Mindful Yoga for Stress - Tip #5

In this series of posts, I explore skills that you can take from a mindful yoga class to use in your daily life to help you respond to stress. 

Tip #5: REST!

Harder to do whilst right in the midst of things, but when you get home from a stressful day, notice what it is you do to wind down. Instead of TV, internet, or other stimulating activities, might you be able to make time for yourself to lie down, on the floor, and breathe for ten minutes? How about five?

If you'd like to practice putting these tips into action, come along to my one of my classes in Bristol and explore!

Mindful Yoga for Stress - Tip #4

In this series of posts, I explore skills that you can take from a mindful yoga class to use in your daily life to help you respond to stress.  

Tip #4: : Open your body up

One of the things you might start to notice as you begin to pay attention to how your body and mind interact is the way your body posture changes when you are stressed. For many people, the shoulders lift up, the jaw clenches, and we hunch forward, protecting our bellies. Although there are very good reasons for your body taking these actions in response to short-term stress, if you tend to hold onto these posture long-term it can begin to feed into a stress-cycle that is hard to break.

There is a very real link between our emotions and state of mind, and our posture. We slump and hunch when we’re feeling down, nervous, or tired. Evolutionarily that makes sense; by drawing in on ourselves, we make ourselves less visible and protect our soft, vulnerable front. But if you get into the habit of holding yourself like this all the time (as computers, sofas and stress encourage us to do) your body can feel stuck in these feelings.

So the next time you are feeling really stressed, give yourself a moment to find some space in your body. This is not a case of forcing yourself into “good” posture and rigidly holding yourself there – this is just as stressful for the body as being in a collapsed, protective state. Instead it as a process of gently opening and lengthening to find more space.

In the moment practice: Finding space

Sitting or standing, bring your attention to whatever is in contact with the ground. Allow your feet or seat to relax and feel the ground underneath you. You are supported.

- Bring one hand to your belly, and one to your heart. Lift the crown of your head and lengthen the back of your neck.

- As you breathe out, let your shoulders relax.

- Find some space between the back teeth.

-  Scan your body and notice where you are holding tension right now, and see what might be able to let go.

- Breathe.

Mindful Yoga for Stress - Tip #3

In this series of posts, I explore skills that you can take from a mindful yoga class to use in your daily life to help you respond to stress.            

           3. Use your body as an anchor

Often when we are stressed, we are so stuck in our thoughts that we lose touch with the body altogether. Coming back to feel the body can bring us right back to what is actually happening, and can be a really helpful tool when you feel stuck in your head. During class we explore lots of different anchors for our attention – the sense of weight, the movement of our breath, sensation in different areas as we move. You will find some sensations more compelling than others, so in daily life, try to come back to the ones that feel most helpful for you.

For some people (especially those who experience panic attacks), your breath might not feel like a safe thing to focus on at certain times. If you are very anxious and your breath is too scary to focus on, can you take your attention elsewhere? Can you feel sensation in the palms of your hands? For some people, the feeling of their feet on the ground can be useful. If standing, you might shift your weight from foot to foot slowly. If sitting or lying, can you do anything to allow your weight to drop more fully into the ground?

Mindful Yoga for Stress - Tip #2

 In this series of posts, I explore skills that you can take from a mindful yoga class to use in your daily life to help you respond to stress.

            2. Befriend your breath

Our breath is an amazing bridge into our nervous system. When you start to pay attention to your breath, you will notice how it changes in response to situations, thoughts, feelings. And just as it changes to reflect the situation your nervous system is in, so you can begin to skillfully use your breath to influence your nervous system. When we are anxious, our breath often shortens, or becomes held. In class, we practice slowly relaxing the breath and lengthening the exhalation. The next time you are feeling stressed, take a moment to notice how you are breathing. Put your hands on your belly and see if you can allow your breath to move under your hands. If it feels possible, begin to invite your outbreath to get a little longer.

At home, you can practice gently lengthening your exhale. Choose ten minutes when you know you can be alone undisturbed. Silence your phone, and sit or lie comfortably. Begin to watch your breath, counting the length of your inhale and your exhale. Once you have found your natural rhythm right now, experiment with adding one count on to your outbreath. Breathe this way for a few rounds of breath and see how it feels. If it feels comfortable, you can add one more count. Again, see how it feels. You can continue like this as long as the breath still feels comfortable. Once you have found a rhythm with a longer exhale than you began, breathe with that rhythm for a few minutes. Then stop counting, allow your breath to return to normal, and check in to see how you feel.

A longer exhale, practiced gently, can be a really helpful tool when you are worried or having trouble getting to sleep.

Mindful Yoga for Stress - Tip #1

In this series of posts, I explore skills that you can take from a mindful yoga class to use in your daily life to help you respond to stress.

In my last post, I wrote about how mindful yoga has helped me with stress and anxiety. In the following posts we’ll look in more detail at some specific tips for dealing with stress in daily life. These are all things that we practice in a mindful yoga class, but I think that they only become really useful when they begin to show up in your life outside class, too. One of my friends and teachers, Aki Omori, says: “We practice being present when things are easy, so that we have more chance of doing it when they are difficult”. In a yoga class we are given conditions that make mindfulness of the body easier. The more we practice, the more we can draw on these skills outside class as well.

1.    Notice body-mind connections

The first skill doesn’t involve any doing at all. It’s just a matter of noticing. In mindfulness practices we cultivate the skill of observation – simply becoming a gentle witness to what is going on. Beginning to notice what’s happening in your body and how this connects to your thoughts is incredibly useful. The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, give yourself a chance to notice how it affects your body. How is your breath? Your heart rate? Your muscle tension? Pain? See if you can practice witnessing these things without needing them to change right now. Just notice, and see what happens. 

Mindful Yoga For Stress

Our body’s stress response is an amazing evolutionary tool to get us out of danger. Faced with a threat, all our resources go towards keeping us safe: our heart rate and breathing rate increase, blood surges to our extremities so we can run away from, or combat, the threat. Throughout most of human history, these responses have served us well in combatting the immediate, often life-threatening dangers that we faced. I can only say it so many times: our bodies are amazing.

Unfortunately these amazing bodies now live in an environment drastically different to the one we evolved in. Rather than stress resulting from short-term, life-threatening danger, the  stress most of us face now is more insidious. The threats we encounter – demanding bosses, traffic jams, concerns about money, the multisensory overload of living in a busy city – are longer term. The amazing physiological responses designed to get us out of danger fast end up being switched on for far longer than they are useful.

In the context of an environment it didn’t evolve for, it can be easy to begin to see our stress response as an enemy. As the blood and energy rush towards getting us out of trouble fast, they no longer properly serve many other functions - less vital in an emergency, but fundamental to our long term health. The immune system, digestion, sleep, fertility; they just can’t function well in a chronically-stressed body.

We’re unlikely to return to hunter-gathering any time soon. So as busy parents, office workers, city-dwellers, what can we do to combat the effects of chronic stress? As a born worrier and long-term sufferer of anxiety, I have found yoga to be a fundamental tool in helping me understand and respond to my own stress response.

How can mindful yoga help with stress? Yoga can help us to befriend our bodies, and learn its signals. Turning our attention inwards, rather than taking it out into the world, gives us a chance to slow down and start to notice how our bodies really feel and what is going on inside. Mindfulness of the body helps us to learn and understand some of the signals that our body is giving us, and offers us a chance to respond compassionately.

And yoga allows us to REST! We are all so busy; even when we rest we often engage in activities that stimulate rather than calm our nervous system. Even activities that we tend to think of as ‘relaxing’ (for example, sitting still and watching TV) can be quite stimulating for the nervous system, and so do not allow us to fully enter the resting phase of the nervous system. If we are consciously trying to bring the nervous system back into balance, we need to make time every day for deep relaxation. I always include a period of relaxation and often include restorative yoga poses in my classes.

In my next few posts, I'll explore some of these ideas in more detail and offer some easy tools that you can bring from your yoga practice out into your life to help you understand and manage stress. 

Yoga From The Inside Out

I have spent a great deal of my life very concerned about getting things right. Or perhaps more pertinently, not getting things wrong. I’m still not sure what the great unspoken fear is – what exactly would happen if things ceased to be perfect – but it’s strong enough that I have spent most of my life getting things right as often, as perfectly, as possible.

If we’re not careful, it is easy for just this kind of thinking to guide our yoga practice. But as in so many other ways, when we bring awareness to old mental habits (and the temptation to perpetuate them) yoga gives us the choice to take a different approach.

When you start practicing yoga, it can be easy to mistake the shapes themselves for the goal. It is easy to become fixated on the idea of getting a posture ‘right’ – the idea of practising over and over again towards a perfect pose. But working in this way, taking the body down the same familiar grooves, narrows down our field of possibility. And it does nothing to address that fear that bubbles somewhere under the surface about getting it wrong. If we practise with the goal of a perfect posture somewhere in the future, we don’t challenge those lurking failure monsters at all; we feed them. Yoga becomes just another arena in which we can practice being perfect and getting things right.

But if we are able to observe this tendency, we are given the opportunity to use our yoga practice in a radically different way. We offer our mind an alternative mode of being in which the perfect outcome becomes less important than the moment-to-moment experience.

Rather than narrowing down towards one fixed, perfect posture, what if we consciously viewed our practice as a way of opening new possibilities, new pathways in our bodies? Rather than postures being end goals to work towards, what if they are the starting point, a template for you to use to begin exploring your body where it is today?

Rather than an external shape being the goal, we can use the internal sensations, the felt sense, as our guide and ground for exploration. I suggest altering the position of your body in each posture according to your subjective experience, paying careful attention to the internal experience of the posture. What are some of the internal cues that we can look out for?

  • In each pose, become aware of areas that feel tight or restricted, frozen or dull. Can you find a way to bring more space into this area, more of a sense that it is a part of your body with the potential to breathe? Imagining this part of your body responding to your breath might help. Tiny movements, or big ones, might help. Feel free to explore and to see how you can find a sense of space in your own body. You are not confined to one fixed shape, and you get no prizes for holding your body totally still.
  • Bring your awareness to your foundation – the parts of your body that are in contact with the floor. When the body feels the support of the ground, some of the places in your body that are holding on can feel safe to let go.
  • Do you have a sense of your body as a whole, or is all of your attention stuck in one area? Although the sensation will inevitably be stronger in certain areas, if it is strong to the point that it takes over your awareness, it is likely that you are pushing too hard. How can you maintain a sense of sensation in the whole body?
  • Can you feel your breath? Is it steady, or stuck? If it is not possible to breathe here, move towards a position that allows the breath to regain its steadiness.
  • The more you practise, you might find other internal barometers, your own ways to assess the particular balance of effort and ease that your body needs today.

As a teacher, I offer adjustments to students and I am aware that – especially if your fear of not getting it right is strong – that this can feel like a correction. But these adjustments are always just suggestions – ideas for ways in which you might be able to find greater strength, stability, or space in a pose. You are free to follow them, but if the suggestion doesn’t alter your internal experience of the pose, then I encourage you to disregard them. I can’t tell how your body feels from the inside, and that must always be the guide.

You might find that, using these internal sensations as your guide, some unexpected movements or shapes appear. You might find that the suggestions that your body makes contradict some of the external rules and guidelines you have been given by me, or another teacher, or a yoga book you’ve read. Be aware when this is the case, but trust yourself enough to at least explore the possible avenues your body is suggesting.

The important thing to realise is that what you need to do to find the qualities of strength, stability and space in each pose will be quite different to what the person next to you needs to do. And what you need to do today will be different to what you needed to do yesterday, or what you will need to do next year. And to appreciate these differences for yourself, you need to be listening to what’s happening inside.

If you work with a mental image of the perfect posture, a shape that you are trying to make, then your possibilities are limited. But if you work with the goals of finding space, strength, stability and fluidity in every pose – from the inside out – the possibilities that grow from each pose are much broader. And when you practise with a focus on these qualities on your mat, they begin to emerge off the mat too.

If you use your practice as a time each day to try to touch your toes (an external/objective goal) then your hamstrings might get longer, but you might also continue through the rest of your day with limited awareness of your daily postures. But if you practice with attention to subjective experience, looking for space and ease in every shape you make on the mat, as well as the transitions between them, then you will find yourself looking for the same things outside. Once you know how to access the possibilities of space and ease in Crescent pose, or a forward bend, you will also begin finding them when you’re standing at the bus stop or brushing your teeth.

And you might begin to offer yourself space in other ways, too. You might begin to notice the way your breath constricts at the thought of getting something wrong. And maybe the experience of practicing yoga without trying to get it right will enable you to make yourself a little more space. Space for your breath to come back to a comfortable pattern, and space to explore and enjoy the task at hand, rather than constricting in the shadow of the fear of failure. Space to enjoy the success that comes from the enjoyment of a process, rather than being motivated by fear. And maybe even space to fail; to make mistakes; to not get it right all the time.

(With special thanks to my teachers Gemma and Aki for helping me to find and develop my own felt sense. If you are a teacher interested in developing a more “from the inside out” approach, check out Gemma’s ongoing advanced somatics training.)

Yoga Sings The Blues

At various points since my mid teens, tough times in my life have tipped from ‘difficult but doable’ to ‘major depression.’ For some reason I have responded to the normal stresses and difficulties of life by turning on myself, getting myself stuck and unable to cope, in a situation that it takes time and help to move out of. These times are marked by repetitive, relentless thought patterns that are, by now, very familiar. One of the strongest thought patterns that comes with depression, for me, is about failure. I have failed, I am currently failing, and I will continue to fail. Forever. Irreparably.

Recently I’ve been in a period of depression that is much worse than it has been for several years; the first time it has been this bad since I have been teaching yoga. And this new feature of my life – the fact that I teach yoga – has given the failure stories something new to hook on to, so they can begin to tell me a new twist on an old, old story. Depression-thinking has told me in no uncertain terms that the fact that I am depressed now – the fact that remembering to have a shower every day (let alone move house and find new work, both of which I have been trying to do through this fog) feels like too much pressure – is a sign of a new failure.  I have ‘failed at yoga’; I am a fraud; I have not fully integrated that which I am trying (failing, obviously) to teach. That still being vulnerable to the old patterns of body and mind that have been part of my life for over a decade makes me weak, a failure, and that in continuing to teach I am somehow letting my students down, or selling them a lie.

Despite the power and insistence of these thoughts, I know on another level that they are not true. The notion that I am somehow fraudulent by continuing to teach this practice is based on an assumption (one I didn’t realise until now that I still held) that yoga is about fixing you. That somehow this combination of movement, breath and stillness might magically make you immune to stress, or illness, injury, or despair. That if we just tried hard enough our lives could be all rainbows and green juice and bliss. I don’t think this is true, and I hope that it is not something that is conveyed in my own teaching, but it’s a message that is sold insidiously through some ‘yoga lifestyle’ stuff and it seems on some level to still have a hold on me.

So I want to be honest and open and dispel any lingering hopes that people might have – yoga is not about fixing, and it does not make you immune to the darkness and the shadows that are part of every single life. But it does help. It has helped me. I want to talk about what yoga has made possible despite, through, and with depression. The simple lessons that I am gently reminded of each time I practice.

The deepening self-awareness that comes from patiently, repeatedly and gently observing my own experience means that I am more able now to separate and understand the thoughts and the bodily sensations that make up my own patterns of depression. The thoughts are still there – and they are insistent – but I now have the capacity, some of the time, to recognise them for what they are. Not all of the time. Not even most of the time. But more often than I used to.

Yoga has helped me to realise the importance of genuine self-care. The notion that I might be worthy and deserving of care – from myself as well as others – has developed (from a painfully low starting point) through the practice of consciously cultivating compassion. Recognising the particular sensations in my body that signal exhaustion, I am able to see more often that they are a sign of my need to rest, rather than a sign of my weakness and need to just get more done. Of course those thoughts still come, but I feel like I have more of a choice now. I can retreat to bed, or my mat, or an enormous pile of cushions, with less guilt.

Through yoga I have become more familiar with my own boundaries, capacities, and needs. I am clearer about where my boundaries lie, and more interested in respecting them. Coming close to my physical and mental limits on my mat, and respecting them, has seeped out into the rest of my life. This familiarity with my capacities, combined with a growing compassion for myself, enables me to say no when I need to, to ask for help with I need to, and to be less perturbed by some of the guilt and confusion that arises in response to this. This is particularly important during a period marked by depression, when I need to say no more than ever, and when my need for help, love, and support is at its greatest.

Coming onto my mat and into my body is a means to drop away from my thoughts and remember that existence and experience are made up of many more layers than thought alone. Anxiety and depression are both marked by the way I get ‘stuck in my head’. Losing touch with the other layers of experience means that life begins to narrow down and the part I am left with – the endless, hopeless, pernicious thoughts – takes on more power. The practice of coming in to my body, of moving and just observing how things feel, reminds me that experience is broader than it seems at times. There is more space, when I can touch my bodily sensations and the sounds and smells around me, to step back from those thoughts. To make sure that even if it’s only for a second, or a minute, or an hour, they are not dominating my attention.

And this capacity to experience things in terms of fleeting fractions of time – being able to notice the shifting sensations from one moment to the next – is important. Being able to feel and enjoy the warmth of sunshine on my skin right now, and to recognise the way my breath lightens in response to the sight of a body of water, matters.  Because even if for much of the day I am still stuck, and numb to these subtle sensations, the fact that I am aware of them sometimes – that I spend a period of time every day reminding myself of the truth that things change constantly – means that many of the thoughts – the ‘I am always like this’ thoughts, the ‘this will never change’ thoughts, the endless boring hopelessness of it all – those thoughts lose some of their sting.

The fact that I can lie in the sun and feel earth beneath me now doesn’t negate the fact that three days ago I was sitting on the floor weeping, unable to feel my body or to take a full breath. But being able to enjoy the fragments of pleasure – and even neutrality – in a period that is marked by a predominance of pain makes that pain easier to bear. I am reminded that it is not endless.

So yoga hasn’t fixed me, and it hasn’t made me immune, but it has helped. It has made my experience of all this richer, deeper, and in some ways easier to live with. This is the experience I teach from, and these are things I don’t feel fraudulent sharing. And if they feel like things you’d like to be reminded of from time to time, then I’ll see you on the mat.