Can you relax without stimuli?

The other day, I shared a short relaxation session with my colleagues where the main focus was to use the breath. I know that for many, the idea of sitting ‘just’ breathing sounds intimidating and maybe even boring, so I divided the session into three parts. One where we would connect the breath with soft movements (achievable for all kinds of bodies), another with a simple breathing exercise, and the last one with a body scan. The whole session lasted for approximately twenty minutes.

After the session, one of my colleagues told me it was very nice to ‘check in’ with herself. She said that while she was sitting there, she noticed how she was feeling and realized she hadn’t take the time to notice before. This reminded me of something I have been reflecting a lot about lately. It seems to me that most of us rarely take the time to slow down and just be, to check in with ourselves.

It is, of course, understandable that we all have different ways to cultivate our well-being, some choose to go for a run, others to watch a TV show, and although this does allow us to disconnect from everyday tasks, it is not necessarily bring long-lasting well being for our body and mind. During the years I have been practicing Yoga, I have come to the conclusion that there is a difference between sense indulging and self-care. I don’t necessarily think that indulging is wrong, it is nice to sometimes give in to a guilty pleasure, and as mentioned above, it can be part of our toolkit to disconnect from everyday life, but the thing is, I don’t think only indulging is going to bring real peace of mind because the satisfying feeling only lasts for a short period of time. In addition, we might seek activities that stimulate our mind and body like food, alcohol, and even entertainment, which feel good at the moment but do not allow for our nervous system to reset and restore.

I believe self-care requires more work, but less fuss. Self-care might bring some immediate comfort, and at times it can also bring some discomfort. In the long run, however, it brings peace of mind.

I might be biased by my enthusiasm towards the practice of Yoga meditation, but in my view, the only way we can really relax and take care of our well-being is by bringing silence to our body and mind on a regular basis. The challenge is, however, to have the patience to bear the noise our mind makes when we turn off the external noise. This is where the work starts because we need to learn to be with the noise of our mind as if it was background music. It is there, we notice it, but we choose not to do anything about it at that moment. We do not judge, we do not try to change it.

These moments of external silence but internal noise can be precious because like my colleague put it, it is then we have the opportunity to ‘check in’ with ourselves. We create the space to feel and think, we allow our mind to express itself. Sometimes, that is all we need. To give ourselves some ‘self-attention’, sometimes, we need further reflection on what is going on and what we need to do about it.

Making room for moments of silence and softness in our life not only helps us deal with our thoughts better, it also has an effect on our nervous system which in turn influences our state of mind. In addition, when we learn to quiet the mind on a regular basis, we are able to benefit from this practice in moments of intense distress.

To begin with, I recommend a combination of techniques like soft movement with breath for the busy mind. Practices like soft yoga asana, Tai Chi or even Qi Gong, going for a walk but with the awareness of being with yourself, with your breath, and trying to leave other distractions aside. Simple breathing exercises can also be very useful. Some help calm down the body and the mind, others are energizing. Yoga Nidra, is als a very good way to relax, and the fact that you need to focus on different body parts keeps your mind busy. If your mind is very very busy, I recommend writing. Sit in a quiet place for five to ten minutes and let words flow. No structure, no purpose, just write. Avoid reading what you write. Just leave it. This is a very nice way to ’empty’ the mind. Once you have practiced this for a while, you can start journaling. There are different ways to do it. I often like to sit down and write my reflections of the day, often, a specific aspect of it takes more place, and I discover quite a lot about myself and my interactions with the world. I often realize that something that seemed overwhelming when traped in my mind, wasn’t that bad when put into words in my notebook.

Whatever works for you, try to create at least one moment of quiet calmness in your everyday routine. With practice, you will notice the difference it makes in you. You might notice that the urge to indulge will reduce as you create more space for what I like to call ‘real’ self-care.

Lessons from this week

  1. Sometimes, good intentions are not enough. Discussing a mistake I made this week with a friend, he told me “I always give important decisions a night sleep.” In line with the teachings of Karma Yoga, I strive to create clarity in my mind. This means that I try to always be clear about the intention behind my action. I try not to act impulsively. However, this week, I made a choice with good intentions but after I gained perspective, I realised it wasn’t the best choice for everyone. Which leads to lesson 2:
  2. Running against the clock will often mean trouble. Had I taken the time to reflect on the options, I might have chosen differently, but during the last three weeks, I feel I have been in a constant race against the clock. My mum always says : move slower when you are in a hurry. My friend kindly told me: ‘the choice is made, you cannot change it. You have to put it behind you, but I disagree with your choice this time.’ I agree with him. No point spending time and energy in regretting, but I should learn from this mistake. Which leads me to lesson number 3:
  3. There is a difference between acknowledging our mistakes and shortcomings and torturing ourselves with regret and self-loathe. If we are to grow in this life, if we are to cultivate more peace inside and around ourselves, we need to see the difference between these two. Someone in my sangha wrote a very inspiring experience this week where he describes how, he has come to accept his shortcomings in his interactions with the people he loves, he has seen his part in situations where things haven’t gone the direction he wishes them to go, and he is willing to make adjustments in his attitude and behaviour. He sees it will require practice, patience and time, and he is willing to do so. He is not stuck in regret nor he is running away from the consequences of his actions. I think that what often happens in our relationships is that when we realise where we have been acting unskilfully, we struggle to see that it is just a matter of accepting and adapting. Which leads to point number 4:
  4. I should do my best to live in clarity and with pure intentions, the rest is out of my hands. If I notice I can make a change to improve a situation, I should, but I can’t expect anything in return. We all live inside our heads, and I cannot control how other people react to my actions.
  5. Finally, I should continue simplifying my communication with others. Keep it clear, keep it short and avoid getting tangled in explanations. Sometimes, the best I can do is not to say anything.

Following lesson nr5. I finish this blogpost here hoping you had an enriching week. ❤️

Lost and found

I went for a hike in the forest with two colleagues the other day. Both of them grew up experiencing nature like we do in Norway, hiking, camping, sometimes walking in the mountains for days. At some point during our hike, one of them said that she finds it exciting to sometimes get lost in nature to then find the way back. She told a story from her childhood where she and her family were hiking somewhere in Mali and got lost. They had to walk in the dark back to the cabin they were staying at. My colleague’s mum had to focus on her white shoes to not stumble as she had bad sight. It was fun, she said. In Mali. A family of five, lost in the mountains.

Her story inspired me because I don’t think I would remember as fun getting lost in nature as a kid, maybe not even now as an adult. I can imagine me getting scared, worried and maybe even angry and blaming it on my husband, as I often do. My kids complaining and blaming it on both of us.

Maybe I’m exaggerating or maybe not, but I found this story inspiring because my colleague’s family chose to have an attitude of adventure and playfulness in a moment that I most probably would have perceived as annoying and even dangerous. It brought me back to a reflection that has been coming and going in the last few years about the power of staying calm in all situations. This ability to stay calm comes with being able to take a step back from a situation and see solutions, but I also think it has to do with faith.

Observing my mind and my actions, I have noticed that I have had a tendency to get overwhelmed and almost panic in situations where things don’t go as expected. I have been afraid of challenges, problems and conflicts with people. Partly because I dread the unpleasant moments, but partly because I am worried about my ability to deal with difficulty. I don’t really trust myself. So I often have chosen to stay in my comfort zone, or to escape from the discomfort often making things worse because I don’t necessarily physically run away, I try to escape by acting impulsively, out of fear turing the situation messier than it originally was.

Since I became aware of this, I have been trying to work with it. I am trying to calm my mind down in moments of stress, distress or emotional pain, and instead of reacting impulsively, I try to take a mental step back and observe. It is an interesting exercise, to learn to give myself the space to feel scared, hurt or annoyed but not feed into the emotion. Take a deep breath and see possibilities, see options, and act -or not- from a space of calmness. Stay with the feeling without fighting it.

Life is like that, it has its ups and its downs. We instinctively seek for the ups and dread the downs. That is our nature, but lately, I have been reflecting in the beauty of going through the downs with a calm mind too. Experiencing whatever life is offering with an attitude of faith in ourselves, the process and the teachings they bring. Get lost, and find myself again. I believe that when we find our way back, we often continue slightly changed, mostly for the better.

The truth is that we all are born with this immense strength, we can overcome anything because that is our instinct. The key is the mental attitude. The teachings we draw from each situation. The energy we spend on them. The way we take care of ourselves and others in the process.

I share here one of my favourite poems from David Wagoner that I feel talk about what I just wrote.

Lost by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

#30daysthreeminutessilencechallenge

I recently started a ‘sitting in silence challenge’ on my Facebook page where I film myself guiding a three minute long meditation. I came up with the idea because I see there are often plank, push-up and burpee challenges on Facebook and Instagram. They are often intended to bring awareness to an important cause. The intention for my challenge is to encourage people to slow down and spend some time with themselves.

It is fun to see how the people taking exercise challenges seem to struggle the first days to complete the set amount of repetitions, but as they continue day after day, it seems to get easier. The same applies to meditation practices. It requires practice and patience. Just like our muscles, the mind can be trained to slow down and to focus.

I started practicing meditation about five years ago, and like many, my practice wasn’t very steady. I started for a period of time, and then left it, and then came back to it. A year ago, I made the commitment to myself that I would not let a day pass without siting in silence, and I have sticked to it. One year of daily practice, and I observe, almost every day that I come to my practice with the intention of focusing my mind, to then realise that my whole life is passing in my mind, as a movie while I sit still. Either analysis of past events, or planing my immediate and long-term future. But I don’t allow this to discourage me because I have noticed the benefits from siting with myself every day.

It is like a mini vacation from the constant flow of stimuli and information the outer world sends me. It is is a mini vacation from my almost compulsive need to do something. It slows down my body and my nervous system. When I practice in the morning, I feel it allows me to center myself before I meet the world. When I practice in the evening, it helps me unwind and get ready to rest.

In connection with this 30-days challenge, I will try to write a bit more often about meditation. One of my favourite reads is Chapter 6 from the Bhagavad Gita which is about Meditation. The beauty of Yoga Meditation is that it is not just a new activity we add to our daily schedule, it is a way of living. I love to go back to this chapter from time to time because it is so inspiring to read how we can gradually change our mindset to live a more harmonious and peaceful life.

“Advanced” Yoga asana practice

What if I told you that an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practice has nothing to do with how deep you go into a stretch or how acrobatic your poses are? To be honest, I actually don’t like the idea of calling an asana class ‘advanced’ because I feel that it can (mis)lead yoga students towards achieving something instead of encouraging them to know and respect their bodies.

As a Yoga teacher, I experience resistance from certain students to modify poses when I suggest it, even when I keep repeating that the most important is to keep the body safe, and that the body needs to be at ease in order to maintain an even rhythm of breath. It seems to me that some of them even feel ashamed when I suggest that they rather sit on a chair than on the floor. Why is there shame connected to the limits of our bodies?

In the yoga asana practice the most important is the mindset we have while practicing than what kind of poses we do. The yoga asana practice can be such a powerful tool to keep the body healthy by balancing between stability (strength) and mobility (flexibility), and learning to keep a deep and even rhythm of breath. We use the breath to calm the mind and the nervous system so we can bring our attention to the body as we move in and out of poses.

It isn’t the complexity of the pose that makes the practice powerful, it is the attention we pay to the body and the breath. I would argue that an ‘advanced’ yogi is the one that knows and respects his/her body and patiently practices with the goal of moving at ease in everyday life and, ideally, to be able to sit in meditation with the same ease.

There are several problems I see with the pursuit of complex poses, or what we often call an ‘advanced’ practice. Instead of cultivating a calmer state of mind, we stress the body and the mind by constantly pushing ourselves to achieve that pose that we think will bring some sort of satisfaction. In this pursuit we can get lost in ego and in the worst case senario hurt our body. What happens when our body can’t achieve that specific pose we want to achieve, or when with age, we loose some flexibility and/or strength? Are we then ‘less’ yogis?

We live in times where we are so used to put pressure on ourselves in almost all aspects of our life. It is so difficult to be content with what we have and where we are without having the feeling that we should be aiming for more. We are constantly wanting to improve, to get more, to achieve more. But how much is enough? If we bring this mindset to the yoga mat, we are not doing anything to help us improve our lifestyle, we are just bringing our stress, doubts and worries to the mat and nothing changes.

Lastly, I would argue that an advanced yogi is the one that little by little starts establishing his/her own practice. The role of the teacher is to guide, but at the end of the day, the advanced yogi knows his/her body and mind so well, that he/she is able to choose what is right for him/her.

So next time you’re in a yoga class and the teacher hands you a block, accept it with curiosity and see what it does to your body in that specific pose. 🙂