Healing approaches

Cultivating mindfulness to support transformational change

Butterfly on zen Stones

By Laura McAvoy, transformational coach

There are many ways to experience mindfulness and meditation, whether through your own daily practice, within an embodiment tradition such as yoga or Tai Chi, or perhaps as part of a practical approach to stress reduction, to name but a few.

Mindfulness might not immediately spring to mind when you think of transformational coaching, with its focus on speaking and conversation to help you move your life forward. Yet mindfulness and coaching can have a big impact if the two approaches are combined – especially if you are feeling ‘stuck’.

It is an absolute truth that we can make a choice and make a change. Yet, deep personal transformation – the kind that brings significant, lasting and meaningful change – can often feel like a long process.

At times of transition – after becoming a parent, during and after illness or bereavement, in mid-life, during menopause or at certain points in our relationships or work – we can be called on to take stock, to turn inward and ask ourselves: Who am I and what do I really want?

Clients who start coaching work are often on the crest of this wave, seeking answers and with an awareness that something needs to move forward but wrestling back and forth in dilemma. They often feel hemmed-in by life circumstances, unsure of whether they have the resources within themselves to create something new and feeling trapped in circular thought patterns based on indecision.

The aim of a transformational coach in this scenario is to shift that sense of inertia or paralysis by helping to liberate their thinking.

If you are feeling stuck and want to start helping yourself immediately though, it could be useful to explore the attitudes on which mindfulness is based, which is an excellent place to begin. According to Emily Johnston, one of my trainers and a long standing mindfulness and wellbeing coach, mindfulness is underpinned by seven key attitudes:

  1. Non-judgement;
  2. Patience;
  3. Beginner’s mind;
  4. Trust;
  5. Non-striving;
  6. Acceptance;
  7. Letting go.

Sit for a while and sample the flavour of each of these attitudes, before combining them with some simple coaching questions. Doing so should help you shift perspective on your current situation.

Non-judgement

If you have been feeling stuck or as if you are not moving forward, your self-talk is likely to involve an element of judgement.

Ask yourself: How am I judging myself in this situation? Where am I placing blame? How is this judgement serving me in either moving forward or staying stuck?

See if you can ease yourself – even if only for while – into a state of non-judgement. Could you re-tell your story using only factual statements without your ‘inner critic’ rising up? If you are unsure, write your story down and read it back as if it had been written by a friend. What would you say to them upon reading it? How does this approach change things?

Beginner’s mind

This is my absolute favourite. ‘Beginner’s mind’ asks us to view our situation with curiosity and to approach it with an almost childlike wonder and openness as if for the very first time, with all of our preconceptions lifted. In other words, look at things as if they offer a new possibility.

Ask yourself: What have I not explored in my situation? What might I have missed? What other meanings could this situation hold for me? What other outcomes may be available?

Trust

Trust plays a crucial part in helping us make a shift. If we do not trust ourselves, our environment or other people, it makes it hard to be free ourselves enough to make the choices we desire.

Ask yourself: Where does my trust lie? What, if anything, is hindering my belief in myself? Who and what can help to support me?

Non-striving

The idea of ‘non-striving’ may seem to go against most people’s idea of coaching, but it actually sits at the heart of transformative practice. Deep transformation involves a process of unfolding, which entails listening in to yourself and being responsive to what arises, and even changing course if needs be.

Ask yourself: How can I bring a sense of more ease into my life? How can I honour the process in which I am finding myself? How can I truly be present?

Acceptance

Once we see things how they really are and are less clouded by judgement, fear and limiting beliefs, such acceptance can be freeing. It is not only about accepting the circumstances that surround us but also about accepting what is rising within us in terms of our emotions.

The discomfort provoked by some feelings could be too difficult to experience, so instead of accepting them and allowing them to express and dissipate, we supress or deny them. But it might also be worth exploring whether we accept the role that we are playing in what is happening too.

Ask yourself: What, if anything, have I been struggling to accept? What might I need to allow to rise within me? What am I feeling?

Letting go

Letting go is a process that naturally follows noticing and accepting.

Ask yourself: What is ready to be released in my life? What thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, relationships, old patterns and habits are no longer serving me? What will support me in letting them go? Where might more forgiveness be helpful?

By questioning your situation with an attitude of mindfulness, you could gain new traction. The story in your head might not be the ‘whole truth’, so it may be possible to find a fresh perspective by engaging in a mindfulness or meditation practice that suits you.

If this suggestion resonates, it may be helpful to find the time and set the intention to cultivate the seven attitudes of mindfulness within you. Just five to 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a big difference if you practice it consistently.

Laura McAvoy

Laura McAvoy provides transformative coaching and dialogue for women. She also offers group coaching courses, coaching circles and 1:1 work, all of which incorporates mindfulness and meditation. Laura works in Saffron Walden, Essex, and the surrounding area.

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Healing approaches

Yoga Nidra: Learning to relax, consciously

Yoga Nidra Savasana pose

By Theresa Banovic, yoga and yoga nidra teacher

Yoga Nidra is a powerful meditation technique, based on ancient tantric practices, that helps you learn to relax consciously.

You may feel as if you are relaxing when you lounge on the sofa with a cuppa, watch TV, or read a book, but such activities will never meet the body’s need to relax completely. Even sleep is not actually regarded as relaxation from a Yoga Nidra point of view.

Instead the idea is that true relaxation takes us far beyond any sensory diversions. When our consciousness remains connected to our senses, we become less receptive. But when experiencing Yoga Nidra, it is about remaining aware while turning inwards, away from outer experiences to settle into a state of deep calm.

So just how does this happen? When practising Yoga Nidra, you generally lie down flat on your back on the ground (in yoga, this is known as Savasana pose) – although resting in a semi-reclined position or sitting in a chair is fine too if lying is not possible for you. Make sure you are as comfortable as you can be by wearing warm clothes, socks and even a lovely eye pillow infused with essential oils if you like. Blankets, cushions and bolsters can also help here too.

Your teacher/guide/recording will then lead you through breath awareness exercises, before systematically referring to different parts of the body fairly swiftly. All you need to do is mentally repeat each body part to yourself, place your awareness there and feel the area relax.

There is no need to move. It is more about listening, trying to surrender to the experience and going with the flow of this wonderful healing practice.

Om mantra

Experiencing deep relaxation

The idea is to keep your mind moving from point to point, remaining aware of every experience. Deep relaxation should take place at a cellular level, enabling physical, emotional and mental tensions to be released. Ideally, you should try not to fall asleep – although sometimes it is simply not possible.

When we relax deeply with the help of Yoga Nidra, we clear a space for the unconscious and subconscious levels of the mind to open and become really receptive. This means that, if we plant an idea there at this time, it will become very potent – like planting a seed and watching it grow.

So it is very important to make an intention, or Sankalpa, at the start. This can act as a positive way of focussing on the direction you would like to take in life, something you would like for yourself such as a new job or better health, or something you would like to give up. It could be a future goal, or even a simple act of gratitude.

Swami Satyananda described Yoga Nidra as an invaluable stress management tool, which could even be used to learn a language or other subject. In truth, it can be used to train the mind to accomplish anything.

It is usual to make a Sankalpa every time you practice Yoga Nidra, although it makes sense to stick to the same one for a while – and, if you use the technique regularly, you should be able to notice a change. In fact, if you choose to practice Yoga Nidra regularly, it will inevitably become an integral and invaluable part of your life.

Theresa Banovic

Theresa Banovic is a BWY yoga instructor and wellness advocate. She teaches Hatha yogaRestorative yoga and the Yoga Nidra meditation technique in a class setting, while offering yoga and massage retreats in both the UK and Portugal too. Theresa is also a trained provider of Ayurvedic massage.

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Healing approaches

Kundalini yoga: Taking on the challenge of transformational change

women s white top and orange floral skirt
Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

As the turn of the year approaches once again, how many of you have started thinking about New Year’s resolutions – even if, quite often, they are not very new at all? In fact, all too often, they are actually the same ones we made last year but did not stick to.

Which begs the question of why bother? Change is hard work. So shouldn’t we just accept ourselves as we are and let go of the idea that we could create a better version of ourselves?

Loving and accepting ourselves for who we are is certainly a worthy aim. But even doing that meaningfully can require transformation of a kind – a transformation in our thinking.

And what about those resolutions that really would support us in living more fulfilling, connected and joyous lives? If you are stuck in a job you hate, it IS important to make 2019 the year you find a new vocation.

If you are feeling stifled creatively, 2019 IS the year to find a satisfying outlet for your passion. If you are chronically stressed and exhausted, 2019 IS the year to find a more balanced and sustainable way of living.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

Transformational change

But change is challenging, and sometimes the best intentions in the world are simply not enough to ensure temporary change becomes lasting transformation. That is where kundalini yoga and meditation come in. They act as tools to help bring about authentic, lasting transformation by working on multiple levels.

Habits, both good and bad, exist not just in our subconscious and unconscious minds, but also in our cellular memory as well. So, to delete old habits and create new ones successfully, it is necessary to work on all of these levels. Kundalini yoga can help here by:

  • Rewiring our nervous system to remove old habits and embed new ones;
  • Rebalancing and reprogramming our endocrine (hormonal) system to support us through the emotional challenges that change generates;
  • Cultivating a neutral mind so that we have the necessary awareness to make conscious choices untainted by ego, which resists change;
  • Developing an achievable daily practice that specifically targets the changes we wish to make;
  • Providing us with a supportive community of fellow yogis, who are also working towards making change and so help to keep us accountable.

Life is too short to write off effecting transformational change in the name of loving and accepting ourselves as we are. It is important to remember that we cannot fully love and accept ourselves if we are not living an authentic life in which we recognise and honour our own needs. So it is vital to put in the hard work required to ensure those needs are met by creating the necessary change.

If you would like support in making such changes real and lasting, check out my new six-week Kundalini Yoga and Meditation Course starting on 16 January 2019 at the Mokshala Yoga and Meditation Centre in Saffron Walden, Essex. You won’t regret it.

sarah stollery headshot

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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Healing approaches

Kundalini Yoga: Awakening to a new truth

 

Woman meditating on a mountain
Meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

In factual terms, Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, who first revealed the formerly secret practice to the West in the late 1960s, may be defined as:

  • The yoga of awareness;
  • A practice that prepares the body to release Kundalini, or life force, energy, which is coiled at the base of the spine and holds your energy field in stasis. When activated, this energy travels up a number of primary energy channels and merges with the crown chakra, bringing your spirit into union with the infinite, eternal essence of the cosmos;
  • Incorporating pranayama (breathing exercises), kriya (a series of yoga postures that work towards a specific outcome), meditation and mantras (chanting);
  • A non-religious practice, although it does include elements of, and teachings from, Sikh and other major world religions;
  • Embracing seva or selfless service to others.

relaxation sitting reflection statue
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What does Kundalini Yoga mean to me?

To me, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of opportunity. It is an invitation to get to know yourself – both the light and shadow sides in equal measure. It is a chance to find healing and liberation from the traumas that all of us carry with us but often fail to integrate into our being.

But unlike some other modern day spiritual paths or self-help schemes, Kundalini Yoga does not promise a challenge-free path to freedom, which is why I believe it remains fairly niche. It is an approach that challenges and provokes as much as it elevates.

Above all, however, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of connection: to ourselves, our families, our communities, all life on earth and finally to the universe’s truths.

My teacher Guru Dharam once described it as “a blueprint for an experience of you, but how you manifest that experience is entirely down to the individual. Embrace this challenging and unique path with commitment and heart, and the prize will be knowing yourself in this lifetime”.

Let me share with you a special experience I had half-way through my teacher training:

It is 5am on a Sunday morning in the middle of January. I, along with 40 other Kundalini Yoga teacher trainees are sitting, spines upright, eyes closed, waiting in silence for the recitation of Japji, one of the five daily Sikh prayers, to begin.

This morning, we find ourselves in a cavernous, converted barn, usually reserved for weddings, instead of the usual Elizabethan manor house where we live and practise as there are too many people to fit. The sub-zero temperatures outside mean it is not much warmer inside, and we can just about see our breath in the low lighting. My thin mat is proving poor protection against the freezing cold floor, and I find myself wishing I had a sheepskin mat like some of my friends.

But then the Japji begins and I become lost in the lyrical rhythm of its words. It is the start of the Aquarian Sadhana, a two-and-a-half hour practice that Yogi Bhajan gave us in 1992 to help with the transition into the Aquarian Age.

After Japji, we tune into the golden chain linking us to our teacher and to all the teachers that have come before by means of the Adi mantra, before launching into the kriya for this morning’s practice. By this time, I am grateful to have the chance to move. Heat begins to spread through my body as a combination of the stiffness from Saturday’s yoga, and the cold, starts to ease.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

A new truth

Following this yoga set, we relax in savasana (lying on our backs) for a few minutes – just long enough for the cold to seep back into my bones. But I don’t mind as my favourite part of the sadhana is just about to start: it is time for Long Morning Calls.

We chant the mantra seven times in seven minutes and, even though I have hardly moved in that time, the cosy feeling in my body and the space around me is like warm honey.

We now move our mats, blankets and sheepskins closer to the front of the room, where my teacher Benjahmin is setting up his harmonium and guitar. He starts to play the first six mantras that make up the playlist of the Aquarian Sadhana. As I hear each one, I am convinced each is my favourite.

But the penultimate mantra actually is. As we move into virasana (hero pose), I reaffirm to myself that this time I will remain in posture, sitting on my left foot with my hands held in prayer, for the whole 22 minutes.

Benjahmin plays the opening chords and my heart melts as the weight of what I am about to shed from my being starts to thaw, ready for release. I begin to sing and cry at the same time. As the music builds, so does an indescribable feeling in my heart. It feels as if all the love and pain that ever was and ever will be is exploding in waves of ever-increasing mass and energy, crashing into every thought, every cell and every breath.

Halfway through, I stop singing to allow myself to truly feel the intensity of the experience. I am of my body but not in it. The boundaries of my being have disappeared and I have merged with the space, the other souls around me and the essence of the sound or naad.

All thought has stopped. All I can do is feel. And now it comes – an awareness that has been lurking at the edge of my consciousness since I came to my mat two hours ago. I now know something, not with my mind, but with each of my 10 physical, mental and energy bodies. Because it’s not a thought so much as a truth firmly lodged in my being: “There is no suffering without purpose.”

What this actually means to me will be the subject of a separate blog but suffice to say, it is a knowing that continues to unfold daily and my absolute certainty in this truth is as strong now as it was on that icy morning three-and-a-half years ago.

sarah stollery headshot

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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Inspiring spaces

Labyrinths: A pathway to healing

Turf maze in Saffron Walden
Turf maze in Saffron Walden

By Cath Everett, content editor for the Spirit of East Anglia community.

Saffron Walden, a pretty, little market town in North West Essex, prides itself on its mazes. So proud is it of them, in fact, that it holds a regular Maze Festival there, the last one of which took place in 2016.

While two of its mazes were only created a few years ago – one in the bandstand in the town’s Jubilee Garden and another at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond – the others are a bit more special. This is because Saffron Walden is unique in the UK in having two historic mazes within its boundaries.

The first consists of a traditional Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town. It was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never attached to a house, something that is pretty unusual for formal gardens of this type.

Anyway, the second, although known locally as “The Maze”, is actually a circular turf labyrinth. Located on the east side of the town’s extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town, it is the largest Medieval turf maze of its kind in Europe at an impressive 35 metres in diameter.

Apparently built in 1699, this labyrinth is said to be based on an even older version that was located nearby. And its path, which is now inlaid with bricks rather than the original cut-away turf, curves backwards and forwards in 17 circuits. It visits four small, bulgy bits, otherwise known as bastions, to form the shape of a cross, before winding itself to a higher central mound that, in most similar cases, would take the form of a rosette.

Rosettes in those days were often shaped as six-petalled roses and symbolised love, both human and divine and, like the Lotus flower of the East, enlightenment. Indeed, in Medieval Christian thought, to reach the centre of a labyrinth was to come face-to-face with God and experience the radical transformation that would undoubtedly follow.

But interestingly, at the centre of Saffron Walden’s labyrinth, there was actually an ash tree. And ash trees, or Nuin as they are known in the Ogham or ancient Celtic Tree Alphabet, symbolised, in a somewhat similar vein, rebirth, regeneration, reawakening and new beginnings. Ashes were likewise the tree of Gwydion, hero, trickster and master enchanter of Britain.

But ash trees also pop up in other traditions too. According to Norse mythology, the great ash was Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which was sacred to the Allfather God, Odin.

Landscape Pic Of Mighty Ash Tree Roots Covering The Hill
Ash tree

Esoteric knowledge

In fact, he hung on the World Tree for nine days and nights without food to gain esoteric knowledge, after which time he perceived the runes, a magical, ancient Germanic alphabet said to contain many of the secrets of existence.

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed to me by keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers, during Saffron Walden’s Maze Festival in 2016. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

Anyway, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. This situation could, therefore, be said to represent the human experience as we struggle through life’s winding paths, dead-ends and detours, trying to make sense of it and not get too lost.

Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit circuitously, to the heart of the matter and then back again. The idea here, among other things, is that these twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path.

As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, has in fact recently researched and written a book called ‘Reducing Stress through Labyrinth Walking’ based on her work with clients, students and prison inmates, in which she harnessed the labyrinth’s power.

And I must say that labyrinth-walking certainly made an impact on me. Although I had never done it before, I thought I would give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and try to forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

LabyrinthLabyrinth

Symbols and archetypes

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I had not expected to surface. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I would certainly like to try again.

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype, or universal mythic character, found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. They are certainly symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France.

Then by the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they are increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, my local hospital in Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014.

Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

But for those without access to such facilities and who are unable to walk one themselves, there are now finger labyrinths for you to trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning disabilities, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture and heal the human spirit, then I don’t know what is.

DSC00182

Cath Everett has been a journalist and editor since 1992. She has written for a wide range of publications ranging from The Times to The Guardian as well as various business websites and magazines on areas such as diversity and inclusion, leadership, skills and other workplace issues. Cath also explores the impact of technology on the workplace and wider society.

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