Category Archives: mindfulness

THE GIFT OF STILLNESS…

“In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” Pico Iyer, (The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere)

Sometimes when I teach, I see students who crave to close their eyes while practicing postures and movements which require their eyes to be open and gently focused. They are trying hard to relax in what they are doing. Then when I ask them to pause, close their eyes and bring their attention within, those same people crave to open their eyes, as they feel overwhelmed by the tumultuous train of their thoughts. Other times, when I teach long held restorative poses, I see people who really struggle to become still. Sometimes, they don’t even realise that parts of their body are still fidgeting. Their nervous system is trying to recalibrate. Often, these are the students who lead a very busy lifestyle, multi-tasking in the office and at home, glancing at their smart phone every two minutes to see if something new has come up, if they have missed out on something…. At night, they often find it difficult to go to sleep or they wake up in the middle of the night with a head full of thoughts and anxiety. And I remember that a while back, I too was experiencing this, and I could easily fall back into the old pattern if I don’t pay attention…

In this day and age when we are constantly asked to perform and achieve as fast as we can, this can be incredibly depleting on all levels. In addition to have less and less time to do things, marketers and advertisers are always finding more ways to bombard us with unwanted information and images to sell their products. We are constantly encouraged to turn our focus outwardly and to increasingly rely on the use of ‘’time-saving’’ digital devices to manage our lives (online banking, online shopping, online dating, social medias etc.). And in the process, we may lose contact with ourselves…

Have you ever wondered how many hours in a day do you spend looking at your digital devices? And how did you spend your time on before all that smart technology existed ? I am not complaining about the speed of IT progress here, but rather that it is taking far too much space and time from us all… And some of us don’t even realise it, notably the younger generations who grew up immersed in that technology.

A few weeks ago, I attended a training with my teacher Rod Stryker , when he pointed out how the increased time spent looking at our smart phones impacts on our ability to daydream (different to mind-wandering) [1] which is an important function of our brain, stimulating intellectual and creative ability. Professor Jerome L. Singer [2] has researched and produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming (theta brainwaves), imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. Before the age of digital devices, we allowed ourselves to daydream more frequently and on regular basis. Now, whenever we have a rare moment with nothing to do, most of us tend to look at our phones… By being constantly stimulated in the wrong way, our brains become overactive and in a state of hyper vigilance (hi-beta brainwaves). In the long run, it becomes more difficult to think clearly, and our memory/retention power decreases. If the brain was compared to a hard disk, an IT consultant would say it is time for a good disc clean-up and defragmentation…

When we consider the above, it is not surprising it is so difficult to become still. For those of us who live fast, work and play hard, the key here is in the ‘’balancing act’’ : finding time and space to cultivate the art of pausing what we are doing to become still. In his ‘Art of Stillness’ Ted Talk, travel writer Pico Iyer(3) reflects on the incredible insight that comes from taking time for stillness, also leading to more emotional intelligence :  “In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

So what can we do to become more at ease with stillness ?
It might not be easy at first, as it will take time to ‘’rewire the brain’’ to form new neural pathways and become more at ease with stillness. So here are a few ideas on how to create and explore stillness in our lives :

Where to start : Here and now. Slowly but surely, take small steps that fit into your life style, so you can make consistent progress which lasts, in your own time.

What next :
G.I.V.E  Y.O.U.R.S.E.L.F  A  B.R.E.A.K and do some ‘’internet detox’ on regular basis. Create time and space when you don’t look at your phone/TV/ computer, for an hour, a day, a weekend, a few days etc… In the evening, stay away from TV or electronic devices at least 2 hours before going to bed (as pixels stimulate your brain activity and might keep you awake). Instead, try and read a good book, listen/play some soothing music, or write in your diary..

Take a walk in nature : take the time to pause, notice and feel within and around you.

Practice mindful breathing : Several times during the day, take a moment to reconnect with your breath : Pause what you are doing and pay attention to your breathing. Hands resting onto your belly, take long, slow mindful breaths, feeling your abdomen expand as you inhale and relax as you exhale. Repeat to yourself, like a mantra, a positive affirmation such as: ‘’I inhale deep calm and peace, I exhale any stress and tension.‘

Go to a Yin or Restorative Yoga class : Long held supported postures with mindful breathing and body awareness, help release deep seated tension. Yoga practices such as Yin and Restorative Yoga activate the para-sympathetic nervous system, and literally help us ‘’re-boot’’ on a physiological, mental and energetic level, increasing our vagal tone(4) hence the ability to ‘’rest and digest’’. By aligning the physical and mental, the practitioner creates the optimum conditions to activate the natural healing process of the body, in harmony with nature.

Attend a Yoga and Meditation class : A fine sequence of asanas and Pranayama prepares the body to become still and sit in a comfortable position. Meditation gives the opportunity to observe the process of our thoughts and emotions and let them pass, without getting ‘’caught in the story’’, the ability to choose our thoughts more purposefully and find more lasting calm and peace within.

Try Yoga Nidra : Often underrated, the profound practice of Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep with a slight trace of awareness) is an ancient and life-changing approach to complete relaxation. It has been studied in clinical settings and has been found to treat various afflictions ranging from sleeping disorders to chronic pain, anxiety, and even low self-esteem. Neuro scientists say that Yoga Nidra helps access the brain rhythms (theta and delta brainwaves) that signals the deepest rest. By cultivating stillness and effortlessness, a more subtle awareness unfold, soothing the mind and body down to the cellular level. Yoga Nidra is also a way to build up Ojas, the ‘vital nectar’, the essential energy of the body, which will strengthen immunity and vitality.

What to expect : At first, it might be challenging to change any agitating, distracting habits which no longer serve you. So, please be patient with yourself : as you become more used to creating ‘’pockets’’ of stillness in your life, you will find it increasingly enjoyable. With consistent practice, it will soon become like having a shower in the morning and you will look forward to those moments of peace and quiet which allow you to check in with yourself. You might even surprise yourself feeling a new sense of joy and satisfaction for the most simplest things. And at best, it might even become contagious to those around you…


[1] There is a distinction between day-dreaming and mind-wandering, where you think of things other than the task you are doing, and daydreaming when, for example, you are on a train doing nothing and detach yourself from the world around you.

[2] Jerome L. Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Yale School of Medicine. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Sciences. Singer is to be considered "the father of daydreaming" and he "has laid the foundations for virtually all current investigations of the costs and benefits of daydreaming and mind wandering" https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00626/full

[3] Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness — and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships. In twelve books, covering everything from Revolutionary Cuba to the XIVth Dalai Lama, Islamic mysticism to our lives in airports, Pico Iyer has worked to chronicle the accelerating changes in our outer world, which sometimes make steadiness and rootedness in our inner world more urgent than ever. In his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, he draws upon travels from North Korea to Iran to remind us how to remain focused and sane in an age of frenzied distraction. As he writes in the book, "Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds ... All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of this movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world." https://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_the_art_of_stillness

[4] Vagal tone (Wikipedia definition) : Vagal tone refers to activity of the vagus nerve, an important component of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This division of the nervous system is not under conscious control and is largely responsible for regulation of the body at rest. Vagal activity results in diverse pleiotropic effects, including: lowered heart rate, changes in vasodilation/constriction, and glandular activity in the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Because the vagus nerve is importantly involved in heart rate regulation through its action on pacemakers in the heart, vagal tone is easily assessed by heart rate. In this context, tone specifically refers to the continual nature of baseline parasympathetic action that the vagus nerve exerts. While vagal input is continual, the degree of stimulation it exerts is regulated by a balance of inputs from both divisions of the autonomic nervous system and reflects the general level of parasympathetic activity. Vagal tone is typically considered in the context of heart function, but also has utility in assessing emotional regulation and other processes that alter, or are altered by parasympathetic activity.

SPRING DETOX AND NEW OPPORTUNITIES…

It’s already Spring time, and we love it… because the grass is green again, the sun is shining, the days grow longer and it feels like a fresh start ahead…

IMG_1674At this time of the year, I feel an urge to clear my cupboard of any unused items or clothes,  and I usually realise, with a lot of shame, how much unnecessary stuff I have accumulated. Once I have gone through the process, it always feels better, clearer. I clean every corner of my home and I might even ‘smudge’(1) the place to remove old stagnant energy. Spring is a time of renewal, an opportunity to start again and give birth to our true nature. By letting go of old stuff, we can bring new energy into the light. Still, there is a feeling that the job is not quite yet done and that I need to go deeper… much deeper. I had no idea until a little while back that I had to pay closer attention to what the Taoists call the ‘General of the army’ , or  the liver (the leading organ excelling in strategy planning in the Body)…

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each season corresponds to different organs and meridians (subtle energy channels) through which Chi (vital force, also referred to as Prana in the Yoga and Ayurveda traditions) flows. The liver and gall bladder are connected to the season of spring.
The liver is the primary chemical factory of the body, the main organ for detoxification. It takes care of any substance which cannot be broken down and used for energy. Any wastes the liver cannot use are converted and either carried out by bile (produced by the liver, stored by the gallbladder, it helps us digest food, especially fats) into your small intestine or carried by the blood to the kidneys. The liver was considered by the ancients in Chinese medicine as the seat of life, hence naming it “the liver”. It is the largest gland in the body. It stores vitamins A, D, K, and B12, minerals and glycogen which is converted in glucose as needed to provide energy. Keeping the liver healthy, strong and stress free is very important in our overall health, longevity and fitness. The liver is also responsible for the overall metabolism of the body, controls muscular strength, movements and coordination, strength of vision, clarity of thinking, helps to detoxify and re-energize the blood during sleep and creates important cholesterol. It also controls sexual energy and vitality, and is associated with the opposite emotions of anger and kindness.

According to the Taoist tradition, each season corresponds to an element(2). Wood is the one associated to Spring, ruling liver and gallbladder chi. The wood energy of the liver helps to feed, control and energize the heart. Just as wood keeps a fire going, the wood energy keeps the heart going. When we get angry, the amount of “wood” energy sent to the heart increase considerably. This is why the heart rate speeds up when we experience strong anger.

The main role of the liver meridian is to regulate the energy in the body, and to create a harmonious internal atmosphere. When out of balance, we may physically experience fatigue, migraines, vertigo, dizziness, tight hips and back pain, general stiffness. Emotionally, we may experience a fluctuation of emotions such as irritability, anger, frustration and impulsivity. When liver and gallbladder meridians are balanced, it brings a sense of relief and fulfilment, we feel more compassionate, more adaptable to change. We feel more connected and harmonious inside. The liver has a huge impact on the overall health of the body, but also on the mind and emotional state. A healthy liver and gallbladder Chi allows us to see more clearly. Our ability to devise plans and implement them smoothly increases. Just like water, we can flow around obstacles, bouncing off from what is in our way, to move towards fresher goals. We become more adaptable to changes and more open to opportunities coming our way.

Simple steps to look after the liver and empower the changes within our body and mind in Spring:

  • Become more mindful of what we eat, perhaps do a gentle detox by favouring lighter, drier and less oily food.
  • Eat your greens, especially green leafy vegetables, which are full of anti-oxidant.
  • Reduce heavy dairy products, like cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
  • Eating warm food.
  • Drink herbal teas such as artichoke, milk thistle, sage etc. which support liver detox.
  •   Mix a few drops of liquid chlorophyll to your bottle of water. It tastes so good and refreshing. I find it boost my energy levels too.
  • Ayurveda suggests to eat more food with pungent (cayenne pepper, onions and garlic, ginger,etc.), bitter (like endive, chicory, romaine lettuce, spinach, turmeric, fenugreek, etc.) and astringent (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower etc. ) tastes. Eat fewer sweet, sour and salty tastes.
  • Seize this time to spring clean and declutter your living and working space, as they are an extension of your energy field. Be ruthless, and let go of any unused or unwanted stuff. You may observe the difference straight away and feel great about the space you have created!
  • Another great way to embrace the Spring energy is to adapt our yoga practice accordingly:CB_4405-Edita (640x427) alternating Yang dynamic practices which are more stimulating, energising, increasing circulation in the Body, and Yin restorative practices with supported postures, held longer, which help to reach deeper layers of the body, releasing tensions, knots and old energy, to create spaciousness in the bodymind (3).CB_4425-Edita

Once our sacred space has been cleared inside and out, inspiration will arise and we are ready to embrace new fresh energy. We have a fresh canvas and can allow ourselves to play with the colours of creativity, while considering what truly makes us happy and fulfilled, and welcome fresh opportunities in our lives… Most importantly, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself and see how it feels.

spring energy

(1)    Smudge : Smudging is an ancient ceremony in which you burn sacred plants, such as sage, to allow the smoke to clear and bless a space. It helps clear the energy at home,  and to start anew. 
(2)    The five element theory : the ancient Taoists studied Nature to observe and determine how it relates to our health and well-being. The five elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each element is associated to a season : Wood to Spring, Fire to Summer, Earth to Indian summer, Metal to Autumn, and Water to Winter. 
(3)     Bodymind : is an approach to understanding the relationship between the human body and mind in which they are seen as a single integrated unit. In the fields of psychology, therapy and alternative medicine bodymind implies that the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are dynamically interrelated. Experience, including physical stress, emotional injury, and pleasures are stored in the body’s cells which in turn affects one’s reactions to stimuli.

FREEING THE NECK AND BODYMIND WISDOM

Growing up with a scoliosis and carrying a heavy school bag full of books for many years did not help…Then a couple of whiplash injuries left me with chronic pain in the cervical spine and shoulders area. I got so used to it that I did not complain anymore nor seek to alleviate it, until I developed more body awareness through my yoga practice and meditation…
How many of us suffer in silence with a sore neck, shoulders or stabbing pain in between the shoulder blades, just accepting and putting up with it ? Many people have just resigned themselves to pain as they feel it is a normal condition…. As I check in with students at the beginning of my classes, there is always at least one person in class, who suffers from chronic pain, tension in the neck and shoulders area.
In the United States, it appears that 80% of the active population report at some point a neck and shoulder problem. I did not find any statistics for the UK population but it would not surprise me if it was pretty close. There seems to be an increasing amount of people who loose the natural curvature of the neck and develop a military neck (flat neck) or hyper extended neck (head forward or reverse cervical curve). The most common causes are poor posture, walking in high heels, sitting at a desk all day, spending long hours in front of a computer and/or on electronic devices. Whiplash injuries, carrying weights, doing lots of arms forward movements, occupations which require repetitive neck movements, regularly sleeping on piles of pillows, can also ultimately compromise the shape and structure of vertebrae and muscle of neck and shoulders.
When the natural lordosis of the cervical disappears, it can result in chronic pain, numbness in the arms and hands and sometimes even pinched nerves. It also affects the way we breathe and the quality of our sleep. Inspirational Yoga therapist Doug Keller, explained in a training I attended a couple of years back, that during sleep, the cerebrospinal fluid moves up to the head and washes the “waste-pipes” going to the brain. And if our sleep gets interrupted every so often, this important process cannot run smoothly. In the long run, it affects the nervous system and leads to all kind of medical conditions linked to the nervous system. This was a revelation for me. As far as I can remember, I had been part of the “happy many fluffy pillows club”, sometimes sleeping with up to two big pillows and a bolster… As I started to look after my neck and sleep with a single good quality pillow gently supporting the back of my neck, not only did my sleep improve greatly but also I felt more rested in the morning and less prone to tension during the day.
Beyond the physiological and anatomical aspects, taking care of the neck is just as important from an energetic perspective: The neck is the location of Vishuddhi (the throat chakra – the fifth energy centre*) which represents our ‘Voice’ , our self-expression/ communication (with ourselves and with others). On a psychological level, neck issues can be related to a feeling that we are unable to express ourselves as we would like or that we feel not heard when we speak. As a result, the throat chakra starts to close down, the energy there stops expanding, unable to flow properly. When the neck and shoulder area clammed up, the shoulders tend to round and the chest caves in. It affects the way we breathe but also the way we feel. When this happens, the communication between the head, the rest of the body,and our energetic heart centre (Anahata chakra*) is affected. It becomes more difficult to hear our “inner voice”, also known as the “inner teacher”, the voice of the heart. This is the amazing body wisdom which tells us when there is an energetic disconnection we need to address. Most of the time, we are far too busy to listen, as we get caught up in all kind of external distractions.
The modern society we live in encourages us to look outward constantly , live in our head more than our body. Just consider for a moment how long most of us spend on computers, electronic devices or watching TV, bombarded by social media, and all kind of advertising, ‘gloom and doom’ news etc … As a result, and with years of conditioning, the voice of the mind becomes much louder than the voice of the heart.
Ultimately, it is our choice and responsibility to become more aware of unhealthy postures and the tendencies which do not serve us. This is the first step to transformation to get more attuned to the bodymind**, access our quiet centre and become more empowered individuals in the mist of the eternal battle between the voice of the heart and the voice of the mind…

Simple steps to take care of your neck and shoulders:

1/ Take regular breaks from your desk, move and stretch yourself.

2/ Give yourselves a hug by placing your hands around the shoulders. hugAs you breathe in, feel the area around and in between the shoulder blades expand, as you breathe out, feel the neck soften, and the shoulders relax down. Repeat a few times then change the crossing of the arms and repeat the process again.

 

3/ A simple reclined posture: Lay on the back, with knees bent and resting towards each other, feet wide. rolled blanket under shoulder bladesPlace a rolled blanket in the area just below the shoulder blades. Rest there for 5 minutes with the arms in “cactus position”. After a while, when the body has softened, you can try extending the arms in a wide V shape.

4/ If you spend long hours sitting in front of a computer, there might be a few simple adjustments you can do to improve your posture at your desk :posture at the desk

*Chakras (Sanskrit cakra, “wheel”): according to Tantric philosophy, and the Yoga and Ayurvedic traditions, there are seven main chakras, thought as a spinning vortex of energy. These are Muladhara (located mainly in the pelvic floor), Svadhisthana (located in the pelvic basin/ lower abdomen), Manipura (at the navel centre), Anahata (energetic heart centre,in the sternum area), Vishuddhi (throat energetic centre), Ajna (third eye) and Sahasrara (at the crown of the head).

**Bodymind : is an approach to understanding the relationship between the human body and mind in which they are seen as a single integrated unit. In the fields of psychology, therapy and alternative medicine bodymind implies that the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are dynamically interrelated. Experience, including physical stress, emotional injury, and pleasures are stored in the body’s cells which in turn affects one’s reactions to stimuli.