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Transform your well-being, body and performance with Natalie Cristal Morrison. Natalie is a London based yoga teacher, mindfulness coach, Personal Trainer, NLP Practitioner and Health Coach. She offers corporate wellness and team performance training to optimise your and your team's well-being and success. 

Blog

Natalie shares her yoga life - attending yoga events, classes and workshops in London and around the world. The yoga world from the inside. Yoga philosophy - the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and much more.  

Review: Down to Earth Movie

Natalie Cristal Morrison

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For further info on the movie please visit www.downtoearthfilm.com

Shown as an emotional primer for the political elite at the One Planet Summit on Climate Change in Paris in 2017, Down To Earth is a call to action for all of us to become keepers of the earth. It powerfully communicates the message that our individual well-being and the wellbeing of our planet are one and the same.

Premiering in the UK on 11th September 2018, the film follows a dutch family, Renata Heinen, Rolf Winters and their children, as they embark on a journey to live in a way that will ensure a healthier future for this planet and generations to come. The family pack up their traditional Western lives and set off to Michigan to spend time with the Potawatomi, a Native American forest tribe. Here they meet the inspiring elder of the tribe Nowaten (‘he who listens’). After months spent living with the tribe, Nowaten agrees to let the family interview him for the movie on the condition that the family record similar interviews with other indigenous elders from around the world.

Travelling without a crew, the family are given unique access and insights into the lives of people from the oldest tribe in the world in Namibia, to jungle people in India, communities living in the Australian outback, and elders in Machu Picchu. The leaders of these communities are not simply holding administrative power in their positions, they are medicine people, wisdom keepers, shamans, healers and spiritual leaders. Their power comes from their intimate wisdom of the terrains they inhabit and the people they lead. From their spirit and faith. Though geographically isolated and divided by thousands of miles, the message from all these cultures is remarkably consistent.

The theme we encounter again and again are around learning to live with what is provided by nature. By learning to live with the seasons whether this brings abundance or scarcity we establish psychological balance. “An empty stomach is full of wisdom”, as one of the elders puts it. We are shown how the natural habitat and spiritual resources of the elements offer healing to the sick, each tribe utilising the vegetation and power ritual in their own way given what’s available and what has been passed down to them through the centuries.  

What is remarkable is there is no fear or anxiety in these cultures. Instead, we see community and playfulness. Against the context of their lives, the degree to which our capitalistic societies are making us physically and spiritually sick is starkly evident. If we can heal ourselves, we can heal the world. If we fail to uphold our duty as caretakers of the environment and all its resources for this and future generations we will lose our ability to sustain ourselves.

While this message is undoubtedly grave, the movie carries a gloriously positive tone. It is inspirational to listen to these vibrant and earthly characters and experience their unshaken confidence, their faith that mankind is able to step up to the challenge. Many spiritual traditions speak of an age of destruction which serves as a catalyst for our spiritual and psychological development. While we are shown rituals and practices from across the world that allude to the sophisticated and profound spiritual understanding of these people, the simplicity of their approach to simply living with greater care and respect for the land and in greater harmony with it instills confidence that we might be able to do the same. How we live can become a daily ceremony. It is up to each of us to figure out how to interpret this message in our own lives.

 

Review: Meadows in the Mountains Festival

Natalie Cristal Morrison

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A spiritual celebration in the Bulgarian countryside

Deep within the Bulgarian countryside lies meadows in the mountains festival, a unique four day celebration of music, nature and spiritual culture taking place every June.

The radiant energy from the thickly-forested Rhodope mountain range greets you, along with a colourful troupe of festival goers making their way there, the friendly staff and an enticing blend of ambient drum beats. There is a sense of magic, perhaps in part because, as legend has it, this mountain range was homeland of the Greek mythological singer, poet and prophet Orpheus (the festival is situated close to the Greek border).

Meadows in the Mountains is a relatively intimate festival which has grown to just over 3000 people, and carries with it a genuine sense of kinship and extended family. Indeed, it seems like almost everyone you meet knows the brothers who set up the festival four years ago.It is generously laid out, with ample music stages, bars, food stalls, quirky shops and more. Queuing for the bar or portaloo rarely takes more than a few minutes, and the atmosphere is bright, buzzing and vibrantly techni-coloured. There is feeling of being at ease in this place, creating a held space for escapism as well as deep connection with others and the environment.

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There is much music on offer across the five stages, although drawing in big acts is not the priority for the organisers, who prefer to focus on the overall experience. Musical highlights included: a ‘Little Gay Brother’ take-over of the main stage; plenty of dancing and glamour with music from Oli Keens and Wax Wings and; a beautiful acoustic set from singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou. Meadows In The Mountains regular Guy Harvey also gave an exclusive performance of tracks from her forthcoming album.

The wellbeing area right at the centre of the festival is equally abundant in its offerings. The schedule is diverse, including several yoga classes per day in various styles along with workshops on inspirational themes of all kinds such as plant-based medicine, tarot, and Ayurveda. Evenings’ provide the opportunity to explore soulful celebrations, with chanting, a cacao ceremony and a selection of talented musicians. Lovers of all things well-being could very happily spend the entire four days in this area alone, floating from workshop to kundalini class to sacred sound ceremony.

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A central aspect of the festival’s ethos is that of local community, infusing the festival with a unique Bulgarian flavour. The wellbeing area hosted a Bulgarian masseuse and even a choir amongst the line up. Not only that, but they are also seeking to develop connections between consciously-attuned people, and the intention is to build a community of the spiritually-minded that can come together on a yearly basis.

Also fundamental to their ethos is the wildlife and fauna that covers the festival site. Care is taken to keep waste to a minimum, including requiring everyone to keep their own mug for drinks throughout the duration of the festival. Plans are in motion to start a community in the village which will sustain itself by growing its own food sources and harnessing eco technologies.

One thing’s for sure. The strength of the ethos of the founders will ensure that as Meadows in the Mountains deservedly becomes more popular, the ethics and positive spirit of the festival will not be lost.

Images courtesty of Aron Klein / Jack Pasco

After abundance: becoming the 'less is more' generation

Natalie Cristal Morrison

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Originally published on Balance Garden

An all you can eat buffet can tell us a lot about our psychology. There is a poignant irony to these offerings which tantalisingly promise a kind of transcendental freedom in the idea of limitless indulgence as a respite from a day-to-day life of constraint. Tempting for sure, yet in practice these situations often foster a mindset of scarcity and survival-oriented behaviour as the suspicion sets in that everyone else is also after the same dessert.

While we may not all be into buffets the same psychology applies in all walks of life. And whether it’s in the dining hall, the shopping mall, the boardroom, the school playground or on a foreign nation’s soil, perceived scarcity causes conflict.

We all know this. We know it in our own lives whenever we panic buy a special offer, when we make compromises on our personal choices out of fear of finding a better alternative, whenever we grasp for ‘more’. A guilty tension sets into the body as we feel the conflict of different parts of ourselves in those moments. We create our own inner battleground over that territory and we move away from a sense of self that feels abundant, genuine and at ease.

Many do face the very real day to day pressures of a life governed by scarcity. Tragically even within our own society there is great inequality. Many do struggle to meet their basic needs. However, if you’re one of the billion or so people living at the top of the economic tree (and if you’re reading this you almost certainly are), we live within a social paradigm that is dominated by the illusion of greater scarcity than actually exists. In fact even for an average citizen, life is now characterised by more abundance than ever before. More than our grandparents, our parents, and even those of us old enough to remember when Starbucks opened in the UK could have ever dreamed of. 

We have so much food that we simply throw away a third of the contents of our fridge and supermarkets toss any produce that’s slightly wonky or bruised into the reject bin. What we do consume is in such excess that obesity-related diseases have become one of our greatest killers. Meanwhile we purchase gym memberships to burn off excess weight and guess what? For the most part we hardly use those either.

Similarly, brands have become adept at creating exclusivity via limited editions, fashion cycles and other sales strategies to make us again feel like we’re lacking something. Anything. The latest cut or wash of blue jeans when we already own ten pairs. Or more and more megapixels on our phone camera when technology already maxed out on the number of megapixels needed to make any noticeable difference to our photographs years ago.

Perhaps most evidently, we see our thirst for more luxury than we’ve ever had before in the travel industry. What was once the privilege of the very few has become relatively commonplace to many of us. The average Brit now enjoys three holidays a year and racks up about 16,000 miles by car, rail and plane.

The hidden costs of our exuberance are starting to dawn on us however. Images of wildlife floundering among seas and beaches of plastic for example have caused public outrage in recent months and increasing pressure is being applied to supermarkets to address their responsibilities in this area. We’re starting to grasp that the real cost of overconsumption is not in our bank balance, our waist size, or even our obesity rates, but in the lives of humans and plant and animal species.

As millions of people are already displaced from their homes each year due to increases in natural disasters linked to climate change for example, we all need to ask ourselves, is it still ethical to be churning out half the average UK annual CO2 emissions per person on my next long haul trip to ‘get away from it all’? These are tough questions and it's easy to look elsewhere or to fallback on a lot of the misinformation that influences popular opinion. But the facts are clear when you look. We tend to blame industry and commerce for the bulk of our oil consumption but actually transport accounts for just as much.

This is where the power of the pyscho-spiritual practices of mindfulness, yoga in it's fullest sense, and buddhism can be of real practical value, serving to guide our ethics and strengthen us to act in ways that serve the wellbeing of the collective as well as ourselves. The term ‘Bodhicitta’ in Sanskrit means a mind that strives towards awakening for the collective wellbeing of all. Beyond surface-level stress reduction, mindfulness-based meditation practices and ways of living can bring us closer to that sense of profound comfort and ease within ourselves that exists whenever we are thinking and acting out of our innate sense of compassion and connection with other beings.

Chogyam Trungpa in his book ‘Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior’ references compassion and insight into our interdependence with all things as 'weapons' against the forces of greed and insecurity that threaten our future, and increasingly, our present times. The more we can internalise that there is no ‘us’ without others or all the animals and species that make up our delicately-balanced ecosystem, and the more we can feel compassion towards ourselves, the more we can tend to them with natural compassion  that springs up as an extension of our self-compassion. We relax our concept of ‘self’ into a much broader, all-encompassing definition. Conservation of nature becomes part of our own health-care regime.

Shifting our collective mindset away from consumption to conservation is a huge deal. We are entrenched in a consumer-based way of thinking, even the most educated among us. Take this blog post in Forbes ‘5 reasons why travel is good for your mental health’ as just a random example from the web from a Google search on why people travel. Like most travel articles, it overlooks the fact that a nonchalant attitude to the hidden costs of regular travel is a large part of the problem which threatens the lands, homes, crops and inhabitants of those very destinations we’re supposed to travel to for a bit of ‘stress relief’ and ‘creativity’. Those same lands which are home to the forests which purify our air or grow plants for our medicines. While it would seem overly austere to cut out foreign travel completely to many Forbes readers, there are many ways to enjoy those same benefits that are less harmful than regular long-haul jaunts. Meditation has been proven to work wonders in these areas, for example. [1][2].

Scarcity will always be a fact of life but needn’t be as pervasive. Energy is potentially eternally renewable and crops, forests and the remaining animal populations can recover under the right conditions. As world populations continue to grow and our environment more challenged, those of us blessed with such incredible wealth, education and privilege compared with the rest of the world must use it to help us find solutions to our own constraints, our fears, and challenges in our own lives so that we can set an example for others and live in a sustainable way. As a line from the ancient yogic text the Upanishads says, 'abundance breeds abundance'. Through embracing a little scarcity we can generate abundance in the things that we all strive for: love, community, a sense of connectedness and belonging, a sense of purpose, deep joy.  

Creating an inviting atmosphere for meditation in the home - for C.M.Eldershaw

Natalie Cristal Morrison

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Originally published on the C.M. Eldershaw holistic estate agent blog. C.M.Eldershaw bring a holistic approach to buying, selling and letting homes and workplaces.


Natalie Cristal Morrison is C.M.Eldershaw’s wellness oracle, and in the first of a series of guest blogs and collaborations, we asked her for some advice and guidance on creating the best conditions for your mindfulness practice at home.

NCM  Developing the intimate relationship between our meditation practice and our home can be a powerful, life enhancing activity. The home can become a wonderful sanctuary for meditation and an incubator for creating a more mindful way of living.

Meditation can help us to gain more enjoyment out of our home life. Our home and our meditation practice can both serve to ground us and help us find a deep sense of peace, confidence and contentment so that we can flourish in our work, relationships, and life ambitions. 

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CLEANLINESS AND TIDINESS 

In Japan, cleanliness is next to enlightenment. Our home environment is often a direct reflection of your state of mind. A disorderly home with objects lying around from projects left unfinished, dishes lying in the sink or messy cupboards and drawers all contribute towards a sense of unease or disruption and can challenge a meditation practice before it even gets going.

Over time, practicing meditation cultivates a propensity to be more clean and tidy as we naturally start to become more aware of our surroundings, more respectful towards our things, and more appreciative of order and simplicity. Life eventually becomes more of an art form, each task being completed with a sense of aesthetic appreciation for function, and our home becomes a reflection of that mindset.

If this all sounds like a long way off fear not! Tidying can actually be a great way to kick-start a meditation practice. Picking a task such as doing the dishes or folding clothes can be a meditation in itself. In fact, the more tedious and repetitive the chore the better!

Applying our full attention to that task, noticing all the information that comes in from the senses; the textures, sounds, visual details, scents and even thoughts and emotions that arise when completing that task, and simply observing ourselves breathing while we’re doing it, is a powerful meditative practice in itself.

Not only is this very calming and a great preparation for seated meditation but it also trains us to find a more mindful and fully present way of being in all aspects of our lives. You might even find yourself enjoying tasks like vacuuming or ironing which you may never have appreciated before!

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CREATING A SACRED SPACE 

Select an area of your home which feels appropriate for meditation. The bedroom can be a wonderful haven-like space, although practicing actually in bed may not be ideal as we naturally associate that so much with sleep – the aim of meditation is usually not to nod off!

A quiet and inviting corner of the living room can also work particularly well. The space need not be used uniquely for meditation so long as you pick that same location each time in order to psychologically establish this as your meditation area.

Buddhist meditation practices are full of rituals and creating your own simple meditation rituals can help to create a sense of being in your meditation space even if that part of your home is also used for other things.

Rituals might include:

– Lighting a candle

– Spending a moment at your alter. Creating an alter around your meditation space is an invitation to meditate and can motivate you in your practice. This could be as elaborate or as simple as you like, comprised of any pictures, statues or objects of people, places or ideas you hold sacred or important and that inspire peace. Fresh flowers, petals or a healthy plant on your alter can also become symbols of a well-tended practice and mind.

– Burning incense or aromatherapy oils such as lavender for relaxation, frankincense and myrrh for spirituality, sandalwood, rose or neroli for their soothing properties, or vetiver for it’s grounding properties.

– Burning palo santo wood sticks, sage leaves or frankincense resins which are said to be energy cleansing by many spiritual practitioners around the world.

– Taking a couple of stretches or mindful movements such as those practiced in yoga or tai chi or just whatever feels good to help establish the meditation space.

– Simply sliding a screen or curtain across to section off your meditation area.

These rituals can all help to establish a sense of stepping away from the concerns of day to day life and moving towards finding a deeper feeling of connection with yourself and your environment.

Have whatever you need to support your body in meditation thoughtfully placed in or near that area. A buckwheat-filled meditation cushion on a soft mat or rug is what is traditionally used in seated meditation as this allows the hips to be elevated above the knees and the pelvis to be gently tilted forwards to allow the front of the body to be open and breathe freely. However if you require more support an upright chair might be more appropriate for you.

The most important thing is to be able to sit comfortably for the duration of your meditation – whether that’s 10 minutes or an hour long.

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NATURAL ELEMENTS 

The more we can bring our home conditions into harmonious balance with the elements of nature the more we benefit our overall health, sense of wellbeing, and support our meditation practice.

Optimising the quality of the air in the home promotes both relaxation and alertness. Air purifying plants such as Garden Mum (Chrysanthamum Morfolium), Draceana and Peace Lily remove particles from chemical cleaning products, pollen, bacteria, and molds, as well as outdoor air contaminants such as car exhaust fumes which can find their way into buildings.

Likewise, an aesthetically-pleasing and functional furniture arrangement which creates a sense of spaciousness and convenience helps to create more of a sense of mental space for meditation.

Natural sources of lighting using either daylight or candlelight attunes our practice to the time of day, supporting the biorhythms of the body. In the morning, if your body, face and eyes are exposed to sunlight your body will increase its production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory and sleep. Meditation already boosts serotonin and so the morning light will help to support and enhance that process.

In the evening, low lighting enables the pineal gland to open, promoting relaxation and sleep. This is also said to be connected to the spiritual third eye center which is regarded as the center for spiritual insight and meditative development in many meditation styles.

 

QUIETNESS

We don’t necessarily need perfect silence to meditate but we do require a certain degree of quietness to avoid becoming too distracted. This can be a big challenge, especially if you live in a city or have children, pets or noisy neighbours! Where possible, find a time that’s convenient for you to practice which is also as quiet as possible.

First thing in the morning or late in the evening can be great times to meditate. Setting the same time for meditation each day not only encourages you to stick to a regular practice but also allows you to manage any distractions that come up around that time, perhaps simply by sharing your enthusiasm for your new practice with anyone who might be a little noisy at that time so they’re aware you’ll be looking for a little more stillness.

A little background noise can be helpful to incorporate into your meditation as a means of bringing you back to the experience of being in this moment, however conversations, lyrics or otherwise overwhelming sounds can easily become too intrusive.

If all else fails, noise-cancelling headphones playing white noise, sounds of nature or meditation music can work wonders! Moby’s Long Ambients album is a great accompaniment to any meditation.

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REMINDERS OF BEING IN THE HERE AND NOW

On retreat at zen master Thich Nhat Hahn’s monastery, Plum Village, every time you hear the sound of a bell you stop still, stop talking and stop moving. It might be the telephone ringing, the clock chiming, or the monastery bell sounding. When you hear the sound of the bell you relax your body and become aware of your breathing. This restores a sense of peace and freedom, so that what we’re more able to enjoy and appreciate what we’re doing or who we’re with.

At home even when we’re not meditating we can use the ringing of our telephone, local church bells, the cry of a baby, or even the sound of fire engines and ambulances as our bells of mindfulness. With just three conscious breaths we can release the tensions in our body and mind and return to a cool and clear state of being.

Art or objects in the home can also become reminders of simply being present. Thich Nhat Hahn himself creates artworks featuring simple, mindful messages such as ‘let go’ or ‘present moment, wonderful moment’ to inspire gratitude for and connection with the here and now.

Anything can serve as a device to bring us back to a state of mindful presence. Plants can remind us of our intimate connection with the web of life and our ecosystem. A transition from one room to another can help us to refocus on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The sofa can be a reminder of the comforts we are so lucky to enjoy. The smell of our herb box a celebration of our nourishment and connection with others over mealtimes. Over time our entire home can become infused with the richness of our appreciation and the spirit of being alive. 

Avoiding wastage: a mindful personal accounting system

Natalie Morrison

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Excessive waste almost defines our era. Be it the 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in our oceans, the 36 billion tonnes of CO2 annually pump into our atmosphere, the £28m worth of fashion items Burberry alone destroys over 12 months or the 30% of food that’s thrown out while 800m people starve.

The responsibility lies in three camps and they go hand in hand: government, industry, and us. Does a society that produces such enormous amounts of waste have its priorities straight? How can we examine our own attitudes and behaviours to ensure our lifestyle and efforts are in line with our values?

Our time on this earth is short and precious. When we reflect on our lives we generally look to live as happy and fulfilling a life as possible while leaving this world somehow for the better. Then real life happens, and this intention is left floundering somewhere in the midst of the daily flurry of commitments, relationships, media feeds and utility bills. Mindfulness is a powerful means to reestablishing our awareness of that intention, and our ability to fully live it out.

Most of us manage to carry a least a little of this positive impetus through into our day, clouded as it may be. We are able to enjoy at least some if not the majority of the hustle and bustle of our interactions with life and make progress towards our goals. Yet even still, much of our approach can be haphazard and responsive to whatever situation we find ourselves in, rather than considered and proactively aligned with these intrinsic values. Given how adept many of us have become at systemising all aspects of our lives, from our diets, to our exercise regimes, to our wardrobes, bringing that same level of rigour to our expression of our lives as a whole seems to induce little more than a headache and a trip to the fridge.

Breaking down this basic intention further, we’re looking at a kind of implicit formula for happiness along the lines of wanting

Pleasure (or joy) + Satisfaction (or added value)

to be greater than

    Pain + Negative consequences of our actions

If you compare this to financial accounting, we’re ‘in profit’ when that’s the case.

To some extent our minds are constantly making this kind of assessment. We’re hard-wired at an instinctual level to gravitate towards pleasure and move away from pain. This takes care of our most fundamental needs for survival. Meanwhile the human need for self-actualization (thinking, learning, decision making, values, beliefs, fulfillment, helping others) according to Maslow’s famous hierarchy, compels us try to make a positive difference.

This innate system of ours is perfectly adapted for traditional human life, but times have changed quickly and our current cultural climate has shifted the balance of what is appropriate. In particular, our social structures have reduced the number of imminent, serious risks to our survival while at the same time creating a greater volume of low-level potential stresses and stimulants to our nervous system. The upshot is that we have a physical system geared towards running away from occasional wild animals which is being triggered a thousand times a day by social media notifications, emails, and deadlines. Our innate bias for survival is being spun into overdrive, as to which sky-high records of heart disease, chronic stress and other inflammatory-related illnesses can attest.

Waste in the system

The impact on our happiness account balance is twofold. In terms of ‘revenue’, we’re unable to maximise either our pleasure and joy or our sense of satisfaction with life. There is a lot of wasted energy in response to perceived threats which could be directed elsewhere. Worrying, distraction, rumination and needless anticipatory planning or analysing instead of enjoying the moment for what it is. Life choices become rooted in fear rather than our need for self-actualisation. Whole careers are offered up to companies which pay only lip-service to loyalty towards their employees, whose tactics and strategies chop and change and cancel each other out by the quarter, and whose overall contribution to society may well also be dubious at best. Leisure time is spent increasingly on often vapid and false social media content, while our traditional media institutions tumble ever more towards a similar low standard. Or it is spent reactively shoring up our pleasure reserves in response to these pressures; we all too easily find ourselves falling into the trap of consuming things we don’t need or even really want.

In terms of costs, overemphasis on survival is an expensive misuse of energy  and tends to overlook the negative consequences of our actions. The byproducts of a reactive mode of being are only now starting to sink into our collective consciousness. Plastic in the oceans and piled up in formerly paradise islands around the world. Chemical pollutants which are causing mass extinction of our animal life. Social injustices that trigger mass uprisings. Dangerous levels of carbon and methane in the atmosphere that trigger droughts which cause famine and political instability. These hidden costs are increasingly starting to manifest in our own lives.

A new paradigm

While viewing things in this light can seem stark and overwhelming, a more productive response is to see every moment is an opportunity to awaken further. We can ask ourselves important questions such as ‘how much do we need?’, ‘how can we prioritise better?’, ‘how do we bring the necessary clarity to our lives?’, and ‘how can we better serve others so that we gain that sense of personal fulfillment?’.

Mindfulness practice serves as a tool to help us on this path. Firstly creating a baseline level of stillness each day with a seated meditation practice cools the survival instinct and allows our parasympathetic nervous system to dominate so that we may begin to flourish. This spills over into daily life, curbing our reactive tendencies and allowing more room for the free flow of unconditioned joy. Marthe Troly-Curtin’s adage ‘time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time’ comes into play in full effect. Our attention and ability to turn towards challenge is improved and we feel more in control. Moreover, seeds of compassion and confidence are sown, which over time grow into the creativity and motivation to better honour oneself and others. We can come up with creative responses to the unique challenges and opportunities of our situation and skillset.

This is not an easy process, but it’s a necessary and ongoing one for genuine fulfillment and the cost is relatively low compared to the alternative wastage that is present in our lives.

 

On Interbeing: Cultivating Deep Connection to Others and the World

Natalie Morrison

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Originally published in Balance Garden

The question of who we are has dominated the thoughts of philosophers, spiritual and religious theorists, scientists, artists and everyday thinkers for centuries.

We’ve been born into a time and culture in which the greatly dominant view has followed a lot of the scientific and psychological paradigms of the 20th century, which places man (and woman) each as their own separate self-contained entity, with their own unique and more or less consistent consciousness. This consciousness, we suppose, derives in part from our genes, part from our upbringing and experiences, and perhaps, partly to chance. Yet this view hasn’t always been so culturally dominant. Nor does it necessarily ring true with the most contemporary views held in science, philosophy or psychology.  

Take the physical body. The human body is made up of 100 trillion cells but only 10% of these can actually be considered distinctly human, the rest comprising a wide range of microbes that are essential for our survival. Given this volume of foreign constituents that make us up and that we can’t live without, it seems like a stretch to think of our physical bodies as a reliable self-contained signifier of the ‘self’. Moreover, our cells are constantly renewing, our appearance is constantly changing, indeed there is absolutely nothing about us that says the same. As the science of epigenetics shows, even our DNA is responsive to environmental factors. So which version of us is the real ‘us’?

And what about the ingredients of our bodies? If we have any notion that we are remotely the same person yesterday as we are today and will be tomorrow (and most of us would concur that there is at least some consistency of ‘self’ from one moment to the next), then the water we have consumed and will consume to make up the 60% of us which is made of H2O, should logically also be included in our concept of ourselves right now. This makes rain, clouds and the sea a critical part of us.

Likewise with all the crops (and even chemicals, stores, and trucks) that supply our food chain, likewise with the land that grows these crops, and likewise with the sun and atmosphere. Indeed everything is so interconnected that there is little that can be considered outside our bodies in this sense.

When we look at the mind we similarly see that there is no logical way in which consciousness can be separated from the external world. If you are reading this and I mention a blue whale, some notion of a blue whale will naturally spring to mind. I wouldn’t have mentioned a blue whale if there was no potential person to read the sentence, and you most likely wouldn’t have thought of it right now if I hadn’t mentioned it. So our minds are linked. Taking this a step further, we can begin to realise how all our thoughts from birth are a symptom of the minds of others, from which brand of washing powder to buy to even our marriage decisions. In turn, we can also deeply appreciate how much others have to offer us.

Many indigenous tribes across the world throughout history, as well as yogic sages, have shared this view, enjoying deep connections with nature, spirit animals and the like. In the Buddha’s time and still in Buddhist cultures today the notion of the self as a distinct entity is completely alien. Central to this view of the world is the concept of interbeing, the idea that we are inherently connected to everything else in the world. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one of the two main branches of the Buddhist system, the emphasis of dharma practice is not to reach personal enlightenment but to become a Bodhisattva, one who strives for the enlightenment of all beings.

The idea being that one’s suffering cannot end until all beings are free from suffering, as no one individual living creature is distinct from the other.

Fast forward to today and scientists and thinkers like Riccardo Manzotti in his book ‘The Spread Mind: why consciousness and the world are one’ are arguing that we are all overlapping versions of the same consciousness, and that ‘I’ at any given moment counts as the total of everything that is perceived through the senses and is perceiving. As in, I am the drill I hear in the distance and the wind I feel on my skin right now.

Both these similar views may sound vague and unimportant for practical purposes but if wholeheartedly adopted they bring about profound shifts in how we live our lives. If I really internalise and believe that everything and everyone is me, then I become much more inclined to take care of them. If someone is suffering it means I suffer. If a rainforest dies a part of me has died.

We see this interconnectedness all the time in our lives. In the increase in civil unrest that follows a major drought and then eventually brews into a terrorist attack in our own back garden. In our economy, our history, and in our rapidly deteriorating climate, already one degree hotter than it ever has been and triggering weather patterns that are afflicting many of the poorest countries due to countless economic forces.

In the coming decade, a radical shift of humanity towards a more ingrained sense of interconnectedness with others and the environment is needed to keep the forces of greed and self-interest that are causing so much suffering and that have the potential to cause irreparable damage to our planet in check. No less than the lives of our children depend on it.

Undoing a lifetime of cultural conditioning around how to view oneself and the world isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, it can take a lifetime’s worth of practice. But little changes can make a big difference.

Here are just a few mindful ways to cultivate your sense of interbeing:

  1. Before each meal, take a minute to consider where your food came from. Everything that made it possible. And express simple gratitude for what you have received.
  2. Next time you feel a negative emotion towards someone, take a deep breath and place yourself in their shoes. Think, ‘this person is also me’ and consider that if you had lived their life and been born to their particular skills and circumstances you would be exactly the same.
  3. Practicing interbeing around how we purchase and consume goods and services can be a daunting task. For one thing, it can be difficult to know the ethics and working conditions under which products are made. For another we sadly have to pay a premium for ethical products, organic food etc. The key is to take it one step at a time. Buying an alternative to leather next time you shop for shoes, for example, or start with your regular grocery shop. Over time, each time you buy something you will be much more aware of where it came from, the impact it’s production has had and where it will end up. Become curious. The more we care, the more we send powerful signals to the economy that a shift towards ethical standards drives profits. The world is so complex. If in doubt, simplify your source or consider whether you really need it at all.
  4. Consider the impact of your behaviour as you go through life. The care with which you treat public objects and spaces. How your demeanour can influence how others feel. Set an example. Challenge yourself to make a net positive impact with everything you do.

"Leaning In" to Our Lives

Natalie Morrison

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Most of us are used to operating from a very functional mode of being in our daily lives. When life’s all ‘rush, rush, rush’ it’s easy to become deafened to the signals of your body and of the deeper levels of the psyche. In this way, we cheat ourselves from experiencing the full richness of our lives. And as efficient as it may seem, it is often also a false economy, keeping us in behavioural loops and phases of our lives we actually need to move beyond.

At a superficial level, we overlook things a thousand times a day. It’s drinking coffee, eating sugar, or taking other stimulants instead of recognising the need to sleep more. It’s continuing to train on an injury when your body really needs to heal. It’s treating a colleague or family member in a disrespectful or inappropriate way when they have triggered an insecurity rather than addressing the root cause. As we all know these oversights add up over time. Stories abound where the above examples alone have led to burnout, or a need for surgery, dismissal from work and family rifts.

At a more profound level glossing over the truth can shape the contours of our lives. Take relationships. How many of us have at some point ignored the signals of an ill-suited relationship instead of accepting our discomfort at the idea of feeling lonely or facing upheaval or social disapproval? And further still perhaps denied our inability to genuinely support and love ourselves and to embody the love and freedom we seek? Or take careers. How many of us have at some stage piled all our efforts into a career or cause instead of acknowledging the fear of failing at our heart’s true calling, or the fear of fully confronting the emptiness of not knowing what that true calling is?

Let’s face it, these are tall asks. A common technique in mindfulness practice both on and off the cushion is the idea of ‘leaning in’ to whatever is really going on for us. We listen and develop attunement to, the cues our physiology gives us. So much information is carried in our bodies, in our breath, and in the subtle signals of our thoughts, feelings and dreams. In the physical stillness of a formal meditation practice, we are able to slow down enough for these quieter signals to begin to be felt. This is the value of a seated meditation practice over yoga, running, creative work or other meditative outlets. With no other object of focus, we can let our awareness become like a sophisticated radar for what’s going on in our ecosystem. With this training as our daily practice, we more easily carry those skills of detection to into the real world.

Leaning in is not an easy process. Sooner or later we all have to confront aspects of ourselves and our lives we don’t like very much at all. We will have to create space for those parts of us and learn to honour and accept them as much as those aspects we currently value and ‘own’. With this, we must tread lightly. Perhaps just tiptoeing around these aspects in our awareness for some time, gradually easing our way towards integration and cohesion.

We must also pick our battles. To take it all on in one go is too much. We can ask, ‘which area of my life requires the most attention?’ and simply sit and breathe and feel or notice what responses the body brings us. Mindfulness is not a process of analysis, like some forms of psychotherapy. Rather it’s a process of gently and kindly holding space for these signals to arise, and to gradually shift and transform or dissolve with the light of our attention.  Slow down, slow down, slow down. If in doubt, do less. Feel more. Breathe.

‘Why bother?’ you may indeed ask. Over time we become more able to tolerate a greater spectrum of experience. The more we narrow the range of our experiences, the less alive and fulfilled we feel. Think about a potentially typical day of taking the same commute into work, stopping off and doing your regular workout at the gym, going into the office and carrying out much the same type of work as you have done for years, stopping off at your local bar and then going home to eat a familiar meal and watch a TV show recommended to you by Netflix. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this for a day. Nor indeed for certain phases in our lives when we feel we need stability, or we need to provide stability for children, for example. But after a while, it’s difficult for our senses not to become dull. Compare this to when you go on holiday and everything looks different, vibrant, interesting. You take photos of random streets, people and scenery because you are inspired by the novelty of the place. You try out a new activity you would never have thought of trying at home. Every conversation with someone from the local area seems poignant and sacred. You come home inspired, a little more awake, refreshed.

This is similar to the effect meditation can have. As we are able to be more open, to lean into greater extremes of both good and bad in our immediate environment with love, without fear, everything shines more. Our lives become richer. And we become more interesting because we are more interested.

With that in mind, here are some strategies for developing your self-listening skills:

  • Check in with yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night and at a few points throughout your day by simply pausing, closing your eyes, taking a deep breath and listening to how you feel. Is your body tense or relaxed? Can you be more specific about how your body feels, do you sense any underlying emotions, perhaps even attached to specific areas of your body? How is your breathing? What has been occupying your mind?
  • Consider activities like journaling, keeping a dream diary, or something creative (no one else has to see it) to help you articulate your inner experience in a more concrete way. Sometimes the process of getting things down can really help you understand how you feel. Try as best as you can, not to censor or judge what you are doing, just represent what is coming up for you as accurately as possible. Julie Cameron’s technique of writing ‘morning pages’ of just whatever thoughts pop up in your head for the first 5-10 minutes of the day is also a very powerful technique. Read more about that in ‘The Artist’s Way’.
  • Build a 20 minute seated meditation into your daily routine. The more stillness you can create throughout your day the more you will cultivate your attunement to the signals of the mind-body ecosystem.
  • Vary your routine as much as you can. Listen to different music. Try a completely new workout (especially if you think you might not enjoy it!). Find a different route into work. Speak to people you wouldn’t naturally be as drawn towards. Travel more. Keep your mind open and your experience fresh.

Meditation and Mental Health: A personal perspective

Natalie Morrison

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This is an important week. As technology, societal rules and roles continue to evolve it’s essential that we keep shining the spotlight on mental health and to “normalise” and vocalise the issues many of us face. These are difficult and confusing times and we can all support each other.

We all experience challenges to our mental wellbeing to greater and lesser extents at different stages of life. As a meditation guide, I am often privileged to have the chance to hear people share their stories at this very open, vulnerable level. I am often deeply touched and amazed at what is going on for people beneath the surface. In private one-on-one’s in corporate meeting rooms or intimate conversations following a class I am given snapshots into some of the complex, emotionally layered and challenging existences of many successful, functional and inspiring people for whom you would easily be forgiven for assuming that their lives must be all plain sailing. These people are unsung heroes in my eyes, who would never dream of sharing the mental health challenges they face on a constant basis.  

I’ve come to think this is the norm, not the exception. For many of us, mental health, like physical health, requires a certain degree of basic maintenance and discipline. Lifestyle plays a huge role. Each promotion we go after, each relationship we create, each mortgage or rent increase we take on, child, pet or loved one we are responsible for, each time we say ‘yes’ we are offering up our energy as well as enjoying the fruits of these acts. I agree with Justine Musk when she talks about the “deep yes”: we need to learn how to fully say yes to the things that matter and to unburden ourselves, painful or difficult as it may be, from the things that don’t.

Other lifestyle factors also have a significant part to play. A poor diet will affect the gut microbiome which can affect seratonin (our natural “happy” chemicals) in our brain. Alcohol and drugs are notoriously unhelpful and yet I think sometimes we underestimate the magnitude of the effect that even just a few beers here or there can have on someone, say, who is trying to manage their depression. Mindful movement of any kind will affect our whole physiology including the chemistry in our brains. Taking time to be in nature and follow creative pursuits are essential for an overall sense of balance. A full, uninterrupted natural night’s sleep will restore the physical body and allow the mind to dream and process all the emotions and triggers of our daily lives, as well as send signals to our conscious awareness of areas we need to address.

Meditation works much the same way. I think of it as a way of cleansing unhelpful patterns of thought and healing rifts. It’s a way of uncovering, accepting and integrating different aspects of our personalities in order to slowly, over time, feel more at ease, more completely “ourselves”, and to be able to live an empowered life and make choices that reflect that. It’s not a substitute for therapy or medication, should you feel like you need that kind of support, but it can be a wonderful complement to therapy and/or medication.

Yet for all the talk about meditation in the media I’ve found it to be a practice that many people are not yet fully ready to engage in at this level. I think this is for a number of reasons. Firstly, a lot of people just don’t feel like they need it. Yes, they may feel stressed or challenged at times but they have their own coping mechanisms that work well for them, such as going for a run. In my view that’s great if they feel that way and I wouldn’t force meditation on them.

The second reason is education and accessibility. There is a lot of misunderstanding around meditation, often it’s viewed simply as a relaxation technique, and many people don’t understand how they could benefit from a dedicated practice and don’t think it’s worth their time. Meditation centres have been very traditional up until now and don’t necessarily cater well to a broader, contemporary audience. I hope slowly with a new wave of teachers and businesses supporting the practice that this will change.

Thirdly, those who could really benefit from meditation for their mental wellbeing often, probably rightly, feel reluctant to go there. They intuitively seem to know that they could be opening a can of worms and don’t want to face the disruption in their personal lives that would go along with that. While mindfulness-based meditation is a gentle process whereby the mind heals itself at a pace we’re able to handle, it can indeed sometimes still be disruptive. Someone who is in a crisis situation in their lives might not be in a good place to start a deep meditation practice. First we have to work on creating a certain degree of calm and stability in our lives, often only then the real work begins.

Those who are genuinely drawn to and passionate about meditation often only feel that way because they’ve exhausted all other options and see no alternative. For me personally, I was drawn to yoga and meditation in my teens in the midst what I can see now as a crisis point in my mental health. I felt deeply disorientated, frustrated and misunderstood, which manifested as anorexia, insomnia, anxiety, and getting myself into unnecessary, troublesome situations which only compounded my suffering further. Yoga and meditation grounded me at that time, leveled off my emotions, and offered an alternative way to channel those energies in a healthier way.

Throughout my twenties, these were the practices I turned to whenever I was in need. When my boyfriend at the time turned physically abusive and I would lock myself in the bathroom out of terror until he calmed down, unable to see a way out of the whole scenario, I would meditate. When I had a run of career false-starts after the credit crunch and my self-esteem was at rock bottom, I would meditate. When I was in over my head at work and felt the strain of a bullying corporate culture, a sense of dread overcoming my body at the thought of having to go in to the office, I would meditate. When my previous partner suffered a bad wave of depression and I felt alienated and powerless to help, I finally undertook yoga and meditation teacher training.

I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness and I’ve always found a way to keep my life somehow ticking over no matter how low I felt. But I do feel as though for most of my life I have carried the burden of not understanding why I’m here or who I am more heavily than others seem to. It’s what drove me to study philosophy and to switch careers and to study countless texts from Eastern and Western cultures on consciousness and the nature of reality. It’s what fascinates me about the practice of sitting on my cushion, with nothing but the forces of body, breathing and sensory experience and creating space to really listen, to really feel what’s there, to heal and recalibrate and understand at a somatic level a little more, breath by breath. It’s what has prompted me to gradually shed more and more layers of protection I had built up in my life and psyche and trust and open to love, magic, wonder, and the simply beauty of just being.

I’m no enlightened guru and have no real secrets to share. I can only empathise with others who may be going through far worse to the limits of my own suffering. But I am grateful to be able to now share what I have learned to support the mental wellbeing of my neighbours and friends in this sometimes hard and ever vibrant city.

 

The ‘having it all’ dilemma: Why self-compassion is the key

Natalie Morrison

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 Originally featured in Balance Garden

Many of us have grown up in an age where there is the desire and expectation to ‘have it all’. A rich and fulfilling life. A successful career. Sparkling relationships. A deep sense of peace, joy and well-being.

We’re lucky to live in a time of relative peace and stability. For all its shortcomings we have a political and economic system that encourages a certain degree of personal freedom, education, social mobility and entrepreneurship. It is relatively able to support us to go after our dreams and catch us if we fall. This has sparked wave after wave of innovation and liberation, and although there is still a long way to go, in many ways ‘having it all’ on the surface looks within the reach of the majority.

Yet in practice many of us are finding we’re way off the mark. Our email inboxes span for miles, our bedrooms are technically floordrobes and to-do lists have become groaningly unmanageable. Increasingly, those of us with just those intentions have turned to mindfulness in recent years to help negotiate the stresses of being constantly 'on the go', finding a few moments of calm with a daily meditation in the middle of juggling relationships, fitness, work, hobbies and life admin. Mindfulness based meditation has become highly valued as a way to manage stress, however those who turn to relaxation and concentration-based practices often quickly discover something else beneath the surface of the practice.

“I did sit there for a while but I didn’t really feel relaxed”, “I couldn’t stop thinking about work/something that happened that really upset me”, “I suddenly felt the need to question everything I’m doing with my life” are common ideas that arise for those embarking upon a meditation practice.

Often this might be the first time in years someone will have interrupted the natural free flowing chatter of thought and seen it for what it is or created a little gap for something else to show up. That ‘something else’, while it might often seem quite abstract, is usually important. Perhaps it’s a memory, or a realisation, an image or a feeling. Perhaps it’s a deep sense of fatigue. Or perhaps it’s just a sense of longing for something to arise, an implicit recognition that some kind of mental or emotional shift is required to restore a sense of balance.

While it can be a little disconcerting, this is actually very healing. Meditation is like a cleansing system for the mind, a way to detox from all the structures and stresses that both we ourselves and society place upon us. What it does expose is a need for better tools to support us in this process of re-balancing.

Compassion-based practices (or loving-kindness practices, known as ‘maitri’ in Pali, the language a lot of Buddhist texts were originally written in) developed alongside mindfulness in Buddhism for good reason. As we learn to settle and create stillness, we start to see everything more clearly, shining light onto all aspects of our lives.

In the sun the good looks richer, more glorious than ever before. The ugly is also more visible. Much like spring brings an urge to clean and tackle neglected aspects of our home, so meditation gently, as and when we’re ready, helps us increasingly see those cupboards full of junk, dirty corners and weeds in our minds. Feeling secure and confident in our own ability to handle this with self-kindness is the key to this process.

Suddenly the concept of ‘having it all’ starts to take on a new meaning. We begin to look more inwardly and to reinterpret our lives and our values. We notice a sense of greater empowerment and personal responsibility for our own happiness in a way that doesn’t involve earning more money, taking more holidays or expecting more out of others. It’s a slow, multi-layered process but this journey itself becomes something of intrinsic value to us. Over time it begins to transform us into more contented, authentic and joyful versions of ourselves.

It’s a relatively simple (sometimes even monotonous) process. But it’s not always easy and actually as the practice deepens it often become more demanding at times. Indeed, the many structures, rituals, texts and hierarchies that are in place in Buddhism evolved for good reason to guide people along this path. Much like lifting weights on your own with little understanding of how to train and poor posture can be ineffective or even harmful to your body, so a meditation practice may be less effective or even counterproductive without adequate support, checks and balances. And of course, a lot of self-compassion.

It is wonderful, and much needed that the popularity of mindfulness is increasing in our culture and that mobile apps and drop-in classes are supporting its rise. These resources are a fantastic way to discover meditation, for ad-hoc support in terms of stress relief or to help with sleep and to complement the practice of a meditator who is familiar with the terrain and is supported by other means (a teacher, a community). However to really reap the benefits of what meditation has to offer more is needed.

Here is some guidance on how to build a healthy and rewarding meditation practice:

Do give apps like Headspace a go to get started and motivated, and to use in conjunction with other training. Insight Timer is a great free app with lots of guided meditations and a method for tracking how much and often you’re meditating.

Seek out a structured meditation course at your local meditation centre or a good interactive online course.

Practice regularly. Even just 5 minutes a day, building to 20-45 minutes.

Meditating with others is often a rewarding experience. More and more meditation evenings are springing up set in pleasant venues and convenient locations, often accompanied by a bit of food and socialising so that they offer a more accessible alternative if Buddhist centres or yoga studios aren’t really your thing.

Find some people you can talk to about your meditation practice. Sharing your experiences and hearing from others will help you learn a lot and integrate those learnings more into your daily life.

Enjoy it! Like with most things, the more you learn about it and engage with it in a relaxed way the more your love for it will develop. At times it will be difficult, or seem like a chore, and at times it will seem like the most blissful and rewarding thing in the world. All this is normal!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not uncommon that as we illuminate areas of our minds that have remained hidden that we need to work through some issues. Counselling and psychotherapy can be great assets as part of this process.

Mindfulness for a sense of balance

Natalie Morrison

Originally published in Balance Garden

Mindfulness has become a real buzzword in recent years. Over the past few decades this ancient practice steadily started to migrate its way out of monasteries and Buddhist centres and into the offices of CEOs, onto the radar of celebrities and into the awareness of sports and specialist performance coaches.

 

More recently it has been gaining wider traction, becoming a topic of extensive coverage in the wellness media. The impact of mindfulness on many aspects of mental health is the topic of much research and interest in the wider medical field. Workplaces across the country are beginning to offer programs for staff and yoga studios and gyms are starting to add mindfulness and meditation to their schedules.

Mindfulness in its essence is a very simple practice. A training and way of being which involves being really open and attentive to whatever is going on in the present moment. As a meditation this may involve paying close attention to one particular ‘object’ such as sound, breathing, thoughts, feelings or sensations in the body, or it may involve ‘open monitoring’ of any of the above which we may notice from one moment to the next. Mindfulness meditation can be seen as a training ground for cultivating a more mindful way of life where we are able to carry these skills into everything we do. We learn how simple tasks like walking, washing the dishes or listening can take on a whole new level of interest and meaning by engaging with the details of the experience.

Much of the popular interest in mindfulness has been for its perceived benefit as a stress reduction tool, particularly as the person who brought mindfulness to mainstream Western culture, Jon Kabat Zinn, created a popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. While statistics on workplace stress and a sense of personal well-being are broadly flat over the past ten years, anecdotally and in the media there is clearly a general feeling that our stress levels are too high.

Stress is a tricky one to define. How do we know we are ‘stressed’? A stress response to a situation is mainly physical. The body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight mode’, releasing hormones and neurotransmitters which prepare us to act in order to survive. It’s a mobilising force which we need to get things done. But when our day to day living is filled with potential triggers, either big ones such as an important presentation at work or smaller ones such as traffic jams or even seeing a clever piece of advertising or watching an action movie, as these stack up incrementally we can easily become overloaded.  

Shifts in technology have had a large part to play, particularly since the widespread adoption of smartphones over the past ten years. We now consume media for more hours per day than we sleep. The ability to communicate with people around the clock from all parts of the world is a blessing in many ways but also creates a sense of having to respond regardless of the time of day, eroding those times when we used to be able to unwind. Notifications on our phone tempt us incessantly throughout the day away from what’s happening in our real lives and down often carefully crafted rabbit holes devised by digital strategists in technology companies in order to maximise how much we engage with their product.

Another cause may be the focus of our culture on gaining financial success or other outward signs of personal achievement. Even when our phones are out of sight, there is often a constant sense of needing to be ‘doing’ something. Yet despite all the new technology and productivity apps we can download, we’re actually becoming less productive.

There are legitimate reasons why this ‘always on’ culture has repercussions for our overall health and sense of wellbeing. Many of us are constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode.  We need downtime to enable us to ‘rest and digest’, a common phrase for an important, relaxed state of being where the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, enabling us to heal, process and assimilate nutrients, thoughts and feelings, and to help maintain our sexual wellbeing. Without rest our productivity also suffers and we are less able to handle challenges in our lives with optimism, triggering instead a stress response which has the potential to spiral into more serious issues such as chronic stress, anxiety or depression.

Around the time of the Buddha in the fifth century CE in Nepal there were far fewer of these concerns. And yet the practice of cultivating a sense of stillness (samatha) was central to his teachings even then. He recognised that when our attention is left to its own devices i.e. when there is no immediate need to escape danger, find food, water or shelter, it will follow certain patterns of thought that often lead to suffering or dissatisfaction.

Modern science backs this up. A robust study has shown how the more we let our attention drift away from the present moment the less happy we feel. In neuroscience this attention wandering has been called the default mode network - the tendency of our thoughts to drift off into a mode of reminiscing or ruminating over previous experiences, to day dream or plan future tasks, or to overly fixate in one particular aspect of our current environment. The subsequent stage in these thought patterns is often to link the thought to a sense of who we are, to judge ourselves in some way. In evolutionary terms this makes sense. For survival of our species under stressful conditions we need to learn from or mistakes, plan escape routes and evaluate ourselves critically to stay alive.

Fortunately however, life for many of us isn’t all about survival. Whether we believe it or not, most of us in the West are in a privileged enough position (or with certain willful changes to how we live we at least could be) to be able to find a degree of meaning, personal fulfillment and happiness in our lives. Indeed, we also innately possess this way of being as our natural way of functioning. It’s that same ‘rest and digest’ physical state that used to allow us to spot opportunities such as a stream of fresh water in the distance or a better place to locate our homes. When we are relaxed we’re more able to be creative, to use our reasoning skills, to nurture our relationships. We become happier.

When practicing mindfulness we are cultivating that way of being. Whether we choose to explore mindful meditation or simply by slowing down and experiencing life with more openness, curiosity and playfulness, we are sending powerful signals to our body that all is well, and over time this becomes more and more habitual. Given the fast pace of our lives it’s essential that we practice this daily. Here are some suggestions:

  • Noticing how you’re feeling. First thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, check in with how you’re feeling. Notice what you can about your state of mind, any emotions, how your body feels and about how you’re feeling about the day. Do it gently and with a sense of kindness towards yourself, perhaps even smiling to yourself. Try not to analyse how you’re feeling in any way, just notice it. It can be helpful to think about how you’re feeling in terms of the weather for this reason, so you can see if you’re feeling stormy or sunny without thinking about it too much. You can do this as a longer meditation practice or even just from bed.
  • Create your own reminders for throughout your day. These could be an alarm set on your phone, an object on your desk which reminds you each time you look at it, or a particular sound or ritual. Make it personal. It can be nice to use a specific kind of situation that regularly creates a feeling of stress and turn it into a way of just coming back to how you’re feeling for a moment. Take a deep breath and just notice all the sounds, sights and sensations of the world around you. Appreciate what you can.  
  • Pick a task each day which you can do mindfully. Maybe it’s taking a walk in your lunch break, or doing the ironing. See how much you can bring the experience to life by engaging all your senses.
  • Prioritise quiet time. While it may seem like there is no time to stop even for a moment, often when we really take a close look at how we are prioritising our time we notice areas where we can create some space, where we might be doing something out of habit or where the benefit isn’t quite as clear as it might have seemed. A few minutes is helpful. A weekend break free from the usual sense of needing to cram in sights and instead just doing very little is very valuable. Perhaps once in a while you might even be able to take time to go on a retreat.
  • Accept when you are stressed and be kind to yourself. Rather than try to battle with feelings of stress it can be helpful to simply be curious about them. How does stress feel in your body? How does it change how you breathe? How does it affect your behaviour? See if you can invite a sense of softening of your attitude around that stress, perhaps a sense of relaxation of your body or deepening of your breath without forcing anything. Or if you need that stress to help you meet an important deadline or get something done, then see if you can appreciate and even find gratitude for that sense of urgency that will help you reach your goals. This will put you in a better position to use your stress response along with the benefits of being in a more open, functional state.

Practicing non-violence towards the body

Natalie Morrison

The principle of non-violence is at the heart of spirituality and the basis for any system that promotes wellness in ourselves and in society. As we have shifted towards our current fast-paced, technology-dependent lifestyle particularly over the past few decades, people are increasingly suffering from illnesses that are to a large extent inflicted by this way of life. Even those of us who are health-conscious experience a lot of inner conflict around what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, and so on. I'd like to offer a perspective of how yoga and meditation can help cultivate a deep connection with our bodies and an expanded sense of self for our physical and emotional health.

Disconnection with the physical body

Very few of us these days are living in the way our bodies were evolved to live. Hunting, farming, trekking, combat, horse-riding and so on are optional past-times for some but not exactly part of the average city-dweller's daily habits. Instead, we often find ourselves seated or just standing and walking for most of the day, maybe we take the stairs. 

Physical activity has become an add-on to our lives. For many of us it is a task or chore we perform, like brushing our teeth. We 'do some exercise' with varying degrees of enthusiasm to lose weight, prevent premature or unnecessary decline of the body or to feel good. Whatever we choose to do, whether we're at the gym on the treadmill and using a weight machine that isolates our biceps, or a whether we're a professional athlete training to excel at one particular mode of movement, in the end our regime is nevertheless contrived. Very few of us experience a way of being for which our bodies were evolved, with all the natural ranges of movement, skills of intuition, balance, proprioception, gut instinct, heart-wisdom and much more besides that we would have relied on instinctively in the past. Much gets lost in this translation.

This may be part of the reason why it seems that many people have lost a positive relationship with their bodies. If you include the shift away from standard working hours towards an 'always online' culture and the level of stress that can be associated with that, it's easy to see why our more popular national past-times tend to err towards activities which dull our senses (watching TV, drinking, shopping etc.) rather than more mindful activities which tend to amplify what's going on in our internal ecosystem.

Research into the psychology of trauma suggests that we all carry around with us many 'micro-traumas' from our past, which get sealed into the memory of our physical bodies. The level of stress we're often under even from subtle signals like text messages, billboards, and sensationalist messaging in the media takes it's toll on our adrenal system meaning our bodies have become more burdened by stress than ever before. Even if we're not engaged in any sense-numbing activities, our bodies sometimes do this for us as a way of coping with these micro-traumas via the sophisticated system of pathways in our bodies which act as a bridge network between our physicality and our consciousness (energy channels known as nadis in yoga or meridians in chinese medicine).  This can result in physical tightness or imbalance within the body or a switching off the ability to feel sensations in certain parts or to breathe into certain areas of the belly, back and chest. 

In yoga and meditation, as we slow down and become more attuned to the subtle states of the body, the breath, the mind, our emotions and how these are all inter-related we start to build new neural pathways that offer us a different way of being throughout the day. Suddenly we find we're in a meeting and we become aware of tension we're carrying in our shoulders and in our breath, and we are able to ease that strain. Or we notice how some hurtful remark someone made has triggered us to comfort eat and we're able to see that and instead select a more nourishing way to soothe ourselves, perhaps by calling a friend or running a bath. Rather than forcing ourselves into ever more mind-boggling positions for no apparent reason, this attitude towards our yoga practice is how we cultivate a real, loving connection with the body.

A sense of self out of balance

Sometimes I think back to the days of my corporate career and my attitude towards my body back then. As a Project Manager, I would often have spells where I would work very intensely, putting in solid 12+ hour days under pressure to deliver to a deadline. I remember at those times having this strange sense upon finally stepping out of the office that I didn't really physically exist any more, like I was all mind and no body. As I'd step out into the busy central London traffic there were several occasions where my frazzled brain failed to register the very real physical danger associated with this spaced-out state and was lucky not to be run over.

Many of us think of ourselves very much in terms of who we are in the external world: our level of success, what we have achieved, what we own, who we know, where we live and so on. To flourish under this assumption requires a lot of mental effort. We have to get good grades at school and get a good job and work hard and hopefully all this leads to status, a comfortable home, nice clothes, a pleasant lifestyle and perhaps even the opportunity to have a positive, meaningful impact on the world. That's the theory. But in reality what we are often seeing is that many of us living this kind of lifestyle start to suffer from typical modern health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart-disease, obesity, hypertension and digestive issues. There is often a sense of alienation and loneliness which is thinly disguised by our consumption patterns, many of which are similarly harmful to our health. This is the road I was on when I was in my corporate role.

Conversely at other times I think about times in my life where I was hyper-conscious of my body. In my teens I felt a deep sense of shame about it. Even though I had a great, healthy physique, I simply couldn't see that. It was the 90's and everyone in the media looked like a waif in a Wonderbra. For about a year I couldn't even wear jeans without tying a sweater around my waist to hide my “fat” bottom. I exercised constantly to the point of exhaustion and restricted my diet to a punishing 700 calories a day.

When we overly identify with our bodies we think in statements like “I am fat”, “I am old” and so on. These types of statements indicate a belief that our identity is defined by our physicality, rather than the deeper levels of our being. If we base our self-worth on our own or other's opinions about our bodies we are setting ourselves up for suffering as we will one day age, die and decay. In many Eastern spiritual traditions there is a strong component of contemplating impermanence of the body by visiting cremation grounds and gaining exposure to the reality of death (some mystics even bury themselves alive!) to the point where attachment to the body weakens and an increased sense of the preciousness of life arises. It is no coincidence that in the West we do exactly the opposite, hiding sickness and death as much as possible so as not to shatter the fantasy that by eating organic vegetables and buying the right creams we will not meet with the same fate.

It has been clear for a long time that cultural norms around the representation of beauty and the body are damaging for anyone remotely psychologically vulnerable. But even much of the body-positive messaging that we now see on social media and in the marketing of some of the smarter brands, which recognises the beauty of people of all shapes, sizes, colours, and ages can to some extent be regarded as harmful. The more we reinforce the message that for some reason it's so terribly important that we see ourselves as beautiful, the more we're perpetuating the imbalance of our identification with the physical aspect of ourselves.

Both these two extremes, one of complete disregard for the body and the other of over-obsession with it, are rife in our culture. They are two sides of the same coin in the sense that both are symptoms of our tendency to objectify our own bodies, a result of this deep disconnection. They also both reveal deep-seated misalignments in our perception of who we really are. We are so much more than that.

A wider sense of Self

In terms of viewing ourselves more broadly, there are many different schools of thought on this but I'd like to summarise this (essentially Tantric) framework for thinking about ourselves more holistically, which I find very useful.

  • Outermost layer: This is whatever we create and share with the world, and the infinite repercussions of our actions as a chain reaction of everything we say and do. Examples include a simple smile, a piece of art, a business (and along with employment), something we've built, a positive feeling in someone we've helped or inspired, all the way through to changing the course of history. 
  • Personal outer layer: Our wealth, home, friends and family, possessions, clothing. Also, where we eat, brands we like, who we spend time with, political and social affiliations.
  • Physical body: Our health. How we look. How we feel physically (hungry, tired, thirsty etc.)
  • Thoughts and feelings. There's a lot to this so I'll explore this layer in more depth next week.
  • Vital energy (prana or chi): How much life-force or vitality we have and how energy flows through and in and out of our bodies. 
  • Some would argue there's a transcendent “void”-like layer that is accessible in meditation. A sense of deep stillness.
  • Consciousness layer: Finally, deep within the very essence of our being we might find an all-pervasive consciousness. You could take the view that much of spiritual practice and indeed spirit for life emanates from an attempt of this consciousness to understand itself.

According to this model, it's not that it's inherently “wrong” to identify with any of these layers. They are all equally valid and part of us. It's just that often we identify very strongly with one or two of them and forget or not even ever become aware of the rest. This causes a great deal of suffering and self-harm. We can learn to use this framework to keep us right, to ensure that we are balancing out these different elements so that our bodies do not suffer.

Balancing out the layers

In yoga and meditation practice, we work on all these layers of the body to find a state of unity amongst them; to find complete peace. In some ways these practices can become quite complicated, but in many ways establishing a practice that reharmonises these layers can also be very simple.

A physical yoga class will help as by synchronising physical alignment and movement, breath, attention and intention we are aligning at least several of this layers at any given moment. A simple, regular meditation practice goes a long way to start to gain familiarity with a sense of inner stillness. An easy mindfulness technique we can use to reset the balance is simply to consciously breathe and to smile more often. By making the decision to perform this simple act we're returning to the present moment. In that state of just being with whatever is happening in that moment, whatever we notice through the senses and feel physically, we can find that sense of returning home to our bodies. When we act from that central place it is only natural to honour and respect our bodies. That state of connection and balance is only ever a breath away.  

A week at Plum Village, Buddhist Monastery

Natalie Cristal Morrison

Pause for a moment. Take a breath. As you breathe in, know you are breathing in. As you breathe out, know you are breathing out. And in this process, return home to the space in your heart. 

The essence of mindfulness is so simple, so natural that at first glance it seems it hardly warrants an explanation. Being attentive to the moment. The sanskrit word is smrti which can also more accurately be translated as 'remembering'; it's a constant activity, a practice, not a noun. 

Remembering what? 

We're alive.

We have a body.

We can breathe.

Remembering to be with whatever is in the here and now, regardless of how mundane or at times painful it might be. Regardless even of how much joy there might be. Hold it in your awareness, breathe with it. 

I've just come back from Bordeaux, France after a week-long stay in the beautiful monestary Plum Village, created by the revered zen master and global spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hahn. There, we train in remembering constantly. So that this way of being eventually becomes a way of life. A way in to the fullness of our lives. 

Even after a day and a half back in London I'm still full of love, a sense of deep peace, inspiration and joyful appreciation for life. The monks and nuns of the Order of Inter-being embody that spirit through their lightness and groundedness which spills over into the experience of the guests. 

Over the week you are taught the 5 mindfulness trainings, or precepts of Buddhism, which include reverence for life, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing. If you choose, you can commit to them formally which is often an emotional experience and an important next step in your spiritual journey. I've been thinking about doing this for a while so did receive them while I was there. Once you accept them you are given a dharma name based on your nature and aspirations. I was given the name 'Smiling Bodhissattva of the Heart', which I'm deeply honoured by. 

The schedule is quite full, you wake up at 5am to start seated meditation at 6. There are walking meditations, dharma talks, excursions and usually some activities where you help out around the monastery (I washed the vans but you might have to clean the toilets!) It's all part of the practice ;). Nevertheless there are gaps here and there to rest or do your own thing.

You are very much with your thoughts throughout the experience and may gain a lot of insight into your mental habits. This is life-changing but also difficult. You are encouraged to breath and smile at whatever arises and this is the real practice. It's a life-long journey really. 

It is worth calling out that as a Buddhist monastery accommodation is basic and that men are women are in separate Hamlets, possibly 20mins drive apart. Noble silence is upheld which allows for periods of socialising in the middle of the day but also a deep sense of relaxation or at least turning inward. 

The food is vegan and mostly Vietnamese (but very pleasant and plentiful). Porridge for breakfast. It was winter so we had lots of hot soups with vegetables often grown in their own gardens. We ate in silence. 

I would whole-heartily recommend a stay at Plum Village to learn more about bring mindfulness into your life, it's a transformative and recharging experience.

 Lower Hamlet

Lower Hamlet

 Enjoying the moment by our guesthouse

Enjoying the moment by our guesthouse

 By the stone Buddhas, Upper Hamlet

By the stone Buddhas, Upper Hamlet

 Relaxing in the New Hamlet. There is an orchard of plum trees behind me.

Relaxing in the New Hamlet. There is an orchard of plum trees behind me.

 Zen garden, New Hamlet

Zen garden, New Hamlet

 Walking meditation

Walking meditation

Sticking to New Year's Resolutions...some thoughts and a guided meditation

Natalie Morrison

A new year is a fresh start. An opportunity to clearly state our higher ambitions for ourselves and for our lives. It is a chance to honour a greater vision of how we can be and to recognise that we feel we ought to be feeling differently somehow. Happier. Brighter. Lighter. More content.

This impulse is reflective of the rhythm of nature. The transition towards longer days after the winter solstice marks a gradual shift in our collective mood towards productivity and planting new seeds to come to fruition later in the year.

Strange then, that the statistics around new year's resolutions are so bad. Two thirds don't even make it through to the end of January. Only around fifteen percent of our NY goals are actually met. The implications of this are darker than it first appears.

Many of us are not just failing at keeping up the resolutions themselves, but we are cultivating negative neural pathways, or samskaras in yogic philosophy, which deepen the grooves of our behaviour towards failure. Sensing this with each instance, we lose greater and greater trust in ourselves, often triggering compensatory strategies to make us feel better in the short term, which then take us even further from our initial goal. Over time we erode our self-confidence and relegate our goals to distant, half-forgotten wishes. This happens at the individual and at the social level. These kinds of statistics signal to us that as a nation we are unable to uphold our own values or implement simple, meaningful change even directly in our own lives.

Of course we all vary when it comes to setting resolutions. Some of us may well fling ourselves head-first into another year with a wildly optimistic set of aspirations. Others have written off the exercise all together and shut themselves away from all the hype as much as possible. Yet there are many that carefully craft a list of meaningful intentions and do commendably manage to implement them successfully throughout the year.

Without a doubt, strategies for how to stick to our resolutions are evolving. Much research has been carried out into how to make resolutions more effective. Framing our intentions so that they are clear, realistic, and aligned with our values is essential. Building in extra levels of commitment to the goal to act as a safety net such as incurring extra financial cost for cheating, publicly stating your commitment or teaming up with a buddy are helpful tactics too. Considered planning is also critical, breaking down the overall wish into specific actions you can do regularly – such as listening to a language course on your commute or scheduling in gym time in your lunch breaks.

However for stubborn goals we may need to dig a little deeper. If we examine our own attitudes to setting intentions at this time of year there is a lot that can be gained. We set resolutions because we think we can somehow do better. We have a feeling perhaps that we are letting ourselves down or short-changing ourselves with our current set of behaviours. This often represents a complex blend of self-judgement, conditioning and idealistic notions of ourselves and our lives, and suggests there are several layers or parts of ourselves and our views about the world that have not yet been reconciled. Otherwise we would already be running on the treadmill three times a week or whatever it is without much of a second thought.

The yogic view would be that our drive comes from sensing the innate presence of universal consciousness within us, as us, which is infinitely vast and wise and looking to realise itself. In order to do so we need to align all the physical, energetic and heart/mind aspects of ourselves so that this expansive Self might radiate out from within us with less obstruction.

We have to be honest with ourselves about what our motivations are and what's holding us back, including honouring those parts of ourselves that will seek to resist change. I've created this ten minute guided meditation as a tool to be listened to on a daily basis throughout January or for as long as needed to ensure your resolutions this year are a success.

 

Yin Yoga Infant Series Adaptation

Natalie Morrison

I love to practice what's known as the "Infant Series" in Yin Yoga (more resources here), as I find it a lovely light way to nourish my body when I'm feeling slightly more fragile - the morning after a late night at the weekend (you can even do this from bed!) or as a wind-down at the end of a long day. It's a wonderful series to improve and maintain posture as we age.  

The series replicates the types of movements a baby goes through to during infancy to evolve to a walking child, building curves in the spine along the way. It's very healthy to replicate this kind of process regularly to reinforce a healthy spine and supportive musculature. It also offers some wonderful opportunities to stretch the hamstrings in ways you don't normally find in more traditional forward bends - hamstring flexibility being intimately connected to spinal health as it controls the tilt of the pelvis. 

1. Cradle the leg

First, gently work into the hip sockets, circling the knee around and then squeezing the head into the knee. Then give both knees a big hug.

2. Gentle spinal twist

Take a twist with both legs over to the side, knees bent, arm and upper body twisted the other way. Hold for at least a minute, breathe deeply, allow gravity to gently help you find a little openness. Hold for a couple of minutes to allow the body to begin to open up.


3. The Stirrup 

Take hold of the foot and gently pull the knee towards the head / foot towards the floor by your side. Keep the moment fluid - experiment with bending and straightening the knee, taking the foot wider and narrower, 

4. Twisted roots 

Moving into a slightly deeper twist, lie on your back and wrap your left leg around your right. Take the knees over to the right and twist the upper body over to the left. Experiment with taking the knees higher or lower, and the are placement. Taking the left arm up towards the head, for example, can find a wonderful way to open across the chest, neck and shoulder. Try holding this for 5 minutes and notice the effect of the pose on the body over that time. Repeat on the other side.

5. Baby feet

Lying on the back, pull both feet towards the head, bending the knees as much as needed and allowing the base of the spine to rise, finding a stretch for the lower back. 
 

 

6. Snail (plough)

(NOT FOR BEGINNERS) Lying on your back with arms by your sides, push into the arms and use the momentum to lift your legs overhead. Support your back at first by bending your elbows and holding the upper back, keeping the elbows as close together behind your back as you can. If you feel any strain in the neck come out of the pose, and also do not turn the head in this pose under any circumstances. You might want to rest the arms behind the back on the mat or wrap them around the legs if the feet reach the ground and you feel secure. Hold for a minute if you can. 

7. Cat tail

Two options for cat tail, which neutralises the spine after the previous forward bend - preparing us for back bends. 

Option 1: draw the left knee over to the right and rest your head on your right elbow. Draw the right hip back along the mat and catch hold of your right foot, possible finding a quad stretch. Hold for a few minutes and notice the effect on the body. 
 

Option 2: Kick the back foot away from the body, place the right arm flat along the mat and find a back bend. Again, holding this for a few minutes will serve as a lovely low-impact stretch for the back.

 

8. Infant Pose

This is a great back strengthener. Hold for 30 seconds if you can and concentrate on reaching out lengthwise as well as lifting the chest and legs upwards.

 

9. Seal (sphinx) 

This pose serves as a wonderful preparation for deeper backbends and helps to prevent lumbar curve from degenerating - a common problem as we age. You may not get very far off the mat at first, and bend the elbow as much as you need to but try to find openness in the chest, pressing the sternum forward and feeling the bend throughout the length of the spine rather than just in the lower back. 

10. Camel

An infant needs strong quads to be able to crawl, and we need to sustain strength in these muscles to maintain good posture. Camel pose finds a means of accessing these muscles while bending the back.  Hold for 30 seconds.

Option 1:  Keep the hands on the lower back and gently push the hips forward, lift the chest and arch back. You can tuck the chin towards the chest as an alternative if you feel strain on the neck as you reach your head back. 

Option 2: Take the hands towards the feet. Toes can be tucked under or feet can be flat on the mat.

11.  Bear rolls (Cat and Cow variation)

To counteract these backbends, take a minute from all fours to freely bend and contract the spine, circle the hips, work into the shoulders and generally loosen off. Taking the hands slightly wider than the mat will allow a greater range of movement. 

12. Forearm plank (crocodile)

Other than the narrow spinal column, the only things things that hold the upper and lower body in alignment are the core muscles. It's essential we keep these strong to maintain good posture. Hold forearm plank, but rather than worrying about finding a perfectly straight line, instead, play will lifting the hips higher and lower, noticing how the core muscles respond and getting a sense of upper and lower body as two parts, united by this network of muscles. Try this for a minute. 

13. Downward Dog

Push up into down dog and focus on the spine - avoid "collapsing", sinking the body too much towards the mat. Also avoid hunching the shoulders and rounding the back. Aim for straightness even if it's not quite happening yet. 
 

14. Forward fold

Walk the hands back towards the feet and take a gentle forward bend. Allow the body simply to hand, releasing any tension in the shoulders, neck or face. Drawing in the belly will help you gently pull the body closer to the legs. Experiment with the bend in the knees - first bend them a lot, then straighten them a little. Find a place where you feel you're getting a good stretch without straining. More advanced practitioners can wrap their arms around the legs to intensify the stretch.  Hold for 2 minutes.

Finally, slowly uncurl the spine and roll up to standing. Reach the hands overhead and take a big stretch up to the sky. Namaste.

Toronto Yoga Tour

Natalie Cristal Morrison

Last week was my first visit to Toronto. I was looking forward to it being a well-organised city, to be well catered for in terms of food and shopping, and for there, of course, to be lots of Yoga :). It didn't disappoint. 

Yoga is a big deal in Canada, as can be attested by the fact that one of the biggest yoga apparel chains - Lulu Lemon - is from there. The range of yoga styles in Toronto is similar to that in London, although there does seem to be more of a preference for, and predominance of, ashtanga-based hot yoga classes and Vinyasa Flow. In contrast, restorative hatha type classes are also very popular and I saw Yin popping up on studio schedules a lot as well.

The best tip I had was to get a Passport to Prana. Almost as valuable as my real passport, this allowed me to visit 1 class in each studio as a taster over the course of one year. For a yoga tourist like me, this was perfect! It's also available across other major cities in Canada, the US and Australia, including New York and San Francisco.

Moksha

My first stop was Moksha Yoga. Moksha is a group of independent hot yoga studios committed to ethical, compassionate and environmentally conscious living, and they believe that the benefits of yoga are limitless and accessible to all. They have 7 ethical pillars which make them a more socially-conscious alternative to Bikram. I stepped into a smart, dimly lit room packed mat to mat with intent yogis, and took their customary preparatory savasana, getting ready for a practice in 40 degree heat while facing the mirror. Our teacher Brenden Jensen, an eloquent speaker with a good eye for alignment, guided us through the sequence and I enjoyed a sweaty, satisfying intermediate-level session, despite not typically being a lover of hot yoga. 

YogaSpace

Next up, I headed to YogaSpace. This is a quiet, unintimidating studio and wellness center on Ossington, and has a suburban vibe. My class was a general level Flow class, and sadly was not really to my taste. I think the style of teaching here might be more suited to beginners or to those looking for a more restorative experience, with a strong preference for safety and alignment rather than a challenge or exploration.

889 Yoga

Fortunately, 889 Yoga on Yonge was a much more my style.

Jodi Fischtein's class was fun and challenging, full of interesting arm balances and variations to keep us on our toes. Her bright, bubbly demeanor helped the 90 minute class pass by very pleasantly and vaguely reminded me of one of my favourite classes in London - Celeste Perreira's Vinyasa Flow class at Triyoga. The studio was also a lovely space, with a great store and friendly staff.

Octopus Garden

Octopus Garden is one of the bigger studios in the city, with a fantastic vegan cafe and a wide range of classes (although restorative is reportedly one of their specialties). I was curious to try Christine Alevizakis's level 2 class. Christine has a very warm, down-to-earth personality which makes her level 2 class feel more accessible than the norm. The class began with more of a flow, but the more interesting elements came later on, where we shifted to more of a workshop-type structure and broke down a number of poses and carried out targeted exercises to help us improve. Most notably, we practiced back bends using chairs, really opening up the shoulders and thoracic spine, which felt amazing. Although she doesn't mention it in class, it's evident that Christine has a broad range of influences from beyond the standard yoga world (there were some tai chi-like elements for example), which made her class very engaging.  

Also, the great thing about Octopus Garden is that they offer a free trial week!

IAM Yoga

IAM is a funky downtown hot yoga studio which I think I'd find myself in a lot if I lived in Toronto (I'm now converted into a hot yoga fan). The staff are great and it's a beautiful space. Angela Morley rocked up to intermediate flow class and led us through an intelligently constructed practice, making very appropriate adjustments and suggestions. There was something about her style that echoed my next class, as well as Jodi's, and I think actually encapulates a certain 'flavour' that the Toronto Vinyasa Flow classes have compared to London, for example.  

Downward Dog

Located on the very hip Queen Street, Downward Dog is big on the Toronto scene. The reception staff are clearly aware of this, however, and would recommend you don't come to this studio looking for a warm, fuzzy feeling.  The range of yoga classes though is impressive.

My class was a level 2-3 with Sheldon Shannon, and our large Mysore-style room was packed with his disciples (including a disproportionately high ratio of scantily clad men) on a hot Saturday afternoon.

Sheldon is a charismatic teacher, who joked and danced along to a pretty kicking soundtrack while guiding us through a tough 90 minutes. While it was a hot day, this was not a hot yoga studio - still, the sweat dripped off me to the point where I was clinging onto the edges of my mat to stay in downward dog. 

The sequence was really well planned, and incorporated many advanced poses which offered a challenge even to the most ardent followers in the class. Despite there being a lot of people to keep track of, he picked up on my "cheating" in virasana - lying back fully on the mat when I'm not really ready to go down that far and graciously told me to ease back.  

This class was a great way to round off my Toronto "Yoga Tour". Studios I really wanted to visit but didn't get round to are Ahimsa , Kula and Esther Myers, all situated around the trendy Annex area of town. Next time. In the meantime, I'm really grateful to the wonder teachers and studios I practiced with last week. Namaste!

5 tips for a fresh yoga routine

Natalie Cristal Morrison

The degree to which people value routine versus spontaneity is very personal. To some, having to do the same thing every day couldn’t be any more tedious and will strive to seek out the next adventure. Others seem to create a life that runs smoothly and happily like clockwork and that’s absolutely fine by them.

Yogis are not much different. There’s definitely a breed of yogi that is always seeking to learn and experience more in the yoga world. And with good reason. Once you scratch below the surface and develop a reasonably confident practice, you soon discover world of yoga is rich and broad – so much history, so many different styles to practice, different teachers to learn from, studios to try out, and that’s not even exploring your whole inner and energetic world that the more meditative or tantric aspects of yoga can reveal.

Then there’s another breed, indeed at least two mainstream yoga styles – Ashtanga and Bikram – that seek to practice the same sequence every day (albeit with progression to successive sequences over time). There’s certainly a huge pragmatic benefit to getting up early and getting your practice done before the rest of the day begins and practicing a tried and tested sequences that ticks many of the boxes in terms of a balanced, appropriate practice for your level without having to think. Indeed, the lack of thinking allows for a more meditative, indeed yogic practice, without worrying about what’s coming next.

The flipside to each approach, however, is easy to spot. The free-spirited approach to yoga can quickly descend into little more than yoga tourism. Any good yoga style requires dedicated practice to understand and benefit from it in any meaningful way. Also, not having any fixed time to practice (in amongst the general complexity of live) can often mean that practice gets deferred to ‘tomorrow’ indefinitely.

Meanwhile those who restrict their practice to just one style will not only be cutting out asanas, inspiration and lessons from other practices, they may even be risking injury through over-repetition of the same things, especially if alignment is not quite correct.

With that in mind here are a few ideas to consider if you’re serious about your practice and feel it might be time to readdress the balance:

1.    Establish a regular time you can practice most days.

Even if it’s 10 minutes. Many people chose the morning, and that’s the traditional approach, but there’s a lot to be said for an after-work practice to wind down, a lunchtime practice, or even a gentle practice in the evening before bed. Whatever will get you on the mat regularly

2.    Continue to go to new classes every once in a while.

This may be trying a new style, a different teacher, a retreat, or even another aspect of yoga such as chanting, silent meditation or pranayama. Workshops are a fantastic way to learn more about a style and ask questions. Online class providers such aswww.yogaglo.com can also be a way to dip your toe in the water with a new kind of class although there are obvious safety drawbacks to not having an experienced with you when you’re trying something new. Ask your friends which classes they like, check YouTube (Kino MacGregor’s YouTube channel is excellent), follow other yogis on social media, read and learn about the history and philosophy of yoga. In summary, keep your mind open, and maybe even try something you’re not sure you’ll like a few times just to double check!

3.    Pick a class you feel works for you and stick with it.

By coming regularly to a class you will give the teacher an opportunity to get to know you better as well and provide you with much more personal guidance. Most teachers find this type of relationship rewarding and will be happy to advise ways you can practice at home or adapt your practice if you are new and still learning the ropes, or if you’ve been coming for a while and are looking for ways to progress and find new options.

4.    Don't make excuses!

Our silly old minds play tricks on us constantly and are very good at inventing reasons not to get on the mat. Except in extreme emergencies, you’re probably not too busy, sick, or hungover to do SOMETHING – even if it’s sitting in easy pose with the eyes closed and meditating for a few minutes, or taking a few cat and cow stretches. Even 5 sun salutes every day can be really beneficial.

5.    Explore other ways to add a new dimension to your existing practice.

Devoting your whole attention to one aspect of the practice like your breath, your gaze or the bandhas, for example, can be an interesting journey. Experiment with all the questions that might arise in your mind during a class. Here’s a few examples:

-        Breath: What’s it like if you DON’T use ujayi breath? What if you inhale when you usually exhale coming into a pose, and vice versa?

-        Gaze: How does gazing in one direction versus another alter the feeling of a pose? What’s a sun salute like with your eyes closed?

-        Alignment: What happens you flex your foot in a pose rather than point it, or if you bend your knees vs keep them straight, or if you keep your feet hip width vs together?

Hope this helps, let me know how you get on!

Review: Jivamukti with David Life

Natalie Cristal Morrison

Last week in New York I had the fortune of being able to attend the monthly workshop at the original Jivamukti center which is held each month in turn by one of the founders of the school - Shannon Gannon or David Life. 

In case you're not familiar with Jivamukti, it is a style of yoga created by the couple in 1984 and incorporates vigorous, flowing physical practice with a strong emphasis on the spiritual and ethical side of yoga. It has 5 tenets of shastra (scripture), bhakti (devotion), ahimsa (kindness), nada (music), and dhyana (meditation). I emphasize these elements and stress how they genuinely do care about aspects of life such as animal rights and the environment, while at the same time being popular among celebrities from Kate Moss to Sting.

The center is close to the insanely busy Union Square on the third floor of an office block, but once you're through the doors it really does feel like a spiritual haven. The staff are direct, efficient and friendly. There's a vegan cafe, an interesting shop with gorgeous mala beads and class DVDs you can buy for $10, enough space to change and a few studios. 

I get changed and enter a large room (two adjoining studios have been converted into a single space), and predictably, the it is tightly packed with mats in a haphazard fashion. A crowd has already gathered around David Life, as he wastes no time talking about our focus for the day: alignment of fingers, toes and chin as we flow through sun salutes and vinyasas (we're subsequently each given a line to draw on the mat and a quarter coin and encouraged to explore this alignment). While he jokes and speaks confidently, he seems like a quieter, humbler man than I expected. 

Now for practice. But first, we chant Om and recite the mantra as is customary in a Jivamukti class. This might put a lot of people off but I'm used to it. The class joins in enthusiastically and there's a strong sense of community in the room at that moment. Pretty soon it's over and we embark upon several rounds of sun salutes to get the body heated.

For the majority of the class, the flow is pretty standard. David provides minimal vocal guidance, for the most part simply uttering the Sanskrit name for the pose over his headset mic as he wanders around adjusting, aided by no less than three assistants. What is most notable is the music, or soundtrack, I should say. 

It's an odd mix to say the least, ranging from spiritual passages narrated in the quaintest of English accents for a wearing length of time, through to a burst of reggae or RnB, an absurd Monthy Python song to a rock ballad, followed by general screeching or electronic sounds, and then another narrated passage. It's hard to describe the effect of these sounds on the practice, but it occurs to me that this is similar to the treatment that the CIA may have administered to prisoners as part of brainwashing experiments in the 70s. As they jar with sounds of the traffic or a busker singing opera outside, as the room heats up further on a sunny day, as I strain to hear the next sanskrit command, each time waiting longer as he starts holding us in poses for less and less tolerable durations, I somehow start to lose myself in the midst of the cacophony. Meditation becomes not a choice but a necessity. The culmination is the longest headstand I've ever held in a class, although couldn't say how long we held this for. 

There is no doubt, this is a yogi's yoga workshop, like a 'hit' of yoga. Those not quite so into it but with a relatively strong practice and an open mind would also appreciate the workshop for the unique experiential art-like quality to it, and of course, the workout. But as I say, those not comfortable to 'Om', for example, would be better off staying with their regular class

I emerged back into the midst of the city feeling calm, strong and clear-headed, brain and body thoroughly yogafied.  My thanks to David.