Breaking the Bubble aka What I learned by Stepping Out of my Comfort Zone

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I recently went on a yoga course, and it was WAAAAAAAY outside my realm of comfort. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable, I didn’t like the experience while I was in it (it really challenged me), but looking back I wouldn’t change it one bit.

While it’s much easier to stay where we feel safe, we need to step outside these easy places in order to experience growth and a better understanding of self.

Let me first say that the course I took was amazing; it was taught by an incredible teacher and what I learned has really shaped my yoga teaching and my personal yoga practice. It was nothing short of transformative, both personally and professionally. The environment however, was, for me, extremely challenging. I knew it would be (as a partial introvert, communal living has never been my thing), but I didn’t realise to what extent.

It was set in nature at an eco-retreat in Portugal – a really beautiful spot, which, under different weather conditions might not have been so difficult. Like many eco-retreats, the showers were heated by the sun, so when it’s sunny you can have a hot shower, but no sun = cold water. You’ve probably guessed that when I was there, there was no sun (for most of the week, anyway), so I got to have quick cold showers, never feeling particularly clean as I was just trying to get through it fast.

Second, there was only one toilet for 40 people, which, in terms of timing wasn’t such an issue as the toilet was a compost toilet, meaning no pee (generally, this also meant no queues for the loo). When we needed to pee, we went wherever we wanted, connecting back in with nature. I don’t mind this once in a while, but I realised that when in communal living (we were 4 to a tee-pee) I really value those moments of being completely alone and private. Peeing outside did not afford me this solitude and I noticed the impact of that as the week wore on.

And the tee-pees! Beautiful and luxurious … as long as the sun was shining. In the rain and cold, much less so. It rained a few nights (and let me point out that tee-pees have a hole in the roof where the canvas and the frame meet- fine when dry, but ineffective in the rain), and we ended up with big puddles of water on the beds and floor, and damp bedding. On one night, there was so much rain dripping from the aged canvas that we had to seek alternative sleeping arrangements (luckily there was a relatively dry yurt near-by).

The week was cold, damp, communal and very out-doorsy. And while I really hated these things, I loved the overall experience because of what I learned:-

 

  • I (and we, as a society) take much for granted. Hot showers, shelter from rain and the elements, plumbing, the ability to feel clean, and have food whenever we want …. These are things not available to many, but we have come to expect them as basic. Removing them for a while makes us appreciate the value and luxury that some of us have. I like being in nature, but I like coming home to a warm bed, free of bugs (or toads, as one of my fellow tee-pee dwellers found), I like having hot showers and value the simple luxuries afforded in my life (these of course, are privilege for much of the world, but I appreciate and enjoy them).

 

  • Removing the “easy buttons” forces you to feel your emotions. We don’t realise how many quick fixes and distractions we have day-to-day that allow us to tune out from how we are feeling, especially if those feelings are uncomfortable. The eco-retreat had no wifi, no television, no (as far as I was concerned) basic comforts, which meant that I had no way to distract myself from feeling uncomfortable. How often do we start scrolling, reach for something delicious/comforting/intoxicating, or tune out on Netflix when things get a little tough? I had nothing that I could use to turn off or avoid the feelings that came up, so I had no choice but to acknowledge them. And although it’s not easy, learning to sit with sadness, discomfort and anger is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn. It teaches us resilience, and the understanding that nothing is permanent – happiness, sadness or anything else. We learn that chasing happiness is futile because happiness is fleeting, as is everything. Appreciating where we are now, and recognizing the impermanence of everything (and accepting that fact) creates contentment because we are focused on the only moment we have – the present.

 

  • Hard times breed deep connections – with self and others. Some of my best friends have come from the connection that happens during a shared difficult experience. Bonding over leaky tee-pees, lack of toilets and an understanding of being out of your realm can bring deep bonds of sisterhood, both with yourself and with others. You are forced to get real, real quick. And connection comes from being real. I met beautiful women, witnessed and felt true vulnerability, and saw incredible moments of honest bare souls. First by allowing ourselves to feel and then opening up about those feelings, we realise that we are not alone, the human experience is shared, and vulnerability and honesty breeds connection. Seeing this openness in ourselves and in others helps us connect to what we truly need, and allows us to better understand ourselves. Being honest, and also available to receive honesty, allows for more connection, more understanding, more love; that’s really what life’s all about – giving and sharing love, with ourselves and those around us.

 

Although it’s much easier to stay inside our bubbles of safety, stepping outside can be the best and most incredible experience. Although I won’t be signing up for another eco-retreat anytime soon, I wouldn’t change a thing – I have a deeper appreciation for the life I live, a greater awareness for the distractions I use to avoid discomfort, a deeper resilience for feelings of discomfort, and a renewed sense of connection with myself and others. So break the bubble, get dirty and see what happens … I daresay you won’t regret it.

Have you stepped outside of your comfort zone? What was the experience? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo Credit: Paula Sanderson @paula_sandersonphotos

Fear

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Fear is a tricky emotion. Unlike joy or anger, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause and more often than not, we work to suppress our fear because it’s unsettling, uncomfortable and unpleasant.

Fear can be useful – it keeps us safe and helps us avoid injury and death. A little fear when stepping outside of our comfort zone can help us stay alert, present and in tune with our surroundings. But fear can overtake and limit our experiences – it can overshadow and inhibit our desires and keep us small. And we can even become fearful of feeling our fear, so we work to suppress the whole feeling, never really letting it in, and in doing so, it grows and looms behind us, fulling our peripheral vision until it surpasses everything that isn’t in our direct line of sight – a large dark cloud, following us everywhere and in everything.

The funny thing about fear, is that the more we confront it head on, the smaller it becomes. Getting to the root cause of a looming fear allows us to understand what it really is that is limiting us. And sitting with our fear and allowing it to fill us up, can demonstrate how, in reality, the fear isn’t as big as we thought. Seeing it only in the back of our minds allows it to grow and expand until it overwhelms and envelops our minds and our decisions. Inviting the fear in, and offering it an audience allows us to address the root cause (which allows us either to take action to change the situation or come to terms with it if it is unchangeable), and the root cause is usually much smaller than we imagine.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about inviting fear along with her on journeys but relegating the fear to the back seat, and although it’s along for the ride, fear is never allowed to speak or choose the direction of the adventure. Inviting it rather than fighting it ensures that we are driving, rather than being driven by our fear.

A practice for addressing fear:

Sit quietly for a few minutes, letting the body settle.

Focus on a particular and relevant fear, and allow the emotion of fear to inhabit the body – which area of the body does it impact most? Where and how do you feel it? What is the physical reaction?

Sit in that place of discomfort for a few moments, getting comfortable with the unease.

When the unease settles, start visualising beyond the fear. For example, the fear of public speaking is profound for some. So visualise the start of a speech in front of a large crowd of people. Imagine the worst thing possible to happen in that situation. How would that feel? What would be the outcome. Feel it in the body and sit with that feeling until there is a sense of familiarity with that sensation.

Just like the muscles in our body, we can train ourselves to increase our emotional resilience. The practice of yoga and meditation allows us to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, and in the continued practice of feeling uncomfortable, we increase our emotional, physical and mental capacity to be able to deal with discomfort, the pain and the fear.

I once went to a yoga workshop with yoga teacher Kathryn Budig, and something she said stuck with me and made a profound difference on how I viewed life, and also fear: “All choices and events can be broken down two ways – into love or fear. In knowing that, we can choose love. Always choose love.”

Sit with the fear, invite it in and get used to it. Use it as a way to differentiate your choices – and then always choose love.

How do you deal with fear? I’d love to hear about it – let me know in the comments or find me on instagram @laurenewilkie

 

Discipline vs Freedom

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I see discipline and freedom like two ends of a swinging pendulum. Trying to keep the pendulum centred and still is the challenge in a moving world.

With my yoga practice, I’ve spent time at both ends of the spectrum, and am now aiming for disciplined freedom – that sweet spot in the middle. Discipline fosters growth and learning, and freedom keeps things feeling light and fun, but too much of either good thing can be a problem. The best teachers I know have a healthy balance of both in their classes, and I am for that balance in my personal practice too.

Discipline

When I first started practicing yoga seriously, I had heard that in order to be a proper yogi, you needed to practice 6 days a week. Of course, I wanted to be a proper yogi (!), so rain or shine, aching joints or injured muscles, I got on my mat or went to class 6 days a week. My asanas “progressed” very quickly and I noticed a massive increase in both strength and flexibility. Along with the time spent practicing came a desire to achieve the physical aesthetic of various poses and to be able to tangibly see that I was getting “better at yoga” (I used quotes around all of these terms, because I don’t believe [now] that creating a certain shape is what being good at yoga is all about. See more about this at the bottom*). Because of this desire to achieve and progress – rather than enjoying practicing for the sake of practice – I suffered many injuries and mental anguish – beating myself up for not feeling motivated to get on the mat, and often struggling (mentally and physically) when I got there.

I felt so broken after a few months, that I had to reduce my physical practice, and (for a period of time) stop it completely in order to heal.  Continuing this level of discipline was not possible at that time, but it did provide incredible learning.

What I came to understand from this period of yoga practice, is that it was my ego pushing me forward. I was spending too much time in my mind and actually disconnecting from my body, not listening to what it needed. And I was comparing myself to others in classes, wanting to be at the same physical place/ability as them, rather than understanding and accepting where I was at that moment. The realisation that I could distance myself from my ego and connect back into my body, was a fantastic lesson that this period of discipline provided. The physical benefits of a disciplined practice – stronger muscles and the ability to move in new ways – were also noted, but understanding my ego, noticing my desire to achieve, and becoming aware of that unconscious comparison with others, had the biggest impact on how I live my life (and subsequently, my levels of contentment).

Freedom

After spending time feeling caged and feeling like I wasn’t a good yogi if I didn’t do a power vinyasa flow class 6 days a week, the pendulum swung. I discovered yin yoga and slow flow and started to rest, both in my life and in my practice (as someone who desires recognition through achievement, this was a radical discovery; resting was not only acceptable, it was also highly beneficial). I reconnected with what my body needed, continuing to notice when my ego reared it’s big head, and started doing my own thing within yoga classes. I modified poses, I used props when needed, I spent a lot of time in child’s pose. I even sometimes did a different pose than the teacher suggested (I did try to keep the intention of the pose within the new pose I chose). And in my personal practice, things got really soft and flowy, and I spent more time on my bum than on my feet (not a bad or good thing, just how it was). My yoga practice became all about moving in a way that felt good in my body, avoiding injury and not pushing or striving.

And again, I became friends with my ego. It still liked to flare up when other students “achieved” a difficult pose or when I needed to rest. But I learned to take the focus off of other students and focus only on what I was doing and how I was feeling. My practice became very joyful and I started to look forward to it rather than dread it.

I still took myself to a dynamic class now and then, and at times worked on a dynamic practice at home, but more often I kept things soft and easy.

After quite some time of practicing like this, I realised that I wasn’t learning anything new from staying with my soft practice. I had remained injury free and my body and mind felt good, but we can get to a point, whereby, in order to discover anything about ourselves, we have to step out of our comfort zone. That is the beauty of a little bit of discipline, doing something that we don’t really want to do. I realised that by always doing my own thing in class I was limiting my own learning and the possibility of finding a new way to grow – both in my body and mind.

The realisation came quite recently, so while on a yoga retreat with a teacher I wholly trust, I decided to see what would happen if I just did what she suggested, rather than changing the yoga to allow me to stay within my comfort zone. This teacher has an excellent balance of freedom and discipline and I felt safe to do this in her class, knowing that her sequences or instructions wouldn’t cause injury or harm.

I discovered a new sense of freedom and a better understanding of myself, once again getting to know my ego and this time making friends with my fear. So often we limit ourselves because of fear, but if we can get through to the other side of that fear, tremendous expansion and growth is waiting. I felt a newfound sense of contentment, and I was more able to understand and work at my edge – the place where I am both soft and striving, easy and hard. I found the middle of the pendulum.

Now back home, I’m working on finding that balance within my own practice. It’s not always easy, but having seen the two ends as well as the middle, I have an idea of what I’m looking for.

What’s on either end of your pendulum? What’s helped you find balance? I’d love to hear about it – send me a message or leave a comment below.

 

Photo by Ali Schilling

* Being good at yoga isn’t about being able to touch your toes or bring your foot behind your head. Yoga is about connecting with your body and learning to cultivate awareness of both body and mind. It’s about understanding patterns of reaction and learning how to use the mind consciously, rather than letting our thoughts and reactions control us.  I would argue that someone who is able to focus during practice, keep their attention in the moment, understand their own needs and limitations, and work at their personal edge (not pushing too hard, but neither being complacent) is actually “better” at yoga than a distracted yogi able to bend in all directions. Being flexible in body is a beautiful benefit of regular yoga practice, but that isn’t what’s it all about.

Digital Detox

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I recently got back from an amazing holiday in Sri Lanka. Before we went, life had been full and hectic, and I knew that I wanted to take some time during the trip to really switch off and restore my body and mind, so that I came back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. We spent the first week on an incredible yoga retreat with Holly Warren, a remarkable teacher who is somehow able to find a place for the reverence of yoga, without making the atmosphere heavy. This is the second retreat I’ve been on with Holly and both have been transformative and magical.

The second week, we found an incredible AirBnB in a quiet part of southern Sri Lanka and I decided that to make the most of the breath-taking surroundings, I would stop looking at social media and checking my phone until we came back to reality. Ironically, often when I’m on holiday I find myself checking social media MORE, as I post photos of our adventures; not having anywhere to be also eliminates the natural deadline for a forced switch-off.

I’m not going to lie – I found it really hard. Not just at first – the whole time. What is it about those sites that is so addictive? I persevered and managed a full 5 days without looking at Instagram or Facebook. And it was only at the end, when I started checking again, that I realised what I had gained by switching off.

I had so much more space in my head! I wasn’t constantly feeling the need to consume words and images and to know what was going on everywhere that I wasn’t. My thoughts slowed down and I could actually figure out what I was thinking and feeling. My internal dialogue slowed. Everything inside me felt like it was moving at a manageable pace, instead of racing around on super-speed.

I realised that by the continuous filling up of my head, I hadn’t left any space for my self: for the guidance of my intuition and my heart. And that by limiting the amount of time on social media, (and therefore the number of messages that came into my brain) I was more able to relax, more able to concentrate and more able to feel and be.

I realised also that checking our phones is both a habit and a distraction. In a short amount of time, we have forgotten how to feel bored. Waiting in line, waiting for the train …. waiting for anything really, has become an opportunity to consume rather than reflect and observe. By not taking this time and allowing the space, we supress our natural instincts and especially our emotions (which of course, then come out in other ways when we least expect it). And we fail to notice what’s gong on around us – interesting things, opportunities, thoughts, emotions …. All of which could be extremely useful or just fun.

So for now, although I’m back on social media, I’m trying to limit the amount of time I spend there – allowing more space in my head, allowing emotions to present, and allowing more presence in my life … even if that means being bored for a few minutes each day.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried a digital detox and what happened? What did you discover? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram or Facebook (after the detox, of course!).

The Minimalist Guide to Christmas

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And suddenly, it’s here … December, holiday season, party time … and for many of us, stress.

Over the past couple of years I’ve “minimalised” many aspects of my life in an effort to focus on what matters and to lighten my load – both literally and figuratively. I’ve made a capsule wardrobe, decluttered and KonMari’ed my way through our flat with surprising yet beautiful results. I feel lighter, more spacious, more joyful, more abundant and able to see and spend time on what’s important to me.

And with this effect in other areas of my life, I, of course, wanted to minimalise Christmas.

I love buying, making and giving gifts, and although I’m very organised and start planning gifts from about July/August, I always seem to have a last minute dash around in December, frantically sewing or shopping right up until Christmas Eve. And it takes away from, for me, what this time of year is really all about – spending time with loved ones, remembering what I’m grateful for, and experiencing and living, rather than consuming and shopping.

A few ideas for minimalist Christmas gifts:

  1. Gift exchange A. This will be the second time we do this on my husband’s side of the family – each person draws a name and buys one gift. We’ve gone with a book theme this year, which I love, because a) books are beautiful and contribute to learning b) they are affordable and keep the playing field even c) there is a book out there for just about everyone.
  2. Gift exchange B. This is what we’re doing on my Mom’s side of the family this year (still with the book theme – what can I say, we love to read!). Each person brings a book that is special to them or that they enjoyed (used or new) wrapped up so no one knows what it is. Everyone draws a number and the first person chooses their present and opens it – the second person can either steal the first gift or choose a wrapped gift. This continues until everyone has a book. I love this idea because it makes a game of opening presents (fun in and of itself), but is also incredibly inclusive – if you have a last minute guest, it’s very easy for them to bring something and be included in the gift game.
  3. Food gifts. For friends, clients or hostess gifts, I love making a few simple healthy treats. My favourite food blogger has some amazing recipes which make incredible and delicious gifts which people can enjoy without feeling icky. My favourites are her infused syrups, a batch of gingerbread cookies, a jar of chai spices for tea (just add fresh ginger and water) or a jar of spiced hot chocolate (just add honey and the milk of your choice).
  4. Experiential gifts. Theatre tickets, movie tickets, concert tickets, art exhibition tickets, a spa day, a fancy dinner out … whatever you enjoy – spend money on something that allows you to make memories and experience life together.
  5. Vouchers – but not for a store! I like giving vouchers to friends and family for a special, personalised gift. I have given babysitting vouchers to new parents for a night out, a series of Pilates classes, a week of dish-washing, a batch of home-made cookies, a 1-2-1 yoga class … or anything else I think the recipient might enjoy. Generally this means that I get to spend time with the recipient, and again, make memories rather than accumulate things. I love this for kids too – where possible, instead of giving toys, spending an afternoon at a museum or park, and building a relationship.
  6. Charitable donations. It is likely that if you’re reading this blog, you are among the people who have more than they have not. There are many people in the world with very little, and a charitable donation in your loved one’s name can be a fantastic gift. In the past, I’ve given these donations through Oxfam, and themed it to something I thought the person would appreciate (i.e. for teachers I’ve given the “educate a child” gift, etc). There are many worthy charities, so find one with meaning for you

And with these guidelines in place, shopping is very easy, almost enjoyable even. It’s not quite December, but we’ve finished our gifts and can now spend the rest of the month enjoying friends, family and festivities!

I’d love to hear your ideas for a minimalist Christmas. What kind of gifts work for you? Do you have any minimalist traditions? Let me know in the comments or use #minimalistXmasgifts.

I never wanted to meditate …

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A regular meditation practice is something that has helped me feel calmer, more stable and be more sure of myself. But it wasn’t always this way. Over the next month, I’ll be looking at ways to make meditation less daunting and more enjoyable.

When I first started meditating, I found it SOOO hard. I struggled to find a comfortable way to sit (I thought that the only way to “properly” meditate was to sit on the floor with my legs crossed). I always felt like I was doing it wrong because I couldn’t silence my thoughts and find the elusive “quiet, peaceful mind” and I usually finished the meditation feeling angry and frustrated instead of calm and happy. It always felt like a chore rather than a treat; I had “meditate” on my to-do list every day, and every day, I found something seemingly more important to do instead.

Two things changed all this for me:

  • When I did my yoga teacher training, the meditation teacher (Jake Dartington) said something that really changed my perspective. He said “WHEN thoughts enter your mind, observe them and let them go”
  • When I read Arianna Huffington’s book “Thrive” she says “we don’t ‘do’ meditation – meditation ‘does’ us. The only thing to ‘do’ in meditation is nothing.”

These really changed the way I looked at how I was meditating, and I realised that meditation is an opportunity not just to quiet the mind, but also to observe our thoughts. I realised that the goal wasn’t to have a blank mind, but that meditating is an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves by observing our thoughts, and really listen to what’s going on. From there we can notice repetitions and thought patterns, and make changes based on what we observe.

It’s also an opportunity to STOP doing, rather than another item for the never ending list. It’s a chance to be still, to be quiet and to really listen:

  • How is my body feeling?
  • What’s going on in my mind?
  • What do I feel in my heart?

Once I shifted my perspective, meditation became easier – it became a treat rather than a chore. And on days when I don’t take the time to listen and be still, I notice that everything in my brain is a bit jumbled, and everything in my heart feels a bit heavy.

Now my meditation practice is simple – I have no rules or expectations about how it should be; I let my mood and instinct guide what happens. Sometimes it’s after my yoga practice, but I often do it first thing – before I’ve gotten out of bed or looked at my phone. I put some pillows behind me, sit up in bed and spend about 10-20 minutes checking in before I start my day.

I don’t have a specific routine – sometimes I focus on inhaling and exhaling, sometimes I repeat a mantra, sometimes my mind is all over the place and it’s really hard to stay focused. On days when it feels like a chore, I skip the practice altogether; usually by the  next day I’ve missed it so much that it’s easy to start again.

Whatever happens, I always appreciate having taken the time for myself.

I’d love to hear about your meditation experiences – let me know in the comments below or use #meditateoctober.

And check out my Instagram feed for the upcoming 10 day meditation challenge, starting on 10th October for 10 days #meditation101010

 

Photo credit: @alischillingphotography

 

Finding Truth

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The poison:

Feeling the pressure of accomplishing and creating the perfect life – not just professionally, but personally too.

Feeling “not enough” because you haven’t hit the milestones … even those milestones that you didn’t want to hit.

Feeling like you’re not keeping up (even though you know you’re on your own right path) because all around you are messages that you’re falling behind, moving too slow, running out of time?

 

The antidote:

Put down the phone, stop scrolling. Forget about the inspirational quotes and the six-pack abs. Quiet the voice of comparison in your mind.

“Know that you are on your own path; only you know what’s right for you.”

“Different milestones happen at different times for everyone; and they don’t always happen – which is good.”

We say these things to ourselves, but do we really feel them in our hearts?

Turn up music you love and let your body move organically, then sit quietly and listen to your own breath.

Place your hands on your heart. Be still. Determine if what you are doing (or not doing) is true and right for you. Your heart knows. Listen only to that.