Using Yoga To Get You Through The Festive Season

Arniston arniston3 arniston2I wouldn’t say I’m a Grinch but I’m certainly not one of those people who whole-heartedly embraces Christmas and the whole festive season and feels sad and deflated when it’s over. On the contrary, I have to work hard with myself to stop getting stressed at how much waste the whole season involves –  waste of money, waste of energy, waste of paper and food… and I admit to breathing a long sigh of relief once the 25th is over and everyone and everything seems to start settling down.

I appreciate that the holiday season can be joyful, a time to share what we have with family and friends. However, there’s no doubt that it can also be a stressful time if we allow hectic schedules and commercial pressures to drive us. Which is why this year I persuaded my husband that our family needed to spend 2 weeks at the beach. I found a beautiful house in Arniston and after just a few days we have already settled into a gloriously easy rhythm of breakfast, beach, snooze, pool, more beach, braaing, reading, playing, and of course my precious yoga practice. The main bedroom happens to be huge with a deck overlooking Kassiesbaai and I have practiced under the rising full moon as well as the rising sun. And I have found that my practice has never felt sweeter. I’m sure it’s a combination of the sea air, the turquoise water, the easy routine and especially the fact that there is no shopping mall in sight and certainly no queues, no piped carols being played over a sound system in a mall, no gaudy decorations and no pressure to buy or acquire anything other than the odd piece of snoek or new set of beach bats once the old ones gave up the ghost after a particularly competitive volley between the husband and I (yes, I’m still working on losing my competitive streak).

It’s not all peachy. My in-laws are out visiting from Northern Ireland for 6 weeks. 6 WEEKS. Which is one of the main reasons I begged my husband for us to go away – I love them dearly and am very lucky to have them, but I am a fiercely private person who needs her own space and I figured that if we were in a neutral environment where I wasn’t having to be hostess the entire time, I would also be able to have a bit of a break and have a better chance of remaining marginally pleasant for a longer period of time. Well, that remains to be seen, but at least I’m getting a tan while I’m losing my ability to make small talk.

I’ve been pondering a lot what this time of year means to me. Whilst I consider myself a deeply spiritual person, I am not religious and don’t believe in Jesus Christ which is why I suppose I don’t feel a deep resonance with the whole ‘birth of Christ’ side of things. Sometimes I actually feel like a bit of a fraud that I’m piggy-backing on the Christmas theme even though I haven’t been to church in pretty-much all my life, other than funerals, christenings and weddings. I do, however, feel a huge amount of empathy for my fellow man at this time of year, especially because a number of my nearest and dearest have lost very special loved ones recently and it seems that a lot of folk are battling their own demons at the moment. It’s well documented that depression is one of the most commonly reported and treated illnesses at this time of the year, with people acutely aware of the sense of loneliness and alienation that can be felt when you think that everyone else is having a big family fun time.

I find that at this time of year I really do need to protect my yoga practice. The commercial pressure, holiday shopping, family visits, the logistics of planning and traveling, managing food and alcohol consumption, getting enough exercise and down-time whilst remaining a good mum, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, friend, employee at the same time… it can all get a bit much. And then I get onto my mat and start to breathe and then start moving through (typically) a slow, sweet and gentle practice, and everything falls into perspective again. As corny as it sounds, it’s true!

So I find that the holiday season is a golden opportunity to practice yoga outside of the classroom, actually applying all the skills we have been honing over the year. As Dr. Swami Shankardev says, managing the holiday season is like the exam, the real test of how much we have learned and embodied over the year.

How do we maintain a calm centre in the storm of the holidays?  The first thing to do is to dedicate some quiet time for contemplation and meditation. Just sit still wherever you are, breathing quietly to practice any calming, grounding process. Once you have settled in, why not contemplate what a particular holiday means to you, maybe asking yourself what you really want to get out of this period, and what will best support you and others.As you develop a sense of that meaning, perhaps focus on disentangling commercial pressures from the essence of the holidays. This may be able to help you plan strategies that will make this period meaningful and fulfilling.

It sounds paradoxical but stress can be the biggest issue for a lot of people during the holidays. Stresses come in many forms and it can be helpful to contemplate what yours is likely to be. For me, it’s the fact that there is always someone is my house, in my kitchen, in my garden, just in my space. The fact that there is a lot of chit-chat and I am not very good at that. I need to dig deep to remain calm, adult and hospitable when the revolting teenager in me is jumping up and down and shouting ‘JUST GIVE ME SOME &***%% SPACE!!!!’

During my early morning meditation, I find it helpful to playfully visualize what may lie ahead on any given day. I have also looked back at past holidays and considered what I’d like to do differently – which is why we are having Christmas at the beach this year. To give myself the best possible chance of remaining calm, focused, grounded and friendly, I actually have to contemplate strategies that I can actually apply outside of the practice space. This meditation, then, is mental rehearsal for the actual event. So far, so good.

I have to continuously remind myself that yoga is more than technique; it is a way of being. Breath is the best tool we have to remain conscious and calm; any time is a good time to practice moving and breathing more slowly and consciously. It’s my way of keeping that sulky teenager that lurks within me under control, especially when my children are bickering about who’s got the biggest glass of milk or whose turn it is to pull the plug out of the bath. I’ve taught them to breathe deeply too when they get overwhelmed, so if ever there’s a stressful moment in our house, you’re likely to find me (40), Isla (3) and Daniel (5) all lying on the ground and taking deep, slow breaths as we calm each other and ourselves down. It works, even though it looks funny and my in-laws think I’m a hippy-freak.

If you do plan to keep your practice up whilst you’re away from your usual studio, it’s probably worthwhile being realistic about what’s actually going to be achievable in terms of getting on your mat. When we first got to the coast, I had planned to be up at 6am every morning for 45 minutes asana practice and at least 15 minutes meditation. As it turned out, the first day my kids woke up at 5.30am (at home I have to drag them out of bed at 7.30am or even 8am – but here the excitement was too much) so there went my practice. The second day I just felt too pooped to get out of bed and instead had a glorious lie-in as the sun rose gently over the sea. The third day I got on my mat at 7am and all I did was balasana and halasana, and breathed and let go and allowed myself to just relax. Yes, I did fit in my practice later in the day but it was so lovely to just let go of any plan or goal and to rather do what I always encourage my students to do: listen to your body and your mind, and tune into what you really need from your practice. This morning my practice took place in the comfort of my bed, and it consisted of legs up in the air, the full yogic breath, and then supta baddha konasana as I drifted off to sleep again. Perfect.

I find that my real and ongoing challenge is keeping yoga in my life and mind when I’m off the mat: practicing empathy, non-judgement, equanimity, forgiveness, losing my ego, letting go of any semblance of control and surrendering to what is, without losing the essence of who I am. I also find it helpful to remember that asana, pranayama and meditation practices are not ends in themselves, but means to an end. That end is to develop a greater inner resilience and a more stable mind that can handle the difficulties of life with greater calm and poise.

Even if you don’t practice at all over the next few weeks before our Stellenbosch yoga studio re-opens, don’t feel guilty! Take some time out, do something totally different, have a break! And then when you come back to your yoga practice I’m sure you’ll get back into formal practice with renewed enthusiasm and a clearer direction of what you need to work toward in the New Year.

Higher Yoga (with thanks to Dr. Swami Shankardev)
If you wish to practice some form of higher yoga to nourish your spirit during the holiday season, you may wish to focus on how you can support others less fortunate than yourself. It is an excellent time to practice selfless service and giving. It is a time when we can learn from and support others, especially those going through difficult times.

Here are a few tips for practicing higher yoga so that you can fill your life with peace and joy:

1. Honour yourself, your relations, and the planet by choosing a noble and virtuous intention for the New Year. Practice ahimsa, a yama of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, which means nonviolence toward yourself and others.

2. Follow your own heart. Learn to listen to yourself, your own higher intuitive inner voice, through meditation practice.

3. Practice contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of Patanjali. Contemplate just how much you already have and what you really need. Is there some

thing that you think you need in your life to make you happy, and/or do you already have plenty? Cultivate gratitude for all the things you have.

4. Before you indulge, bring consciousness into the moment. For example, before eating, be aware of what you are going to eat and perhaps say a simple prayer or thanks. Prepare to really enjoy what you are about to eat, to take it deep into your tissues so as to fully nourish yourself.

5. Be flexible in body, mind, and spirit. Learn not be constrained by plans but to go more with the flow. There is an old Indian saying: “Man proposes; God disposes.”

With great thanks to Dr. Swami Shankardev for the backbone of this post. Dr. Swami is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. Contact him at www.bigshakti.com.

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‘Sitting with Depression’ and an enlightening visit to the doctor

Following on from my Bah-humbug post, I may as well confess that the ‘joys’ of the festive season got on top of me so much (or rather, I allowed them to) that I ended up going to see a doctor, thinking that something dreadful must be wrong with me, seeing as I was the only ‘drol in the drinkwater’ ** and everyone else seemed to be having such a ball. He was very professional, asked a lot of questions, and eventually diagnosed me with stress. With all due respect, this wasn’t particularly helpful since that was the reason I was there in the first place, and also since when he posed the simple question, ‘How are your stress levels at the moment?’, my reply was ‘Through the *&%$*^& roof’ (to quote my dear friend Nicole).

Nonetheless, during his line of questioning, specifically about my history, I told him that I had had a pretty nasty and traumatic experience when I was in my teens, and that it had crossed my mind that perhaps this was rearing its ugly head (even though I was pretty confident that I had long since processed the whole thing and moved on). His advice was clear cut: Do Not Think About That Stuff. Ever. And he used the analogy of a drawer (actually pulling his drawer out from his desk to demonstrate, in case I didn’t quite get the analogy) that you can pack all this ‘stuff’ into and then firmly, decisively, push it shut again. You know that the ‘stuff’ is in there, but God help me, you do not look at it again. Just in case I hadn’t cottoned on to his theory, he then used the analogy of having a beloved dog that dies. He said that yes, you will be sad that the dog has died, but that you make a point of not thinking about the dead dog because you know it will make you sad.

At the time, I remember feeling something almost physical, like a switch that went in my head, where I realised that him and I have clearly different approaches, live on different planets and have totally different world views. I took it all in, gave him the benefit of the doubt and didn’t express my disagreement with him, but I definitely was thinking ‘hmmm, he clearly has some Stuff that he is too terrified to even look at’, whilst thinking about what Freud called the “return of the repressed” – the result of ignoring the shadow side of our personalities. I majored in psychology at university and admittedly only learnt enough to make me dangerous when it comes to having opinions in the field, however I do believe that by simply refusing to deal with, or acknowledge, any issues or traumas or whatever it may be, you run the risk of setting yourself up for trouble and discontentment further down the line, when these unresolved issues come bubbling to the surface. But that’s just me.

So, it was with great interest that I read an article in Yoga Journal a few days ago, touching on exactly this subject.

Mark Epstein is an author and psychiatrist in New York and has been a student of Buddhist meditation for 25 years. He describes himself as a ‘therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East’ and he recently wrote an article in Yoga Journal titled ‘Sitting with Depression’. The tagline is ‘Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression.’ This was enough to make me read on since the Black Dog (as Winston Churchill called his own depression) has hounded a few of my nearest and dearest in recent times, however as I read on I was intrigued to find that he, in a much more palatable manner, seemed to echo what my doctor was trying to say.  It also brought to mind a quote by Mark Twain that I have always loved: ‘Drag your thoughts away from your troubles…by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.’

He talks about the merits of attempting to disentangle oneself from one’s problems, rather than going more deeply into them, and he expresses his confidence that ‘there is another direction in which to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown. If we stay with the fear this often induces, we have a special opportunity to see our own egos at work, defending against the unknown while hiding out in the very problems we claim to want freedom from. Buddhism is very clear about how important it is to move in such a direction.’

It has been extremely thought-provoking for me to hear two clearly well-read and qualified therapists saying more or less the same thing within a two week period, and flies in the face of everything that I have thought for a long time. It’s not that I am a navel-gazer who gets enjoyment from obsessing about myself and my Problems (who doesn’t have them? Problems, that is, not navels), it’s just that I have always felt that it may be healthier to face up to them and deal with them directly and not pretend that they don’t exist. Now, I am revising my opinion. And as with everything in yoga, thinking that it’s surely all about balance.

It’s funny, ever since all our house guests have left and I have my home and my children to myself again, my stress levels have plummeted and I am more content and ‘chilled’ than I’ve been in a while, so there probably was no need to have gone to see that doctor in the first place.  That said, I’m really glad that I did as it has given me a whole new perspective on how to go about working with oneself and any issues that one may be carrying. To end with one of those dreadfully tacky quotes (which I secretly quite like): ‘Don’t look backwards. That’s not the way you’re going’.

For anyone who is interested in the full article (which is really worth a read), you can find it at http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/137.

** Afrikaans idiom meaning ‘the dung in the drinking water/town well’.

Bah Humbug: onwards and upwards

Am I the only person who is utterly over the moon about the whole festive season being behind us – at long, loooooong last – and rapidly becoming a distant memory? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the real meaning behind it and, religious stuff aside, the fact that it’s a reason for family and friends to get together etc etc etc, but oh my giddy aunt, am I glad that it’s done and dusted. The hype, the stress, the pressure, the overeating, the over-drinking, the small talk, the gaudy decorations, the frenetic socialising, the mess, the waste… I have sworn that next Christmas, I am NOT hosting The Main Meal in our house again (even though The Band was awesome in terms of actually getting the food on the table) and am instead going to be in a very small, private house somewhere in the Tankwa Karoo where there is no cell phone reception, preferably no real road (so that no-one can EVER pop in unannounced) and where the only flashing lights are those that are emanating from the Milky Way. I’m not sure who will be joining me as I was publicly labeled ‘weird’ by the extended family (The Band himself included! Et Tu, Brute) when I chose to go and sit with my feet in the pool and drink a quiet glass of red wine whilst star-gazing, after yet another braai (very, very pleasant at the time, but I do need my time out afterwards), rather than joining everyone else sitting inside and watching some inane TV program.

My stress levels were not helped by the fact that I had the in-laws staying in our house for 6 weeks (usually two weeks is my limit and the point at which I start getting twitchy but I thought I’d give it a bash and try to be the ‘hostess with the most-est’. That didn’t work out so well, I can assure you, and I am the first to admit it). And my father-in-law and my 3 year-old seemed to develop some kind of weird power struggle, leading to my FIL calling my son ‘a rather unpleasant little chap’ on more than one occasion which, as all the mothers out there can imagine, was enough to make me want to bop FIL repeatedly on the nose.  At the very least.

My biggest failing (and trust me, there were many over the past few weeks) is that I didn’t make the time to get on my mat more often. It sat there, forlornly rolled up in the corner of my bedroom, watching me getting more and more wound up and stressed out, and if it had words, I know it would have been calling out to me to do the right thing and to just take twenty, ten – even five minutes – every day, or even a few times a day, to just reconnect with myself and the quietness that I was so desperately craving. Because, of course, that quietness is within, even if one’s house is a veritable circus at the time. Yes, of course I did keep up my home practice to a certain extent, but not nearly enough. It is only now that my house is (finally) my own again that I have fallen in love with my mat and my practice again, and I have been absolutely embracing it. Each evening I have made a point of creating a truly restorative bedtime routine, encompassing a long, gentle yoga session, pranayama, an even longer yoga nidra or guided relaxation, all done in the peace of my bedroom with a flickering candle and my very special Nag Champa incense, a short entry into my journal before crawling into my beautiful clean bed and drifting off to sleep.

It is not very ‘ahimsa’ to want to kick myself on the butt for not having made this discovery about three weeks ago (when my wheels started coming off in quite a comprehensive fashion), but that’s pretty much how I feel. I teach this stuff, for heaven’s sake, yet somehow just could not give this beautiful gift to myself when I needed it most. I am taking this as a very timely lesson in how important the whole concept of ‘self-love’ is, and I can already feel how the time and effort that I am putting in now is redressing the balance, and I am feeling like a whole new person, recharged, and ready to embrace whatever the New Year holds for me.

PS. They say that being a good hostess is making your guests feel at home, even when you wish that they were. I hope that I at least did that to a certain extent. Next time I will be better.