Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

Have you ever done a yoga class and somewhere along the way you realize (maybe at the end during savasana) that you feel more calm, connected with your body, and relaxed compared to when you first arrived. You might also notice the busy mind chatter has dulled and there is some distance between you and your reflexive thoughts. If yes, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, and by this very nature, you’ve experienced entering into a deeper level of awareness through the experience of yoga. One could even say you’ve dropped into a “meditative state”.

There are a couple aspects of yoga that assist in the process of experiencing this calm, more peaceful state. When you move your body and get the muscles warmed, stretched, and the circulation flowing, this eases tension and pain, resulting in less distracting sensations to attend to. It’s also the mindfulness aspect – paying attention to sensation in body and breath, from moment to moment. This keeps the mind anchored to the present moment, which stills the mind chatter.

When we drop into this more meditative-like state in the mind, we are not actually stopping thoughts from occurring. Rather we enter a different state of awareness where the thoughts feel more distant – we are less attached to them and their meaning.  A nice parallel is to imagine the reflexive thoughts of the mind to be like waves on the surface of the ocean. When we are swimming on the surface, the waves push us around, lifting us to their peaks and dropping us into their valleys. When we are connected and calm, we can drop into that deeper water space where everything is still and peaceful… And in this place, we are able to see the thoughts for what they are – surface waves.

I have always found the transcendence into this calmer level of awareness easier to access by doing a little yoga first. In fact one could say the very purpose of physical yoga is to ready oneself for meditation. So the next time you are on your mat, soak up the stillness you’ve created within – lay still and linger in this experience. This short few minutes will leave you feeling focused, connected, and calm.

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A Meditation to Still the Mind

This easy meditation uses repetition of linguistic sound to bring focus and stillness to the mind. All you need to do is choose a word or phrase that does not hold any strong association or memory for you. For example you could use a sanskrit term such as Sat Nam (meaning truth is my identity) or So Hum (meaning, “I am that”, where “that” refers to all of creation). You could also use a familiar word like “gratitude” or “peaceful”, but make sure the word you choose doesn’t conjure up strong memory associations which could pull you away from the task.

The task is simple – find a quiet comfortable place to sit and set your timer (5 to 10 minutes to start with). Close your eyes and take a couple full breaths to settle in, then begin repeating your word inwardly to yourself. Continue to repeat your word at the pace that is comfortable for you and focus your mind on hearing the sound of the word. If you notice the repetition of saying the word slows down, let this happen. As you notice thoughts pop up in your mind, let them come and go and continue to focus on repeating your word.

Over time you might notice that your mind starts to feel a little more detached and calm, and you may be able to drop behind the word sound to a place of quiet stillness in your mind, much like finding the calm, deep waters below the surface waves in an ocean. If and when this happens you can let your task of repeating your word drift off and you can rest in this place of relaxed awareness. Let thoughts ripple on the surface without intruding the quiet peace within.  Continue this until your timer goes off. Come back feeling connected, calm and focused.

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Yoga for Your Brain: What You Need to Know About Mindfulness and Meditation

110203-064Here is a little Question & Answer piece to explain some basics around mindfulness and meditation, and how they relate to yoga.

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.

How are mindfulness and yoga related?
Although the term “mindfulness” has its origins in Buddhism, many yoga teachers of today have adopted the term in their teachings with its mainstream recognizability. Of course, classical teachings in yoga, specifically the eight limbed path of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are indeed describing the practice of mindfulness/meditation. For example, the fifth limb, Pratyahara (a sanskrit word), meaning withdrawal of the senses or turning inwards; the sixth limb, Dharana, meaning holding steady concentration; and the seventh limb Dhyana, meaning contemplation/meditation.

In practice, yoga teaches mindfulness when we become the observer of what we are noticing in our bodies and minds during a pose or transition. When your yoga teacher cues you to notice sensation, alignment, breath, and thoughts during class, he or she is cultivating the state of mindfulness. This is what makes the practice of yoga different than other physical sports/disciplines — you are learning to move with conscious awareness, and you are learning the skill of shifting your attention away from the unconscious mind-chatter to that of the observer, present to all that is happening in your mind-body from moment to moment.

What is meditation?
Look up the definition of meditation and you’ll get a lot of different answers. That is because meditation has become a catch word to describe many different practices ranging from contemplation, to concentration, to even fantasizing/daydreaming (which it is not). Most commonly, meditation means the act of giving your attention to only one thing in order to work on the mind. In a true meditation practice a specific procedure is followed in order to produce transformational results in some way, such as the development of concentration, emotional positivity, self-knowledge, calm, or spiritual growth.

Also, among the many forms of meditation, the process varies – some use an object or a sensation to fix the attention to, while others use chants and mantras (sometimes having a religious connection). There are also guided or content-directed meditations with the focus of achieving a certain state of being or emotion, e.g. cultivating a state of loving kindness or relaxation.

One of the most simple forms of meditation, and the one I am choosing to highlight in this blog, is Mindfulness Meditation; it is secular, well-defined, and researched with proven benefits. Although it can be done as part of a yoga class, it is it’s own separate thing without the need of any yoga posture. Mindfulness meditation uses the process of sustained focus, specifically by focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Here are the steps:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and eyes closed
  2. Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where you sense the breath to be most prominent (could be nose, chest, or belly), and focus fully on the sensation of the breath coming in and out.
  3. Your mind is going to wander off in thought constantly, and when you notice you’ve lost your focus on the feeling of the breath, let go of whatever you were thinking and start again, bringing your attention back to the sensation of the breath.

Many people think meditation is about stopping thoughts, but it is not. The mind thinks. That’s its job. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to help us unhook from our tendency to get caught up in thoughts without any conscious awareness. The first time you meditate, you might notice the instructions are simple but the practice is difficult. You may keep getting lost in thinking about the past or future. The key is to remember that getting caught up in thoughts is normal. Just make note of thinking and return to the breath over and over again.

Why should we practice mindfulness meditation?
Because it is yoga for your brain!

During the meditation practice, every time your mind wanders into thought (and you notice this), and you bring your attention back to the breath, you are strengthening your brain. As Dan Harris explains in his youtube clip, Meditation for Beginners, (link at bottom), “it is like doing a bicep curl for the brain.” This process of letting go of thought and returning to the breath, improves your concentration and focus, builds grey matter in the brain, and creates a shift in cortical processing (for a more in-depth review of the research showing how meditation positively changes the brain see these links: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain or Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds the Brain’s Grey Matter in 8 weeks.

In my opinion, the greatest benefit of practicing mindfulness meditation is the way it helps us become aware of the self talk in our minds, and specifically to gain awareness of the preoccupation of fixations to things we like, and the aversion of things we don’t like. By watching our thoughts we get insight into the frequency of rumination and projection that is constantly going on in the brain, and we learn how we talk to ourselves. Consequently, mindfulness meditation is proving to be extremely helpful for mental health conditions, specifically for individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as for children as it improves their emotional regulation and focus/concentration.

How ofen do I need to practice to get benefits?
As a yogi, you are likely already learning the skill of mindfulness during your yoga classes. (Ultimately it is one of the transcendental accomplishments of yoga, to adapt this skill from your class to daily life). However, if you want to take this a step further, and get the brain strengthening benefits discussed above, start by setting aside 5 – 10 minutes per day for practicing mindfulness meditation. Here is a short youtube clip to help you get started: Meditation for Beginners.

So, I hope this blog clears up some answers you may have had about mindfulness & meditation. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment or email!

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Get Grounded In 3 Short Steps

110203-064What does it mean to get grounded? To me, getting grounded means pulling ourselves out of our “heads” (out of our stories), and into the present moment. To do this we can use our physical body as an anchor to present-time awareness. When we are present to what is happening now,  in our bodies and around us, we are no longer obsessing about future or past worries, and in this way we are grounding ourselves.

Whenever you are feeling mentally overstimulated or anxious, try these three short steps to feel more grounded:

  • Pause and notice your environment. Simply take a look around and look at the details, e.g. see the colour of the walls or weather in the sky, what objects are around you, look at their shape and texture… Look around, what do you see?
  • Feel you feet on the floor. Whether you are sitting or standing, shoes or no shoes, feel the connection of your feet to the surface below. Really feel that connection. If you are sitting you can also travel your awareness to noticing all the areas of your hips and legs making contact with your sitting surface.
  • Then bring your focus inwards and feel your breath coming in and out of your body. Notice how your breath feels right now. Where in your body do your feel your breath moving…? Continue to concentrate on the sensations of your breath moving in and out of your body and see if, at the same time, you can return to noticing your feet connecting with the ground and your back body to your seat (if you are sitting). Divide your awareness on both these things for one minute.
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When Insomnia Strikes – Unwind and Drift

sleepThere is nothing more important than sleep until you are faced with not getting it. For various reasons, I’ve struggled with bouts of insomnia my whole life, and I’ve felt first hand the effects these sleepless nights can have on health and functioning. It’s important to have a few techniques to break the cycle – below are 3 things I do to promote a better night’s sleep.

[I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the difficulty some of you face when closing your eyes. There are many who are dealing with larger than life stressors and horrific memories that can really take over your thoughts. This is not a blog to minimize your troubles, it is more to acknowledge the struggle of stress and sleeplessness, and with the combination of the right care, the tips here can be tools in your tool kit to unwind and promote sleep.]

Part 1 – The Prep

Be mindful of things that negatively impact your sleep, e.g. caffeine intake too late in the day, taking a nap, an irregular bedtime (to name a few that affect me). Plan your day and get all your necessary stuff done as much as you can to clear your mind of added debris from the day. Consider writing down those things that you are recycling through your mind; a process I like to call, “name it and put it on the shelf”.

It is best to choose only relaxing, unwinding activities, such as a warm bath, before bed. Resist the urge to do a full yoga routine right before bed. Even a slow moving routine can release hormones affecting your wakefulness. It is best to do your exercises and stretching earlier in the day, at the latest 2 hours before bed (with the exception of a couple restorative yoga poses).

Part 2 – The Position

Make this the last thing you do before bed: the “revised” legs up the wall pose (see picture below). I find it particularly good for those times when my body is jittery with the leftover adrenaline of busy days combined with sleepless nights.

  • Legs elevated higher than your chest and head

  • A blanket for warmth

  • Optional, but recommended: a heavy pillow or folded blanket over your chest and an eye pillow to block the light and gently stimulate pressure over the eyes.

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Part 3 – The Guided Relaxation

Not everyone will find this helpful, but for some a guided relaxation or meditation recording will assist you in further unwinding before bed. It works great in conjunction with the position above. There are countless of free recordings you can find out there. Here is a ten minute one I recorded called, “Unwind and Drift”.

 

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Why isn’t yoga just a stretch class?

iStock_000003388488XSmallThe other day at work I had a client ask me why we (yoga instructors) don’t just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer this question since one of my other clients spoke up for me (we will get to that part later). I work in a physiotherapy clinic where there are a lot of injured clients who have had very little experience doing physical exercise, let alone any yoga experience. In this clinic, I teach gentle yoga classes and relaxation meditations. Although, sometimes it takes a little convincing to get the clients to try the classes because they hold an assumption that they need to be some bendy, twisty super yogi to keep up; or, for the meditations, that there is some religious or “new-agey” spiritual practices associated with it. As a result,  I often advertise the classes by explaining the focus or intention of each class.  One might be a class designed to “help relax” or  another might be designed for “pain reduction,” and this usually gets a few individuals through the door.

It’s understandable that there are these assumptions and stigmas out there about yoga and meditation. We see ultra-fit and bendy individuals in the media’s portrayal of yoga and we see these Zen like poses with hands “just so” illustrating meditation. Even though yoga can be like this, it isn’t always, and doesn’t need to be. So when a newcomer to yoga asks me the question, “What is this thing called yoga?”, I tell them it is a lot of things, and that there are many styles and intensity levels out there to choose from, but one of the more important intentions behind most yoga in today’s culture is self-awareness building. That’s right, it’s not just about the physical benefits of stretching, strengthening, and breath (Pranayama) – although, all things being equal, yoga rocks in this department. It provides us with an opportunity to take a step back and be an impartial witness to ourselves.

Here is the secret that I and many other yoga instructors, and practitioners of yoga know. We teach classes intended to take you on a journey inwards. For an hour or so of your day, you are finally getting a break from your mind’s busyness of all your “to do’s,” future, and past thoughts, and instead you are transported into state where you notice your body and your breath, and are focused on the present moment. Whether you are moving or not in the class (in guided meditation you may not move at all), you are spending time experiencing what’s going on with different parts of yourself. You are discovering how you are positioned, where you are tensing your body, how you breathe, what it feels like to move or sit in a certain way, and where your mind goes as you do all this. In essence you are getting in touch with what’s going on inside – you are building awareness to your internal self and your patterns. In a yoga class, the opportunity is there for all parts of you to speak up because there is finally the space and break from the busy chatter of your mind to let them be heard. As a consequence you begin to learn about patterns of holding, and thought, which in turn can lead to a shift in perspective and how you approach the moments of your day.

So it was the best compliment ever when this client of mine spoke up for me when I was asked the question why we don’t you just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. This is what he shared: He had never done yoga before, nor had he even thought to do so, but was amazed at how it affected him. He explained how during the class his attention was drawn out of his thoughts and into noticing how he frequently tensed his shoulders and jaw in a certain way, and through the guided instructions to breathe and release he could relax these areas, which lowered his internal stress feeling. He told me how these awarenesses lingered with him well after the class was finished. Later that night, he was cooking his dinner on a grill and forgot about it, burning it. Normally he would tense up and get angry, but after the class he felt he could step outside himself a little more, notice the tension that was forming in his jaw, and by taking a couple deep breaths he released the stress of the situation rather than letting it escalate.

What this client explained so eloquently was how he exercised the use of his new awareness. This is what we do in yoga and meditation. We are teaching you, experientially, how to get in touch with your internal self, and then give you some skills of how to manage yourself in a healthier way to deal with whatever it is that you are noticing moment to moment. In yoga and meditation you learn how to pause and step outside of yourself and learn from the language of your body and breath. This is the yoga I know and love.

 

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Staying Grounded Over the Holidays

Maple Ridge

There’s always a lot of extras to do over the holidays, and this year, I’ve noticed myself stressing over the hustle and bustle even before it starts. If you’re like me, and you are wondering where you’re going to find time to do the extra shopping, baking, and decorating, have a read through this quick list I developed to help myself ground and refocus back into beauty and harmony of the season. Nothing new here, just reminders on how to keep it real:

  • Pace yourself and only say yes to those events that you enjoy. Don’t overwhelm yourself and your family. You either want to do it or you don’t. Sometimes we try to pack too much in one day, and miss out on enjoying the moments because we are too rushed from one event to the next. When you find yourself in these situations, it’s okay to decline, to let go of some things, and to be mindfully selective of where you put your energy.

  • Let go of perfectionism. Hosting parties can be a lot of work and having perfectly dusted table tops doesn’t make you a better person. Take a step back and consider how much you are worrying about what other people think of you. It’s okay if your cookies aren’t perfectly round this year (of course, if baking is your thing and round cookies are your passion, by all means, cut away). This is a reminder to keep perfectionism for the sake of perfectionism in check.

  • More is not always better – keep it simple, keep it you, and keep it from the heart. Whether it’s gifts, decorating, wrapping, preparing food, think about what is important to you and what you love and share these things. One small gift that is in some way meaningful from you to the receiver, is plenty.

  • Ground yourself in the bigger picture. Get outside for a walk or hike in nature. Pause and reflect on the abundance around you. If you are reading this, it is likely you live in a privileged society; one that is wealthy in opportunity and freedom, in food, health, and safety. Take moments to reflect on this… be grateful for these essentials.

  • Use meditation or yoga as a way to connect inwards and keep your priorities in focus. It is easy to get caught up in the current of everything around you when you are disconnected from yourself. Find ways to connect inwards that work for you. Even taking 20 second awareness breaks throughout the day can be of benefit–shift your focus to your breath and body for twenty seconds, and simply be present to how you are breathing and become aware of any sensations that arise in your body during the 20 seconds. This quick break from the mental to do list can down shift your nervous system re-establish a sense of calm. Of course, I find meditation and yoga particularly good for helping me connect inwards, so I’ve included a link to a meditation video I made that I find particularly good for grounding and re-focussing myself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7ZthxOsco0&feature=youtu.be

Hope these tips help and wishing you the gift of presence this holiday season.

Namaste ~ Renee

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