4 Life Lessons From Yoga Teacher Training

In 2 months I will (hopefully) be a fully certified Yoga Instructor, but until then I will continue attempting to learn human anatomy and slowly getting closer to touching my toes. Despite taking up every weekend for 3 months of my life,I have enjoyed almost every moment of the course so far. Spending hours practicing and learning from some great teachers, has already taught me a lot, not only about yoga, but about my outlook on life. Here are the four things that yoga teacher training has taught me (so far):

1. Be Where You Are
I can remember a time 12 years ago when I was in great shape. A competitive swimmer with thunderously strong thighs. Today, that is no longer the case and I often struggle with lunge and squat poses. I can lament about how weak and out of shape I have become, and compare myself to my previous self, but that won’t do me much good with the body I have now. What I can do is appreciate the strength my body does have and go from there. This is the same with anything in life; it is not helpful to lament about how much we used to be able to do. You need to unlearn whatever your activity levels used to be, and start with where you are now.

2. Don’t Worry About Anyone Else
Yes, the girl next to me can do a headstand and I still can’t stop my arms from shaking uncontrollably as I lower into a chatarunga. This can be…discouraging. However, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter who can do what- we all end up in corpse pose anyways- the great equalizer. Just as it is not helpful to compare yourself now to your younger self, it is not helpful to compare yourself to the people around you. You don’t know what other battles they are fighting.

3. Don’t Always Sit With Pain
Often in yoga or meditation, those suffering from chronic pain are told to sit with their pain. While this is incredibly helpful in some situations, it turns out this is harmful in other situations. If your neck or spine feels pain in a shoulder stand, you need to use a blanket, if your knees, hips, or back are hurting in meditation you need to change your position and use props to help you find a correct posture. The trick is knowing when to sit with pain and when to allow yourself to relieve it. If you do live with pain or fatigue, which situations do you feel stronger from after sitting through your pain or fatigue and which make it feel like you have pushed yourself too far? This is a good place to start.

4. Don’t Take Yoga (or life) Too Seriously
In ancient Sanskrit, the word Yoga comes from the same route as the word Yoke, as in- to yoke an animal (tying two oxen together to pull a cart). We now define yoga as a union (of animals?) and attach a lot of seriousness to the practice. Many of my classmates felt intimidated to embark on the journey of becoming a yoga teacher, yet when feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, we are often told-“Don’t worry too much about it- it’s only Yoga, what’s the worst that could happen?”. That is often true of projects at work, work in general, fights over stupid things with your partner, etc. If you’ve been frustrated about something you’ve been trying to accomplish lately, allow yourself to have a little laugh about it and move on.

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How to get Through the Hard Days

Sometimes the fatigue or the pain slithers through your body unexpectedly. Through my practice in mindfulness, I have become better at knowing when a crash is about to happen, and often this allows me to take action (or inaction) to stop it. Yet I still feel some anxiety when I think back to the unpredictable nature that used to be characteristic of my symptoms. What can you do when you find yourself slipping into a dark place, or unexpectedly wake up to find yourself there? I have developed a few mechanisms that work well for me, it might be worthwhile to give some a try the next time you feel yourself glued to your bed:

  1. Yoga in Bed: I love to do yoga, but sometimes the thought of stumbling out of bed to get onto a thin mat and support myself is daunting. Thus I have developed my very own routine of doing yoga in bed. Poses range from child’s pose (where I drag myself onto my stomach, lean back on my heels, and rest my head on the bed), lying crows pose (lying on your back, and pulling one leg towards you while the ankle of the other rests just below your knee), and savasana or corpse pose (exactly as it sounds- blissful!). This both helps me meditate, and stops me from getting stiff and sore if I feel the need to stay in bed for a day.

    Photo Credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/82795201@N00/120772906/">BrittneyBush</a> via <a href="http://compfight.com">Compfight</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">cc</a>

    Do not try this in bed

  2. Cook a Fresh Meal: The thought of getting up to cook, when you feel like you’ve been beaten by a series of bludgers the day before may seem like an overwhelming task, but if you can enlist some help chopping and cleaning (or, in my best practice, just leaving the kitchen a mess when you are done) the effects of a hearty meal can be wonderful. Being exposed to the fresh spices, herbs, and ingredients stimulates all of your senses- helping you feel invigorated. Also, you can’t forget that your body is sick and needs nourishment, order-in or a microwave meal is not going to help you heal.
  3. Pamper Yourself: Treat yourself to a massage, manicure, or even a haircut. These treatments will help you to fully relax for an hour or so. I know it sounds superficial, but boosting your appearance often helps to boost your mood as well, making it easier to feel a little more energetic.

    Photo Credit: Sakurako Kitsa via Compfight cc

    Photo Credit: Sakurako Kitsa via Compfight cc

  4. Do Something Creative: This is a tricky one, being creative can be draining of energy, and if you are deep in a brain fog, it may feel impossible to do anything that requires the slightest bit of mental prowess. However, doing something creative can actually help you through a brain fog. It doesn’t matter much what it is- I personally like to write, or take photographs, but it doesn’t even need to be something that is ‘artsy’. Trying out a new recipe (or creating one of your own), thinking of a new idea for your business, or thinking of a creative solution to a problem you’ve been having, all fall into this category.
  5. Rest: This does not mean lying in bed thinking about all the things you wish you would rather be doing instead. It means treating yourself how you would treat someone you love if they were sick. It means taking the time to really, deeply rest. You can achieve deep rest through meditation, or sleep, or lying quietly with no stimulation. My vice is reading, if I am in bed and awake I always want to have a book on hand. But we need to close our laptops, put away our books, turn off the TV and focus on letting our bodies get the rest that they need.

    Photo Credit: ~fb~ via Compfight cc

    Photo Credit: ~fb~ via Compfight cc

Have you tried any of these? What are your ways for coping with bad days?

One Month of Mindfulness: You’re Hardier than you Think

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

At the beginning of the month, I began a mindfulness challenge. It was quite simple: do three things mindfully every day. I began imagining myself sitting Zen like on top of a rocky mountain, reaching enlightenment and spreading my healing wisdom to my fellow chronically ill bloggers. It was then that I realized; there aren’t really any mountains in the UK, and it rains much too often to sit outside. So my mindfulness challenge remained focused on mundane daily tasks. Sometimes I noticed the feel of my shirt slipping over my head as I got dressed and other times I fully appreciated the warmth of the shower. I used it at work to get through hard days, aiming my focus at the task at hand instead of thinking of all the things that needed to be done, and to help calm my breathing at night to get a better sleep.  As is often the way of mindful activities, the changes I noticed were small and personal rather than grand and global, but I still thought I would share with you the top 5 things I learned from my month of mindfulness:

1.       Being mindful  won’t stop you from having a panic attack for the first time

You may think this point is too specific to be a general observation and you may be right. While mindfulness and meditation and breathing exercises have certainly provided me with a vast amount of help and resources for Chronic Fatigue, it is not some miracle cure for all of your health problems. Mindfulness often gives you insight into what you need and what your fears and challenges are, and it can help you manage those things as well, but you still need to make the decision to utilize those discoveries and put them into practice in your daily life. If you don’t do that there’s nothing stopping the stress from getting to you, and you may find yourself Googling the symptoms of a heart attack…

2.       You will appreciate the big picture

Mindfulness teaches you to focus on one specific moment in time, so it seems like an oxymoron to say that mindfulness helps you to see the big picture better, but when you are focusing on just one moment, it puts that moment into perspective. You may be in physical or emotional pain in that one moment, but it is only a moment, and there is no way of predicting what that next moment will bring.

3.       Your mind is a jungle

One of my biggest literary heroines wrote these wise words of advice: “There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth”.  Over the past month I have often come out of a meditation feeling like I have just fought a battle with my inner terrible someone. That voice which is saying all sorts of crazy things, and trying to distract you from focusing on your breath, and instead making you focus on what a terrible person you are and what a terrible life you have. You will discover a lot of great things about yourself if you commit to mindfulness, but you will also get to know all of the not-so- great parts of yourself as well.  Before you conjure up images of serene and peaceful meditation sessions, know that you will have your battles to fight. This does not make you a ‘bad meditator’

4.       It’s OK to assert your needs

Mindfulness will help you get in touch with what you really need to feel better or to help make things more achievable for you. However, it is one thing to come to these realizations in your head, and another thing to assert those needs to your boss, co-workers, or loved ones. Just remember that everyone is different, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of if you need to ask for help in certain areas. Also, you won’t be of much use to anyone if you crash, so be confident in asserting your needs, and everyone around you will benefit!

5.       You’re hardier than you think

Hardiness is a term used by psychologists to define the type of person who can remain healthy and in control in stressful situations. While genetics and the way you were raised affect your personal level of hardiness, it is something that can be cultivated by anybody. Mindfulness helps to control stress levels, and keep your perspective on situations by focusing in on the moment rather than going over all of the terrible things that could happen in your head (see point number 3). By cultivating this awareness of yourself and your surroundings, you are setting yourself up to succeed.  I am the queen of over-thinking things. Something I did not realize was a harmful trait until fairly recently. Mindfulness helps you focus in on the specific situation at hand, and slows down time (ie. Breathing) to give you the strength to adequately deal with the situation. Once you start cultivating hardiness by practicing mindfulness (or whatever substitute works for you) you will be amazed by what you can accomplish!

Happy meditations!

30 Day Mindfulness Challenge

I almost got stuck on a mountain yesterday. As the sun dauntingly sank lower in the sky, and my legs wanted to give way beneath me, I willed myself to carry on. I had to. There was no other option. My boyfriend and I silently regretted our decision to climb the highest mountain in England, but we didn’t say anything aloud.  Many things went wrong on that hike: I was running on 2 hours of sleep, we hadn’t started until midday, we didn’t have a proper map or enough food or water, and we hadn’t brought along any emergency equipment. My toes were sore and my muscles were weak, and I am an inexperienced and slow hiker who was not prepared to scramble and rock-climb to get down the mountain. We were both nervous and agitated, but there wasn’t much time for thinking about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other, and slowly making it down the mountain. It didn’t matter that we were racing against the sun, if one of us went over on an ankle or had any other injury, things would have been much worse. I did all that I could do which was to keep walking, as quickly and as carefully as possible.

Even though I was tired and cranky and cold and wet going down the mountain, we made it. As we limped back to the main road in darkness to try to hitch a ride, I began to feel elated. We were still an hour away from a warm bed and a hot meal (and little did we know at the time the meal would be hard to come by), but I had climbed a mountain. I had been tired and grumpy and sore but I had climbed it. Hiking forces you to be mindful. You can’t get too deep into your thoughts, because you always have to pay attention to the trail, where you will step next and what path you are going on. Each time I looked up at the peak it seemed hopeless, but I could always take one more step, and that’s all that is necessary to get to the top, to be able to take one step at a time.

The weekend in the mountains really made me face how I had been giving into the stress and pressures of city life over the past couple of weeks. City stress encourages the opposite of hiking stress: over thinking, over worrying, and mindlessness.When I was traveling, I didn’t need to put too much effort into being mindful and aware,because the situations I was in encouraged it; I often had no choice but to be mindful and aware of my surroundings. However, now that I am back to the real world, I need to prioritize, and make mindfulness a part of my daily routine. So, for the next month I am going to commit to doing at least three things mindfully each day, and begin to make it a habit. We make so many choices to be mindless each day, I’m hoping that by changing just three of those choices, I will be able to make a meaningful difference in my mood and energy. Here is my short list of activities that I will chose from for my mindfulness experiment:

  • Eat Mindfully
  • Cook
  • Get Dressed or Undressed
  • Shower
  • Brush my teeth
  • Talk to a friend
  • Meditate
  • Walk
  • Do Yoga
  • Other forms of exercise
  • Work

Before diving into a mindfulness challenge, I need to paint a clear picture of what mindfulness is to me, and what I hope to gain by the end of my challenge. For me, it is easy to see the day as a series of obstacles, and a simple task like getting dressed, which is a quick mindless task for most people, can seem daunting to those with CFS. But, by choosing to look at the tasks a little differently, they stop being a burden, and become a meaningful part of the day. How often, do you really notice what the hot water from a shower feels like on your skin? How many tastes and smells and textures do you experience when you eat? How well are you listening to your friends and how often are you just cluing out? We all want to be great listeners, and taste explosive flavours, and savour the small joys in life, but when we look at these things as an obstacle that is difficult to overcome, it takes our focus away from enjoying the task (even if it may be a challenge), to completing the task. It is daunting to think about paying acute attention for a 30 minute conversation, or to climb atop a high peak, but I can listen to just one sentence at a time, and I can take in the scents and flavours of just one bite of food, and I can take one more, rocky step.

The key to mindfulness, is not being able to completely clear your mind- this is a common misconception, and frankly, impossible. The real challenge of mindfulness is in the choice. I’m always going to have thoughts running through my head, but I can choose to either give my complete attention to those thoughts, or I can choose to let them play in the background while I focus on myself.  For example, usually in the mornings while brushing my teeth, I’m thinking of what I need to do that day, or how annoyed I am that I was woken up at 6am by sirens, or what I will eat for breakfast. I’m never going to be able to stop those thoughts from coming into my head, but what I can do is acknowledge those thoughts, and then choose to say, ‘hey brain, that’s great thinking you’re doing, but right now we are brushing our teeth, so let’s just focus on how that feels for a few more seconds, even though you are hungry and tired and stressed out, all we are going to focus on right now is the way the bristles tickle my gums’. Meditation is not about clearing your mind, it is about making choices. I’ve been making some bad choices lately, so I am going to use the next 30 days to choose better. To choose mindfulness over worry, and self care over stress. I hope some of you will join me!