Healing approaches

The importance of radical self-care

self-care

By Gemma Kennedy, transformational coach

At the start of May this year, I attended the Bodykind Festival in Totnes, a two-day event dedicated to the revolutionary act of showing kindness to our own bodies in order to change the world.

Something that struck me throughout a day of talks, workshops and panels was the sheer number of people discussing how much work they have put into treating their bodies kindly. After endless years of dieting and self-loathing, doing so does not necessarily come naturally to many.

But the people at the event were setting out on a mission to develop a positive relationship with, and be kinder to, their bodies. While such a shift may undoubtedly change an individual’s life for the better, it also has wider societal implications too because self-care is not all about bath bombs and pedicures. In fact, it includes a whole range of activities and practices, which, importantly, look different for everyone.

Sadly, self-care has to date been co-opted by commercial organisations as yet another way to sell us stuff. The promotion of self-care often focuses on appearance-related products and services, such as face masks and pedicures. But in order to go deeper than that and actually take care of our bodies effectively, regardless of how they look and how we feel about them, something more is required.

In my transformational coaching work, I prefer to use the term ‘radical self-care’, which usually involves practices that cannot be purchased in a shop or day spa. Instead the focus is on making daily life more manageable and enjoyable, which entails taking decisions to support yourself in the best possible way.

Small changes can be made across all areas of life to make things easier. The sum of these small shifts can lead to an altogether less stressful life as well as the capacity to better support others. We have all heard the clichéd advice to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist others, but it really is essential.

Woman Standing By Waterfall With Her Hands Raised

Aligning with your own needs

It is also important that self-care does not become just something else you can fail at – as with dieting or any of the other myriad things we ‘should’ do. Step one of radical self-care is about being gentle with yourself. There will be days where you are unable to take care of yourself as well as you would like, and reminding yourself that this is okay too is vital.

When I start to become self-critical, I like to ask myself whether I would talk to my children or a close friend in that way. The answer is always ‘absolutely not’ and it helps me to shift my inner talk to become more positive and compassionate.

Another issue I have with the mainstream self-care industry is that it requires a certain amount of privilege in order to engage in it. Beauty products, treatments and outings are costly, which means that those who are often most in need of self-care are excluded.

While it is still a privilege to have the time and energy to engage in radical self-care, it is much more accessible. Taking just a couple of minutes out of your day to breathe or move your body in a way that feels good can work wonders.

Other radical self-care activities I engage in regularly include ensuring I eat regular meals that my body actually wants rather than skipping them or eating something I dislike because it is quick; lighting a candle and drinking a cup of tea alone; and taking time to read or journal before bed or first thing in the morning.

But much more radical than any of these is the fact I check-in with myself regularly to ensure that what I am doing feels aligned with my needs.

Leap of faith

Changing yourself – and the world

In the past, I have found people-pleasing all too easy a pastime – and definitely to my own detriment. Setting clear boundaries around what I do and do not want to do, as well as removing myself from toxic relationships, have helped me make huge improvements to my quality of life. If I do not spend my time doing things against my will just to avoid upsetting others, I find I conserve so much more energy, which enables me to do the things that actually bring me joy.

Of course, as a mum it is not always possible to focus on my own needs. But I am open and honest with my children when I require a quiet morning at home or when I cannot play with them because I have to make sure I have eaten something (to avoid my hangry tendencies).

To some, this may sound selfish, but not only is it important to take care of myself in order to be the best parent I can, it is also about modelling radical self-care to my children too. At the ages of three and seven, they are already aware of the importance of listening to their bodies and setting boundaries around what does and does not feel good to them. I hope this awareness will stand them in good stead to help them avoid the pitfalls of things, such as diet culture, that I unwittingly fell into.

So can radical self-care change the world? I mentioned at the beginning that this approach has wider societal implications, and they have become glaringly obvious during my own endeavours in this area. Just as I am able to be a better parent when I show myself compassion, I also have a huge amount of extra energy to plough into my activism and coaching practice. The energy I would have spent on hating my body, or perhaps feeling exhausted by a lack of boundaries, can instead be spent productively on working for actual social change.

For many – myself included – it is one hell of a journey to get to a place where we have positive or even neutral feelings about our bodies. But it is worth every single struggle to arrive at a space where we can contribute to something bigger than ourselves – and feel nurtured in the process.

Gemma Kennedy

Gem Kennedy is a Body Positive activist and transformational coach. Having started her first diet aged 10 and spent many years promising herself that this would be the year to lose weight and start living, a switch flicked in 2017 when she discovered the Body Positive and Fat Activist communities. After training as a transformational coach, she now specialises in coaching and mentoring clients both individually and in groups to help them shed the burden of today’s diet culture and feel confident enough to be in the world exactly as they are, right now.

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Healing approaches

Finding your Witness: The power of the ‘neutral mind’

meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

When chatting with a dear friend the other day about coping with personal challenges, we wondered what it must be like to go through hard times without “The Witness.” I know I must have done so at some time in my life, but I could not tell you exactly when my Witness showed up – it was definitely post-children but only just. Which is a great blessing because, for me, becoming a mother has definitely triggered some intense personal challenges.

I am aware that I bang on about self-care as well as the benefits of yoga and mediation and having a regular practice, but I do not necessarily focus enough on why. My fear is that yoga and meditation have been so hijacked by consumerism that many people have already switched off and tuned out. These practices have lost some of their sacredness and potency, which is a real shame because we need them now more than ever – not least because we all need a Witness to support us through the hard times.

So what is ‘The Witness’? Although the Witness is the most meaningful term to me personally, in the kundalini yoga tradition, it is also known as the ‘neutral mind’. World-renowned kundalini yoga master and spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, defined the neutral mind as the global positioning system of the Aquarian Age.

He described it as “the part of the mind that has direct connection to our Soul’s guidance…Until our mind is clear, we are a slave to the emotion and commotion that makes us reactive to [the] unknowns that we meet on the road of life.”

In other words, the Witness is objective, balanced and is all about right action rather than reaction – and it is why I practice every day, not just when I feel bad. This is what it means for me:

The Witness is always available

It doesn’t matter how dark I feel or how completely consumed I am by frantic, looping thoughts, the Witness is always sitting in a corner, watching and waiting to be called upon without judgement or a need to be invited to participate in the conversation.

I will never forget the morning of the Paris bombings in 2015. It was a Friday. I was crossing the road with my children on the way to school and one of them stepped out too soon. I yanked him back in plenty of time, but it triggered a dread of the darkest proportions. The feeling intensified as the day went on and by next morning, I could not get out of bed because I felt so sad and terrified.

At this point, I was not aware of what had transpired the evening before, but on reading the news, it felt as though my antennae had picked up the sorrow and fear of the entire world and was downloading it straight to my heart. That weekend I did not leave the house, mainly due to my uncontrollable weeping.

But through all the despair and terror, I also knew this time would pass and that, despite the depth of my feelings over the state of the world, it would change nothing – only action would do that. I also understood that this tragedy, so close to home, was happening in other places all over the world in one way or another, and that every heartbreak was a projection of the human race’s collective suffering.

And yet, I also believe that progression towards a kinder, fairer, more tolerant and collaborative way of being was, and is, inevitable. Change is inevitable. Evolution is inevitable. Fact: Every day, someone somewhere awakens to their own consciousness, and it is like lighting a candle in the dark. So every day, the world becomes a little brighter.

Wheel of Life mandala

The Witness helps us heal

Here is the magic: The fact that the Witness knows all of this is what enables us to fully embrace the darkness, to visit the pain without being held back, so that we can move through it.

Without The Witness there to hold us in its unconditional presence, we can never fully feel our feelings enough to integrate them and heal. My Witness did not save me from the utter darkness of that time. I still thought all my fearful thoughts and cried my tears of grief, but I also knew, simultaneously, that everything would be OK. And lo and behold, it was.

The Witness enables us to change

Some say that the definition of insanity is repeatedly behaving in the same way but expecting the result to change. But achieving real, lasting shifts are tricky because we are hardwired to maintain the status quo. Our biology would suggest that such habits are efficient – but only if they continue to serve us.

The Witness is the element of the mind that says: “Hey, I thought you weren’t going to think that thought anymore. It’s self-abuse.” Or: “Hey, I know you love sugar, but it makes you feel unwell, so do you really want to eat that?”

For a long time, I heard The Witness loud and clear but chose to politely ignore it. Slowly, gradually, after many hours on the mat, my Witness has become stronger and louder than my ego-mind. More often than not, it overrules the habitual, unhelpful impulses that have kept me stuck in patterns that no longer serve me.

And I have changed. I have fewer looping thoughts. I feel lighter, clearer, and my thinking is more ordered. I am able to experience real, authentic joy and act on my creative ideas. I also feel more connected and loving and yes, cliché as it has become, present, in my relationships.

How to meet your own Witness

As to how to gain an introduction to your Witness, meditation is the exercise that will help you do so, and yoga is the practice that will condition your nervous system and endocrine system to follow its wisdom. And once you have found it, it will always be available to you.

You will know it because it has no capacity for emotion, even though it fully allows you to experience the depth of your emotions. It has no agenda, except that which is true, or in alignment with your highest purpose in this lifetime. It has no aim other than to reveal all those fractured parts of yourself, which are rooted in shame, grief and fear and need to be brought into awareness so you can integrate them and continue on your journey towards wholeness.

Your Witness can be your Best Friend Forever. It is the relationship with yourself that yoga and meditation can provide. So if you have switched off and tuned out to the promise of what a personal practice could offer, now could be the time to reconsider?

Sarah Stollery

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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Uncovering the secrets of Ayurvedic yoga massage

By Theresa Banovic, yoga and yoga nidra teacher

Ayurveda, otherwise known as the ‘science of life’, is an ancient system of healing from India. It does not aim to treat the symptoms of a disease but rather to get to the root cause of the problem.

Health and wellbeing, according to the Ayurvedic philosophy, is a state of balance in which body, mind and consciousness are in harmony. If any of these three components moves out of balance, the door is opened to disease.

Ayurvedic yoga massage (AYM) was first developed in the early 1980s and continues to be expanded upon by Master Kusum Modak in Pune, India, who has dedicated her life to the practice. She created her own unique approach to Ayurvedic massage by combining her knowledge of Ayurveda and traditional Ayurvedic massage with yoga, which she learned directly from the late BKS Iyengar, who has been credited with popularising yoga on an international basis.

AYM combines deep tissue massage with co-ordinated breath work and yoga stretches. The deep tissue massage dissolves physical tension, while the assisted stretches and breath exercises realign the body and stimulate the natural flow of energy.

An individual session of AYM is given on a mattress on the floor. The length of the treatment may vary from between one and two hours and alternates between the therapist providing a deep tissue massage using their hands and feet and clients undertaking a series of stretches that cover all regions of their body to help create a feeling of openness and being present. Some of the other benefits that AYM brings include:

  1. Harmonising the flow of vital energy (prana) and inducing a deep sense of stillness and opening;
  2. Stimulating breathing and promoting the movement of all the body’s fluids, thereby improving circulation;
  3. Releasing muscle tension and loosening up stiff joints;
  4. Stretching fascia and realigning body structure;
  5. Increasing the range of possible movement and improving posture;
  6. Boosting flexibility, especially when undertaking yoga, dance and fitness exercises;
  7. Raising energy levels;
  8. Restoring harmony between the doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

Complementary oils and powders

Ayurvedic oils – most commonly sesame oil – are also used during AYM for their healing properties. Sesame oil, which is extracted from sesame seeds, is rich in antioxidants. This means that when it is used in massage treatments, it helps remove toxins from the skin.

Sesame oil is packed with healthy ingredients – Vitamin E, lecithin, minerals, proteins as well as high levels of oleic and linoleum acid. As a result, it is anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and wonderful for moistening dry skin. To obtain the full benefits following a massage, it should be left on overnight and washed off in the morning. 

Another unique tool of AYM is Calamus powder, which is used with just a little oil to remove toxins from the body, dispel physical and emotional blocks and promote correct posture, leaving clients with a deep sense of wellbeing. It also helps to improve therapists’ grip to enable a deeper massage, which contributes to awakening the skin, circulation and senses. 

Calamus is a plant, of which there are various species. The root, which is dried and ground to make a powder, is traditionally used in Ayurveda for its ability to enhance cognitive functioning, which includes possibly helping to boost memory and concentration. It can also help to relieve joint pain and promote relaxation.  

Padabhyanga (Ayurvedic foot massage)

Indian foot massage is called Padabhyanga and holds a very special place within the Ayurvedic tradition as it helps in both treating and preventing illnesses. Padabhyanga is commonly practiced as a daily ritual in India and is often especially effective before retiring at night. 

There is a wonderful ancient Indian saying, which goes: “Disease does not go near one who massages his feet before sleeping, just as snakes do not approach eagles.”

Feet are an important part of our body as nerves from many organs terminate there. So regular massage can help to strengthen these nerves and restore health to many parts of the body.

During Padabhyanga, the marma (vital) points are massaged, which helps to balance the dosha and can be very helpful for people with insomnia, fatigue and muscle cramps. An individual session lasts between 30 and 45 minutes and can take place on a massage couch or mattress on the floor. Some of the key benefits include:

  1. Helping to calm the mind;
  2. Assisting in the maintenance of effective eyesight and hearing;
  3. Promoting good quality sleep;
  4. Aiding foot health as it alleviates pain, improves muscle tone and nourishes the skin;
  5. Helping to calm and maintain the ‘Vata dosha”, which if present to excess is regarded in Ayurveda as the major cause of illness in the body.
Theresa Banovic

Theresa Banovic is a BWY yoga instructor and wellness advocate. She provides Padabhyanga by appointment at Mokshala Yoga Studio, Saffron Walden, Essex. Contact her at breatheformrelax@gmail.com. For Ayurvedic massage training levels one to four, contact www.retreatme-retreats.co.uk.

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Kinesiology: Learning the Touch for Health phenomenon

By Anita Ramsden, kinesiologist

Although Touch for Health has been described as the most widely-used system of kinesiology in the world, it is actually a relatively young alternative and complementary therapy. Since the first manual on the subject was published in 1973, millions of people in more than 100 countries have benefitted from it.

According to the International Kinesiology College: “The Touch for Health model does not treat or diagnose symptoms, but works with the energy, lifestyle and aspirations of the client, offering a safe and effective way to maintain health, enhance well-being and upgrade performance.”

In fact, the approach was created by the incredible John Thie, with the aim of encouraging and empowering people to take an active role in restoring and maintaining their own health and wellbeing and that their family and friends.

How can Touch for Health help me?

The premise of the so-called ‘Triangle of Health’ is that all aspects of an individual’s system need to be in balance for them to feel good. These aspects are mental/emotional, physical/structural and biochemical/physiological. When each of these elements are all in balance, you have an equilateral triangle. But if any one of them move out of balance, the triangle (and therefore, your health) become distorted.

For example, being under stress at work could affect your mental/emotional health, which in turn increases your stress hormone levels. This situation can generate biochemical problems, leading to headaches/migraines, an inability to sleep at night and so on. It could also result in muscular problems in the physical/structural area due to tight shoulder and/or back muscles, which creates poor posture, a twisted torso or even digestive issues.

In other words, an imbalance in one area can have a knock-on effect on each of the other areas too, so Touch for Health takes an holistic approach. But its aim is not to diagnose or treat symptoms. Instead it helps individuals and their bodies to move back into balance, thereby enabling them to attain health more readily.

How does Touch for Health help achieve balance?

Although it may sound a bit dry to say that Touch for Health is based on muscle monitoring or testing that helps obtain feedback from the body, it is actually a fun and fascinating thing to experience or feel. To help the body return to balance, muscle monitoring is used to literally communicate with it and find out exactly what it wants. 

A hands-on therapy, Touch for Health is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, using the same principles as those employed in acupressure, work with the meridians and nutritional therapy. While this may sound daunting, the approach is actually taught in a very easy-to-understand way based on simple-to-use techniques.

Essentially, you build on your knowledge as you move through four different levels. While level one acts as an introduction, in level two, you learn to use muscle testing to discover which foods are beneficial to the body and which are not, alongside incredibly powerful emotional stress release procedures. By balancing the body in this way, it becomes possible to help relieve aches and pains and gain more clarity.

In fact, from the first balance onwards, you can start to see postural changes. Stress dissolves and faces light up. There is always lots of laughing and a great connection between the students, who are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and their needs by speaking up for what they feel and want during a session.

Do I need any prior knowledge to learn Touch for Health?

Absolutely anyone can learn this amazing technique. For example, when I was taught it back in 2004, one member of our class was a lovely, vibrant 72-year old nun who wanted to help the other sisters in her convent feel better. She was awesome. I am also currently teaching my daughter who would like to take this skill to university with her. While it does take practice, the two-day practical hands-on workshops give you all of the information and experience you need to start balancing others. 

How long does it take to learn?

Touch for Health is taught in four levels, each of which takes the form of a two-day workshop, or equivalent time (15 hours). Homework and practice is required after each level because muscle testing is an art that needs to be nurtured and practiced regularly if you are to become proficient. Working with as many people as possible makes it easier to feel different, possible responses, so the more you do it, the more confident you will feel.  

What can you do with Touch for Health?

Undertaking levels one to four enables you to work with friends and family, but if you choose to go on to the proficiency level, you can become qualified to practice on members of the general public. Just so you know, Touch for Health is both a stand-alone therapy and is also recognised as acting as a foundation for other branches of kinesiology – so if you would like to know more, please drop me a line.

Anita Ramsden

Anita Ramsden is a kinesiologist. She is emphatic about affecting positive change and her work encourages wellbeing for mind, body and soul. Anita is also a member of the Kinesiology Federation.

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Yoga: Developing compassion as a first step towards peace and harmony

Photo by Cedric Lim on Pexels.com

By Gayatri, yoga, meditation teacher and gong practitioner

Yoga as a practice is thousands of years old, whose teachings were originally passed from teacher to student by word of mouth. The word ‘yoga’ itself means to yoke, unite or harness. As such, yoga is a state of being, which manifests itself as a uniting of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energies with the energies of nature and the cosmos.

In Western culture, yoga is largely seen – although this situation is starting to change – as a series of postures performed to help create and maintain physical health. In fact, the practice of Hatha yoga (yoga of the body) was originally developed to focus on strengthening and balancing the body’s energies to prepare for meditation, which could lead to transcendental realisation (enlightenment).

But in reality, yoga is a vast subject and physical practice is simply one important aspect. For instance, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were written as a practical guide for raising levels of consciousness and understanding by helping people to move through the different levels of the mind and even beyond it. 

The word ‘sutra’ means thread. So each sutra can be seen as a thread running through a tapestry. When all the threads are woven together, it is possible to see the whole picture. 

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ‘yama’ and ‘niyama’ are introduced in the second book, Sadhana Pada – 2:29, as the first two limbs or steps on the path of Ashtanga yoga (eight-limbed yoga or the eightfold path).

According to Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati: “The yamas are meant to harmonise one’s social and external interactions, whereas the Niyamas create a sense of discipline in one’s inner life.”

Yama and niyama also form the foundation and framework of Raja yoga (the yoga of meditation) and act as guidelines for harmonious living. They are intended to bring mental clarity, stillness and strength to people, so that they can reach the higher states of meditation and consciousness. Even if you choose not to follow a yoga path to its ultimate conclusion (enlightenment) though, cultivating the yamas and niyamas can still bring more peace and harmony into your life.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Ahimsa

The first yama, which isahimsa, translates loosely as ‘non-violence’. But in the words of Swami Ahimsadhara, it could more accurately be described as “the complete absence of violence from our nature”. Indeed, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:35 (translated by Swami Satchidananda) state: “In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”

Ahimsa is placed first on the list of yamas because, by cultivating non-violence, the rest of the yama and niyama that follow should unfold more easily. As Swami Ahimsadhara Saraswati says: “When we integrate ahimsa into all that we do, the other yamas and niyamas tend to spontaneously and effortlessly become part of who we are and how we live.”

Therefore, through cultivating non-violence, we make friends with our minds and lay the groundwork for everything else to follow. So how can we begin to develop ahimsa or ‘compassion’ in our daily lives?

The first step starts with awareness: Awareness of our thoughts, feelings and the internal dialogue we have with ourselves. All too often we treat ourselves harshly and are unaware of the hurt we perpetuate within our own being. But by creating some space, either within a group practising tai chi, yoga or meditation or by ourselves in a nurturing environment, we can begin to explore our internal landscape.

Here is a simple breath awareness exercise that can easily be brought into regular practice in your daily life. Focusing on the breath encourages the parasympathetic nervous system (system that promotes relaxation) to switch itself on.

Setting a convenient time to undertake this exercise in a quiet space dedicated to doing so encourages regular practice. Once you are comfortable with the technique, you will find it can be used in all kinds of locations, for example, in a waiting room, on public transport or in your car when you are stuck in traffic.

Breath awareness exercise

  • Sit comfortably and, if appropriate, close your eyes or lower your gaze. 
  • Become aware of each breath as it arrives and leaves. Allow yourself to take several breaths and focus on each arrival and departure.
  • Notice the texture of the breath on your skin as it flows in and out.  
  • Notice any other sensations or qualities to the breath as the practice unfolds.
  • If your mind is distracted and your awareness wanders away from the breath, gently draw your attention back to it and its journey as it arrives and leaves.
  • When you feel comfortable with the practice, add a count: ‘Breathing in one… Breathing out one…Breathing in two…Breathing out two…’. Notice any pauses at the top of the inhalation and/or the bottom of the exhalation.
  • If comfortable, you can add physical movement to synchronise with the breath by placing both hands on the centre of the chest (the spiritual heart space). On the in-breath, move the hands away, opening the arms out with soft shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands. On the out breath, draw them back to the heart space.
  • Practice this exercise for a few complete breaths and, when it feels comfortable, visualise yourself sending compassion out to all beings as your hands move away from the heart space. Visualise offering yourself compassion as your hands return to the heart.
  • At the end of the practice, return to stillness with your hands gently resting in your lap and observe your body, breath and any thoughts and feelings that may be present.

The purpose of this exercise is to note each complete breath. Although there is no set length or prescribed number of times it should be undertaken each day, as a guide, start with 10-15 complete breaths (a complete breath consists of one inhalation and one exhalation) twice a day. 

As time goes on, simply increase or drop the number of breaths in line with what feels comfortable. There is no rush, so take the time to develop a practice at your own pace.

The real key to success here is regularity, which involves setting an intention to practice daily. By setting this time aside, we are showing compassion to ourselves in that we are demonstrating ourselves worthy of the time and effort involved. 

If a day or two slips by and you forget to practice, just return to it the next day, putting aside any judgement or criticism. None of us are perfect and no one is keeping score – it is called a practice because we are practising. 

We would expect a toddler, who is learning to walk, to fall down again and again, and so, as we cultivate ahimsa(compassion) in our daily lives, we discover that we too are finding our way. Showing compassion to ourselves is vital for our own wellbeing and, as we become more compassionate to ourselves, we also find it easier to be kinder to the world around us.

As Plato said: “Be kind, because everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle”. But that also includes ourselves.

Gayatri

Gayatri (Gail Gibbs) teaches yoga and meditation and is a gong practitioner. She is passionate about creating space for those of any age to explore their transformational potential in a safe and nurturing way. Cultivating compassion for oneself is at the heart of Gayatri’s teaching and sound work, thus allowing the process of personal growth and change to unfold.

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