Inside a Psychologist’s Mind During a 10-day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat (Part 2)

If you haven’t already, please check out part 1 first!

Part 2 continues….

Days 7-8

The meditation is starting to ‘click’. I’m getting the technique and managing to use it increasingly successfully. However, I really struggle with sitting still. Three times a day we are meant to be employing adhiṭṭhāna – a pali word meaning ‘strong determination’. This means not moving, AT ALL, for a whole hour. Even if your nose is itchy, a fly has landed on your face, or your left leg has gone totally dead, you’re not meant to move your body or open your eyes. As part of the body-scan practice you’re already doing, you can acknowledge these sensations, but refrain from labelling them as good or bad. You’re reminded that sensations are always changing: what might be unpleasant now will not be around forever. Also, by stilling the body, it helps to still your mind. I am on board with these ideas. However, in practice, I struggle to do more than 20 to 30 minutes without beginning to shuffle around. Once I’ve started shuffling, I cannot stop – I am like a can of Pringles. I am in awe of my totally still, Buddha-like neighbour.

After each meditation, we stream out of the meditation hall and on to the patio area outside. In the first part of the week, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of silent stretching Olympics. There were downward dogs, arms windmilling around in aggressive shoulder circling and impressive contortionist-style lunging. As each person saw a different stretch being done, they would add this to their routine. However, as time went on, it seemed the appetite for stretching out aching bodies waned. Instead, everyone shuffled out of the hall, and flopped immediately down onto the floor of the shoe removal area, not even making it as far as the patio. As I exited one day, it seemed as though I was negotiating an assault course of an adult game of sardines. Except the giggling, writhing bodies of children were replaced with a group of motionless adults staring silently from behind glassy eyes, contemplating how on earth meditating could be so exhausting.

Later that evening, whilst I’m lying in bed, I hear lions roar nearby. I smile to myself. Maybe this is a pretty cool experience after all.

On day 8, I’m desperate for human contact. Whilst I was trying to serve myself some salad, a lady held the bowl still for me to stop it from wobbling everywhere. I have so much gratitude towards that lady. I could hug her. But I’m not allowed. Later, as lunch is finishing, I look up and smile at someone. They smile back! What rule breakers we are. I try it on a few more people and receive more smiles in return. I contemplate how everyone must be craving human contact. I compare it to the famous psychological study by Harlow. It demonstrates that baby monkeys will choose a furry warm fake monkey mother, that doesn’t feed them, rather than a hard wire fake monkey mother, that does feed them. Later, I happen to glance at my own reflection. I have a bit of banana on my chin. There goes my psychological reasoning. People were just smiling at my mucky face.

Day 9

I struggle to concentrate all day. I feel like a child before Christmas. Tomorrow we get to speak again!

Day 10

We have the morning meditation sessions and then – the silence is declared over. I am giddy. Everyone is as excitable as a box of puppies. My voice is husky and sounds very strange. I laugh hysterically at almost everything everyone says. It’s great to have this time to share experiences with everyone, and to readjust before going home, but it does make the afternoon and evening feel like the last day of term at school – everyone really struggles to settle, and focus on the meditation. It does emphasise the need for silence throughout the course.

Today a new type of meditation is introduced – metta, or loving kindness meditation. It is encouraged to add this type of meditation to the end of the Vipassana. The idea is to generate loving kindness to yourself, and out to the world to people who need it. The premise is simple, and I think the world could use more people meditating on the idea of loving kindness.

Day 11

We finish on this day, after a morning meditation and breakfast, and then a group effort on cleaning the centre. I can’t stop thinking of my impending coffee. We made it! I am exceptionally relieved, but I also feel accomplished.

 

General Reflections

Despite my stories and jokes, I genuinely did not find the silence as hard as I would have expected. Whilst I am a true introvert, I still very much appreciate the presence of others. It was quite challenging to see my husband across the mediation hall, or occasionally across the grounds, but to be unable to even wave or make eye contact (men and women are in different areas throughout). However, apart from one hard day on day 5, the course became much easier as I focused all my efforts into the meditation. There are actually times you can speak: if you have a practical problem, such as with your room, there’s a manager you can speak to. If you have a question about the meditation, there are two times a day where you can sign up to speak with the meditation teacher.

I must include that my husband had a completely different experience to me. Except one nap (that he felt extremely guilty for), he focused exclusively on meditation for the duration (no making citrus water or building zen stone stacks for him). He found the technique straightforward, and was able to sit very still and focus, despite not having meditated that much previously. He experienced quite intense physical sensations, including being able to hear his blood pumping very loudly in his ears. Overall, he absolutely loved it, and is considering a longer course in future. Different people will experience the same course in extremely different ways!

 

Craving Mental Stimulation

It is extremely interesting to observe what people do to stimulate their minds during the silence. I diligently created an intricate Dhamma wheel out of sticks and stones during one break time, and I observed many zen stone stacks popping up all over the centre. I have never cleaned so much in my life. I arranged my cosmetics in height order, and read the ingredients on the back. I made up a song about Vipassana meditation to the tune of ‘Under the Sea’ (from the Little Mermaid).  My favourite observation was several women standing around in a circle, with their backs to each other. One was pondering into the sky, chin thoughtfully in hand. One was examining a stick in great detail. Another was crouched down, intently watching a line of ants. It looked like an Amateur-Dramatic play – a freeze on the topic of ‘contemplation’ or ‘disconnection’. I imagined that an outside witness might think we’d all lost our marbles. 

After the silence was over, a student hilariously regaled to me the story of him observing the friend he had come with ‘sweep some rocks’. He worried his friend had snapped. His friend indignantly replied: ‘I had built a Buddha made of stones! I was sweeping the rock garden around it!’

 

Recommendations – Emotional Health

I did come to appreciate how the silence was necessary to really immerse yourself in the meditation. As humans, we’re prone to comparison: if someone was having a fantastic time or a terrible time, or experiencing a certain type of sensation in the body or particular thought or feeling, it would be bound to influence us in some way (i.e. Why aren’t I feeling that? Is their experience better? Why am I such a terrible meditator?). However, both because of the intensity of the silence for that length of time, and because of the language used in some of the meditation (i.e. feeling your body ‘dissolve’) I would not recommend this particular meditation course for people who suffer from some chronic and severe mental health conditions. You will probably know yourself if this kind of experience is something that might make you feel worse, but if in doubt, discuss it with your doctor and mental health professional. Some people do enter these kinds of courses as an attempt to ‘fix’ their mental health difficulty, or process challenging life experiences. Students in this category can find it beneficial, but I would be wary. It may be very useful to you to have the time to reflect on difficulties in your life but I would make sure it is not a current issue, or too raw. Give yourself time and space first. Bear in mind if you’re also totally new to meditation it’s like trying to run a marathon when you haven’t first tried running round the block.

Recommendations – Physical Health

I would recommend spending time sitting cross legged so your body can get used to it (especially your knees). In hindsight I’d have strengthened my back more before going, but it’s certainly not a pre-requisite – you can request back rests, mini stools, and if needed, sit on a chair. I ended up sitting on a real mountain of cushions, blankets, and eventually, the mini-stool – it actually got a little bit ridiculous. I had to arrive a few minutes early each meditation time to assemble it, and countless people came up to me afterwards to tell me how fascinated they were by my creation! However, it was worth it, as I experience back issues, I expected to experience a flare-up. However, I came out of it with minimal body aches. I did also practice yoga (asana) in my room daily (illegally!). You’re allowed to walk around, but barred from running, yoga or any other exercise or meditation practices. I understand the importance of dedicating your time to understanding the practice, and not confusing it with other practices – but for me personally, I felt not doing yoga would have been at the detriment to both my physical and emotional health. I needed to move to stretch my back, and I needed some time to get out of my mind and into my body each day.

The food was delicious. It was all vegetarian, but there was plenty for me as a vegan. There was also plenty available at both breakfast and lunch, and after the first day, I genuinely didn’t mind just having tea and fruit for dinner. Sitting still all day doesn’t take up many calories.

Overall Experience

Throughout the course I felt a general sense of calmness and peace, and since the course I feel like I have been reacting less strongly to events that tend to make me feel irritated or anxious. The concept of ‘anicca’ (an-ee-cha) has stuck with me. This is the idea that everything is constantly changing, so there is no use is clinging to things being the same or different. By doing this, we create our own suffering. You learn this idea by experiencing it happening in your own body, second by second, in order to be able to understand first hand how this is also the case in the wider world (“You can’t step into the same river twice”). I feel it’s very likely I will get more out of the meditation practice in future courses, and in time with my own personal practice at home.

As a psychologist interested in Mindfulness, a yoga student and teacher, and someone who has a personal meditation practice (albeit until now only 20 minutes a day on the Headspace app) the techniques in the Vipassana course were not anything particularly new. However, it was taken to a much deeper level to anything I’ve experienced before. I did not personally experience a grand ‘aha’ moment, which I attribute to this prior understanding of meditation and connecting to my body. The course is not intended to produce a significant change in perspective or personality overnight, and emphasis is placed on regular, sustained practice.

Nevertheless, I spoke with several people who did have a significant or profound experience. All the students that I spoke to, bar one, had extremely positive reports. Some students reported to me that connecting to their bodies, becoming aware of the  countless physical sensations we’re having at any given time, and noticing how all these feelings are always in flux, was ‘life changing’.  In our busy western world we’re so busy and in our own heads that our bodies are often hugely neglected. How often do you turn up somewhere, with no memory of the journey? We take 17,000-30,000 breaths a day – how many are you aware of? Tuning into the subtleties of what’s going on in our bodies means that we can be much more aware of how certain situations, thoughts and emotions impact us. If you can tune into this sooner rather than later, it reduces the need of your body to ‘shout’ about what’s happening – thereby decreasing the instances of being overwhelmed by your emotions. This also gives your mind more space to consider how to act, rather than jumping into a decision that has been governed by strong feelings.

“Until you make it’s unconscious, conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate” – Carl Jung.

Overall, I would definitely recommend to most people that they give Vipassana a go, providing you feel in a relatively stable place mentally and emotionally. Having ten days out to step back from our day to day life stresses as well as unplugging from modern technology is a great way to gain perspective and clear your head. Vipassana is so much more than a ‘break’ or a ‘retreat’ however – it’s teaching you a skill you can use for life. People often comment that taking 10 days out seems selfish, or indulgent. But I perceive it as making an investment in your mental health, in the same way we eat healthily and exercise to look after our bodies. With one in four people in the UK diagnosed with a mental health problem at some point in their lives, neglecting our mental health can lead to debilitating illness. This can, in some instances, lead to time off work or time in hospital. Prevention is better than cure! It’s also important to remember that it’s not only ourselves that benefit. When we interact with our loved ones, friends, family and the wider world, the emotional state we’re in impacts on them too. Think of how you can feel the tension in a room when someone is angry, or the ripple effect of a smile.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I wanted to change myself’ – Rumi.

Have you done a Vipassana course before, or maybe several? How did you find it? If you have any questions or comments (or you want to hear my ‘Under the Sea’ song!) don’t hesitate to ask!

 

Namaste,

The Yog Travelogue

Advertisements

Inside A Psychologist’s Mind During a 10-day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat (Part 1)

I had first heard about Vipassana at the start of last year, when I was taking some time out of work to travel. It sounded pretty intense – complete silence for 10 days, combined with meditating all day, every day. No phones or even a pen and paper were allowed, and instead of dinner you got tea and fruit. Tea and fruit! And it’s free?! Surely it must be a cult. Even though I’m a psychologist and yoga teacher who frequently espouses the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, 10 days seemed a little excessive. Who would actively choose to do such a thing? However, as the year went on, I spoke to more people who had been on a course, and became more interested in doing one myself. Everyone we spoke with had positive experiences to share. I felt that if I was going to talk the talk about meditation’s benefits, I had better also walk the walk.

So, this is a no-holds-barred of what went on inside my head during 10 days of silent meditation.

What is Vipassana?

Vipassana is one type of meditation (there are hundreds of others). The word Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. Vipassana’s main philosophy centres around the Buddhist idea of impermanence – everything is constantly changing. By wanting things to be the same or to be different, we cause our own suffering. These ideas are learnt experientially by observing your own breath and sensations in the body. This is a very brief summary – much more information is available at dhamma.org.

Thousands of people attend a Vipassana course every year. There are numerous centres around the world, which are regularly fully booked, operating with a wait list. Vipassana courses are completely free: they’re entirely run by volunteers. At the end you can donate if you wish; they provide an idea of how much it costs per student per day but there is no obligation to do so if you don’t want to, or can’t afford it. They are willing to take a donation of any size. It is encouraged to give back through working on a subsequent course as a server; working at reception or as a cook, for example. When attending the course as a server you still attend 3 of the daily meditation sessions.

For the first 3 days, you focus exclusively on noticing your breath, in increasingly smaller areas of the body. This is intended to develop your meditation and concentration abilities, and ‘sharpen your mind’. By the fourth day, the Vipassana technique begins, and you are taught new parts of the meditation practice every day. This involves scanning your body and observing any arising physical sensations, in many different ways.

In the evenings, there’s a ‘discourse’ – which is watching a video recording of S. N. Goenka talk about how he came to Vipassana, and about the technique itself. He’s a very entertaining speaker,  and these evening discourses were easily my favourite part of the day. However, whilst the technique itself is entirely secular, much of the discourses relate to Buddhism. Furthermore, Goenka does drop in mentions of  ideas such as past lives and rebirth very casually, as if they are certainties. This personally was not a problem for me, as I felt able to pick and choose what felt relevant for me and my own belief systems. Goenka even says this himself at the end of the course: if you don’t believe in all of the technique, just use the parts that fit for you, rather than discarding it all entirely.

A breakdown of my day-to-day experiences

When I arrived on day 0 (day 0?! The course actually finishes on day 11 – I was duped!) I felt more than a little apprehensive. I panicked the entire way there, worrying that this was the worst idea I’d ever had – would I have a breakdown from the continuous silence and lack of human contact? I’m the kind of person that has so many internet tabs open on their phone it changes from the number to a smiley face (clue – it’s over 100). I have over 10,000 unread emails. A colleague previously compared me to a hummingbird, and I think it describes the process in my brain – constantly flitting very fast from place to place, with high energy (but also needing regular rest!). How will I manage the dedication, the discipline, the sustained concentration?

However, once I checked into my room (a basic but private room with an en suite) I felt more relaxed. The setting was beautiful – overlooking the mountains of Western Cape, and directly adjacent to a game reserve of wild animals. We had a simple dinner followed by introductions and questions, and once that was over, the silence began.

Day 1 and 2

To say waking up at 4am on the first day was tough would be an understatement. Due to the heat I had a terrible night’s sleep, and felt like a zombie. Was that really a repeated gong outside my window waking me up in the pitch dark? Where am I? Why have I voluntarily agreed to this torture? I struggled out of bed and walked down to the meditation hall for our first meditation session. Whilst a large portion of the day is spent meditating, there is free time. You also get to choose whether you meditate in the hall or in your own room for several meditations sessions a day. For 3 sessions a day, you are required to be in the hall (and they’ll come to find you if you are not there!).

Day 1 passed in a bit of a blur as I got to grips with the new routine. My brain had decided to play a selection of 3 terrible pop hits on loop – including the Vengaboys. Thanks brain.

By the second day however I felt like I was in the swing of things – my meditation went a little too well; I managed to sit pretty still, and focus on the  breath. I still think that I may have peaked too early!

However, on day two as I took a break from meditation I examined my hands in great detail. I thought about my cuticles. What are they even for? Surely they have an important job – and if so, why do they get pushed down and trimmed off when you get your nails professionally done? I pushed all of my cuticles down, on my fingers (and toes for good measure). Now they looked like little smiles, or milk moustaches (almond milk, this is 2018). Oh god. I realise that it’s only day two, and I’m smiling at my extremities. Am I going to last?

Day 3

I’m craving an alternative drink to water and Rooibos tea. The Ricoffy is too horrifying to contemplate (it shouldn’t even sound like the word coffee, so removed is it from real coffee). Suddenly I look at the fruit bowl and have a brain wave. I spend the next 10 minutes hacking a piece of orange with a very blunt knife in order to make it slim enough to fit in my water bottle, but big enough to fish out again. When I finish, I skip triumphantly out of the food hall, past the sign that says ‘Please do not take food out of the food hall’. I’ve tricked the system. I cherish this small win.

Later, as we are on a between-meditation break, as I swig from my refreshing orange water, I catch another woman eyeing it up. I smile smugly to myself. That’s right lady. Witness the citrus.

By the next morning, the orange water has spread. I spy at least 3 other people with orange water. I’ve started a craze!

Days 4-6

I’ve got sufficient evidence now to be confident that no one is coming to check on me during the 4:30am-6:30am meditation session. Now I get up at 4am, shower, dress, do a short yoga session and then…. get back into bed. I can’t meditate all day having had only 5.5-6 hours sleep. I understand in India 5 or 6 hours sleep is seen as plenty, but as a psychologist, I’m aware of the research evidence which says we need around 7 hours a night (this may be more for some people, I need 8). Repeatedly getting less sleep than we need can negatively impact our brain functioning. 10 days of reduced sleep would probably not have a great impact – but I tell myself it’s better to be on the safe side (in order to justify my napping).

By day 4 we’ve started the Vipassana technique. I’m so grateful to have something else to focus on after the very specific breath focus. In fact I’m trying to be grateful in general.  Not everyone gets the chance to take time to focus on learning something like this (although provided you can get the time off, it’s totally accessible to anyone. Centres are worldwide, and as I mentioned, it’s free). I find when I feel frustrated I look for something to feel grateful about instead. It definitely helps.

Day 5 is a real low point however. Today feels like an eternity, my back aches, and I realise I have the same amount of days to go all over again. I’m told off for leaning too far forward whilst meditating. I was stretching my back. I seethe for the rest of meditation session. How do people manage 20, 30 or 45 day courses?! It’s hard to see my husband across the hall but be unable to speak to him, to share experiences.  I’m exhausted. I’ve had three naps today before midday.

Later that day, whilst examining my room in minute detail, I find a message. Someone has scratched into the cabinet ‘Balance is key’. An infiltrator has smuggled in contraband. What does it mean? I first read it as ‘Baloncé’. My brain is obviously still geared towards those pop hits. I spend some time considering what Baloncé would be. After extensive deliberation, I conclude that it would be a man dressed as Beyoncé, in an off-off-off-Edinburgh fringe show, badly singing Beyoncé’s hits whilst balancing on various items: one leg, an exercise ball, a Furby.

On day 6, I see a few people gathered looking at the expanse of land where the game reserve is. There’s an elan! (A type of antelope). No, two elan, AND a baby! The excitement is palpable. People are breaking the rules of eye contact and looking at each other with beaming smiles. I learnt at the end of the course that one woman saw an elephant. I fear that would have been too much excitement to handle.

 

————————————

Please come back tomorrow to read part 2!

 

Demystifying meditation: a practical how to guide

Following on from my last post (Meditation – what is it and why should you bother?) I have written a practical guide to demystify meditation, so you can give it a go today (or save this for later).

Where should you meditate?

  • Create yourself a comfortable, relaxing area in your home. You don’t need a whole meditation room, just a cushion on the floor or a comfortable chair will suffice.
  • You might want to tidy the area – clutter and chaos can impact how clear our minds are. Some people might like to add incense, candles, or maybe some relevant art, fabric or anything that makes you feel relaxed and designates the area as a meditation space. If you feel that’s a little too ‘new-agey’, it’s all totally optional.
  • Remove any distractions – turn off the TV or radio, put your phone in another room, and ask family members not to disturb you for the next 10 minutes. Remember though, you don’t need perfect silence to meditate, so don’t worry about cars and roadworks, your dog barking or the noise from your neighbours. In fact, these noises are ideal for practicing the skill of meditation – I’ll explain more later.

What else to consider?

  • It’s ideal to be sat on the floor cross legged if possible, with a straight back and your hands relaxed in your lap. If you have a tendency to slump or hunch, sit on the edge of a cushion, or use a yoga brick or a book. You can also try kneeling with a bolster or rolled up blanket between your legs.
  • If that doesn’t work for you, you can sit in a chair, or on the edge of your bed. Try to sit with your back away from the backrest if possible – you’re trying to cultivate a feeling of being relaxed yet alert.
  • Wear something comfortable – whilst I’m a firm believer in being able to meditate anywhere, you might find you’re in a more relaxed frame of mind if you change out of your work clothes, and maybe even have a shower. Some yogis even recommend a cold shower – but this isn’t for everyone!
  • Ideally you don’t want to meditate after a big meal but you don’t want to be starving either. Saying that, many yogis advocate meditating first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. As someone who’s always very ready for breakfast as soon as I get up, I thought this would be impossible, but was pleasantly surprised at how quickly you can adapt to it.

When should you meditate?

  • Choose a time you can mediate on a regular basis. For many, this is first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Getting out of work during the day and finding a quiet spot outdoors for 10 minutes is also an option. Whatever is best for you – if you’re going to make meditation a habit, it needs to fit in with your schedule.

Ok, so you’ve got your leggings on and you’re sat on a comfy cushion. Now what?

What do you actually do?

A great way to start for meditation beginners (and experienced meditators alike) is to focus on your breath. Start by gently closing your eyes, or, if you prefer, focus on a spot on the floor using a soft gaze. Next, take your attention to your breath. Notice each in breath, and out breath. Become aware which part of your body is moving with the breath – is it your chest, your shoulders, your abdomen? We’re not trying to change anything, just trying to become aware of what’s happening. You might observe the feeling of cold air entering your nostrils, and warmer air leaving your body. Notice how each breath is slightly different from the last, in duration and where you feel it in you body.

Another technique is to count your breaths – the inbreath is 1, outbreath is 2, up to a count of 10, then repeat. If you lose track you can just start again at 1. This counting of the breath is a useful ‘anchor’ that you can always come back to if your mind has wandered off. Which it will. A lot. That’s ok! Congratulate yourself for noticing your mind has wandered off, and bring it back to the breath. The purpose of meditation isn’t to stop your mind having any thoughts – we have thousands of thoughts a day, so that would be a pretty impressive feat.

You might like to try visualising your breath entering your body, through your nostrils and down into your lungs, and and then leaving the body in the same way. You can also add colour to the breath in your visualisation. – breathing in blue for calm, and exhaling red for stress leaving the body – or whichever colours and emotions work best for you.

Taking it further

You can also find plenty of free guided meditation online – I recommend looking up ‘body scans’ as well as the breath focus mentioned above. You can also look up MBSR and MBCT if you’d like to take your practice further. This is Mindfulness based stress reduction and Mindfulness based cognitive therapy (developed originally by Jon Kabat Zinn, and subsequently by Zindel Segal and Mark Williams) this method of Mindfulness and psychology has many research studies demonstrating its effectiveness for a wide variety of mental health difficulties. There’s resources online and you can also find groups and courses to attend all over the UK. Lastly, I recommend to clients and friends alike – the Headspace app. Headspace consists of guided meditations related to a huge variety of topics, from stress to anxiety or depression, and even relationships and sports training.

So remember, you absolutely don’t need perfect silence to meditate. Whilst practicing yoga in Nepal, my teacher told me – “You can come to the Himalayas to meditate, and it can be perfect silence – but it doesn’t matter if you’re still bringing the crowds with you in your mind”. In fact, being able to observe what is going on around us, without being distracted or drawn into stories about it is exactly what meditation is teaching us. The aim of your meditation practice is not only to develop a strong practice where you can sit, be still and calm the waves of your mind – but to take this resulting sense of calmness and peace with you into the wider world.

Are you going to give meditation a go today? Start out with 5 or 10 minutes, setting yourself a timer, and remember that persevering on a regular basis is key. It might seem really hard at the beginning, but it’s just like any other skill – it takes time and repetition. The resulting benefits are worth it.

There is a voice that doesn’t use words

Listen.

~ Rumi

Namaste,

The Yog Travelogue

Why meditate? The benefits of meditation and how it changes your brain

Meditation has been around for thousands of years. Often thought of as being only for solitary monks in the mountains, meditation has made it into the mainstream in recent years. But what is it, and why should you bother giving it a go?

What is meditation?

Meditation is a way to train our ‘monkey mind’ – the way our minds jump around from thought or emotion, getting distracted, without any conscious effort on our part. This ‘mental busyness’ is so prevalent in our current western society – we’re constantly on the go, doing, instead of sitting and being. We’re arriving at our destination without any memory of the journey, as we’re so ‘in our heads’. We’re reading listicles instead of full articles or books, or scrolling through never ending short clips of social media. The result is our concentration spans are getting shorter and we find it hard to concentrate. Sometimes people tell me it feels like their head is a blender, with all the thoughts whizzing round loudly, but not being able to find the off switch. The endless chatter of our monkey mind is exhausting, and at times overwhelming – and might be contributing to stress, anxiety and depression.

Mediation is consciously focusing on something with the mind – this could be the breath, a mantra, or sensations in your body. It’s paying attention to whatever is going on in that present moment and observing it, without judgement.

Meditation is a key part of the practice of yoga. Within yoga’s 8 limbs, meditation comes under Dharna (which translates as concentration), and Dyana (which can be thought of as ‘meditation proper’ – i.e. when we’re totally in the moment, only thinking of the thing we’re meditating on). The aim of yoga’s 8 limbs, and of meditation is ultimately Samadhi – which translates as enlightenment, self-actualisation, or total ‘oneness’. When we’re meditating, we’re probably practicing dharna, as this refers more to the act of trying to concentrate on meditating but being frequently distracted – this is the case even for the most seasoned of meditators!

People generally meditate cross legged on the floor with their eyes closed because it helps to focus the mind, keep the body alert but relaxed and ensures you don’t fall asleep! You can meditate in other positions though if you prefer. You can also keep your eyes open, and look down with a soft gaze. You don’t have to get rid of all thoughts when you meditate – to the contrary, it’s inevitable they’ll pop up. Instead, it is about changing your relationship to your thoughts, becoming an observer.

What are the benefits of meditation?

  • It literally changes your brain

When we engage in in any behaviour over and over, it changes the structure of our brains. Our brains are now known to be plastic – so by doing tasks repeatedly, we develop the way the neurons talk to each other. Research in neuroscience has shown that with regular meditation, several regions of the brain show an increase in the amount of grey matter – such as the areas for decision making and executive functioning. This tends to shrink as we age, causing problems with processing information and remembering things. However studies have shown that regular meditators have the same size cortex at 50 as a 25 year old. So meditation may actually also slow down the ageing process.

Additionally, meditation has been shown to shrink our amygdala. This is the area of the brain that causes the ‘fight or flight’ response, responsible for keeping us safe in dangerous situations – but more often than not keeping us highly stressed at perceived day to day threats, which may be real or imagined. See the fantastic TedX Talk by Sara Lazer for more on meditation and our brains.

  • Start your day with a clear, calm mindset

Self-care is invaluable – remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Starting the day doing something for yourself such as meditation is a great way to take important time out just for you. You’re telling yourself that your health matters. Whilst the aim of meditation isn’t to feel calm, it’s a frequent side effect – and starting the day feeling calm and at peace means you’re more able to feel up to the challenges of whatever your day brings. Plus, research has demonstrated meditation both decreases stress and increases our ability to pay attention.

  • Tame your ‘monkey mind’ so it doesn’t get the better of you

I’ve had people tell me they feel they should able be to ‘think’ themselves out of their problems. But how often does that honestly work? Often we get ourselves deeper into ‘mental tangles’ and feel worse, and then feel bad about ourselves for not ‘fixing’ the problem. Our monkey mind can run away with us, sometimes leading us down deep dark paths without our awareness.

We habitually react from regular learned patterns of behaviour. Often, we have the same thoughts about ourselves, others and the world, day in, day out. As a result, we unconsciously feel we only have a limited number of responses to situations. However, meditation helps us to take a step back to see that we are not our thoughts, we are not our emotions – they are just mental events, and we don’t have to attach any meaning to them, or react to them.

Meditation can’t change what’s happening around you but it can change how you react to life events. It’s often our reaction to things that is more painful and longer lasting than the original life event. Meditation increases our quality of life, making us happier and more satisfied with our lives. Multiple verified research studies have shown these benefits are real, not a placebo.

So what are you waiting for? Give meditation a go! You never know what benefits it may bring. Look out for my practical ‘meditation how-to’, coming shortly.

Everyday Namaste: Part 2. Seeing the light in yourself

Following on from my last post about the word namaste, and connecting to the light, truth and beauty in others (even if you find them irritating!) – part 2 of ‘everyday namaste’ is thinking about how we can better connect with our own ‘inner divine’.

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop” – Rumi

So, what about seeing the light in yourself? Recognising that the entire universe is within you? Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Remember: our health isn’t just what we eat and how much exercise we’re doing. It’s also what we’re saying, what we’re thinking, and how we relate to ourselves. So how can we start appreciating ourselves more?

 

  • Be kind to yourself

Think about a situation where a close friend messed up in some way at work. Perhaps they missed a deadline, or a presentation went wrong. Imagine what you would say to them. “It wasn’t your fault”, “You were tired/stressed/overworked” “I’m sure it will all work out ok, it’s not a big deal”. If it was a close friend, or someone you valued, I imagine your responses might be something along those lines.

Now imagine *you* did the same thing. What kinds of things would you be saying to yourself? I’d bet that a significant proportion of people wouldn’t be saying the same things you say to your friend. Instead it might be – “I can’t believe I did that, I’m so stupid” “My manager is going to hate me” “I always mess up and do things like that” or some variations thereof. Maybe these critical thoughts continue well after the event is all sorted out, and pop into your head at night when you’re trying to drift off to sleep.

How often do we berate, belittle and admonish ourselves, instead of showing ourselves the same care and compassion we show our loved ones? Is beating ourselves up getting us anywhere? What would life be like if we allowed a little of that love and care into our daily lives, and chose to let ourselves off the hook when things don’t go quite to plan? We can often grow and learn from our mistakes, so look for the learning, then let it go. Don’t let today’s difficulties take over your tomorrow, too.

  • Positive affirmations.

“Sometimes you need someone to believe in you. ….and it’s always you”

Some days we might need a little reminder of our best qualities. Just imagine for a moment what might be different if we didn’t spend so much time obsessing about those things we hate about ourselves. You’d probably get a load of time back, and experience less stress and guilt – for things like having an extra portion of dessert. So, let’s flip it and think about all the qualities you have that are GREAT. Make yourself a list – stick it on your bathroom mirror or somewhere you’ll see it regularly. I’ll help you out with a few here, but make sure they’re meaningful to you.

Kind | Generous | Funny | Empathetic | Creative | Determined | Intuitive | Passionate Sharp | Good listener | Charismatic | Organised | Energetic | Open

If you’re struggling, ask a few close friends or family members what they think are your best qualities – and trust them when they tell you! Some people find it helpful to read them aloud every morning – you might feel ridiculous, but they’ll give you a boost for the day, and over time they’ll start to sink in.

  • Get on your mat

Practicing yoga is a great way to start to look after yourself physically and mentally, giving yourself that time just to be in the moment. One of the reasons I love yoga (asana) practice is because it only requires you give your best that day, without comparing to others. Does your best that day involve headstand? Great. Does your best that day mean you stay in child’s pose for the whole class? Also great. Maybe even *more* great, for being able to acknowledge you need that rest and rejuvenation – it can be really hard to get past our ego, or the ‘shoulds’ we place on ourselves, even in yoga. Tuning in to what your body and your mind needs in that moment is an absolutely invaluable life skill. So get on your mat, even if you aren’t feeling up to it – even if for just a few minutes. It’s those days you probably need yoga most.

  • A calm start to the day

Try to give yourself even 10 minutes at the start of the day of meditation or asana practice (or even better, both!) so you feel better equipped to handle whatever that day throws at you. 10 minutes in savasana or other relaxation postures that you enjoy (i.e. child’s pose, pigeon, happy baby, shoulder stand) when you get home from work is another great way to de-stress, and mentally separate work from home. Building these slots into your daily life is a way of looking after yourself – you’re telling yourself that you matter, that you are important, and that you are worthy of self-care and time for yourself.

Have a question or comment? Any ideas about how you might start to ‘namaste’ today? Let me know!

 

Namaste,

The Yog Travelogue

 

 

Everyday Namaste – Bringing the power of this greeting into your daily life (Part 1)

If you’ve been to a few yoga classes, chances are you’ve ended at least one of them with a ‘namaste’. (Pronounced: nah-mah-stay). But what does namaste really mean, and how can we bring the power of it into our day to day life?

Firstly, it’s a greeting (hello and goodbye) used across both India and Nepal. Hindi and Nepali are derived from Sanskrit, an ancient language believed to have begun around 1500BCE. The greeting is typically accompanied with a physical gesture: bowing the head, along with pressing the hands together close to the heart.

Namaste has many meanings, but literally it translates to “I bow to you”. ‘Nama’ is bow, ‘as’ is I, and ‘te’ means you. Using namaste is a way to connect with the lineage and rich history of yoga, and is also a way for the teacher to connect with their students. Namaste is also said to mean the following:

My soul honours your soul.
I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides.
I honour the light, love, truth, beauty and peace within you, because it is also within me.
In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one.

Wow. Puts ‘Hey’ ‘What’s up?’ or ‘How you going?’ to shame, doesn’t it? As I’m currently travelling in countries where I’m frequently ‘namaste-ing’ it got me thinking – what would life be like if we all included a bit more namaste in our daily lives?

Now, I know given the current state of world affairs, sometimes it’s hard to see the light, love, truth, beauty and peace in others. Occasionally, people really are jerks. (I’m probably not supposed to say that as a psychologist). I can think of many names in politics right now that it would be hard to give a genuine namaste to. But, let’s think on a smaller scale here. Your common-or-garden jerk. That friend of a friend, colleague, or member of the public you cross paths with who really riles you up. Maybe they’re prone to making inappropriate, rude or blunt remarks. Maybe they’re super arrogant and showy, or don’t let you get a word in edgeways. Maybe they’re really flaky – making plans then always bailing on them at the last moment. Or maybe they cut you up on the motorway or at the train ticket queue.

All of these personal qualities or interactions can be frustrating at best, or leave you seething for hours, days or weeks at worst. So what can we do about it? How can we ‘honour the soul’ of people who irritate us?

  • Consider what’s behind their behaviour

Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath” – Eckhart Tolle

Here’s the thing – if someone is behaving in a negative way towards you, chances are, they probably don’t feel so great about themselves. Someone who doesn’t stop talking about themselves, talks over you and just doesn’t listen? They may have life experiences of being talked over constantly, or never feeling truly heard and listened to. Maybe they have social anxiety and they’re talking to fill in what they perceive to be awkward silences. Maybe their sense of self worth depends on receiving approval and attention from others. Of course, it could be all of these things or none of these things – everyone’s story is different. But the point is – if you try to see these behaviours in a different light, by trying to understand or at least holding in mind potential reasons for the behaviour, you might find that you perceive that person to be less irritating. It also helps to shift our perspective from focusing solely inwards, to considering how others might be feeling. Maybe their quality could even become endearing?

There isn’t a person you wouldn’t love, if you could read their story”

Ok, so you’ve tried it and you’re not getting that endearing vibe. I urge you try on more than one occasion to give this a go. Our perspectives can be tricky to shift. Research has suggested that for interpersonal relationships to flourish, there is a 5:1 positive to negative interaction ratio necessary. So what else can you do?

  • Reframe your perspective

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”

Reframing a situation is simply considering another perspective. 100 people could have the same experience, but report totally different points of view on what happened, depending on their personality, life experiences, or even how much sleep they had the night before and what they ate for lunch. Some examples of reframes for helping to see the light and beauty in others (or maybe just to ease your frustration a little!):

– See someone as bossy? How about determined, strong willed, or a great leader?
– A person that always has to be centre of attention? How about energetic, entertaining, effervescent?
– Someone who is really rigid or inflexible? How about – they know what they want and exactly how to get their needs met?

Reframes are a simple way to improve our own mental wellbeing during a potentially stressful interaction, and have the possibility to transform our experience into a neutral or even positive interaction. Remember – we don’t have control over anyone except ourselves.

If you don’t like a situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” – Maya Angelou.

  • Letting it go

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die” – Buddha

So you’ve given those ideas a go, but you’re still finding yourself getting irked by the postman leaving your package out in the rain, or that man on your commute who cut you up at the traffic lights. You sit there stewing all day about it. “How dare he!” “I can’t believe how stupid he is” “So disrespectful”. The thing is – the person you’re cross at has no idea. None of your cross thoughts are actually achieving anything. The only person you’re affecting is yourself.

Stress has a profound effect on both our mental and physical health. Stress can affect everything from our sleep to our heartbeat – it can even make your hair fall out, and it’s directly linked to the 6 leading causes of death (including cancer, accidents and suicide). So when we get angry, we’re harming others (whether that’s through thought or action), and we’re also harming ourselves.

Letting it go doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that happens. It certainly doesn’t mean you should be letting go of interactions that are harmful to you, either emotionally or physically. But it does mean picking your battles, and choosing your own health and inner peace over arguing or needing to be right.

Consider this – will this interaction matter in a week, a month, a year? If the answer is no, let it go. We have limited time and energy on this planet, and stewing about a ‘disrespectful’ ticket inspector isn’t a useful or positive use of our time. Try and zoom out – think of the bigger picture, and the likelihood is, the thing you’re angry at won’t seem quite so important.

 

What do you think about using ‘namaste’ today? Any of those ideas you think you could try? Let me know! In part 2 I’ll be writing about how to use the power of namaste on ourselves – how to better connect with our own light, truth and beauty.

Namaste,

The Yog Travelogue

Yoga, psychology and making your own magic

Before I get stuck in to some of the interesting ideas within yoga philosophy and psychology, I wanted to give a brief (!) overview of both. As mental health awareness week draws to a close, I hope this post also illustrates the benefits both yoga and therapy can have on mental health, and urge anyone struggling to know there is help out there, and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self”

~The Bhagavad Gita

So, what is yoga?

A better question might be – what isn’t yoga?! Yoga is generally thought of as being the physical practice – your yoga class, whether that’s ashtanga, vinyasa flow, Bikram or Iyengar. However, yoga is much more than this. Patanjali, thought to be the codifier (though not the creator) of yoga, wrote that: “Every aspect of our motivation, cognition, behaviour, our breathing, our sleep, our dreams – is yoga”. The postures (asanas) are just one part of a much wider whole. Yoga is a philosophy, and a way of life.

In his sutras, Patanjali wrote about about yoga’s ‘8 limbs’. The 8 limbs (ashtanga) are said to be a practical guide for anyone to live the yogic lifestyle. These 8 limbs are: Yama (our attitude towards others), Niyama (our attitude towards ourselves) Asana (the physical ‘yoga’ postures), Pranayama (breathing exercises) Pratyhara (conscious withdrawal of our outer senses), Dharna (concentration), Dyana (meditation) and Samadhi (enlightenment, self-actualisation, or total ‘oneness’). The ultimate aim of yoga is to achieve the last limb, samadhi. The root word of yoga, ‘yuj’, means to join, or union – samadhi is union with our true selves, union with one another, union with the universe. I’ll be explaining the meaning of each of the 8 limbs in more detail in future posts.

Yoga is also about finding happiness (ananda). This is achieved through finding our true self (atman). This is not the discovery of a whole new person, but rather, to uncover the real essence of ourselves that was always there. In our day to day life, this can be obscured by our thoughts and feelings, as well as by ‘stories’ we tell ourself about ourselves and about others. These stories (“I’m not good enough” “No one really likes me” “What if I fail?” “If only I was funnier / thinner / richer”) are self-limiting, reducing our capacity for joy, and creating stress and suffering for ourselves. We are only confined by the walls we build for ourselves.

Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah’. This is the second of Patanjali’s sutras, his first description of what yoga is. The Sanskrit translates as – Yogas (yoga) chitta (consciousness, the mind) vritti (activities, fluctuations or changes) nirodhah (regulating, channelling, stilling). In other words – yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. So, through yoga, we can start to calm our ‘monkey mind’, and see past all of the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves – the worries, the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘shoulds’ – to see our true self, that was there all along.
What is psychology?

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens”
~ Carl Jung

Psychology encompasses an infinite array of topics, but put simply, psychology is the study of human behaviour. Why do we do, think, believe and say the things we do? Psychology looks at our personalities, our habits and patterns of behaviour, and the impact of nature verses nurture. It also explores how we perceive others, the wider world, and ourselves.

Sometimes our various life experiences can lead beyond day to day stresses and develop into mental health difficulties. This happens more often than you may think. A recent study in the UK found 1 in 4 people had a diagnosed mental health problem – meaning there will be many more people struggling with their mental health in one way or another, who have not been to see a professional or received a diagnosis. Psychology, or therapy, is useful for understanding what led to these difficulties, helping people to understand that it’s normal to feel this way (what is ‘normal’ anyway?), and establishing together a path to recovery. One of the most important parts of therapy is building a solid, trusting relationship with a therapist, and feeling comfortable enough to voice your fears, concerns and experiences, and having those experiences validated. Research has demonstrated time and again that it is this relationship that is the main catalyst in helping people make positive changes in their lives, rather than the type of therapy.

Through therapy, the most valuable outcome we can hope to achieve is a greater understanding of ourselves. Humans are predictable creatures, and we generally have set patterns of responding to certain situations. For example, in a tense situation, you might tend towards being defensive, aggressive, or avoidant. You might have a few negative, recurring thoughts that pop up on a regular basis, regardless of the situation. It has been suggested that we actually have a very small proportion of new thoughts each day. These thinking and behaviour patterns develop as a result of multiple influences, including our upbringing, our environment, our personality and our relationships. By developing a greater understanding of ourselves, we can:

  • Break out of the patterns and the stories that are less helpful to us
  • Connect to alternative, more helpful and empowering stories about our inner strength and resilience
  • Have more agency and awareness about how we feel, think and act in future, instead of unknowingly (or knowingly) falling into the same traps we set for ourselves.

You may have already noticed overlaps between yoga and psychology. Both are in the pursuit of health, happiness and discovering what we truly want, think and feel. Both aim to alert us to the suffering that is self-inflicted, and help us to find ways of avoiding it in future. Some psychologists and other health professionals have already noted the mental health benefits that yoga provides. Initial research has been positive – yoga has been shown to create an alternative to our stress response (‘fight or flight’). Through yoga’s combination of mindful movement and breathing, a ‘relaxation response’ is created. Both yoga and meditation have even been shown to change the very structure of our brains – for example, reducing the size of a part of our amygdala, the area of the brain used for processing threat, fear, anxiety and stress. Noticing the positive effects yoga has had both on myself and others led me on my own journey to train as a yoga teacher, in order to use these positive effects within my own therapeutic practice.

At the crux of both yoga and psychology is the idea that experiencing suffering in our lives is inevitable. We will all experience loss, fear, sadness, separation, anxiety and death at some point. Neither yoga nor psychology can change that (believe me, I’ve wished for a magic wand to take people’s problems away countless times!). But what it can change is to help us avoid the additional suffering that we create for ourselves. By changing our perspective, our outlook and the way we react in situations, we can generate our own inner peace, regardless of what is going on around us. “Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event control your emotions”. So maybe we don’t need that magic wand after all? As the authority of the magic world (J. K. Rowling) has said: “We don’t need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already”. Sometimes, we might just need a little help in seeing it.

This introduction to yoga philosophy and psychology may have left you with more answers than questions – but I hope to answer them for you in future posts. Any particular thoughts or questions? Leave a comment!

What is The Yog Travelogue?

Namaste and welcome to The Yog Travelogue!

The Yog Travelogue (TYT) contains insights about yoga, psychology, mental health and travel.

The word ‘Yog’ was both the original Hindi pronunciation of the Sanskrit word (now ‘yoga’)’ and also refers to the concept of connection: how humans connect to one another.

The Yog Travelogue is all about connection.

  • Identifying the connection between your body and mind
  • Exploring the connection between yoga and psychology
  • Developing the connection to your true self

Whilst yoga is a fantastic physical practice, TYT aims to highlight the fantastic benefits yoga can have on our mental health, and get talking about how to look after our minds on a daily basis. TYT contains practical elements which I hope will be useful to you whether you’re interested in yoga, psychology, improving your mental wellbeing, or all of the above. I’ll be writing about how you can incorporate beneficial aspects of both yoga and psychology into your daily life, tips or techniques for boosting your mood and managing day to day stress, guides on meditation, yoga sequences for energising you or helping to reduce anxiety, exploring the benefits of specific yoga poses (asanas) and much more.