Reflecting in a pandemic

What an unusual time we’ve found ourselves in. A time where we are individually and collectively experiencing uncertainty. Uncertainty and change have always been there as the universal truth but now it’s prominent in our minds in a confrontational way we can’t ignore.

It’s natural as creatures of habit that this causes anxiety and stress for many of us.

As humans we go back to what we know and deal with stress in the ways we’ve trained ourselves to, that could look like reaching for a glass of wine, exercising, eating, binge watching TV, being super productive, becoming introverted and shutting ourselves away from others, grieving, or anger and arguing with people close to us.

I’m not going to tell you how to navigate this crisis, but I do deeply believe it’s a time of collective growth if we choose to take this time to just watch ourselves. Watch how you deal with the unknown.  

Chances are you might see these patterns as familiar, somewhere you’ve been before.

It’s ok if it’s not pretty. Shining a light on ourselves, and all the corners of our personality and subconscious patterns that come to the surface, gives us a chance to know ourselves more deeply. A chance to be compassionate to parts we might ordinarily overlook, that we’d prefer to hide away from. A chance to grow.

You’ve been here before, and you can stand up again.

Will we ever stop experiencing setbacks when dealing with stress, grief and anxiety? Will we grow beyond that? Is that what growth and healing are supposed to be? Probably not. But our setbacks can look and feel different and we can perceive them with a new perspective.

Setback. Awareness. Compassion. Acceptance. Stand up again.

What are you thinking about?

The mind is constantly moving and sometimes described as the ‘monkey mind’, but the things it jumps to are not completely random. Maybe you know that intuitively, but it helped me when I was first learning meditation to sit and watch the mind and understand why my mind is being pulled in different directions.

When we can see the relationship between the mind and thoughts it helps to lessen the attachment and weight of the thought.

There are two types of thoughts the mind typically jumps to.

Thoughts linked to emotions:

My meditation teacher described it like this – you say your mind isn’t good, you can’t focus in meditation or remember chants, but would you remember if someone owed you money?

The emotion linked to the memory strengthens it.

Another good example from my teacher is from one of his students with heartbreak – you’re sad because your boyfriend hurt you? When did this happen? 7 years ago? Your boyfriend hurt you once and since then you hurt yourself over and over.

Sometimes we’re remembering something so deeply as if it’s happening again right in this moment, the pain feels the same as it did all those years ago. We all do this, it’s normal.

I’m not here to tell you not to have these kinds of thoughts but to notice when the mind is doing it. Notice when your thoughts are linked to happiness, sadness, anger, frustration etc.

Please try not to judge it or become frustrated if you’re stuck in one of these cycles – there may be something in this memory you need to release, forgive or resolve. Use tools to bring you into the present day. Are you being hurt right now in this moment?

Thoughts linked to desires:

As humans our senses are incredibly powerful, we’re pulled around the world by our desires.

The senses can be fulfilled on both a physical and subtle mental level.

The mind is so strong that even when you’re thinking about one of your desires the physical reaction in the body can be the same as when you’re doing it.

What happens to the body when you think about food, sex, music?

We all know that feeling of being hungry and we can’t think about anything else until we’ve eaten something.

We’re not trying to remove every desire from the mind, imagine if we had no desire to eat or drink water – that would be a problem for survival.

But these days our senses are overloaded, and we’re exposed to a high level of noise, images and information so the mind is being pulled in directions our ancestors didn’t have to deal with. We need to get smart about what we’re being exposed to so that our thoughts aren’t in overdrive.

What are your senses exposed to? Does this impact your thoughts? Does it have a positive or negative impact on your mental health?

Balance – 3 areas to reflect on

The main reason of all the reasons that I practice, balance. I don’t know what route I’d take to find balance if I didn’t have this one. Feels like a big statement but I really don’t think I’d be where I am today without yoga.

I spent most of my teens and 20’s riding a lot of ups and downs, I was wild and had fun but at times my behavior was erratic and I didn’t feel good about some of my choices, but that’s normal isn’t it? I didn’t know how to change the cycle or what options I had to find a healthier mindset. I lost my way so far from the middle point of balance that I couldn’t remember what it felt like. I just thought that this was life.

The concept of balance

Balance is a fluid state and it’s influenced by our thoughts and everything we take in through our senses. You can visualize balance like a pendulum swinging. The bigger the pendulum swings, the further you are from the center point. As you become more balanced the pendulum swings become smaller so even when something draws you away from balance you’re not too far from the center. Sometimes those can be small things like taking a flight and changing time zone, it takes a moment to adjust to our new surroundings.

How can I recognize balance?

The biggest indicator of balance is being content, this doesn’t mean not ever feeling sad or emotional but generally feeling content. The swinging of the pendulum gets smaller and the root back to the center point becomes easier. Another strong sign is our digestive health (that’s a whole other blog topic!).

Knowing what balance feels like helps to recognize the feeling of being unbalanced and vice versa. By experiencing being out of balance and knowing something’s up it gives us a chance to create new habits, this isn’t a bad thing.

There is no shame in being out of balance, it’s human. Yoga isn’t about being ‘perfect’. I take time every day to be aware of my physical and emotional state and accept it. Giving ourselves a hard time or thinking we should be different isn’t helping and our guilt and shame could bring us further out of balance. Compassion is our friend here. I promise whatever you’re feeling others have felt it too.

We have an inner voice narrating our life and when we can transform the inner voice to be the voice of a best friend, we talk to ourselves from a place of love and understanding.

To be aware is useful information so we can firstly quit judging ourselves and then use tools to find our way back. Finding balance isn’t instant and it takes time, it’s a practice.

So how do I find balance?

We’re all different so treat this as your own experiment, these are the top 3 things I’d recommend reflecting on:

  • Routine – what’s your daily routine? Regular mealtimes and a good sleep routine can really help to ground us. Can you imagine if the Sun decided to change it’s routine every day and how nature would be in disarray? If you’re not steady in these areas can you imagine why your pendulum is swinging out of balance?
  • Yoga & meditation – taking time each day for yourself, to check in with your mind and body. Breathe a little deeper and move the body. How are you today? Can you bring forward acceptance?
  • Purifying the senses – notice what you’re putting in. What are you looking at (social media, Netflix, books), what are you eating and drinking, who are you spending your time with, what are you talking about? Which things are having a positive and negative impact on you, and why?

The Elements – Our Roots

I love learning about the elements and bringing them into my practice. It just seems to make everything fall into place for me when I look into similarities I have with the outer world and what I experience in the inner landscape as a human being.

The qualities of Earth, Water, Fire and Air are the qualities we see in everything around us indefinitely – I like to think of them as the roots of creation and the more we learn about our roots we can understand ourselves and the life around us.

Earth is the physical body. We embody this element emotionally when we are grounded, creating roots, emotional attachment and security. Losing a sense of security can feel like the ground is being pulled from underneath us, a huge part of finding our feet again is trust – trusting that the universe will provide for us and we have everything we need.

Fire is the digestive fire and metabolism. We digest everything – food, thoughts, emotions and burn through what no longer serves us. When we don’t fully digest, we get stuck. Fire is an active masculine energy that transforms things that are no longer serving us, we need this energy to change. Fire is a catalyst just like the Sun. Mentally it is our inner strength, passion and drive that propels us towards our goals.

Water is connection and cohesiveness, physically and emotionally. Connection is key to humans and it can be found inwards and outwards. Water is linked to the feminine energy which is passive; when water reaches a blockage – it doesn’t force its way through, it goes around it. Symbolically the water element is about embracing the flow of life and the things we can’t control. This includes the flow of emotions; emotions are waves that we ride until they eventually pass. All the water in our body comes from water we intake, we never own the water and it flows through us, hydrating the body. The body becomes a home for the rivers and oceans. The ocean is pulled by the moon in the tides, humans are made of 60% water, so it’s natural that we’re also influenced by this lunar energy. Like the moon has cycles women do too.

Air is the breath. The breath and the mind are like two wings of the same bird – when we’re stressed, we have a shorter shallow breath, breathing deeply can truly transform our health and emotional state. Air is light in nature – when we practice bringing lightness and softness towards ourselves, we can bring humor and self-love into our yoga practice.  Air is always moving and when we move, we embody this element. Air symbolizes freedom, openness, mobility and positivity.

The teacher in you

You probably know someone in your life that might feel a bit lost, maybe they tell you they don’t know what they want to do with their life or feel they have a purpose. Often, we choose to listen to the voices of others that we think of as higher than us – leaders, public figures, parents, teachers and friends to choose the direction of our lives, doing what we think we’re supposed to do, doing what’s ‘right’. And when it comes to our yoga practice it’s often no different.

The busyness and noise of life has made it harder to connect to our inner voice to guide us and so it gets quieter and quieter. It might seem like empty advice to ‘follow your heart’ if you can’t hear it.

The connection to the heart means living and speaking our truth, strengthening our bond with ourselves, our purpose and those around us. When we are truly authentic through our actions, words and relationships we create harmony between our inside and outside world.

This probably all seems idealistic, but I think many of us experience this feeling of misalignment, of being lost and out of place and it drives us to dig deeper.

I’m truly passionate about self-practice because it’s a safe space to practice this journey inward and spend time with yourself, it’s a gateway to connect to your body, mind and heart. Intuition is a sense we can practice in this setting and tune the more we use it.

Self-guiding your yoga practice can begin with poses from a teacher, The Sequence eBook is a great place to start and your practice may evolve in a different direction over time.

I would advise you to keep an open mind when you approach your practice, you will come to hurdles and there is no right or wrong but a lesson to be recognized. I spent years following very traditional yoga and believing this was the ‘right way’. The guru culture in yoga puts teachers on pedestals and we might even be negatively impacting our body just because we believe everything that teacher says is the best way. Your body and mind are unique, tune in and experiment to find what works for you.

It’s great to learn from teachers and self-practice too, I do both because they add value to me in different ways. Sometimes I get on my mat and sit in child’s pose for 20 minutes because that’s what I need that day and a class setting rarely gives me the opportunity to move so intuitively. The time to yourself awakens the teacher in you that stays pushed down if you don’t create space for it to experiment and grow.

The deeper this connection becomes you’ll find yourself knowing your body better. Noticing the subtle sensations or tension that might drive you to get on your mat, where you might have ignored tension before. Noticing the movement of the mind – the days where it’s easy to be calm and those where it’s difficult. An awareness of how lifestyle is impacting your practice each day.

And beyond all the self-awareness finding a way to be non-judgmental, and love and care for yourself regardless.

On the mat I find answers to decisions I need to make, relationships I need to heal, forgiveness to myself and others for things that have caused pain. Yoga is my tool for learning how to live in this body as a human being, to let go of things that have hurt, to heal, to love, find direction, get playful and enjoy life.

The word ‘guru’ in India is given to teachers – it translates directly to remover of the darkness.

You have the strength, the love and the knowledge to guide yourself from the darkness towards the light in any situation life brings to you.

My top tips for new yogis

I’m regularly asked for advice about starting yoga, and there’s no right or wrong route but these are my top tips that have both helped me deepen my practice and what I’ve learnt seeing students grow from the start of their yoga journey.

1.      Do little and often: There’s no problem taking a yoga class once a week, but you may find your body responds a little faster if you practice more regularly even if it’s for a shorter time. The practice doesn’t need to be intense or a ‘workout’, 3 times a week (or more) of a shorter softer practice could really change the game if you’re looking to increase flexibility. Going through some warm-up poses and sun salutations are all you need to start to access a deeper range of motion.

 

2.      Your body and mind respond to routine: Trial out practicing at a set time of day. Maybe that’s each morning, or when you get home after work. Your body has a muscle memory and you’ll start to crave the movement. The regularity helps you to stick to it and find consistency in your practice.

 

3.      It takes time: If you haven’t been accessing some of these muscles for the most part of your life it’s going to take some time for the body to open and release tension stored up. It really varies in each body, but it can even take years to see the effects from yoga. Practice taking the pressure off yourself and your body, it’s ok to take your time and over time you will see changes.

 

4.      Add some yin yoga to your practice: The body is complex and there all different ways to open the body and release tension. There aren’t many practices that get deep into the fascia tissue which is interconnected through the body and stores toxins and tension. This is a more passive practice where you can see huge benefits around health and range of motion by releasing tension that can’t be accessed through more active forms of Hatha or Vinyasa/Power yoga. You may be surprised how your body responds and increases flexibility by complimenting your practice with yin.

 

5.      Every body is different: Stop comparing yourself to others. Your body and bone structure are unique to you. There may be a physical limitation beyond your control that may mean some poses are inaccessible or even painful in places they aren’t supposed to be. That’s ok because there’s no one way of doing things, the pose is correct when you can safely express it in your body. It’s a learning process to get to know your body on a level you didn’t before. Forcing yourself into a shape that is aesthetically pleasing may not be what is right for your body, that’s your experiment. Don’t be afraid to ask a teacher for variations if something doesn’t feel right.

What are we practicing towards?

The more years I spend practicing yoga I love the way my body feels when I’m moving and it becomes more open but I’m also far less focused on what my practice looks like or what I can or can’t do.

If you have a daily practice too, you’ll know the fleeting nature of yoga – somedays you can see real external progress and the next day you could feel tired and stiff and the body looks, feels and acts differently. Yoga poses by design are impermanent so you can experience them, but you can’t tick them off or add them to your collection forever.

Yoga isn’t about doing the poses but one way to access this lesson of non-attachment is by doing the poses, it’s kind of clever like that.

One thing I take away from practicing poses that are challenging the edge of my comfort zone is that we never really ‘achieve’ a pose. Our comfort zone is a moving boundary and there are moments where the pose is accessible and others where it isn’t. And of course, if you think about an ageing body there will be a time when we will have to let some of these poses go completely, they aren’t built to stay with us for a lifetime, but yoga is still a lifelong practice.

It helps me to have this constant reminder of the pose coming in and out of being – and the deeper inner work is how you react to it. Before you judge any of your reactions or frustrations around your own practice, there is no good or bad but an awareness. Next time you’re on your mat see if you can find the space to bring a softness towards any reaction, maybe that softness looks like compassion and acceptance. The practice of taking the pose inward is where the magic really starts.

As humans we are very intellectual but the intelligence around our minds and bodies is still evolving. We may understand logically that it’s unlikely we’ll still have the same range of motion forever, but does that mean it won’t be hard to let go? Humans are creatures of habit and if these lessons are experienced daily they can start to fall into the subconscious so we can begin to accept the fleeting nature of all things in life, but before you go for the big picture – start small and learn it on the mat.

 

Ayurveda: 3 food combinations that could be affecting your digestive health

Did you realize that it’s not just the food you eat but the combination of food in meals that causes discomfort and a difficult digestion after eating?

So, what are the side effects of improper food combinations? If you’re experiencing bloating, gas, indigestion after eating this could be linked to food combinations that are difficult for your body to digest together.

Why do food combinations matter? Combining foods with different energetics can overwhelm the digestive system and dull your digestive fire (Agni) which is linked to your entire wellbeing.  Ayurveda’s definition of health takes a holistic view where all aspects of our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing are linked. A balanced Agni (digestive fire) is part of a healthy person. If the mind, senses and soul are happy, we will be less likely to make choices that lead toward ill-health.

As well as feeling the side effects of poor digestion, incompatible food combinations can lead to the body generating toxins and undigested food (Ama) which builds in the body. Being aware of food combinations can significantly improve your digestive health, giving you more energy so you can enjoy food and feel great after eating.

Surprisingly it’s common to eat some of these food combinations in Western diet and modern cuisines and they are considered normal foods to eat together.

If this concept is completely new to you, start by just noticing how you feel after eating these food combinations. There are quite a few food combinations to take into account in Ayurveda but I’m going to outline 3 common ones which apply regardless of your dosha.

3 incompatible food combinations:

1.      Beans with cheese – try eating beans with grains, vegetables, and other beans

Beans and cheese are similar in that both tend to be heavy and difficult to digest. To break them down properly they both demand digestive strength. Eating them together results in poor digestion and the accumulation of Ama (toxins).

Other foods to avoid eating with beans: eggs / meat / fish

2.      Fruits with any other food – try eating fruits alone

Fruits are acidic and digest quickly. When fruits are eaten with foods, there is a discrepancy between the amount of time required to digest the fruit versus the other more complex foods. The digestion of the fruit is slowed down by the other food and moves too slowly through the digestive tract leading to gas and bloating

Couple of key combinations to avoid:

Bananas and milk are one of the heaviest food combinations; bananas are heating, and milk is cooling. Bananas become sour as they digest and break down. So now our digestive fire must process this sour substance and milk at the same time. Milk curdles when mixed with sour substances, like lemons for example, and what happens here in the digestive tract isn’t much different.

Fruit and yoghurt aren’t compatible for digestion and in-particular sour fruits mixed with cold yoghurt reduce the digestive fire and can lead to sinus congestion, colds and allergies

3.      Nightshades (peppers, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes) with cheese – try eating with beans, other vegetables and grains

Nightshades and cheese are another taxing combination. Nightshades naturally contain complex compounds called alkaloids as a defense against insects. These compounds can create dramatic chemical reactions in the body which can be mildly to fatally toxic to humans. Nightshades are difficult to digest and have the capacity to disturb the dosha. The food combination with cheese which is already heavy to digest is very demanding on the digestive system. 

Sivananda: The Universal Practice

Sivananda yoga is a practice close to my heart because it was my first self-practice and took me on a big journey of self-growth. Most of my classes now take principles from Sivananda and I’m still very inspired and connected to the practice.

Sivananda is a style of Hatha yoga – single postures in isolation. Swami Sivananda was a doctor in India and he saw a gap in medicine for optimal health, so he created this sequence of 2 pranayama (breathing exercises) followed by 12 poses for the health of the mind and body.

Why is Sivananda yoga a great self-practice?

Sivananda is a set sequence and when beginning a self-practice the body and mind need repetition and familiarity. It helps to create a routine and practice at the same time of the day. You are more likely to see depth in poses and your body responding from repetition. It removes the obstacle and internal dialog of ‘what should I practice today’ so your mind can be introspective. You will notice the days when your mind is quiet and when it is moving, naturally increasing your self-awareness.

The poses are accessible for all levels – and where needed the sequence can be condensed to suit your ability. It’s not an intimidating practice.

Sivananda removes the fluff of other practices and the 12 poses cover the key poses in yoga, if you master these you have a solid foundation of flexibility and strength through the whole body.

The full traditional practice includes chanting and pranayama (breathing techniques). It’s a holistic practice that introduces the concept of yoga beyond just poses. As a beginner the breathing exercises can be simplified and developed over time.

What are the benefits?

Relaxation: There are multiple Savasanas (periods of relaxation), the full sequence should leave you feeling calm and relaxed. Sivananda has moments of exertion where the heart rate increases followed by moments of stillness where you can observe the effects on your body from the poses. It allows us to practice being quiet with ourselves and the discipline of not rushing through the practice.

Improves back flexibility, strength and posture: The specific order of the poses promotes strength and flexibility in the spine. This will improve your posture and health of the nervous system – which is connected to the health of the brain, whole body and mind. Most of us don’t have a lifestyle that is conducive to a good posture, this is a great practice to keep through all stages of your life so you can age feeling mobile.

Grounding: There is an epidemic of anxiety in western culture, more than ever we need to ground down to balance this heightened feeling of anxiety.

Why is the sequence grounding?

Energy: There are many poses that are close to the ground: the multiple savasanas slow down the practice and slow us down. The earth’s telluric energy grounds us down.

Ha-tha yoga is the balancing of the Ha (male, solar, active, positive) and Tha (female, lunar, passive, negative). Telluric energy is more negative and its important to have this grounding passive element to the practice. As a student I notice many modern Vinyasa classes don’t feel balanced in this way – the majority of the class is a fast paced standing flow. A practice with both dynamic and passive elements will create a feeling of balance.

Chakras: The sequence has been defined to move through the chakras from the Crown Chakra (at the crown of the head) to the Root Chakra (at the base of the spine) bringing the energy down. This is unusual and the reverse structure of many yoga styles.

The root chakra is associated with feeling grounded, connected to the earth, secure, safe, and believing the world will provide for us. Ending the class with a single standing posture signifies our connection to the earth. Strengthening the legs that eventually will create a feeling of stability in the pose.

Why yoga retreats are the perfect life reset 

Retreats are really where the yoga magic happens, and it’s one of the best ways to understand yoga in the more holistic way it’s meant to be practiced. The whole experience can have a big impact on your mindset and even transform your life.  Here are my top benefits:

Relaxation: Proper relaxation is something you don’t always get from a night’s sleep. We’re living in a busy over-stimulated world and have multiple work and family responsibilities putting stress on the body and mind. If you find relaxation challenging it might be a sign that you need to prioritise it. A retreat is your time to step away and find a deeper state of relaxation. Relaxation is essential for good physical and mental health. 

Simplicity: Retreat life shouldn’t be fancy or extravagant, a real yoga retreat isn’t about luxury. A yogi just lives with the basics they need. Going back to basics is a lesson we all need reminding of once in a while. Simplicity is humbling.

Nature: Take yourself away from the city and reconnect with nature, there is a lot nature can teach us. We can become complacent with our surroundings in the city and sometimes don’t feel connected to others even though we are surrounded by people, nature reminds us we are a part of something bigger. 

Self love: Putting your own self-love and care first allows you to truly care for others, you can’t keep giving from empty.

Routine: The body thrives on routine, it’s grounding for the mind and helps with anxiety. A retreat routine will connect you to the rhythm of nature, waking up before sunrise and eating meals at regular times is important for the metabolism and digestion. 

Discipline: Self-love is discipline. Yoga retreats aren’t for self-indulgence, step back from processed food, meat, alcohol and an unhealthy diet. A retreat will include fresh, nourishing vegetarian meals. 

Detox: Detox your mind and body. Take a digital detox and sign off from social media, you will become aware of how the things you hear and see effect your mind. 

Self-reflection: You will naturally find yourself self-reflecting during the retreat. The yoga philosophy sessions will help you to reflect. Reflection improves self awareness so we can grow, pause for a week and stand back from your life. 

Heal: The time and space we create in the retreat, where you won’t have access to your normal distractions, is space for self-reflection and a chance to heal. You are in a safe supportive environment to work through your emotions. 

Community: You can spend time alone or with a wider group in the retreat. You will have others around you who are experiencing the same thing and you can share your experience with. Being in a retreat removes everyday influences and temptation, you will be surrounded by others working on similar positive goals. 

Learn: Learn about the wider concept of yoga and the yoga lifestyle. Yoga philosophy and meditation are as important as practicing yoga. Learn the tools to bring these benefits to your everyday life. 

Refocus: Now your mind is clear and in a balanced state, refocus yourself on your life goals and dreams. Act from a place of clarity and a level head.