Shhh…


Slightly off piste post, but it’s not often dazzling revelations wash up on the shore.

So whilst this golden nugget doesn’t come from pranayama practice or any sort of meditative-retreat scenario, I wanted to do something to flag up and share this little gem. I would shout but, as you might guess, even the thought of capital letters makes me flinch. 

For while I’ve always known I was an introvert I thought it was a flaw, that there was something wrong with me. Turns out I’m just born this way. It’s like being left handed. I just am. More than that, it’s highly valuable, albeit less recognised by a business-driven society where extroverts grab the soapbox, the spotlight and bellow out their confidence, all the while smiling into the eyes of their audience.

Really, I can’t thank Susan Cain enough. And I urge you to read this book, if you haven’t already. 

If you’re an extrovert you’ll gain a deeper understanding of your friends and colleagues who have puzzled you with their need to sit in silence for hours, like this… 


(Actually, I’m considering those flowers have a too-noisy scent, I’ll go for something less heady next time.)

If you’re an introvert you’ll realise why too many people talking at once, open plan offices and packed exhibitions freak you out.


Lesson we learned last month, don’t go to exhibitions until everyone is bored of them. Introverts do not cope well with being packed into dark spaces with hundreds of sweaty people. 

But we are brilliant in our own way. We have much to contribute and have done for centuries. Just quietly. Shhhh…

Change your world with gratitude 

Do you ever get that ‘are you kidding me?’ experience, like when you find a new band and you have that ‘oh wow’ thing when they capture your heart and you’re having this incredible, unique moment in time with them, you almost feel like you know them on this other level you can’t quite articulate and then… suddenly… they are everywhere? You can’t turn on the radio without hearing them, suddenly they’re on TV, they start flashing up in Facebook ads…

That, my friends, is my story with Gratitude. There I was, blown away by the power of a gratitude practice I began back in March and then suddenly ‘gratitude’ popped up everywhere.

YouTube sends me suggested viewing lists which include Media owner, TV talk show host and all-round goddess, Oprah Winfrey, talking about how she has been keeping a gratitude journal since the 1990s. Way ahead of the wave. I go to Unleash the Power Within with Tony Robbins and I find myself doing something called ‘priming’. It’s a gratitude practice rebrand. Then there’s Brene Brown who reminds us it’s hard to be stressed about something you’re grateful for. Which I know sounds counter intuitive but it’s the ‘challenge’ not a ‘problem’ approach.

Yes ‘gratitude’ is everywhere and for good reason. It works. Even academic researchers agree. In research conducted at Pennsylvania University by Seligman and Steen showed a gratitude practice brought the greatest happiness to test participants experiencing six different happiness practices. You can read more here in the paper Positive Psychology Progress (PDF)

I learned my practice as part of a pranayama workshop and only took it up as a daily practice because it was part of my post teacher training cpd points. I know; shallow.

Yet here I am, five months later, beginning each day with this practice and I wouldn’t have it any different now.

My practice goes like this:

  • X 3 things I am grateful day. It can be anything from the first time I kissed my partner (I really like that one) to it being a sunny day or being able to hear birds singing. It doesn’t have to be massive stuff.

  • X 3 things I’m sorry about. Again anything, being irritable, letting go of a dream. It’s not always comfortable, sometimes you’ll feel it right in the solar plexus, but it does help you emotionally disconnect from something that troubles you and that helps you heal and stops the reactive feelings

  • X3 things you’d really like help with. Whether you believe in God, or the power of the universe or you can just about suppress your cynicism long enough to ask for support from anywhere to come to your rescue, this is your moment.

I look back at my journal and I see statements like ‘I feel a tremendous sense of nowness’, ‘the birds singing sounds amazing’ and there are numerous references to feeling ‘grounded’.

The funny thing is, it becomes a habit. I see ducks swimming in a row and I feel a flood of gratitude. I meet friends for lunch and I feel grateful I can do this, and it’s not raining (which in Manchester is more of a revelation but I digress).

The bottom line is it’s quick, it’s effective, it requires only a notebook and a pen (there are a gazillion apps but really don’t… there’s a pleasure in physically writing down your thoughts) and it really will improve your happiness.

So am I grateful that I was shallow enough to start my whole relationship with gratitude just because I was chasing cpd points? Of course 😉 The universe moves in mysterious ways.

Kidding around at yoga

It is July, isn’t it?

I only ask because I found this news story this morning and it seemed just right for an April Fool’s Day piece. But I checked the date. It’s from this month.

Goat yoga arrives in the UK apparently – in Suffolk, of all places. I’ve always found goats a little unnerving. Too much Hammer House of Horror as a kid I suppose, but the organisers claim the goats add to the wellbeing of those taking part. Indeed. 

When we had a cat, Fifi used to take part – in that she would try to climb on you at any given opportunity. Seated postures were challenging. Did it add to my wellbeing? At least I didn’t have to listen to her demolish the door, scratch by scratch, trying to get in. My teacher tells tales of banning her cat, Shirley, from her yoga practice. Hardcore though.
So are you animals in or animals out of the home practice routine? Does it help or hinder?

Meditation in daily life

As I’m sure many of you know, asana – physical yoga – is just one of the eight limbs of yoga.

While I have a daily asana and pranayama practice, I also strive to meditate. Meditation takes regular practice and it’s not as easy as it looks, but it brings so many benefits and who doesn’t want a calm interior world? Of course, taking practice and applying it off the mat is another matter.


Nice view, isn’t it. This is the vista from my favourite park bench. To the right is a water feature, so you get it all; the babbling brook, a pleasing array of trees to gaze on and, if you’re lucky, the sun on your face.

So there I am last week, soaking up a few rays, enjoying the peace, the soft breeze and the scent of fresh foliage when a couple come along, sit two benches down and begin a loud, animated discussion about their employer. And so the peace was gone. 

Just as my ‘I’m completely irritated’ thoughts began to marshal themselves and began jumping up and down, I remembered meditation. Focusing on the sound of the water, I closed my eyes and took my focus inwards. Within two minutes their voices had faded into the background and I was hardly aware of them.

I know! Impressed me too.

Of course maintaining that inner calm that way has its time and place. Take last night…

Deep within Manchester’s old Granada Studios New Order were playing their last gig at the Manchester International Festival. An amazing light show and performance by both them at their synthesiser orchestra from the Royal College of Music.


There will be better pictures than mine on Instagram but you get the drift. In the crowd there were a distracting number of frenetic dancers just in front of me and my friends, crashing into those of us trying to watch, listen and absorb. No inner world retreat was going to work here but sometimes physical action is what’s required. Rather than stand my ground and push them back I just moved to the left and, low and behold, discovered the person in front of me wasn’t 6ft 2ins either.

My inner calm was restored, I had a better view and I was no longer distracted, which is as good as it gets on a Saturday night.

Flexibility in body and mind can be useful traits.

Falling down, getting up

Being conspicuous by your absence is nothing new in the world of blogging. Where do we vanish to, eh? We passionate bloggers who post so regularly and then slowly seem to slip away. I’ve been missing in action for a year and my goodness, what a year.

For me I just got extraordinarily busy, in my day job, in my yoga job, in my studies… everything gathering momentum and speed and in that ‘faster, faster’ world, where is the time to think? To breathe? To watch the sunset?

Then throw in a handful of unexpected events to knock the wind out of the sails and I was, to continue the nautical analogy, well and truly scuppered.

Something had to give and I’m afraid it was the blog that was one of several casualties. More of all that in later postings, but for now I’m back on board.

Yoga is good for your brain

I work in a university and so, consequently, the health of our brain is quite important my colleagues and myself.

So Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr Sat Bir Singh Khalsa’s book, Yoga Is Good for Your Brain, caught my eye.

My colleagues might give a nod to the benefits of reducing stress and they may concede that a strong, flexible body is useful when I witter on about the benefits of yoga, but being ‘good for your brain’ is going to spark interest. Or at least raise an eyebrow.

This book is available as a free pdf so anyone can read it and it is written in an accessible style, so no having to plough through stodgy, seemingly endless sentences which weave on and on, this way and that, in the manner of a tangled thread which hints at hidden wonders but fails to reveal anything but frustration and a sneaking suspicion that its author had probably drunk too much coffee that morning. Like me.

Dr Khalsa’s book contains scientific evidence which aims to demonstrate that yoga and meditation change our brains by not only reducing stress, but also strengthening the parts of the brain responsible for memory and lifting our mood and spiritual outlook.

Of course ‘scientific evidence’ seems to spend a lot of time proving and disproving theories with research that is often trumpeted as fact and then later condemned as flawed. Take coffee – can anyone remember whether it is good for us or bad? It’s virtues go up and down like a fiddler’s elbow in mainstream media articles.

But if, like me, your teach very clever people then scientific evidence has sway, so check out Dr Khalsa’s book and let me know what you think. I would be interested in your thoughts.

 

Camel

When love blossoms in the desert

Three years ago, if you’d asked me what my least favourite yoga posture was, I would have said, without hesitation: ‘Camel – can’t stand it.’

My deep dislike of Camel (Ustrasana) had nothing to do with pain, or a disability to achieve the posture with any kind of finesse.

And I could do, and loved Upward Bow pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), another backbend and probably more challenging asana. I loved being upside down, watching the clouds float past the window and the sublime feeling that washes through you after coming down, drinking in all that spinal alertness.

I didn’t get any of that from Camel. There was just something about Camel I couldn’t relax into. My neck always felt wrong, a couldn’t get my breathing right; it just made me anxious.

My yoga teacher thought maybe it had something to do with my heart chakra being so exposed in Camel.

Whatever caused my discomfort, it’s gone now. I’m a big Camel fan and for good reason, it is a great utility asana – especially for office workers.

Whether you are young or old, whether absolute beginner or seasoned practitioner, there is a stage of Camel right for you and it’s nice and stable, so no chance of falling while balancing. If your work involves bending forward for any length of time (office workers – hands up), if you have a sedentary occupation (office workers – hands up), if you feel get stiff shoulders and back and your postures needs improving (office workers – you know the drill) Camel is for you.

I would strongly advise plenty of gentle warm up (spinx to cobra to cat/cow to upward dog or slow, gentle sun salutes) before getting in there. Also, start with experimenting with how thumbs to the sacrum feels before reaching for your heels. It’s a pretty intense experience, but these days I look forward to its energy-lifting qualities with a big, daft grin. It always puts me in a good mood and I’m a better person for that.

I think this article from Yoga International’s website is useful and a thoughtful profile of this asana.

So what’s your favourite asana? Do you have a bete noir you’ve grown to love? Is there an asana you can’t abide but don’t know why? I’d be fascinated to hear.

 

Meditating on Spring fever

Is there anything quite as cheering as opening up the blinds on a Sunday morning to discover blue skies?

I’ve been out for a walk this morning. A four-mile yomp across boggy fields, breathing the freshness that fills air after a night of rain.

Birds flittering from tree to tree, I picked out blue tits before the fields became more open and the birds disappeared into the distant branches.

As I walked through the woods I was suddenly struck by the noise around me – a discordant symphony of birdsong – from blackbirds and robins to the shrill, rattling gasp of the magpies squabbling somewhere in the undergrowth.

The sounds had not suddenly begun, my awareness suddenly picked up on them. It was if I was deaf to their noise and then a switch flicked on my hearing.

So how can it be that when we meditate, the background noises around us can’t be switched off with such ease? We do it forwards but backwards is so much trickier. Is that going to come with practice? It makes no sense that we can go one way, but not the other. Patience and practice, patience and practice!

 

 

 

 

Sink, swim or fly my yoga friends

Ever have one of those days when you wonder what on earth is going on with the world? When the left field presents itself just when you least expect it and says, basically: ‘Boom. Deal with that, smartypants.’

So it has been with my yoga class of late. For the past two classes I teach, something has turned up out of the blue, from the far side of bonkersness and paraded about in a manner that was hard to ignore.

Last week, just as we were cat-cowing as part of our warm up, I caught sight of something out of the window. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No – it was a man. I teach in a room that is three floors up!

Yes, it was the window cleaner. So we paused and we waited and I made jokes until he had gone. If I’d been particularly on the ball I would have said: ‘And now lift up your upper body, raise your arms to a T-shape, bend your left arm till your hand touches the back of your ear and then straighten, and bend, and straighten, and bend…’ But you know, hindsight. A wonderful thing.

As it was, we had a giggle and waved to the window cleaner as he disappeared around the corner.

The week before, waiting for me in the room were 15 anatomy class skeletons. I know. Image. All lined up in from of some screens behind which were treatment tables. The University had an Employability Week on, for students to hear from some amazing speakers, but room needed to be found for storing equipment to make space for the extra lectures. And our room was it.

Now there was a time not so long ago when I might have panicked, probably reacted emotionally and considered finding the Sports Centre staff for an explanation. Undoubtedly I would have rehearsed that conversation in my head a few times, just to stoke the fire of irritation.

As it was I sat down. Laughed. Looked at my lesson plan and worked out how I could adapt a couple of the asanas to work with less space.

We have a tendency to think of yoga as being all about the physical in the West. All about what we look like. All about appearance. Its benefits are so much greater. Just one is the ability to stand back from a situation and consider what the best way forward might be. It might be serious. It might be funny. You have the power to decide. You have the power to shape your reality.

As it was, we had quite a laugh. Most of the students found it funny and I made jokes about our independent observers being very quiet and possibly needing to eat more.

Step back, deep breath in, deep breath out. Useful, oftentimes.

 

 

Prana in the House

Exploring the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: The home front

If you want prana flowing around your house as well as your body (with the energy of The Prodigy – see above) you’ve got to clean up, my friends. There’s no slobbing out for the committed yogi on the domestic front.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is an ancient journal. It is, essentially, one man’s description of his yoga journey and what he is learning.

The thinking goes like this – your yogic home should be clean and tidy, uncluttered and spacious-feeling, so the prana can flow around. And so you don’t crash into the clothes horse when your shoulder stand goes skew-wiff.

Not surprisingly, prana has a lot in common with chi and so the feng shui principles and mirrored in yoga for homemakers (which doesn’t exist, but probably should).

Of course how you convert the people with whom you share space to thinking that all should be clean and tidy is… another matter.