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Following on from last month’s post when you were invited to practice the 3 step breathing space as a way of ‘checking in’ to your sense of self, we are going to continue by looking at further areas where self awareness can make a big difference to our sense of space.
Posture. When life gets on top of you, physical tension builds up in the body. Most commonly, the shoulders protract in an effort to protect your heart; your emotional centre.
Over time, the more protracted you get, the more the body has to compensate in order to be able to look straight ahead. You are likely to develop tension in your neck that may cause headaches. I often see a permanent crease in the neck after years of compensation. Alternatively, the head is pushed forwards and the curves of the spine become exaggerated. These physical changes result in a decrease in lung capacity as you are literally restricting their ability to expand. The breath becomes shallow, often in the chest, which sends a message to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that you are stressed. The pattern of lacking mental, emotional and now physical space perpetuates. Shoulder protraction may begin with poor posture which still sends a message of stress and even depression to the brain and body, culminating in actually feeling that way even if you were not before.
So what can you do about it? When sitting, raise your hips slightly higher than your knees. This allows the hip flexor muscles (at the top of your thighs) to switch off and enables your pelvis to sit in ‘neutral’ so that the natural curves of your spine are supported by gravity. It helps to support the lumbar curve so that this part of your back can rest and you can maintain length throughout your spine without creating tension. Any deviation to this and you have to compensate as you can see in the first two images above.
Whatever table or desk you are sitting at, it is important to make sure that your chair is at the correct height so that you don’t have to hunch your shoulders to use your keyboard or write or even eat. Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level. It might be a good idea to purchase a separate keyboard if you use a lap top for hours every day. The worst thing of all for posture, is to sit side on to your desk. Do what you can to be able to face your monitor squarely. If you regularly have to turn, turn your whole body not just your neck or spine, otherwise you risk developing a scoliosis by only ever rotating in one direction. Sitting with the legs crossed will in time create an imbalance in your pelvis which will carry on up the spine, so uncross your legs and sit with your heels under your knees instead.
Try this exercise daily to maintain mobility in the shoulders and relieve tightness across the chest.
Emotions You are probably aware that negative thoughts such as worry and doubt cause the sensation of anxiety in the body; butterflies in the tummy or the literal feeling of adrenaline surging through you. Negative thinking therefore, causes stress. The brain and nervous system only understand stress as threat and will essentially do what is natural to support you in escaping the threat. You will be forced to take shallow breaths into the chest in preparation to run or fight. So in order to relax the nervous system we need to move the breathing into the belly so informing the brain that you are in fact in a state of rest. Thoughts are not facts. So write positive affirmations and post them around you! ‘I am confident’. ‘Overcoming challenges builds strength’. Or as I saw on the final of The Great British Bake Off; ‘I have won’ (the great British bake off). Making affirmations in the present tense, as if they have already happened, helps us to think more positively.
Breath Lying on your back with your knees bent, or sitting upright with your lumbar spine supported, breathe into your belly as if you were inflating a balloon both upwards and width-ways. This may feel alien to begin with, especially if you are used to chest breathing. You may have to imagine your rib cage expanding first and then bring the breath down to the belly.
With practice this action will inform your ANS that you are relaxed. If you are familiar with Ujjayi breathing, this pranayama will slow your breath down and help you to relax more. You should aim to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. Initially however, you may need to keep the ratio equal and gradually lengthen the out breath. This is particularly important if you are depressed and/or suffer from lethargy, as lengthening the out breath makes us more relaxed and as a result, for some at least, a little sleepy.
I like to start my day with this breathing practice while still lying in bed. It is also a helpful practice to lull you to sleep and to give you mental space at the end of your working day.
Do you ever get home with the feeling that the last thing you are ready for is your family pouncing on you and demanding your attention? One of the biggest gifts you can give your family is time to yourself first. After all, I’m sure they would rather enjoy your company when you are relaxed and jovial, than when grouchy and snappy! Let it be known that before you spend time with them, you need 5 minutes to lie down somewhere quiet and focus on your breathing.
In addition to the breathing practice, you can use the out breaths to visualise your back, neck and shoulder muscles relaxing; melting like butter into the ground beneath you. Stay for as long as you need to so that you relieve some of the tension of the day.
If this sounds like your life, you might find the Stress Busting Yoga on the first Sunday of each month a helpful lesson to take. During the two hours from 10.00 - 12.00, we practice some strong asana to rid the body of stress hormones and include some restorative poses, deep breathing and relaxation or meditation to help you feel restored.
When life gets on top of you, do you find yourself feeling mentally crowded, physically tense or emotionally unstable? Often this comes with a sense that we are lacking the space to just ‘be.’
It is at such times that we most commonly switch into auto-pilot behaviours such as snapping at people, eating a poor diet, not exercising or developing chronic physical tension.
The irony is that whilst we may think we are too busy for change, now is the time to press pause before exhaustion sets in and we become less productive or worse still, have to take time out due to illness.
In this two part post, I am going to offer some ideas as to how you can manage your well-being when life is frantic by cultivating a sense of spaciousness.
This month I recommend the 3 Step Breathing Space as a first port of call. This practice invites curiosity into habitual tendencies of mind, helps reduce auto-pilot behaviours and connects us to the body as a way of informing us about our state of mind. This cyclical or hourglass practice opens us up to present moment experiences; the more frequently it is called upon as a resource, the sooner we learn to recognise and switch off auto-pilot.
Read through the instructions and then try it out:
STEP 1 Check in with your thoughts, emotions and sensations in the moment. See yourself through a wide-angled lens to take in how each is a response to the other.
For example, you might be generally feeling pressured and wishing you had more time. You probably find yourself less patient than usual. It is likely that your thoughts go hand in hand with emotions such as anger or frustration. These emotions might manifest as physical sensations like tightening in the throat because we do not feel heard or knotting in the stomach.
Pay close attention to each in turn and to the patterns that weave through.
STEP 2 Your anchor. The term anchor is used to narrow your focus of attention to one thing that holds you in the present moment. Most commonly and easily is the breath. Choose one aspect of breathing to begin with, such as the air entering your nostrils or the rise and fall of your chest or belly.
It may take some time before the thoughts subside. Perhaps you drift from one thought to another with barely a moments space between. What is important is when you do notice that you are thinking, to simply acknowledge the fact and gently guide the attention back to the breath. Try not to judge yourself when you notice the mind thinking; this is a very natural human behaviour.
STEP 3 Once you feel more settled in the present, widen your focus again to take in the thoughts, emotions, sensations and include the sounds around you. Notice how you can focus on your breathing but equally be aware of the comings and goings of the mind. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, sounds are transient unless we choose to cling to them.
By dropping in to the 3 Step Breathing Space frequently throughout your day, you can step away from the clinging and perhaps find yourself some mental space to continue with better focus, concentration and clarity. It isn’t easy when you are new to this, but with practice you can find yourself pressing pause more easily and resetting your current mental state to one that is more spacious.
Next month I will write about ways in which we can address the physical tension and emotional instability.
If you would like to work with me in support of finding more space in your life, please email directly.
Ever since completing my training in Yoga Therapy for the Mind with The Minded Institute, I have considered myself to be cured of mental illness. But lately I have had to accept that I will never be fully cured of my particular mental illness. It is triggered by stress and even though I advocate that yoga and mindfulness practices are life-long when managing mental illness, stress has a way of blocking them out for me and like every human, I get overwhelmed by the stress and put those practices at the back of the list of jobs to be done. Because in my head, if I tick off all the other jobs that I believe to be causing the stress, I will cope better. But this is rarely the case.
Taking a week off afforded me the time to rest, recuperate and regroup; to prioritise my practices again and therefore my well-being. Consequently I found the space I required to set up strategies that should keep me on the straight and narrow.
I found wisdom from the young that week. The coordinator of the Sussex Oakleaf Youth Mental Health group that I volunteer for 'BeOk', constructed a list of 5 ways to well-being. These are:
Connecting. Learning. Being Active. Noticing. Giving.
Connecting with family, friends, colleagues and community satisfies a human need of feeling valued and close to others. Connection can also be felt for some through religion, spirituality and nature. In the group we drew mind-maps of things that cultivated connection for us. Other than those mentioned above, examples were communication, reliance, sharing, trust, honesty, love, safety, grounding etc...
This was only the first step on our journey to exploring the 5 ways of well-being together. I find the intelligence, honesty and wisdom of these young men and women incredibly humbling.
Next on the list is Learning. During the BeOk sessions, we have discussed in the past how exams put too much pressure on those of us whose memories have been affected by mental health. But there is always something to learn that can be done just for the fun or fascination of it such as a new skill. Continued learning enhances self esteem and encourages social interaction. Setting goals can be a great way to achieve a sense of well-being.
Being Active is vital for health in general. Regular activity is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression and is essential for slowing age-related cognitive decline.
Noticing the things around you comes under the umbrella of mindfulness; simply being more present and attentive to whatever you are doing or whoever you are speaking to. Savoring the moment; eating lunch without looking at your phone for example, hearing the words another is saying are ways to help you appreciate the important things in life and in turn, to make positive choices based on your own values.
Giving time to others is incredibly rewarding and helps to create connections. Acts of kindness to a friend, neighbor, community group or charity are more likely to make you feel happy!
I have found that the best strategy for me to cultivate well-being is to be organised. I used to be more organic in the way my days evolved but I found it was too easy to be lazy. So I set myself daily goals, ticking off at least two of five ways to well-being. And it feels good!
Is it exercise you are after? Yoga then. But if you are seeking a particular state of mind, which practice is going to give you the desired affect? Let me tell you about my experience of both yoga and mindfulness and then I will offer some facts.
At the time I first experienced a Scaravelli inspired yoga class, I was suffering from mental illness. I had been dissociated from parts of my body for many years. Tina, the teacher gave us time to explore and experience the gentle movement, the stronger poses, the challenges. So focussed was I on my body and breath that I felt a different person by the end of a class to the one who had arrived on the mat 90 minutes earlier.
When I practice now I am present to sensations in my body and deeply focussed on the movement of my breath within me; the flow of the breath, those moments when it feels right to move with the inhalation and with the exhalation. For the most part, my mind is quiet. And surely this is what we want isn't it? To quiet the mind.
Well yes and no. Sure there are times when we just need a moment of peace; to escape the business of the mind. And for me, this was vital in the past. Movement enabled me to be with my body as it switched off any anxiety or suffering. It gave me pleasure to be able to feel my body and to be left with a feeling of such calmness. To be honest, it was probably the only time when I truly relaxed.
When I began training in Scaravelli inspired yoga however, I had to practice pranayama; breathing practices. This meant sitting still, being with my breath, being quiet. Pranayama was not for me. I wanted to leap of the mat. I felt vulnerable and afraid. I didn't like the sensations that arose. They made me super anxious and I almost redeveloped the dissociative patterns I felt I had been leaving behind. If someone else was guiding me, I could practice. In class the practice was short and relaxing but at home, alone, it was terrifying.
How did I overcome this? I had to practice pranayama in order to teach it. So I integrated it into my yoga practice. I would begin moving gently; say in cat pose. Using Ujjayi with the asana I could tune in to the wave of the breath and begin to feel relaxed. Maybe I could sit for a few minutes after some movement and practice Ujjayi alone for a couple of minutes. Then I might do some more asana and try Kapalabhati. Further asana and perhaps I could sit for a brief period practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing or Viloma and so it went on. It was an asana, pranayama sandwich situation!
It was when I trained with the Minded Institute that the challenge of Pranayama became greatest for me. We were to practice pranayama every day. Initially this was horrendous and once again anxiety reared its ugly head. I hadn't realised that Kapalabhati stimulated the Sympathetic Nervous system. No wonder I hadn't enjoyed it before. But sandwiched between two pranayama that stimulated the Parasympathetic Nervous System; Ujjayi and Alternate Nostril Breathing and I began to cope. I even managed Khumbhaka which previously virtually brought on a panic attack!
Finally I could use Ujjayi during my Yoga practice and sit at the end for pranayama without any uncomfortable feelings and this made me feel great! What do I mean by that? Well, calm, relaxed, still, balanced, grounded, stable. But how was my mind? Well, it still chattered. It was still critical at times and frequently very busy.
I found that in spite of a daily yoga practice I could not switch off the guilt or the shame or the worry or anxiety, particularly around money or that constantly going over a situation I felt I had not dealt with well. Sound familiar?
Now I practiced mindfulness during this time, but in short bursts and not consistently. The practices I had learned with the Minded Institute were and are fabulous for the short term; to alleviate symptoms.
I began to practice Mindfulness as a stand alone practice, on and off. More off than on! I need discipline; a reason for doing something even if it does make me feel better. I wrote a mindfulness journal on Facebook which helps apart from the fact that rather than truly being with my experience I was considering how I might put it into words!
In 2016 I trained with Clear Mind Institute in Mindfulness for Yoga. In other words I learned and practiced the Mindfulness techniques used in a Mindfulness Based Intervention programme (MBI) but only to the degree that I could teach them within a yoga class; not as an actual MBI.
It wasn't until this point that I realised the true potential that a daily Mindfulness practice can unlock. I would consider my yoga journey to have been remarkably healing. However it was the mindfulness that really allowed me to unlock my true self. I had to learn to sit with the uncomfortable. And whereas previously I would leap off the mat and run away from it; now I could remain with it. I could widen that container of experience to be with the side of myself that I did not like. To learn to recognise when that side of me arose and to do something about it. To silence the critical mind. To let go of guilt, shame and worry.
Now I am not going to pretend to be perfect. None of us are. I find myself believing that I have too much to do and cannot afford the time to sit for 30 - 45 minutes a day. But boy do I notice a difference when I don't practice!
When I maintain a regular mindfulness practice, I am calm. I can deal with difficult situations. I can cope with stress in a rational manner. I can even pause before I speak which is a huge leap forward for me. Although I still can't do this consistently with my family. What is it about family? They are the hardest to be mindful around because they know which buttons to push. But over time and with practice, even this will be easier. Even I will be able to pause, remain calm and consider the right way of speaking my mind.
Mindfulness has been the cherry on the cake for me. Yoga is a lifestyle now. I cannot live without it but nor can I live without Mindfulness. I really need it in my daily life whereas I don't feel terrible if I haven't practiced yoga for a few days. So Yoga, Pranayama or Mindfulness? Well it has to be all three. I couldn't have made this transition without the journey. Sometimes we do need to quiet the mind. Sometimes we do need to make physical changes to the way the body feels and we can practice yoga with mindful awareness. But in order to change the way WE feel, the SELF; it has to be mindfulness. When I maintain a daily mindfulness practice I feel I am my true self. And I like myself!
In a Facebook post about my real sadness and guilt over the condition of our seas, I wrote the following:
"Intrigued by this article because of its reference to mental health, I was surprised to discover its power over my conscience. Something I am passionate about at present is the pollution of our oceans from plastic. I recently heard that glitter is contributing to the pollution because it gets so easily into our water system. At my sister's sparkly themed wedding recently, we were all splashing glitter on our faces, caught up in the celebration and fun of the occasion. It wasn't until the following morning in the shower, when my heart sank as the sparkles ran down the drain. I felt dreadful. During mindfulness Level 2 training the following day, I was reminded just how difficult it is to switch off auto pilot. Sometimes, we just don't think.
Now this article speaks about the fact that PVC yoga mats when washed, release plastic into the water. I just purchased new mats for my studio so again, my heart sank.
In the meantime, on a positive note, another sister found a reference to a yoga mat made of wool! The downside is it costs £220 and you can't wash it. You can only air it in the sun... What to do? If I had 3 times the number of clients, I could restock my studio with sustainable equipment and give my mats to the homeless. Or, if all my clients purchased their own eco mat, I wouldn't have to use mine so often and would therefore not have to wash them so frequently either."
And so it continues...
The article I referred to also discusses how yoga, as a route to mindfulness can support us to make better choices. Clearly I was not being mindful on the day of the wedding, but as Cathy-Mae, my mindfulness teacher explained, 'we are not mindful all of the time' (we are human after all). The route to mindfulness is through the moment to moment awareness of breath and bodily sensations we experience during our class. This can be taken off the mat in order that we learn to pause before we act or react.
I invite you to educate yourself on eco yoga mats and to purchase your own. You can simply spray the surface of your mat with an environmentally friendly cleaner from time to time rather than putting it in the washing machine and I will not therefore have to wash the studio mats so often either. Below are links to a range of mats.
But let's not stop there!
If you travel to yoga, why not ask the others in your class about lift sharing. Can you spare an extra few minutes to wait for one another or go out of your way by 5 minutes? Wearing extra layers to class would enable me to turn the heating down and save energy. Maybe you could wear wrist warmers for when we lie on the floor... If you have any other ideas, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear your views.
If we all do a little bit, we are helping to lessen the effect on nature and instead, we get to enjoy the wonders of the world for generations to come.
Here are some links to purchasing an Eco yoga mat. Please note that I made the mistake of practicing on my rubber mat outside; it began to melt which literally meant I stuck to it and it stuck to me (pretty stupid of me really). They are also heavy so the Manduka Pro-Lite might be better for carrying to and from class. I prefer the Manduka range for sustainability, plus they have a lifetime guarantee. Be informed and make your choice. Let's make Birchwood Yoga more sustainable!
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Here is a link to Yogamatters who stock a whole range of Eco mats ranging from £28 to £70
And here are some other innovative eco mats:
Bhramari, also known as buzzing or humming breath is a wonderful, soothing pranayama practice. Bhramari is a Sanskrit word derived from bhramar, which means “humming black bee.”
By generating a soft buzz or hum we elongate the exhalation. By now you will know that elongating the exhalation puts our bodies into parasympathetic nervous system dominance; meaning we are able to rest and digest and feel calm.
How to practice
Sit comfortably with your spine elongated. When first practicing bhramari, making an actual buzzing sound helps; 'bzzz'. You might then try softening the buzz into a hum by gently closing the lips half way along the buzzing breath so that they are softly resting together but with a space between the teeth. This gives you the impression of how the hum can be created in your final practice by keeping a space between the teeth, the jaw relaxed and the lips lightly touching. Try to control the exhalation; maintaining a steady, smooth, even and continuous sound and energy. Each inhalation should be taken slowly and steadily between rounds rather than being sucked in.
You can play with the pitch and volume. My preference is for a deep sound in which I find the vibrational quality is enhanced, whilst a higher pitch takes the vibration into the skull but for some reason offends my ear! We are all different, so have a play and see what you prefer. You can even practice silently by imagining that you are creating the hum.
This beautiful practice can be done using hand mudras or gestures. The bhramara mudra requires one to fold the index finger into the base of the thumb and to rest the tip of the thumb onto the edge of the middle finger nail. In this mudra, that hands can be rested on the belly and the base of the throat or chest which can enable one to feel the vibrational quality of the breath.
A second mudra suggests placing the index fingers in the ears; lightly closing the cartilaginous flap at the base of the ear, rather than inserting them into the actual ear canal. The thumbs can rest against the lower jaw and the elbows rest downwards for comfort. This shuts out sounds from outside of ourselves. It deepens the sound within and really enhances the vibration in the head. This mudra can cultivate a deeply relaxing and comforting practice.
A third position is called Shanmukhi mudra and is used to reduce sensory input. This can be challenging and less comfortable, particularly if you feel vulnerable in any way. The thumbs are pressing the cartilaginous flap in the ears this time, the eyes are closed with the index finger resting on the upper orbit of the eye and the middle finger on the lower orbit (the orbit referring to the orbital bone surrounding the eye). The ring fingers rest between the nose and the top lip and the little fingers under the lower lip.
As practicing bhramari shifts the autonomic nervous system into parasympathetic dominance, the practice reduces stress, anxiety and anxious depression in particular. The sound helps to shut out mental stimulation, switching off the ruminating mind. A lower pitch can be more calming or a silent practice that can be done at any time; even on your commute to work or in the office when you are feeling stressed!
When the sinuses are blocked, the vibrations from bhramari help to clear the head. It can help to create a higher pitched sound for this.
If suffering from insomnia, practicing at night using shanmukhi mudra and a lower pitch can be useful.
Whilst there is no scientific evidence, bhramari is thought to help stimulate the thyroid especially if practiced in conjunction with jalandhara bhanda (throat lock) as this directs the vibrations to the throat. Try a medium pitched sound.
During pregnancy, Bhramari can be a wonderfully soothing breath. One client I had practiced often during her pregnancy so that when her baby was born, she could use it to sooth the baby; no doubt because the baby had also benefited from the vibrations within the womb.
When practicing a particularly challenging stretch, bhramari can help to relax the body and therefore soften the stretch. I find it particularly beneficial during king pigeon but it is not advisable to practice bhramari when lying on your back.
If this is your first exploration of Bhramari, I recommed 5 to 10 rounds initially, building this up to 10 to 15 minutes per day; particularly if you wish to use it to good effect. Have a play and enjoy!
NATURA APIS by J.R.R. Tolkein
The night is still young and our drinks are yet long,
The fire's burning bright and here brave is the throng,
So now I will sing you a sooth little song
Of the busy brown bee - with a ding and a dong.
Ujjayi means Victorious Breath. It is warming a calming. If you have never tried this type of pranayama, here's how to do it. Inhale through the nose and exhale through your mouth, making a Haaa sound as if huffing up a piece of glass to clean it. The more slowly you can let the sound leave your mouth, the better. It should sound like the waves of the ocean washing up and down a beach. Some people suggest that it sounds like Darth Vader!
Next try closing your mouth half way along the breath. The sound is first heard aloud and then inside your head. It is a little like trying to push air through a small hole in the base of your throat.
Finally try making the Haaa sound with your mouth closed. You are trying to breathe as gently as if you were blowing onto a baby's face.
It is usually easier to begin with the exhalation alone and to only try Ujjayi on the inhalation when you have mastered the practice.
Here's how you benefit from practicing Ujjayi:
1) You slow the breath down. Physiologically you are tightening the larynx in the throat to restrict airflow. This has the effect of slowing the rate at which you breathe and gives you greater control over your breath. By changing the way you breathe, you can potentially change the way you feel. Slowing down the exhalation makes you feel calmer and more relaxed.
2) The breath moves into the belly. When we are stressed, we tend to pull the breath into the chest and breathe rapidly. This gives the brain the message that we are under threat, that we need to escape the stressor and therefore the body enters the stress response. By slowing the breath down, you can enable the breath to move into the belly, suggesting to the brain that you are at rest and can relax.
3) You have greater control over how and where you breathe. By slowing the breath down, you can direct the breath to specific areas of the body where there may be tension for instance. You can literally learn to breathe the tension away!
4) You gain a heightened sense of self awareness. Because we use Ujjayi throughout our asana practice in yoga, we move more slowly than usual. This heightens your self awareness. It teaches you more about how you move so that you can make changes and improve your posture.
5) It allows us to relax. When practicing Ujjayi, the body enters the relaxation response more quickly. This is because restricting the airflow is thought to 'tone' the Vagus nerve that acts as a brake on the heart, increasing parasympathetic activity such as digestion.
Ujjayi breathing is particularly beneficial for High Blood Pressure, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or other digestive complaints and in dealing with stress, anxiety or depression depending on the ratio of inhalation to exhalation. Please seek professional help if you suffer from any of these conditions before practicing Ujjayi on your own.