Somatics and Yoga

For many of you who have attended my yoga classes, you’ll likely recall a portion of the class is devoted to gentle movement patterns linking breathing in and out. The pattern would go as follows: engage a body part (like shrugging the shoulders) on the inhale, and then relax or do the opposite motion (lower the shoulders) on the exhale. These movement patterns, are always done slowly and with mindful attention to the body’s sensations. This is pattern of movement is known as somatics, and is very helpful to reducing chronic muscle tension, pain, and retraining the nervous system out of habitual holding patterns.

Somatics describes any practice that uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal self and listen to signals your body sends about areas of pain, discomfort, or imbalance. Somatics can be applied to many different movement practices such as yoga, tai chi, dancing, Pilates, etc. As these practices become more mindful through the somatic process, they allow you to access more information about the ways you hold on to your experiences in your body.

Thomas Hanna, an educator in the field, coined the term in 1970 to describe a number of techniques that share one important similarity: they help people increase body awareness through a combination of movement and relaxation, and specifically a process known as pandiculation. Pandiculation in it’s original definition means the act of stretching oneself, especially on waking (picture the yawn and stretch). Pandiculation is our innate response to the sensations of lack of movement and to tension building up in our muscles.

A somatic exercises is essentially a voluntary pandiculation exercise. The muscles are contracted and released in such a way that feedback loop in our nervous system, which regulates the level of tension in our muscles, is naturally reset. This resetting reduces muscular tension and restores conscious, voluntary control over our muscles. This prevents the buildup of tension and pain in our muscles is critical to maintaining healthy posture and movement.

Somatics are a great resource for nervous system regulation. Breaking the cycle of chronic and unconscious tensing patterns in the body it so important for both physical and emotional health restoration, and this is why body somatic exercises are offered in my classes and individual work.

To experience somatic movement, try Gentle Somatic Yoga (these classes can be done live in person, live online, or on demand recorded). Or you can book a private yoga lesson to individualize the session.

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Train Your Mind to Stop Over-thinking

One of the things we are trying to do in meditation and in yoga is to shift our minds from the ‘thinking state’ into the ‘aware state’. In the thinking state we are lost in our heads, in the future or past—planning, strategizing, ruminating, imagining, creating, and dreaming . While in the aware state, our minds are anchored to the present moment, such as when we connect to our senses, paying attention to what we notice or feel around us or within us, e.g. feeling our breath. A huge step in curbing the over-thinking mind is to practice dropping into the aware state more often.

Much of the day our minds are preoccupied by the thinking state, which is both marvelous and troublesome at the same time. The human mind’s default to the thinking state brings us in touch with imagination, memory, and creativity, and is the source of all the great discoveries, stories, and innovations…. and we really wouldn’t want to lose this. However, too much of one thing can leave us unbalanced, and our minds have a tendency to lapse into over-thinking mode, sometimes putting us in a constant state of worry about future, past, and imagined scenarios (none of which are actually happening now!). When we always live in our heads this way, it can become habitual and damaging to our health since our bodies don’t realize these thoughts aren’t actually real or happening now, and consequently, our physical selves react to the stress of the thoughts like they are actually happening. This can be the source of much of our stress, anxiety, and physical ails (increased body tension, pain, high heart rate/BP, digestive issues).

To manage the over-thinking mind we want to train the brain to recognize and then snap out of the thinking state, and how we do this is to practice the shifting our attention to the aware state. We do this over and over again in yoga—the instructor cues you to sense your breathing, to feel a certain body part, to connect to the ground. We do this repeatedly in meditation—relax a certain area of your body, focus on something, and come back to your breath. The benefit here lies in the repetition. Overtime when you practice yoga and meditation regularly, your brain is literally being trained to do this shift on its own, and we learn to self-regulate. It becomes more automatic to check in, sense, and feel, and you get better at recognizing when you’ve slipped into over-thinking mode, and consequently stop the runaway train.

The hard part for many people is that they get stuck in their heads and lack the ability to recognize when their minds have run away on them and so they need to develop the skill of shifting their attention. Below are some ways to start developing this attention-shift skill.

4 ways to train the mind to recognize and shift out of over-thinking mode:

  1. Regularly attend yoga classes – ones where the teacher regularly provides cues to notice your breathing and body sensations
  2. Practice this simple embodied exercise called What’s Happening Now:
    Five times a day take a 20 second pause from whatever you are doing and ask yourself theses 3 questions:
    1) Is there any tension in my body?
    2) How does my breathing feel?
    3) What am I thinking about?
    Repeat this for a whole week and see if you start automatically doing it thereafter.
  3. Take breaks in your day to immerse yourself in your senses—take in the smells, sounds, touch, and sights around you, e.g. really smell the soap as you wash the dishes or feel the warmth of the sun as it touches your skin.
  4. Start a basic breathing meditation practice. Aim for a commitment of 5-10 minutes per day. Here is a video to try a basic Breathing Meditation.
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An Asana is a Question, Not an Answer

I have been teaching a fair amount of physically challenging yoga these days. At my studio, the months of January & February tend to bring out the goal of getting in better shape, and I tend to see an interest in the more physically challenging classes… I too can relate to the motivation to getting more fit, and I go through phases of using my classes for this goal. However, teaching from the sole intention of “getting in shape” has a short shelf-life for me, at least from a yoga point of view. I inevitably crave to return to the slower paced classes which provide opportunities to be truly present to myself. It’s my experience that when classes are fast-paced and overly directive, we may be getting a good answer to our fitness needs, but we miss the depth of the learning yoga can provide us.

When we do a yoga asana (pose) we should have the time and space to truly experience it in the moment for what it is. It should never be about performing the perfect pose—a pose is like a living thing that changes and evolves from day to day, and we should be able to meet it with the questions, “What do I need to understand in this pose right now? And what do I feel?” In classes where we are rushing we miss this. Something as simple as feeling the point of resistance in our body tells us something; it creates awareness. For example, it might be telling you that this is enough for me right now, or I’m really holding on right now, or simply, I really need to pay attention to this part of my body right now. Resistance is your body’s language saying “slow down, pay attention”, and if you over-push yourself into a pose, you miss the lessons of that. 

As a yoga teacher, I am an educator. My job is to help you learn more about yourself: what your natural limit is, what feels appropriate for you in the moment, where is your resistance coming from, and what it is telling you. I want you to use those internal observances so that you make a choice that is conscious. It’s not my job to push you past your limits; it’s my job to entice you into the depths of your own understanding. No one can walk your path. If you override your physical reflexes, your awareness, the speed with which you want to move, that is not about learning, it’s pushing, and it says that progress in yoga is only about going further in the pose or to look a certain way. Maybe the progress in yoga for someone is accepting themselves as they are, or believing they are good enough and can simply enjoy where they are in a pose. So if you choose to step into a deeper experience then I feel it should be from a place of readiness, and benefit in your learning of the pose.

As you read this, I hope you can relate to some of what I’m saying and have experienced how yoga can be much more than a workout (And if you can’t relate, I wonder if it might be time to try some different classes?) Yoga can be many things, and there’s no argument that it can provide you with improved fitness, but it’s my opinion the greatest benefit comes when you stop pushing and truly listen to your body and let the asana show you the questions, not the answers.

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Your Yoga Practice Reflects Your Life

Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say, “How you show up on your mat is how you show up in your life?” If you think about it, our personality, characteristics, habits and belief systems don’t just disappear when we walk into a yoga class, so likely, the way you are in life, is the way you practice yoga, and depending on what habits and characteristics show up, it can helpful or hindering to your yoga progress. Acknowledging this, and taking a step back to become more aware of how your personality shows up on your mat, is a powerful point of reflection from which you can learn and grow as an individual.

Consider these questions: Are you a very determined or disciplined person? Do you get frustrated and angry very easily? Do you need to do everything perfectly? Are you usually quite hard on yourself and always push yourself – or do you not push yourself at all? Do you avoid challenges or discomfort? Do you prefer activities that are slow moving and low energy? Are you open and expressive or are you withdrawn and quiet?

These are just a few questions to get you thinking about your nature and how these characteristics affect your behaviour, preferences, and choices. Then consider how these tendencies might be showing up in your yoga practice – the style of class you choose, how you engage throughout the class, where you place your mat, and the thoughts that show up during the practice… When you begin to reflect on your patterns, it can lead to insights about how you approach and engage in life and maybe even why.

Consider this example: Sally is a high energy, physically strong person who craves challenges and likes constant stimulation. She gravitates to flow and power yoga classes with lots of movement and distraction. Sally is very motivated by extrinsic goals and competition and strives to perform poses a certain way. The teacher notices she is often over-tensing in her body and holding her breath and begins to offer her cues to provide internal reflection on these tendencies. As Sally begins to notice how her body and breath respond to her strong achieving mindset, she begins to notice connections such as feeling sore after class or over-stimulated rather than calm, and she begins to make connections about how her high-expectation thoughts for her own performance may not always benefit her improvement in yoga and overall health.

When one begins to make these connections about habits and preferences, we can use our yoga practice as a way to bring more balance into our life and begin practicing new ways of being. Because there are so many different styles of yoga and tools we can sample, it may be helpful to try the opposite of your “preferred” or “regular” style. That means slowing down and practicing gentleness if you are a go-go-go person who always pushes. Or, for those of you who are low energy and avoid new challenges, turn up the volume a bit and try crossing some boundaries.

In the case of Sally, she might choose a slow restorative or yin class, and by placing herself outside her norm, and listening to how her body and mind respond, new insights can arise. For example, she might notice feelings of impatience or agitation when staying still in longer poses or during silence. Or she might feel edgy when the poses feel too easy and there is little sensation. There is a good chance that these feelings on the mat can reveal lifelong patterns and beliefs she carries about herself and others, and with revelations such as these, she can then begin to ask herself why or where it came from. Within these questions and answers a whole universe of self-discovery can be possible.

Yoga can be a marvellous discipline from which we can learn about our habits and behaviours, and once we make these connections, and practice in a way that challenges these habits and belief systems, new patterns are eventually created. This inevitably crosses over into our daily life. Sometimes, this process happens slowly and gradually, and in other instances, it happens very quickly. Regardless, by committing to our yoga practice in this self reflective way, the result is that we are forever changed.

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Equanimity

Perspective, space, wisdom, peace… Equanimity is  the balance in life that is born of wisdom.

Equanimity is like the secret ingredient of mindfulness, it’s the core of what mindfulness is doing for us. It’s that non-reactive quality of awareness–we are connected to what is happening in the moment without projection into the future, comparison with the past, pushing away or holding on. It’s one thing to know what’s going on in the moment as it happens, but it’s another to be aware with less bias and projection. For example, we notice our back hurts (which is helpful to know), but it’s also good to notice how are we reacting and relating to the back pain. Maybe we are filled with anticipation of an imaginary future, wondering what’s it going to feel like next week and getting concerned that this back ache is never going to go away, and how will this affect an upcoming vacation in… In this example, not only are we experiencing what’s happening in the moment but we have all that additional anticipated stress and anxiety added on top. So equanimity is about creating enough space in the moment that we notice our tendencies and get a much deeper connection to what’s happening.

Equanimity does not mean we clear ourselves of all opinion and action. Rather it is simply a way of broadening our perception such that should we decide to take some action, the action is coming from a deeper understanding. When we give space to all that we are noticing without immediately reacting, we can learn. We see layers of what’s happening: thoughts, emotions and physical reactions related to any one event and all at once. Being in this state allows us to see more clearly before we choose our response. Mindfulness is the body for understanding, and  equanimity is the heart through which we find wisdom.

Equanimity helps us be more resilient. When we experience stress from wanting things to go a certain way, you can feel the resistance of not wanting certain outcomes and the intense yearning of wanting others. Yet, so often our worries and attempts at controlling the outcomes are futile. Equanimity brings us the pause to recognize we are doing this and see the thoughts, emotions and physical responses in these moments. This is not to say it is a passive act or that we just give up. We can do our best by letting go of what we can’t control. When we accept this, we become less overwhelmed by all the related unpredictable and changing circumstances and can see and calmly focus on what we can control. Knowing when and what to let go gives us peace.

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Nature’s Cycles Mirrored In Our Yoga

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu

Lately in class, the idea of doing small acts repeatedly as a way getting us where we want, has kept popping up. In yoga, and in many aspects of our lives, we lack patience and want immediate results ⸺“We want it all, we want it now.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started on a project (healthy eating being a great example) and felt really motivated for a short period of time in the beginning only to lose my enthusiasm very soon thereafter, and I know many others struggle with this too. The truth of the matter is, success lies in consistency over time; the commitment to regular practice day in and day out. I also know, however, that sometimes I’m not able to, or want to, show up with full effort, and I’m starting to realize how the process of achievement can be more subtle and gentle, and not always linear. Much like the cycles in nature, progression in yoga and other aspects of our lives can unfold gradually with peaks and valleys depending on our internal and external rhythms.

When you think about nature and how things typically progress and come into maturation, there are natural stages. The baby doesn’t just walk, it first spends time learning to roll, then rock, then crawl, then stand⸺all building blocks of the final destination of walking. Yet as adults we expect to we should be able to jump to the end stage, and we want results fast. We seem to be programmed to rush and hurry, and when things don’t happen fast, our minds become impatient and restless. However this way of thinking and being sets us up for failure. Mirroring the natural process, we are more apt to be successful when we proceed with smaller chunks and achieve competency in stages. I have seen some of the greatest transformations in yoga from the students who chose only two or three poses that they practiced, as opposed to big routines with complexity. These smaller elements, done regularly, often add up to much bigger results.

We can also reframe how we think progress should look. Progression in nature is rarely linear, and progress is not without rest or pause in the seasons and cycles. In some forests, natural disturbances, such as forest fires, are good example of natural breaks in the path of progression. In the boreal forests for example, forest fires release valuable nutrients stored in debris on the forest floor for new growth and allow some tree species to reproduce by opening the cones to free the seeds. This pause in the growth of the forest is essential for it’s health and balance as it matures. Looking back on my progression with yoga, it was much the same. There wasn’t intense effort all the way along. Sometimes I had strong commitment and energy for my practice, and I got a lot done during these phases. Then there were slow phases, and even breaks in the practice. Sometimes the breaks were by choice, and sometimes not – illness, injury, maternity – regardless, I always returned to my practice.  I realized that when I came back, I hadn’t lost everything ⸺ things came back quicker, and I progressed past where I was before. In reflection I noticed, sometimes after a break, there was a fierceness of practice that wouldn’t have happened without the time away.

There are natural cycles that happen within our own physiology, unique to each of us, that we would all benefit from understanding more. Mindfulness becomes our ally in navigating this internal rhythm. As I have mentioned in many previous blogs (Walk Slowly, If You Know Better, You Do Better, Yoga for the Brain), meditation and yoga help you develop the skill of shifting your perspective to become the observer of your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body. When one adopts this shift in perspective you become more attuned to what is naturally unfolding within, and you can pick up on the cycles and patterns that come and go with your motivations, energy, and moods, throughout the day, months and years. You can learn for instance that when energy wanes and things slow down, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Things are constantly changing, and coming and going. Sometimes when you are down and apathy takes a foothold on you, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be up and energized, and it’s easy to get caught in thinking these feelings and low energy will last forever. But this is never true. These thoughts, these emotions, they pass through us; they are not us. There are season and cycles within us to acknowledge and embrace as well.

I think it’s time we learn to be a bit more gentle with ourselves and remember that hurrying and putting heavy pressure on ourselves rarely works out in the long run, instead it sets us up for a crash. So I encourage you to stop feeling guilty for the lulls and the pauses. Pace yourself kindly, and welcome the irregularities of progress ⸺ both high and low. If you keep taking those small steps forward in harmony with seasons and cycles of your life, both inside and out, you are sure to see the reward.

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If You Know Better, You Do Better – Right?

Maturity brings change, right? Not always. Have you ever wondered why some people seem to grow up, get better, do better with age, while others get stuck–doomed to repeat the same patterns of self sabotage and unhealthy choices? As we move through puberty, connections to our frontal brain develop, making us more rational and less egocentric. Yet beyond this, there are still those individuals who seem to get stuck, lacking self reflection and relational growth. I find it especially noticeable during reunions of past friends or family where you realize an individual hasn’t changed much at all and it’s hard to connect and maintain a relationship with them.

Outside of educational opportunities, mental illness, and brain developmental issues, I believe part of the difference comes from how much one learns the skill of self awareness, and that this is a technique can be enhanced through practices such as yoga and mindfulness training. The more we develop our skill to shift out of the default “overactive, thinking” state, (reflexive thoughts encased around personal narration and evaluation of past events and an imagined future), and drop into a present-moment awareness state (becoming the observer of what is happening within the body and outside in the environment in a non-judgemental way), the more we can take a step back and see ourselves for how we really are.

In yoga, we have the opportunity to practice being in this aware state more often than in day to day living. We are drawn into the present moment through our bodies (known as embodied mindfulness), and in this way we can witness the coming and going of our reflexive thoughts and behaviours. It is through the sensation of the postures and breath that we are focused into the state of “now.” In my experience, using the breath and the body together as a way to draw our attention into our aware state, is very effective for beginners because there is more to keep the mind occupied than, for example, traditional sitting meditation which often uses only the breath. Therefore yoga can be a very effective gateway to self awareness.

There is more to it. The nature of some yoga poses, releases blocked or repressed experiences. Our human minds are hardwired for self preservation and protection. Some things are easier to live with when pushed or packed away. The problem is our unconscious selves still know the truth of it all, and it’s been my experience that our physical bodies house this information in cellular memory. So when, we move, stretch, pressure, breathe & release  parts of our body (in a non-threatening and safe manner) it can reveal memory and emotion from previous experiences. Once this is brought to the surface, and received from a non-judgemental, aware state, it’s hard to ignore its presence. The more often this happens, the more we get connected to the blind spots and repressed “stuff” we house, and deeper self-knowledge is gained.

So if you combine these two ingredients of embodied mindfulness and transparency into our body’s memory and wisdom, our lives begin to shift and change as a consequence of practicing yoga. It’s like opening the floodgates; its difficult to close once opened. My practice has lead me to a place where I can no longer be in a situation where I know better, and turn a blind eye. My body literally rebels and I am quickly in tune with the knot in my gut telling me I need to do better. This can manifest in all sorts of scenarios such as choosing boundaries for relationships that are toxic to my wellbeing, or saying sorry after I realize my actions (or lack of action to another) is unkind or dismissive. Once self awareness and connection to whole body intelligence has taken root, it is much harder taking a walk down the easy road.

I believe we are all on a journey of self understanding and mastery in our lives. Some will move mountains, others will repeat destructive patterns. We can’t deny the reality that it never works to change another person; it is their life to live, and the only thing we can do is work on ourselves and hopefully become the best version of our self. When we connect to practices such as yoga and mindfulness, it gives us a route to get there.

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Transitions

With September so close, it gets me thinking about transitions. There’s a big change coming up in our household this September. My youngest daughter Teagan is about to start Kindergarten, and what once was a highly anticipated event, has now become one with conflicting emotion. The other morning she asked me, “Mommy, how soon before I go to school?…I’ve been waiting since I was one years old!” Then later that afternoon, she said, “Mommy, I’m sad to go to school because there will be no more mommy and Teagan days”. Within these two statements, she captured the truth of our mixed emotions—both of us having relief and excitement of it finally being here, and the sorrow of loss of her babyhood and time spent together.

Now you might be wondering what this has to do with yoga. Well, what I realized in this recent while, is how important it is to recognize transitions onto their own entity. So often we compartmentalize events. In class we go from one pose and then to the next; we experience the pose while we are in it, and then our minds leap to then next one, rarely paying attention to how we got there. However, nearly half of the class is devoted to the time spent transitioning from one pose to the next, meaning if we don’t consider these transitions, we are barely present for much of the class!

It’s not a stretch (pun intended) to see how this plays out in our lives off the mat as well. How often do you catch yourself making big plans for the future, and the time leading up to event is just time spent waiting, or just time to get through. Yet, this time that we want to just “get through” makes up many of the moments of our lives, as mundane as they can seem at times, it can be these un-special, little moments in our day that may end up being the most precious memories in the twilight of our lives.

I had big plans for new classes and exciting changes with the studio this September, but as the time neared to plan it all out and post the schedule, I found myself feeling overwhelmed and indecisive. I realized my paralysis in planning was my body’s way of informing me that there is already too much going on—I am mentally and emotionally preoccupied soaking up the remaining time in summer, spending time with my family, and preparing for this next big milestone of Teagan starting school. So rather than jumping in with “new” and “busy” with the classes, I’ve decided to rest a while in the space before the next, absorbing all that needs to be experienced and learned right now.

In the spirit of honouring transitions, I’ve also decided to devote next Thursday’s mindfulness class (Aug 31 @ 7:15 pm) to be about paying attention to our transitions between the postures and in our lives. If this intrigues you, come on out! And if I don’t see you out in the studio, as September approaches, I wonder what it would be like for you to transition mindfully in your own life?

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Walk Slowly

Walk Slowly

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.
-Danna Faulds

This is a poem I like to read in my classes, especially during savasana. It reminds me of an assignment I had in yoga therapy training when I was asked to differentiate between “holding space” and “making something happen”. This question resulted in a lot of contemplation for me…

Have you ever had a situation where you thought something should or would be a certain way and you get caught up in making it happen that way? It could be anything – a project, a relationship, a yoga pose, and looking back you realize the whole process was a fight upstream, one-sided, and sometimes resulted in an undesirable outcome. When we try to make something happen we might force the situation or rush the process, and once caught up in the momentum, we fail to be present and miss what is actually happening around us.

How do we prevent this from happening? It’s about presence: slowing down our way of being enough so that there is space to recognize what is happening in the present moment (in our minds, in our bodies, and in our environment). It is about cultivating a state of mindfulness in our thoughts, actions and interactions. Take for example, in class, when we slow down our movements and transitions, and move into postures without the need to rush, push or control, then we can discern the right amount effort and stretch that serves us in the moment. When we rush or force our poses to make them be a certain way, we run the risk of doing ourselves harm.

It’s also about recognizing our attachment to outcome or expectations. Expectations set up our minds for rigidity and narrowed focus; it sets us up for hurried behaviour, and disappointment. Expectations leave us with no room to enjoy the process or see alternate paths and possibilities, and leave us unable to recognize when the experience is going completely in a different direction than imagined. We might expect that we should be able to do a yoga pose as far as the person next to us in class even though our body is telling us otherwise, but force ourselves to do it, and to what end… injury?

A red-flag word to be aware of is “should”. Whenever you hear yourself saying something “should” be a certain way, then you are caught up in an agenda, expectation and making something happen. Even the most well-intended plan can turn upside down and take on a life of its own. Imagine, as a yoga therapist, I expect my client, whom I’ve been working with for some time, should be ready to move onto the next level, but even though the signs are not there that she’s ready, I challenge her to a new level anyways. Not only could she fail, but it could also take her backwards in her progress. Charging ahead, despite the good intention of the plan (to help the client grow and improve), will not change reality that she’s not ready. By pausing, and acknowledging what is really happening for my client I  actually serve her (and myself) better.

At a deeper level, “making something happen” can also be about feeling vulnerable without the safety of a well-defined plan. Some of us are planners, and outlining how things should go in our minds gives us a sense of security and makes us feel like we are preventing disaster. However, there comes a time in our training and maturity in life where we need to lessen our grip a little – we need to trust ourselves to make good decisions within the moment. As a teacher, over the years, I have come to realize that having a class plan is helpful, and sometimes I use it, but the majority of the time this class plan gets adapted as I teach from the needs of the students who show up that day (and I always find these are the best classes in the end). Accepting the uncertainty of the next moment can be scary, but it’s the way we grow.

Slowing ourselves down, and being present or mindful helps us see clearly both in what is actually happening around us and how we are relating to the experience at hand. In this way we are holding space, and we can catch ourselves when we enter these controlling, “make it happen” moments. We then have the opportunity to shake ourselves free of our expectations, projected agendas, and sometimes even challenge our insecurities and fears. It’s as the poem says, “make the choice to stop, breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery”.

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Mindfulness & Self Compassion

studio-interior-3

In my own yoga and meditation practice, mindfulness of my thoughts (becoming aware of my thoughts, as they occur), has been one of the most insightful and beneficial pieces to my personal growth. It has revealed to me habits and patterns in my thinking, such as my tendency for my mind to jump to comparing thoughts, doubting thoughts, and judgemental thoughts, and in times of stress, I noticed obsessive, worrying thoughts of the future. Although I’m not proud to admit that so many negative and worrisome thoughts frequent my mind, I also know I am not the only one with these tendencies, and many of us get conditioned in this way of thinking.

Mindfulness helped me identify the patterns in my thinking, but it wasn’t enough to change the way I was thinking. I like to compare this to being witness to discrimination against another person, and choosing to ignore it. The neutral indifference does nothing for your processing of the situation. So it was with me; there was a missing piece to my processing. I needed to acknowledge the unhealthy patterns in my thinking, but without making it another loop in negative self-judgement. That’s when I learned about self compassion’s relationship to mindfulness practice.

So what is self compassion? In its definition, it is simply the practice of speaking to yourself and treating yourself with kindness, caring, and acceptance. Or, better yet, treating yourself in a way that you would treat a dear friend. This nurturing way of being is often missing from the context of awareness, but in order to gain the benefits from our mindfulness practices, self compassion needs to be included. It is helpful to separate their definitions a little further to better understand this relationship:

  • Mindfulness asks us, “What are we experiencing in this moment?” Self-compassion asks us, “What do we need now in this moment?”
  • Mindfulness is about accepting moment to moment experiences… this thought, this feeling, and so forth. Self-compassion is about accepting “the experiencer”.
  • Mindfulness says “feel your suffering with spacious awareness,” (i.e. can you make room for it, can you be with it?). Self-compassion says be kind to yourself when you suffer.

Thich Nhat Hanh gives an eloquent description of how compassion works alongside mindfulness in his advice for working with negative emotions:

“The function of mindfulness is first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the baby into her arms without supressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgement. So the practice is not to fight or supress the feelings or thoughts, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness. Even if that mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief. If we can recognize and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”

By breaking down this relationship between mindfulness and self-compassion, it became apparent to me that when we learn to hold our thoughts, emotions, and our feelings with caring acceptance, we acknowledge the bigger picture. We are saying to ourselves, this thought isn’t healthy but I acknowledge it this way and it is okay to have imperfections. Or, this feeling is uncomfortable, but it is real and it has something to tell me, and I will give myself time. It’s also about being more gentle with ourselves when habits repeat themselves, instead of beating ourselves up about it. For within the space of accepting ourselves with loving kindness, we set the stage for growth to happen, and this can make all the difference.
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