Summertime and the living is….simple!

It came as no surprise that a recent poll showed that a mere 12% of the population want life to return to pre-lockdown ‘normal’. After a life that’s been unavoidably pared back, how can we take the positives of operating in a more streamlined way and apply them when ‘normal life’ resumes?

‘Lockdown has been simplicity’s moment in the sun,’ says Julia Hobsbawm – entrepreneur, speaker and author of The Simplicity Principle. ‘It has connected us to the idea that, in the end, all we really want is to be safe, well, and to love and be loved. Now we know this, I don’t think our old lives will hold the same appeal.’

That said, lockdown life can be knotty in its own ways. We have become even more reliant on technology for social interaction, and, in many cases, our careers, home-schooling and hobbies have become tangled into one big messy ball. Plus, the world has possibly seemed more confusing and disorientating than ever before.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that humans are about as complex as it gets anyway. We have 86 billion neurons firing all the time in our brains, and our bodies are made up of nearly 40 trillion cells. We are capable of doing amazing things yet this is at complete odds with the simple needs we have, emotionally and physically.

‘Our working memory – the part of the brain that governs reason and behaviour, typically shows a limit of between 4 and 7 items at a time,’ explains Hobsbawm. This would be fine if we were all still hunting and gathering like we did thousands of years ago, but it’s not so useful now, when we’re overwhelmed by endless choices, multiple social media accounts and we’re constantly zig-zagging between tasks.

‘Neuroscience shows us that once things get too complicated, our brains effectively short-circuit and cut out,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When we are overloaded, we make mistakes. We get stressed, anxious, depressed, angry and disappointed. We struggle.’

So is it ever possible to cut through the chaos and find simplicity? The short answer is, yes.

Hobsbawm embarked on her own quest for simplicity five years ago, when an exhausting decade filled with illness, grief, and the challenges of balancing a busy career with motherhood, left her feeling burned out and overwhelmed.

In response, she made a commitment to remove as much unnecessary complexity from her life as possible.

‘Life will always be complicated, and we can’t control everything,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘Plus, we are curious creatures – we like intrigue and variety. But that doesn’t mean that how we soothe ourselves and complete our tasks shouldn’t be streamlined and simple.’

‘I’ve learned that it’s about pattern, structure and rhythm, such as having regular sleep and setting boundaries,’ she says. ‘It’s about knowing when to stop and stand back.’


Here are my 10 top tips and helpful ways to find calm in the complexity, and clarity in the chaos…

1. PICK SIX

‘Our brains can only handle a maximum of seven things at once, so – to stay within this – I have chosen six as my magic number,’ says Hobsbawm. You can use the number six as a guide in all aspects of life, for example, having no more than six people in a group chat, or on a video call. But it really helps when working through your to-do list. ‘Start each day with a list of just six major things, and perhaps six tiny tasks you need to do by the end of the day,’ she says. ‘It will immediately focus your mind on the most important things, rather than blurring the boundaries between essential and optional. It means that you can commit to what you’re doing and be confident of success. Another benefit is that when you focus on fewer things a day, you make sharper decisions more quickly.’

2. RING-FENCE YOUR DAY

You can also streamline your life by dividing your day into time-zones. ‘I break up my day by using the “three Ps”: personal, process and people’, says Hobsbawm. ‘Personal can mean exercise or reading a book, process could be anything from tackling my inbox to financial management and people is all about connecting with others, whether friends or clients.’ When you’re in your ‘personal’ time-zone, switch your emails off. When you’re speaking to friends, give them your full attention. Divvying up your day will help you focus your mind on what really matters in the present moment.

3. REDUCE YOUR DECISIONS

We make tons of unconscious decisions every day – in fact, science has found we make a staggering 35,000 separate decisions, on everything from where we move our bodies, to what to eat, to whether to click on your Instagram app. You might not even notice it, but all of these tiny decisions can add up to make you feel overwhelmed. ‘The ability to decide both faster and more firmly is a sign of clarity,’ says Hobsbawm. We often think more choice is better, but in many instances, they can actually just crowd our brains and make decisions harder to make. In fact, a famous study in a California supermarket found that a table offering a limited range of six jams elicited a 30% purchase rate, compared to just 3% on the table offering a choice of 24. So, find ways to reduce unnecessary choice in everyday life. You could make like Barack Obama, who admitted that he limited his choices of suits and shirts. ‘I have too many other decisions to make,’ he said in a 2012 interview. You could do the same with your lunch options or hairstyles – whatever works for you.

4. RECONNECT WITH NATURE

‘Experiencing the world around you is a powerful tonic for clarity and inner peace,’ says Hobsbawm. There are countless studies showing the benefits of walking in nature for promoting relaxation, lowering heart rates and reducing stress. One study from the Netherlands even found that looking at a picture of nature is enough to calm the parasympathetic nervous system. ‘Nature teaches us a bit of humility,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘You can’t keep up superior airs and graces, job titles, or look-at-me Instagrams when you’re amongst all creatures great and small because, well, you realise how silly it all is. Simplicity hinges on balance, and nature is the great re-balancer.’

5. BE CLEAR TO OTHERS

In order to gain clarity, it’s also important to be crystal-clear yourself. ‘There is nothing worse than muddle and confusion, which brings with it delay, miscommunication and distrust,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When you’re clear about something, others get clarity. Being clear is an act of generosity.’ For example, if you want to ask your kids to do some chores around the house, give basic, broken-down instructions. This means they’re more likely to get it right, avoiding complication in future. This also means saying ‘no’ to something you don’t have the time, energy or mental-space to commit to. When you start setting clear boundaries, you’ll be less scattered, and you might even find this frees up more time to nourish your closest relationships.

6. GIVE EVERYTHING A HOME

The benefits of tidying up are well-noted – it’s true that physical clutter can actually clog up your mental space too. One American study found that people who described their homes as ‘cluttered’ and full of ‘unfinished projects’ were more likely to be depressed or tired. This doesn’t mean you need to embrace full-on minimalism – according to Hobsbawm, it really is as simple as having one place for everything, so you can always find it. ‘Not only can it be terrifying to find something in an emergency when you don’t know where to begin, but it symbolizes something deeper: if you can’t keep your house well, what else is too messy in your life?’ says Hobsbawm.

7. MONO-TASK

Many of us wear the fact we can multi-task as a badge of honour. But actually, research from Stanford University has shown that when we try to do more than one thing at once, it has an immediate and negative impact on our memory. Humans are monotaskers by nature – we work better when we focus on just one thing at a time. ‘Decide the one thing you want to do or achieve and stick to that until it’s done,’ suggests Hobsbawm. ‘This could be reading, writing a document or clearing your inbox. The latter of these, I find, is essential. I recommend never finishing the week with anything in your inbox. If it remains full, so does your brain.’

8. LET GO

There will always be obligations we simply can’t drop, but many obligations are ones that we’ve actually created for ourselves. ‘Arianna Huffington puts it beautifully in her book, Thrive, when she talks about release from too many tasks,’ says Hosbawm. ‘She writes, “It was liberating to realise that I could ‘complete’ a project simply by dropping it – by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage?”’ Look at your own goals and think, what actually needs doing? What can you postpone for now?

9. CURATE YOUR KNOWLEDGE

We’re bombarded with news and information at all times – whether that’s on TV, through app notifications, or as we scroll through social media. Hobsbawm describes this as ‘infobesity’ – ‘just has our bodies can get clogged, and slowed down by too much complex food in too-high quantities, the same is true of knowledge,’ she says. ‘We need it, we should enjoy it. We just need to simplify how we absorb it.’ Hobsbawm recommends coming up with a “knowledge dashboard” to keep track of what you’re taking in. ‘Aim for no more than six sources a day,’ she suggests. ‘You should aim for both a mix of topics – for example, three that cover news and views, one that covers whatever your specialism is, and some general entertainment. And then a mix of mediums – whether that’s blogs, trusted news sites, TED talks or books. Curation cuts down and cuts through the fatty tissue of TMI: Too Much Information.’

10. EMBRACE MINDLESSNESS

Being able to relax and press pause is key to living a simple life, but we tend to overcomplicate the act of rest. ‘In order to practice meditation or mindfulness seriously, you have to do something – whether that’s setting aside time, sitting down or turning on an app,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘Ironically, you are turning your mind on in order to let it relax, and switch off.’ It can be simpler than that: ‘by weeding out all the limitless possibility and narrowing our focus, we can achieve a state of reset,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When I listen to a piece of classical music or chop a single piece of garlic when I cook, I am simplifying my actions. In slowing my thought processes, I’m reaching that increasingly elusive state in our frantic world: relaxation.’

And that’s surely what we want more of in our post-lockdown world.

Patience in a post-lock down world

I read a wonderful article recently about post-lockdown behaviour. Have you found yourself tutting and flashing your eyes above the mask when someone inadvertently wanders within your 2 metre zone? Saying an audible sarcastic ‘Thank you’ when you have to walk in the road to pass someone? Guilty as charged I’m ashamed to say! However, words from those who have returned from a period in lockdown offer us some advice about navigating our way forward in this post-lockdown world.

Christiane Heinicke took part in a simulated Mars mission on Mauna Loa volcano. For a year, there were no phones, no cars, no money, nothing commerce related. She was there to focus on the science. ‘Everything was straightforward’ she said. ‘At the end, I have to take time to contemplate all the things I hadn’t needed to think about for a year.’

She went on to say that she gave herself time to prepare to re-enter the world which would be louder, brighter and stranger than she remembered. Having to turn her filters back on after they had been off for a year in isolation would take time.

‘Re-emerging into the world made me realise how many choices there are. You can say ‘Actually, you know what, I don’t need this technology. I don’t want an iPad.’

So what advice would Heinicke give us preparing to leave lockdown?

‘Coming out of isolation takes a physical and psychological toll. It’s normal to find that you are really tired, so give yourself time and space. The filters take time to return, so be patient with yourself and others. You may have forgotten what it’s like to have to deal with other people.’

‘Isolation is a beautiful opportunity but, it’s also a trauma, so take your time – give yourself a lot of patience and consideration.’

 

Travel light

As we approach summer, many of us would usually be preparing for holidays and perhaps weeks of travelling to exotic lands. Usually, however, isn’t what we’re dealing with currently because, as lockdown continues, most holiday plans have probably changed. If we’re not journeying outward though, we have a unique opportunity to explore what’s happening on the inside, and although it may not include a trip to the beach or cocktails by the pool, reconnecting to our inner world can often prove to be the biggest adventure yet. It’s time to learn to Travel Light, because without knowing it, many of us carry around years of unresolved stress and tension, memories and mysterious aches and pains without even realising it.

Body workers, therapists and osteopaths tend to agree that at least a percentage of chronic pain or general dis-ease can be traced back to a ‘stuck’ emotion or a reluctance to change. If pain and anxiety have become your normal, everyday base-line way of being, it’s likely that your mind almost feels ‘comfortable’ in this state. Familiar and comfortable in its own way; suffering can be predictable, we know where we are with it, and we don’t have to think too much…. The moment we try to make as positive change or start a habit with the intention to move away from pain and anxiety (like meditation or yoga), the subconscious mind gets scared; “But this isn’t how we work! This is different, this is unpredictable, this isn’t safe!”, which is partly why changing and letting go of what no longer serves us is challenging. Carrying the weight of worry or unresolved fear may have at first seemed unbearable, but the mind and body adapt, and now it goes unnoticed – it’s simply your ‘personality’.

There’s a reason we might carry around negative thinking or fear mindset, as Osho explained in one of his many lectures; “The way human beings are brought up plays a very definite role. If you are unhappy, you gain something from it… Whenever he is unhappy, everybody is sympathetic toward him. Everybody tries to be loving toward him. And even more than that, whenever he is unhappy, everybody is attentive toward him, he gains attention. Attention works like food for the ego… If everybody is looking at you, you become important. If nobody is looking at you, you feel as if you are not there, you are a non-being”. Indeed, whenever we embrace fear, pain or anxiety, we feed the ego and reinforce who we ‘think’ we are. When we stop holding on to the familiar patterns and the personality we’ve created however, the ego gets smaller, the load gets lighter, and we begin to see who we truly are – pure consciousness, ego-less.

5 Steps To Travelling Light

So, how do we start letting go of the heavy emotions and physical tension that no longer serves us? How do we travel light? We have to allow the ‘stuck’ emotions or pain to move, firstly by using the breath. Massage therapist and author of Issues In Your Tissues Denise La Barre says; “Breathing fully, the way se were born to do, circulates energy through the body, revitalising and nourishing all systems. As we deepen the breath, the muscles relax, thinking slows and we feel more spacious in our bodies. We invite creativity to flow through. The mind loses its stranglehold on our attention and allows us to feel our emotions”. If you’re ready to lighten the load, start this 5-step practice this month:

  1. Observe: When we’re entangled within emotional or physical discomfort, it can be difficult to actually see what’s happening; how we’re thinking, acting and making decisions. Being able to observe ourselves allows us to step back from the situation and bring unconscious habits into conscious awareness, where the real work and change can take place. Begin the practice of mindfulness by watching your actions and thoughts throughout the day. There’s no need to actively change anything to begin with, simply observe your habits and any self-talk. If you’d like a more formal way to practice this, sit in a comfortable position and watch your thoughts without attachment or judgement for 10 minutes.
  2. Accept: The next stage of releasing what we no longer need is to accept what we find. So often an illness or injury persists for longer than necessary because we simply don’t accept the reality of the situation, or the feeling of stress circulates around the body for an extended period of time because we haven’t let go of it yet. When we accept what is, we allow the pain or emotion to start moving, and we dislodge it from where it’s been stuck in limbo for days, months or years. Emotions are energy-in-motion, and they need to move in order to heal.
  3. Breathe & Feel: When we hold the breath, we essentially hold-in emotions or sensations we’re unwilling to feel. Breathing fully and deeply allows emotions to flow, and when they flow, we feel. This step is difficult because sometimes the ego doesn’t want to feel. If this is challenging for you, begin a simple pranayama practice of Adham Pranayama, the ‘abdominal breath’. Inhale deeply to expand the lower ribcage, your stomach and your back three-dimensionally. Exhale to allow all the muscles to relax. Do this for a few minutes per day, especially when you observe a fearful thought or physical discomfort. Watch the emotions start to move, and if it becomes too much to handle, only commit to the breathing practice for a few minutes at a time, therefore gently encouraging the emotions to flow, rather than opening the metaphorical floodgates.
  4. Move: Remember, emotions are energy-in-motion, and they need to be moved! Animals naturally experience ‘neurogenic tremors’ (a.k.a shaking) after a stressful event, allowing them to return to a state of homeostasis, thus letting go of the stress. In a bid to be ‘civilised’ however, humans have gradually repressed and forgotten the ability we all have to shake, which is essentially our in-built de-stressor. To lighten the load, move in any way that feels good to you – run, walk, practice yoga, dance, and shake your body!
  5. Release: Once the emotion or physical discomfort has been ‘un-stuck’ and allowed to move, it’s time to let it go. This can happen in a number of ways; through a long exhale; with the help of a massage therapist; and through vocally expressing your intention to release what no longer serves you. Once you’ve practiced the previous steps, express the following: “I let go of what I do not need, I release this [memory / pain / emotion] and choose to be free. I travel light”.

Hope is the thing with feathers.

‘Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.’ Desmond Tutu 

I think it’s important, first of all, to acknowledge the pain and dismay and distress and despair that just following the news — that being present to what’s happening in the world right now — causes. And I don’t think this is all that imaginative, but for me, one way I stay grounded is by limiting my exposure to what I’m taking in. And that’s not choosing to be uninformed, but I don’t actually think we are equipped, neither physiologically nor mentally, to be delivered catastrophic and confusing news and pictures, 24/7. We are analog creatures in a digital world. So I don’t follow what happened in the last 20 minutes, all day long, and I think that’s actually, right now, an essential discipline.

The other way I’m staying grounded is that however seriously we must take what’s happening in the world and what the headlines are reflecting, it is never the full story of our time. It’s not the last word on what we’re capable of. It’s not the whole story of us. Whilst it may appear that the news seems focused on what is catastrophic, corrupt, and failing, let’s not forget that, at the same time, there are good people. There are healing initiatives. There is a narrative of healing and of hope and of goodness, and we also just, as a discipline, have to take that in, as well — not instead of, but the both; hope for humanity and of our world.

And I feel it’s only in doing that that we keep flexing and strengthening our hope muscle. Hope is a muscle. It’s a choice. It is a vigorous choice, to see what is wrong and what needs healing and needs repair and needs our attention and also to keep our hearts and our imaginations and our energy oriented towards what we want to build, what we want to create, what we’re walking towards.

However justifiably granular our despair and confusion might be on any given day, it is so, so critical that we keep orienting ourselves towards the long view, towards the fact that what we are in the midst of is a societal shift. It is going to play itself out in generational time. And so, we have to, at the same time that we act and speak and think critically about what’s happening in the moment, we have to embody and walk with and towards how we want to live in contrast to that, how we want to live beyond this. We cannot call forth in the world something that we don’t embody.

One of the paradoxical and amazing things about our species is how people are able to get through the worst, also, with their joy muscle intact. If we want to call the world not just to justice but to joy and to flourishing, of which joy is a part, we have to find those ways and those places where that is also what we are finding and stirring and keeping alive in others.

So, whilst I hope that my zooming days are finite, for the time being, I’m finding joy in working with my online community until such time as we can meet on the mat.

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.

A vital life!

I did a workshop recently with the wonderful Katy Appleton and, something she said really resonated. She said yoga was about ‘Being the best version of ourselves’. Yoga is about thriving in all areas of our life, not just on the mat. In its fullest expression, yoga is both a transformational toolkit and a measuring stick that allows up to weigh up the efficacy of our choices.

Tradition states that although we come into life full, as we move through life, make choices and experience things (some helpful and some not so helpful) our ‘Vital Essences’ (of which there are three) flux and at times, will run low. Furthermore, that it is the depletion of these master forces within the body that creates the gap between what we ‘want’ to experience in life and what we ‘do’ experience.

One of the things that I love most about the science of Yoga is that as a science, it is systematic and pragmatic. Yoga clearly outlines the hurdles we will face on the path and then the practical solutions to overcome them. No wishy-washy, airy-fairy nonsense. Ambiguity has no seat at the sacred table of Yoga. The stakes are far too high for that; our vital health is far too important.

In the West, we often think of ‘health’ as ‘the absence of disease’, but Yoga has a different take on it. The word for health in Sanskrit is ‘Swasti’, which means ‘to be established in your Self’. Self with a capital ‘S’ – the biggest version of who we are. To the Yogi, this is health; to be rooted, grounded and operating from the highest version ourselves. Swasti, health, is defined by the following 3 elements:

  • Stability: mental and physical.
  • Immunity: in regards to both inner bacteria and the negative energy of others.
  • Emotional health: which speaks to the state of our relationships with others and also our self, including our capacity to easefully return to a state of joy, inspiration, motivation, gratitude and enthusiasm. It’s not about shutting down our emotions. Health is not holding onto them.

The sum of these three signifiers creates Swasti and is an indication that our three Vital Essences have been restored. The Vital Essences are Prana, Tejas and Ojas

Prana is the master guiding force within the body, coordinating our breath, senses and mind. It is responsible (among other things) for our adaptability. There’s a saying in yoga, “We’re only as good as the amount of Prana we have access to”. When our Pranic tank is full we ‘flow’ more easily, we can skilfully navigate change. Prana acts like the neutral space in a gearbox that allows the gear shifter to move between the gears. We always have to move through neutral to get from first to second, second to third and so on. We need Prana to gear shift, which is handy because in case you didn’t notice, life has a tendency to do that from time to time; shift gears.

Prana also governs our capacity to ‘take information in’. When we’re at ‘the end of our tether’, as the saying goes and the thought of one more email or car horn feels as though it will tip the mental stability scales, it’s a sure sign that we need a Pranic boost. Breathe!

Pranayama is the best way to build Prana, specifically working on increasing the length and quality of our inhalation and working with retentions at the end of inhalation. That’s the fastest way. Asana or the physical postures also builds it (although overdoing it can deplete it and doing it incorrectly can derange it). Time in nature is also a great way to build the vital force of Prana. On some level, even if we are not Yogis, we can sense how deeply healing that that is.

Tejas, the second vital essence is the subtle energy of fire and the transformative power at the heart of Yoga. Tejas allows us to metabolize life, to break down our experiences, digest and eliminate the waste and convert the knowledge gained into wisdom and maturity. Prana allows us to take information in, however whether we convert that information into nourishment is completely dependent upon our level of Tejas. These essences are the stuff life is made of and they work on all levels of our being.

Tejas is also the energy of will and vigour. It motivates us to change and inspires us to do whatever work needs to be done. Courage, fearlessness and insight all stem from Tejas and believe it or not, the most effective strategy for building Tejas…. is Silence. Control of speech is included under this heading as too much talking depletes our inner radiance. Great Masters say what needs to be said, but not more.

Concentration and focus practices also build Tejas. Many Yogis these days don’t like doing true Tejas-building work, known as Tapas. We think that sweating and jumping around and exhausting ourselves is Tapas… it isn’t. Tapas (the practices that produce Tejas) are the hard things we do that we really don’t want to do; like sitting still and being silent 😉

That is the deal – If we want more Tejas, then we have to cultivate a will like steel. No way to buy our way through or side-step around that one.

Ojas is the third and final essence. It is the energy-pool of our own pure vitality – the place from which we draw our vigour. Prana allows us to take things in. Tejas allows us to break it down. Ojas is the nourishment we extract – ‘Life minerals’. It manifests as our immunity and also provides us with stamina, stability, patience, peace, confidence and calm. Ojas is also the energy of protection.

Ojas as patience, peace, stability, stamina and calm is the framework and foundation for success in Yoga, behind the scenes protecting our practice and ensuring we don’t burn out. As the ancient texts proclaim, we have to stabilize the Moon (Mind) before we rise up the Sun (Prana). This is skill in action and the recipe for a vital life.

To build Ojas it’s important we minimize sensory impressions. Yes, exactly – get off your phone! Phones and computers deplete Ojas but Yin yoga, Meditation and Yoga Nidra are great tools to cultivate it.

One final suggestion; Bhakti or love builds Ojas. People who have a mate (the right mate) in their life live longer. So find someone to love!! Even if it’s a dog! Love builds Ojas 😉 Let’s share it!

Make March matter!

As we move into March and the beginnings of Spring, mother nature is gently pulling back the blanket of winter and asking us to wake up. January 1st may be the calendar date we adopt for setting resolutions and intentions, but in terms of nature’s rhythms, Spring is really the season of new beginnings. If you’ve had a great start to 2020, make March the month to really solidify those positive aspects with your March Intentions and continue any newly ingrained healthy habits. If the past two months haven’t been the most abundant however, fear not, because if there was ever a time to ‘start again’ or re-set your mindset, this is it.

Monthly Mantra: “This is my season of personal growth”

In many traditions, March is a time of special celebration and signals the awakening of nature. Pagan communities celebrate the ‘Green Man’, who symbolises rebirth, and whose image of a green face surrounded by leaves can be traced throughout Europe, North America and East Asia. All over the world, no matter the language we speak, the symbolism of lush greenery, budding flowers and shoots has always been celebrated as a sign of rebirth abundance, newness and growth, reminding us that even if things have been a little sparse or difficult recently, there’s always the opportunity to start again, to grow new shoots, to leave behind the old and welcome the new.

Flower Power

The lotus flower is a symbol used throughout Asia to represent the journey of personal growth; starting life in the depths of murky, muddy waters and eventually emerging on the surface, unfurling pure untouched petals. In the same way, plants in our gardens start life in darkness surrounded by dirt, but eventually start growing towards the light, pushing their way to the surface and reaching upward, providing fruit, leaves or flowers. The flowers and plants don’t stay in the dirt where its safe, they don’t race each other to grow the highest, they don’t grow half way then retreat back to the familiarity of the pot. No, nature grows at a steady pace, is strengthened by withstanding strong winds, drinks up the heavy rain and turns towards the light of the sun.

Everywhere we look come Springtime, we’re offered a reminder of the power we have to keep on growing and keep on going. If the only thing holding us back from being our very best selves is fear (and most of the time it is), then perhaps let March be the month you take nature’s advice and grow. This month, I’m going to adopt the mantra – ‘This is my season of personal growth’. 

This can be used as a daily reminder to pursue your purpose and follow your dreams, but it can also be used throughout more challenging and difficult times – those times when you may need to remind yourself that even when we’re facing challenging times, we can learn and from each experience. So this month, I’m going to:

DO MORE – Things that frighten me. Naturally I’m a bit of a risk taker, but as of late I’ve got in a rut where when it comes to new things I’ve steered clear of them. This month though, I’m committed to doing things that make me a little frightened. The first step this month will be committing to putting together and publishing my online newsletter.

TAKE TIME TO- Be creative! Whilst I can be creative with my planning, I want to try to do something just for me. This month I want to try harder to try some more recipes and practise my calligraphy, a much neglected hobby.

LET GO OF- Things that don’t serve me! Self doubt is a big one for me. When I feel a class hasn’t gone to plan, I can be riddled with anxiety and do a good line in beating myself up.

WORK ON- Being m0re organised with my time planning and focus my butterfly mind on one thing at a time. Let’s just say, you don’t want to see how many icons are on my desktop!

TRY NEW- I’m going to challenge myself to try different styles of yoga and try to go to some workshops to open myself up to some new experiences.

Fancy making March your season of personal growth? I’ve attached a handy resource to help you stay on track. Let me know how you get on via Facebook!

https://www.wholeheartedeats.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/MARCH.pdf

 

Back to basics!

According to National Health and Safety Executive figures,  musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 6.9 million days lost last year. Whilst these are shocking stats, they don’t really surprise me as a high number of people who attend my classes come with back issues. Some people have had a diagnosis but, the vast majority complain of niggles, tightness or discomfort in their back. That’s not to minimise their discomfort but simply that there’s no identifiable trauma or injury which has aggravated the problem.

According to physical therapist Bill Reif, author of the book The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain and How to Treat It, those with back issues who’ve received permission from their doctors to practice yoga may find it to be a boon.

Reif says, “Yoga, like physical therapy, could help build core strength and improve control of the spinal curvatures, minimizing the effects of compression.” But he offers this caveat: “Yoga may be appropriate for those with mild, intermittent, or occasional symptoms. Those with moderate to severe problems with frequent pain may not be able to tolerate most active forms of yoga, and should probably seek out a more restorative practice that uses props to help maintain neutral spinal curvature.”

For most people, yoga is an affordable and enjoyable way to manage their back condition but, in order to ensure that the practice doesn’t exacerbate the problem, here are a few top tips to bear in mind.

Don’t lose your natural lumbar curve. Slumping, or rounding the spine, perhaps because of spending long hours in an office chair that encourages bad posture, can take a toll on the back. In most yoga poses and throughout your day, whether sitting or standing, it’s important to maintain the natural inward curve in your lower back, to keep the back of your head lined up with the back of your pelvis (not dropping the head forward or back), and to keep your shoulders broad and stacked right over your hips. Even though your yoga teacher may cue a “flat back” (often to prevent you from losing your natural spinal curves by rounding or overarching the back), a totally flat back is not what we’re looking for. The spine’s natural curves—a slight inward curve of the lumbar spine (lower back), a slight outward curve of the thoracic spine (upper/middle back), and a slight inward curve of the cervical spine (neck)—are important for shock absorption and for optimal spinal health, so we don’t want them to go away!

Do practice healthier sitting and standing postures to help strengthen the back. Practice sitting tall, either in a chair or on the floor using props such as a stack of folded blankets or a yoga bolster while being mindful of maintaining the natural curve of your lumbar spine. Use this new posture any time you sit. When sitting or standing, utilize core support, with a slight lift of the lower abdominals and pelvic floor, and “think tall” with axial extension (upward lift) of the spine.

Don’t let the feet turn out when standing or walking. For many people, external rotation of the feet is both a result and a cause of shortening the piriformis (a culprit in sciatica). When this deep hip rotator is tight, the psoas (which runs from the lumbar spine to the top of the thigh) can also become tight, possibly resulting in lower back pain.

To help stretch a tight piriformis, practice supine pigeon pose, lying on your back and hugging one knee toward the center of your chest, or a figure-4 stretch, lying on your back and crossing one ankle over the thigh of the bent opposite leg. For a tight psoas, a supported bridge pose with a yoga block under your pelvis and a high or low lunge(anjaneyasana) practiced with a slight anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis can help.

Do keep the feet parallel. If your toes tend to turn out, move your heels out enough so that they’re behind your toes. You want the second toes of each foot to be relatively parallel to each other and your knees tracking in line with the center of the foot. Do this when standing (whether in mountain pose, while working at a standing desk, or any other time), walking, or sitting.

(Note that while parallel feet is a good guideline for most people, it won’t be appropriate for everyone. See Bernie Clark’s article Should Your Feet Be Parallel in Mountain Pose and Down Dog? to learn more.)

Don’t round up from a standing forward fold with straight legs. This action can compress the discs of the anterior spine and aggravate back pain.Instead, to come out of a standing forward fold, keep your knees bent, walk your hands up your thighs, and keep your spine long as you rise to standing.

Do rise up from a forward fold with knees slightly bent, and use core support (a slight engagement of the pelvic floor and lower belly) as you lift your torso.

Don’t forget core strength. Yoga sequences often focus more on stretch than on strength. Stretching can be great for alleviating tightness in back muscles, and poses we might associate with a nice back stretch such as marjaryasana (cat-cow), balasana (child pose), ananda balasana (happy baby), and supine twists may feel good, but they don’t contribute much to building core strength, which is important for back health. To strengthen the back of a structure we must balance the support in the front. That’s why poses that incorporate abdominal and back strength are important for back health.

You can build abdominal strength with postures like paripurna navasana (boat), utkatasana (chair), plank and forearm plank, and vasisthasana (side plank), and back strength with postures like salabhasana (locust) and virabhadrasana III (warrior III). Strengthening abdominal and back muscles supports better spinal alignment, and these are the types of poses you might look for in a back-health-focused yoga class.

Caring for your back means developing healthy postural and movement habits and practicing postures and exercises that can build the muscle strength that will give your spine the support it needs. Now medical professionals are even beginning to recommend these methods over medication for the treatment of temporary or chronic low back pain, so if you suffer from back pain try putting down the pills (with your doctor’s OK), sitting up straight, moving about with more awareness, and hitting the mat for a strength-building, tension-busting yoga session to subdue that troublesome ache and find the joys of unimpaired motion once again.

Don’t practice full inversions.

“Any inversion compresses the lumbar spine because of the additional body weight from above, potentially further narrowing the space through which the nerves must pass freely,” Reif says. “Additionally, inversions may make it more difficult to maintain a neutral spine for some individuals.”

Headstand, shoulderstand, forearm balance, and handstand should all be avoided unless a student is a longtime practitioner who can maintain a neutral spine in these inversions and can maintain control as they come into and out of the pose. Try milder inversions like downward facing dog and legs up the wall instead.

Do avoid deep backbends

“Lumbar extension, which can close off the spinal canal, is unlikely to feel good to those with lumbar issues,” Reif says.

He recommends avoiding backbends like upward dog, wheel, locust, and camel. Milder backbends, like sphinx and bridge, in which the arms can be used to channel the backbend only into the mid and upper back, may be suitable for some with LSS as long as they don’t lead to any increase in symptoms.

3. Don’t twist to an extreme and/or with a rounded back if it doesn’t feel good.

“Twisting can often lead to or exacerbate symptoms,” Reif says. Twists like deep versions of janu sirsasana (head to knee pose), revolved chair pose, and others that involve a rounding of the lower back could place uncomfortable pressure on the lower back, and should be avoided if they make any symptoms worse.

Reif does acknowledge that some measure of twisting may be accessible for those with mild stenosis.

“I would encourage only the twists that allow a neutral lumbar spine,” Reif says. He recommends “thread the needle twist” (sometimes called parivrtta balasana, revolved child’s pose) from hands and knees, and windshield wipering the legs.” Warriors I and II also involve minor twists that may be tolerable for many of those with spinal problems.

Those with more severe symptoms may be better off finding only the barest hint of a twist or may be able to twist only to one side: If the problem occurs along the right side of the spine, rotating to the left may decompress the compressed area, whereas twisting to the right, toward the compressed area, could increase symptoms. Skip twisting to one side if it causes pain.

 Do avoid or modify deep side bends if they worsen symptoms.

A modest amount of side bending can strengthen and even decompress the spine, but, “Again, an extreme of range will possibly exacerbate symptoms,” Reif says. As is the case with twisting, side bend only to the extent that feels good, and if side bending to one side feels compressive, skip it.

In poses like gate pose or a standing side bend, stay as high as you need to in order to be comfortable.

In Daily Life

In addition to following the do’s and don’ts that make sense to you, as often as possible, return to the self-awareness you’ve cultivated through your mindful yoga practice: Notice how the activities of your daily life affect how you feel. Which activities seem helpful? Which less so?

If some activities aggravate your symptoms, could you change the way you do them, repositioning your body to take stress off your lower back, or taking breaks to sit down and lean forward, elbows on thighs? Or perhaps you could approach those movements with more breath, or less hurry?

You may find that devoting some attention to your spinal well-being throughout your day—and night—gradually becomes easier, as do your movements themselves.

Love is in the air

I’ve been thinking about love.  February is always a struggle because of Valentine’s Day. I loathe it. I always have. It’s not about love. A hastily purchased card, a gift, a bunch of flowers, an expensive dinner is not about enduring love. It’s about an expectation that on a particular pre-named day each year we will receive something that validates us as worthy of love and the absence of it marks us out as not belonging to the tribe of real lovers. It’s nonsense and yet we are made to feel it so keenly. I think Valentine’s Day represents the ‘fast food’ of love – it’s so easy but real love is not. It’s hard.

So this year I decided I would write about love. Enduring love. The love that ebbs and flows over decades of being with a partner. It’s not about roses (I prefer a bright bunch of daffodils at this time of year), or gifts (they are beautiful and arrive, but rarely coincide with a traditional event such as Christmas or birthdays), or expensive dinners (I prefer hearty breakfasts). It’s about me and him. Us. It’s about good times and bad. It’s about knowing that even in really difficult times there is a silken thread that keeps us connected to one another. It’s about moments of intense loneliness, the kind that feel overwhelming, when you find the person you love is so very hard to reach – when you are just holding on in the storm, waiting for quieter waters, knowing they will eventually be found. These are the challenging times, the ones that test your mettle, that make you question the very foundation of your life together. This is the nature of life and love.

The good times are plentiful, wonderful and numerous. Jokes that evolve over a lifetime together, knowing how to make the perfect cuppa presented in the right cup (yes, it is a thing), tenderness and care, gentle touch, a passing caress, giving each other breathing space to develop individually – all these things reaffirm and support a loving relationship.

We have been together for 17 years. His work has remained more or less constant as a teacher, mine has changed and evolved over the years, each new skill adding to another to bring me to this wonderful point where I do what I love every day. He says on my gravestone he will have inscribed, ‘could this be her final career change?’ – I hope he does, I’ll be chuckling tucked up in my winceyette lined wicker coffin (yes I have thought about it, one needs brushed cotton for such a long subterranean trip).

Love is not the grand gestures, it is the everyday accommodation of the weirdness of one’s partner and their understanding of you – because we are all weird in our own way. It is the melding together of disparate personalities and somehow making a whole that works for the benefit of both. It takes a massive investment of time and energy for a relationship to survive and prosper in spite of the unexpected challenges that life hurls at it. That is enduring love.

Love is encouraging your partner in the direction they need to go even if it makes life a little harder, because you know they would do the same to see you happy. In long term relationships there is give and take, passion and fury, stillness and intensity but most of all there is acceptance. An understanding that on a cellular level the person you have loved for so many years has become a part of you, as familiar as your own heart-beat.

I look back over our life together and am content that it has been a life well lived. We are better together than we would have been apart. We are happy, we have had mad adventures, laughed ourselves stupid, struggled and thrived. We don’t need heart shaped cards to validate that.

e.e. cummings puts it all rather beautifully…

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

any experience, your eyes have their silence:

in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,

or which i cannot touch because they are too near

 

your slightest look easily will unclose me

though i have closed myself as fingers,

you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens

(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

 

or if your wish be to close me, i and

my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,

as when the heart of this flower imagines

the snow carefully everywhere descending;

 

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility: whose texture

compels me with the colour of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing

 

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands