The Sacred Pause

I shared these words from Jack Kornfield on Sunday in a workshop and I thought we can all do with a reminder…

Our life can take on a whirlwind quality of working, responding, answering, solving, building, caring, tending and enjoying. When we are busy, and conflicts or difficulties arise, we can easily find ourselves overwhelmed, or reacting to problems in ways that make things worse.

Because experience happens so quickly, unskillful habitual responses can come out of our mouth before we know it. It helps to practice skillful responses when things are easy. That way when things are tough, a healthy pattern is available, already set. It also helps to train ourselves to pause before we respond. This is called the sacred pause, a moment where we stop and release our identification with problems and reactions. Without a pause our actions are automatic.

In a moment of stopping, we break the spell between past result and automatic reaction. When we pause, we can notice the actual experience, the pain or pleasure, fear or excitement. In the stillness before our habits arise, we become free to act wisely.

In this pause, we can examine our intention. If we have set a long-term intention or dedication for our life, we can remember our vows. Or we can simply check our motivation. Are we caught up, upset, angry, trying to get even, win at any cost? Or with a pause, can we take the time to act out of respect for ourself and others, to sow seeds of understanding and courage? It is in our hands.

The power of intention is most easily visible in our speech. In conversation, we get immediate feedback, and often the response we get will reflect our intention. Before we speak, we can pause and sense our motivation. Is our motivation one of compassion and concern for everyone? Or do we want to be right? Clarifying our intention is critical in times of difficulty. When there is difference or conflict, do we genuinely want to hear about the concerns of the other? Are we open to learn, to see other perspectives?

Try this during your next argument or conflict: Take a pause. Hold everyone’s struggle in compassion. Reflect on your highest intention. Whenever things get difficult, pause before you speak and sense your wisest motivation. From there, it will all flow better.

This is the secret of wise speech. As the Buddha describes it: “Speak with kindly motivation. Speak what is true and helpful, speak in due season and to the benefit of all.” When we pause and connect with our highest intention, we learn to see with eyes of compassion and everything becomes more workable.

Excerpt from The Wise Heart

Happy New Year by Donna Ashworth

When I say ‘happy new year’,

I’m not for a moment,

expecting this to occur,

for that is not possible,

a year must be all things.

Happiness must come and go,

like the tides and the winds,

just as sadness,

and all the emotions in between.

When I say ‘happy new year’,

I’m really wishing you,

a baseline of peace,

of gratitude.

Because if you can sit with these things,

for the most part,

happiness will thrive,

when it does arrive,

and sadness will know its place in the mix.

If you can nourish these things,

daily,

you will also grow hope,

for it flourishes in such soil.

And hope is the key,

to this enigmatic state

of ‘happiness’ we seek.

When I say ‘happy new year’,

I’m really wishing you more happy days,

than sad days,

more joy than misery,

more laughter than tears…

and the wisdom to accept,

that they all belong.

Happy new year, my friends.

Happy new year.

Celebrate the new year by coming along to a yin workshop. View future dates.

Recognise, release and return

I’m having a really busy week. A big event on at work and two family birthdays at the weekend mean my mind is receiving a seriously hard workout.

Our minds have various tendencies and one of them is that we are a planner or a dweller.

We either plan future actual or imaginary events, or we ruminate over things from the past. We might replay conversations or events from yesterday or many years ago. 

I’m a planner. What’s your tendency?

Whichever place your mind goes, I use a handy way to bring my mind back to the present.

Martin Aylward’s 3Rs

Meditation teacher, Martin Aylward, says: 

We RECOGNISE when the mind has wandered;

We RELEASE from the thoughts;

And we RETURN to the breath (and the sensations of the body)

I believe it’s useful to add the sensations of body as an extra anchor for our practice and this is equally relevant for sitting meditation and yin practice.

Our monkey minds always want to wander so it’s likely you’ll need to use the 3Rs many times during a practice.

Let me know how it goes for you! If you’d like to hear me use this in a workshop, take a look at upcoming dates.

Making mistakes

Every morning I lay my son’s clothes out to help him get dressed. It was PE day so it was navy tracksuit trousers. Once dressed, he headed downstairs and was dancing to the radio. The bottoms of the trousers were above his ankles.

“Oh Jacob, I think you’ve got your sister’s tracksuit trousers on,” I said.

“But you laid them out for me,” he replied. I told him I’d made a mistake. I’d got them mixed up. 

This stopped him mid dance move. He spun around to look at me, eyes and mouth wide open. “But you’re a grown-up,” he exclaimed in shock. “Grown-ups don’t make mistakes!”

I was blowing this six-year-old’s mind.

His response really surprised me. I explained that we all make mistakes and that no one is perfect. 

It made me realise we need to show our imperfections more. The pressure we put on ourselves and, as a result, those around us isn’t realistic or attainable. It’s about being kind to ourselves.

In an entertaining podcast with Brene Brown, she talks about whether people are honestly doing the best they can. She carried out research and found that those who thought others weren’t, tended to be harder on themselves. They lacked self compassion.

Jacob now knows about my recent speeding ticket and that the police told me off. When he asked whether I was going to jail, I reassured him that probably wasn’t going to happen.

Let’s hope I’m not raising future criminals…

If you feel ‘off track’, remember that there is no ‘track’. This is your life. It ebbs and flows, twists and halts and speeds up. It all belongs. Stop trying to be a robot who is productive and perfect all of the time. You’re not a robot. You’re a human. Be alive to it all.

Jamie Varon

Yin yoga workshops in St Albans

My next yin yoga workshop will be on Sunday 14 May.

Gaia House: Insight and intentions

I’ve recently returned from a three-day silent retreat at Gaia House in Devon.

I was last there in 2015 for five days – a long time ago! Whenever I go there, I leave with some insight and intentions.

Insights

  • We have the answers inside us. We just have to spend time looking within and connecting to the breath and bodily sensations.
  • Surrounded by silence and 57 other retreatants, it’s possible to feel totally supported and loved.
  • When we speak, we craft how we come across. We perform, we construct our persona. When words are taken away from us, we are ourselves in our purest form. Our true nature shines through.
  • Spiritual practice nourishes and grounds me in a way that no other activity can.
  • My mind will seek written stimulation wherever possible – intently reading the small print on teabag boxes in the absence of phones, books or the ability to write notes.
  • So many of my thoughts are linked to words. Conversations had and imagined, paragraphs of text drafted before pen even hits the paper. These thoughts and plans take me away from the present.
  • Stillness allows me to notice the small things. During a standing meditation practice in the gardens, I had the honour of simply watching two mice going about their business collecting grass, ducking in and out through the grass paths and tunnels they’d created.
  • I could speak less. The rule of 50/50 in conversations: spend 50% of the time listening, 50% speaking.
  • Intense practice opens me up in such a strong way. Lots of emotional vulnerability and increased sensitivity on leaving the retreat.
  • Feelings of loving kindness or ‘metta’ towards strangers – compassion towards the farmer who shouted at me when I accidentally trespassed on her land. An opportunity to witness the impact of the exchange on my mind in subsequent meditation practices.

Intentions

  • Create silence where possible. Turn the radio off, enjoy silence in the car when I’m in it on my own
  • Awareness of the daily trance – put my phone down
  • Sitting or walking practice
  • More asana practice
  • Get back into the habit of listening to podcasts by Buddhist teachers
  • Be kinder to myself. We all make mistakes. Lessen the self criticisms and perceived shortcomings
  • Visit Gaia House every year
  • Start teaching yoga again…

The curse of looking forward

I was talking recently in a workshop about how we all have tendencies. In Sanskrit these are called ‘vasanas’. It is how we tend to behave. We may be someone who tends to see the negative instead of the positive.

We may be the sort of person who dwells on the past (“I wish I’d said this instead of that” or “I really should have done x instead of y”)  – I do this. Likewise, we may tend to be always looking to the future.

We all like to have things to look forward to but if you know that this is your tendency, Lockdown will have been particularly difficult.

I was having a walk with my partner. We were walking through a beautiful meadow of wild flowers and he said how we’ll be able to do plenty of walks like this when we go on holiday in two months’ time. I pointed out that we were doing a beautiful walk right now and it was only a five minute drive from our home.

We all like things to look forward to and I think Lockdown has deprived us of this joy. But what if a second wave hits? How will we feel if all these holidays booked in haste are snatched away from us?* How do you deal with uncertainty?

I read a quote once – I can’t remember who said it – about how life isn’t those one-off experiences. It isn’t about the time we swam with dolphins. It’s about the everyday stuff – the brushing of our teeth and doing the washing up.

Lockdown is this and other simple things: watching plants grow in our gardens, enjoying local walks. So let’s keep up with that because you never know, that holiday might not happen.

‘Hameed Ali, author and contemporary spiritual teacher, reminds us that if we are not living with awareness of our body, we are not fully alive:

Sincerely explore for yourself, are you here or not? Are you in your body or oblivious, or only aware of parts of it? When I say, “Are you in your body?” I mean, “Are you completely filling your body?”

Are you really in your hands or do you move them from a distance? Are you present in your cells, inhabiting and filling your body? If you aren’t in your body, what significance is there in your experience this moment? Are you preparing, so that you can be here in the future? Are you setting up conditions by saying to yourself, “When such and such happens I’ll have time, I’ll be here.” If you are not here, what are you saving yourself for?’

Taken from Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, p98.

*I’m very sorry if you were booked to go to Spain…

Pearls of Wisdom

I came across this reading in Rachel Naomi Remen’s beautiful book My Grandfather’s Blessings and it felt so apt for this time. Can we treat coronavirus as a grain of sand? This experience will inevitably have a lasting effect on every one of us. Perhaps it will teach us about what we choose to value in life.

Some of the oldest and most delightful written words in the English language are the collective nouns dating from medieval times used to describe groups of birds and beasts.  Many of these go back five hundred years or more, and lists of them appeared as early as 1440 in some of the first books printed in English. 

These words frequently offer an insight into the nature of the animals or birds they describe.  Sometimes this is factual and sometimes poetic.  Occasionally it is profound:  a pride of lions, a party of jays, an ostentation of peacocks, an exaltation of larks, a gaggle of geese, a charm of finches, a bed of clams, a school of fish, a cloud of gnats, and a parliament of owls are some examples.  Over time, these sorts of words have been extended to other things as well.  One of my favorites is pearls of wisdom.

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable.  Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive.  But oysters must open their shells in order to ‘breathe’ water.  Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on.

Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this.  It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel.  It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live.  But it does respond.

Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain.  A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering.  Not every oyster can do this.  Oysters that do are far more valuable to people than oysters that do not.

Sand is a way of life for an oyster.  If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

Disappointment and loss are a part of every life. Many times we can put such things behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But not everything is amenable to this approach. Some things are too big or too deep to do this, and we will have to leave important parts of ourselves behind if we treat them in this way. These are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us. It starts with the realization that our loss, whatever it is, has become a part of us and has altered our lives so profoundly that we cannot go back to the way it was before.

Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything.  Then one by one we let things go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.

Celebrating ten years of teaching with a mentoring programme

This year marks ten years since I qualified as a yoga teacher. It also marks a big birthday for me. On my thirtieth birthday in 2010 I took what my teachers called a “very auspicious” dip in Ma Ganga. It was very refreshing.

When I look back over the past ten years, so much has changed. Then, I was single and seeing a lot of the world. Now I have a wonderful partner and two amazing children. I’m more settled.

I remember being told at the end of my Sivananda teacher training that we were being selfish if we didn’t share the teachings. So I came back to London and taught anyone who asked.

It was scary standing up in front of a group of people. I used to feel physically sick with nerves. I doubted myself. I worried what people thought (a lot). But then my confidence grew – not just in teaching but in all areas of my life. 

Yoga taught me to look beyond the surface, to pay attention. As a result, I’d say I’m a lot happier and at home in this body and with this mind. I know myself better.

Teaching yoga in Hertfordshire

Having taught in London for three years, I completed further training and moved to Hertfordshire. I started covering classes locally and began running classes, workshops and retreats. I felt a strong sense of community or ‘sangha’.

In the past seven years, the local St Albans/Harpenden yoga scene has changed and developed considerably. When I started, I wasn’t aware of any other yin yoga classes around here. Awareness of the style was far, far lower than it is now. It was also easier to find space in venues to start new classes. There are now so many more yoga teachers in the area. 

The growing popularity of yoga is brilliant. And people need yin to counter the increasingly hectic pace of modern living. There’s a reason why it’s the fastest growing style of yoga today.

More broadly, yoga has changed and developed too: the toppling of yoga ‘gurus’ from their pedestals in the #metoo era and the rise of the instayogi. Mindfulness is a workplace buzzword. There’s a growing awareness of yoga teachers’ pay thanks to the work of Norman Blair and others. Perhaps the London yoga market has now reached saturation point. Yoga is taught in many more schools.

What will be the next style of yoga to take the world by storm?

There’s a lot to think about and navigate. 

Mentoring programme

With this in mind, I am offering a mentoring programme for teachers of yoga and mind/body/wellness practices. It can be tough teaching out there. It can be isolating too.

We’d cover topics such as:

  • The student/teacher relationship
  • Communication with studio owners and contacts at hire spaces
  • Running classes, workshops, retreats and holidays
  • Promoting yourself and attracting new students
  • The business and financial aspects of teaching
  • Work/life balance
  • Self care.

It would be a small group and we’d meet one Sunday evening a month for four months from March. I’d facilitate and provide advice based on my experience but we’d all share and support each other.

If you’d like to find out more and book, visit the mentoring page.

Pregnancy, practice and my pelvis

For those of you who don’t know, I’m now 23 weeks pregnant. Over the past few weeks I’ve started to get a lot of pain around my pelvis – a condition known as symphysis pubis dysfunction (spd) or pelvic girdle pain (pgp).

I had this when I was pregnant with my son, Jacob, but not to this degree and it began much later during my pregnancy.

I’ve seen an osteopath a couple of times and today while she was moving me around, she said, “ You are very mobile in your pelvis – maybe too mobile.”

Now, I know this. I have a naturally flexible pelvis. I’ve never really had to work to sit in padmasana (lotus pose) and other hip-related poses come relatively easily to me. But what good is that if, during pregnancy, you lose the strength to contain that flexibility? And what good is it when you’re in physical pain getting up the stairs?

Very often people are in awe of flexibility in yoga, fuelled by images on social media and other channels. Bendiness is something to strive for and if only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga. I can’t touch my toes.”

The curse of flexibility in yoga has been well documented – London teacher Jess Glenny writes a lot about it and my teacher Norman Blair has written this piece from a yin perspective. 

I know that my pelvic pain will go away once I’ve given birth but I wonder if my practice has exacerbated the problem. I know of other yoga teachers who’ve had similar issues during pregnancy. Or perhaps it’s purely down to the pregnancy hormone relaxin opening my body and the pelvic ligaments being stretched from my previous labour and childbirth.

Who knows? But for now, it’s cat/cow, chest openers, pelvic tilts and hip circles for me.

For this reason, the 2 March yin yoga workshop at BAYoga Studio will be my final one before I meet my second child in June.

Kate Atkinson will provide cover until I return in October/November.

Find out more and book.

Six reasons why yin yoga and fitness go well together

Yin yoga is an excellent practice for many types of people – from those who struggle to find time to do anything, to those who run, cycle and do more active types of fitness. We all need to take time to be still, quiet and more contemplative. Yin yoga provides this.

Here are six reasons why yin yoga is great companion to sport and fitness:

 1. Stretching to create space

Most people know that having a stretch before and after exercise is good. A freer range of movement allows the body to find the most efficient path and use less energy.

When we sit or lie in a yin pose, we create space in our bodies, in our minds, and in our day-to-day lives. On a physical level, the connective tissue surrounding our joints starts to become more malleable, improving our flexibility.

Reggie Ray covers this aspect nicely:

When you ask someone to sit down and be with themselves they go, “I can’t. I don’t have time for that.” Now you and I may realize that there actually is a problem. Most people don’t think there is a problem. 

We run our kids in the same way—and it’s destroying them. The soccer practice and the music lesson and three hours of TV and homework—it goes on from the minute they get up until they go to sleep. They never have an opportunity to experience silence. Psychological development requires periods of solitude.

Anthropological psychology—studying other cultures, as well as our own—shows that when children do not have completely unstructured time, when there are no parental expectations looming over them, they actually can’t develop normally.

Read the Reggie Ray full article.

 2. Injury prevention

Most injuries are from overuse. Imbalances in your body can cause inflammation and excessive wear on tissue. A regular yoga practice brings your body back into symmetrical alignment and corrects flexibility and strength imbalances.

You’ll be able to do sport or exercise for longer. Ryan Giggs credits yoga for the longevity of his football career.

3. Yin vs yang

You may have heard of the terms ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ from Chinese Taoist thinking. Yang is about movement, creating energy and heat in the body. Yin is about finding stillness, being calm and cooling the body. HIIT sessions, running and cycling are all yang activity. Focusing just on the yang can lead to fatigue and burn out.

Having both allows the body to come into balance and stay in optimum condition.

 4. The power of the breath

People think that yoga is about contorting the body but it’s actually a breathing practice.

Your breath provides you with energy and power to carry on and reach the finish line. Yoga teacher Donna Farhi explains all:

Doctor and triathlete John Hellemans recommends that the best breathing for top athletic performance is deep diaphragmatic breathing… Dr Hellemans also notes the importance of getting into a rhythmic flow with your breathing and synchronizing your breathing with your movement.

You can do that by taking a breath when you plant your foot during a stride or when pedalling on a cycle. Find a rhythm and speed of movement that allows you to work within the confines of your breath capacity so that you are not building up an oxygen deficit.

Donna Farhi, The Breathing Book

 5. Staying power

In yin yoga we spend around five minutes in each pose (all are seated or lying down). This builds mental stamina. I’ve heard a yin practice being compared to a marathon.

This stillness allows us to become more in tune with our body, and naturally you’ll find that you start to watch your mind. We notice our thoughts – whether they’re positive or negative, linked to the past or the future, and whether they’re recurring. It allows us to connect within.

6. Accepting rather than competing

Yoga teaches that there’s more to life than going faster or further. It’s about accepting where you are today – not comparing yourself to before you had that hip/knee replacement, or thinking about how much fitter you were ten years ago. If we’re able to accept our bodies as they are today, we’ll be happier individuals.

And over the duration of a yin pose, your body will open and you’ll naturally go deeper. No pushing, no judgement, just accepting.

 

You can now practice a 25 minute yin class with me on YouTube as part of Fluxus Fitness’ Great in 8.