Dirty little secrets….and why they are important!

Every Friday, I set off to teach my regular class, weighed down with my usual yogic paraphernalia of speaker, iPhone, lesson plan…..and a cake tin! For Friday is ‘Feel Good Friday’ when the class is treated to a home made slice of something yummy after their equally yummy practice. So, what’s the secret? I keep one back, ready for my return, when I sit down, kick back and indulge in a coffee and cake. If it’s sunny, I take my treat into the garden and sit, basking, lizard like in the sun and savour every moment. Do I feel guilty of taking time away from my mat, computer, family, cat?! Not now but, it’s taken a while not to allow that wave of guilt to wash over me for daring to sit still and simply be.

Too often, we set impossible standards (or allow society to set them for us) that can only ever result in failure. Aren’t you sick of it? Of lugging around this unidentifiable guilt that gnaws at you for even thinking of desiring something we’ve been conditioned to believe is “bad”, be that a delicious pastry, time alone, a long luxurious bath?

This may sound a cliche, but I believe the answer can be found in embracing the thing we are most scared of – the “bad” foods, the night off, the pyjama day. Time to step off the hamster wheel of negativity because, in embracing it, in bringing shame out into the light, we are taking control over it. Demystifying it, normalising it, and, finally, allowing ourselves to enjoy it. Setting one small ritual a week – in my case, a coffee and biscuit, alone with my book – holds the potential for rippling change as it returns enjoyment to us, and brings stability and tranquillity back into too-busy lives.

Indulgence is too frequently equated with negativity and deprivation with achievement. The result is an internalised narrative in which a biscuit is “bad”, and its consumption is akin to the one-night-stand you swore wouldn’t happen again: a brief moment of masochistic pleasure followed by shame, regret, self-loathing, and invariably, indigestion. What a waste of chocolately heaven! My solution? Taking ownership of that shame and turning it into something joyful, anointing it with status, time, and love. Twisting this act of private failure – failing at being a perfect wife, mother, friend, failing at resisting temptation – into a positive occasion,  et voila, ‘Feel Good Friday’ was born!

The premise is simple: self-love instead of self-sabotage. I decided if I was going to feel guilty about eating something I considered “bad”, I wouldn’t eat it. Not because it really was bad – either for the environment or for me – but because this negative attitude was inhibiting the enjoyment it should excite, which made the eating pointless. If I could promise myself that I could have something without then self-flagellating over my supposed “indulgence”, then it was mine to savour.

The result was surprising and far-reaching. In the manoeuvrings of my everyday routines, choice and the power of ‘no’ – or ‘yes’ – were bestowed once more upon me as I realised, and forgive me if this is something I should already know, that I could choose either option without an agonising crisis of identity. I didn’t have to seethe with resentment as I ploughed through packed lunches and chowed down on lentils as I hankered for pizza, I didn’t need to spend the entire day  riddled with self-loathing over the gym class I skipped; I could delight in a ‘night off’ without the incumbent guilt.

I was anchored by the ritual and the promise of mouth-watering delight. My mindful treat returned awareness to not only the decisions I made on a daily basis but rather how I felt about those decisions. It was no longer about restriction but about ownership and, in being fully cognisant of how I was treating my body and why, guilt dissipated, and happiness began.

However, the pastry itself (delectable and delicious as it is) is only half responsible for this transformation. Turns out, it’s the holistic experience of the ritual I’ve found myself craving week on week. In life’s hectic chaos, enjoying the basic machinations of routine is fast slipping away from us – a mindful pastry affords me a return to the simple pleasure of time.

Time to sit, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, and take in the world unfolding around me. Time to shake out life like a clean linen sheet, wringing it of usual worries and ironing it smooth into an altar of experience. Time, in the frenetic rush of breakfasts gulped over a keyboard and unread emails, dinners hashed together in one-pot frenzy, to be fully present in the act of nourishing my body. It is a gift both liberating and anchoring, sustaining me through difficult weeks and freeing me from that which no longer serves. How often do we dedicate ourselves and allocate our time completely to joy, untethered from preoccupations, guilt, panic? Without checking our phones, without wondering if everyone else in the café thinks we’re sad, without the urge to freefall into frantic to-do lists or look busy?

It is a rarity becoming an oddity and yet it is vital. The art of enjoyment – pure and unadulterated and without inhibition or self-consciousness – is being diluted, forgotten but it is there to be reclaimed in the bubbled layers of pastry.

Let’s celebrate our efforts not with self-sabotaging recklessness but with mindful self-love. Embrace indulgence, whatever shape that takes, and carve it with care and love into your week. Anticipate it. Look forward to it. Treasure it with rolling eyes, inappropriate groans, and hand-wringing reverence. It might just change your life.

 

Here comes the sun!

Light. Fire. Heat. Intensity. It’s summertime! Do you worship long days of bright sunlight? Do you welcome a renewed feeling of energy after the gloom of winter? Maybe you just can’t get enough of the hot summer temperatures. Or, do you dread the heat and go out of your way to avoid the summer sun, hugging the shadows and dodging the sunshine like a vampire?!

Summer, like each of the seasons, arrives with its own distinct personality. Depending on your constitution, summer may increase your internal sense of harmony, or it may aggravate one of your innate tendencies. For example, a hot-natured individual who prefers a cool climate may love the winter, but will feel hotter than most—to the point of discomfort—as the heat of summer intensifies. On the other hand, someone with chronically cold hands and feet (yup, know that feeling!), who never seems to be able to stay warm in the winter months, will experience exactly the opposite: long, cold winters will be a challenge and they will relish the heat of summer.

Ayurveda; the science of life

One of the fundamental principles of Ayurveda, which roughly translates as ‘the science of life’,  is that our habits, routines, and dietary choices should ebb and flow with the seasons. We can support an improved state of balance throughout the year by making a conscious effort to live in harmony with the cycles of nature and by regularly adjusting our lifestyle and habits to accommodate the arrival of each new season.

Opposites attract

In Ayurveda, it is said that like increases like and that opposites balance; this helps to explain why summertime stirs something different in each of us.

The most striking characteristics of summer—the heat, the long days of bright sun, the sharp intensity, and the transformative nature of the season—are directly in line with pitta or ‘fire’ energy. But, summer is also a time of expansion and mobility—traits more characteristic of vata or ‘water’.

Negotiating a Blissful Summer: General Recommendations for the Pitta Season

Your primary focus through the summer months will be to keep pitta balanced by staying cool, mellowing intensity with relaxation, and grounding your energy.

But summer has some distinctly vata characteristics as well, so you’ll also want to stay hydrated, foster stability, and balance vata’s natural expansiveness and mobility with quiet, restful activities.

In yoga, opt for grounding, restful classes to counteract the firey energy which can overwhelm (and overheat!) some of us. Whatever you choose, make the most of the summer season. Blink and we’re back in winter woollies!!

 

 

Where attention goes, energy flows

Officially the first month of summer, June sees us rolling towards more daylight and warmth, and subsequently more time outdoors, a reconnection to nature, and a reconciliation with our environment. If you’ve spent the past few months hiding indoors and stuck in your head, for your June intentions try stepping outside more often (in between showers!), and engaging with the world around you.

A long time ago, June and July were collectively named Liða (pronounced lee-thuh), Old English for ‘calm’ or ‘mild’. With longer hours of daylight, more opportunity to linger in the sunset, coupled with perhaps the opportunity to retreat on a much anticipated holiday, it seems these months were indeed made for down time. The thing is, even when you’re away, it can be difficult to take a holiday from your own head, which is why this month, our collective mantra or sankalpa should perhaps be; “I direct my attention towards what matters. I make peace with what I cannot change”.

BE YOUR OWN PERSONAL RAY OF SUNSHINE

Our attention could be thought of as a light – our own personal ray of sunshine – so what we shine it upon tends to grow and flourish the most. Where focus goes, energy flows. Where our thoughts are directed hugely impacts how we feel in every sense. Perhaps pause for one moment and think about the three most prominent things you’ve been focussing on recently. Do they bring meaning to your life? Do they enhance your physical and mental health? Do they contribute to healthy and balanced relationships? If the answer is no, then it might be time to shine your light in a different direction. Your ‘light’ is your energy and your spark – it’s important to look after it.

THE LITTLE THINGS MAKE UP THE BIG THING CALLED LIFE

Author Paul Dolan – who describes happiness as “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time” in his book Happiness By Design –also notes that it’s not the overall ‘snapshot’ of our lives that we should look at when reflecting upon happiness, but the ‘film’ of our everyday moments. The little things make up the big thing called life. Our every moment makes our every day. Every day combines to make a year, every year soon becomes the story of who we are.

LEARNING TO LET GO

As a practical exercise for your June, try writing down three things in your life you absolutely cannot control, and make a pact with yourself not to dwell upon them for more than ten seconds. If you can contribute to changing it in any way, do what you can and then let go of the outcome. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita; “Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action”.

TIME TO FOCUS ON OUR OWN DEALINGS

 When we realise that the things we have no business with are really none of our business, we find more freedom to focus on our own dealings. When our light is no longer scattered and deflected in all directions, we’re able to really illuminate what matters most. So maybe this month, as the sun in the sky shines a little brighter on all of us, we could practice shining our own light on what really matters and contributes to a happy, calmer and fulfilled life. We could practice focussing not on the snapshot of life, but on the film of those everyday present moments. Where attention goes, energy flows.

A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years. -Swami Sivananda

If we breathe automatically and hardly think about it during the day, why is breath emphasized so much during a yoga class? And how is it even possible to breathe incorrectly?

These questions are common among beginner yogis, and they’re worth discussing! Awareness of breath, as well as synchronizing breath to movement, is an integral part of  yoga and what makes it so much more than an exercise routine.

Mechanically speaking, the act of breathing can be either automatic (an unconscious, involuntary behavior) or deliberate (a conscious, voluntary behavior). By making an automatic behavior deliberate, we begin to affect our neurological programming through a state of intentional awareness. This conscious breathing affects us biologically, emotionally and physically. And now for the science!

Biologically

During most of the day when we’re breathing unconsciously, our breath is controlled by the medulla oblongata (the primitive part of the brain). When we switch to conscious breathing, it stimulates the cerebral cortex (the more evolved areas of the brain). It’s in that moment that the magic starts to happen! Activating the cerebral cortex has a relaxing and balancing effect on our emotions, which leads us into the next benefit of intentional breath.

Emotionally

When you begin to tune into your breath like this, emotional stress and random thoughts vanish. Your whole system gets a break. Your body’s energy begins flowing freely, disrupting any emotional and physical blockages and freeing your body and mind. This results in that “feel good” effect you experience after a yoga practice.

Physically

In our physical yoga practice, the breath works side-by-side with our structural alignment. Our natural tendency is to hold our breath or use stress-induced breathing (short and shallow) while holding a posture, especially in a challenging pose. This creates stress and tension in the body. That’s why you always hear yoga teachers reminding students to continue breathing intentionally during the toughest poses and sequences.

Still not convinced about the power of the breath? Try taking deep breaths for the next 30 seconds. You will realize the calming effect deep, controlled breathing has on your nerves, stress, and muscle fatigue. Even the one you hadn’t realized. Pranayama yoga makes you habitual of breathing deeply, and being in control of your breath. As a result, gradually, you become and then remain more aware, calm, and relaxed at all times. So, shoulders back, head up….and breathe!

MUDITA – why knowing what it is will bring us all joy and longevity.

There is no word in English to describe the emotion of being happy for someone else’s happiness. We have envy but not the opposite. We borrow the German word ‘schadenfreude’, which means taking pleasure in others’ misfortune. Awful (and sharply on the rise since the 1980s according to Google’s book search). When you consider that language and thoughts are inextricably linked, this gap in our language becomes tragic.

Mudita is a Sanskrit and Pali word. It means ‘vicarious joy’, that is joy for someone else’s joy. In this post, I hope to convince you to help me bring mudita into our vocabulary.

English has more words than any other language. Estimates vary but it’s at least 170,000 and possibly well over a million. While we don’t have a word for mudita, we do have one for ‘resembling an ostrich’ (struthious), one for ‘the legal right to cut turf or peat for fuel on common ground’ (turbary), and another for ‘the plug by which the rectum of a bear is closed during hibernation’ (tappen).

I’m not saying those words aren’t needed (I’m sure there are scientists who have devoted their entire careers to the study of tappen — brave people indeed), but it’s odd that we don’t have a word for mudita.

MUDITA CAN BRING MORE JOY TO YOU AND THOSE AROUND YOU

Research shows that word choices don’t only reflect your emotional state — they influence it too. Thinking and especially talking about positive things makes you happier. Through neuroplasticity, (the brain’s ability to strengthen connections and form new ones) using pathways of joy and happiness strengthens them.

Plus, your happiness impacts the happiness of people close to you. Incredibly, this has been shown to extend out three degrees of separation — to the friends of one’s friends’ friends (in addition to being mind-blowing, this also presents an opportunity for careful apostrophe use). Here’s a quick sketch to show the effect.

Related image

The research shows that if a person (e.g., you) is happy, then it increases the chances that everyone in this diagram becomes happy. The study showed causation, not just correlation. To keep the picture manageable, I assumed you only have 3 friends. You probably have more than that, and the effect multiplies exponentially. If you have 10 friends and they each have 10, and so on, you can reach 1,000 people with your happiness. That’s a big deal. It’s also a lot of responsibility: if you have 1,000 Facebook friends, and you post a humble brag that makes them feel less happy about their own lives, that negativity could spread through them outwards to many thousands of people.

Mudita was taught by The Buddha. He said,“I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence.

Here’s my suggestion: ask your friend what is making them happy at the moment, and tell them “I have mudita for you.” Explain it to them and see what they think. I encourage you to experience and discuss mudita, and through this let joy multiply within us and ripple out as we spread it among our friends, families, and communities.

I promised you joy and longevity. Being more happy and less stressed leads to better health and longer lives (this seems obvious and it’s also backed by research), so adding mudita to your vocabulary really could extend your life. Especially if you help your friends to add it too!

You are enough.

It’s coming to the end of mental health awareness week and, in the studio, in the gentle conversations that often take place after a class, I hear so many stories of why people come to love yoga.
The most often told story is of the transformation that yoga has brought not just physically but to people’s sleep and ability to just ‘do’ life:

“My partner just looks at me now and says go to yoga knowing I’ll be a different person when I come back”.

Amongst my yoga teacher friends, we often share how yoga has been the thing that has helped us through tough times. When you come to your mat, you are welcomed, there is no judgement nor expectation and, if you want to spend your whole practice in child’s pose that is enough because you are more than enough. I leave you with these words. Read them regularly!