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.

 

Asana, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 3] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert

MOVE …

Parivrtta-Trikonasana-Revolved-Triangle
Easing into Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana) at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga

I’ve been condensing two months of extensive yoga studies in India into 5 key areas, to simplify maintaining this healthy lifestyle, back home. Part 1 and Part 2 covered the Poop and Pray part, and now we add Move.

Surprise, surprise … in India, yoga is not typically an exercise you come to perform on your mat three times a week – it’s a way of life; more than just a workout.

Asanas (the physical yoga postures) are not yoga. They are a part of yoga. Here’s a perfect analogy, from our teacher, Yogi Sivadas: “It’s like touching a thorn on a rosebud and thinking that is all that a rose is – you’ll say ‘rose is prickly’ and you’ll miss out on smelling the perfume, because the flower hasn’t blossomed yet. If you only do asana, you won’t find the hidden beauty of yoga, which is inner peace.”  The true beauty of  yoga is hidden beyond the asanas.  The asanas are a way of purifying the body and when the flower unfolds, we experience the hidden beauty within. A sort of yoga perspective on “Stop and smell the roses”.

Rose-beauty-yogaOf course, we were on a yoga teacher training program, so we were smelling the roses AND we were touching the thorns; we were doing asanas.

Every day.

Twice a day.

Four hours a day.

Here’s the difference. We didn’t approach our asanas with the kind of fervid and fanatical drive that we so often see in yoga. Yogi Sivadas’ constant message was, “slow down, take your time, feel your breath, always be mindful about what your body needs, rest when you need to”. We listened, and ironically, our bodies became stronger and more flexible through a path of ease and mindfulness, as opposed to a grim determination to muscle our way through countless vinyasas and pretzel poses.

“Yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position. Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life.” – The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Patanjali reminds us that calm and measured breathing is a critical part of healthy yoga movement, even when we are doing challenging poses. In fact, especially when we are doing challenging poses. That’s the barometer for whether we are overdoing it. Throughout our yoga asanas, we keep connecting again and again to the breath; breathing fully and allowing a smooth and even breath to feed the body and calm the mind.

We also learnt it’s not necessary to hold a pose at its maximum, for as long as possible. I’m not a physiotherapist nor a physiology nerd, but if the muscles fatigue to the point where they’re no longer doing a good job of holding the pose, we can end up stressing the joints (NOT good!) And if we then lock the joints to maintain a pose on behalf of fatigued muscles, we’re not engaging and strengthening the muscles – instead we can end up compressing the joints (NOT good!) Finally, when we’re straining and forcing the pose, the muscles become tighter, instead of stretched. The tighter they become, and the more we push into the stretch? Perfect combination for injuries to happen (yes, here it comes again … NOT good!)

Yogafunnies-flexibilityI’ve been practicing a less zealous form of yoga for years (often being encouraged to do more, hold it longer, “work to your edge”) and yet I’ve still suffered injury in the hamstring attachments and I’ve overstretched ligaments at the back of my knees. Even when I felt I wasn’t overdoing it. Are you a knee hyperextender? Don’t know? See this excellent article from Julie Gudmestad and find out.

I love my asana practice. It makes me feel alive, it calms my mind, it connects me to my breath. After my  time in India, my asana practice is both strong AND therapeutic, a place of even more ease. I’m being kinder to my joints, I’m aware of my heartbeat and breathing, and any time I feel the need to do MORE, I pause and ask myself if what I am already doing is enough, and can I still feel the relaxation in the effort?

And when the answer is yes, I know am in that perfect place to experience the unfolding of the rose flower and inhale the heady scent of yoga.

Next up: Part 4 of Poop, Pray, Move … what else do you think is fundamental to a healthy yoga lifestyle?

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 :-). ]

Ayurveda, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 1] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert

This is my secret recipe for inner peace and outward calm, the kind I felt during my yoga stay in India last year. I’ve summarized the most important things I learnt at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga into five essentials. Yes, we studied yoga philosophy and yoga psychology and Vedic wisdom and ancient Sanskrit and sequencing of yoga asanas – all of it fascinating and interesting and rewarding. And all of it enhanced when it was layered on top of this yoga blueprint for a healthy body, mind and spirit.

The recipe isn’t complicated. It’s simple, but not necessarily easy (isn’t that often the case?) : Poop, Pray, Move, and two other vital ingredients. 

(With an I-am-not-a-guru disclaimer inserted here. These suggestions are what work for me, and I invite you to explore and adopt those that make most sense to you.)

POOP

Please excuse the toilet language, but the reality is that poor digestion and sluggish elimination means our bodies are filled with toxins, and our minds and emotions become toxic, too. Elimination at least once, maybe twice, a day is healthy, so if that’s not happening for you, check your diet. When we eat well, we eliminate well.

Scrumptious veggies from the garden
Scrumptious veggies from our garden at home

Already eliminating happily, every day? Good for you, you pooper trouper! Nevertheless, the broader subject of diet is still crucial, as it affects not only digestion and elimination, but also our emotions and state of mind.

“We dig our graves more through our mouths than anything else.” – Swami Satyananda about our approach to food.

Our teacher, Yogi Sivadas, had an Ayurvedic and therapeutic approach to yoga and kept emphasizing how a healthy diet is the basis for a yoga lifestyle. He described eating as the most sacred part of the day, when we create an awareness and reverence for the food we’re eating, rather than shoveling it mindlessly down our gullets (my words, not his). He encouraged us to see the colors of the food, smell the aromas, imagine the taste, prepare the digestive juices for what’s coming and then eat slowly, savoring every mouthful.

Perfect pineapple
We’re lucky enough to be able to grow delicious pineapples in our own garden – be inspired to grow whatever’s possible in yours.

The Ayurvedic belief is that most emotional, hormonal and physical imbalances and agitations of the mind are caused by bad diet, poor digestion and a sedentary and/or stressful lifestyle. Doing simple things like eating dinner no later than 7 p.m. helps the digestive process. Other common sense advice was to follow as much as possible a vegetarian diet of fresh food, in modest quantities, avoiding or reducing refined foods, caffeine and alcohol.

I love a cappuccino with a chocolate croissant, and I enjoy a glass of wine, so does that make me a bad yogini? No, it doesn’t; but if I am anxious, impatient or irritable, chances are it’s because of the amount of caffeine/alcohol/refined sugar I’ve consumed. When I pay attention to my diet and reduce or remove those elements, I notice I am a mix of calm, vitality and a joy for life.

And if this sounds like advice from a health food magazine instead of a yoga teacher, Yogi Sivadas’s point was if we practice yoga, then by association we also practice Ahimsa (non-violence), which includes non-violence to the body, through a healthy diet. To “do yoga” is to start with the fundamentals of a healthy diet. As he said,

“Yoga only BEGINS when you regulate your diet and lifestyle”.

It doesn’t begin by rocking a kick-butt Astavakrasana.

Your thoughts? Your tips on following a healthy diet and yet not feel like you’re missing out? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

Next up, Part 2 of this recipe for a happy, yogic life … in the meantime, here’s to your healthy diet, digestion and elimination. I’m just off to grab me a handful of sunflower seeds and bran.

[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 :-). ]