Thursday, 30 October 2014

Releasing tension and stiffness helps us feel more

Tension and stiffness in the body create numbness. They create a barrier to awareness and the full experience of life. If we can’t relax, then life becomes dulled; the extra tension is tiring to hold and inevitably produces an undercurrent of fatigue. Look around you when you walk through the streets of the city and you'll see tension is a chronic condition. Happily through, yoga and meditation practice teaches us how to begin releasing all these tensions, better align and balance ourselves, and brings us to a new appreciation of the incredible vibrancy of life.

Perhaps one of the first things we notice when we start with our yoga and/or mindfulness work are these areas of stiffness or tension – and for some of us discomfort or even pain. They come about for a number of reasons, and can affect us on various levels: from the superficial to the deep. Causes include:
  • our genetics (for example weak joints mean the muscles have to work harder, or scoliosis causes asymmetries in the spine muscles)
  • past accidents (e.g. a broken toe meant you avoided putting weight on that foot and now the other leg feels overworked)
  • past traumatic experiences (the body mirrors the mind in wanting to protect our soft vulnerable parts so often we end up hunching over)
  • our occupation (e.g. sitting at a desk for long hours with bad posture)
  • our hobbies (e.g. playing or doing an asymmetric sport like tennis or shooting)

So you can see that the reasons our body might be tight or stiff are intimately connected to our past, our upbringing, and our life choices.

I can see now that when I started my own journey into the world of yoga and self-exploration, I was pretty numb, desensitised, and tense! There were many blockages and tight areas, and I was nowhere near being able to feel the subtleties I'm now able to tune into. In the words of a good friend of mind, I was a brut... An insensitive, lumbering vertebrate with his heads in the clouds and a body that, if on a map, would be labelled “here be dragons”!

When we experience unpleasant sensations in our life, one of our strategies for blocking these out (after all no-one wants to feel unpleasantness!) is to tense up, because tension causes numbness. The body learnt that a long time ago!

Releasing the tension

For many years I understood in my head that yoga could help us release the tensions, blockages and imbalances, but I struggled to relate it to any actuality in my body. I could see my weight changing, muscles developing, and stamina improving, but had no sense of my body coming into better alignment or flow.

It took a sustained level of awareness and the keen eyes of my Zen teacher Daizan Roshi and yoga teacher Jonathan Monks to show me, on a physical body level, that this was actually happening. Through my yoga and meditation practice (and to some degree through my years of psychotherapy), I'd begun to let go of my body’s patterns of tension. Slowly, I’d begun to dismantle the layers of holding and blockages built up over years and years. With alignment, mindfulness and relaxation I suddenly found I could feel finer and subtler sensations in the body that I’d never noticed before.

One of the keys to releasing tension and encouraging relaxation is bringing the body into correct alignment. By aligning ourselves with the vertical, with our innate sense of “up” and “down”, then the force of gravity will support us instead of weigh us down. Right now try leaning to one side. It takes work! So aligning of the physical body with gravity allows us to relax and shed unnecessary tension. This is why in meditation sitting up straight is so important, and why in yoga we learn to move with gravity, not against it.

In the words of Will Johnson (from his lovely book Alignment, Relaxation, Resilience), I've started tuning in to the "fine, shimmering currents of sensation that constantly flow through the body”. As I described in this previous post, these are the shimmering currents of our subtle bioelectromagnetic field.

Spiritual energy by Alex Grey

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Meditation is not about clearing your mind!

One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it’s all about clearing your mind. And sadly this idea seems pretty pervasive. Most people I talk to who've never done much meditation before say something like "oh I can't do meditation, I can't clear my mind".

I'm not surprised! Clearing the mind is nigh-on impossible! Even for someone like a Zen master with decades of meditation experience. But perversely it's often this clear, calm, unaffected mind-state that brings people to meditation in the first place. We all want to find some respite from the whirlwind of thoughts and worries in our heads.

Then when you try it and find your mind is anything but clear, it can be very frustrating!

I think one very useful way of thinking about the brain is like any other organ. The function of the heart is to pump blood; the function of the stomach and intestines is to secrete enzymes and digest food; the thyroid to secrete hormones; and likewise, the function of the brain is to secrete thoughts. Thoughts are a natural product of the brain. Why would we want to stop them?

It's not the thoughts themselves that are the problem, it's how we engage with them. So often we unconsciously end up following trains of thought, and, more often than not, these end up going down a negative route, leading us into worries and anxieties.

Mindfulness is all about developing our awareness of how things are in this moment, without trying to change it, or judging it to be good or bad. So when we come to practising our mindfulness meditation, our first job is to notice just how busy the mind is. Some days it might be as busy as the M25 at rush-hour, and other days like a quiet country road... Either way, that's fine. One of the most wonderful effects of observing the mind as it is right now without trying to manipulate it in any way is that it automatically begins to calm down. The less we try, the more it responds.

One helpful analogy to how our mind and thoughts work is the following. Imagine yourself walking deep in the countryside and you come to a river. You take a rest and come to sit on the river bank. In this analogy your thoughts are like the water in the river, flowing naturally downstream. Let's say you find a few large logs and attempt to dam up the river – you try to "clear your mind". Firstly, this takes a great deal of effort. You might succeed in creating a dam, but sitting back to admire your work you see that the water level is gradually rising behind the dam. At some point it either flows over or around the dam, or the dam breaks...  It's much easier just to let the water flow.

The other trap we get into is jumping into the river and grabbing hold of the various thought forms that flow down this river. Let’s say you see something awful on the news. Immediately your mind is flooded by a whole range of negative thoughts and emotions like anger, sadness, fear, revenge. Before you know it, your mind is grabbing similar thoughts from its memory banks, and new thoughts come in followed by more emotions. The next thing you know, you're totally consumed by these thoughts, wondering about the safety of those you saw on the news, of you, your family, friends, what to do about it, how to stay safe, etc.

So instead of engaging with these thoughts as they arise, in our mindfulness meditation we practise simply observing the thoughts – sitting by the riverside, seeing the flow of thoughts for what they are. Not trying to block them, but also not grabbing hold of them. We practise making the choice not to engage with the thoughts as they arise, so we have that choice in every part of our life. Sometimes it's imperative that we do engage with our thoughts, but sometimes it's more healthy not to.

I teach 8-week courses in Mindfulness for Health & Wellbeing regularly through the year in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

If you've found mindfulness or yoga to help with negative feelings or moods, I'd love to hear your experience. Leave a comment below, join the discussion. 

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