Friday, 8 November 2013

The Benefit of Yin

Yielding, waiting, being slow and silent, standing still... these are skills we hardly give credit for these days. But in the practice of shiatsu, mindfulness meditation and certain styles of yoga, these Yin abilities are exactly what we try to develop.

We love activity and movement, we love adrenalin and stimulation, we love making things happen and creating the lives we want - all of these things feel powerful, and in that power there is security and happiness. These are the outward-moving qualities of Yang.

We have gone for Yang style living in a big way in Britain, at least since the 1980s, the time I was growing up. I remember in early childhood everybody had old cars, hand-me-down clothes, we didn't fly for holidays, we cooked and ate at home every day, we played in the streets we lived in and we didn't need to make dates to meet friends. But by the time I was a teenager I didn't value any of these things, I wanted more and better, I moved overseas and loved flying around the world so that I never had a winter (winter is the Yin time of year, summer is Yang), I loved earning money, solving problems, working independently and in this way, I felt free.

Of course Yang is not a permanent state, Yang transforms into Yin, which in turn becomes Yang again. Even though I have friends who love switching between southern and northern hemispheres twice a year so that they can live in constant summer, I decided to live all year round in the UK for a while and dive into Yin. As my shiatsu, meditation, and yoga practices developed, and particulary when I began studying with Suzanne Yates, who created Wellmother, a deeply healing Yin approach to shiatsu for pregnancy, birth and postnatal care, I really started to experience the power of Yin in my practices, and in my everyday life again... what I'd had as a child and had forgotten about. I remembered the effortlessness and fun of standing in the kitchen with my family and shelling peas together, the power in not trying, not improving what you have but accepting and enjoying things exactly as you find them. The fun of sharing a car ride and waiting for everybody to be ready to go, instead of choosing when I wanted to go. The freedom of not getting what I want, and not trying to get it. The thrill of riding my bike somewhere new and not knowing exactly where I'm heading.

From a painting by Andie Butterfly Yoga

In my shiatsu practice and my yoga and meditation classes, I find the resistance to Yin in most of us. Some of us admit that we can't "sit still", that we need to be doing something all of the time. On a cultural level, we don't value rest as much as we value doing things. We see action as the solution to problems. We love big gestures, great plans and we love achieving goals. But when we ignore Yin, the quietness, the stillness, the waiting, we miss a lot of information that can only come to us when we are truly listening. For example, when we receive a shiatsu or massage, we're often waiting for the next bit to happen, hoping the therapist will get to a particular spot on the shoulders or massage us in the way we want to be massaged. Sometimes when we get what we need from the session, we jump up from the futon mat or couch to take on the world, make plans and make use of the extra energy we've found. But I suggest staying with your extra energy in a gentle way, and actually try meditating on this new energy, rather than letting it pour out in action. So perhaps be still and watch the sensations of the new energy...

In yoga, many us are in a hurry to come into shoulderstand or headstand, and in the rush we forget to control the abdominal muscles, we lose control of our relaxed state of mind, all for the sake of getting up there... and for me at least, missing the whole point of the asana. Perhaps there's the thought, "I'll get up then I'll relax", but by then perhaps you have already missed several seconds of your calm state of mind, you may have injured yourself and you might not get back into your relaxed state after that.

So next time you find yourself fidgeting in a meditation or a yoga pose, while receiving a massage or while talking to somebody, when you find you can't be still, try bringing your attention carefully and patiently to your present experience... There are many techniques for doing this, you can also invent your own... check out my next post for some examples.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Putting kindness into your practice

Dr David Hamilton gives an inspiring talk on the chemistry of kindness & compassion...
He proposes that acts of kindness increase the hormone oxytocin, which increases the space inside blood vessels, bringing about a drop in blood pressure and other benefits for the heart, so that kindness is like a cardiovascular protector. This is his theory, and he gives an example of research that found people consciously acting with kindness said they were happier than people who didn't. I think we know this intuitively, but it's good to hear it from a scientist because science informs our culture, the things we say to each other, our expectations of ouselves and each other. So rather than think of kindness as an optional but not very practical thing to do, listening to Dr Hamilton we might think that compassion is actually a way to be healthy in the heart, that adds to our happiness as well as the happiness of others around us.

This is something that crops up all the time in yoga and meditation as unkind thoughts surface such as "I'll never be able to do this", "he/she can do it, why can't I?", "I ought to be able to do this one by now"... The first thing is to notice when this is happening, because we can be so used to the dialogue in our minds that we don't realise it's there. But when you do notice an unkind thought while you're practising, rather than add to it by chastising yourself for having an unkind thought, try saying something sweet to yourself, something compassionate, supportive or reassuring, perhaps "I'm alright, I'll get there", "I've got this far, haven't I?", "I'm doing ok"... Make up your own, whatever is meaningful to you. Then notice how your body responds to a kind sentence, and then how it responds after you say something unkind to yourself. What do you find?

Monday, 27 May 2013

How wonderful to be outside this morning for my yoga practice... the smell of the early morning air, the grass drew me out & rewarded me as I stepped out to find a place for my mat, protected from the wind by the trees, the feel of the earth through the mat reminded me what yoga is for... what it's about... connecting my mind and my body, my body to the place I'm in. Yoga means yoke, not the yoke of slavery, subservience we think of in the West, but connecting whatever we believe in, what we are. I encourage you to practise outside whenever you can, in your garden, in the park, on the green, by a river, wherever you feel a connection, or *would like to feel a connection* with the place you live in...

Don't be embarrassed, just watch the elements around you: water, earth, air as you move or meditate. You may well inspire somebody passing by, but most importantly, you could inspire yourself :-)

For outdoor yoga you will need:

  • base mat for the grass/mud/sand, a cane beach mat is cheap & easy to find, then when you finish your practice don't roll it up, fold it into to itself so it doesn't get you and your other things muddy
  • your usual yoga mat goes on top of the cane mat
  • jumper/something you can wrap around your waist or shoulders as you practise then put back on for your meditation or final relaxation
  • as little else as possible... shoes and door key if you're going far, otherwise just barefeet to step out to your garden... start carrying a bag, a book, sunglasses and it's a faff you don't need, keep it simple :-)