Month: April 2020

Strange new world

If someone had told us at the start of the year that, only a few months later, we’d be shut in at home, fearful of an invisible enemy, we would have laughed…or cried! An early April Fool’s day joke perhaps or the words of an apocalyptic doom mongerer. But, we are all getting used to our strange new reality.

I’m getting used to ‘seeing’ my regular yogis via zoom and learning to navigate family life around on line teaching (my mother phoning to order her veg box in the middle of a live stream was a real live moment!)

I feel my emotions are much closer to the surface and I’m likely to weep or laugh at any given moment. In such turbulent times, we need as many tools in our tool kit to help us get through this and, I thought I’d round up a few of my favourites. Perhaps one or two may just prove to be of use.

A number of us may feel that these times are actually incredibly frantic, with new and insistent demands being made on you all the time, so how do you pause with all that is going on?

Start Small.
Be gentle. You can start small. A pause of even a moment or two, or a breath or two creates an opening and a deepening. It leavens and lightens your time. It can also have a lasting effect. I began meditation with a minute a day, over twenty years ago. Now, it is part of my life.

Get Physical.
Your body is your friend, so use it to create a pause. Take a few breaths, dwelling on the pause between breathing in and out. Or, sit still and feel your feet on the ground and the position and posture of your body. Get curious about where you hold tension, seek it out, and then let it go – relax your jaw, drop your shoulders, whatever it is. You can do that in just a few seconds – in the middle of something else.

Body scan.
On waking, or before you fall asleep, take a few moments to scan your body from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Make that first (or last) moment into one of noticing the body that is you.

Thresholds As Triggers.
Use thresholds and transitions as triggers. So pause for a moment (and count to 1!) before you enter a room or the house. Or when you leave, or when you turn the car keys in the ignition or see the ‘Join Meeting’ screen on Zoom…. Use those triggers to take a breath or two, or feel your body on the chair, or to simply be with yourself for a few seconds.

Your Song.
Choose a song that means something to you. One you love. And listen to it. From beginning to end. Use headphones. Ignore any potential interruptions. Let yourself be in the music, let it wash over you and soak into you. Do this as a routine, or whenever you feel like it.

Listening Out.
The quiet that surrounds us in lockdown makes this a beautiful one to try now. Open up your ears to hear everything you can, first what’s around you –the tapping of the keyboard, the washing machine, then go further out…. can you hear voices from the next room, birdsong outside, footsteps in the street, a single car passing by…. see how far you can go. Sink into listening. You could easily make this into a game with small kids if you like, giving you a moment of pause even whilst you are with them.

Cup Of Coffee (tea).
Pay proper attention to a cup of coffee (or tea). Feel the heat of the cup in your hand, the smell before you sip, the taste, the aftertaste. Sit with it. Don’t do anything else. If people ask you for something, tell them you will give them your attention when the coffee is finished.

Stop Trying To Do Everything Perfectly.
You can’t do everything perfectly. If only because that will make you stressed, which isn’t perfect. So let that go. Really. Once and for all. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t ask yourself to do something which is impossible.

Stop Trying To Do Everything Full Stop.
So you are homeschooling, learning how to work from home, doing all the domestics and trying to stay sane. That’s enough. More than enough in fact. Let go of any daft ideas you have that you should also be using this time to write a novel, learn to code, or clear out the basement.

Let Something Slide.
Go further and choose to let one thing slide. On purpose. Make toast instead of a meal. Dress sloppy. Fail to deliver on a work thing that doesn’t matter any more. Don’t feel you have to talk to your friends every day. Skip the bedtime story. Choose a different thing each day and take that time back for yourself. That will probably feel taboo, but it’s ok. Really, it is.

Brush Like A Zen Master.
You brush your teeth several times a day. Take that time as a conscious pause and allow yourself to just brush your teeth. Don’t use it to think about other things or make plans, or process worries. Just. Brush.

Action, not activity.
Improvisers distinguish between activity – which is stuff happening and action – which are the few things that make a difference. Look at your day and work out which are which. Focus on actions, let activity go. There’s more on this in the book (‘DO Pause’).

Today List.
The night before, or at the beginning of the day, make a realistic list of things to do for the day. Not pie in the sky, but what would be a good day’s effort. Once you have written it you are not allowed to add to this list. And when it’s done, you are done. It is then time for you.

Give Yourself Permission.
This is the big one. Do you give yourself permission to pause? And if not, why not? That is a big question, but if you can create small pauses, you might be able to start to get some perspective on that and grow the sense of space and the feeling of agency you have over your own life.

If it helps, I can give you permission…. Print this off and stick it somewhere visible.

permission to pause2.jpg

Embracing Transitions

During our lives, we might encounter a range of bigger transitions such as changing jobs, entering a new stage of life, moving and illness. But there are also more subtle transitions such as shifting from work to relaxation, the beginning and end of the weekend and returning from a holiday. Transitions, even exciting ones, can be daunting. They are filled with uncertainty and without always being conscious of it; we sometimes avoid them and what comes up for us for during them.

Transitions in yoga

In yoga, we also encounter transitions, for example between time on our mat and the day as a whole; the period at the beginning of the practice before we start moving, and the period of rest at the end. With a home practice it can be especially tempting to cut out these parts. We might feel restless or find it difficult to stop and feel an urgency to move on. There are also the transitions during our practice. One example is how we get from one posture to another and how we move during our flow. Again during those times we might witness a tendency to rush through and to want to get into the posture as quickly as possible. We might feel a resistance to slowing down, exploring the space in between postures as well as holding the postures themselves.

The Challenge of Transitional Space

There may be several reasons we are uncomfortable with the transitional space in life and in our yoga practise. We may have become so used to having a direction and targets that it feels unfamiliar just to be and let the experience unfold more gradually. The transitional space can sometimes feel endless and we might feel anxious about being feeling lost and directionless. During transitions we often have time for more reflection but perhaps feelings and thoughts might appear that challenge assumptions we have of ourselves, how we live and relate, and in yoga how we are approaching our practise and what we really want from it.

Pause and rest to connect

To manage the the transitional space we often set ourselves goals. Goals can provide a sense of control in the face of the unknown. Everything can then be evaluated and defined in terms of outcome and achievement. In our yoga practice, we might start targeting postures and become fixated on being able to do a certain posture in a certain way. As a result however, we might be less connected to what is actually happening in our body. We might not be aware for example, that we are overusing or underusing certain parts of our body or that a part of the body is starting to feel strain.

That’s why taking rest poses during our practise can be so important. Not just to rest, but to pause and take a moment to more fully connect with how we are feeling and how we might want to approach our practise. Something I often ask myself in the transitional space during practise is, “how can my practise meet me where I am right now?” We can ask the same in day to day life when we take a moment to slow down and pause – “how can life meet me where I am right now?”

Less attachment, more curiosity

When we become less attached outcomes, we can start to fully embrace the journey both in life and with yoga. Our whole experience starts to open out. Take the example of walking around day to day. Often, we are so focused on our destination (getting from a to b) that we remain unaware of what is happening around us. We might not notice the subtle shifts of seasons, the changing colours and smells and others changes to the environment. We might not notice someone who needs our help.

One thing I find helpful is to vary my walking routes. Rather than take the same route that tends to keep me on autopilot, I find consciously choosing a route that is guided by how I am feeling keeps me more connected and present in the experience of moving to my destination. I start to move slower and I become more curious. And that for me is really a key feature to transitions; that sense of being curious, open to enquiry and receiving what emerges in that space.

Using Transitions to establish deeper self-awareness

Similarly in yoga, I mix up my transitions and explore different ways to move in an out of postures. I used to be overly attached to the idea of doing chaturanga or focusing on the key poses that we transition through like plank and downward dog. Of course it’s important giving these postures and movements attention but there are a whole range of other subtle movements during a vinyasa transition that we can also bring attention to.

For example, the process of stepping back to plank can be just as significant as being in plank. It can provide a great opportunity to experiment with how we want to move into a pose. It is a movement we can potentially do quite softly and effortlessly or we can make it more challenging and create deep engagement by keeping our shoulders above our wrists, slowing down the pace at which we step our feet back and focusing on lightness. Suddenly, by shifting the focusing to the transition a whole range of opportunities appear and the potential to develop different strands to our practice.

Tuning into the subtle messages

I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with wanting to accomplish a certain posture or moment. As with life, dreams, aspirations and intentions are valuable. However, fixed targets can sustain us forever in pursuit. Constantly striving towards goals becomes relentless and exhausting and sometimes we lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing.

In life, many injuries and illnesses are often identified later than they could be because we are moving so fast and not stopping and taking time to listen to our bodies. We don’t notice we are tired until we feel burnt out. We don’t notice the beginning of feeling unwell until an illness emerges. It is the same in yoga when we rush into postures or try to force it. We do not give the body time to adapt and consolidate. We can become so obsessed with the final outcome and getting there as soon as possible that we are unable to hear the subtle messages along the way.

These messages might communicate that we need to pull back, make a slight adjustment or in some cases find an alternative posture. While sometimes we might get more from going deeper, just as often we can get more from integrating effortlessness and softness. Where we situate ourselves on that spectrum might vary from day to day and practice to practice. But by taking our time and focusing less on the outcome we might start to notice with more clarity what we need and when.

Developing our inner compass

Engaging in transitions sometimes involves becoming more at ease with not always having a clear direction or specific goals. The idea of giving ourselves permission can be supportive here. It’s okay not to be clear about where we are heading and to not have all the answers. When we are not continually in pursuit of something it can often create space for other things to emerge. The fear might be that if we slow down we will lose time and we won’t get to where we want to be. However, it can be quite the opposite.

Slowing down can give us the gift of time. Sometimes it can lead us to places we couldn’t have even imagined or knew existed. When we are in transition, we can feel fragile, exposed and vulnerable. But it is then that we potentially discover who we really are and what we really need. Rather than focusing on our external direction, we learn to harness our internal compass and can learn to live more fluidly in the face of an external environment which is constantly changing.