OK - So I know this one sounds a bit ridiculous! How on earth do you practice yoga for hot chocolate I hear you say…
Well, let me explain.
Yoga is one of those things that can (and should) fill you with a warm, cosy, loving feeling inside. Just like drinking a delicious mug of hot cocoa - or giving someone a great big hug. Maybe you don’t like hot chocolate or hugs, and that’s cool - we can still be friends (just)! But the idea is that we sometimes need something that just makes us feel really flippin’ good - especially in a world where there can be so much suffering, anxiety, depression and pain.
There is a lot of societal pressure on us to do more and be more. We have so much going on these days that it’s hard for any of us to not feel overwhelmed.
But what if you gave yourself permission to just sit and drink that hot chocolate? To be with friends and family who make you smile and love you for who you are? To give yourself that rest your body and mind are so desperately crying out for? All without feeling guilty.
In Scandinavia, there is a concept called “Hygge” (pronounced hue-gah), meaning “well being”. It was traditionally attributed to the Scandinavian feeling of finding warmth and shelter after a long day working in the freezing cold. However, it applies to any time and space — not just the winter.
You might well have heard of it, as it is very trendy these days - which is fabulous! (It actually reached a level of international fascination during the time of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and Trump’s presidential election in the United States - which screams volumes really!)
The word Hygge is used to describe a moment, atmosphere or feeling that is cozy, special, or charming. It can be used as a noun, adjective, or verb, and brings to mind pleasant, engaging, mellow, good-humored, safe, soothing and snug environments - either by oneself, or amongst friends. The word hygge itself is Danish, but has roots in ancient Norse, with connections to the word “Hugga” which means to give comfort or console. That word also happens to be the source of our English word “Hug.” - So hygge is kind of like you’re being embraced by all of the beautiful things in the universe! How lovely.
Hygge is comfort and pleasure combined. But more than this, it is a general state of mind towards how one approaches life. The idea is that it gets you to cherish the little things, therefore encouraging you to slow down and practice gratitude by savouring the simple pleasures that bring you joy (like a mug of hot chocolate!) A lot of people struggle with focusing so much on what they want that they forget to appreciate what they have. Hygge can help with overcoming that.
It's the little moments that count.
Of course, Hygge can mean something different to everyone, as simple comfort is a matter of subjectivity.When you are snuggled down with a soft blanket and the book you’ve been wanting to read, that can be considered hygge. Looking through a window on a crisp, clear day, and letting your face feel the warm sunlight can be considered hygge too.
More important than what hygge looks like is what hygge feels like.
The concept of hygge can also often be linked to specific food and drinks, such as cardamom twists (Swedish pastry buns) or gløgg, a Scandinavian mulled wine with cardamom pods and star anise. Household items that are commonly considered hyggelig (the adjective form), include candles, fireplaces, hand-knitted throw blankets, and wool felt slippers.
Basically, Hygge is about simplicity, community and a feeling of happiness and contentment.
I wanted to address the concept in Yoga, because not only does it encompass the central Yogic components of gratitude, contentment and appreciation of the here and now, but it also gives us a place where we can feel safe during times of upheaval (see last blog on Yoga for Testing Times).
It feels like completely the right time to start embracing hygge now on a regular basis. Not just because we are entering the winter months, but because we are still all going through a period of global uncertainty, fear and stress.
In "The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection", Louisa Thomsen Brits wirtes that at its core, hygge is just “a practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of very real life” and is “a cure for SAD”.
The hygge lifestyle allows you to give your stressed-out, overly responsible, and exhausted adult personality a break. Instead, you get to spend some time in the belief that everything really is going to be okay, letting your worries go for a little while and focusing on the good things that are everywhere in your world for a day or two.
Hygge is particularly wonderful this time of year as we begin to indulge in the various pleasures of life without feeling guilty, and start to rest and relax a little more.
Putting a little more happiness into your life will improve how you feel, flow, and walk through life. The Danish continue to be some of the world’s happiest people, so wouldn't it be so wonderful if we could build hygge into our culture just as they do in scandinavia?!
So get sipping that hot chocolate and give yourself some TLC.
Sometimes, it can feel a bit like everything is going wrong at once. These might be small things that accumulate and become a bit overwhelming, or one big thing that we’re finding tough (financial trouble, divorce, loss of a loved one, serious illness or something equally as painful).
When this happens, it is very easy to slip out of good habits and away from the things that can actually help us feel better during difficult times in our lives. But actually, it is really important that we look after ourselves and prioritise our wellbeing when we are being tested by life’s challenges.
Yoga is one of those things that can really help us to manage any tricky situation we might find ourselves in - and remember, these challenging times are all part of our journey towards learning, development and growth.
Sometimes, the greater the difficulty, the greater the opportunity to evolve!
Here are some of the ways in which yoga can help us when we’re going through testing times:
1. Our yoga practice teaches us to be OK with a certain level of discomfort.
When we’re holding that dolphin or warrior 3 pose, we learn to breathe and relax into it as much as we can. We can then take this off the mat and learn to take some deep breaths and relax when something is sent to challenge us.
2. Yoga will help us to realise that we are stronger than we think.
Have you ever looked at your yoga teacher or someone next to you in class effortlessly striking a pose, and thought, “I will never be able to do that?” ...only to find that after one or two tries you realise that you can actually do it! Of course, there are some poses that are just not accessible to everyone, but the realisation that more often than not it is the mind holding us back is very powerful.
3. Yoga will get us to emphasise the positive.
We always practice gratitude in yoga. No matter what is happening in our lives, we can be thankful for being healthy and alive, and able to roll out our yoga mat and show up - even if that’s all we can manage that day. It will also help us to get out of our heads and into our bodies, therefore taking our minds off our problems for at least the time we are moving and breathing through our practice.
4. One of the central components of our yoga practice is to realise that everything is temporary.
The poses are temporary, pain and sadness are temporary, as are happiness and joy. Life itself is temporary. Yoga teaches us that life keeps moving no matter what. Dwelling on how we wish things were different only inhibits us from enjoying the present moment.
5. Yoga reminds us that suffering is actually created in the mind.
While we may not be in control of the things that are happening around us, we do choose how we react to those things. We can choose to get upset when our teacher asks us to hold that nemesis pose for five more breaths, or we can enjoy the feeling of our feet on the ground and the air on our skin, until she calls out the next pose. Life is exactly the same way.
This last one is particularly interesting.
You might be thinking, “No! I have not created this suffering. What is happening to me is actually really cr*p in and of itself!” and that is perfectly normal and totally OK. When you experience something that is painful, it really is that way. You feel it in your body as a sensation, so of course it seems very real.
But we can look a bit more closely at this when we consider one of the noble truths of Buddhism: “life is suffering”. This doesn’t mean that life is only suffering – there are, of course, many beautiful aspects to life – it just means that no one can live their life without facing some amount of suffering.
You can suffer mentally and/or physically.
But it is the mind that creates its own story around it.
Some people are sick, but happy!
It helps to use the analogy of comparing the mind with a garden when we think about going through testing times in our lives.
1. Firstly, you simply be with the garden.
You observe what is going on, and the state the garden is in. You don’t do anything about it, you just take stock. So when we are in a state of suffering, we just witness it, if possible with a quality of acceptance, without trying to change it. Simply be with what is. This willingness to just be with the garden and your suffering, will give you insight into what needs to be done to make the garden healthier/the situation better.
2. Secondly, you start pulling weeds!
Here, you try to gently and appropriately reduce the negative. Those nasty little weeds that come in and try to suffocate everything else! You consciously let emotions flow, and you inquire into your pain. You see what (old) beliefs are in your way, and you begin to let them go. It might be that you need the help of someone else (a professional) to hold the space while letting go of old ‘stuff’ - to help you pull those weeds in a safe and effective way, so that there is a solid and healthy foundation for healing to begin.
3. Now, you can plant the flowers.
This is where you start to increase the positive. You begin to cultivate wholesome qualities of mind and heart, and take in the good. Letting positive experiences sink in changes the chemistry of the brain. You can work with painful memories or situations and reframe them - changing the feelings and emotions surrounding them. You can practise yoga to enable you to develop your strength, openness and relaxation - to nourish you with support and healing. Go for a walk in nature and let it fill you with beauty. Find inspiring people to spend time with, read inspiring books, and let wisdom in. Flood yourself with love, comfort, warmth and pleasure.
This 3-step process can help us to work with the mind to move beyond it, giving us the tools to manage testing times with more connection and calm.
I’ll leave you here with this song lyric from Bring Me The Horizon’s “Mantra” as I found it sums things up rather nicely:
“Before the truth will set you free, it'll piss you off!
Before you find a place to be, you're gonna lose the plot”
Of course yoga can help us to feel as if we’ve grown in the physical sense. certain yoga poses will stretch the body and help straighten and realign the spine, which corrects our posture. We can root down through the feet and broaden the chest, giving us a feeling of being one or two inches taller!
But as we already know, Yoga is much more than just a physical practice with a physical outcome.
So I’m not really talking about growth in the physical sense here.
I’m talking about personal growth. The mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual kind. This growth might even be tangible for you, as you take a look around to see how far you’ve come, or maybe what it is you need to do next in order to grow just that little bit more.
Personal growth and self help are big concerns for us modern humans, and no doubt rising all the time. We have a stress and anxiety epidemic on our hands, and most of us are continuously looking for ways to cope with life a little better, and live in a more peaceful, contented way.
Yoga is one of those things that can open up a space for self-reflection, understanding and healing, therefore paving the way for personal development and growth.
The ancient yogic texts were all about spiritual growth, not about being able to stand on our hands! Thus, there are many ways that Yoga leads to personal growth.
Each time we set an intention for our practice, the idea is that it enables us to grow in some way.
Here are a few examples:
1) Yoga for Connection to the Self:
Yoga gets us to strip back the layers of our being, taking off the multiple masks we wear, to reveal and observe parts of ourselves that perhaps we’ve been hiding from . When we can see the parts we were not even aware of, we can decide if we want to keep them or change them.
This fosters a knowledge of who we truly are, which promotes better self-esteem, and enables us to grow and live in alignment with our true self.
2) Yoga for Awareness of the Body:
The practice of Asana (postures) and Pranayama (breath work) provides us with the ability to develop a strong awareness of our body, how it feels, and what it needs.
As we become more conscious of when something doesn’t feel right for us during our practice, we improve our posture, and become more deeply in-tune with our bodies.
From here we are able to better respond to its needs, recognising the signals it gives us about our physical and emotional wellbeing.
We can then make decisions based on this information, enabling further growth.
3) Yoga for Regulating Emotions:
Our emotions have a powerful impact on how the body feels. When we feel stressed, angry, upset, or happy and excited, these emotions can be felt sensations in the body.
They also guide most of our actions.
Our yoga practice gives us a space to recognise our emotions for what they are, allowing us to choose how we are going to respond to them.
Understanding how we can respond in a more positive or effective way towards our emotions is fundamental to personal growth.
4) Yoga for Awareness of Thoughts:
We have roughly 60,000 thoughts racing through our minds on an average day. Most of these go unnoticed by the conscious mind, but are all absorbed by the subconscious.
Our thoughts go on to create our emotions.
If a thought you have every day is ‘I’m not good enough’, even if you aren’t aware of it, it is going to impact how you feel about yourself.
Through practicing stillness and reflection, we can bring those thoughts to our conscious awareness. Here they can be processed healthily, and transformed into something more helpful to facilitate positive growth.
5) Yoga for Awareness of Behaviour
Much of our behaviour is based on programming in the subconscious mind, and conditioning from society. Yoga helps us to bring to light and examine how we behave towards ourselves and others, inviting us to look at ways we can live more in line with our values.
When we are living more in line with our values, we are able to grow and flourish in more successful ways.
6) Yoga for Stillness in the Mind:
It is so easy to get overwhelmed with the endless stimulation the world presents us with today. The ancient Yogis mission for spiritual growth, experiencing Ultimate Reality, and moving towards Self-realisation, was achieved through “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha” - the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Imagine what they would have to say about a world in which people are logging on to the world wide web before they have even got out of bed!
The mind need stillness and rest to be healthy. Constant stimulation is not good for us. In a world where depression and stress are prevalent, it is more important than ever that we learn to still the mind and be present in the moment.
The stilling of the mind gives us more clarity, which helps us realise what it is we need to grow!
7) Yoga for Connection to the Spiritual Self:
While I am not a religious person, I do believe that much of our unhappiness (and maybe one of the reasons for all those personal development books) is that we have lost our connection to our spiritual Self.
We are not connected to our soul, and to ‘The Divine’ (whatever you interpret that to be – I call it ‘the Universe’).
This is the ultimate goal of yoga in its purest form. Yoga means to yolk, or bind - to bring together in alignment our bodies, minds, and souls. We spend so much time in our heads in our modern world, that we have forgotten how to live as One with nature and the cosmos.
Whilst our Yoga practice doesn’t require any religious beliefs, nor will it upset your faith if you do have one, it will connect you deeper to the part of you that is spirit, and deepen your faith if you have one.
When we feel more connected in this way, we can grow more organically by working with the pulse of everything that surrounds us.
8) Yoga for Stress Management:
When we feel less stressed and overwhelmed, the physiological response in the body is a lower heart rate, slower breathing, and a sense of calm. Here, we are in the parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system.
Being in the parasympathetic nervous system means that we can think, feel and behave more rationally. We can make decisions that come more from our intuition or gut instinct as we are able to listen more intently to our heart’s desires, as opposed to coming from a place of fear that the sympathetic nervous system puts us in.
Unfortunately, a lot of us spend most of our time in the stressed out, sympathetic nervous system. But luckily, the practices and concepts of Yoga offer a range of strategies to help to release this stress and tension. This can be short term to help you manage a specific situation, and longer term to reduce your overall stress levels and bring your nervous system into balance.
When we are less stressed, personal growth comes much more easily to us.
9) Yoga for Resilience:
The stress management strategies and practices through Yoga will also increase our resilience to stress and upset so that we will be able to weather the storms of life.
Resilience is not about wandering through life without any problems or not allowing anything to affect you, but it gives you the strength to get through it.
Each time we come out of a difficult situation, we find that we have grown in some way, through the lessons we have learnt along the way.
10) Yoga for Acceptance and Contentment:
Buddha says our suffering comes from going through life grasping at or clinging to what we think will gratify us, and avoiding what we dislike.
This attachment will only lead to disappointment when we inevitably find ourselves in a situation or circumstance that is not what we want.
Our yoga practice helps us to start from a place of acceptance - of where we are right now, and accept that life has led us to this particular point in time.
We can then look for the lessons we have learnt along the way, and examine the choices that we made to see if they worked or not (there’s never any way of knowing for sure, until we do it!).
That’s the magic of life - we have a choice! Whilst our personal growth might be restricted by financial, cultural or social restraints, ultimately, we do have the capacity to make the changes we deem necessary to grow in the way we desire.
Happy Growing Yogis!
This probably seems like a strange question coming from your yoga teacher, considering that at its core, Yoga is non-competitive (unless you live in America, where the USA Yoga Federation has successfully registered yoga as an official sport, which was approved by the International Olympic Committee in 2016; and you can go and “watch” the United States Yoga Asana Championships?!) *Cue eye roll from me*.
As much as it can be wonderful watching Yoga teachers (or “insta-pretty” yogis) demoing challenging poses, in my opinion, Yoga is a practice that simply cannot be competitive - it is "a journey of the self, through the self, to the self" (The Bhagavad Gita).
How can we possibly compete with the person next to us during our yoga practice? We are most likely there for completely different reasons, and do not know what journey each other are on. Your favourite poses are probably totally different to theirs too (perhaps strike up a conversation and ask them next time - you might be surprised!)
Competition involves rivalry. It involves trying to push past others and of course, to win. But this goes against everything “yoga” - celebrating yourself as an individual and what makes you unique; being part of an incredibly diverse, welcoming community; practicing amongst friends (even in a room full of strangers) who do not judge or compare themselves to you.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt), and if you are focused on comparing yourself to those around you, you are stealing from yourself some of the benefits and happiness that not only yoga can bring you, but life itself.
I like to think that I am always encouraging you to accept yourself, exactly as you are, and to not compare yourself with others, and not judge yourself or others. This is because it was these messages I desperately needed to hear, that deeply planted seeds of healing in me when I first started my yoga journey. And I always make sure that my practice and teaching works to water and nurture these seeds.
So why am I getting you to think about competition?!
Well, I have actually realised that perhaps I do have a little competitive streak in me…
Let me explain...
On my own path of self-discovery, I have come to realise that perhaps I possibly use my disdain for competitiveness as a bit of an excuse to stay in my comfort zone.
Competition itself has always made me feel very uncomfortable - I have never played competitive sports, and being in the Yoga industry, it is hard for me to “compete” with other Yoga teachers for business, because it goes against everything I (and my yoga practice) stand for.
But as with anything, I have to ask myself - why? And I realise it is because I (as I imagine most of us do) have a huge fear of failing, or losing. If I stay here in my cosy little comfort zone, I don’t have to work very hard, and can just plod along! And that’s just human nature I suppose - we don’t like to feel uncomfortable.
But if we do not push ourselves to try just that little bit harder, then we will never step out of our comfort zone. And it isn’t until we step out of our comfort zone that we progress - we begin to see growth, development and change within. Ultimately, we get to know and understand ourselves a bit better, which is of course, the purpose of our Yoga practice!
There is no “perfect” in yoga. That is why it is called “practice”. There’s no getting to the “end”, but there are always ways to continue to grow and learn. Therefore, I’ve come to understand that life, like our yoga practice, is an ever-changing journey that always has something more to give us - if we can just take that little step in to the uncomfortable, unknown, and unprecedented.
So just because I feel uncomfortable with competition itself, it doesn’t mean that I do not want to do well - to grow, develop and succeed. I am here to continuously strive to better myself, so that I can serve others to the absolute best of my ability.
I want to be the best for you! I want to win - FOR YOU!!
A major component of our yoga practice is to realise that all moments are fleeting.
Nothing stays the same forever.
As the Buddha said, impermanence is the nature of the human condition. But even though we know this truth in our minds, we tend to resist it in our hearts. Although change happens all around us, all the time, we long for the constant, predictable and consistent, because we like the reassurance that comes from things remaining the same.
But as we know, there are no guarantees in life, and the only real security is that there is none!
As always, what we do on our yoga mats teaches us to understand this concept of impermanence, and equips us to better cope with it in everyday life. When we practice our asanas, we often find ourselves attached to a never-ending process of "improvement". And whilst our physical practice and understanding does inevitably improve quickly at first, after some time our poses change much less, we experience smaller breakthroughs, and the “improvement” becomes subtler. Oftentimes, we can no longer practice certain poses because of age or injury, yet we feel agitated because we assume that the poses should forever be accessible to us. We are surprised when familiar asanas become difficult, and formerly difficult ones become impossible!
The lesson here is that experiencing remarkable improvement on a continual basis, it turns out, is a temporary stage. Realizing this puts us in touch with the truth of impermanence, and how remaining attached to the practice of our past creates suffering within us.
This is what Yoga philosophy as a whole is predicated on - the notion that identification with the temporary, changing aspect of reality leads to suffering, while recognition of the eternal, changeless Self leads to peace. Our yoga practice provides us with the realisation that we can live to the fullest when we recognize that our suffering is based not on the fact of impermanence itself, but rather on our reaction/attachment to that which is impermanent.
I have to remind myself of this a lot at the moment, as I find myself in what feels like “the calm before the storm”. I am currently in a grounded and centred stage of peace and calm – which is very nice indeed!
I have noticed that this tends to happen around this time of year. Once the bouncing energy of spring, with all of its freshness, renewal and vitality, has given way to the lazy, hazy days of summer (which we now seem to be in the full throes of), I feel that life calms down a little bit.
For me, this time of year is about whittling down the “to-do” list, and enjoying more time outside; forgetting about the chores for a few hours and reading a book in the sunshine; going to the beach, getting in the sea; and scaling down my workload – taking a little bit of “time out” and “time off”.
Maybe this sense of calm has not quite entered your life just yet, as we have not yet reached the academic “summer holidays” - but those who live by this calendar, hang in there, only one more week to go! (And for the parents/grandparents out there, maybe this is your calm before the storm – before you have to try and entertain children for a whole 6 weeks?! Brace yourselves I guess?!)
However, as most of you know, I will be moving house at the end of August. Along with this, I start my pregnancy and mummy and baby Yoga teacher training in September, which runs through until December! Amidst this, I have my Sister’s 40th and Mum’s 60th Birthdays to organise and celebrate, which includes 3 parties, and a trip to Germany!! Although these are all extremely exciting things, I am very aware that the last three months of this year are going to be an absolute whirl wind of business and chaos!
Thus I must not attach myself to this current state of peace –as the great Yogi, Master Patanjali reminds us in the Yoga Sutras (II.15), it is the most pleasurable things in our lives that are actually the most painful, because eventually we will have to let them go!!
A couple of weeks ago I ran a “summer” cleanse yoga workshop. Then last week we connected to our masculine energy which is all about cultivating our “sun” side – can you spot a theme here?!
Evidently, in the face of our typical British stop-start Summer this year, I have been trying to bring some sunshine, heat and energy in to our yoga practice instead recently!
This week I have decided to address this beautiful season head on, and get us to celebrate the Summer Solstice in our practice. I think this has been timed rather nicely, what with the little heat wave that is descending upon us over the next few days.
The summer solstice happens in the Northern Hemisphere around June 21st and represents the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and also the International Day of Yoga! During the summer solstice, the sun is at its greatest distance from Earth’s celestial equator. This time of year is symbolic of transitioning from the short days of winter, in to the bright, long days of summer… yay!
The term solstice is derived from the Latin “solstitium”. It is made up of the Latin sol, “the sun,” and sistere, “to make stand/stand still.” We can therefore take inspiration from the sun standing still at this time, and view this as the ideal moment to allow ourselves to come to a halt as well, and check in with where we are at this midpoint of the year. Most of the time our yoga practice encourages us to live in the present moment and to not dwell on the past or project in to the future, but during this summer period it can be good to acknowledge how far we have come this year already, and to notice the achievements we have made, or lessons learned along the way.
What has the first half of the year brought you? Are you still aligned with your goals that you set back in January? Use this time to reinvigorate yourself and your goals/intentions if you need to, and decide what it is that you want the second half of this year to bring.
There are also lots of other ways we can celebrate the Summer Solstice. As yogis, so many of our practices revolve around the sun, including of course, Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar). The origin of “saluting the sun” is not about getting the perfect Chaturagna/Upward-Facing Dog alignment, but about bowing to and taking in the fiery solar energy of the sun, to wake us up, energize us, and start our day. The practice was originally taught to be done in the morning, with the torso facing the sun.
Another traditional way to celebrate the solstice is to take an outdoor yoga class - a chance to reconnect with nature. Expect my classes to be outside as much as possible over the coming months!
Remember a few weeks back we set the intention to be a little bit selfish? Well, this time of year is all about joy, happiness and vibrancy, so come back to your ‘love to do’ list, and see it filled with all of the things you would love to do over the summer months. Get outside and go for long, slow walks. Eat ice-cream (vegan if you like!). Bathe in the sea. Surf. Do Yoga. Spend some time with friends and family. Have a BBQ. Sip a cool beverage in a beer garden! Whatever it is, enjoy it.
If you meditate, then try focusing your awareness on the Manipura chakra, located around the solar plexus. This bright yellow glowing ball of inner sunshine is the centre of our power, energy, will and achievement, and is where all of our power to manifest comes from.
Happy Summer Days Everyone!
"It is not selfish to refill your own cup, so that you can pour into others. It’s not just a luxury. It is essential.”
These last few weeks I have felt as if life has been so busy and chaotic that my feet have barely touched the ground, and I haven’t had much time to gather my thoughts!! Hence I’ve been slacking somewhat on the blog front.
As a result, I have decided to be a little more selfish recently: to not put so much pressure on myself about writing a blog each week, and to just allow myself to write one when I feel inspired to do so; to give some time back to myself to do the things that I love, rather than feeling like I “should” be doing x, y, and z!
This links in nicely with our intention of a couple of weeks ago – letting go of expectations – and also with last week’s intention – prioritising.
When life gets busy, we often feel as if we “should” be prioritising our to-do list in a certain way. We believe that if we do a particular thing before we do something else, then we will get a particular outcome – but as we know from previous experiences, we ultimately have no control over the outcomes of our actions, no matter how much we plan, schedule and prioritise.
Sometimes we can prioritise with the best intentions, but then something goes wrong (like a car breaking down!!), and we end up having to re-structure, re-plan and re-organise our lives. As most of us are creatures of habit, and we almost cannot help but want to have a routine in place in order to help us feel grounded and in control, a spanner-in-the-works scenario can cause feelings of stress, overwhelm and anxiety.
What our yoga practice can give us, is the tools we need to go with the flow a little more, and approach re-organising our lives with a calm, level head. When our energy feels completely scattered and “out there” in the world, our yoga helps us to re-centre and re-connect our energy within.
And we need to be a little bit selfish in order to do this.
As always, this may seem somewhat contradictory to what Yoga is all about – thinking of others, putting other’s needs before our own, and practicing compassion. But again, there are always two sides to everything, and we need to work on ourselves in order to be the best version of ourselves, so that we can be of service to others in an effective, enthusiastic and authentic way.
We need to put in the same amount that we give out: to recharge and take time for ourselves.
Being selfish in this way does not mean that we care less about the important things in our lives – it simply means that sometimes those things have to wait, and our own needs must come first. We seldom do this because it feels indulgent and “selfish” to spend a bit of time on ourselves, and we tend to feel guilty about it. Or we feel that we could be doing other ‘useful’ things instead. So often our own self-care just either doesn’t make it onto our to-do list, or it gets pushed right down to the bottom, making us feel even worse for never getting around to it! We all do it - I am as guilty as anyone, especially when I’m feeling “too busy”. But it is so important to think about what we need on a daily basis to feel whole, centred and balanced.
Only when we are at our best, can we truly give our best to others.
Whether it is five minutes or one hour, self-care will positively impact our lives, and the lives of those around us.
https://www.yogaformodernlife.com/blog/selfcareisnnotselfish has a list of 10 ideas of how to create some small acts of self-care in your life. Remember, it is important to find what works for YOU and really listening to what you need (not what you think you should do, or how you should feel). It could be eating nourishing food, getting enough sleep, having supportive friendships and a community, managing stress, exercising, or simple things that make you feel “good”.
1. Do something every day that brings you joy - It could be something as audacious as going to a spa for 2 hours, or it can be a beautiful simple activity like making and enjoying a hot cup of cocoa! Come up with a list of things you absolutely love to do, and do one each day.
2. Be mindful - Be the observer of your thoughts and actions throughout the day. Continually check in with yourself by simply watching your breath. Whenever you feel your breath get short, shallow, and in your chest, this is an indicator that you are probably tense/stressed/or just not being mindful. So practice taking 10 deep belly breaths throughout the day and feel the difference in yourself physically and mentally.
3. Set boundaries - These can be physical boundaries with certain people, places, or situations that leave you feeling uneasy, or it could also be setting boundaries from work/personal time. Setting boundaries with your energy and who you choose to be in your life is a great way to practice self-care as it protects you from giving too much of yourself to the wrong things.
4. Make compromises, but never compromise your joy – Joy comes from innate needs and wants at our core. Only you know your core beliefs and values, and it is important to stand up for what you need - in relationships, with your life, with your work, etc. So make a list of what things are non-negotiable for you to experience joy, always remember them and never compromise on them.
5. Cultivate your routine or rituals - This goes hand in hand with setting your boundaries and not compromising your joy– what routines or rituals can you develop and stick to that will help you feel loved, centred, and rooted? For example a night time routine where you make a relaxing hot drink and read in bed for 20 minutes before going to sleep – it is a very small thing, it doesn’t cost anything, but it is something that is done completely for yourself. Make a list of things you can incorporate into your routine to keep you on track.
6. Pay attention to yourself, take some time ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ - Finding a regular yoga and/or meditation practice whereby you can slow down and really connect back in with yourself, taking some time to sense what your body and mind need, is a great way to give back to yourself. We are always busy doing this and doing that – but we are human “beings” not human “doings”.
7. Create some time for things you enjoy doing, your interests and hobbies - Too often, it can be easy for these things to fall by the wayside when our energy is spread too thinly. But doing things that you currently love, going back to a long lost interest that brings you joy, or trying out something completely new that you have always wanted to try, is so important for our mental, emotional and physical health. You CAN make time for it, you just have to prioritise a little bit of time for yourself!
8. Community and your tribe - Hang out with people who “get” you, who can respect your boundaries, your wishes and your personality. Are your relationships, community involvement, and friends, people you want in your tribe? Is there a mutual energy exchange? Do you challenge each other for growth or do you feel completely wiped out after being with them/this community? Ask yourself these questions as a way to cultivate an environment of self-love.
9. Let go - Let go of emotional baggage, of people, places, of judging yourself, of life situations that no longer serve you, and of expectations of yourself and others. From an internal standpoint, let go of certain behaviours, ideologies, pressures, comparisons – anything that limits your growth, holds you back and sucks you dry of energy!
10. Live with intention and with a greater purpose – practicing self-care is not actually “selfish” – there is a huge distinction between the two. What a little bit of self-care does is to make sure that we are being loving towards ourselves so that we are able to be present for others in our life, and on a bigger scale; the world – this is far from being selfish. It may seem a bit far-fetched to think that one individual can have that much impact on the world, but each one of us does. And collectively, if we all start to shift into practice self-care and self-love, the more love, care, and compassion we can share to others - and the beautiful cycle continues. Giving back to ourselves is to live with more intention, and to ultimately serve a greater purpose.
I love what I do and I would not change it for the world. I hope that on some level I inspire and motivate people. This is why I also try to write blog posts most weeks, to better explain why I have decided to focus on a particular intention – but ultimately, if I am stressing myself out in the process, then is this not just hypocracy?!
We all have expectations - of ourselves, of others, of situations/events. And that’s OK, because it is part of normal human behaviour. But sometimes, things do not quite turn out how we expected them to, and we feel sad, upset and disappointed.
The problem arises when we attach ourselves to the outcomes of our expectations. Although we do not always realise it, we have absolutely no control over the outcome of our actions, and life gives us multiple opportunities to discover that we are ultimately not in charge of what happens. Even when we plan and take all of the appropriate actions, we still may not get what we want!
Therefore, in order to create a happier, more peaceful existence, we need to let go of expectation and replace it with allowing. When we let go of our expectations about what should happen, we can simply enjoy life as it is.
Having too many expectations and judgements can hold us back and keep us stuck in a cycle of stress, exhaustion, and ill-health. But if we allow events to happen and be as they are, if we can let go of trying to control the outcome of our actions and accept the moment for how it is right now, there would be no way we could be upset by the outcome!
We may not like it, and it may not be what we planned for or expected, but accepting what is happening in the moment rather than attaching to “how it should be” can help us to relax, soften and feel more at ease. From this place, we can then more easily choose how we want to respond towards what is unfolding in front of us. Do we take a new action, or relax into what is? Or both?
Often what we need is not what we want to do, but it makes us better in the end and helps us live better lives.
Again as always, our yoga practice is a great way to prepare us for letting go of expectations in daily life.
Think about your idea of what Yoga practitioners (or Yoga itself) “should be”, and what the practice “should” do for you?
Am I less of a Yogi because I drink wine on weekends, and I am not a vegan? Am I expected to be able to do contortionist style poses in order to be a good Yoga practitioner? Is it expected of me to practice asana every single day, otherwise I cannot call myself a Yogi, let alone a Yoga instructor?
We need to practice letting go of our expectations of Yoga and of ourselves as Yoga practitioners, because these expectations cause us to develop an attachment to an idea of what being a “yogi” (or aspiring to be one) should look like.
But we are not less dedicated to our practice, or less affected by the transformation in our hearts and minds that our practice brings, if we do not fit a certain idea of what a “yogi” is, or what our yoga practice should do for us.
During yoga class, in each pose, instead of attaching ourselves to certain beliefs about what we are expecting our bodies should be able to do, we can choose to pause, notice, and say the mantra, “this is how it is right now.” Then we can take a moment to notice what happens to our breathing and how our body feels as we let go of controlling and accept the moment. From there, we can decide what to do next: do we want to stay and enjoy it more, back off, deepen, soften, adjust our breath, or come out?
When we let go of expectations and simply be in the moment, just as it is, we learn to be grateful for the opportunity to try new experiences.
Just to reiterate again though, do not confuse expecting less with lowering your values or goals in life. Setting goals is important. But simply be careful about attaching self-worth and happiness to the outcomes of your expectations. It is more important to continually grow emotionally and spiritually, and to realise that whatever the outcome, even if it is not what we expected, this growth is the true, ultimate goal in life.
Some of the most central and important components of our yoga practice are to be compassionate, grateful, loving, kind, and to care for ourselves and others.
However, every now and again, our faith in humanity gets a little shaken, and it becomes difficult to practice these positive emotions! (For me, this particularly happens when someone does not wave at you for pulling over in your car to let them past! Grrrr!)
Then, something happens to restore your faith in humanity again – namely, a “random act of kindness”. Someone does or says something that just makes you feel better about life.
This happened to me last week when a friend rang my doorbell with a little gift they had bought me purely because it reminded them of me! <3
When researching random acts of kindness, I stumbled across the “random acts of kindness foundation” - https://www.randomactsofkindness.org
Here I found out that:
1) Kindness is teachable - “It’s kind of like weight training… people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help” says Dr. Ritchie Davidson, University of Wisconsin.
2) Kindness is contagious - The positive effects of kindness are experienced in the brain of everyone who witnessed the act, improving their mood and making them significantly more likely to “pay it forward.” This means one good deed in a crowded area can create a domino effect and improve the day of dozens of people!
3) Kindness Increases:
4) Kindness Decreases:
So there we have it!
Be kind. Think kind. Stay Kind. It will make the world a happier, healthier place!
Whilst writing my blog last week, I realised that there is a running theme throughout each of them – that Yoga is bitter-sweet.
And as we know, what we learn and discover on our mats is always a metaphor for what we learn and discover in our lives – thus life is also bitter-sweet.
Think about virtually any situation, event or circumstance in your life, and you will probably find that happiness and sadness were intertwined intricately with one-another – they are somewhat inseparable. You are happy when you are eating the cake, but sad once the cake is finished (well, I am anyway – you get my drift!)
Yoga is one of the biggest things that has ever made me doubt myself, knocked my confidence, and thrown everything about myself and my life in to question. At the same time, it has helped me heal, practice self-love, acceptance, gratitude and compassion.
Therefore, our yoga practice is one of the most evident examples of life’s bitter-sweetness. On the one hand it teaches us oneness, completeness, wholeness, whilst on the other it asks us to dig into a deeper place within ourselves – a place we find is full of contradiction and conflict.
Think about the phrase “yoga-industry” for example. This in itself is a contradiction in terms – these two parts of the statement oppose each other and render the statement false. Yoga in all its styles and traditions is a process of detaching from material concerns, but an ‘industry’ is a producer of goods and services within an economy driven by capital. Therefore, yoga, by its very nature is a non-consumerist practice, but the “yoga industry” with all of its advertising, branding and marketing speak, tells us that we need to consume the latest program or funky leggings! Toni Nagy’s article on yoga and consumerism suggests most yoga practitioners are struggling to “find a balance between living a life of non-attachment and finding the perfect outfit for doing Crow Pose”!
We hence find bitter-sweetness within the one thing that that is supposed to help us find harmony and unity!
As a yoga teacher, I am certainly guilty of this – I find myself talking about non-attachment whilst at the same time confessing to being a total shopaholic!!
What about yoga and social media too? There certainly exists a bitter-sweetness between the ethics of yoga and a dominating visual culture here as well.
Social media is a core part of modern day life and is in many ways valuable. Yoga teachers are able to use it as an extension of their teachings in the studio, and can use the technology to positively impact more people than could ever be possible in a single location. But as we know, it can also have a negative affect on the things it is used to promote.
Yoga is a great example of the curse of social media, because it can make yoga appear unattainable and commercialised.
On social media, the driving force for some people is a desire to be the best and look the greatest. Straight off, this goes against the yogic principle of detaching oneself from the “ego”. Ultimately, what this visual culture of images has led to is the development of "master yogis" who dedicate their days to pulling off cool yoga stunts in dramatic places, or seemingly impossible contortionist poses. And while these pictures can be wonderful to behold, there is also a counter to this display of brilliance.
These images often lead to comments such as "Wow, I wish I could do that, but I'm not flexible enough for yoga", which again goes against every principle of yoga, and instead of encouraging us to try it, we are instead seeing it as something that is unattainable. Whilst anyone could learn to improve themselves with yoga through beginners yoga classes, it is instead thought to be too hard and so there is no point even trying.
When we look at yoga on social media, we quickly get the idea that yoga is for bendy, mostly white, slender, occasionally scantily clad, women in their twenties or thirties. Of course, they have every right to post those photos. But where are the pictures of everybody else? What about the image of older people and yoga? Where are the yogis working with physical challenges? Again and again we are served up the perfect yogini who looks like a model and is seemingly brimming with natural health. But yoga is meant to be an accepting practice for people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, and ironically, those of us most in need of yoga, especially the therapeutic aspect of it, are nowhere near a yoga class!
Also, the image of yoga that is often presented is one of vegans and hippies! And for many potential yoga practitioners, this can be a put-off because they do not want to be pressured to change their diet or be judged for their wider lifestyle.
…Again, bitter-sweetness rears its head.
So how can we feel balanced, whole and complete by practicing something that seems so contradictory?
Well yes, in a world that likes easy answers, yoga confronts us with nuance, complexity and contradictions, but the practice also grows our ability to be with all of this at once. I always stress in my teachings that our yoga practice is not just doing exercises in the sense of gym or studio class, or posting our “successes” on social media, but the real work is in taking an honest look at ourselves, perceiving all that we are made up of in order to move closer to equanimity and balance.
Yoga, in all its bitter-sweetness, gives us information and experience so that we can better navigate through this bitter-sweet world. We learn that there will always be a bad to every good (a yin and yang), and that something can seem good or bad based on perspective or the context. Bitter exists to make us understand and enjoy sweet. We experience bad things in order to grow and understand what a good thing is – there is always beauty to be found in darkness, and peace to be found in turmoil.
Because life is made up of opposites, it therefore has every possible potential! And most importantly, Yoga teaches us that everything ultimately exists inside of us anyway, so the choice of what we feed within is all our own doing. This is why happiness to one is misery to the other. And it is within this fact that the magic of yoga really exists - we are the masters of our own practice and therefore our lives. We can choose to feed negativity, dislike and bitterness, or we can feed love, move from a place of compassion, and create more sweetness in our lives.
The best I can do as a yoga teacher, feeling conflicted myself, and trying to teach a practice of non-attachment and ego-eradication whilst wearing the latest recycled plastic leggings, and posting photos on Instagram, is to be humble, honest and authentic.
And as the saying goes – when life gives you lemons, make gin!