Finding Space in a Frantic World - Part 2

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.

shutterstock_645546721.jpg

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.

Finding Space in a Frantic World - Part 1

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.

Namaste.

Yoga, Pranayama or Mindfulness?

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!

Yoga mats contributing to pollution...

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!

Please sign up to my newsletter and follow me on Facebook and Instagram to get tips, read interesting articles, blogs and find out about the latest events. Share with your friends.

Here is a link to Yogamatters who stock a whole range of Eco mats ranging from £28 to £70
https://www.yogamatters.com

And here are some other innovative eco mats:
https://fifthbreath.com/product/practice-mat/ £220!
https://liforme.com/liforme-yoga-mat.html £100

Mindfulness? Easy? No!

Recently I achieved Level 1 in Mindulness with the Clear Mind Institute (CMI). This gives me the title of a Mindfulness Yoga Teacher which enables me to integrate some of the practices into my yoga classes. In January 2017 I will be offering a Therapeutic Yoga class which will do just that. We will include mindful movement,  breathing practices and formal mindfulness practices.

What's mindful movement I hear you ask? Well it's yoga but with really focused attention on the sensations of movement. We slow things down to notice. Mindful movement included in the Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR) course is based on research; the movements practiced are considered safe for all. However in the therapeutic yoga class we will include other movements as this is not a short course but an ongoing lesson.

I personally have been practicing mindfulness now for three years. I began with a Mindful Living course based on the MBSR course. I then practiced during the Yoga Therapy for the Mind training after which I found an online course through www.soundstrue.com. This amazing course with the fabulous Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield took me to a new level of practice. It was the first time this course had been run. We had online mentoring in groups which opened my mind to ways of communicating with my yoga therapy clients.

I found the formal sitting practices immensely challenging. When I first began yoga I was unable to sit for pranayama without feeling threatened and panicky. So the steady movement of yoga helped me immensely. In my yoga practice it is possible to slow things down so much that one develops such self awareness moment by moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn's famous definition of mindfulness is “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Well yoga certainly offered the opportunity to do just that. However looking back, I didn't experience the same sense of calm and serenity, the change in my being or my behaviour that formal practice did.

I wanted to continue along the mindfulness path and delve deeper, so this year I undertook the first British Wheel of Yoga Mindfulness Module with Cathy-Mae Karelse of CMI followed by a conversion course to Level 1. I now practice nearly every day and feel enormous benefits from it. My mind has slowed down. I am able to pause before reacting (well most of the time; there are always some people who know how to press my buttons but I am getting better at pausing even with them). I am so much better at taking care of my needs. And I have many more moments in my day when I just notice.

The hardest thing for me along this journey has been finding a regular time to practice. I initially practiced straight after lunch but found it too easy to say 'Nah, I'm too busy'. At the moment I practice as soon as I wake up. I sleep in a pretty cold room so I don't feel like getting out of bed. Sometimes I fall back to sleep, I probably needed to and I will try to fit a shorter practice in during the day. But often I don't and I get up feeling better prepared for the day ahead.

I plan to continue training with CMI.

Research on mindfulness-based interventions is growing and now includes neuroimaging studies and more sophisticated research designs.

Effects include:

  • Reductions in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, stress and pain.
  • Increased immunological response, reduced blood pressure and cortisol.
  • Increased psychological well-being and enhanced cognitive functioning.

(Halzel, Lazar et al, 2011)

Invest in nature. Invest in yourself.

birchwood yoga studio

 

I don't know about you, but I always feel better after a walk in the countryside, both physically and mentally; particularly when surrounded by such stunning colours as we have been blessed with this autumn. This was one of the reasons why I chose to situate my studio amongst nature.
Birchwood Yoga studio is nestled into a copse from where it has a beautiful view of trees and flowers changing with the seasons and a multitude of wildlife that comes and goes. During the day the birdsong is delightful and at night we are often serenaded by tawny owls. I was interested to read in this article that much research has been carried out to discover whether there is any scientific basis for the sense of wellbeing that nature offers us and was delighted to discover that there is! Practicing yoga at Birchwood Yoga studio may be better for your mental health than you realised!