Why I have not been meditating as much and why I must do more yin yoga

I have been finding it hard to keep up my formal seated mindfulness meditation practice. Ideally I would want to be sitting for 30 minutes a day, preferably everyday but realistically every weekday. Recently I have done good to get 20 minutes in, and none at all at the weekend.

Partly this is because, shamefully, I have been happier and therefore have not “needed” the calming meditation practice as much. I got busier and ignored all the signs that I should be meditating more, not less, to combat possible overwhelm.

Bizarrely sitting for meditation is usually easier when I’m feeling depressed (not too depressed though, in which case sitting down still is unbearable and I must pace like a caged animal), it’s like my brain knows it’s good for it. My depressed, easily confused, overwhelmed brain enjoys the point when I sit and turn my attention inward. But when my mood is better, I get antsy and impatient. My back aches, my knees hurt, my hips complain, my mind complains and I give up.

And then a couple of weeks later I realise that I’m not meditating as much and I realise why… because it’s uncomfortable to sit still for that long. Then I feel a pathetic and unworthy meditator, what “proper” meditator complains about physical comfort? You’re supposed to live with the discomfort, and do it anyway because it’s what the practice is about. The idea that I’m not keeping up something which helped me 90% recover from depression because of an achy back is depressing in itself.

My body is not made for sitting cross legged on the floor- my hips don’t rotate externally easily, my feet have been so stiff all my life I didn’t see the soles of my feet until I was 25. So me sitting on the floor without cushions= knees sky high and achy back within minutes. But I find my mind likes that position the best. I get a clarity and degree of concentration sitting cross legged that I don’t in other poses… on good days. I have a good zafu and I put cushions under my knees but it still isn’t enough to keep my body quiet and comfortable.

I’ve found that the best time for meditation is (unsurprisingly) after yoga, or after stretching post-run (which usually takes the form of yoga asana) but the problem is if I don’t do an extensive yoga practice or run then that also means I don’t meditate. I’ve been ill a lot lately so that has been a problem.

Enter yin yoga!

I used to do a lot more yin yoga, when I was more depressed and lacking in energy and flexibility. I craved the stillness and the massively impossibly deep hip stretches only yin can deliver. There’s something about those long holds…

Yin is supposed to stretch the tissues around the joints, not just the muscles (there is debate about whether this is possible) It’s also supposed to be a fantastic preparation for seated meditation- both physically and mentally. Physically because it prepares your hips to be in a still position for a long time, and mentally because it prepares your mind to be in a still position for a long time. Paul Grilley, one of the founders of yin yoga, apparently struggled with comfort in seated meditation despite his intensive vinyasa yoga practice so I’m in good company.

So I have been practicing a short yin sequence every day. I may alternate predominately backbending and forward bending days. For instance

Forward bending:

butterfly: 3 minutes

half butterfly: 3 minutes each side

dragonfly: 3 minutes

Back bending

high dragon: 2 minutes each side

low dragon: 2 minutes each side

swan: 2 minutes each side

sleeping swan: 2 minutes each side

seal: 3 minutes

 

These are quite short holds for yin, I know but I thought I should make it manageable. I also have to make room in my day for all that seated meditation practice!

Self-reflection and introversion

Continuing on my investigations into introversion

I have always been a thinker, and a watcher, and a listener. I’m not so much a person who “gets involved” and I have certainly never been the life and soul of any party. Nothing interests me more than how other people behave, unfortunately I have always found it hard to understand two things

  1. Other people do not have the same brain/experiences that I do so do not think the same thoughts and…
  2. Other people do not analyse their own behaviour/thoughts/experiences as much as I do

Now I think that at the age of 26 I think can accept this… but I do not understand. Why would you not want to spend your whole life reflecting on your own thoughts and feelings and motivations and beliefs? What else could possibly be more interesting??

Consequently I find a lot of other people’s behaviour very frustrating. Like the friend who wants to start exercising but can’t quite work out why she can’t get going, or the parent who struggles her whole life with hoarding but never takes any steps to help herself. With a little bit of self-reflection I think, judgmentally, they wouldn’t have any of this confusion, they’d be able to know exactly who they are and what they want.

I disregarded my own inner compass as to what was best for me when I was 19 and at university and I ended up so mired in my own misery and anxiety I developed depression. At age 22 I came home determined to forget what anyone else proclaimed about what was “best” for me and (in between crippling episodes of misery) I sat down and thought about what I needed, for me. All around me I heard voices which said I should be getting “out there” and socialising, meeting people, taking up social hobbies, looking for jobs, moving out of my house. I ignored these people. I read a lot, researched, learned how to meditate and practice yoga. After a lifetime of sports-avoiding I took up running and strength training. I did all this alone, with the internet and my books for company and I learned the values of determined, patient persistence. Being alone was the only way I could have learned to decode the pathways of my brain and the only way I could begin to find my way out of the misery I was in.

-As an aside I do not think that this is justification for isolating people with depression, I could have recovered a hell of a lot faster if I had had more understanding, supportive people around me. I found social support lacking so I had to develop my own, anti-social support system. It basically involved getting the hell away from people who weren’t good for me, which turns out is most people-

Meditation came easy to me, it was pleasant even. I found instant (if not consistent) peace in the practice. Whenever things were overwhelming I knew I could sit with it and I could find peace. I would tell myself very often “I can find peace”. In the peace I listened to my mind, with its beliefs, anxieties and doubts and I began to understand them and live with them. Turns out most of them have as much substance as a wisp of smoke. All I had to do was listen and I could understand this.

So why don’t others just do this?

After reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion I can begin to understand why. As an introvert my brain gets overstimulated easily, especially by social activity. This may mean that I am more likely to develop depression in the first place. Introverts find much more rewarding stimulation in the safe environments of their heads, where they can control and process the stimulations. Extroverts may find disciplines like seated meditation, or the process of self-reflection boring… perhaps like the way I find meeting endless new people and making small talk boring. For me, as any introverted meditator knows, there is nothing quite like settling into the stillness and peace of your own contented brain after a long day. Everyone’s different.

So it turns out that the very thing that may have caused my slip into depression may also have been my path out of it. My fantastically analysing, easily overwhelmed brain.

Brija 2.0

I am having a low time at the moment. I know why: I’ve been relying too much on external factors for my happiness (people, money, the promise of money and success) and I have not been developing my tools of equilibrium. Namely: I have not been keeping up with my mindfulness meditation, I have not done body scans, my yoga practice has been scattered.

The silly thing is I knew that this might happen. I have spent the last 4 years living as a hermit. No job, few friends, few “prospects”. I had to learn to create my own contentment, which I did, more or less. In the past 6 months a number of things have changed and now I have a burgeoning painting career and the beginnings of a yoga teaching career. I see a lot more people, I have more responsibilities and more chances of fulfillment in my days. I saw all this happening and told myself “I have GOT to keep up the meditation, I have to have my little sanctuary in my head where I can go and keep myself on an even keel.” But I was busy, I was happy, I didn’t need it as much anymore.

I forgot.

In my head there’s a big distinction in my life: before the depression and after the depression hit. It’s like I was a different person. Before I was a person with a big sense of humour, the kind of person who could make myself laugh, I had loads of ideas, boundless curiosities and interests. But I was also a bit of a judgemental cynic, I had terrible digestive problems, I was a pessimist, I was unfit.

When the depression hit I lost my sense of humour, nothing was funny anymore. I was easy to anger and easier to upset, I felt guilty all the time, I wasn’t interested in much. I had no ideas. But I started to exercise, take an interest in what I ate and in different ways of thinking. The old me was unable to cope with what I was going through so I realised I had to find new ways of coping. I ignored my inner cynic and started doing yoga and looking into meditation. I healed.

When I realised I was healing I knew that I had this great opportunity to take the best of the before and after and create the new me. The Brija 2.0, if you will. Keeping my interests and curiosity and sense of surreal humour but dispensing with the cynical side of me and the pessimism and replacing it with open-mindedness and compassion. Using these tools of equilibrium to keep me resilient. I could be myself, but better!

Today was a low point but it did one thing: it woke me up to the realisation that my work is not done. I need to commit to this mindfulness day in and day out. The work is never done!

I must not forget again.

Confession

I’m doing well blogging every day in August! It feels nice to commit to something see it through.

This leads me into a big confession… I have not been keeping up my meditation practice.

As a result I have been riding the ups and downs of other people’s opinions of my paintings, illnesses, injuries, sales of paintings, meeting new people, thinking about starting my teaching career, how my yoga practice is “progressing”, how my painting is “progressing”… I’m exhausted. And it makes me think back to the past year, when I had little success in selling paintings, or getting into exhibitions, I talked to few people, the teaching was not even on the horizon… I was able to be content. In between the bouts of depression yes but I was able to be content and feel the misery and know it will go. I had less but my mind was calmer.

What a horrible realisation, that as soon as recovery is on the horizon I down tools and find myself lost in these mind fluctuations again. The sad fact is that the external factors will always have their way with my moods, but the good fact is that I can cope with these external factors. I have to “up” tools again, and get back to sitting on that zafu!

Sitting on my hands

Thanks to Persephone for nominating me as a Beautiful Blogger. I’d like to nominate you straight back! Unfortunately the combination of not posting for 2 months and the internet being a bit wonky today means that just posting this is difficult. I hope that is enough.

I have been unsure of what to do with this blog, because 1) I’m not depressed anymore by most people’s definitions, or my own (although the repercussions will stay with me for a long time, possibly forever) and 2) I feel I have more to lose if I was to be “unmasked”. I deliberately have not tried to post too much on other people’s blogs for fear of losing my anonymity. This leads me to question what the point of having a blog is. I got a bit of a shock when I realised that a teacher at my yoga studio had a blog and used the same tags as I did. That scared me.

Ideally I’d like to blog and for it to not really matter who reads it. I am starting my yoga teacher training in January and the thought of having a yoga/mindfuless/nice things blog appeals. I’m already on my way to having a completely unanonymous painting blog which is more professional, but I like to nourish the personal too.

So yes I’m hopefully going to be a yoga teacher! Add that to the 7 or so exhibitions I’ve signed up for (including a joint one) and I’m heading for a very busy 12 months. I only found out about this yesterday and at first I was excited, then I was petrified, then I was just stressed worrying about it all. After 4 years of being able to completely fill my days with running, yoga and painting (and with always having the option to drop any of these with no repercussions) and no responsibilites at all, I now have deadlines, I will sign my days over to the care of someone else. I could tell that my old depression demons were rearing their heads when I started to get a terrible guilt induced anxiety about the amount of wood, paper and glass my paintings use. Does my making art justify the use of these resources? These thoughts have cropped up a couple of times before bed recently, a sure sign of old anxieties. Today I was sad upon waking so made sure to take care of myself, only painting a bit, going for a run and meditating.

I’m still meditating, I ended up not doing the Sally Kempton course. My life got more busy after the exhibition, not less so after a few days of trying her meditation techniques I realised I needed and craved my mindfulness meditation. So I went back to focussing on my breath, my body and thoughts and calming myself. It’s very important for me to take care of myself like this, to be aware of how I am coping with all these changes. To not run away with “what ifs” and worries of spreading myself too thin. To be aware and to be confident in my ability to adapt to whatever happens to me. And this blog!

Changing and Growing

I’ve spent the morning ill in bed, planning my next move. I’m sick enough to enjoy doing nothing but not too sick to think so that’s perfect for me right now.

The past 4 years since I left university not much has changed for me- I haven’t had a job for longer than a few weeks and so no responsibilities, few friends, just hours and hours and hours of “spare time” which I have filled with exercising, meditation, yoga, reading, walking, running, thinking, painting, and have also been filled with fear, loneliness, crying, anxiety, isolation, frustration, confusion, anger, bitterness and most of all: sadness. I thought things might change but couldn’t see how. I made small steps to change my life, reaching out to things I thought might help. Some helped, some really didn’t, some were denied to me.

The overwhelming feeling of the past 4 years has been that life is really really really incredibly hard. I knew I wanted to recover and I knew that all that work would have to come from me and I knew that not everyone else would help me. People would even hinder my progress. Depression makes existing hard, even intolerable. Days when you wish you didn’t have to exist in your skin, when your skin is so uncomfortable you wish you didn’t have that restriction. The hours stretch out, the whole day empty, daunting and meaningless. It is up to you to fill that day. Every day. Somehow I got through these days, towards the end being taunted by easy afternoons and evenings, free of depression, only to wake up to sadness and another leaden morning.

Then after about 2 years of dedicated (when I was physically and mentally able to) painting I got my first break, I got my exhibition. This year has been strange. I worked hard to get my exhibition together, I even applied for a residency which was due to start at the beginning of this month. I applied thinking there was no way I would even be considered: I ended up being a very close second, getting a very gushing evaluation of my work and a position as an artist within the gallery. My exhibition opened on Friday, I spent a few hours in complete overwhelm while people gushed and praised me and my paintings (I even sold some and got a commission!) On top of that an exhibition I was in over Easter has brought in a lot of praise and another commission for me, people are googling me! The curator of the exhibitions at the museum is a fan! I have spent days waiting for more good news, opening my email with excitement and expectation, instead of fear and dread like I have been doing for years.

It feels weird. I spent a long time wondering why it feels weird. But I know now: it is so EASY! Life is so easy! I have become so accustomed to hard work that to have people coming to me to tell me good things just feels bizarre. What you’re saying is I don’t have to do anything, I just have to do my paintings and you’re happy with that?? That’s good enough??

Still with all the external rewards I worry that I will neglect my internal life. I don’t want to attach my happiness and self worth to something as fleeting as a yearly exhibition. This is why I’m back here, and why I’m going to do Sally Kempton’s 3 Week Breakthrough meditation programme from her book Meditation for the Love of It starting next week. Because as Jon Kabat Zinn says, we have to adapt to any change, whether it be good or bad.

I’m just glad that it’s good change I have to adapt to, for once!

Too good to be true?

Recovery is rarely linear. I always get frustrated by those stories in the magazines, you know the ones. Where someone is suffering, then has a breakdown and then reaches rock bottom and then gets help, and gets a little better, a little better and then is better. The end. They never mention those worrying days when you feel like you’ll never get better, or the bad days among the good months.

I’ve been sick and sad for a few days. The brakes are on, the long mindful meditations are back.

Strengthening my centre

Since the beginning of the year I have been doing lots of abdominal strengthening work. That area of my body, I’ve discovered, is a bit of a weak spot for me but I realised it wasn’t going to get any stronger by moaning about it so I started a (mostly) daily routine of boat poses, lolasana, and whatever other fitness/yoga hybrid abdominal poses I can think of.

The aim for me is not to get stronger abdominals for their own sake, but so that other poses can come easier. There are so many I want to work on: headstands, handstands, jump throughs, arm balances. These are all demanding poses, requiring strength as well as practice. So I figured why run before I can walk? I need a strong centre to face these challenging poses.

I’m also at a bit of a turning point in my life. After 4 years of recovering from depression, 2 years of seriously painting and a year of trying to get my painting taken seriously I finally have an exhibition in April and my depression has finally lessened to the point of disappearing most days. And I applied for a residency I didn’t even expect to pass the first stage, now I’m told I have a “good chance”.

I’m scared. Do I want this?

The real turning point in my depression recovery came in November last year when I started Jon Kabat Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living programme. I have carried on my daily mindfulness meditation ever since as well as successfully cultivating the mindful state in my daily life. It’s working! So I now have a coping mechanism for when things get scary and stressful. I can sit with my stress and my fears and I can understand them and know I have what it takes to get through them. And I do sit with my fears, every day. They come and go and I am still here. I doubt that I will make that terrible descent into depression like I did 6 years ago, ever again.

So I realised a connection between the work I’m doing on my physical body in yoga and my emotional/mental self. There’s no point in working towards some amazing fancy poses if I’m not strong enough to hold them comfortably. And there’s no point in aiming towards these high dreams and goals if I can’t cope with the inevitable disappointments and stresses that’ll come with them. So I meditate and I do my boat poses.

Quietly Committed

I’ve been exhausted recently. This time of year does that to me, what with the darkness, the pressures of Christmas and the impending lazy days ahead. I think I’m in lazy day mode already, been spending a lot of time in a funk. I’ve been making use of my subscription to yogaglo, mainly using Jason Crandell’s classes. I think I’m obsessed. I love his calm, focussed manner. Everything is so deliberate and thorough and unhurried. When I grow up I want to be just like him.

I’ve been thinking recently about commitment. Mainly because I realised that I am now committed to mindfulness practice, to meditation and cultivating it in daily life. I was talking to my boyfriend about the bewildering speed at which its given me clarity and peace (we’re talking a couple of months) and I said “I guess this is me for life now”. I realise that mindfulness is something I have to practice, not something to only pick up when I’m feeling lost or overwhelmed. I have to be awake all the time and that takes daily practice.

It’s not so much that that got me thinking as the way in which I decided I was committed. When I said “I guess this is me for life now” I already was committed, I was just saying what I already knew. But I never sat down and consciously decided that I would always have a mindfulness practice. I just knew I would in this very quiet accepting way.

It was the same with yoga. When I started I loved it, I took to it like a fish to water. I learnt all I could and had no problem starting my home practice and sticking to it. At no point did I think that I would stop and this wasn’t daunting, it was exciting! And not in an obsessed uncontrolled way, in a way that realised that there was a yoga that was appropriate for me at every stage in my life so why should I stop? I’ve found this great thing, I’m sticking with it.

The only time I’ve ever felt anything like the tight panic grip of “til death do us part” was a month or so after I got together with my boyfriend (we’ve been together now for 5 years) when I was talking to my friend about our long-term-serious-grown-up relationships. I told her the thought of breaking up made me feel sick but then that would mean we would have to stay together… forever! She looked at me with a knowing look in her eye and said: “You don’t think I think about that all the time?”

That vague panic soon passed and I shrugged and thought I did want to be with him until death takes one of us. Commitment done. Makes me wonder what all the fuss on Friends was about.

So I’m committed, to my relationship, to yoga, to mindfulness, to painting too. I don’t want to shout it to the rooftops and I don’t have to. I feel secure that these decisions are good for me and me alone.

Mindful Yoga and Meditation

My Active Recovery marches on. Week 5 of Full Catastrophe Living finds me meditating for 45 minutes one day and doing 45 minutes of a planned gentle yoga sequence the next.

45 minutes sitting still and being aware of my body and breath vs 45 minutes gentle mindful yoga. The past 3 years I have regularly done more than 45 minutes yoga every day but I have never meditated for longer than 25 minutes. Can you guess which one I’m having trouble with?

Surprisingly it’s the yoga! My stubborn body knows these moves and it wants to go faster, stretch more, do more exciting things! The most strenuous pose is probably vrksasana (tree pose) which is a pose I do after headstands or arm balances to calm myself down. Even keeping my bottom leg bent in a lying hamstring stretch is annoyingly gentle, does Jon Kabat-Zinn not know I can do the splits?!? Oh how these puny poses hurt my mightily ‘advanced’ yogi ego!

So I’ve found myself actually getting quite down during this sequence. Bored. Dull. Sad. It’s become an exercise in how to make myself depressed. I am committed to this programme though so I feel the feelings and I do it anyway. I feel the slight reluctance when it comes to do the sequence and I think “it’s just a feeling”. It’s not the most ideal sequence for my body but so what? I have my whole life to do my yoga.

The meditation has been wonderful. I was terrified of sitting for so long and the first time my leg did go completely dead but it’ll be worth it. I’ll prop my knees up more. Yesterday I found myself going into such an aware, unreactive state. I felt like I was sitting watching myself, smiling gently. Strange how people say meditation makes them go outside themselves, because I felt more inside myself. I know I cannot cling to this feeling, I have to accept each sitting as I come to it but it was so good. The feeling, the awareness lasted for at least an hour afterwards. I coped better with my parents stressing over unimportant things, things seemed more vital and real. My advent calender chocolate tasted fantastic! (or maybe I was just really hungry) All from concentrating on my breath and body sensations for 45 minutes.

So I took that idea and I applied it to the yoga. I really felt my breath in my body in all the poses. I was less sad this time. Breath is the key.