“It’s so good when it stops”

When I hear this phrase in one of my classes, at the end of working into a fairly taxing main posture, it sets me to wondering why we go to a class to do something we could equally well accomplish at home.  Practising in the comfort of your own home means you can do yoga at any time that suits.  You can do exactly which postures you like and in the colder months you don’t have to brave the wind and rain to get there.  It’s cheaper and you don’t miss out if you can’t attend a session.  Hmmm. It’s starting to sound like I am trying to do myself out of a job!

Despite all the benefits of practising at home, so many of us (myself included!) prefer to attend a regular class instead.  So what is it that makes a yoga class special?  Although yoga is essentially a personal and individual experience, there is something more enjoyable about participating in a group.  Of course, there is the social aspect; you may attend the class with a friend, or get to know others who regularly go to that session.  There is a united camaraderie in working together in postures you are like or are less keen on (but know are good for you!) and motivation to be had in seeing the efforts of others.  Personally, I enjoy abdicating responsibility for the structure of the session to someone else.  In a group class, you are guided through a series of postures that have been planned to work and stretch all parts of the body as you move towards the pinnacle of the main posture for that session.  The mind doesn’t need to worry about what to do next and you can really let go, just focussing on the breath and coming into each moment as it unfolds.

Tempted? There are still spaces for after the break, starting from 4th November.  So if you are dithering about joining a class, why not give it a try?

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Positive affirmations, positive mind

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

Are you wearing rose-tinted spectacles?  I believe that we develop our outlook from quite a young age, perhaps influenced by those around us.  Some of us see life’s adventures in a positive light, the proverbial ‘glass half full’.  Or perhaps we see the same glass, half empty. Whatever life brings, it serves a purpose and we can learn from it.  You may believe that someone ‘up there’ is dishing it out, you might believe in karma, it might just be the way the cookie crumbles.

Whatever the source, we all have good days and bad days, exciting experiences and unpleasant ones.  And therein lies one of the problems; labelling it as good or bad, categorising and pigeonholing.  I seem to remember reading somewhere that the mind keeps a better hold on the ‘bad’ things than the ‘good’ ones, so looking back we may be more inclined to recall what went wrong rather than what went right.  Maybe there were good bits sandwiched in between.  Perhaps we don’t remember them.  Maybe we were too caught up in the bad to even see them in the first place.  Little wonders like a sunny day, a spring flower, the smell of grass after the rain.

Scientists at the National Institute for Mental Health have now shown that a positive attitude really does help us to stay motivated and in a good frame of mind.  This is linked to the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin in the brain.  Positive thinking as a concept has really mushroomed in recent years, and while it is important that your positivity is realistic rather than rose-tinted, having a ‘can do’ attitude is more likely to help you achieve your goals than out-and-out pessimism.

In the Tuesday class we are currently using positive affirmations at the end of our meditative practice to help develop an optimistic outlook and attitude towards ourselves.  Positive affirmations are short positive statements, such as ‘I feel relaxed’ or ‘I am strong enough to do this’.  Used in the present tense, they help you to believe it’s already true.  If our thoughts can become self-fulfilling, better that they are positive ones.  Repeat your affirmation several times, to reinforce the message.  You can use them at any time; try it as a daily practice when you have a quiet moment, or as first aid when those negative thoughts start creeping in!

 

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Letting go again

I have always been a hoarder.  Whether it is shells on the beach, interesting pebbles or clothes that still have some wear in them, I find it hard to let these things go.  I have been pondering the reasons why I hang on to stuff like this and came up with quite a list.  I then pondered my list and realised that all my reasons actually stem from the same source; in the end it all comes down to fear.

Whenever I consider rationalising my wardrobe there is always a cautious little voice whispering in my ear, “You are bound to need it if you throw it away, put it back!”  And this has at times been true; perhaps I haven’t needed it as such, but it would have come in handy.  So often I decide to clear out some ornaments or kitchen equipment and the little voice nudges me again: “It would make a great prop for some photos”, or ”Maybe you haven’t used that baking tin in years but it would come in handy”.  This little voice is so often the reason that things are pushed back into the cupboard.

This cautious little voice is instilling in me the fear of needing these possessions if I no longer have them.  Storing these things in my cupboards puts me back in my comfort zone.  It’s all there if I need it, you never know, one day…

But I think it’s time to listen to the little voice that says “Wouldn’t it be nice to have more space?  You don’t need all this stuff.  Maybe someone else could use it.”  This little voice is frequently drowned out by the cautious voice, but I say, “Shout louder, little voice!” Having possessions brings not only the fear of letting them go but also the fear of the inadvertent letting go of losing them.  It can also bring the ideal opportunity to practise letting go.  To be able to relinquish ‘stuff’ without regret or recriminations, to move forward into the future with hope and anticipation.  Think of the freedom that a life without a need for so many possessions would bring!  Trust in the Universe to provide and get ready for some spring cleaning!

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Happy New Year!

New year, new start, new beginnings.  In just a few days we will be in the presence of 365 days of the blank canvas that is 2019, brimming with space to be filled with our new year resolutions.  So…how’s it coming along so far?

There can be a temptation to be somewhat ambitious with our resolutions; ‘I shall go to the gym every day’, ‘No more alcohol for me’, ‘I am going to lose 3 stone by Easter.’  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when we fall at the first hurdle.  Sticking to major lifestyle changes like this can be daunting and can be quite a shock to the system after our Christmas indulgences.

And when we do fall off our New Year wagon before the end of January, it’s as if we don’t need to try again because that whole New Year thing is over now and it may as well wait til next year.  That’s when I remind myself that each week, each day can be seen as a new start and there is never a bad time to try again.  On any road paved with good intentions, there are bound to be a few potholes to fall into on the way!

It’s been suggested that resolutions based around giving something up for January are not really very worthwhile, because a month is not long enough to make a difference in the body.  That doesn’t seem very encouraging to me.  Maybe it’s not long enough to change our physiology, but it is long enough to break a habit.  Saying you are making a permanent change can be quite scary.  Why not ease yourself into it gradually by starting with a month? Already during that month you are getting into the new way of doing things, building better habits for the future.

If you can manage a month, then you can have a sense of achievement in making it so far.  Perhaps a month will become three months, will become a year.  There may be other beneficial effects too.  I find that once I make one change, however small, I find myself considering other changes and before I know it, all manner of aspects of my life are having a spring-clean. Change becomes the habit, growth becomes the habit.  And with a habit like that, the world is your proverbial oyster!

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Take a deep breath: Part 1

One of the key differences between a yoga class and many other forms of exercise is that in yoga we generally aim to be aware of our breath as we work into the different postures.  In addition, classes may often include a specific breathing practice.  Co-ordinating movement with breath helps us to move in a slow and controlled manner, whilst the way we breathe as we maintain postures can deepen our experience of their benefits.

Although breathing is a fundamental part of our experience each moment of each day, we may not normally pay a great deal of attention to our breath or how we are breathing at any given time.  That’s all well and good, as if you had to remember to breathe the chances are you wouldn’t have much time to think of anything else! However, despite this, it is possible for habits to develop that affect the body’s capacity to breathe effectively.  For example, the urge to look slimmer can make us pull the belly in, restricting the flow of breath to the bottom of the lungs.  This can lead to a ‘chest breathing’ habit, where the belly is actually pulled in during inhalation to resist the natural expansion of the belly at that time.

The lungs extend from the bottom of the rib cage right up behind the shoulder blades, enclosed for protection by the rib cage.  As we inhale, the rib cage needs to lift and open to accommodate the breath.  Flexibility in the muscles around and between the ribs will enable this to take place more freely.  The shoulders rest on the rib cage, so tension in this area may limit the expansion of the lungs in the upper part of the chest. Tension here can spread to the shoulder blades, neck, head and jaw, giving you plenty of reasons to use yoga to relax!

The various spinal movements incorporated into a typical yoga class help to bring movement to the muscles in the chest.  A side stretch or a twist can open out the muscles between the ribs and working with the shoulders and free up tension here too.  Tension in the hips can also lead to tightness in the upper body as it may not feel supported, so working to bring movement to the hips and legs can also free up the chest and shoulders.  In these indirect ways we can help the body to breathe is a more relaxed way, so our resting breath can be fuller and more comfortable.

In part two we will look at the natural diaphragmatic breath.

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Antarayas in everyday life

Sometimes you might wonder how ancient teachings have any relevance to modern lives.  In fact, I find it almost uncanny how the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written several hundred years BCE, can seem to be iterating the exact same issues that we face today…with the bonus that he also offers some suggestions of how to help deal with them.

In the Tuesday class this week, we looked at the antarayas, a set of blocks to following the path of yoga.  Remember, yoga is defined as the settling of the mind into silence, so we are talking here about things that stop us from moving towards that place of greater calm.  Modern life can be so busy that this might feel pretty elusive!

What surprises me is that this list of blocks, written so long ago, is pretty much what you might come up with today, if you tried to identify the real reasons that you weren’t making progress towards your goals.  And this list of blocks could be applied to just about any situation where you might be feeling a bit stuck.

The antarayas are attitudes or feelings that come from inside, rather than external pressures, so they are the perfect subject for a mindful meditation on your situation.  Many of them link to a lack of energy, stopping us from making the changes we need.  It can be much easier to stay in your ‘comfort zone’ and grumble, rather than initiate changes that may seem scary.  What we tend to find though, is that if we can make a start we can soon create new and more positive habits, such that we wonder why we didn’t do it much sooner!

Although many people make New Year resolutions, I find I am still caught up in the chill of winter at that time. It’s the arrival of spring that prompts me to start planning and moving forward.  So with the arrival of March and the departure of the snow, what better time to start something new?

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Smile!

Smiling is infectious,
you catch it like the flu,
When someone smiled at me today,
I started smiling too.

I passed around the corner
and someone saw my grin.
When he smiled I realized
I’d passed it on to him.

I thought about that smile,
then I realized its worth.
A single smile, just like mine
could travel round the earth.

So, if you feel a smile begin,
don’t leave it undetected.
Let’s start an epidemic quick,
and get the world infected!*

I came across this poem recently and just had to share it here.  It seems to me that we increasingly live in a society where casual social interactions with others who share our local environment are frowned upon.  How much time do we spend in a world of our own, too busy to even see passers-by, let alone smile at them?

Sometimes that world is one of social media, other times it is an isolation of our own making. Even if we are not looking to strike up a lifetime friendship, it seems that the art of small talk is being lost as we hide in our mobile devices to avoid even any potential for eye contact.  Some act like you don’t exist.  Others make eye contact then deliberately look away with a grimace.

We are all human and we all live on the same planet.  Everyone has their problems, their good days and bad ones.  Yet how much does a smile cost? By actively cultivating a more positive frame of mind, I wonder if it might actually make our own day better, as well as brighten someone else’s? What if we chose to smile instead of frown when we pass someone on the pavement? Go on, experiment! Instead of sharing your bad mood, share a little sunshine today!

* As I attempted to discover the author of this poem, I found I had delved into a can of worms, with many people saying it was theirs.  It has been attributed to Spike Milligan, but I haven’t found any evidence for this.

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Creating balance

This term in the beginners/returners classes we are looking at different aspects of creating balance and inner space.  Mindfulness is central to this, as it allows us to become more aware of how things are now and whether we might want to change this.  Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, without judgement.  We frequently act on autopilot, as we are busy with thoughts of either the future or the past at the time.  This often happens when we are preoccupied with something and doing activities that we do every day, or many times a day.  Practising being mindful of small activities can help with your memory as well.  If you find yourself regularly hunting for your car keys/ chequebook/ reading glasses then you may improve your chances of remembering when and where you put them down!

On a larger scale, mindfulness allows us to experience life more fully as it unfolds, one breath at a time.  Try noting the topics you think about over a set period to get an idea of how much time you actually spend in the present.  It can be surprising how much your flow of thoughts concerns plans for the future or reliving past events.  If you are bored, ask yourself how much of the present experience you are actually aware of.  It is easy to belittle the everyday and long for the unusual – but when it arrives it can be over before you know it, leaving you already planning the next big event as your everyday moments flash by unnoticed.  If life comprises only the wonderful bits it is very short indeed!

With mindfulness we are more aware of the messages brought to us by the senses, such as touch, taste, smell and sight.  We can fully appreciate simple pleasures; the smell of cut grass, an ice cream on a summers day, a fantastic sunset.  We can also increase our awareness of the impact of our lifestyle on our health. Early recognition of changes in the body gives us more opportunity to address a health issue before a problem develops.  Reflecting on the impact of both our actions and our inaction can break a cycle of habitual behaviour, potentially opening doors to future actions that can help live our lives more as we would like to.

All this mindfulness can be hard work!  The mind likes to ramble and daydream, it may not be used to the discipline you demand of it.  Start small, for a few minutes at a time, by giving your full attention to something you are doing or to the breath. You can gradually increase the length of your practice until being mindful becomes the habit rather than the exception.

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Learning from your leisure time

In the Tuesday class since Christmas we have been looking at the niyamas, which are 5 tenets for our attitude towards ourselves which support a calmer, quieter mind.  They offer us a way of being with ourselves which leads to less internal chatter, an eternal cause of anguish.

One of these is svadhyaya, or self-study.  This might be about taking time to devote to education and learning.  It can also be about self-reflection, using everything we do as an opportunity for learning about ourselves.  Everything we do is an insight into what makes us tick, right down to our choices of leisure activities.

Since carpal tunnel syndrome required me to give up many of my previous activities (that can be done in Birmingham!) I have taken up watercolour painting.  Completely self-taught from books and videos, I realise I needed to have started a good 30 years ago if I ever hoped to achieve some mastery over this challenging medium!  But still, I press on.  That in itself demonstrates to me my attitude to a challenge – do I persevere in the face of adversity, or hide my head to avoid the problem?  When my painting goes badly, what is my response?  Everything I do teaches me more about myself if I am prepared to listen.

The way I approach the task also reflects my natural tendencies.  I have always liked working with small things – beads, stitching, fine details.  And that comes out in my painting.  It is proving really difficult to move to a looser style of painting and resist the draw of recreating each fine detail.  On the other hand, do I have the patience required for that painstaking work?  Again, more is revealed if I am open to seeing it.

Yoga gives us a framework for life far beyond the performance of a set of complex asanas on a mat once a week.  The niyamas are that blueprint for learning to live with yourself…and ultimately that is one person you cannot live without.  Our only hope is to ensure that person is someone we really want to spend time with!

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Take a deep breath in…

A while ago I read an article in a magazine, on the topic of portrait photography. The author had a ‘top tip’ for making your model look slimmer; tell them to breathe in, he said. This set me wondering how many of us have developed postural and body habits based on messages we have been hearing from an early age, ‘Stand up straight!’ ‘Don’t slouch!’, ‘Take a deep breath in!’, ones that have now become second nature and part of who we are physically and emotionally.

Often the body knows best and works perfectly well when left to its own devices.  When we superimpose our own ideas on these patterns we can create imbalance or cause the body to move in a less efficient way.  In the case of the portrait photographer, its not uncommon to hear this suggestion to breathe in as a way of making yourself look slimmer.  Our response to this suggestion might be a conscious drawing in of the abdomen combined with lifting the ribcage via the auxillary breathing muscles.  This will almost certainly make you look slimmer, but you may well have taken a much shallower breath as this reaction is contrary to how the body actually breathes, restricting the lung capacity and bringing tension to the upper back and shoulders.

If the body is taking a full, relaxed breath the belly will actually expand as the diaphragm moves down, making you look larger rather than slimmer, quite the opposite, I imagine, to the effect intended by the photographer in our example above!  Our yoga practice can give us a chance to consider our breathing habits and allow us to unlearn any detrimental ones we have acquired over the years, giving the body the freedom to breathe in its own way.

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