I have practiced yoga intermittently over the past 10 years and every time that I restart my practice after a break, I ask myself the same question: “Why on earth don’t I do this every day?” I find it to be such a refreshing way to practice mindful movement. Not that it is always pleasant… Quite the opposite really. Practicing yoga mindfully reveals a plethora of body sensations that are sometimes uncomfortable but always interesting.
Practicing yoga with the intention to be mindful can open you up to a vast array of sensations in the body. When not being mindful, it is natural to simply find these sensations aversive and to strive to minimize or avoid them. But if you try getting deeper into those sensations- by breathing, softening and allowing them to unfold- their complexity may surprise you.
For instance, last week we invited a prominent yoga teacher to our mindfulness class. She led us through a wonderful set, part of which included the star pose. This pose simply involves standing like a 5-pointed star with legs apart and arms held parallel to the floor. Immediately, I connected to feelings of tingling in my shoulders, which progressed to burning. With each breath I could feel the heaviness of my limbs but rather than dropping them down, I investigated these sensations as if it was the first time encountering them. In so doing, I could step back from my impulses to immediately minimize these feelings and instead, observed that the intensity of these sensations rose and fell- that it was more tolerable than I feared.
Given that mindfulness made its initial foray into medical settings in part due to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s use of mindfulness for managing physical discomfort and pain, mindful yoga is an excellent way to play with the experience of the body and to recognize how much our thinking mind can unintentionally influence our relationship with body sensation.
If you’re curious, check out this 30-minute guided practice of mindful yoga this weekend. I hope that you will be surprised and captivated by what your body tells you when you listen to it.
Following a very fun and thought-provoking workshop about mindful parenting on Monday, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of infusing more self-compassion into parenting. Specifically, how parents can cultivate self-compassion and what responding to difficulty with self-compassion rather than guilt and anxiety would look like in reality. I believe that careful cultivation of self-compassion can provide much needed balance to our habitual reactivity.
First, I think it is important to elucidate what self-compassion is not, as it can easily blend with some of the other “self-” terms that exist in our modern vernacular, like “self-esteem,” “self-indulgence,” or “self-care.” As self-compassion researcher and advocate Kristin Neff explains, self-compassion is not self-pity:
Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Self-compassion is also not self-indulgence. Again, Dr. Neff explains:
Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything. “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of icecream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion. Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).
Instead, self-compassion is an acceptance of our humanness, an acceptance of those things that make us flawed, imperfect and relatable. And it’s about responding to those difficult moments (when those challenging aspects of yourself feel so front and center in your mind that you cannot think of anything else) with kindness and gentleness. Luckily, we parents have an advantage when it comes to cultivating self-compassion because we have a lot of practice with compassion in responding to our kids.
Think about it: when your child comes home complaining about a bully, or feeling sad, or feeling angry- you respond. You likely relate to your child’s suffering and attempt to make your child feel better by responding with warmth and understanding. Ok, now let’s flip the script: what would it be like to respond in this same way to yourself when you are experiencing similar difficulties?
Self-compassion and mindfulness go hand in hand. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of difficulties as they arise, and to be able to observe them without over-identifying with them. With mindfulness, we can simply notice the experience without judgement and without getting swept away in unhelpful reactivity.
But, like all new thinking habits, cultivating self-compassion takes time and a consistent effort to try something different in the face of a difficulty. It takes a) recognition that you are indeed being triggered in this moment, b) stepping back to decide how to respond and finally, c) deciding not to do the same old thing, like talking to yourself with reproach or self-criticism, but instead noting that a mistake was made and that imperfection is normal (and, dare I say it, even desirable!). See if you can replace the punishing self-recrimination with the idea that you are doing the best you can.
We parents are quite adept at helping our children to cope with the stressors and difficulties that they encounter everyday. But, somehow, it is far less easy for us to treat ourselves with the same understanding and kindness. You’ve likely seen that the “carrot works better than the stick” with your kids, that they are far more motivated and effective when rewarded for good behavior rather than punished for the bad. And what about for you? What would it be like to modify your internal dialogue and talk to yourself more like you talk to your children? With time, you may find that intentionally cultivating self-compassion can help you to be a more effective parent.
Food, glorious food! Upon searching my iphoto archive for the photo above, I realized just how many pictures I have taken of food in the past few years. Indeed, eating food is one of my favorite activities and since this blog is dedicated to bringing mindfulness to all the activities of living, a post about mindful eating is well past due.
Thanks to the promulgation of information about mindfulness in the media lately, mindful eating is likely not a new concept for you. And that’s wonderful because it is a very accessible way to practice being mindful- in fact, it is something that you can do each meal, if even for a few moments. Here’s a few suggestions to try during your next encounter with food:
-Before eating, make sure that you’re sitting down and that you’re able to attend fully to the food you’re eating (turn off the tv and put down your smart phone). If your kids are old enough, they can participate, too.
-Before taking your first bite, take some time to investigate the meal with your other senses. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? Try approaching this food as if you’ve never encountered it before. Try it with your eyes closed if you don’t mind feeling a little silly.
-Notice what is happening in your mouth. Do you feel the moment when you start to salivate in preparation for eating? (My mouth starting salivating simply by looking at the picture above)
-Check in with your appetite. How hungry are you? If 10 is ravenous and 1 is uncomfortably stuffed, where are you currently on the scale?
-Take your first bite. How does it feel in your mouth? What parts of your tongue are most activated by the flavor? Notice the impulse to swallow the food- see if you can catch the moment when your mind sends your body the signal.
-As you eat, continually check in with your body and your sense of satiety. The more often you do this, the more familiar you will become with how much food your body wants and when/where it sends signals of fullness. Ideally, you want to try to stop eating around a 3 or 4 on the scale.
Eating mindfully can be a revolutionary experience, awakening you to sensations in your body that are otherwise too subtle to be experienced. You can learn to differentiate between hunger and emotional cravings which allows you to more effectively respond to what it is your body needs in a particular moment, rather than just engulfing half a jar of Nutella (hey, we’ve all been there) without thinking. But most importantly, eating mindfully can improve the experience of eating and since eating is something we do at least three times a day, every day, it has the potential to make each day a bit more intentional and enjoyable.
We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it ’till you make it” and this concept has come up frequently in my clinical practice this week. When you find yourself struggling to implement a new skill or persist with a new behavior or routine, this idea of acting “as if” can be particularly useful.
It is important to recognize what one is feeling or how one may be pulled to behave but mindfully implementing this idea can do so much good. For instance, on those days when I am tired and daydream about only getting out of bed to refresh my coffee, I find that it is useful to act as if I am energized. And going through these motions (rather uncomfortably at first) can help to augment my momentum until the behavior feels more natural.
Oftentimes, our behavior can impact our thought patterns in powerful ways. When our minds observe our bodies acting in certain ways, we take that as evidence regarding how we are feeling. And because our minds do not like it when our behavior and our thoughts and feelings do not line up, they shuffle things around a bit so that it all makes sense. If I am singing in the shower to my favorite song, my mind says “Hey- she must be feeling ok. Let’s get pumped up for this day!”
It sounds a bit tricky but I invite you to give it a try. Even in subtle ways, our bodily activity can jumpstart our thinking in very productive ways. A simple way to play with this concept is by wearing a gentle half-smile throughout otherwise mundane activities. Research indicates that because of the bi-directional relationship between behavior and emotion, simply changing our facial posture can trigger a cascade of seratonin and dopamine that results in feeling more positively.
So try putting the cart before the horse and acting “as if” when approaching a difficulty. We sometimes have more direct control over our behavior than our emotions. Therefore, this concept is a useful way to practice self-validation, by recognizing your emotional needs, while gaining a sense of mastery by responding effectively to those needs.
(Image courtesy of vectorolie / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Your weekly mindful weekend challenge is as follows:
Try to catch a pleasant experience as it is happening. Focus your attention on the details of the experience by answering the following questions (maybe write them down as you go to maximize the impact of this exercise):
What is the experience?
How does your body feel, in detail, during this experience?
What moods and feelings accompany this event?
What thoughts are going through your mind?
The rationale for engaging your awareness in this manner is to help you to be better able to simply experience and appreciate the pleasant moment as it is, without adding additional thinking to the mix. Good luck!
This exercise is adapted with permission from Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn (2007).
Luckily, Switzerland has so far escaped the polar vortex of the Americas. Even so, the Suisse Romande had a fresh snowfall last night which, for this native Floridian, never fails to excite and inspire.
For the next few weekends, I will endeavor to suggest an exercise with which you can practice being mindful. I am hopeful that these exercises will demonstrate the great breadth of practice opportunities while inspiring you to play with how being mindful can bring new life to automatic activities.
Thanks to the new snow, why not try mindful walking in the snow? When approaching this, see if you can find some new aspect of this movement upon which you can let your attention rest. For instance, the sound of your footsteps or the feeling in your muscles when they work to stabilize your body or the way your arms swing along. Perhaps you can even break down your steps into three distinct parts: Lift, place, shift. Vary your pace and see how the differences feel in your body and against the rhythm of your breath.
When your mind wanders (and it will), gently escort it back to the sensations of the walk. And if some part of the experience feels particularly vibrant, try using it as an anchor to bring you back into the moment. For those lucky folks in warmer climates, try it with sand.
Wherever you are in the world, I wish you a mindful weekend.