I had what may have seemed like a fairly “ordinary” conversation with a couple of yogis after class last week about whether to eat a “proper” dinner or not when I got home from teaching at 9:45pm that evening! I explained that making the decision to eat or not at this time of night is somewhat of a conundrum, because I do not like the feeling of going to bed too full, or too hungry – (I know, this is compelling stuff! Please do keep reading though, I am going somewhere with this, I promise!)
One of them then suggested that maybe I set the intention this week to practice Yoga for when you are confused! This actually planted a little seed in my mind about how making decisions in life can cause us confusion – even if the decision is as small as choosing to eat a late dinner or not! Then a couple of days later, coincidentally, the other yogi involved in the conversation posted a quote on Instagram that read, “You’re always one decision away from a totally different life. Let that sink in”.
These little inspirations (thank you Mark and Ange!), along with the hint of Spring in the air again, corroborated this week’s intention – Yoga for making decisions.
It is estimated that the average adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. This may seem a little far-fetched, but we cannot deny being faced with a never-ending stream of decisions from the moment we crawl out of bed in the morning, to the moment we eventually enter a blissfully choice-free sleep (full bellied or not!). The choices we make throughout our day will shape how our day pans out, and will also affect other’s daily experiences too. Each decision, of course, carries certain consequences with it that are both good and bad.
I would say I am a very indecisive person. I do not like making choices, even when it comes to the “small stuff”. It can make me feel anxious, and I get pretty overwhelmed when there appear to be too many options to choose from. This is fairly normal for most of us though, because obviously we really do not want to make the wrong decision , resulting in an undesired outcome! We also all know that small choices can have big consequences, and we must not underestimate the butterfly effect (the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere).
(Side note: My boyfriend almost - jokingly, I think! -broke up with me once because I wouldn’t make a decision as to which ice-cream flavour I wanted. If I remember correctly, I ended up not having one! He was thrilled with this outcome as you can imagine!)
Sometimes however, we face those big, life-changing decisions, and it can be totally daunting choosing what to do when we do not know what the consequences of our choice will be.
But what our yoga can teach us is how to be more intuitive and mindful about our decisions so that we may choose better, resulting in better outcomes. An increased awareness and mindfulness of the vast quantity of choices that present themselves to us each day can help us navigate our daily maze of decisions and support our concentration.
It may feel like sometimes we do not have a choice, and yes, we are of course limited by our options. We cannot choose vegan salted caramel ice-cream, if the shop is not selling it! However, our yoga practice can cultivate a sense of embodiment so that we can make decisions that come from our inner wisdom, and have more faith and trust in ourselves to realise that we, alone, are the master of our own destiny.
Another great article on DoYouYoga outlines some tips when it comes to facing a big decision. I have listed them here, adding some of my own thoughts and ideas:
1) "Create space".
Spring is filled with a sense of renewal. Our new year’s resolutions may now seem like a distant memory, but spring being the season of new beginnings, is an opportunity to start again. Cluttered rooms can make for a cluttered head and heart, so having a good spring clean of the space you inhabit to clear out what is not serving you in your life anymore and make room for what will, can really help when it comes to making clearer decisions.
It is also just as important to make space in our internal environment as it is our external. When you are faced with making a big decision, take some time out for you – meditate, breathe, relax. The answer will flow through you more naturally this way, rather than being forced out.
2) "Clean diet and clean body means a clean mind and heart".
Along with de-cluttering and spring cleaning our inhabited space, we also need to spring-clean our bodies if we are going to make a decision with a clear head. This does not mean we need to be restrictive or unkind to ourselves – we all choose to eat/drink things that are not very good for us sometimes. But if we can start to cut down on anything that directly alters our state of mind - loads of sugar, coffee, alcohol, and any other brain rocking substances – then we can create a sphere of self-care in which the answers can blossom.
3) "Feel it, don’t think it."
When we are confronted with making a decision we can experience an exhausting thought-barrage that can get in the way of our intuition. As I mentioned above, our yoga and meditation practice can help to put us back in touch with ourselves, cultivating our intuition and enabling us to be guided more by our inner wisdom. Remember that Patenjali says that Yoga is the dialling down on the volume of the fluctuations of your mind to get into a more connected, intuitive space.
4) "Screw the advice."
I cannot say I whole-heartedly agree with this one. When I do not know what to do, I phone my Mum! She always helps me to see things from a different perspective, and figure things out.
But as we know, yoga is about uncovering those answers from within, and the above steps will help to strengthen that trust in ourselves and that deep understanding that we are totally capable of steering our own ship.
Quite often, deep down, I already know what it is I am going to decide – I just needed Mum to validate it for me!
5) "Make it and move on."
Once the decision is made, once you have felt it, then do not turn back. If you have already done the work to get you to that clear point where the decision has crystallised, there is no reason to go back over it. If your mind starts to wander over the terrain again, to rehash and worry, you will need to try and rein it in again.
Of course it is scary making big decisions, but we cannot let fear get the better of us. Yoga helps us to soften through the fear. By practicing the above, we can begin to let go of the worry and be guided by our inner voice that knows just what the right answer is (even if it is not easy or pretty).
None of us want to suffer or be unhappy with the choices that we make in this life, but sometimes we do make decisions where the outcome is not what we wanted, and then we just have to live with it. This is where last week’s intention of practicing “contentment” fits in.
When we are more able to make a choice about something that has come from a place of intuition, we need to trust that whatever the outcome, it will all be OK in the end anyway.
Over the last few weeks we have been exploring how yoga can help us deal with feelings of anger, overwhelm and the challenging situations that life throws at us.
I have given you some anecdotal evidence to support how what we do on the mat can be applied off of the mat when we are confronted with feelings and situations that stimulate stress hormones, and trigger our fight or flight response - my trip to London, buying a house with the boyfriend, babysitting young children for the first time ever!!
As I have mentioned before, our yoga practice can teach us to take a step back and assess situations for what they really are – impermanent, fleeting, and ever-changing.
When life ebbs and flows, it can be challenging to stay connected to ourselves; particularly if we would rather ignore or escape the negative/intense feelings that arise in the face of challenging situations. Yet witnessing and understanding our thoughts and physical sensations during these times, enables us to use our own discernment to know what might be an appropriate reaction to the situation, and move with more equanimity through life’s ups and downs.
One thing that I have not talked about though, is that amidst all of these challenging situations that can give rise to feelings of anger and overwhelm, there is a less obvious but very present feeling of contentment.
In Sanskrit, the word for contentment is Santosha. Santosha is the second of the Niyamas (self-study and discipline) of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga (remember that the Yamas and Niyamas come before Asana (postures) on this eight limbed path).
So on Friday, as I tucked in to my delicious Thai takeaway, sipped on a glass of chilled prosecco, and sat with a beautiful friend watching a film, I realised how sweet life really is; even when things do not quite turn out how we expected or wanted them to.
Thinking about these recent events from another perspective, made me realise just how fortunate I truly am, and how everything is always OK in the end!
Going to London is one of my favourite things to do, and I was extremely happy and excited to be there even if it was overwhelming and stressful at times – contentment.
Over the past 8 months or so (as most of you know), my heart was set on opening up my own yoga studio and therapy room. But now my energies are being spent focusing on house-buying with my boyfriend, and as deflating as it is that my business aspirations have not come to fruition at this moment in time, I also feel relieved that I will not have the added pressure and responsibility of taking on a commercial letting, and I am really looking forward to this new chapter in our lives together – contentment.
Babysitting was a brand new challenge for me. But the wave of panic that set in when my niece was screaming at me because she wanted chocolate and I had no idea how to deal with the situation, was soon replaced with the unconditional love I have for her, and the happiness she brings me. Whenever I think about my niece and nephew, I am filled with a sense of how lucky I am to have such wonderful, beautiful and entertaining children in my life, even when they are “kicking-off”!! – contentment. (I should probably give my Sister a shout out here too, and thank her for bringing two of the most precious things to me in to existence!!)
Contentment is not the easiest thing to practise, and even the most “yogic” among us think that they could be happier from time to time. Sometimes a feeling of content it is extremely difficult to find, especially when it seems as if the universe is out to get us and everything appears to be going wrong! We also still need to experience stressful situations that give rise to intense, negative feelings, because if we only ever felt contentment, there would be no impetus to grow or change. But what yoga can do is to help us cultivate a sense of contentment within ourselves, instead of attaching to and judging these situations - we will experience a lot more peace and gratitude even when things are not going our way if we understand Santosha.
Thus Santosha simply means accepting and appreciating what we have, and what we are already, so that we can move forwards from there. When we accept that we cannot always control external situations, it can be empowering and help us focus on what we can control: what goes on within us. Whatever we appear to be going through, we need to trust that we can ride the waves of life with a feeling of contentment; knowing that we have everything we need within us to move through changes and challenges with grace.
So make the intention to appreciate yourself for what you are, how far you have come, and all that you have to look forward to, rather than getting bogged down with feelings of stress, anxiety, worry and overwhelm!
Last week I shared with you all my series of unfortunate events whilst travelling up to London and back, which left me feeling rather angry and irritable! Along with learning that it is always better to catch the National Express instead of the train when travelling to London(!), we learnt that anger floods the body with stress hormones. This triggers the fight-or-flight response, which if left to manifest, negatively affects not only the mind, but the physical body and our relationships as well.
The long-term effects of uncontrolled anger include anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, headache, heart attack, and decreased immune response. Thus, I spoke about how important our yoga practice is in the face of anger, by enabling us to witness these unpleasant sensations when they arise, so that we can figure out a way to deal with them instead of simply acting upon them (e.g. lashing out). We worked on bringing a little bit of balance back in to our emotional bodies, and how to use our breath to bring us back in to a state of rest and digest, rather than fight or flight.
One thing I briefly mentioned about the purpose of my trip was that it was to attend a Dharma Yoga workshop at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Sri Dharma Mittra is a Yoga master who has been teaching since 1967, and who created the Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures. He is director of the Dharma Yoga Centre in New York City, and his teachings are very spiritual, based on advanced postures, the Yamas and Niyamas, and how to lead a content, simple and happy life.
To be in London in the presence of Sri Dharma Mittra, along with about 150-200 others, was quite overwhelming for a number of reasons. There were also certain aspects of the workshop itself that I found very overwhelming.
This got me thinking about this week’s intention - Yoga for when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Recently this is a sensation I have been experiencing a lot. My to-do list feels like a mile long, and the thought of ticking off even the tiniest item can make my head ache and my brow-furrow (NB: ironically, “write blog” is one of these things!!) Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel. Sometimes I feel like I am reaching the point of “burn out”. For me, this can manifest as lethargy, apathy, disinterest in regular tasks, and the sofa can become my best friend! This may relate to a few of you?!
Many of the symptoms of overwhelm are similar to that of anger - anxiety, a racing heart, not being able to catch your breath! I noticed these creeping in at various points throughout the Yoga workshop.
Just as with anger, when we are feeling overwhelmed, moving toward balance and a recalibration of your Prana (life-force energy), is key.
Here are a few things that we can do to combat feelings of overwhelm:
This is probably the most important of all.
When we are in a state of stress, we breathe at a more rapid and shallow pace, which sends signals to the brain that we are in danger. As I mentioned previously, this triggers the release of stress hormones, because the body is unable to tell the difference between a mental and a physical threat. These stress hormones are designed to help us to fight or flee when we are under emotional stress, just as they do when we are physically in danger.
By consciously slowing our breath, and breathing into our belly, we allow our body to switch from our sympathetic nervous response (fight or flight) to our parasympathetic nervous response (rest and digest). This will give us a clearer head and can help to reduce anxiety, stress and tension.
Yoga, too often, is shown as complex poses and athletic feats. The reality is that sitting and breathing, with an observant mind, is itself a transformative exercise.
That is not to say that the physical aspect of Yoga is not also important when dealing with overwhelm.
2) Go for a walk or do some gentle exercise
It may feel like we should skip our fitness routine when feeling like we have too many things to do. But taking the time to nurture and care for our bodies in this way reap so many benefits.
So get outside and move your limbs. The motion will act as a distraction against your worry, and help balance the anxious thoughts with the positive ones.
Exercise also releases those magical happy chemicals “endorphins”, which is one of the best remedies for overwhelm and stress. This will help you to think more clearly, and put you into a better, more positive state of mind. Moving also has a way of opening us up to new ideas.
Exercising when we are feeling stressed is also a great way to burn through those stress hormones the body may be producing. When we are in our “fight or flight” mode, the body will release cortisol and adrenaline. If these hormones are not used up through physical activity they can stay in the bloodstream, causing damage. Doing some physical activity will burn through these hormones, leaving us in a better state of health.
It is important to choose an activity that you genuinely enjoy, so that it does not feel like another chore. Just 15-20 minutes can be enough.
Yoga poses such as forward folds to get fresh blood to the brain; side bends to kick start anything that is stale or stagnant in the body that needs to get moving; child’s pose to rest and restore; and neck stretches and chest openers to release tension around the jaw and shoulders, can all help us to feel less overwhelmed.
3) Set an intention or do something meditative
You could sit with your back against a wall and set yourself the intention to listen to your body for ten breaths. This can give you more clarity and information about how you are doing than any rushing or busy-ness would ever do.
You could calm and focus your mind by repeating a mantra to yourself. Our minds have a subtle connection with our bodies and spirits, and by training our minds with phrases and words, we can change our outlook on life and the people around us.
Or you could colour, cook, or otherwise simply occupy your hands. Different cultures use meditation balls, mandalas or mala beads to help soothe the soul and the mind. Put something in your hands and set a timer for 10 or 20 minutes and let yourself wander off. Do not check your phone, do not look at a screen, and do not stray from the task until the timer is complete. Let the task absorb you.
4) Make A List
It seems totally obvious, but stopping the cycle of nagging thoughts that often come along with the feeling of overwhelm by writing them down on paper is a highly effective technique. It can be very easy to get caught up in “circular” thinking when feeling that there are too many things on your plate, and this only adds to the unpleasant feelings of being overwhelmed. By purposefully interrupting your thought pattern and writing all of your tasks down on paper you will be sending a message to your brain that it does not have to keep reminding you of all you have to do.
5) Take a nap
Just like exercise, it may seem counter-productive to go to sleep when you have so much to do! But when we are lacking sleep, our reasoning skills are diminished, our emotional reactions are heightened, and we are more susceptible to the feeling of being over taxed.
By getting some rest, you will be better able to handle what you have to take care of, and will have a much more stable state of mind to work with. All it takes is 20 minutes to recharge our batteries.
6) Talk to someone
We are social beings and social interaction is critical for our mental health. When we are feeling overwhelmed, it is really easy to get caught up in our thoughts and to be totally in our own heads.
Connecting with a friend or loved one will help you to see things more clearly. Even if you do not talk about your issues, you will still be getting yourself out of your negative state by changing your environment.
7) Hug someone!
Studies have shown that just 20 seconds of cuddling will encourage your body to produce oxytocin, which is the “falling in love” chemical. This will leave you feeling more capable and less frantic!
Overwhelm is no fun, but taking the time to nurture ourselves when we feel this way, can make a world of difference.
Each one of these practices is a means to connect you to your breath, awareness, mind, and the world around you. Doing any one of these when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed can help us to start to see the world as it actually is around us, not as our minds pretend it to be.
So do something really nice for yourself the next time you are feeling overwhelmed and see how it works to change your outlook.