Growth and Fixed Mindsets and what they can teach you

I recently read a great book called Mindset – Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck. The book is all about growth and fixed mindsets. A growth mindset is one where you believe you can become good at anything if you put effort in. A fixed mindset has a fixed opinion about how good you are at a certain thing.

If I don’t know how to do something or about something and I want to, I often read a book and I learn. So I definitely have a growth mindset some of the time. As Carol points out, and as I discovered through reading the book though, is that we all have a mixture of both.

The book is great and I recommend you read it, if you haven’t already. It has been one of those books for me that has changed the way I view the world and continues to do so.

I find if I getting stuck or frustrated, I have probably slipped into a fixed mindset. Sometimes I don’t know how to learn or grow in a particular way or I find myself slipping into a familiar pattern of thinking and or behavior that leads me to think, I am no good at this. If you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself how can you can get better? Sometime you need to ask for help or find some new information or approach. Of course no one is good at everything. The point isn’t to be amazing at everything – the point is you could be.

 In the age of social media other people’s highlights are visible to us daily. It’s easy to look at someone else’s strength and compare our own ability in this area and feel that we fall short. No-one is good at everything.  We each develop in the areas we give focus and effort. Sometimes we think someone is naturally good at something without realizing how hard they have worked to get there. So if you find yourself comparing, instead ask yourself what it would take for you to have that in your life and if that cost of effort and time is worth it to you.

"comparison is the thief of joy"Theodore Roosevelt

I have noticed  that other people sometimes have fixed ideas of who I am. I have to be careful not to let that influence my view of myself and remember that nothing is fixed. If you were once good at something, you can become less good at it if life circumstances take you away from the activity.  Focus on getting better than yesterday rather than comparing yourself to the best you have ever been, when your life circumstances may have been entirely different. To help other people to change and to grow, we each have to be aware that we are all capable of change.

Have you read the book Mindset? What are your thoughts and reflections?

Four key principles of stretching and what it can teach you

We all know how to stretch, right? Well after 10 years of teaching I am not so sure. I mean yes I am sure you can stretch but are you getting the most out of it mentally and physically? Here are some tips and insights from what I have learned through working with my own body.

Principle number 1 – It’s not about going to your absolute maximum

Some people take each stretch as far as they possibly can. I know this because if I go to assist someone like this I can feel they have already hit their maximum. The biggest problem with this is, it is difficult to relax when it is so hard, as your body may tense up to protect itself. Potentially an even bigger issue is that doing so can risk injury. Taking small steps consistently in anything fitness related is generally much better than pushing too hard and then having to rest completely.

Principle number 2 – Accept where you are. 

"All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is." the buddha

You may want to be more flexible than you are, but you can’t will yourself into a different body. It starts with working with the one you have today. If you are fighting with yourself, it’ll be less fun and hard to relax – it’s just your flexibility, it doesn’t define who you are. So find the stretch, be there, relax into it. This is much like life. Yes! If you are not where you want to be then you can work on it, but you have to start where you are. Suffering occurs when you think reality should be different to how it is, you can thank the Buddha for that one.

Principle number 3 – use the breath, it’s your friend

The breath will help you with both principles number one and two. If you are struggling to breathe then you are not following principle number one, and are probably pushing too hard so it’s a good feedback provider. It will also help you relax into the stretch and accept and be where you are. Breathe deeply, but not so deeply that you push too hard.

Principle number 4 – The real magic happens when you let go


As you stretch you should feel something, it just shouldn’t be excruciating and a difficult place to be. Once you are in the position, accept where you are, use your breath to help you to relax, and pay attention to the sensation. If you are in that sweet spot of a nice stretch and you are not tensing up, then you may well find that the sensation of stretch disappears. Listen to your body and if the sensation disappears go deeper and find another sweet spot. You may find this a little challenging at first, but listening in will help you develop a deeper awareness, which is one of the real magic benefits of yoga.

I hope this helps. Comment below if you have any thoughts or insights you would like to share.

What the Upanishads can teach us about achieving our goals

As we start the year, many of us will reflect on how the year has gone as well as dream about what we want to do and achieve in 2019.

Last year was a year of big change for me personally and I feel I have gotten much better at working towards and achieving my goals. There are lots of reasons for this but one of them I feel is really well expressed in the second chapter of the book we are currently reading in Liverpool Yoga Book club which is Essence of the Upanishads: A Key to Indian Spirituality by Eknath Easwaran.

I love how ancient wisdom can be applied to our modern lives, it shows the timelessness of the human experience, that what we struggle with has a timeless element to it. In the book Nachita seeks out the King of Death Yama in order to learn the secret of life and death. Nachita’s lessons begin by Yama explaining to him that humans have at any one moment a choice of two options preya and shreya. “preya is what is pleasant: shreya is what is beneficial.” Eknath Easwaran.

When we approach our own goals in life first we have to be clear on what they are. If we are not clear then we will mostly choose preya because that will lead to instant gratification. Sometimes shreya and preya are actually the same choice but often they are in conflict. Often the thing that will move us in the direction that we want to go is not the easiest path or else we would maybe already be there. Sometimes we have to do things that are often unpleasant in the short term in order to achieve what we want long term.

Hopefully those of you that practice yoga enjoy it, I certainly do. But if you practice for any length of time then there will be days where you don’t want to do it. On those days where you would rather watch TV, search the internet, chat online with friends, etc. you have a choice. Sometimes you have to practice when you don’t want to in order to get the longer term benefits you are seeking be that increased wellbeing, mindfulness or increased mobility and strength. 

In order to achieve my goals last year I have often had to do tasks that put me outside of my comfort zone physically or emotionally. Sometimes I have had to do tasks that are just a bit mundane, the goal itself is exciting and interesting but often achieving it means repeating simple tasks again and again and again. Sometimes the actual work is not particularly glamorous or exciting. 

There are always choices about what we do with our time and our resources. For me looking at my goals and then looking at my task list and working out what my priorities are has been an important and life changing routine. The goals are exciting but sometimes the tasks are not. I am not saying you always have to the hard task some treats and rest is good for balance too but always remember you have a choice and that small actions add up to make big changes. 

I think we often look for the one big thing that will change our lives but often in my experience it’s the small actions that we take consistently that make the biggest changes.

What have your biggest learning’s been from last year. What are you planning on doing different this year.

Yoga teachers are not perfect – On being Human

Being a yoga teacher is the perfect job for me. I have been a teacher all my working life and teaching yoga means I get to share my passion for yoga with others. I love it. I practice yoga 6 days a week and I spend lots of my time learning more about yoga both as a spiritual practice and a physical one. I have been practicing yoga for over 20 years and teaching for over 10 so I have a wealth of experience to draw on. I don’t just teach yoga, my whole life is yoga and I am so grateful for that.

Yoga doesn’t make me perfect

Helen sat in lotus yoga poseMy yoga practice helps me in the my life immensely but it doesn’t make me perfect. You might be surprised to hear me feel the need to say this so let me explain. As a yoga teacher a lot is expected of you and perhaps this is correct to a point. It would be confusing if a yoga teacher to acted in complete contradiction to the values of the tradition. Being the perfect teacher would actually entail being the perfect teacher that each and every student has in their minds. This is probably not possible, as each student will have different values.

I remember in my early days of being a student and realizing that each and every one of my teachers was indeed just human and had flaws just like me. Then becoming a teacher and having people say things like “I thought yoga kept you healthy”, when I had a cold.  Yoga does indeed improve immune function but alas it doesn’t make you immune to all illness! Even outside of the context of yoga if I admit that I am struggling with something, someone might say “I thought yoga was meant to help you with that”. Well thanks, it does and sometimes I still struggle with this wonderful experience of being human.

The Yoga helps

So here it is. The yoga helps. It helps me a lot, it has a huge impact on how I feel and how I relate to the world. That’s why I do it and I teach because I know I have both personal experience and knowledge to share. I am human. I challenge myself and sometimes I fall short. I make mistakes and I am still learning with the rest of you. The yoga has helped me to be okay with who I am so I am not going to pretend to be anyone else. Authenticity is important and as we learn from each other we can start to see each other’s humanity so that we can learn to love our own.

 

How to improve your flexibility on as little as 5 minutes a day

Last 3 cross legged yoga positions of Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series

Last 3 positions before relaxation in Ashtanga yoga

It’s great to stretch every day. Even if you know that you may find it difficult to always find the time.

The traditional Ashtanga for a short practice would be to do some sun salutations and then as much of the standing sequence as you have time for (or none of it) and then the last 3 seated positions shown in the pictures. You can do these positions cross legged if you can’t do lotus, then do relaxation. This will take anywhere between 15-30 minutes, (there’s a 5 minutes practice further down.) Yes do relaxation. I know if you only have 15 minutes you might decide that you haven’t got time to relax but the busier you are, the more you need this time.

Use a timer for your relaxation

If you are practicing alone I suggest you put a 5 minute timer on for the relaxation and just lie down for 5 minutes, no further technique is necessary. The timer will help to make sure you lie down for long enough and also mean that you won’t be lying there wondering when you should get up.

The above practice is excellent if you are relatively new to practicing Ashtanga and are still building up your arm strength. If you are not doing sun salutes in class 3 times a week then I suggest you do this. It will make it much easier and you will build up strength much quicker than if you only do them once a week. Doing some sun salutes is also a great way to warm up your body for any yoga.

A 5 minute routine

A great approach to a daily time restrained practice is to make sure you work on your weakest area. This could be strength or flexibility in a particular area. For example for me it is almost always my quadriceps flexibility due to all the cycling I do. You probably know what your weakness is but if you don’t then talk to your teacher and they can help you work out what the weakest link is.

Working on your weakness will help you to balance out your body so it feels better and is less susceptible to injury. Increasing flexibility in this way can make a huge difference to your life and can be do in as little as 5 minutes. Everyone can find 5 minutes! If you have longer do sun salutes for 5 minutes, work on your stretch for 5 minutes and relax for 5 minutes. This would make a great 15 minute practice for busier days.

We all have areas of our body that are tighter than others. Working on your weakness can be challenging mentally but over time if you work on your weakness you will learn to enjoy the process. That is because working on your weakness requires that you acknowledge where you are now and then work at it. This is a great skill for life. Often if you are avoiding a task that needs to be to be done it is because you don’t want to have a good look at where this area of your life is at. Just like with flexibility we all have areas of life that are going better than others. Being able to work on our weaknesses (if they are important, you don’t have to do everything) can bring the biggest change in your life.

What to do

1) Choose one stretch, again ask your teacher for help if you need it.

If you are keen it may be tempting to choose several stretches, but the key here is to do a 5 minute practice that you can always do no matter how busy you are. If you do choose more than one stretch, choose one that you always do and do the others when you have more time.

2) Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds or around 10 breaths, repeat each stretch a total of 3 times. If it’s a one sided pose then you can either rest or do a vinyasa between each stretch, if it’s a two sided pose, you can do a yinyasa or just go straight to other side.

3) Reassess every two weeks, is this still your weakness or could you work on a different area?

 

You are not too inflexible to do yoga

Occasionally someone will tell me that they are too tight to do yoga. Isn’t that a shame! Besides the fact that yoga isn’t really about flexibility, mobility is something that will inevitably improve if they do more of it. The great thing about yoga is that everyone can just do what they can in each and every pose. If a position is not possible it can be adapted or modified to make it possible.

It’s human nature to want to do more of the things you are good at and often a yoga class will have people in it who are above average flexibility. This isn’t just because people who come to yoga in the first place are more likely to be flexible. Yoga  also makes people more flexible. It works! Often people think when they see the person next to them touching their toes that this person is lucky and different to them. One of the bendy ones! What you can’t see at first glance is that maybe this person was just as tight as you once. Maybe they have practiced yoga everyday for 5 years, maybe that is what makes them more flexible.

Flexibility does not mean advancement in Yoga

Yoga is for everybody text with some people doing yoga on a beachBeing more flexible does not make you a better person and certainly doesn’t make you a better yogi. I know this may come as a surprise in a world where you are over saturated by advanced yoga poses on Instagram, but this is not really advancement. If you want to know if your yoga practice is really working ask yourself not can I get my leg behind my head, but can you stay calm in a crisis. Can you listen attentively to a friend or a family member when they need you. Can you listen to yourself? You don’t have to be perfect, no one is expecting that of you either, but is the yoga helping you in some real tangible way in the way you relate to yourself and others?

You may think that these flexible yogi’s think less of you for not being as flexible as them. If they do, which I doubt, I suspect you don’t need their warped approval anyway. If the yoga is really working for them they will not be walking around judging people based on something as shallow as flexibility.

Flexibility is a helpful benefit of a regular yoga practice

Many people do yoga to increase their flexibility and there is nothing wrong with that. Increasing your flexibility will help you function better in your day to day life and help you greatly if you participate in sport. Many professional athletes have taken to yoga for this reason.

Over my last 10 years of teaching I have taught a wide range of bodies from flexible too tight, young to old. Everyone is different and maybe really flexible in one way and really tight in another. So if you’re tight please do not let it stop you from doing yoga. I know you will need to be patient but this patience will serve you well in your life as you take the benefits of yoga into your life.

Do you consider yourself to be inflexible? Do you practice yoga? Has yoga helped you become more flexible? Share your stories here…

 

How to change yourself and others and how yoga can help you.

It’s easy to categories ourselves and others. Maybe it’s even necessary in order to allow us to create our own unique model of the world with expectations and understanding of the people around us. However as we categories ourselves and others we create boxes, we form beliefs about what we expect and this can reinforce behavior.

I truly believe you can be and do anything. Gaining a new skill may require a lot of work and learning – it may even require that we give something else up. There are clearly only so many hours in a day and we have to decide who we want to be and what we want to do with them. When we find that who we desire to be is different to who we are, we may need to change in order to achieve our goal, but we can do it.

Believing that other people have the capacity to change can help us believe in our own ability to change. However let’s be clear, the other person has to change because they want to, not because you think they should change. Trying to change someone else against their will is not a good use of their time, but believing that someone can change is really useful. There have certainly been times in my life that I have felt that other people have believed in me, perhaps more than I did at that moment, and this has helped me to gradually see that I am capable of more than I ever imagined.

How does yoga fit into all of this?

In yoga you develop concentration through movement and focus on the breath. As you do this you start to become more aware, and as you become more aware you start to notice beliefs that you hold about yourself, some of which are limiting beliefs. As you start to notice them, realize that – far from being predestined – these limiting beliefs are actually choices.

As you reflect on these limiting beliefs and behaviors, they can seem so strange. You may wonder ‘why would I sabotage myself like this?’ Much of our behavior is governed by unconscious patterns, and probably when we created this pattern of behavior it was useful in some way, even if it is no longer useful any more. The problem is when we generalize these behaviors out into the world we sometimes forget that we have a choice about them.

Namaste- I bow to the divine in you with a picture of Helen Aldred in a yoga poseAs we make changes in ourselves we may notice the surprise in others who expect us to behave the other (old) way. One of the best ways to help other people to feel capable of their own inner transformation is to demonstrate it through our own example. We cannot make another person change and yet we can inspire them and help them to realize that they can make changes if they want to.

In order to allow ourselves and others to change, I think we have to see the magnificent, limitless being that they and we truly are. Namaste is a Hindi greeting often said at the end of a yoga class. It means I bow/ acknowledge the divine in you. So I will end this holding in my mind that inside all of us is limitless potential and the belief that you can make whatever changes you want to.

Namaste

How Yoga can help you manage your emotions

Occasionally a student will say something to me like I can’t imagine you getting upset, angry etc. My long standing practice of yoga have certainly given me a sense of inner calm. It hasn’t made me immune to negative emotions though. I have them and I don’t want to get rid of them. Sometimes sadness and anger are appropriate, if I went to hug someone who was attacking me it probably wouldn’t help me very much.

I got thinking about this topic because it came up in the book we are currently reading in Liverpool Yoga Book Club, Yoga the Quest for the True Self. In chapter 12 Stephen Cope references a study by Dan Brown and Jack Engler on long term meditation practitioners, what they found was that the advanced practitioners continue to experience negative emotions

“What changes was not so much the amount of or nature of conflict but awareness of and reactivity to it… (the… practitioner) may note the intense desire until it passes, like every other transient mental state; or he/she may act on it, but with full awareness” Dan Brown and Jack Engler

I found this interesting as it matches my own experience. It’s not wrong to feel negative emotions and it sometimes even appropriate to act on these emotions. I don’t think that yoga and meditation are meant to send you into dazed state of inactive bliss. What I have found is that I am able to notice the feeling and observe it with curiosity. Oh I am feeling frustrated I wonder what that’s about? Often we don’t have to react to something straight away and it can be good to sit with the emotion and see if it passes as well as work out what the source of the feeling really is. If possible, I will always let at least the bulk of the emotion pass before I act and often there is no need to do anything at all.

Perfectionism on the yoga path

I think it’s important to clarify this as perfectionism is something that can impact many areas of life. I think sometimes people expect that when they have a yoga practice they will never get a negative emotions again and then they may feel like a failure in some way when they do. This is such a shame and this self judgment will only help the individual cling to the emotion rather than let it pass.

Experiencing here and now

The main problem with negative emotions isn’t that we have them or even that we act on them although both can obviously be challenging at the time. The biggest problem people have is they recreate them or manufacture them based on possible futures which they hallucinate and then worry about. Yoga and any other kind of mindfulness practice will help with this because we are training the breath to be present in this moment and so we experience now fully rather than reliving the past or worrying about the future. Of course reflecting on the past and envisioning the future can be useful but worrying about either is generally fruitless.

What do you think? Has yoga changed the way you manage your negative emotions? How?

 

Ancient wisdom applied to modern life – How yoga can help you transform your habits

As special as we all are as individuals, it never ceases to amaze me how similar we are. Not only with each other, but with our ancestors also. Yoga offers an ancient philosophy that is just as applicable and helpful in the modern world. Indeed many of the things we struggle with today were discussed in the yoga sutras, which were written prior to 400 CE.

samsara deeply ingrained habits written with smasher in sanskritHabits can be positive or negative. We all probably have some positive and some negative ones. In yoga these deeply ingrained habits are called samskaras. The word samskara is from an ancient language called Sanskrit. It comes from the root words sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause or doing). You can think of these as neural pathways in your brain that help shape your behavior.

Samskaras are not all bad, much of our behavior is habitual and we all have a mixture of positive and negative habits, which shape our behavior.

How does yoga help?

When you practice yoga, you develop more awareness. In yoga philosophy the Sanskrit word for awareness or seeing clearly is vidya. As you develop this awareness you become more aware of the habits you have. You start to notice how your actions are affecting your outcomes. If you have noticed you have a problem that reoccurs in your life this may be an example of a negative samskara.

You may notice your samskaras on your yoga mat. So for example if you have a habit of pushing too hard you may notice you do this in your yoga practice. Alternatively you may give up too easily or whenever you can’t do something. Both these tendencies can have a negative impact on your life beyond the yoga mat.

Ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience

Modern neuroscientists have observed that we have neural pathways in our brains for these ingrained patterns of behavior. No wonder our habits can be hard to change. The good news is you can create new neural pathways.

Awareness is just the first step

Becoming aware of our negative samskaras is not enough to change them. Noticing and becoming aware though is a crucial step on the path to change. Sometimes you may become aware of a negative habit a few times before you decide to change it. Crucially here I think is your own belief in the possibility of self-change. Start with something small like changing your morning routine. Instead of trying to do too many at once, make one change at a time, repeat it for at least 2 weeks until it starts to feel like a habit. Over time you will develop the ability to notice and change your habits and slowly one habit at a time you can build the life you want to live.

Has yoga made you more aware of any negative habit? Have you made any changes to your life because of this?

 

Achieve your goals in 2018 and beyond – Why doing less may mean achieving more

I love setting goals and I know I achieve a lot more when I set them. Goals help me move my life in the direction that I want it to go, rather than letting circumstance or other people decide what I am prioritizing. It seems like there is more and more to do, and with these wonderful possibilities more choices to make. That said I have in the past had a bad habit when it comes to goal setting. I sometimes used to set too many goals. There are only so many hours in the day after all and my sleep and health are top priorities for me.

Although I set and achieve goals year round, I tend to review my goals and get lots of ideas about changes I want to make around Christmas/New Year time. This is because I have some time off from teaching at this time, and I find a break from my regular routine really helps me get perspective and come up with lots of ideas. It’s really exciting and inspiring to have lots of ideas, and the New Year is always full of potential and possibilities.

What do you want to do with your time in 2018? Picture of diary and a coffee with the aforementioned text at the top.This year I knew I had to commit to less to achieve more. I have always done this to some extent. Yoga is the made focus of my life, I practice it I read about, I talk about, I teach about, I keep learning and I keep sharing. I know even with this immense dedication to yoga I will never know everything but I also know that I am someone who likes to know a few things really well than lots of things a little bit. As yoga is my full time job this is an appropriate level of dedication for me, each person it will be different and of course we all have more than one thing to focus on. Our job, our hobbies and our families are 3 key areas of focus, each important and requiring time and attention. As you say yes to one thing you may have to say no to others. You want to go to a yoga class in the evening but you usually watch TV in the evenings, which will help you the most? I know which I would choose ;-).

When we say yes we are also saying no, what you say, “no too will help you to achieve your goals because goals require action and action requires time. Most new years resolutions fail. Does this mean we shouldn’t set them? I don’t think so but once you have set your goals you need to work out what you need to do to achieve them. By the way my husband Marc, who is a certified NLP Trainer, has taught me a lot about how to write down my goals in the last year. It has been a big game changer for me. He has written a great blog post about how to write smart goals here. Once you have set your goals you need to work out what the most important things to do in order to achieve your goals are. Then you need to do them. It sounds simple but this is perhaps the most challenging part. Most goals require more than one action and sometimes the actions are less exciting than the end goal. Often they are things you don’t want to do, or have struggled to do in the past, or else why would you need to set it as a goal?

If you want to do more of something this year, what are you willing to do less of, even if it is procrastinate less. If you can commit to just one goal and really focus on that I think you will achieve amazing things. I have managed to narrow my goals down to five, which is still a lot, but they are all essential to me in some way. My process at the start of each week is to look at each goal and commit to what I can realistically do to move that goal forward. I will review what I have achieved the week prior and work out what is realistic and attainable whilst still moving things forward.

essentialism book coverOver the Christmas period I listened to an audiobook called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeon also available as a good old-fashioned book. This book is about decluttering your life to focus on what is most important to you. Often we do things out of habit or because we have already committed to doing them or done them in the past. He uses the metaphor of cleaning out your wardrobe as you look at the things you do in your life, ask yourself how much effort would I make in order to get this into my life if it wasn’t already there. It’s a really good book, I recommend it.

Whatever your dreams and goals are for this year I wish you lots of actions in the pursuit of your dreams. Do you set goals? What has helped you achieve them?