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!!