rest in shavasana at the end of the practice. When we move slowly, we get a chance to experience the movements from the inside, we can make adjustments if needed.
2. Soften and hydrate fascia in the body
Many of you who have been to my classes know that I love working with fascia. Recent training I attended with Donna Fahri emphasised the need to soften and hydrate the body before doing more strenuous movements - sequencing is also important. Many of the practices involve rolling, wobbling and gentle shaking. At first, we might notice how stiff we are, these practices may not feel very normal or natural, however over time our bodies will respond and develop a more jelly like quality.
3. Include compassionate touch
This is an addition from my mindful self compassion training. When we offer ourselves soothing touch we offer ourselves kindness. It also helps build interoception. When we touch the body it helps build our awareness by bringing our mind into the area of the body that is moving. For example, sliding the hands down the legs while we come into a forward fold may give us a greater sense of our hamstrings, and how much bend we need in the knees on the way down.
4. Find the most ease-ful way of being in each moment
Work with where you are at. Our yoga and our meditation should be enjoyable. In each moment, find the place where you feel most at ease - you can then go deeper into sensation, if that is what your body sugests. Similarly, be in a place of comfort with the mind. We will be spending some time developing a safe space, so that our mind can rest in a place that generates feelings of ease at any time that might be useful during class, or in your everyday life.
5. There is no such thing as a perfect practice
Life isn't perfect, and neither will your yoga and meditation practice. It is important that you allow yourself to be a beginner, no matter how long you have practised. It is normal for our minds to wander when we meditate, even for experienced mediators. There will be times when body sensing practices make sense, and there may be times where the mind is bored, tired and finds these practices difficult. Use this as an opportunity to offer yourself compassion towards whatever shows up, whether you like it or not.
I went out of my comfort zone today and put up a short very unpolished 3 minute video of my practice, which demonstrates these principles. You can find it here
This February I am offering something slightly different in place of my evening yoga classes - a course on Body Sensing. But what is this?
Body Sensing is the art of living an embodied life, being aware of the innate intelligence of our inner world. It includes our physical body, but also extends to our emotions, thoughts, feeling and spirit.
Body Sensing is all about increasing our Interoceptive awareness – or the ability to listen effectively to our bodies. Just think about all the times you have ignored or failed to listen to your body. Times where you might have pushed through tiredness with caffeine, drank or ate too much, stifled feelings of grief or anger. These habits often create distance from our own bodies.
Through body sensing practices we aim to rebuild this relationship with our bodies, so that it can be based on trust and respect. Body sensing practices include moving with slow awareness, while incorporating the principles of mindfulness – non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.
Bessel Van der Kolk has researched changes that happen in the brain and body with slow, interoceptive yoga and meditation practices. He found these practices make positive changes in the “Mohawk” brain structures which help regulate Self Identity, as well as the region of the forebrain that promotes self-regulation, pro-social behavior, and positive affect (emotional states). Other useful changes to brain structures include improved focus, attention, memory, as well as less loss of gray matter which naturally occurs with aging.
Body Sensing practices, include slow mindful movement, mindful attention to the breath, pranayama (breathing practices), and yoga nidra (deep relaxation).
These practices also assist tone the vagus nerve in the body. This nerve is the connection between our gut and our brain. Healthy vagal tone assists us to feel more comfortable in our own skins. It helps build the ability to react appropriately to life, easily shifting states between resting and activity as we need to. It also helps regulate the insula area of the brain. This is the part that connects us to sensations and emotions, and can be agitated when we experience trauma or anxiety.
Body Sensing practices can help us understand our usual patterns of behavior, such as reacting or shutting down. The practices also have a significant role in helping us get in touch with our values and priorities in life. When we have a healthy respectful relationship with our body we can then chose how we act with more freedom, and can make decisions that positively influence our health and wellbeing.
For more information, or to sign up, check out the events page.
I love the Summer Solstice. It reminds me of the constant change of the world. Solstice means when the sun stands still. It is the longest day of the year here in Australia, and subtly the days will begin to get shorter and shorter again, until the sun stands still for the shortest day of the year in June.
I have a tradition of celebrating the Summer Solstice with my family, either around the Solstice on the 21st or 22nd of December, or Xmas day. We often go the beach, and have a parent vs child soccer match with the extended family. It is also often filled with water fights, laughter, drinking, eating, gift giving and celebrating how amazing it is to be alive, and to be here on this Earth at this time.
I also use this time for some quite contemplation and often have a dedicated yoga practice for the summer solstice to reflect on the light within. I am often reminded of the Buddhist deity, Kwan Yin at this time, who reminds us that we all have a light inside of us, and encourages us to share that with the world.
Initially, my practice was sun salutations, but any practice is fine. This is my favourite gentle variation of a sun salutation for this Summer Solstice practice.
Start Kneeling in Virasana (thunderbolt pose) with buttocks to the heels. Please use a bolster or blankets under your bum or your knees if this feels better for your body to have some height here. This is a wonderful pose for digestion and for strengthening the back (so also good to do after too much Xmas lunch) Spend a number of breaths here. Connect in with your breath at the centre. You might like to visualise a gold point at the solar plexus, where you breath in and out from. Make the exhale breath progressively longer than in the inhale until it is comfortably twice as long.
From here reach forward into forward virasana, or extended childs pose. Feel your fingers connect with the earth. Make your knees and belly comfortable. Stay for a few breaths, lengthening the spine, and allowing the warmth of the sun to move into your back.
Come into all fours and practice a few rounds of cat pose, or wriggle your hips around or do other movements that free through your centre.
From all fours and then into Downward facing dog pose. Feel equally connected between your hands and feet to the ground. Stay with the lengthened breathing. If it feels right, you might like to bring some gentle dymanic movement between plank and dog pose, if this is something your shoulders enjoy.
Return back progressively to kneeling, through each of the poses. You can practice this dynamically for a few rounds, or you can slow it down and spend time savouring each pose. It's up to you.
End with either a few rounds of seated breathing, or if you have been more physical, a lying shavasna, perhaps with your hands resting on your belly for a few minutes.
However, and whatever you celebrate, I hope you have a wonderful time with family and friends, and allow yourself to shine like the sun.
I think we have reached peak Yoga Silliness with the Yoga and (fill in the blank) phase. You may have heard of goat yoga, cat yoga, Harry Potter Yoga, beer yoga and the like.
While many of these sound fun, the most recent news to reach me was all you can drink in an hour yoga class -essentially drunk yoga.
While I have obvious concerns about this from a safety view, it also made me pause and think.
Initially I thought about all the things yoga is not. And then I thought about why I practice and what yoga is to me, and thought I’d share.
Firstly, what yoga (to me) is not.
Yoga is NOT A DISTRACTION
I have been guilty of using yoga for this over time, and many people come to yoga classes for a break from difficult or stressful situations at work, home or their minds. And while there is nothing wrong with this, mindfulness and distraction are actually opposing terms. If you practice yoga mindfully, as I have been increasingly doing over the years, then yoga happens when I have a migraine, or have an injury, or have a great day. The yoga on these occasions may look different, but it includes a practice of accepting whatever my circumstances are and working from there.
Yoga is NOT A PERFORMANCE
When I was younger, I was more focused on “achieving a particular pose”. I never really mastered headstand, it didn’t seem to work for my neck, and I really suck at arm balances. I have let go of the need to “nail these poses”. As people who attend my classes would know, my favourite poses are really subtle movements, gently rolling on the floor and exploring different ranges of motion on different planes. Doesn’t look flash, but I am not expecting anyone to look at it, it’s not a dance or competition. Yoga is an internal connection to ourselves.
Yoga is NOT A STRIVE FOR PERFECTION
I need a lot of reminders of this, as perfectionism is one of my tendencies. There are enough things I beat myself up about, I don’t need yoga to be another one of them. There is no perfect pose, practice, meditation.
Yoga is NOT DEMANDING, ABUSIVE OR EXPLOITATIVE
I have a whole bookshelf of yoga books, by a range of yoga teachers and traditions who have now had a range of accusations levelled towards themselves personally, or the institution they represent for things such as sexual harassment, rape, child sexual assault, using manipulation to control students and the like. A WHOLE FN BOOKSHELF. This is a huge dilemma for me. Much of my early practice was in the Satyananda tradition. The ashrams associated with this tradition were exposed in the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse. Bikram, who founded his famous hot yoga, has been accused of sexual assault, and is currently facing bankruptcy after accumulating a sickening amount of wealth.
A number of years ago, a visiting “guru” from another tradition I was practising in at the time, hugged me after a workshop, in an overly friendly way which made me feel uncomfortable. I later found out he was accused of rape and sexual harassment by women in other countries. This abuse and exploitation by people in power, is an issue for the Yoga Industry, like other industries.
So, what do I want my yoga to be?
I came up with three main things, and these have become my personal yoga manifesto.
I WANT MY YOGA TO BE….
-something that helps me move with as much grace and ease as possible in each moment. And to assist me to adjust and accept when my movment is compromised for some reason, through age or injury.
-something that helps me notice the world around me, and to take action as needed. Social Action to me, such as attending the same sex rally, speaking up to my politicians about the humane treatment of asylm mseakers are just a part of my yoga as the moving practices.
-something that assists me process personally difficult thoughts and feelings and to treat myself and others with kindness and love,
Finally, I want my yoga to be sustainable for my lifetime. I have been practising since I was 20 years old, and still learning more each day. While that might not look like a whole heap of sun salutations any more, yoga is so much more, and becomes more and more important in my life.
This term we are focusing on learning short sequences that can be practices at home in just 5 minutes.
Each week I will offer a new sequence: with just 5 poses. Each week will have a slightly different focus.
Week One focuses on Mulhadara (Base)Chakra and is a standing sequence for balance and stability.
Week two is a kneeling sequence with a focus on Svadishatana chakra (in the pelvis)for fluidity and mobility.
Week Three is a seated sequence to increase motivation by stimulating the manipura chakra at the navel.
Week Four is a prone sequence with heart opening poses for Anahata Chakra
Week five is a reclining sequence for Vishudhi to open and release through the throat and jaw.
You can practice one pose a day, or practice the entire sequence 5 times a week.
You can also start small, practising once in the first week, twice in the second etc.
You are also welcome to mix and match as you need, and can always put the practices together for a longer practice if you wish.
We will practice the poses and their variations in class, and there will be handouts for you to practice at home if you choose.
Try the Standing Earth sequence:
Weekly reminders and further suggestions will be posted in the Self care September face book group as well, so please join if you haven't already.