Softening into the body – Part 2

Each day we have many opportunities for softening into our bodies – some of these can be formal and quite deliberate, while others are more subtle. One of the easiest way we can allow our bodies to soften is by using our breath. The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a wonderful expression – ‘let your breath be received in a softening belly.’ Our stomachs often feel stress, so the idea of softening our bellies as the breath flows into it is very appealing.

We can also breathe into other parts of the body which feel tight, or where there may be some pain. For example, if our elbow feels sore, rather than tensing the muscles around it, we can imagine that we’re sending our breath into the elbow, and soothing and softening the area around it. We might want to imagine a sensation of warmth as part of the breath, and also colours. Other meditation teachers use images like warm honey, or a clear white light, or that the muscles start to melt like water, and then evaporate like gas. We can choose the images which suit us best – and these may also change over time. One day, the healing colour may be blue, and on another day, it could be oozing and golden like honey. Once we’ve practised using our breath in this way, we can come back to it throughout the day. All we need to do is to pause for a moment, and to allow our breath, with or without an image, to soften into our body.

Other practices which are helpful are those which work directly with the tension in our muscles, such as massage, acupuncture, and similar healing practices. Stretching is also wonderful for loosening muscles – for example during yoga or Tai Chi. If we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, we can also look up office stretches online and remind ourselves to do these regularly throughout the day.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways of softening into our bodies, and something which our bodies really appreciate, is to make sure we don’t rush around from morning till night, day after day. At most workplaces now, the idea of stopping work for morning tea and afternoon tea seems rather quaint. Even lunchtime is no longer sacrosanct. Yet we only function at optimum efficiency if we take regular breaks. We’re all different in this regard – some people seem to thrive on being on the go all day long, while others would find this clearly exhausting. We can experiment with what works best for us, and then do our best to fit these regular breaks into our day. Sometimes we only need to pause for a few moments and breathe, and already we feel much rejuvenated.

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one of the suggestions above which resonate for you, and schedule it into your week. Notice how this feels for your body.

Anja Tanhane

Stilling the mind – Part 2

There are times when meditation can no doubt be quite challenging. The idea of sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes might seem almost impossible, and certainly not enjoyable. Fortunately, mindfulness offers us a whole range of practices which can be very helpful when we are dealing with ongoing restlessness and anxiety.

One which many students have found very useful over the years is doing a mindful movement practice such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Kum Nye. These can often be very helpful before moving into sitting meditation, or they can be simply practised on their own. When we focus on our bodies, stretching and moving them slowly and with attention, our minds quite naturally seem to settle. Walking meditation can also be helpful, really concentrating on the sensations on the soles of the feet as we take one slow step, and then another, and then another.

A variation on this would be to do some vigorous exercise before meditation – getting some of the excess energy and anxiety out of our system before we sit down for sitting meditation. We could also go for a walk in the forest or a quiet park, and sit for ten minutes meditating among the trees or by a creek. Or go for a walk along a beach, and meditate on the sounds of the waves coming in and out.

Another option is to lie down on the floor and allow ourselves to be guided through a meditation by using a CD or an app. Sometimes, just having someone else to lead us during the meditation can feel very supportive and nurturing. An even better option would be to find a regular meditation group, with a teacher you feel comfortable with. There can be a profound sense of peace in the room when a group meditates together, and people often comment on how much deeper their meditation is when they are with others who are also meditating.

Sometimes it can be helpful to incorporate simple gestures or practices which help to soothe us during the meditation. This could be placing a hand on the heart centre, or on the belly. We might do some gentle chanting, or listen to music, or quietly repeat a word to ourselves such as ‘calm’ or ‘peace’. We could imagine a kind person standing behind us and placing their hands on our shoulders, so that the shoulders can really relax and let go.

Finally, if strong emotions are repeatedly coming up during meditation, it may be a sign that we could benefit from some counselling. We all have strong emotions from time to time, and sometimes we’re quite happy to deal with these on our own. However, persistent strong emotions which interfere with our day-to-day functioning or our peace of mind are often a sign that some deeper underlying issues are demanding to be addressed, and this might be more effective with the support of a skilled professional therapist.

Weekly practice idea:

If you find you’re often restless during meditation, experiment with one of the suggestions above, and notice if this is useful.

Anja Tanhane

Working with sleepy mind

One of the most effective (but definitely under the category of ‘don’t try this at home’!) strategies for combating sleepy mind must be sitting on the edge of a deep well during meditation, as apparently practised by some monks in Thailand. This would certainly sharpen the mind and keep us alert, but fortunately we also have less drastic (and less dangerous) approaches we can use if we find ourselves repeatedly nodding off during meditation.

The first one, which I already touched on in last week’s reflection, is to simply accept that we’re tired. Sometimes during meditation we encounter busy mind, or anxious mind, or planning mind. At other times it might be sleepy mind. Just going with the flow of this state, rather than fighting it, can be helpful at times.

Another approach, which I use a lot and find very effective, is to lift our gaze to straight ahead and open our eyes wide, while still meditating. Doing this for a few minutes, and then returning to our traditional posture of eyes closed or half open with a soft gaze downward, can really bring renewed energy to our meditation and can lift it from ‘sloth and torpor’ to a more awake, present sense of being. Sometimes doing this once is enough, at other times I might repeat it several times.

Practising some mindful movement before sitting meditation can also be very helpful. It stretches and revitalises our body, allowing the energy to flow more freely, and this can help us feel more alert when we then sit down to meditate. This could be yoga, Tai Chi, slow walking meditation, or even a brisk walk around the block.

We can also alternate between sitting and standing meditation. There is nothing wrong, if we’re feeling really sleepy, with standing up for a while, and then returning to the sitting posture when we feel ready. This is perhaps a safer variation of sitting on the edge of a well – we’re less likely to fall asleep standing up, and don’t want to fall over, so standing meditation can also be very useful.

Finally, if sleepy mind is an ongoing problem in our meditation, we can ask ourselves – is this perhaps my way of avoiding being present with life? Do I generally have a tendency to switch off when things become unpleasant, and am I using this same strategy during meditation? If this is the case, we might ask ourselves – ‘why am I meditating? Is this important to me?’ Sometimes recognising some of our behavioural patterns can help us to become more resolved in not giving in to sleepy mind when it arises.

Weekly practice idea:

If you meditate regularly, experiment this week with some movement practices beforehand, standing meditation, or meditating with the eyes wide open. Do they change your meditation in any way?

Anja Tanhane

Posture

When I think about people I admire, something they share in common is that they carry themselves well. They are not arrogant or aloof, but there is a grace and dignity to the way they move. It used to be called ‘deportment’, which as a word has definitely gone out of fashion. And yet the way we sit, stand and walk has a strong influence on our mental state.

The best exercise I’ve come across to practise good posture is walking around the house with a paperback book on your head. Ladies used to do this in finishing school, and for good reason – you immediately feel taller, your head seems to be floating on top of the spine, and your limbs move with natural ease. We have a tendency to collapse into ourselves during the day, and the frequent use of smartphones and tablets has made this much worse. Young children naturally have wonderful postures, with erect spines and heads which are upright, their eyes open and curious as they eagerly explore the world. To see two-year-old children hunched over small electronic devices is a pretty sad sight.

If we were constantly admonished to ‘sit up straight’ when we were young, we may feel resistant to the idea of walking tall now. Good posture is not about being stiff, like a wooden puppet, or like being in the army marching to someone else’s beat. We don’t slump forward, but we also don’t draw our shoulders back too far. Most importantly, posture is about free-flowing movement, not stiffening into some idealised state.

Movement practices like Tai Chi and yoga can help us to feel more at home in our bodies. Also, getting lessons from an Alexander technique or Feldenkrais practitioner can support us to use our bodies more effectively. The natural state of our bodies is to be flowing, graceful and strong. Just like water can’t flow through a hose which is crinkled, so energy can’t flow freely through a body which is stiff and tense, and huddled over.

We all have a point where our bodies feel most balanced and free, and exploring our bodies, and learning what this balanced point feels like for us, can be very liberating.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of walking around the house with a light book on your head. Then try to keep some of the same sense of being upright and alert as you walk during the rest of the day.

Anja Tanhane

The body-mind connection

butterfly

Today, let’s try a little experiment – as you’re sitting here, clench your fists very tightly. Really experience what that feels like – in your body, but also in your mind. Hold it for about 30 seconds.

Next, open your hands palms up and have them resting on your lap. Again, take a few moments to tune into the sensations this gesture evokes in you.

Then, bring the palms together in front of your chest, in the gesture of prayer or greeting. Maybe do a little bow. How does this feel?

It’s likely that the three hand positions led to quite different responses in your body and mind. Continue reading “The body-mind connection” »