Meditation, Yoga Philosophy

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the new buzzword for an old tradition. It’s been revamped, repackaged, rebranded and given an extra swipe of lipstick (or dash of aftershave) as we read about how celebrities, successful business execs, and most recently, Olympic athletes, are using the magic of mindfulness, as part of their daily routine.

So, what is mindfulness, exactly?

Mindfulness is the state we are in when we are not distracted, but fully immersed in the present moment. That’s it! Nothing more complicated than that.

Most of the time, our attention is distracted by our thoughts and emotions, by our worries or anxieties about the future, or by regrets of the past. We are rarely truly connected to the present.

When we practice mindfulness, whether it’s part of a formal routine, or simply a random minute or two during a busy day, we hit the pause button and intentionally pay attention to what is happening, right now. Read that again—intentionally pay attention to what is happening, right now.

This can be really boring, when your mind would rather be distracted by something else; like when your next coffee break is, and what if you don’t get that important phone call, and why did you say that thing you said in that meeting last week, and how annoyed you will be if they’re still doing construction work on your route home … which is why mindfulness is often described as a form of mental training. It may not be complicated, but it may take discipline to adopt mindfulness habits, and to “be here, now”,  in this very moment.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is,

“The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.

And I would add two important words to that—”without expectations”.  Approach mindfulness without wanting any specific results (well come on, enlightenment, hurry up already). Replace judgment or expectations with curiosity and commitment. Simply apply mindfulness techniques regularly, and over time, notice the impact that has on you.

There are a myriad ways to practice mindfulness. If you don’t know where to begin, here’s a good start: Elisha Goldstein’s “7 Things Mindful People Do Differently“.

And then, keep exploring. I find myself drawn to some mindfulness and meditation techniques more than others, and I also enjoy new approaches to these ancient techniques. With time, you will find your very own answer to the question of What is Mindfulness, as your personal practice unfolds.

what-is-mindfulness-yogaressa

To your clarity of mind and joy in your heart!

Namaste.

 

Travel, Yoga Retreats

10 Reasons To Go On A Yoga Retreat (on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala)

1.   Your Destination Is Dramatically Beautiful

Lake-Atitlan-Yoga-RetreatSet in the highlands of Guatemala, Lake Atitlán is celebrated as “the most beautiful lake in the world” — as famously described by German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. It’s the deepest lake in Central America, a crater lake (caldera) formed by the very volcanoes that surround it today. The three giants rising up over the lake provide a majestic backdrop for the ever-changing colors of the day. Idyllic, unparalleled, magnificent views surround you, justifying the use of all superlatives in trying to describe its beauty.

When you pull yourself away from staring agog at the volcanic vista, you’ll notice you’re immersed in nature. The gorgeous gardens of our eco-resort are filled with exotic birds, butterflies and tropical flowers, with the added temptation of exploring the verdant green hills and traditional Mayan villages in the area.

2.   Unplug And Relax 

Yes! A reward for working hard and a much-needed break from daily stresses, a yoga retreat at Lake Atitlán allows you to invest in your wellness and top up your energy levels.

Lake-Atitlan-hikeA yoga retreat also has a smorgasbord of “additional activities”. Plenty on offer, depending on what your definition of relax is. Do you want a yoga retreat which is active and energizing, calming and contemplative, or a little of both? Notice what you naturally choose and consider doing something a little different, perhaps unplugging more than you typically would — or, at the opposite end of the frantic/lazy spectrum, perhaps getting off your bum and enjoying the natural beauty of a hike or kayak excursion. You get to decide what level of RELAX you need.

Lake-Atitlan-sunriseRelax also means UNPLUG. Less technology, more nature. Repeat that mantra. Less technology, more nature. Give yourself a technology detox, as you connect with magnificent sunrises, sunsets, star-filled night skies. And if you can’t go cold turkey on unplugging completely, at least minimize your connection with the outside world, so that it doesn’t drag you back into the busy-ness from which you’ve just traveled many miles to escape!

Disconnect from all those little white umbilical cords attached to phones, iPods, tablets, laptops, and anything else that remotely resembles something that knows how to ROFL and LMK. Yes, fellow yoga retreaters, ICW. It. Can. Wait.

3.   More Yoga!

A yoga retreat is the ideal opportunity to do more yoga than you typically would, with an already-crammed schedule at home. We offer yoga twice a day on our retreat; typically a vigorous morning practice and a quieter, more relaxing practice in the evening, with meditation.

Yoga-Retreat-Guatemala-AtitlanDon’t be intimidated by “YIKES! 3+ hours of yoga a day?” — you’ll be encouraged to abandon any grim determination more suitable to a gym workout, as you deepen the poses without aggression, but with a sense of curiosity. You’ll see progress in your yoga and open up to new experiences on your mat … which you can pack up in your suitcase and continue exploring at home.

4.   More Time To Meditate 

Meditation-yoga-retreatThe combination of having guided and/or group meditation as part of your yoga retreat program, and the simple fact of being in a place with reduced distractions, will allow you to truly explore meditation.  This could be an extension of your existing regular meditation practice, or the catalyst for establishing one.

Outside of a group setting, take a few minutes (hey! take an HOUR — why not!) in the morning and evening to be completely still and contemplative. Take this mindfulness with you on an energetic hike, or even a lively trip to the chaotic markets of Chichicastenango, and you can turn activity into a moving meditation.  Talk less. See more. Think less. Experience more.

5.   Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Life-begins-at-the-end-of-your-comfort-zoneGoing somewhere new – new country, new language, new food — all of these elements stretch us beyond the stretching of our muscles in physical yoga. Unfamiliar experiences open the door to yoga of the mind, yoga of emotion, yoga of psychology.

When we’re no longer behaving like automatons, or stuck in the rut of routine, this is an ideal time for self discovery, making space for personal growth. By stepping forward and doing unfamiliar, sometimes scary, things, we create the path towards discovery and new-found confidence.

In this new and liberating frame of mind, you might surprise yourself and find you’ve signed up for zip lining in the morning. Try new things. You’ll head home with a new perspective on life, whatever your personal yoga adventure.

6.   Healthy Eating

Scrumptious-veggiesMost yoga retreat focus on nutritious eating and the destinations we choose on Lake Atitlán, are no exception. The food is healthy, tasty, often vegetarian (with optional meat choices), and includes some local touches. You’ll enjoy delicious soups, guacamole, tamales, omelette, fresh local cheese, quesadillas and more.

At the end of your retreat, you can make a commitment to continued healthy eating and incorporate some of these elements into your diet.

7.   Coffee

Guatemala-CoffeeOkay, I know I just wrote about kickstarting a new eating routine and healthy diet and now here I am, advocating a good dose of diterpines, caffeine and kahweol.

But my grandfather used to say, “moderation in everything”, and I’m following his lead on this one. Plus … “The majority of recent research suggests that moderate coffee consumption is benign or mildly beneficial in healthy adults.” There we go. If Wikipedia said it, it must be true.

So, get used to saying the phrase, “Café con leche caliente, por favor” and prepare yourself for Coffee Nirvana, as you get to savor the world-famous, fragrant coffee of Guatemala.

8.   Cacao

How can you not love a country where chocolate is sacred? Arguably the first chocoholics, the Mayans saw cacao as the food of the gods (me, too!) and held annual festivals to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.

Guatemala-chocolate-ixcacaoCacao was the drink of choice for the Maya elites and it was used in royal and religious ceremonies. It’s even cherished enough to be written about in the sacred Mayan book, the Popol Vuh.

And here’s a fun discovery – it looks like the Maya invented the first chocolate bar snack! – “So that they could eat cacao at all times, the Mayans also created an on-the-go form by packing it tightly with cornmeal into small round slabs. Warriors carried these snacks, which their enemies envied and stole.”

I bypassed ancient Maya warriors and indulged in little snacks of cacao decadence of the modern type; rich and flavorful, heavenly bites of handmade chocolate bliss.

9.   The People of Guatemala 

The local people are welcoming, friendly, and proud of their country. You’ll see some beautiful Guatemalan faces against the vibrant colors and designs of traditional dress, especially in this region, which is renowned for the Maya people who still practice sacred and ancient traditions.
Guatemala-faces
Regional dress is worn daily, not saved for special occasions, especially in the smaller villages. Cheerful and intricate weavings; women with bold designs on skirts and headdresses, men in jaunty cowboy hats and embroidered pants. In Guatemala City, you’ll see some traditional dress juxtaposed against the mostly modern and westernized sneakers and jeans, but the villages appear to be holding on to their traditions, which is a delight to see.

Guatemala-facesIf you’re so delighted and tempted to capture some of this on camera, don’t assume you can just click away at the people you see in the villages and markets. They will cover their faces or turn away in annoyance — and wouldn’t you, if the roles were reversed? Sometimes it’s appropriate to ask permission to take photographs in exchange for a few quetzales. Assess each situation, be friendly, and graciously move on if the answer is no.

10.   New Friendships

A yoga retreat in magnificent surroundings is likely to attract people with similar intentions and attitudes to life as yours. Your group may have a diversity of backgrounds, but you all have at least two things in common: you chose to go on a yoga retreat and you picked Guatemala. You’ll meet new and interesting people and have the chance to turn them into lifelong friends.

We’ve designed our next retreat on Lake Atitlán on October 21-25 with all the above benefits in mind, so that you can return home, restored and refreshed, and motivated to take that sense of peace back with you and into your daily life.

Join us at the eco-chic Villa Sumaya!

Click here for more info and to register

Meditation, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 2] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert

PRAY …

Meditation-OmSummarizing two months of extensive yoga studies into five key areas may seem like oversimplifying things, but this simplicity helps me to maintain healthy habits back home. Part 1 covered the Poop part of Poop, Pray, Move.

Now, let’s add Pray. Our minds are engaged in an almost continuous internal dialogue, moving from one thought to the next – some 60,000 thoughts a day, apparently! Meditation allows us to focus inwardly, experience silence, and calm the turbulence of the mind. It requires an inner state that is still and single-focused, so that the mind becomes calm, no longer distracted; ultimately developing mindfulness and insight.

When we meditate, or pray, or take a moment every day to release from the relentless hamster wheel of the busy mind, we can move beyond stress-inducing thoughts and emotional upsets, and find inner peace and calm.

“Meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within.” – Swami Rama

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of meditation is “The awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. I would add “without expectations” to that description, Meditationsince we often find ourselves anticipating what’s meant to happen, and what makes “A Good Meditation”. Did you see swirling colors and vivid imagery of eagles and panthers? Did a powerful voice boom out at you, sharing the secrets of the Universe, echoing in the cavern of your mind?

Any meditation is a “good” meditation when you’ve taken the time to just pause for a few minutes and bring the mind to a quieter place. Let go of any expectations and allow your meditation to be exactly as it is.

(More on that later, when I’ll post some musings on meditation. It’s a hugely personal experience and I would love to hear what meditation means to you, so please do post comments below to share with others).

Meditation was part of our daily routine at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga and Holistic Healing; most of it private, some of it in a group setting, listening to the soothing tones of Yogi Sivadas’ guided meditation. Our yoga teacher training schedule kept us busy; ten hours a day, six days a week, yet all of it was calmer against a backdrop of consciously creating harmony and ease at the beginning of every day.

Back home now and in a routine that is different to the yoga school, I continue to rely on  meditation to positively influence my life.  A regular (daily) meditation practice trains the mind to be in a state of relaxed awareness, not just during the meditation, but throughout the thoughts and actions of the day. And a relaxed mind makes for a healthier body. Provided you pooped, of course.

Next up, Part 3 of this recipe for a happy, yogic life … now, if you’ll excuse me, my meditation mat is calling and I have Oms to Om and thoughts to still.

[A wee note here … if you’re seeing strange adverts (nose and ear hair trimmers) in the space below, it’s because WordPress randomly displays these ads in return for my free blog space. I don’t make money from the ads and neither do I have a choice on what appears. Perhaps over time, the hair trimmers will be replaced by yoga mats and yoga books :-). ]

Meditation, Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Tushita and the Hairy Bearded Dude Meditation

I finally made it to Tushita today, a Buddhist meditation center between McLeod Ganj and Dharamkot, where you can drop in for daily morning meditation. It was our day off, so the walk through the forest with its silent, tall trees was a welcome shift from the tuk tuk, taxi and car fumes we try to avoid by breathing through a scarf as they pass.

Tushita

Silence through the forest and continued silence when I arrived at Tushita; a few people here and there, plus prerequisite monkeys and ever-present dogs. I walked into the beautiful meditation room, and had it all to myself for a little while before people arrived. Light reflected off the gold on the many peaceful Buddhas, view from the windows of the 100-feet tall pine tree sentinels, the morning noises of the birds, muted activity of the people in the kitchen below.

Tushita Meditation Room
Tushita Meditation Room

A fat, round meditation cushion with an orange centre beckoned to me as the place I needed to sit this morning, and so I did. Perfect. People started to come into the room, quietly taking their places. All ages, nationalities and types. So, out of a room full of fifty or so people, how did I manage to get the hairy, bearded dude in his dark purple dhoti as my meditation neighbour? From the moment he sat down, he was restless and agitated, fidgeting and noisily rummaging in his backpack and taking long, loud, snorts through his nose to clear his throat. Great, this is what I had to look forward to for the next 60 minutes.

Shhhh...
Shhhh…

I was furious. In ten seconds, Hairy Bearded Dude had wrecked my peace and my expectations of my long-awaited Tushita meditation morning experience. By the tenth coughing snort, I had to restrain myself from giving him a hard slap on his burgundy leg. Should I get up and move places? Oh, good, here’s the meditation lady, maybe he’ll settle down. Um, nope, not at all. Just inches away from me, every breath and movement and cough and sigh was an assault to my senses. With my eyes closed, the entire room was tranquil, except for the grunt machine to my right, ruining the tranquility. I followed the meditation guidance to notice the breath, and become aware of the air coming in and of the nostrils. Hairy Bearded Dude snorted harshly through his.

Through a veil of general disgust and irritation, I was determined to dismiss Hairy Bearded Dude from my thoughts, and keep bringing my awareness back to my meditation. I softened, breathed, focused on my breath and reeled in my monkey mind every time it leapt around like the monkeys outside. Miraculously, within a few minutes, Hairy Bearded Dude’s presence subsided and dissolved into the rest of the room and I started to feel quiet inside.

TushitaThe meditation guide’s words were ironically fitting, as she spoke about how we want everything to beautiful and perfect and how when it is not so, we reject it. How we create more suffering for ourselves when we reject reality. A suggestion instead, to rather accept everything as it comes and goes, without craving something else or grasping onto something we like. Sensible words about choosing not to react strongly to things, but to choose equanimity and balance instead. Was she reading my mind?

Everything changes, nothing is permanent – the air we breathe, the blood circulating in our veins, our cells regenerating and dying, the light outside; nothing stays the same. So, to crave something else or try and hold onto something we like, is futile.

My breath slowed, my mind quietened, the hour passed quickly and peacefully. At the end of the meditation, we were guided to send loving thoughts to those we love, with “May They Be Happy” wishes (lovingkindness meditation), and then to send the same love or compassion to people we don’t know, and finally to those we “don’t like as much”. Yes, Hairy Bearded Dude was on the receiving end of my wishes. I smiled softly as I thought of how I was drawn to sit on the cushion right next to him and how he had actually helped my meditation; by showing me I could choose to stay frustrated and angry at his presence (and increase my suffering), or just let him be, let go of my desire for the circumstances to be different, and not be affected by him.

Now for the ongoing challenge … can I repeat the same approach and bring this kind of response into my everyday life?