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. Gaininga 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 shouldchange. Tryingto 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?

 

How to stay present during your yoga practice and how this will help you in your life

There are many reasons to practice yoga. There are lots of reasons why I practice yoga but my main reason is to practice becoming more present. Mindfulness and being present is my most important value not just in my yoga practice but in my life. That is because if I am not present I am not fully able to engage in anything else. I can love more fully, I can enjoy life more, I notice more, the list is endless.

We were discussing this in my last workshop because sometimes yoga can seem like its always about advancing in the yoga poses. This is just another form of materialism and doesn’t really lead to any lasting peace. Of course there is joy from achieving something you have worked hard to achieve. There is also a fantastic shift that happens when you realize that with practice you can transform your body or indeed other aspects of your life. These are some of the other wonderful benefits of the practice.

I think some people imagine that people who are more present are in some kind of state of bliss. They maybe feel that it is easy for them, the way we can look at others practicing advanced yoga poses and not see the decades of daily practice but just the flexible body and think how lucky they are.

Being present isn’t always easy. I have been practicing it for many years now, through my yoga practice, meditation and my life and I still find it challenging. The practice has made me better at it but not perfect. Being present isn’t just something that happens on the mat but the time on my mat gives me a focused part of my day in which to tune in and to train my mind. Sometimes my mind is busy, sometimes my mind is calm. Good things and bad things happen to everyone all the time. It’s easier to sit with bliss than with pain but if we run from pain then we could feed it with our thoughts.

When I practice on my yoga mat it isn’t always easy. Sometimes my mind doesn’t want to be in the present but after many years of practicing I have learnt some techniques which have helped me.

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When your mind gets busy, use your breath as an anchor to keep you in the present.

  • Don’t judge yourself. Judging your mind for being noisy or yourself for being emotional is feeding the pattern. It is neither good nor bad it just is. Acknowledge that the mind is noisy but don’t dwell on it.
  • Take each breath as it comes, the breath is a very real and present experience, become aware of it. This is true all the time but if you are struggling it can really help you to just focus on each breath one at a time as you practice.
  • If you start thinking about something and get lost in it. As soon as you notice bring your awareness back to the breath.
  • If you are going through a difficult experience focus on what is actually happening rather than what could happen in future. Often this is less overwhelming even in a crisis. If there is pain allow yourself to feel it. Being present isn’t about suppression or perfection it’s about being here.

How do you practice being more present? Do You find it challenging? What has helped you?

Bringing lessons from your yoga mat into your life…

Yoga sometimes feels like an escape from your day-to-day life, but who we are in day-to-day life gets brought onto our yoga mat and who we are on our yoga mat gets brought into our world. Each is practicing the other.

Sometimes having a practice like yoga in your life can seem selfish – putting some time aside for you when life is already so busy. However I have come to realise that I am more useful to others precisely because of my yoga practice.

Life is a journey. Sometimes we do things really well, and sometimes we know we could have done better, but for some reason we fell short. I am far from perfect. Yoga hasn’t turned me into some perfect being, but it has helped me to become progressively better and it has taught me to be more accepting when I am not as good as I’m aiming to be.

How yoga has helped me interact with other people better

I am becoming more present, which means I am noticing more about the world around me. I pay attention to what people are saying and sometimes I notice that there is more to what they are not saying than what’s on the surface. Yoga helps me to listen to the deeper meaning in communication.

I am becoming more patient. I understand that some things take time and that sometimes people are not perfect – because I know I am not.

I’m feeling more and more connected to humanity. Yoga teaches interdependence. Nothing is separate; everything is interdependent on everything else. Yoga helps me to feel more connected both to my environment and to my fellow humans. This may be easier with my peers and harder with people who do not share my values and lifestyle, but yoga has taught me to see my shared humanity in others and it continues to be something I practice when I interact with them.

How yoga has helped me in my life

I am comfortable achieving things that seem impossible. I know that with enough patient practice, even the most challenging things will become more possible. Yes sometimes I still feel scared to move out of my comfort zone, but I do it anyway. I observe the fear, acknowledge it and then enjoy transcending my own boundaries.

In becoming more present I am enjoying each moment more and more because I am experiencing it more fully. For me this is probably the biggest benefit of yoga and something I am always experiencing as my main focus while I practice. I know that the more focused I am when I practice the easier it will be for me to be present in my life.

I am also becoming more patient with myself. I know that sometimes life is not how I expect it to be and sometimes that can be challenging. Yoga teaches me how to deal with the curve balls life inevitably throws at me. Of course I don’t always know what to do about it but I am constantly becoming better equipped at dealing with it because of my regular yoga practice.

What about you? How is yoga changing the way you interact with yourself or others?

 

 

 

 

 

 

How accepting life as it is will allow you to experience it more fully

Not all that you experience in life will seem positive. How you deal with it, how you think about it afterwards, how you encode your experiences will determine how positively you feel about them. One definition of suffering is expecting your experience to be different from what it is. Everything occurs in the present moment. There is no past or future, only now, and everything that is possible to exist exists right now. It is only possible for you to experience right now, so whatever is happening, it is important to start by accepting it all for what it is. Failing to accept the present, or actively trying to avoid it, can cause suffering. This is true whether you experience something that is out of your direct control, or just think harshly of yourself, like that you are not living up to your own expectations.

My yoga practice has taught me a lot about this. The other week I went through this process and it was both interesting and transformational for me personally so I thought I would share it here in case you case you can find a way to let it help you redefine your experience of the present into a more positive one.

The reason yoga can be really transformational in this way is that when we connect with our breath and practice yoga positions with awareness we are practicing being present. This sometimes brings down defenses that we may have set up to help us avoid the present moment. If you have ever had this experience in yoga, you possibly didn’t want to practice that day. This is why a regular consistent practice, however often you personally can mange it is so important. Sometimes it’s the days when you think you don’t want to practice that you stand to gain the most benefit from it.

As I practiced, I noticed I was feeling a bit fed up. I breathed and observed this feeling, and realized that I was frustrated that I was not living up to my own expectations in one specific area of my life. I realized that although I may be able to change the future this is how things stood right now. I learned to accept this real version of myself instead of the one I thought it should be.

I find that as I practice acceptance and move through my practice there is a shift in the feeling. As I accept it, it loses it’s power over me and I become more present and experience it for what it is – and it really isn’t that bad after all.

My next step in this case was to discover how I could work on this aspect of myself. It led to some really positive changes for me. Sometimes you can’t change a problem so accepting it is all that is necessary. As you learn to accept life as it is, you experience each moment more fully and realize how amazing life really is.

Much of this can be simplified in the following Buddhist quote

“If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.”
Shatideva

How has yoga helped you to accept yourself, just as you are?

Measure your progress in yoga not by the yoga positions you can do, but by the person you become.

Modern society thrives on progress. It seems like we are always being pressurised to achieve more, earn more and buy more. This rarely leads to lasting happiness because there is always more you can have and do. With social media images of bendy yogis bombarding your newsfeed, and with pressures to achieve coming from all directions, it’s easy to bring this mindset to your yoga practice. This is such a shame because if you are always striving to achieve more, you will never surrender and accept this moment, just as it is, enjoying the real fruit of yoga.

People practice yoga for all sorts of reasons and I understand that you may want to become more flexible. You may be really tight and need to get more flexible in order to enjoy normal healthy movement and posture. If you practice regularly this will happen, whether you strive for it or not. If you have been practicing yoga for many years, as I have, you may be very capable of doing all sorts of positions that you never dreamed were possible, and yet you still may seek progress in what you can do. I do. I love to challenge myself to do more, but the main benefit of this is what it brings to my life. It helps me to stay calm in challenging and new situations. It helps me to be more present for my friends and family, it helps me to believe that anything is possible, and hopefully it helps me to be a better person. Very few people really care, or even know, what yoga positions 18 years of yoga has made it possible for me to do. But they do care about what kind of person I am.

If you practice yoga regularly you will become more flexible. There is no need to worry about that. Practice, surrender, and use your practice to become more present. Sometimes it will be wonderful. Sometimes it will be challenging to really be here. Practice, practice and practice some more. Then bring your practice into your life.

Sometimes as a teacher, I notice that the people that seem to understand it the most, are actually the tightest. They have had to tune into their breath. They have realised that it is going to take a while. And they have surrendered. I am not saying this to be harsh to the bendy people. I happen to be one myself, but I think sometimes within the yoga community, we forget this and we think the bendy people are the great yogis. This is not always the case. They may not have even done that much yoga. They might be a gymnast or a dancer. They might really struggle with other aspects of the practice too. We are all different, but the real journey is an inward one, and that’s where the real peace lies.

Do you ever put pressure on yourself to be better at yoga? How has yoga had an impact on your life and or who you are?

Yoga is not a Competition – How to Embrace it

One of the great things about yoga, often said by yoga teachers is that yoga is non competitive. That sounds lovely doesn’t it.  Yoga is a place where you can just be and be accepted for what you are and accept yourself where you are.

We live in a competitive world, we are taught we need to compete to survive and to thrive, from school grades to getting that perfect job. Without some competitiveness would we even get out of bed? Often we don’t compete with others but have our own standards and desires which we work hard to reach.

“When I get this toy, job, car, man, woman, money, you name it….. then I will be happy,”  is often a mantra that keeps us moving in a direction until we get there, and then we find we want something else. It would be great if we could set this aside and go to yoga class and enjoy being where we are here and now. To be here and now is to accept things as they are right now. The conditioning of the mind can be strong though and the mind loves to make simple things complicated.

Yoga teaches us to be more present. Many people love yoga for it’s non-competiveness and yet many people, myself included struggle with their competitive nature. I have found this is actually the hardest thing I have ever had to teach anyone. I think ultimately it can’t be learnt it has to be discovered.

I can tell you that

  • yoga is not a competition
  • the girl next to you has been practicing for 10 years and is a teacher
  • we all have different bodies, that everyone has different strengths and weakness
  • your body is a result of everything you have done with it up until this moment, and is unique and beautiful
  • when you can do this or that asana you won’t suddenly become enlightened
  • a person who is more flexible or more strong isn’t necessarily the better yogi
  •  yoga isn’t about the asana (yoga position), the asana is just a tool to bring you into the present moment.

You might agree with me or you might think, it’s okay for you, you can touch your toes, do lotus or whatever your pose of frustration happens to be.

And yes let’s say you are right and I can do blah blah, I have come to realise that there will always be someone more flexible than me. It doesn’t matter if I spend the rest of my life doing yoga and I hope I will, there will always be something I can’t do. Indeed as I age I might not be able to do some of the things I do now. This is true for almost anything by the way, there can only be one world best at anything.  Is this never ending escalator annoying then, you get to the top and find your at the bottom again.  Actually I think it’s a relief to know there is nowhere to go but here, it helps me to surrender.

Having said all this. I love to work on asanas.  When I first stared my journey with ashtanga yoga there was so much I could not do. My mind loves a challenge and I love to work on something that I can’t do.  I know that with dedication, eventually it will become possible and sometimes it helps motivate me to complete my daily practice.  Is this competitive? Maybe, but yoga also teaches me to be where I am, to surrender to it, to unravel it each day and notice it as it is.  It forces me to work with this body in this moment no matter what I think it should be, it shows me what it is, right now.

When a bird sings it doesn't sing for the advancement of music.In fact if you find yourself noticing your competitive nature in yoga don’t be too hard on yourself. Yoga is a safe place to notice these things about ourselves and it is perfectly natural that you should feel some level of ambition within yourself.  Notice it, don’t feed it, that’s the trick.  Don’t judge it as good or bad.  Accept it as it is, just a passing thought.

Those of us who practice yoga are so lucky.  We are fortunate to have the time and health, to move our bodies to breathe and be part of a wider community that embraces these things as much as we do.  It is such a privilege each and every time we step on our mats regardless of whether you can touch your toes, I hope you enjoy the journey because the only destination is right here.

Do you feel competitive with yourself or others in yoga?  Does yoga offer you a rare opportunity to not compete? What has this journey taught you?

Habits – how to build great habits of your own choosing

A habit is a practiced and repeated action which may or may not be done unconsciously. When we think of habits we often think of bad habits that people may  struggle to give up, such as smoking. However in reality we all have many habits which literally shape our lives. Realising this, and learning to change the habits that no longer serve you, and building new ones which do serve you is transformational. As many who have stepped onto this path will realise it is not always easy.

In yoga philosophy the word samskara refers to the imprints on the subconcious mind from previous actions. Scientists have found that when we repeat a behaviour we strengthen the neural pathway in our brains. This is great news if we are building good habits such as eating healthily, getting enough sleep and practicing yoga ;-). As we repeat the behaviour the neural pathways become stronger and in time we reach for a piece of fruit without thinking.

Yoga can be great at making us more aware of our habits. Awareness is a great tool and will help you understand why you do something. For example, I had a bad habit of reading for too long in the morning before practice.  My schedule is sometimes flexible in that I can do that, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and it wasn’t helping me get the most out of my day. It had become a habit though, so there must be something I was getting out of it. I realised I needed some free time to do as I pleased. So now I give myself this time to read but it has a cut off time at 8 am when my yoga practice begins.

For me that’s one of the keys to changing habits, as I think you have to work out what the old habit is serving. Do you watch TV instead of being active because you’re tired? Do you need more sleep? Do you smoke because you like to take a break from work, socialise with friends or relax? Can you find new ways to get the same benefits that are more in line with the person you want to be.

We become good at what we practice. The trick is to choose what you want to practice and shape your life into your own groove. We all have good and bad habits. We can learn and gain strength from the good ones and use them as a model to work from. You can literally rewire your brain that way, building new pathways and a new you.

As a side note I hope those of you in the UK are enjoying this amazing weather.

Do you have any habits you have changed? How did you do it?

Ten Tips for Staying Present and Calm

I think one of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it brings you into the present moment. It allows you to connect with here and now.

Even when practicing yoga it is possible to be elsewhere. I have certainly had days where my mind just won’t shut up. These are the days where yoga is a real challenge and yet these are the days where we need yoga the most. Don’t run from your mat, stay be with yourself. Don’t judge your mind, accept everything as it is and go back to your breath. Notice subtleties in your movement, gradually bring yourself back, here.

 Why is being here and now so important?

Blossom falling off a tree with a quote from Eckart Tolle about being here and now

So glad I found a moment to capture this beautiful tree on my daily bike commute

The mind is an incredible thing.  It just doesn’t seem to stay still. Sometimes life is great and sometimes it is challenging.  It doesn’t matter how much yoga you do, challenging things will happen and great, wonderful things too! Everything is changing all the time and yet the mind can cling to some fixed ideas about reality. Sometimes our minds repeat the same thoughts again and again, strengthening them, feeding them. These thoughts may have nothing to do with what is actually happening to you. Often they are about some possible future or some past experience.

I have observed that when something is happening, the mind often is not fully present with the experience. Instead it can think about what will happen because of this, even though it doesn’t yet know the future.  Sometimes we also filter things through our past – neither of these filters are real. If you are present then you have no choice but to surrender to what is happening. As you experience this more and more life becomes more beautiful and less stressful. You get to experience life in it’s many colours and embrace it each and every moment.

Believing and feeding a negative future in your mind can’t be helpful.  If you must have a vision of the future in your mind make it one that inspires you and makes you smile.

 How to stay present in your day to day life

  1. Practice it preferably daily, through yoga, meditation or just when going about a daily task like washing up.
  2. Be compassionate with your mind, if you notice it’s not being present, be with it.  Learn to laugh at it and tell it to shut up if it’s not being helpful.
  3. If you feel panicked notice what is actually happening, is it as bad as your mind thinks it is?
  4. Use your breath to make you aware of here and now.  Notice your breathing as it is or take a few deep breaths.
  5. Feel what it’s like to be in your body.  Feel the contact with the floor or the chair.
  6. Notice the sounds that are around you.
  7. Listen to what others are saying.  The mind can get so busy planning it’s next move. Take the time to really listen to what other people are saying instead of planning what you are going to say next.
  8. Focus on the every day things that are actually happening. Where are you right now and what are you doing?
  9. If you catch your mind creating stories, notice it without getting involved, like a cloud passing in the sky.
  10. If you feel you’ve got stuck living in the past or the future, that’s okay.  Now is the only moment you have, be here now and don’t worry about the past.

Do you find your mind likes to create unnecessary drama?  What helps you to stay present?