Meditation

What is Mindfulness?

LotusThe world moves faster now than it’s ever done, we are working more hours, our lives re busier, expectations are higher and the pace of life has quickened to a point where we’re struggling to keep up. The technological age means we’re now on call 24/7, we are checking our emails on handheld devices at 10pm, we are in touch with friends and the world news all times of the day and night, as a result we never switch off. One of the best antidotes to our busy lives is taking a few minutes out of each day to be still, meditation is a way of reconnecting with yourself, feeling grounded even among the chaos and teaches us to be more aware of the present moment.We are also hearing a lot these days about Mindfulness, it’s trended significantly over the last 12 months. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Richard Gere, Ruby Wax, Rupert Murdoch and Sting talk about mindfulness and it has also been brought into the corporate world through companies such as Google, Apple, Ford and Ebay. You’re also likely to hear the word used in other contexts these days as with anything that becomes popular it can then also become overused. Things like ‘we need to be mindful of the impacts of the strategic review on our sales figures’ and ‘be mindful of that dog poo as you step out of the car’ doesn’t quite contextualise the word in its true form, but it is about awareness and being in the present moment.What is mindfulness and how does it differ from meditation? There’s been a bit of a mindful revolution and it has become a fashionable word. Where as meditation may invoke images of zen monks sat on hill tops in silence, mindfulness brings to mind celebrities who are happy and successful and something a lot more main stream and attractive. Meditation and mindfulness are one of the same thing, mindfulness is what happens when you take meditation off the cushion into your daily life so it makes sense to start with meditation, train your mind to be present and still and go from there into a world of being mindful in other areas of your daily life.In our busy lives we are often on autopilot, we get lost in the doing at the expense of just being. Have you ever arrived at work and not remembered the commute? Or been eating popcorn at the movies only to put your hand in and realise the box is empty? It’s when we are focusing on other things and our mind has wandered that we are not paying attention and life passes us by. And in our busy multitasking lives it’s easy to get lost in the doing and live most of our days on autopilot but at what cost?Being more mindful means living in the present moment, focus and awareness in a non judgemental way and is a lot like meditation, but mindfulness can be brought into everyday tasks. Like brushing our teeth, washing the dishes, going for a walk, listening to a friend, it is when you are 100% present in what you are doing and noticing every little thing, there are no distractions, you are not multitasking or thinking about your to do list or what’s for tea, you are there in the present moment and fully aware.In a world where multitasking is seen as a necessary skill being mindful is the opposite, it is slowing down to focus on one thing at a time, one moment at a time. Full concentration, unwavering attention on one thing and remaining focused as long as we can before our mind wanders. Thoughts will still come and this is natural, we are not trying to stop or supress our thoughts but we become a witness or observer to what comes up and without judging what we find we notice the thought and return to being mindful without attaching to what that thought means or being carried away into analysing it. Rather than being frustrated that the mind has wandered (again!) we should be pleased that we have noticed and bring it back to the present.You can start by breathing mindfully and being aware of your breath, whether you are sat meditating or in the car driving to work or queuing at the supermarket. Eating mindfully is another helpful practice, not only does it help slow us down and focus on our food but it’s better for our digestion than rushing through our meals as we tend to these days. Mindful walking is a lovely way to spend a summers evening, there is no destination in mind, it is slow and deliberate, you’re not rushing from point A to point B, nor are you lost in thought about what went on at work that day, you are mindfully absorbed in the joy of walking, feeling the ground beneath your feet, listening to the birds in the trees, feeling the breeze in your face and watching the sun sinking in the sky and taking the time to quite literally smell the roses. Through mindfulness, you'll reconnect with yourself and become healthier in mind, body and soul, not just whilst you’re practising but in the future too.“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” - Robert Brault

In between thoughts

VipasanaIt sounded so easy, go away for a 10 day silent Vipasana retreat, away from the busyness of daily life, to have all your meals cooked, nothing to do but it was intense, hard going internal work on a scale I’d never tried before. This was 10 days devoted to working on awareness of the body and mind and I was surprised by what I found.It was a beautiful place surrounded by nature high up in the bush nestled in a valley north of Auckland. My room had everything I needed which was nothing at all really – a bed, a bench and some hooks. No electronic devices were allowed, nor were reading, writing materials, intoxicants or communication of any kind. The idea was that all distractions were removed to allow your entire focus to be on the job in hand.The rules were strict but the silence was deafening, although it didn’t seem to apply to the Cicadas, Tui’s, Possums and Morepork!  There was complete silence throughout the day which started at 4am when the wake up gong sounded, there was 2 hours of meditation before breakfast and after lunch no further meals, just some fruit and tea in the evening.  I found when all distractions and noise were removed you are given the opportunity to notice so much more; the nature around us, the thoughts in our heads, the way we feel; which isn’t always positive which is why I guess we devote so much of our time to distracting ourselves from it.We know our mind is important, everything we do and feel starts in the mind, it dictates how we feel and how we act yet we pay it so little attention and in fact go to extreme lengths to avoid doing so. We seek to fill our lives with distractions, facebook and youtube are great examples of this along with TV, magazines, going to the pub, anything to avoid being left alone with our own thoughts.After 10 days spent alone with my own thoughts what surprised me most was how much time my mind spend either going through past events (which I can not change as they are in the past) or day dreaming about future plans. It was never in the present moment, jumping from thought to thought many of which were of little importance. That’s why it’s called the monkey mind, maybe it’s always doing this we just never notice as we’re never watching it or perhaps it gets busier when we try to control it. Yet once you focus on what it’s doing and the thoughts begin to subside you get a glimpse of what a peaceful mind looks like, between the train of thoughts appears these moments of emptiness, space, stillness and it feels like bliss.The people in attendance (about 80 in total) were from all backgrounds and all walks of life and whilst different reasons had brought us here we all had one goal; to find peace of mind and inner contentment. The centre is one of many world wide and all available due to the kindness of others, run on donations and by volunteers so accessible to everyone.We had been warned that undertaking the course was like peeling back layers of onion and as we went deeper into our mind it had the same effect with some people brought to tears due to the nature of what they were working through, at times it was often more like a therapy room! Many of the participants had past traumas or addictions that had contributed to their reason for being here. Some craving their cigarettes or coffee, for me it was my notepad and pen. I realised we are all fighting our own internal battles, we just use different weapons.We spent hours everyday watching the sensations that came up from within us and learning to accept what we found. I was having other worldly sensations in my knees after 10 hours a day of sitting cross legged. Over the 10 days we learned to maintain awareness and equanimity, giving all our attention to this present moment and accepting what it brings. There were difficult things that came up for every individual but as in life rather than trying to avoid these difficulties we learned to accept them and know that they will pass. In the same way when the pleasant thoughts arose, as in life our task was not to chase after them on a desire fulfilled pursuit but to accept they have arisen but know they will not last.This is the main learning for me; everything is impermanent and the good news is that means tough times won’t last forever but the bad news is that means that good times won’t last forever either. Knowing this we can avoid the disappointment and rather focus on acceptance, making us stronger people.Whilst I don’t necessarily advocate the particular technique used in Vipasana as there are so many good meditation techniques out there, what I do endorse is finding space, silence and peace of mind through whatever method of meditation suits you. It’s taking the time to be with yourself, focus on the breath and become aware and in between the thoughts find that stillness and peace of mind that is the antidote to so much of our modern way of life and can work wonders for your mind, body and soul.For more information about meditation, the benefits and how to get started, click here to visit the meditation page

Diet beyond food

100_2057Although it is true that we are what we eat, it is also true that there’s more to it than that. It is also about how we eat and other factors. In a nation that is overfed but under nourished it’s clear that we no longer eat because we are hungry, so what others reasons could there be? There are in fact many factors impacting what we eat, for example; our emotions play a role in our food choices, our lifestyles, environment, education, food cost and availability, the habits we’ve grown up with, convenience and time.I don’t think we can underestimate the role our emotions play in our food choices but our food choices also play a massive part in our emotions; we all know what it’s like to reach for comfort food on a cold wet day when you’re not feeling happy and likewise we’ve seen the effects too much sugar has on the kids behaviour and the sluggish feeling we get ourselves when we’ve over indulged on the wrong things. We may eat for boredom, sadness, fear or just because those around us are eating, we may not even be hungry. I used to eat to fill a gap in my soul but I’ve found other things in my life that fill that gap now.Stress also has a big role to play in our diet with studies now evidencing the role of the hormone cortisol in weight gain. Cortisol is produced when we are stressed and this helps us react in times of stress by activating the fight or flight response, this worked well in times gone by when stress normally meant you were being hunted by an animal or there was a famine occurring, the body would release adrenalin to activate the fight of flight response and would also hold onto its fat reserves, this is good if we still lived in past times but in today’s modern world our stressors are different; they are work emails, traffic jams, forgetting someone’s birthday, the supermarket car park being full and unfortunately ‘stress’ occurs far more frequently, the result being that are bodies are awash with cortisol and reducing fat is the last thing it wants to do, even if we’re eating all the right things.The body doesn’t shape our health it is the mirror of our inner health and how we live our life. Whilst it’s important to look after our body (eating right, exercise etc) there’s more to it than that and the fundamental part is if we look after how we live our health will be better.As well as what we are eating we should consider how we are eating it. How often do we sit around the table and focus on our meals, chewing slowly and waiting a few minutes afterwards to see if we’re full before we dive in for seconds? Many of our meals now are rushed and on the go. I’ve found it helpful using smaller plates to control portion size and only eating until I’m 80% full, once you’ve allowed time after the meal for it to settle you find that you’re no longer hungry, but without allowing this time the temptation is to continue to eat until we can’t fit anymore in and by doing this we are eating more than we need to. When you eat soley for hunger it’s surprising how little you need. Drinking water also ensures we do not feel so hungry and then accidentally overeat. In fact some of our hunger pains can actually be a sign from the body that it is thirsty and needs more water. Many of us are not drinking enough water throughout the day and this is contributing to our eating habits.My food journey has made me realise how much of what we eat is through habit. You're used to what you grow up on or what those around you eat, this becomes your habit pattern. As I began to travel I experienced many different foods I’d never eaten before and began to eat more real food and enjoyed it so brought the cook books. One day a friend asked me what are the best recipes from it I’d tried and I realised I hadn’t actually done any, it decorated the kitchen saying ‘look how healthy I am’, in the same way I’d take fruit to work and it would decorate my desk until it went off and I threw it away! Only when I put myself in an environment of eating this kind of food everyday (ashrams and yoga retreats) did I become used to it, realised how god it made me feel and my body started to crave it, even after I left. Now I use the cookbooks, my body actually wants to eat this food not just because I think I should, I have experienced it and it’s become a habit, it’s no longer a tough choice of what I think I ought to be doing versus what I want to do they are now the same thing.This is the big turning point; putting what we know into practice, putting the education into action. There are thousands of books and articles relating to food and diet available and it’s become and muti million dollar industry but still we make bad choices. To me there’s more to it than understanding the educational elements of diet, there’s a big difference between knowing what we should be eating and putting that into action. We know that fast food is not good for us but it doesn’t stop temptation giving way to take aways, so how do we make the shift from what we know to be true to putting it into practice?I think it starts by looking at why we make these choices; is it because of how we feel (emotions), is it because of convenience (time), maybe it’s because of our lifestyle or the environment in which we live. If we have a very social lifestyle that involves being at pubs and restaurants often we may find this is impacting our diet; alcohol in particular is not just responsible for weight gain itself it also leads to us making poor food choices later that night and even the next day, it dehydrates us and disturbs our sleep, also things that impact our diets.It’s not easy and it requires a change that’s why we can find many excuses that prevent change from occurring, here are two of the most popular ones and some antidotes;“I don’t have the time”; plan ahead and find the time; thinking about a menu for the week when you do your shopping ensures you have all the things you need in the house to make the right choices and if something tempts you (chocolate, biscuits etc), don’t buy it, save it for a special occasion, if it’s not there you can’t eat it. By making meals ahead of time on the weekends or the night before work it makes it much quicker and easier when you’re short on time.“I can’t afford good food and take away is so cheap”; Deals in supermarkets now mean that making good meals for cheap is possible, there are also lots of free recipes available for inspiration on making healthy meals out of a few ingredients. If you have the land and climate try to grow your own from seed, this is a cheaper, healthier alternative. The question you need to ask yourself is what price do you put on your health?Some of the biggest diseases in present times are diet and lifestyle related; obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression and they are still on the rise.  When the cost of being unhealthy outweighs the effort of being healthy we find that people adjust to making the change, for some the motivation to change comes in the form of a health scare, but don’t wait for this to happen, take your health into your own hands, put what we know into practice and consider the bigger picture when it comes to what we are eating to ensure we eat for our health. It not only helps you lose weight it also makes you fitter, healthier and happier and weighed up with the alternatives the choice is clear.

We are what we eat

FoodI brought my first size 8 clothes just recently and it came as a bit of a shock, I had to check the label to make sure it wasn’t a misprint, I’d taken a size 12 into the changing rooms so that shows how far off I was. I’d not really noticed myself, my clothes were all baggy but I’d been travelling for 4 months and thought it was just a side effect of washing and wearing the same things over and over again but when I returned home my friends all remarked on the weight I’d lost and asked me how so this made me think; how did I do this without really knowing I had?I’ve dieted all my life, not because I’m fat but because I’m short (at least that’s the reason that’s always sat well with me), I am ‘stocky’ as my granddad would say and I love my food too which has never helped. This has lead me to try all the diet fads going over the years but never to any avail so how had I managed it all these years later without even trying. I’ve come to the conclusion that any diet that restricts too many food groups is doomed to fail, it’s just not sustainable or balanced, it makes you miserable and only works for as long as you’re sticking to the regime, I needed to find something that was part of everyday life that I could do forever not just whilst I was ‘on a diet’Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you I was sat on the sofa eating chips when 10 kg disappeared down one of the back cushions and you’re not expecting to read that either (although you were secretly hoping I had discovered some quick fix that required little effort). It’s hard work and it takes discipline and it requires moderating some of the things you love the most but you knew that already didn’t you!There has never been a truer word spoken about diet than the phrase “we are what we eat”. There’s so much temptation around these days and the less healthy stuff is often more convenient and cheaper which makes it even harder for us to do the right thing, as a result we are living in a nation that is over fed but under nourished.Before processed foods were so plentiful and widely available what did we eat? We ate real food and coincidently during these times there was less obesity, depression and disease. Real food is food that has lived, things our grandparents would recognise as food and preferably the sort we can grow in our gardens (or someone else can grow in their gardens for us)! We need to eat far more fruit and veg than we currently do and we need to know that it is clean, the drive to mass produce cheap, plentiful, pretty food that can travel miles and last weeks has meant an increase in chemicals and preservatives used on food that is best eaten in its natural state. This is why organic produce is my choice or home grown is even better (and cheaper).When we talk about the price of good quality food what we’re really talking about is the price we’re putting on our health and nothing puts it into context like a comparison to the millions of dollars our health system spends on fixing diet related disease. There can in fact be a high price for cheap food.I’ve also found over the last few months that when I’ve not been eating meat I’ve felt better, due to the nature of the places I’ve been staying at my diet has been mostly vegetarian. Meat has become cheap and plentiful and has increased in our diets with the popularity of Atkins and Paleo diets. Now I’m not a vegetarian and I also believe meat has a fundamental role in our diet to provide us with iron and protein but I do think we eat too much of it in the western world. I think this impacts on our health in the increase in heart disease and digestive disorders we are seeing and the impact on the environment is just as significant. Take the mass deforestation occurring to make more room for livestock and places to grow the feed for the stock, there are now more livestock on the planet than people, this is contributing to an increase in water use and decreases in water quality due to the pollution from farms. There is also the increase in green house gas emissions associated with producing meat and the impacts on soil quality due to the large amount of feed that needs to be cultivated to feed our meat before we eat it.The importance of eating real food is not just for diet, it contributes to our health and our happiness. People tell me my eyes are bright and my skin clear as well as looking slimmer, the weight is a bonus, the best thing about this for me is the way it makes me feel. Food has such an impact on our moods, eating the right things makes us feel better, we can all relate to that sluggish sad feeling we get when we’ve indulged in all the wrong things and if we’re feeling down we’re more likely to reach for the less healthy foods to comfort us, it can be a vicious circle.I still have fish and chips by the beach and enjoy the odd glass of wine with dinner. I don’t have a gym membership, nor do I pound the pavement in my jogging gear. So how did I shed my additional kilos and how do I stay healthy? For me it wasn’t so much about diet, more about a healthy lifestyle, the weight loss was just a bonus.I have chosen exercise that I enjoy, sometimes this is a simple as a gentle stroll along the beach, it could be a bike to work or regular yoga classes. I also noticed that once I no longer had a car I was walking much more everyday and this has also played a part.  Just remember the two key points for exercise; do it everyday for at least 30 minutes and make sure it’s something you enjoy, if it’s not fun you’re not going to want to do it. It needs to be something you look forward to not something on your to do list that you’d really rather wasn’t there. It’s not just the calorie burning, toning, sweat busting endorphin inducing plus of exercise, it can also be a great social activity too, it becomes more than something you’re doing for your health, it’s a valuable part of your life.I eat real food, mostly fruit and veg with the occasional fish and meat, I drink lots of water and I exercise everyday. I have also reduced the amount of alcohol I have when I socialise. I don’t often snack between meals but if I do it’s healthy (fruit, veg, nuts etc). The key for me is balance and moderation, that way you don’t have to go without and when you do indulge it tastes so much better. I still have the odd treat, a chocolate bar or some ice cream but it’s reserved for special occasions.I meditate to keep my stress levels down and I try to spend time doing things I enjoy and living happily. I give gratitude everyday, there is always something to be grateful for even if it’s just that the sun is shining. I make sure I have enough sleep and prioritise early nights. I have also learned to distinguish between hunger and emotional eating, eating for boredom, sadness, fear, or simply because others are eating.By eating and exercising for health not diet we are making sustainable, long lasting changes to our lifestyles which can lead to happier, healthier, longer lives. I believe there’s more to it than just what we eat though and we’ll explore that in part 2 to come…….

What Yoga taught me

100_2056As I have just completed my yoga teacher training, I thought it appropriate to write about how I got here, what yoga has done for me and what’s made me want to share those benefits with others.I came across yoga after a series of knee injuries put an end to my team sport playing days, I was looking for a form of exercise which would help me unwind and keep me toned and anything to avoid having to join the gym really! I’d heard it could help reduce stress too and I felt like I needed to relax so combining the two things sounded like it may also save me time! I’d seen yoga classes on my travels and a room full of slim toned women who lay down and ‘relax’ a lot seemed liked something I could cope with.Yoga is for everyone; I’ve been in classes full of men, women, old and young, all different sizes and levels of fitness. It is still seen as a woman’s thing but men are also seeing the benefits, many sporting teams now incorporate a yoga practice as part of their stretch routine to warm up, aid recovery and assist with injury prevention.Many people join yoga for the physical benefits and I guess if this gets them to the mat it’s a good thing but there’s so much more to it as I discovered. As I progressed the postures began to get easier, I was feeling stronger and was beginning to master my focus and attention in class deepening my practice so it became about the body and mind and the connection with the breath.However there was still that part of me that so badly wanted to be better, to do a headstand and put my legs behind my head and when I did finally pull of a posture I’d been practising I was desperate for someone to notice and offer some praise, I was still learning how yoga really worked.A new challenge for me became the discipline to hold back and listen to my body and not to over stretch myself. It’s not about doing all the cool looking poses you see on the magazines or trying to run before you can walk. It’s not about pushing yourself to go further every time or trying to replicate the magazine covers and it’s not about feeling like you’ve failed when you can’t or getting mad that you’re not improving fast enough or as good as the person on the next mat.

It’s about doing what you can, with the body you have at the class you’re in, being grateful for that and enjoying the moment.

The original practice of yoga comes from ancient eastern traditions where it is more a spiritual way of life than a workout. The purpose of the physical asans (postures) was to aid the body when sitting in meditation for prolonged periods and the breath is such an integral part of the practice, if you’re not breathing right, you’re not practising yoga. Of course we’ve put our western twist on it and off the back of this comes gyms offering yoga to pumping music, million dollar fashion ranges and celebrity crazes but we should always remember the true purpose of yoga and respect where it has come from.The Yoga Sutras explains the philosophy of Ashtanga yoga which includes; compassionate living (for yourself and others), freedom from possessiveness and envy, moderation in all things, generosity, truthfulness, purity of body and mind, motivation, inner contentment, study of the self, breathing, concentration and meditation.The most beneficial parts of a yoga class can be in the breath, that’s the thing we are often holding whilst we strain to try and get our foot behind our head! Matching the movement to the breath and taking the time to calm ourselves and turn inward is really where yoga comes into its own, yes there are the physical benefits but this is only half the picture. In a world where depression and obesity seem to be the fastest growing epidemics yoga really can do wonders for us when we look at the practice holistically.I used to find the resting postures an inconvenient interruption to toning my body in the early days, I thought “what possible benefit could there be of lying on the floor and doing nothing, I can do that when I go home to bed”. But as I spent more time in class I began to understand why this is an essential part of the practice and how it taught me to be present in the moment and more aware. Savasana (corpse pose) is one of the most important asana, yet also one of the hardest to achieve, we struggle to allow ourselves to let go and do nothing and relax but it is necessary for the mind and for a holistic practice to get the full benefits from yoga.So remember next time you’re on the mat what yoga is all about; focusing on your own practice rather than worrying about what others are doing or that the person next to you can get their head to the floor. Not pushing so hard (it’s not a competition), closing your eyes and going inwards to feel the practice, listen to your body and be kind to it. There is also a strong link between physical and emotional in yoga, our strength and our balance when cultivated on the mat also help us become stronger and more balanced in our daily lives as we reap the mental and emotional benefits of our practice.We should aim to take the practice into our daily lives, yoga does not stop when you leave the mat. Learning to be grateful for what we have rather than always wanting more, living simply, letting go of our attachment to things and ideals and learning to turn inwards to still our busy minds and be at peace.

Yoga is about the body, mind and the breath, taking the time to go within, spending time with yourself, discovering yourself and making peace with what you find.

The more self aware you become, the better your practice will be. I hated missing a class in the early days and would go 100% even if I knew I was injured or sore, these days I’ve learned to back off when necessary and listen to how my body feels and what it needs, although I’m never away from the mat for long. I’ve found yoga can be the antidote to many things.During the times my life has become crazy and I’ve stopped doing yoga I have also discovered the consequences of not practising, you lose your tone and flexibility but also the mental side, I am restless and more negative in the mind when not practising yoga. The times when you think you’re too busy to do yoga are the times when you need it the most.I think everyone who knows yoga would agree that it can aid strength, flexibility and balance but if you’d have told me at the start that I’d also become more self aware, confident, focused, calm, happier and more compassionate I would have laughed and then probably run a mile in the opposite direction, at the time I don’t think that’s what I wanted and was happy just to get a bit more toned ready for summer at the beach.Many people are still uncomfortable with the spiritual side of yoga and some aren’t interested, wanting the physical benefits only but the practice of yoga is all about uniting the body and mind and the balancing of our physical, mental and emotional self.Physically yoga has taught me how to love my body and this is easy to do when you start to see your wobbly bits toning up! But mentally it brought balance and clarity too. So what started off as a form of exercise I thought might be easier than going to the gym has now become my life. I have swapped my corporate career and suits for one of bare feet and yoga pants in a bid to share these benefits with other people.People find yoga for different reasons and you’ll get out of it what you put in, it takes time and will happen when you’re ready but even getting the basics from yoga is a step in the right direction and it is capable of helping you achieve amazing things.Namaste!

10 things to do to make you healthier

10 things to do to make you healthier (and they are cheap and easy)

  1. Drink more water
  2. Eat more veg
  3. Walk outside in nature for 30 minutes every day
  4. Go to bed earlier
  5. Drink less (alcohol)
  6. Stretch every morning
  7. Take 10 mindful minutes a day in solitude to still your mind
  8. Think of 3 things you're grateful for every day
  9. At meal times only eat until you’re 80% full
  10. Do something you enjoy everyday