The beginners mindset

Start finish at john o groats by Ilike

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This year I was asked to teacher a beginners class at Yogafever, which in just a few months in has turned out to be as much of a learning journey for me as (I hope) it has been for the students who attend classes. I started practicing yoga 12 years ago so I scarcely remember my first experiences of yoga classes. But i do remember arriving in London in my early 20s and being somewhat mystified why the yoga teacher I approached suggested I did her beginners course. In my mind I knew my dogs, from my warriors, so what business would i have in a beginners class? I was wrong and I’m glad I took her advice. The beginners course gave me time and space to really experience what yoga was about for the first time.

Perhaps one of the feelings we least like as humans is the embarrassment of having to say I don’t know or I don’t understand. But actually turning that on its head being totally open to the beginners mindset can be useful for all of us. As a teacher beginners ask me more questions and that forces me to continually question my assumptions, practice and teaching.

Yoga teachers can be guilty of speaking another language (and not just the old Sanskrit names). So when I come to teach beginners groups I have to think how do I distill the beauty and exquisite depth of yoga into something accessible, without scrimping on the best bits. Recently I was doing some training with US teacher Jason Crandell when the same question came up. If students leave the yoga room with one thing what is it? There are an infinite number of important and correct answers to that question. But for me these are themes that come up again and again:

1. Relaxation

Everyone deserve time and space for themselves to really relax. For me and pretty much everyone I see around me, carving out time for relaxation in the midst of busy lives doesn’t happen as often as it should. If you can get that sensation on the yoga mat, it’s a valuable thing.

2. Embodiment

We live in a very ‘cognitive’ or thinking world these days. That can lead us to habitually live in the mind, largely ignore the body until out of the blue an injury or ill health comes along to remind us how important it is. So it is valuable to be able to reconnect with those sensations in the body. There is an important link between body and emotions (think of the physicality of gut instinct, heartache or joy). For me being connected to this body also helps me feel more aware and connected to my emotions

3. Integration

But it’s not all about the body. In yoga we typically think of three core elements-breath, body and mind. When I attend a good yoga class I walk away at the end of it feeling whole again. I’ve integrated these pieces of me back together.

4. Acceptance

Enjoying (or somedays just accepting) where you are at today. It’s almost certainly different to yesterday or last week. And it’s different to the person next to you. So being able to drop the comparisons and see if you can play with where you’re at now is a useful experience.

For those of you new to this blog there is a longer post on intentions hereWhilst yoga is something that’s been a significant part of my life for over a decade, I do have a little bit of understanding of how daunting it is to start from scratch. I recently started dancing so became a beginner student in that. There are some interesting parallels here – embodiment, focus, relaxation. It’s not easy to step into a room full of people you don’t know and try something new as a total beginner.

Yoga is also a vast subject to study. Thousands of years of development and even now  creative new forms are constantly emerging. So even when we’ve been practicing something for a long time it’s useful to be open to new ideas. I love the days when I can recapture my beginners mindset in yoga – to go woah that’s a new pose for me and to enjoy the process of exploring it.  So whether you’ve done one class, or five hundred classes, the beginners mindset can serve you well. Just as I have learnt so much from my beginners group, so too can more experienced students use the beginners mindset as a tool to stay open to new things and get a fresh perspective on old practices.

Disconnect to connect?

copyright davitydaveAs some you know tonight i’m giving a talk at Ignite Cardiff about turning off technology. This was inspired by my three weeks of technology disconnection over Christmas and New Years which was really enjoyable.

I’m not anti technology but I am part of a growing number of people who recognises that not all my habits to do with technology are healthy. My chief complaints with technology are as follows:

  1. I don’t really feel like quality of my relationships with people is improved via Facebook, twitter, text or email. Quantity or quality is a poor trade in. I hate that moment in social situations where everyone around you is staring at a screen epitomised so well in this video.
  2. I feel like i am training myself to be easily distracted and poorer at concentrating. Every bleep or flash or light or little box telling me I have an email pulls me off the task i was doing and into a whole different tangent. Joe Kraus calls this a crisis in attention in this amazing talk.
  3. It’s not good for my physical health – TV and computers are sedentary activities. We are all pretty much curving our spine through poor position during long hours on computer or looking down to our phones as we walk along. Not to mention the impact of blue light on how tired we feel and our ability to get quality sleep
  4. I’m too reliant on it. When my battery or phone conks out (which as my friends and exs will tell you frequently does for me) I’m stuffed. I have no access to my diary on my phone, I’m used to using the map to navigate myself and i don’t remember anyones numbers to call them.

Basically I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how i use technology and how i can loosen the grip of technology over my life. So i’m more mindful of when, why and how i use it. Jeremy Shure argues the case for this as well… he describes the all common situation of starting and closing your day with technology – and his attempt to break that cycle. I am also now dabbling with a day off from technology each week and actually leaving my phone off or even better at home somedays.

My time off from technology gives me space in my life to connect in better ways with those around me, space to look up at the vista, and space to do more things that are important to me – reading those books that have been sat by my bed forever or playing guitar more. It teaches me to just be more, without need to constantly stimulate and distract myself. It also teaches others that I’m not available 24/7 a dangerous habit i picked up in my old life working in communications.

My challenge this year is a weekly digital sabbath and more mindful technology usage. Maybe for other people once a month or once in a while works better. Maybe it’s a challenge that you want to take on too – if so let me know how you get on.

Turn and face the world

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I feel incredibly lucky to have started this year on retreat in a remote and very beautiful spot in the pyrenees mountains. No phone, no internet instead confining my attention and senses largely to the area around and the people with me.

But returning to life at home felt all the more strange as I came back into the technologically connected world, and to the news of killings and violence in Paris and genocide in Baga Nigeria. Undoubtedly there were many other incidents of violence happening around the same time that didn’t even make it onto the media (and therefore my) radar.

Faced with these frightening and horrific stories, there are a number of common responses:

  1. Turn away from it and dismiss it as something unimportant / unrelated to us
  2. Do nothing but feel anxious, concerned and powerless to comprehend it
  3. Do something – whether that’s ranting about it, cartooning to show solidarity with the team from Charlie Hebdo, organising a vigil or taking action against those perceived to be the offenders (on an individual, or more often, on a group level).

But somehow these often feel inadequate. Not enough to make a difference. Not enough to protect ourselves, our friends or our families. Some commentators have even warned that mass action could backfire and have the opposite effect. Violence is not the only serious challenge humans face in the world today. These feelings can equally be applied to say the rich-poor divide and inequality or the dramatic impact of environmental change.

One Buddhist concept we looked at a lot on retreat was equanimity. Google defines this as ‘calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation’. Guhyapati, the founder of Eco Dharma describes it as “deep imperturbability, which like the depths of the ocean maintains a profound calm, even as the waves on its surface swell and crash”. Seems like a good tool to have up your sleeve but what does it mean to really embody and practice equanimity? It’s worth listening to Guhyapati’s full podcast on the subject where he describes how sometimes in attempting to move towards equanimity we instead slip into the false friend of apathy – effectively taking the first option of looking away.

So what if we did something that makes an impact, even if it doesn’t change the world dramatically, and the impact doesn’t happen instantly? I found Matthieu Ricard’s TED talk on altruism an inspiring place to start. He talks about how even young children can be taught to be more kind to others and less discriminating.

We can begin with ourselves, finding ways to be resourced to deal with these difficult situations – whether that’s support of the community around you, dedicating that time to yoga or meditation, or looking after yourself (e.g. getting more sleep). From there it appears that there is a dynamic two way relationship when we become more altruistic there is a positive impact on both the receiver of that act and ourselves, as the giver (check out this NYT piece on it).

I’m not saying this approach will prevent those tough situations occurring. It won’t. But just maybe, inch by inch, we can use it as a starting point to make a difference in an authentic and sustained manner. In our fast paced world sometimes we neglect to notice how even the smallest action can create a positive ripple effect. I have really noticed how smiling at more people, whether I know them or not, seems to make the world brighter. We will never be able to fully understand what is going through the mind of those who commit atrocious acts of violence. But more people who feel like they are connected to their community, where people look out for them and give them love, can only be a good thing.

Fierce gratitude

So we’re often told to stay in the moment, and to practice mindfulness. And there is certainly a lot of virtue in doing just that. But personally i think sometimes a bit of retrospection and reflection can be good too.

As I got out my christmas cards to write to people this year it felt like there have been some huge shifts and changes around me. Friends that now have new husbands/wives, new homes, new jobs and new babies galore. As I write the cards I feel deeply grateful for these special things. There are also many people who have struggled with tough times this year. So i hope as they reflect on the year, they feel even a touch stronger and wiser for those challenges.

I recently watched David Seindl-Rast talk about some exercises in gratitude in this great TED talk. He starts by reminding the audience that we shouldn’t wait for happy things to appear to feel grateful about but rather be grateful and the happiness will follow that. One of the simplest techniques for this is writing a gratitude diary – every day before bed recording or maybe talking to your partner about what you’re grateful for. It’s a wonderfully  quick practice but that recognition of those good things somehow helps us shift out of the moany mindset and settle in a more positive place.

As many of you know I am heading off on retreat next week to Eco Dharma to practice the buddhist technique of Metta or Loving Kindness. So as i tie up loose ends before I head off, I am reflecting and working on cultivating my practice of gratitude. The last year has been a huge change for me moving to a new city (in a new country in fact), returning to studying and practicing teaching yoga in new ways, with new people.

I absolutely love the yoga scene in Cardiff and feel honoured to have taught and practiced with some wonderful people. Especially Cath and the team at Yoga Fever, Tori for the introductions and wonderful yoga meals, and Ellie La Trobe-Bateman for the brilliant Yoga Festival in the Gower. I am also incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful teaching mentor in Raquel Alves – check out her workshops and retreats if you get a chance.

No doubt next year will bring a fresh wave of new people, new challenges and new ideas. I look forward to meeting all those things on the mat in January.

Philosophy corner three: Why do you practice yoga?

So this blog was started by an innocent question from a friend of mine. He casually asked one day: ‘Why do you practice yoga’?

On the surface it was easy for me to list the obvious things; I think it’s good for my body, it helps me feel calm and centred, its nice for me to be part of a wonderful community. But actually yoga in it’s fullest expression has an incredible depth and richness that goes far beyond those things. The truth is that yoga has profoundly shaped how i see the world and it helps me view my thoughts, words and actions with clarity.

However I recognise that when i teach yoga that room full of people in front of me will all have their own individual answer to the ‘why do yoga’ question. For some they will have stumbled across the practice at a gym or nearby class and not really think about why they like it. Others will have been recommended it by a professional as a tonic for everything from anxiety and depression, to sciatica and high blood pressure. Then again the person on the next mat along may see yoga as a profound spiritual practice and care little for the physical benefits of practice.

So with all those different ideas in the yoga studio how does a teacher cater to everyone’s needs? Well actually i don’t aspire to cater to absolutely every possible yogi aspiration. For lots of reasons a student might suit a different type of practice to what i teach. For example its not appropriate for pregnant students to attend a flow based class in a hot studio. Equally some students might find they are in a class that doesn’t feel dynamic and challenging enough for their needs.

My regular students will know that I like to start classes by asking students to spend a moment or two reflecting on what their aspiration, dedication or intention is for that day’s practice. If you’re confused about setting intentions there is a lovely blog on this subject by Kathryn Budhig here. As students stand side by side in tadasana at the start of the class they may look similar from the outside but their individual experience can be infused with intentions that make the practices completely different.

Yoga is personal to each individual. Last week I had a magical day when I watched a child with autism engage in yoga helping them with their sensory needs and to make sense of the highly confusing world around them. On the same day I discussed with a student who works in the police how she feels yoga helps her in difficult confrontational situations. Worlds apart but valid and useful in both contexts.

There is no right or wrong answer to ‘why do yoga’ question. For me I don’t think there is a hierarchy of aspirations that makes spirituality for example, any more worthy than the goal of physical fitness.  As Max Strom says everyone must “start where you are, with what you have, do what you can”. We might also find that aspiration shifts from day to day, or in bigger ways as months and years go by. Whatever intention you use, knowing why you’re on the mat and what you want to get out of the practice will give you a different experience. It might be your reason for exploring that asana a little bit deeper, having a go at a difficult pose or simply not just hanging out in the pose whilst the mind drifts elsewhere.

One of my favourite teachers Katy Appleton used to talk about ‘IKEA yoga’ like flat pack furniture we might sort of follow the instructions we’re given but without being present to what we’re doing maybe we end up with something a bit half hearted, that is not quite right. It’s not necessarily about finding that picture perfect pose, but rather by working with a clear intention, we use our mind’s fantastical power within the practice of yoga.

I’d love to hear your thoughts… why do you do yoga? what is your experience of using intentions?   

setting intention

Community

Philosophy Corner part two: Community

all rights reserved by ian sane

all rights reserved by ian sane

This weekend I spent a lot of time enjoying the wonderful Made in Roath festival. On Friday there was an artists meeting called Settlement based at Spit and Sawdust (a new skatepark in Cardiff). I wondered if I might feel a bit out of the loop as whilst i enjoy making art, i am certainly no artist. But the main subject of discussion: how to participate positively in the community around you, is something i feel passionately about so i found i had plenty to contribute and ponder during the day. I also enjoyed the opportunity over the weekend to chat to many of my neighbours, many of whom I have scarcely even noticed before, let alone talked to.

In yoga most of us don’t practice alone, or not always at any rate.We join a community in the form of a class, a workshop, kirtan (for chanting), meditation, a retreat or a lecture. These days knowledge of yoga is everywhere. We can buy a book or a dvd or even join one of the many online yoga studios. But still most students seek company for their yoga practice. There are many reasons for this, the opportunity to work with teachers or even gurus directly, the opportunity to find like-minded students who are perhaps on a similar path or just a shared energy directed at the same purpose which supports you. I have been privileged to meet so many wonderful people in my life through yoga – teachers, friends i’ve practiced alongside and now increasingly students.

But just as I felt like an outsider at the art event I think many people feel that way about  joining a yoga class for the first time. Aside from not knowing what to expect – there are so many new elements to digest. Foreign sounding names for each position or even just getting used to deep steady breathing or lying on the floor with your eyes closed to relax at the end of class. There has also been some brilliant debates recently about yoga’s image problem (that it is only for white, thin, flexible women).

I enjoyed Settlement on Friday because everyone made me feel very welcome and addressed me as a member of that community. So i implore those of you who are nervous about trying yoga to come and see for yourself. Likewise I think every yoga student has a duty to welcome other students and help them to develop and thrive as part of the yoga community.

Modern life can sometimes encourage us to become very self-involved. We are worried about our jobs, our partners /families or our homes. Perhaps sometimes we forget to look out for the person next to us. For me that is where community starts. To look out for someone struggling or vulnerable near you (maybe at work, on your street or in the yoga studio) and if possible offer a hand. So that is going to be my intention for this week- feel free to make it yours as well.

On the yoga front I am now teaching two hot yoga classes every Thursday at Yoga Fever 6pm and 7.30pm. Classes are almost always full so you need to book ahead of time to secure a spot. There is also a brilliant fundraising event showing the film Maya on the evening of 1st November – come join us at Stretchy Suzies and help raise money for local charity the Wallich Centre. I look forward to welcoming you in our community soon.