Why Pain is Good

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I’m not a masochist, but I want to challenge the idea that pain is something to be avoided.

In this world, we are told that feeling pain is bad and feeling happy is good. And when I’m teaching yoga, I often tell students to avoid pain in their bodies, as this is our body’s way of telling us that something is going wrong. And I do think, as much as possible, that physical pain should be avoided. Emotional pain, on the other hand, is something to dive into head first; avoiding emotional pain leads to all sorts of discontent and dishonesty (mostly with ourselves).

Emotional pain is an essential part of life. It allows us to see the light and shade of life, and cliched as it sounds, pain is where the growth happens. By avoiding it, we miss out on the realisation of our strength and the understanding of our power.

That’s not to say it’s easy – allowing ourselves to feel pain is one of the hardest things we can do. And we are bombarded by a plethora of ways to avoid it; advertisers have made an art of offering solutions to avoid pain, and technological advances have allowed us to have on-demand distractions which again, take us away from being in that difficult place.

Sometimes these distractions are useful, but not in the long term. When the pain is fresh it can be too much to handle, and sometimes the distraction allows us to keep going, to do the daily things we need to do to survive without breaking and shattering completely. But eventually we need to find some space away from the consumption (shopping, scrolling, over-scheduling) and find a way to feel our feelings.

Allowing ourselves to sit with our pain (much like allowing ourselves to sit with our fear), can have a deep and profound impact on how we go through life, how we show up for other people, how we feel about ourselves and how we approach certain situations (like risk). The first time is the hardest, but it gets easier each time. And while I don’t think any of us would voluntarily put ourselves in a position where life is painful, when these situations occur, here’s what I do:

 

Step 1 – distraction. I binge on Netflix, trashy books, social media, and eat food/drink that I might usually avoid, until I get to a place of acceptance with what’s going on.

Step 2 – stillness/quiet time/meditation. I try to allow the feelings to surface and allow space for tears, rage and/or whatever else comes up.

Step 3 – talking or writing. Both help me to get to the root of the issue, and to understand what’s happening. Sometimes having a sounding board (whether a friend or a blank page) can put things into perspective.

Step 4 – getting into my body. Exercise, massage, reiki, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, etc. I move my body and get outside help (via trusted practitioners). My body and heart know what I need, way more than my mind. Keeping in touch with the physical signals they send helps me to avoid spiralling into negative thought patterns.

Step 5 – reflection/more quiet time. Once again, I try to allow the feelings to be there. More tears/anger/etc.

Step 6 – action. I start to make changes based on what I’ve learned, whether that’s quitting a job, changing friendships, changing personal habits. This step is difficult, but important to me because it shifts me from feeling like a victim to giving me a sense of autonomy over my life. The changes may be small to start, but over time they can make a big impact.

 

This isn’t always a fast or easy process (in fact it’s usually quite slow), and sometimes the steps are not linear (one step forward, two steps back and then a sashay to the side). But this process of listening, feeling and action has been useful to help me feel empowered in my life, even when the pain comes from an external source (like loss or tragedy). It’s also helped me to understand that pain doesn’t need to be avoided; looking back, I always realise that it is times of pain that have made the biggest positive impacts on where I am today. Those times have taught me about my strength, my resilience, my ability to get to the other side unscathed (but not unchanged), and have really made me who I am today. I no longer fear pain. Although I can’t say that I enjoy it, I appreciate what it can do and where it can lead.

For more on dealing with pain in life, I recommend reading Pema Chodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart”. She explains these concepts clearly and eloquently and offers simplicity to some of life’s complicated stuff.

We don’t always choose what happens in life, but we can always choose how to react.

What are your strategies for dealing with pain? I’d love to hear more – leave me a message in the comments below.

Photo by Ali Schilling Photography.

Are You Good at Yoga?

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New students often introduce themselves to me with the caveat that they are “bad at yoga” and it always gets me thinking – what is their idea of yoga that they think they can be good or bad at it?

There are so many images of yoga on social media, with people bending themselves every which way, we would be forgiven in thinking that that’s all it is. Creating an incredible shape with your body CAN be yoga, but yoga is so much more than just the shapes.

When people say they are good or bad, I think they mean that they have a hard time touching their toes or can’t do a handstand – that they are “bad” at the physical aspect of yoga. But I would argue that because yoga is a practice and not an accomplishment, you can’t actually be good or bad at yoga, you can only either practice it or not. Taking time to practice (in whatever form, physical yoga or not) means that you are good at yoga, because you are practicing, and practicing is what it’s all about.

For me, yoga is more about my state of mind and the small actions I take every day in accordance with my value system (developed with the help of yoga, of course), rather than what shapes I can accomplish with my body. The shapes are important, don’t get me wrong – the quest to achieve those shapes often allows us to understand and observe what’s going on in our minds and with our emotions. The struggle and slow progress of going from “basic” to “advanced” poses allows us to see our reactions, our thoughts and our feelings along that path. It allows us to have the space and time to notice what comes up when we are faced with challenges and adversity, and hopefully gives us tools for perseverance and resilience (i.e. breathing, letting go of limiting thought patterns that we weren’t previously aware of, connecting with our sense of self). It makes us step out of our comfort zones and helps us to grow and expand.

But yoga can also be practiced in other ways, and outside of the time spent “pretzel-ing” in class. In addition to the physical practice, we can practice yoga by staying present, by observing our reactions and emotions, by listening (to others, to our bodies and to our intuition), by noticing nuance and small joys in everyday life, and by being kind to ourselves and others.

So to anyone who has gone to class thinking that they are “bad at yoga” …. please let that idea go. You are at a class and whether it’s your first or 50th, the fact that you showed up and took time to practice, means that you are good at yoga. Keep it up 😊

I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a message in the comments, or find me on instagram – @laurenewilkie

Photo by Ali Schilling Photography

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

DIY Yoga Mat Spray

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Keeping your yoga mat fresh in between classes is easy with just a few supplies. The following essential oil cleaning spray is a healthy and natural way to clean and care for your mat.

Melaluca (tea tree) Essential Oil has antibacterial, anti-parasitic, antiseptic and antifungal properties, helping to keep bacteria at bay.

Lavender Essential Oil not only smells good, it too has antifungal and antiseptic properties. It can be used to help balance moods and promote feelings of health, love and general well-being.

Peppermint Essential Oil, in addition to having antibacterial and antiseptic properties is purifying and stimulating to the conscious mind. It has a clean, fresh scent and is good for clearing the air – energetically or actually.

Supplies and Directions

1 spray bottle

Few drops each Tea Tree/Melaluca, Lavender and Peppermint essential oil

Distilled water

Add the essential oils and distilled water to the spray bottle and shake well. Voila! A safe and healthy spray to keep your mat clean.

You can use any essential oils for this spray, but I love doTERRA’s oils because of their purity and potency. If you’d like more info on how you can buy doTERRA essential oils at 25% off, click here.

*Essential oils are not suitable for all mats (i.e. Lululemon ‘The Mat’ and Liforme); depending on the type of material, it is possible that oils can damage the mat instead of cleaning it. If unsure, test a small part of the mat first.

Giving and Receiving Abundance

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“It’s just like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor!”

I’ve frequently been reminded of these lyrics in recent days.

At the beginning of this year, I was listening a lot to The Lively Show podcast, and it’s been delving deeper and deeper into the teachings of Abraham / Jerry and Esther Hicks, most notably, The Law of Attraction. I’d read about this concept before, but it always felt a bit silly to me – how can you think something into being? By focusing on your desire, you will be able to manifest and bring it to life?

But I had it all wrong. Jess Lively goes into much more detail on her podcast (which I would highly recommend checking out), but my summary is this: it’s not about wanting something so badly that you create it, it’s more about getting yourself into a state of alignment with that desire – finding that state or desire within yourself, which in turn attracts more of that state/desire to you.

This year I wanted to cultivate a sense of abundance in my life – not only financially, but also socially, culturally, and professionally. And I wanted to be able to share my abundance somehow in the world. I will admit, I have never been particularly involved with charitable or political organisations (unless posting about them on facebook counts as involved) – I have donated here and there to certain charities, but never with any kind of commitment. I try to spend my money consciously (with socially responsible organisations) as much as possible, and I go out of my way to help people when I see a need, but I don’t volunteer my time on a regular basis, and I very rarely give out money to homeless people on the street.

I still have a far way to go, but starting small and slow can eventually lead to an avalanche (I’m a big believer in the “one small change leading to a revolution” kind of thing). In an effort to both create more abundance and to share my abundance, I’ve been doing two things:

  • Telling myself that I am abundant (and listing the ways) most days. This is akin to a gratitude list, but just looking at it through the lens of abundance. I was really inspired by Che Dyer’s post about abundance affirmations.
  • Giving back and giving things out. I’m giving my change (and not just my pennies, but my pounds) to people asking, and making a concerted effort to donate time and money more regularly. In addition, I’ve been more willingly generous with friends and family (but ensuring I know my boundaries so I don’t end up resentful).

The result of these two small but regular actions is that I feel more abundant, more fulfilled and more at peace. Sometimes to have more, we need to give more, and to give more we need to feel like we have more. Taking time to notice what we have and taking time to give it away (which, for me, surprisingly, has had minimal impact on my time or standard of living), has made a huge difference in my mindset, which I’m sure has resulted in a more full and fulfilling life.

And although I’m not rolling on the floor in pennies (or pounds), I feel incredibly abundant. And that’s really what it’s all about.

I’d love to hear how you give back and what you do to bring abundance into your life. Let me know in the comments or find me on Instagram @laurenewilkie

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.