Stress, anxiety and panic have been such a huge part of many of our lives this past year, for many different reasons: fear of becoming infected with Covid - fear of infecting those we love - fear of being alone - fear of not having enough income - fear of the frustration we feel towards our family when we can't have the usual space or breaks from each other - or fear of not being able to see our family members enough - fear of the unknown - fear of breaking down - fear of overwhelm and situations too big for us to bear - fear of death...and more.
I've suffered from occasional headaches all my adult life, more so in the last ten years or so, brought on by an inner stress of expectations and 'shoulds'. For much of this time I've felt bad about this. In my head the dialogue would go like this (accompanied with panic or at the very least, anxiety): 'I can't have another headache, I had one last week! I'm a yoga teacher, I'm supposed to be above stress and able to manage tension by doing yoga (which sometimes made it worse and sometimes made it better), I'm obviously not a very good yoga teacher and NO ONE must know about this terrible weakness of mine!'
Needless to say this line of thinking did not help my headache to ease. Neither did tablets.
But, finally, I came to a new insight that changed everything. It was so foreign to me at first that it took a couple of months to be able to take it in and do it.
I learned that instead of turning away when I feel a headache coming on, trying to push it down or repress it, trying yoga or shoulder releases or other movement to desperately try and stop it coming, I learned to turn towards it, to welcome it into my experience. Actually, it is a part of me. I don't need to be ashamed of it. Oh no no no. It is helping to tell me that there are emotions within me that I can't access at the moment, and it is presencing itself to help me feel. Better to feel something than to push it all down so far that my body eventually can't cope with it all. All that emotion needs to go somewhere. And then I learn, one headache at a time, that it is no longer the master of me, causing overwhelm, but joy of joys, I am the master of it!
There seems to be so much stress and anxiety around at the moment, causing distress in so many ways, that I felt my next workshop needed to be about this theme.
Join me on Saturday April 17 from 10:30am - 1:00pm (with generous breaks) as we actively explore the ways we can transform and melt away anxiety and fear. Physical, practical, simple things can be truly empowering! More information is here.
Here we are at the cusp of a new year. Strange to think back to this time last year, when we had no idea that all our lives would change so much. Even for those who already worked at home before any lockdown, life will never look the same again.
When people offer as a kind thought 'let's hope 2021 will be better', it makes me wonder: what if we also offered the wish to each other, 'I hope in 2021 these experiences of 2020 (pain, fear, isolation, overwork, economic hardship, illness, death, existential emptiness, joy, connection, love, compassion) will reap generous rewards for us all: making us wiser, deeper, more open, more able to connect with each other, more in a flow of Life.'
May this difficult, troubling, frustrating, isolating year that is finishing - although the struggle is not over - give us the awareness that we are stronger than we thought, we have deeper resources of Love and courage than we thought, our compassion can be boundless when we allow ourselves to connect to a mysterious deep well of limitless support, that we remember life is so much more than gathering things around us.
I recently discovered this beautiful prayer:
Change me. Open me.
Make me receptive to the unexpected.
May I receive all that is meant for me over these next weeks and beyond.
Let me know my own worthiness to receive.
Let me play with new ideas as an adventure.
And then, let me embrace what happens according to Your Energetic Flow.
I am Yours. You are mine. We are one.
All is well.
(Tosha Silver, It's Not Your Money, edited)
We’ve all heard about being grateful for the good things in our lives. I realised how lucky we are to have clean running water in our homes, for example, when I watched a video recently about those who don’t; and how disease and suffering can so easily be the result of having to drink filthy water.
The reason I got to thinking about gratitude is this: when lockdown started in March, as a yoga teacher and workshop facilitator I was thrown into the deep end with zoom classes and sessions. It was overwhelming, a lot to learn and adapt to, all at once, and I lost around a third of my regular students who didn’t want to take classes online, which was a bit scary.
After lockdown (1) I realised I could run my sessions from anywhere…so I went for 2½ months to volunteer on a smallholding near Salisbury, working on the land and with the animals around my yoga session times. I had a whole new experience that I could never have had otherwise.
I felt lucky that I could be so flexible and if not for lockdown I never would have put all my classes online. Even now that I’m back in the Stourbridge area where I hope to resume as soon as its sensible to teach again in person, I still have the freedom to work online from anywhere – all I need is a big enough room and a good internet connection! Gratitude can be an obvious response when good happening from difficult circumstances is easy to see.
But more than that. I feel it’s also so relevant for my inner health and growth, to look for gratitude for the less obvious outcomes, for the things that are still difficult or painful in my life. What hidden gem, what nugget of truth can I winnow from the struggles, that I might keep meeting in life again and again until I take in the truth of what is being offered to me?
For example, I’ve always found it hard to notice and stand up for my needs with others, particularly men. So, of course, when I was volunteering at the smallholding I mentioned above, I had to contend with a particularly complicated host who didn’t seem to realise that his volunteers were human beings, more than just another pair of hands. Diff-i-cult!!!
Did we get there in the end? No - I left instead. But it gave me a whole new perspective to focus on and I realise I have work to do in this area that I really want to understand and work through, growing myself beyond that old habit of not noticing I have needs in my default response to others.
So I can genuinely ask, how has this difficult experience happened for me, rather than to me?
In particular, of course, this year with Covid has changed so much in our lives in so many different ways, causing real hardship, anxiety and unimagined suffering and worry. But even now, there can be the small and hidden beginning of a whole new, happier, more connected future waiting for you patiently to be uncovered and embodied. Perhaps you have already experienced this in big or small ways, or you have a glimmer of a feeling - how this time could lead to your growth and freeing up of something.
Katherine Woodward Thomas, best-selling author and therapist says: This is what will ripen us into the people we were born to become, and enable us to realize our higher potentials in life and in love. How can I turn these difficulties into gifts of clarity, new ways of being, growth, moving out of the old unhelpful habits?
You've got a space in your house all set up, you've set the alarm 15 minutes early, and you are READY! But...what should you do when you get to your mat each morning for those 5 - 15 minutes? Meditation? Postures? Breathwork?
This is what I suggest. The most important thing is that you connect to your body. You can make yourself do 10 sun salutations, but if your body doesn't enjoy it, you won't be able to keep up your daily practice. Having said that, lots of people love doing sun salutations. This is a nice description of the simpler version and a more challenging variation too.
So how do you connect to your body? You can try different things, but the simplest might be just - breathing. Breathing consciously. You could spend all 5 - 15 min just sitting and consciously breathing. Or you can imagine the inhale flowing into your body, flowing through any tight or uncomfortable areas, and the exhale can release that tension, emotional pain or physical pain.
If you feel like doing some postures, here are the ones I consider to be the best when time is short and you're looking for maximum benefit.
1. Start sitting comfortably and just breathe, taking your awareness into your body with each breath, softening with each exhale.
2. Come to all fours and let your body sway forward and backwards, side to side, pressing hands into the floor.
3. Angry cat/happy cat. On all fours, round your spine, releasing your neck. Arch your spine, being careful of your lower back, lifting the head. Do 5-10 repetitions.
4. Downward facing dog. Tuck your toes under, lift your knees and bring your body into the shape of an upside-down 'V'. Press into the base of your index fingers, and lengthen through the arms, back and legs too.
5. Come into a lunge, bringing one foot forward, sway and rock if that feels good, helping hips to release. Change sides.
6. Bring the second foot forward and hang in Uttanasana, standing forward bend: knees bent, upper body relaxed. When it feels like long enough, come up to standing.
7. Breathe deeply, swing your arms up from your sides so that you are reaching overhead, looking to the hands and let yourself feel the joy of being able to do this bouyant movement!
8. Come back into Downward Dog, from there to sitting with legs crossed or however you feel comfortable.
9. Sitting twist. Breathe in deeply as you sit upright. Turn to your right, taking the left hand to the outer right knee and the right fingertips (not palm) to the floor just behind your hip. Enjoy a few breaths here, releasing the shoulders down. Do the other side, and then come to lying on your belly.
10. Low cobra. Hands under shoulders, elbows tucked in. As you breathe in, press hands to floor to lift head and shoulders. Keep chin gently tucked until you feel you have lifted upper body as high as you want to, then lift head, looking forward as long as your neck is comfortable.
11. Roll over on to your back, tuck your knees in with hands clasped on shins or thighs, and rock side to side. Come into any other movements your body would appreciate in order to be able to release any tightness.
12. Lie there, still, on your back for one minute minimum - longer would be better!
You're finished! Enjoy the rest of your day knowing you've done your body and soul a great favour.
I often hear people say that they would love to do a regular home yoga practice but they don’t know where to start. So, here we go – step by step, so you really can do it. Yes, you!
Step One. Why? Why do you feel you want a home yoga practice? Connect to your ‘why’ as powerfully as you can. Is it to connect into your self each day, to give your body what it needs each morning, to find a quiet minute to organise your thoughts, or a quiet space where your day can begin on your terms? Do you have a real motivation to keep your body healthy and fit or to reclaim some of the strength and fitness you used to have? Knowing your real 'why' will help keep you going when you make it conscious. Write it down, get really into the nitty-gritty – why does it matter, and does it matter a little, or a lot? Is it just a whim, or if you have the tools and the guidance, will you really commit to it, even for just two weeks to start with and then you can re-evaluate?
A morning practice is often something that people grow into. If you set an intention to commit to your morning yoga for a certain, achievable length of time, this becomes something you can truly commit to. It's easier to commit to days, 21 days or 28 days rather than - forever! Then you can let it go after those days have passed, until you feel again the urge to make a new commitment for another length of time. Or perhaps once you’re on a roll of however many days you’ve committed to, you find that you’ve established a new habit and you will keep going just because it feels good.
You don’t want to feel the dreaded ‘should’ as in, ‘Oh no I SHOULD go and do my morning yoga again now, sigh’. If you’ve committed to it for just two weeks, it might be easier to keep motivated. And you know, it’s perfectly ok to let it go after your two weeks, for now. Maybe you’ll pick it up again in due course and maybe you won’t. Don’t let yourself go to that inner critic place that tells you what you should be doing and all the reasons you’re no good because you’re not doing it. That’s how to kill your motivation and enjoyment of your practice!
Step Two. Find your special yoga space. If you can leave your mat unrolled and ready for you, that’s a great way to set yourself up. Your yoga mat symbolises your sacred space, the place you go where you can be completely yourself. You will roll into your 5-15 min daily yoga practice most easily if it’s all set up and ready for you.
However, it would be, ideally, a respected space. The kids are not allowed to eat sticky jam sandwiches on your yoga mat. The dog is not allowed to lie on it after being outside in the rain. If it’s not possible to teach everyone else in your household that it’s only for you (with the possible exception of your cat, as long as she doesn’t flex her claws on that lovely surface) – don’t leave it out. It’s about everyone – including you – respecting your needs and your space…and this might not be easy for you to stand for!
Step Three. Set your alarm something like 5-15 minutes earlier each morning. Be realistic. What will you really manage to stick with? 90 minutes of yoga before work could be blissful, but who would ever manage to do that every day? Except yoga teachers, of course. (Do I really do that?? I’m not gonna tell ya).
Step Four. START! Turn up. Every. Single. Day. For those five minutes, for those two weeks, even if you have no idea what you’re going to do when you get there. Don’t expect to go into handstands or complicated postures. Don’t expect to know what you should do. Don’t think you’ll do a warm-up, some tricky postures, some pranayama (breath practice) and savasana (relaxation) along with a little dose of meditation, all within your fifteen minutes.
Step Five. What you could actually do when you get there – will come in my next newsletter in a couple of weeks! Sorry to keep you waiting. You could google ideas to get you started. Meanwhile, just turn up. Sit there/lie there/be on hands and knees. Be in a quiet space. Keep it simple. Turn your attention inward and listen to how you are. Take lots of deep breaths. Come into rocking movement or circling movements or stretching movements. Even five minutes of BEING STILL, BREATHING DEEPLY, and CIRCLING/STRETCHING MOVEMENTS will do you a world of good. Do it every single day if you can! And if you miss a day, please please don’t give yourself a hard time and throw your whole practice away, thinking you’ll never get it. Just turn up again the following day, or the one after that. Have patience and kindness with yourself. We are our own worst critic, aren’t we?
Next time: suggestions for your yoga practice each day.
And, why does that matter??
Do you find that too? When I do consciously to allow myself the time to just look out the window, I find myself picking up my phone (so I put that out of reach deliberately) or the nearest magazine or book (anything will do!) to distract myself or to feel as if I’m DOING something. Where does this difficulty in being able to be still come from and why is it so hard to allow ourselves to do?
Our Western world is so geared towards productivity. Probably much more than we are even aware of. We are programmed to be doing, achieving, crossing things off the list, ‘getting it done’. You feel that too? It’s as if we have become wired to ‘Do’; and if we’re not Doing we’re not being worthwhile people. We’re not earning our right to exist on this planet. We’re not validating our existence, in a society that intrinsically values accomplishing, not ‘just’ being.
And yet, there’s so much about self-care around at the moment too. Surely, self-care includes the possibility to just sit and look out the window, to daydream, to not think about anything in particular. To catch up with ourselves, to connect with ourselves, to not feel pressured to get on with the next thing.
Why does this matter? It’s actually pretty essential, I feel, to allow ourselves to be able to sit and Be. I find when I’m in one of those moods where I just can’t do that, I’m restless, I start ten different things and am distracted to the next thing before I’ve finished any of the others. When I notice that this is my frame of mind, I realise that I am caught in a web of adrenalin (or cortisol), ‘fight-flight-flee’ mindset. This will not do long-term because I will wear myself out! Like burning a candle too brightly. Focus, intention and clear thinking are gone – ‘It has to be done! Now! Or else!’
When I find that, magically, I AM in the frame of mind/body to just sit and Be, there are so many benefits happening behind the scenes. My body is relaxing, via the parasympathetic nervous system, that tells my being that I am safe and I can digest and rest. It gives me the space to connect with myself, my body, my emotions, my needs. Sooo important if we are going to take seriously the need to look after ourselves.
It can also be a real issue that somehow we just don’t’ feel we deserve to spend time ‘doing nothing’. We have subconsciously absorbed the learned behaviour that we are supposed to be looking after others, not mollycoddling ourselves. Not lounging when there’s work to be done and people to look after, others’ needs to be seen to. Our needs don’t matter like the others’ do! This surely has a deeper origin and will be the subject of a future reflection.