The Christmas period is often a time of increased tension, stress or anxiety for many and can result in unpleasant experiences for individuals or families. Spending an extended period of time with friends and family doesn’t happen very often, so it would be beneficial for all if we were able to approach the festive season with a peaceful mind.
What causes stress at Christmas?
Mindfulness shows us that the struggles we go through in life often aren’t external to us (as we believe them to be) but are instead based in our perception and thoughts/beliefs about a situation. Most of us feel the pressure to get the right gifts for the right people, spend enough money but not too much money, make sure everyone has enough food and drink, wear the right outfit, attend the right events or parties, not drink too much,…and inevitably find time to demonstrate the right amount of merriment on social media…
A lot of the pressure we experience during the festive season can be found in our thought patterns or learned responses. Thoughts of how things should be and comparison to ideals or others can be harmful. If we tune into the present moment (no pun intended) and observe our true experience in the moment, we may find that we are able to enjoy the season more than previously. If something does go wrong – the turkey is dry, you couldn’t get that last minute gift because it had sold out – you can use mindfulness techniques to bring yourself back to the moment instead of getting caught in unhelpful negative thought patterns.
Tips to move mindfully through the festive season
A mindful queueing experience: You can’t avoid them, there are queues in shops, in supermarkets and on the roads this time of year. Every year we know it will happen the closer we get the Christmas, but every year we find ourselves frustrated, tense, irritated and sometimes infuriated with the constant waiting. Battling against the flow of life is a great source of stress for us. If we catch ourselves as frustration arises and instead of letting it take hold, we bring ourselves to our immediate experience of the moment. No judgment, no likes or dislikes, just observation. What does impatience feel like? Where is it held in the body? Try to feel it rather than think about it with the usual ‘why is this taking so long?’ ‘I should have joined the other queue’. You will notice almost straight away that tension eases out of your body and impatience gives way to patience naturally.
3 minute breathing space: When things get really testing (either during the build-up to Christmas day or during a family gathering for example) we often say things we regret or experience anger with ourselves or others. When we feel that a situation is getting too difficult, we can take 3 very effective steps to transform the moment mindfully.
- If you feel anger, impatience or frustration arising, catch it as soon as you are able and stop yourself from speaking or acting negatively. If you need to remove yourself from a situation, you can do so.
- Ground yourself in the moment by tuning into your breath. If you are agitated, try taking long slow breaths for a few minutes to give yourself space.
- Pay attention to what you are experiencing. Try to feel it in the body instead of listening to your thoughts about a situation or person. Bring your awareness back to the moment and your direct experience of it. Try to bring awareness to how a situation affects everybody, rather than just you.
Reclaim time: We always run out of time at Christmas. Not enough time to finish the shopping, wrap the gifts, visit friends and family, finish things off at work before the break. The constant rushing and pressure to ‘people please’ often leaves us more tired after the Christmas holiday than before it. This year, make a little time for yourself. The pressure we feel is often self-applied, so take a load off. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but a little mindful self-care can go a long way. Take a walk outside and take in all that nature has to offer this season. Take a long bath with some essential oils. Read a new book. Find opportunities to bring yourself and your experience back into the present moment as often as possible instead of living in an imagined future or re-living a past event.
Christmas is the perfect time to practice gratitude; not just for the gifts given and received, but for all the fortunate things we experience in life that often get swamped by thoughts of how life should be or what we should have achieved ‘by now’. Take a few moments each day to list the things you are grateful for…I bet that list is much longer than your Christmas wish list.
Mindfulness is the practice of applying awareness to the present moment through sense-based experience rather than thought. In other words, the ability to bring attention to what is happening right now, without imposing judgments on the quality or meaning of the experience. In practicing mindfulness, sportspeople are able to notice thoughts as passing mental events that don’t require action. The ability to observe in this way can lessen the reflex response to a situation and increase the ability to respond in a calmer more objective way.
We often remember the sporting outbursts (John McEnroe, Zinedine Zidane to name but a few) where players are overcome with rage, feelings of injustice or unfair treatment, or respond negatively to crowd interference. With athletes not only needing to consistently turn in their best performance, but also being role models for fans and aspiring young people, changing the way individuals react to thoughts is a growing area of focus in sports.
A Chosen Response
It is not just the one-off outbursts that sportspeople have to contend with; performance anxiety is a large factor whether you are a team player or individual athlete. So how can mindfulness help? Mindfulness can help individuals become aware of their thoughts, bodily sensations and environment. Through noticing as an observer what is happening in the present moment, we can choose to respond in a certain way instead of relying on the reflex, learned response that often isn’t the most helpful.
We can choose to notice the environmental conditions and make adjustments to our play. We can notice how certain scenarios cause tension in the body and we can choose to relax those parts of the body. Or, we can just notice as an observer and watch the feelings or thoughts arise and pass away – they are mental events that don’t necessarily need a reaction; especially where the thoughts are unhelpful or negative or likely to elicit a negative response. Sport can be a very stressful environment. Mindfulness can help individuals to let go of emotional responses and instead help them to act with more balance and wisdom; this could be the difference between winning and losing.
Often in competitive sports (professional and amateur) it’s easy to ruminate on past mistakes or predict an outcome before the performance has even started. Mindfulness brings us back to the present moment – what is happening right now? By focusing only on what is happening in the moment, thoughts of predicted failure or learned reactions to past events start to lose their power. Our minds and bodies find a freedom to perform in the moment.
As an amateur competitive cyclist, I have felt and witnessed performance anxiety and the effects it can have on the enjoyment and outcome for individuals. It’s easy to slip into the mental cycle of berating yourself for not doing well, or having moments of self-doubt. Mindfulness might not stop these moments, but it will teach you how to observe them purely as mental events and not based on the reality of the moment. Bringing yourself back to the present and anchoring attention on your breath is a powerful practice to overcome attachment to negative thought patterns. Trying a simple breathing practice before an event can reset the mind and body to be able to focus productively on the current situation.
Mindfulness is a powerful method for creating space in the mind which can then be used to meditate on positive visualisations. Utilising the senses can affirm visualisations bringing them to life with vividness that can overcome anxiety and negative thought patterns. Creating a positive mental image of a shot, play, race or outcome can help increase confidence and focus making mindfulness an essential practice not only for success, but also for enjoyment.
Practicing mindfulness is mental training that helps refocus awareness so that attention can be redirected purposefully to help you perform to the best of your ability. As with all training, it is a process that requires commitment and repetition. Mindfulness begins with a sitting practice and deliberate times set aside for mindful enquiry. This then moves on to mindful movement and can become a whole of life practice that can be utilised on the court/pitch/field/track before, during and after performances.
The Well Nest could help your sports team to improve performance through the practice of Mindfulness. To learn more about mindfulness, tailor a mindfulness package for your club or team or to register for mindfulness courses in Staffordshire (suitable for everyone, not only athletes) take a look at the Mindfulness pages or contact [email protected]
Letting go of the past will be an issue for most people at some point in their lives. We can all remember hurtful things that were said to us decades ago, or bad experiences that we (knowingly or unconsciously) allow to affect our future experiences. I think we would all agree that being able to let go of the past would provide us with more space in our minds and more peace in our lives.
So how do we do it? It comes back to basic mindfulness principles of being in the present moment, using an anchor to keep us there and staying intentionally and without judgment.
Something that should help us gain some perspective on letting go is that the past has already been and gone; it has been let go of already. What our mind is holding onto is attachment to an event, thought, experience or occurrence from the past. It’s that attachment that stays with us and effects our mind over and over again. When we go into the ruminative state, we run the past (or an imagined future) over and over in our minds. Neither the past nor the future exist; it’s just our thoughts that disturb the mind.
If we repeatedly bring ourselves back to the present moment, our mind will start to learn not to dwell in the past and slowly we will let go of attachment or harmful/negative thought patterns that seem to have power over us. One of the best anchors that we can use in our practice of letting go is the breath. It’s always with us and accessible at any time. Bringing awareness to the breath frees the mind from the past and brings it immediately into the present moment. A simple breathing meditation can be used any time, any place and can provide immediate relief from unhelpful thoughts based on the past. By being in the present moment, we are forced to let go immediately of our attachment to the past. The process won’t be easy and it will take time to be free from attachment to the past for longer than a few moments, but practising bringing ourselves back to the present moment will train the mind to let go.
If the breath doesn’t work for you, or your thoughts prove a stronger anchor than observing the breath, you can try a sense based mindfulness practice; using what you hear, see, smell, feel etc in the environment at that moment to keep you in the present.
Using mindfulness to break down attachment stems from Buddhist teachings and practices that have worked for providing mental calm and clarity for many hundreds of years. The Buddhist tradition that I follow very much focuses on making Buddhist teachings practical and accessible for the modern world. Applying traditional mindfulness techniques in practical ways means the application of this ancient knowledge is relevant to helping us solve our modern problems.
Try something old; to find something new.
My visit to the Om Yoga Show this year provided the chance to try something completely different from the selection of classes available. I usually go for something demanding and full-on so I get a good workout as well as learn from new teachers. As I had managed to book onto two classes this year, I mixed it up with a class on backbends with Ann-Marie Mainprize of Amiyoga in Hull.
The class promised to ‘deepen backbends the Forrest yoga way’ through ‘connecting the core and releasing deep rooted postural tension’ – sounded excellent to me! As I’ve never tried Forrest yoga, that was an added bonus.
I know many people struggle with spinal flexibility and I often advocate core strength as a way of back-bending with confidence, so this sounded like a great way to improve my own knowledge and experience how other teachers focus a class on back-bending safely.
The class focused straight away on opening the front of the body as a way to improve flexibility and stability through the back of the body. We did a lot of strong abdominal work which although simple, was incredibly hard work on the deep core muscles. Lying flat on the back with legs straight in the air we were instructed to press the lower back into the mat and curl up the tail bone – the simple action of lifting in this way (with breath work and holds) was a huge workout for the core.
We went on to work dynamically through sun salutation B, some low lunges and lizard pose with a arrow foot stretch (pressing the top of the back foot down into the mat to apply a deeper stretch to the hip flexor) which was bliss but also agony for my tight hip flexors. We visited the ‘engaged glutes or relaxed glutes’ argument when in wheel and bridge – Ann-Marie was on the side of engaged glutes as it provides greater support for the lower back; something I agree with.
An interesting counterpose to all the back bending was to twist out rather than forward bend to reset the spine. Again there is a lot of discussion around this at the moment, but it was the first class I have been to where twist rather than forward bend was taught. I always found that bending the opposite way was counter-productive when deepening spinal flexion…but that forward fold always seems to really loosen the spine as well. The class with Ann-Marie was a real anatomy class – her knowledge was obvious but she made it accessible to all.
The one issue (which I found last year as well) was the poor quality mats provided for the workshops – almost on the edge of dangerous when in wheel as they were so slippery – this is a show issue not a workshop issue however.
I loved the class with Ann-Marie as it was obvious she was used to teaching all levels of students. Her approach was very instructive but helpful (she had three assistants providing hands-on assists throughout). This was a real workshop rather than a yoga class as poses were broken down with anatomy at the forefront. I would definitely recommend this class for yoga teachers.
The next day (and the day after) the muscles either side of my spine were definitely feeling the work that had been done in this class. The simple but effective core strengthening exercises feature regularly in my practice as well now. Definitely worth taking a class with Ann-Marie.
Mountains are often admired from afar for the qualities that they appear to have. Some of these qualities we find beneficial and seek in life: stability, longevity, calm, unwavering and balanced. When we spend some time really contemplating the image of a mountain, we see that it is constant and reliable through the seasons; it is a home for plants and animals; it provides shelter and protection; it abides in tranquility through the centuries.
While it’s often the case that we try not to actively ‘think’ in passive meditation, we can use the visualisation of a mountain in active meditation to assist us in contemplating and finding inner peace. If we spend time on the visualisation we can imagine ourselves taking on the qualities of the mountain.
The Mountain Meditation can be used as a regular practice or as an escape from the rigours of daily life as and when required. I use the Mountain Meditation often as a precursor to sitting with mindfulness of breathing; it acts as a relaxation technique and brings focus before working on expanding awareness.
How to do it…
- Sitting in a comfortable position on a cushion or chair, have the back straight but not tense and the hands resting in the lap.
- Bring the gaze down towards the floor and gently close the eyes.
- Spend a few minutes on breathing meditation/mindfulness of breathing
- Picture in your imagination a mountain – it could be a snowy mountain of the Alps or Himalayas, it could be a forested mountain bathed in sunshine
- Try to bring your image of a mountain into clear focus
- Observe its shape, lofty peak, solid based, gentle or sharply sloping sides, its surface (rocky, smooth, dusty, forested, snowy etc)
- Notice it’s enormous size and how solid and unmoving it is from afar and up close
- Try to bring the qualities of the mountain into your own body – your head becomes the lofty peak, sitting in your chair you are rooted at the base. Your arms become the slopes of the mountain. Feel the sense of uplift from the base of your body projecting through the crown of your head.
- The mountain experiences the force of the seasons – sun, rain, snow, gales. Through it all, it sits unchanging, experiencing all that comes its way
- The mountain never resists, complains or judges – it accepts everything, just being itself
- We can imagine embodying the same unwavering stillness and calmness.
- We can experience the fullness of life and its changes through the seconds, hours, years
- We will experience the changing nature of our minds, our body, the outside world. We will have periods of shade and of light. We can maintain the peace of the mountain throughout.
- Sit in stillness for a while.
- Gently open your eyes and mindfully arise from meditation after around 20 minutes.
Mindfulness is a practice of widening our awareness and insight so that we can live in the present moment without judgment. The ability to watch our minds and the busyness within as an observer rather than through grasping onto thoughts, allows us to experience a greater freedom and peace of mind. The skills of mindfulness can be used in daily life to reduce stress and anxiety, be more productive and develop better relationships at work and at home and lead to a greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing.
The following mindfulness courses are now available in Stafford:
Introduction to Mindfulness—single session course (£25)
Available on the following dates from 6 pm—8 pm:
Tuesday 6th February
Tuesday 13th February
Eight Session Mindfulness Practitioner Course (Introductory offer price £130)
Course starts on Tuesday 27th February and runs weekly with one home practice week at week 5. Each session runs from 6 pm—7.30 pm.
Courses are held in a town centre location with nearby parking. Course materials will be provided.
For more information, visit the Mindfulness tab
If you’ve seen Eat Pray Love you know one of the benefits of silent retreat is a fabulously smooth and relaxed throat from giving it a rest. But, do the benefits go deeper?
We’ve all heard the stories of monks and nuns spending years in silence to achieve higher spiritual realisations, but unless you live in the mountains of Tibet, this isn’t really an option in our busy modern lives. One way to try the silent treatment is to go on a short retreat led by an experienced teacher who, periodically, can offer guidance on meditation and how to make silence your friend.
What Silent Retreat Looks Like
When I went on retreat earlier this year, I really had no idea what to expect from the period of silence. It sounds so simple…so simple that I thought it would almost certainly be a waste of time. I was wrong. We started the day on our meditation cushions with some mindfulness of breathing (a simple breathing meditation that usually starts off a period of meditation) and brief guidance from the teacher. We were then instructed that we should try to maintain mindfulness through breathing, sensory experience, body scan and mindful movement for the morning session of approximately 2 hours. There would be a short break, but no talking throughout.
Although I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 6 years, this was by far the longest I have spent in meditation. I was daunted, but remembering my mindful practices of non-attachment, I just went for it! I can honestly say that by not having any expectations before the day, it actually helped me to just sit and see what happened. I experienced some mind wandering (obviously) but also achieved the longest period of peace and inner calm than I have ever previously achieved. This was done through listening to the environment – really letting the sounds of ‘now’ into awareness. I don’t mind admitting that I have struggled to have peace of mind for any great length of time over the years, but the benefits of any peace of mind are liberating to say the least. It was interesting to note on silent retreat that even when we were permitted to speak, nobody took up the offer. I also confess that there was a border collie in residence at the retreat and I may have forgotten myself and said hello to him…but I think he kept my secret.
The afternoon continued for another lengthy period of silence; around another 2 hours. Luckily the weather was good enough for mindful walking outside. It was interesting to note that people definitely preferred to stay in their own company drifting off to various corners of the retreat centre and garden, making no eye contact; as though when one kind of social interaction was off limits, all kinds were off limits. It was increasingly difficult to find lengthy periods of peace of mind throughout the day, but when concentrating for such long periods, attention does wander. I tried not to give myself a hard time over this. All participants reported different experiences: some really enjoyed it, others struggled. Spending time alone and in silence is a massive challenge for some personality types. Another reason why it’s so important to let go of judgment and move towards kindness.
What to ‘expect’ from yourself
Silent retreat isn’t easy. It’s a test for experienced meditators and can easily lead to frustration. It’s important to have a solid meditation practice before attempting silent retreat to get the most out of it. There isn’t much time for instruction, no guided meditation and no questioning so you need a full quota of practices to try out through the day/s.
You will find you become tired. It will definitely test your patience. You will have positive and negative thoughts and of course general busy-ness in the mind. That’s all ok! Try to welcome everything and push nothing away. We can place an expectation on ourselves on silent retreat that there will be some kind of breakthrough in our practice. This expectation is something that should be released as soon as possible. Holding onto expectation fuels attachment which definitely gets in the way of awareness. It should be approached the same way as any mindful meditation; without attachment to thought, without agenda and without the need for an outcome. I’d had this retreat booked for about 6 months in advance (people clearly queue up to not talk to each other) so it helped that I had no plans other than to be at the retreat. I had nothing to do but be there – how often does that happen in modern life!?
Above all else, remember to be compassionate and kind towards yourself…it’s the key to progress. I think this retreat advanced my practice by giving me a good length of time to practice in isolation. Without the distractions of everyday life and the pressing demands on my time I could really let myself be at ease with meditation. Silent retreat really does feel like a journey (cliché I know) but it’s true! All emotions are experienced. It’s definitely something I’d recommend and it’s certainly something I will be doing again.