Festive season news & class programme

Thank you to all the regulars who have made pop-up sessions during the last two months fun and fully booked.

I’m happy to be able to offer a short and varied programme of teaching in Borve between Christmas and New Year. I hope there’s something for everyone, to tempt you to put down that mince pie, get off the sofa, and leave your relatives behind for an hour or two, while you come to Borve for a lovely stretch, strengthen and relax! All classes are a maximum size of 6 participants.

Image result for christmas yoga copyright freePlease have a careful read of this post then email me if you have any questions or to check there are spaces in any class(es) you want to come to. Don’t send money until I’ve confirmed to you by email there’s space for you and you can go ahead to make a booking payment. If your plans are up in the air, your health is variable, or you are concerned about winter driving conditions, I recommend you don’t advance book – it is absolutely fine to contact me in the 24hrs before any of these sessions to see what ‘last minute’ spaces are available. You can read the full booking & cancellation policy at the ‘Booking’ tab on this website.

Please note that for all classes YOU MUST BRING YOUR OWN MAT – I no longer have a stock of mats to borrow in the Borve studio. 

Festive season programme:

Thursday 27th. Private tuition available by appointment from 2.30pm onwards (see the ‘Private tuition’ tab on this website for more information about this).

Friday 28th. Time: 1-2.30pm. Cost: £10. This session includes an adaptation of Olga Kabel’s sequence ‘Letting go of worry, finding inner peace’, which lends itself well to this time of year, when we are reflecting on how 2018 has gone and our hopes for 2019. A fairly gentle class, in which moves can be easily adapted to make them more or less physically challenging, as is appropriate for individual participants. Feedback from those who have done this session in the past is that it can be profoundly effective – remember, ‘fairly gentle’ definitely doesn’t mean ‘not doing anything’!

Saturday 29th. Time: 2-4pm. Cost: £14. A general level session, inspired by Richard Faulds’ Kripalu Yoga. Potentially more physically demanding than Friday’s class, but modifications/alternatives will be offered throughout. Please note the Saturday and Sunday sessions are not ‘repeats’ of the same class – and you are welcome to come to either or both.

Sunday 30th. Time: 11am-1pm. Cost: £14. A general level session, inspired by Richard Faulds’ Kripalu Yoga. Potentially more physically demanding than Friday’s class, but modifications/alternatives will be offered throughout. Please note the Saturday and Sunday sessions are not ‘repeats’ of the same class – and you are welcome to come to either or both.

Monday 31st. Time: 10.15-11.15am. Cost: £7. Stretch out and gently strengthen. Anyone is welcome in this class, but I’ll try to give booking priority to those who feel the weekend sessions and Monday 11.40am would currently be too much for them.

Monday 31st. Time: 11.40am-12.40pm. Cost: £7. A physically stronger class, adapted from Shiva Rea and Mark Stephens ‘Dancing Warrior’ sequences. Suitable for those with no current joint pain/injury, who enjoy flowing slowly from pose to pose, and getting quite warm in the process!

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In other news, our house is currently under offer, and all going well, the new owners will move in on 1st February. Whilst we’re enjoying the exciting changes of our move from west to east coast, I have absolutely loved living and doing yoga here, and am sad that the ‘yoga in Borve’ era is coming to a close. I hope to see as many of you as possible at these December sessions, and I’m planning to offer additional sessions in January. These will be finalised at short notice depending on the circumstances of weather/roads/packing! From February onwards, I hope to offer occasional tuition when I’m back on Skye – perhaps private tuition in people’s own homes, along with workshops in Portree and Edinbane, led by myself and maybe with other Pilates and yoga teachers too. Lots of possibilities! If you’ve not already done so, please make sure you’ve emailed me at catherinemccabeyoga@outlook.com and requested to be on my mailing list, if you’d like to be kept informed of any future yoga/pilates news. You can also click the ‘Follow’ button on this blog if you want to be notified any time I write a new post here (which usually only happens once every month or so at most).

Many thanks to everyone who supported ‘Yoga in Borve’ during 2018. My very best wishes to you and yours for the festive season, however you choose to spend it – and I hope you have a healthy and happy 2019.

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Two Pilates books reviewed

This post reviews two Pilates books available from Highland Libraries: Secrets of Pilates by Sally Searle and Cathy Meeus, and Pilates: Body in Motion by Alycea Ungaro.

Secrets of Pilates by Sally Searle and Cathy Meeus (Ivy Press 2017 edition)

The title and jacket of this book give a somewhat misleading impression. There’s nothing secret, esoteric or mystical about it. Rather, it’s a straightforward, clear and useful introduction to Pilates. The book includes a 7 day programme so you know you’re covering a balanced range of foundation-level exercises in short daily sessions over a week. There is also a chapter on progressing to more difficult exercises, with guidance on how and when to introduce these.

I worked through the whole of this book over the course of a fortnight’s daily sessions. I think it’s a book which would really suit beginners and also people who already go regularly to a large group Pilates class but have not yet started doing their own Pilates workouts at home. Even if you are more experienced and already do your own personal practice, there are some nice, effective little technique exercises which I enjoyed doing – it’s always interesting and worthwhile to ‘go back to basics’ when you are capable of stronger exercises, but have better awareness, strength and alignment than you did when you did the ‘basics’ the first time round!

Pilates: Body in Motion by Alycea Ungaro (Dorling Kindersley 2016 edition)

This book also purports to be suitable for beginners to use at home, but I’d disagree – unless you are a beginner to Pilates but you also happen to be fit and body-aware through other athletic activities you do regularly. Alycea Ungaro has very solid training and experience in classical Pilates, so if you are interested in learning more about Joseph Pilates’ original sequence of 34 exercises, this would be a good book for you. The Original 34 are set out in Ungaro’s book as ‘the Advanced Programme’. The book does build up to this, starting with an Introductory Programme of 7 exercises, followed by a Beginners Programme of 7 exercises. Make no mistake about it, this is a hardcore approach – the Introductory Programme kicks off with ‘The Hundred’, and the Beginners Programme requires even more strength and awareness of technique to execute properly! There is then a short and useful sequence of 4 exercises in Pilates Stance at the wall. This is followed by the Intermediate Programme – a series of 20 exercises (including some longer sequences, such as the Leg Series and Teaser Series). Personally, I can do all of the Intermediate Programme, but some of them only just – and I find it really challenging. Also, the Intermediate Programme includes some classic Pilates exercises which I can do but find of questionable value (e.g. Single and Double Leg Kick – I think there are better ways to achieve the aims of these exercises). The Intermediate Programme would be a good home practice for people who have been regularly attending Pilates classes for some time, have good body awareness and are generally healthy and fit. However, there are many exercises in it which I would not consider appropriate for those with bone density or other spinal issues.

As for the Advanced Programme/Pilates Original 34 – this adds some exercises which I do and ‘enjoy’, or at least see the benefit of (e.g. Shoulder Bridge, Leg Pulls, Push-ups, Mermaid) but also contains many exercises I would not myself do, even under the direct supervision of a very experienced teacher. Personally, I think most people should be cautious about moves such as Swan Dive and the whole sequence of leg moves and rolling in and out of Shoulder Stand (Jack Knife, Scissors, Bicycle, Boomerang). All of the latter moves were derived from yoga, back in the early 20th century. It is noticeable that, with developments in our understanding of anatomy, the way they are taught in yoga has now moved away substantially from the way they still seem to be taught in classical Pilates. I cannot recall the last time I was in a yoga class with a well-qualified teacher who encouraged people to roll up into Shoulder Stand without any use of props to protect the cervical ligaments and vertebrae. Even 30 years ago when I began going to yoga classes, we were at a minimum advised to use a folded blanket under our shoulders. And some yoga teachers/studios nowadays, recognising that contraindications apply for so many people, no longer teach Shoulder Stand variations at all (see this article for more information on this controversial topic).

That said, if you are a fit and healthy individual, with good body control and awareness of your alignment, and no reasons why you shouldn’t be doing particular moves, you can get much that is useful from this book. Ungaro is a senior and well-respected Pilates teacher who is also a licensed physical therapist. Reading her detailed cues and practising the exercises carefully at home could certainly help you do them more precisely in a large class setting.

 

 

 

October Timetable

I am glad to say I’ll be able to offer classes and private tuition in Borve during the weeks beginning 8th and 15th October. Please read this short post carefully so you’re clear about what’s on offer and how it is priced. The static pages of this website titled ‘Timetable’ and ‘Private tuition’ also contain relevant information.

Yoga classes

There will be four classes on weekdays, from 1.30-3pm. If you are unsure which class to pick, I am happy to discuss this with you and recommend your best choice. Email me, or if you’re currently coming to classes, simply ask me before/after class.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are intended to be slightly more gentle and as such they are the classes to choose if you currently experience joint pain/mobility issues, whether from arthritis or injury – particularly in hands/wrists/hips/knees/feet. (If you have back issues, these can be more varied in how they affect your capacity to do certain poses – if you are unsure which class would be better for you, please ask). Tuesdays and Thursdays are also more suitable for beginners, or people of any experience level who may have health issues affecting stamina. The class content on Tuesdays will also be appropriate for anyone 14+weeks pregnant.

Wednesdays and Fridays are most appropriate for those in generally good health. As a rough rule of thumb, you should be comfortably able to hold full Downward Dog for a minute or two, comfortably hold poses such as Triangle and Warrior I for 30-60 seconds, and do a full or knees-down Elbow Plank for around 30 seconds. Again, please chat with me if you’re unsure.

I am also offering a morning yoga session on Saturdays 13th and 20th from 10.45am-12.15pm. This is a general class, open to everyone.

Pricing:

  • Pay-on-the-day: £9
  • Advance booking one class: £8.50
  • Advance block booking (paying 2 or more classes with one payment): £8 per session

Dates:

  • Tuesdays 9th and 16th October
  • Wednesdays 10th and 17th October
  • Thursdays 11th and 18th October
  • Fridays 12th and 19th October
  • Saturdays 13th and 20th 10.45am-12.15pm

Private tuition

I also have slots available for private tuition during the weeks beginning 8th and 15th October (private sessions are arranged at any mutually convenient times). You can find more info about private tuition including costs/booking at the Private tuition tab on this website. However, as I think many people who come to classes do not realise the scope of what I do in private tuition (or how very different it can feel from attending a general yoga class – particularly if you normally go to a large class), I’d like to flag up a few things here.

In the last 5 years I have done a LOT of varied private tuition. Some of it bears very little resemblance to what I do in general classes! I’ve taught every age from 7 to 70s, from new beginners to experienced yogis, from individuals to small groups, from athletes to people with serious, life-limiting health conditions. Like most Scottish women my age, I’m not very comfy with what used to be called ‘blowing your own trumpet’, and I also keep client details private. But I’d like to mention here that I’ve now taught several people who normally live off Skye and go to world-renowned yoga centres, where they are taught by nationally and internationally famous teachers…and I have had extremely positive feedback from these clients. People from elsewhere seem to be pleasantly surprised at the standard of teaching/experience they discover in a converted garage in the Hebrides! Here’s a flavour of what I have done in private tuition:

  • restorative yoga poses, using props such as blankets, bolster, Gertie ball
  • pranayama (‘breathing exercises’)
  • meditation
  • pilates
  • yoga asana
  • a mix of yoga and pilates, to suit the client
  • gentle physical stretches and strengthening, including use of props such as chair, wall, gym ball
  • sessions tailored to particular sports, such as mountain biking, Highland dancing, or running
  • sessions tailored to particular health issues or areas of concern, such as back pain, bone density, stress, posture, anxiety, core strength, etc.
  • prenatal yoga
  • more ‘sweaty’ yoga such as faster flowing/Yoga Shred/HIIT-type sequences
  • going over home practice routines and developing SMART plans for clients to support/improve their home practice

…and probably quite a lot more that’s escaping me at the moment. I’ll come back and add more bullet points later if I think of them!

Please get in touch if you’d like any more information about any of the above, or wish to book something. The best way to get hold of me is by email – and if I’m away from the computer, you will get an autoreply telling you when I’ll be able to send you a personal response.

Sept classes, email list, annual review…

This is mainly a short ‘housekeeping’ post for local readers, followed by my “now-a-tradition” annual review – including a discussion of yoga/pilates teaching as a job, and the value we (as teachers and as students) set on yoga. The post finishes with a short ‘What next?’ section about my autumn plans.

September yoga & pilates: September classes are up on the timetable now. A few are already full and some are filling quickly, so if you wish to come to any yoga or pilates in September, please carefully read and follow the booking procedure as outlined under the ‘Booking’ tab on this website.

Email list: I emailed everyone who has transferred over to my new email address about my September timetable on Thurs 9th August. If you didn’t receive this email, it’s because you have not emailed my new address indicating you wish to be on the new mailing list. When I changed website, email and Facebook address, I emailed everyone on the old mailing list, giving them my new contact details and leaving the choice up to them whether they wished to opt out of hearing from me, or chose to follow the Facebook page, follow this website (and therefore receive WordPress email notifications of any new post I publish) and/or be on my emailing list. Being on the new email list is an opt-in, i.e. I stated that if you hadn’t already done so, you needed to contact me to let me know you wanted to be on the new emailing list. I’ve since discovered at least two people followed this website thinking that meant they would also get emails from me personally. This possibly means there are also others who have done the same. So I thought I’d better reiterate – if you would like to receive emails with yoga/pilates news, and you’ve not received any from me recently, such as the 9th August email headed ‘yoga in September’, all you need to do is contact me and request that you are added to my emailing list!

Annual review: Because I used to have quieter summers, I got into the habit of using some of my spare time to do my tax returns and mull over how the previous year had gone, and what I wanted to do in the coming year. In recent years, my summers have been pretty busy, because although there’s not been sufficient demand to run classes in larger external venues, there have been enough people around and keen to continue yoga for me to teach the same number of classes a week, but in the smaller Borve yoga studio. I’m also continuing to experience a demand for private tuition through the summer months. This summer has been busy too, but a little different, since things are rather up in the air, with the house on the market and my husband starting a new job in Inverness in October. So I’m taking things month by month. But I still managed to fit in the mulling and the tax returns!

I mentioned in last year’s review that although I was no longer making a loss, as I did in the first couple of years, I do not earn enough to pay tax. Last year I decided to keep class costs low and try to “work smarter”, cutting down on the less rewarding aspects of the job (that would be the admin, as opposed to the actual teaching). Over the last year, I definitely got more efficient in the way I handle emails and bookings/cancellations; for example, introducing an autoreply which reminds people where they can find basic information, and tells them when they can expect a personal response if they are asking about something which needs one. I was helped in my admin efficiency drive by many of my regulars becoming more efficient themselves in terms of taking care over reading the information provided on the website (costs, dates, booking policy, etc.) and keeping their own records of what they have booked for. I used to get a LOT of emails from people asking me, personally, to tell them info they could easily find out themselves, such as how much a class cost, what time/day it was on, or asking to be reminded of which classes they’d already booked. I still get some emails and Facebook messages like this every week, but it has definitely got easier and I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me with this.

I spend on average 30 hours a week on yoga&pilates-related work. For the last six months I’ve kept detailed enough records to work out that I earned £6.35 an hour. I’m not sure if it was a good idea to confirm my suspicions about how little I was earning! The UK minimum legal wage for 21-24 year olds is £7.38/hr and the National Living Wage for those aged 25 and over is £7.83/hr. It saddens me that it’s so hard to make a living from being a yoga teacher – the yoga teaching community online is full of discussion posts, articles and Facebook/YouTube clips around this issue, and I’ve had many chats with fellow teachers about the struggle to make it viable. On the one hand, I could and probably should be charging more, but on the other hand, even if I do, I still wouldn’t make as much money as I would if I taught at the bottom of the school teaching pay scale (short term supply) or did B&B. Actually, I would earn more if I did holiday cottage changeovers for other people’s properties on Skye. I have decades of yoga experience, decades of teaching experience, and a lot of relevant yoga, pilates, teaching and anatomy qualifications and training, which were a big investment in terms of both time and money. And I passionately believe in the potential of yoga to transform your life for the better – whether that’s physically, mentally, emotionally or a mix of all of those. I love doing such a wide and varied range of teaching, am full of ideas for other things I want to do, and I find it so rewarding to see people I teach making progress and gaining confidence in developing their own beneficial yoga practice. I don’t want to cut back on my yoga and pilates teaching to one or two classes a week, in order to earn a living wage doing something else.

All this is particularly poignant for me at the moment, because when our house will sell is an unknown factor, and if it’s on the market for long, I may need to earn more than I can from yoga and pilates teaching. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed and continuing to take it month by month. Of course, all those years of yoga and meditation practice is helping me cope with the uncertainty, because I’m not by nature someone who sits back and goes with the flow!

One thing I can do, though, is to make sure I’m not actually charging less than the going rate. I’m leaving yoga class prices as they are for the September timetable, and have also left the private tuition for 1 or 2 people at the same rate as it’s been for years. I’ve upped the private tuition group rate (having been told many times by local business people who do yoga with me that it was way too cheap!) and I’m also doing some small group pilates classes in September at more like ‘the going rate’ (locally – they’re still a very good deal by comparison with similar small classes elsewhere).

So, please make the most of your chance to get experienced, highly qualified, closely supervised, small group yoga tuition at a bargain rate during September! If you advance book two or more sessions, the cost per 90 minute class is only £7.50. I’ve been looking into what others are charging in Skye & Lochalsh and most of what I’ve seen is priced at around £7 or £8 for 60 minutes. Even the local leisure centre (all local authority classes in Scotland have historically been provided cheaper than private classes) is now charging more than £6 per hour-long class (i.e. that would make a 90min class more than £9). None of these people are over-charging. In Inverness, 1:1 pilates costs £40/hr and classes cost £9/hr. Classes I’ve enquired about in other cities are more expensive, particularly if there are 8 or fewer in the class. Many studios and teachers I know in Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh also require you to pay a whole block (generally 6-12 classes) in advance. The place I began doing yoga, Edinburgh’s Iyengar Yoga Centre, charges £10 for a 90min class, and as far as I can tell from their website timetable, that’s for a large group class (up to 24 people). These places are probably not over-charging, either – I’ll bet it costs a lot more to hire a hall in Edinburgh than in Portree!

Anyway, whatever I charge in future, whether in Skye or in the Nairn/Inverness area, is going to have to be a bit more realistic. I may also look more into the Edinburgh Community Yoga type model, whereby some classes are charged at a viable rate for the teachers, but there are also opportunities for free/low cost yoga for those who need it – because I have always tried to keep class costs low to make yoga accessible.

I get lots of lovely, heart-warming feedback from people who come to my classes, and that means so much to me. I’m very aware those who come regularly to my classes consider it worthwhile to pay for good teaching. If you’re one of those folk, please know how much I appreciate you! And, something you can do for the good of all yoga/pilates teachers everywhere, is – if you hear anyone complaining about the cost of someone’s class, perhaps point out the other side of the story (all the hidden costs in qualifying, ongoing training, professional membership/insurance, hiring halls which you often have to go early to in order to clear/clean/warm them up, dealing with admin, planning classes, supporting regular students via email, etc. etc.). And maybe gently ask why it is they think yoga or pilates tuition should be cheap – what are they prepared to pay other people per hour for a skilled trade or profession? Decorator, mechanic, hairdresser, electrician, plumber? And how much do they spend per hour on other leisure activities, such as going to a cinema, cafe, restaurant or bar?

Let’s all of us who love yoga and pilates (me included) give it due value!

What next?

As mentioned above, things are pretty up in the air until we know when we’re moving our main residence from the west to the east coast. While we still have the house here, I will be living on Skye at least some of the time. I’ll put some October classes and workshops on the website when I know for sure what I can offer, and I will most likely be able to do private tuition on many other days in October, too. Until the house is sold, all tuition will be in Borve. In the longer term, I hope I’ll be able to offer occasional workshops here on Skye in other venues, perhaps in collaboration with other teachers here.

Keep in touch; and I hope to do yoga/pilates with you some time this autumn!

 

 

Meditation Resources

I most recently wrote about why you might want to meditate, and how you could set about making this a regular daily habit. In that post, Developing a Meditation Practice, I said I’d write a follow-up:

…about resources I’ve found useful in developing my meditation practice – from websites, to books, to timers, apps, beads, cushions, kneeling stools and so on. I didn’t want to put the ‘STUFF’ upfront for the same reason I encourage people to come to yoga classes for several months, and use free resources online, before they buy a yoga mat, books, DVDs or any other equipment. The STUFF doesn’t develop the habit for you. Knowing you want to do it, doing it, and gradually working out what might best help you do it – is the way to go. Otherwise you just end up poorer and with a whole lot more unused STUFF gathering dust in your house or ending up in landfill.

So here it is now, an ABC of meditation resources. A for Audio, B for Books and C for Clutter – all those props which can help support your meditation practice, or if you’re not careful, could simply be an excuse to go shopping rather than spend time actually meditating. Many of us find it easier to read about meditating or buy books and accessories for it than to actually do it, so if you’re just starting out, beware of this happening to you.

If you have any recommendations for resources which you have found useful in supporting your meditation practice, please do add them in the comments section below this post – we’d all appreciate it.

Audio

This is not something I know a lot about, so I’d particularly welcome more recommendations from others. I have the CDs linked to the books ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Full Catastrophe Living’, discussed in more detail in the books section below. I also have two CDs from Relax Kids, a company specialising in relaxation and meditation for children. These were very popular with many children I taught, particularly in the P2-P4 age group.

Pretty much everything I have on CD is available as audio download these days. There are also meditation apps – the one mentioned most frequently as being used/useful, by folk who come to my yoga classes, is Headspace. If you’ve experience of using this or others, please do comment with more info.

I do use a free meditation timer app on my phone called Insight Timer. It’s not necessarily the best one, and I’m sure there are more free timer app options since I first downloaded this, but I only wanted a simple one so it’s fine for me. Obviously, all you have to do is put ‘free meditation timer’ into Google on your phone and then take it from there.

Finally, a friend and fellow yoga practitioner recommends Elisabeth Blaikie’s website Fragrant Heart, which has free guided meditations of varied duration and theme.

Books

The grandaddy of mindfulness research and practice within the health profession is Jon Kabat-Zinn. You can see my post about his seminal work Full Catastrophe Living here: Yoga practice for coping with chronic pain, illness and stress.

Kabat-Zinn has published a range of other books and audio resources. The other book of his which I own is Wherever you go, there you are. This is described by the author as different from Full Catastrophe Living in that “It is meant to provide brief and easy access to the essence of mindfulness meditation and its applications, for people whose lives may or may not be dominated by immediate problems of stress, pain and illness. It is offered particularly for those who resist structured programs and for people who don’t like to be told what to do, but are curious enough about mindfulness and its relevance to try to piece things together for themselves with a few hints and suggestions…” (pxvii). First published in 1994, it is interesting to read it now and realise how much more mainstream mindfulness meditation has become since then.

If you want something up to date on the massive growth in research into various aspects of meditation, and easy to read (so a good choice for those who feel too busy to read a lot about meditation, or simply are not keen readers in general) try Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness. This includes an easy-to-follow 8 week programme and an accompanying CD with 8 different short tracks. Williams is an academic researcher (a UK-based friend and colleague of Kabat-Zinn) and Penman is an award-winning journalist and writer, which makes the book very readable as well as soundly evidence-based. The research into mindfulness based cognitive therapy has proven MBCT so effective that it’s recommended by the UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence. I first became aware of this book/programme via a training day which my GP husband attended.

Another relatively recent book, particularly useful for those who either live or work with children, is 10 Mindful Minutes.

Of course, older classics can also be great – the work of Thich Nhat Hanh springs to mind. Try The Miracle of Mindfulness and Present Moment, Wonderful Moment.

Another old book, with for me a rather off-putting start (I only bought it and persisted in reading it because a yoga teacher friend, whose opinion I respect, highly recommended it) is Jessica Macbeth’s Moon over Water. I read this (twice) in 2017, by which time I’d been meditating on and off for about 15 years, both at home and in taught workshops and week-long yoga and meditation retreats. Despite this level of experience, I learned so much from this book – it has lots of fantastic practical tips, a menu of suggested techniques to choose from, and other useful comments and advice.

As with all books, different people like different styles of writing. Browse around, read reviews online, borrow books from the library…and when you find something which really speaks to you, get your own copy and re-read it every year or two. I do that with many of my favourite yoga and meditation books and it amazes me how I ‘see’ or understand certain things for the first time, every time I re-read.

Clutter

Any chair, floor, cushions, stack of blocks or books, blankets, beads and kitchen timer will do. I can’t emphasise it enough – get started first, and once you know you’re going to keep meditating, then you might want to have a few beautiful and useful props to support your practice.

If trying a mala appeals to you, start off with any old thing (a friend started with a plastic Disney bead bracelet belonging to her daughter) to see if the act of holding/moving/counting the beads helps you focus. They definitely help me – I’m by nature a doodler with a restless, busy, planning mind, so I find it improves my focus to have several things to occupy my hands and mind while I meditate. If you find using beads works for you, there are plenty opportunities to buy more beautiful and expensive malas once you’re sure it’s worth your while. As with all purchases, it’s good to spare a moment to make sure you’re buying something that hasn’t been produced at massive human and/or environmental cost. It’s not hard to find ethically made malas.  I bought mine from a Buddhist Fair Trade shop about 14 years ago. The threads the beads were strung on had frayed to near breaking point last year (mainly because I used to teach Religious & Moral Education, so it was in my ‘Buddhist resources’ box,  and I let young children handle it a lot!) so I got local maker Michelle of Indigo Berry to restring it more securely, and incorporate a jade pendant originally given to my mother by my father, and passed on to me at least a quarter century ago. So now it is useful, personally significant and nice to look at as well as hold.

mala

Another Fair Trade item in my ‘Buddhist resources box’ was a singing bowl. To be honest, I used this more regularly when teaching R&ME and science (sound) in primary schools.  I very occasionally use it in classes – it’s a bit of a Marmite thing, clearly some people love it and others don’t – and even more rarely use it for my own meditation practice. It is a lovely sound, though, so if sound and/or ritual are important to you, you might well find that beginning and ending your meditation practice with a singing bowl helps you focus.

I also have a beautiful half-moon meditation cushion given to me by my parents on my 40th birthday:

zafu

For several years, I used it a lot when sitting cross-legged – I took it to all my yoga training weekends. However, I’m more flexible and comfortable sitting now, so I don’t need to sit on anything when I’m cross-legged. If I’m sitting for longer than ten minutes, though, I am more comfortable in a kneeling position than cross-legged or in a chair. This is something you’ll learn for yourself from trying out different positions over time, but whether you’re comfier kneeling in Vajrasana or in an externally rotated position such as Sukhasana, Siddhasana or Lotus pose basically depends on your anatomy. I’m comfy kneeling without any props, but it’s not wise to stay like that for long because you tend to cut off your circulation and get pins and needles. You can (and I do, depending on where I am) sit on the edge of a couple of blocks. But if you meditate regularly and prefer a kneeling position, you may wish at some stage to try and then invest in a meditation stool. I have a lovely set (which was also a gift from my parents, after I’d borrowed and used my dad’s meditation stool for a few years!).

meditation-set

This particular kneeling stool and the accompanying pad and floor cushion came from Blue Banyan. When I’m at home, I use the set nearly every day, so it has been well worth owning. Having it out in a corner of the bedroom is a good gentle reminder to do my short daily meditation practice.

Finally, you used to be able to get beautiful clock-like, chiming meditation timers, but I’ve always used a plain old kitchen timer – and now I also sometimes use the free meditation timer app on my phone.

Conclusion

You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?!

  • Doing the practice is what matters, so put that ahead of accumulating stuff
  • Enjoy the process; be patient and kind with yourself
  • Please do share your own tips here

Thank you!

 

 

 

 

Developing a meditation practice

Originally published on yogainborve.wordpress.com on 2.4.18.

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Throughout 2017, I was working on developing a more consistent meditation practice. Why? How? And how did it go? Read on to find out…

Image result for before and after yoga cartoon

Cartoon by Gemma Correll

Why meditate?

Meditation is a part of yoga – a very significant part. Currently in the UK, most of us use the term ‘yoga’ as shorthand for the physical poses of yoga, known as the asana (e.g. Triangle Pose is Trikonasana, Boat Pose is Navasana, Child Pose is Balasana, and so on). But these are only one small aspect of yoga. In most general yoga classes in the UK, the bulk of the time is spent on asana practice, a short time in guided relaxation, and less frequently there’s a bit of pranayama (‘breathing exercises’ such as Nadi Sodhana/Alternate Nostril Breathing). However, the strengthening, stretching, relaxation and breath work are all intended to support the development of calm and focus in meditation. One of the oldest written texts on yoga kicks off with yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ.  If you Google this, you’ll find it’s far more complex and subtle than I can do justice to in a short post, but it’s often translated along the lines of ‘yoga is the process of calming the fluctuations of the mind’.

I’m pretty typical of someone who started yoga in Scotland in the 1980s – I had a bad back, and I was trying to fix myself physically. It’s still the case that many people find their way to my own yoga classes for similar physical reasons (or, at least, perceived as physical – for of course many conditions such as back pain are linked to lifestyle, stress, etc.). Over time I became more interested in the other aspects of yoga. That’s a fairly typical yoga student trajectory these days, too. But I also notice that nowadays the benefits of meditation, breathing, relaxation and stress-reduction techniques in general are more widely known, and some people do come to a yoga class specifically to learn about these. ‘Mindfulness’ has grown to become much more mainstream, and people no longer seem to react to mention of meditation as if it is a weird and possibly religious or cult activity. Again, if you want to know more about the general research into meditation’s benefits, Google is your friend, but here’s one recent short evidence-based article to get you started. Author Dr Matthew Thorpe concludes meditation reduces stress, controls anxiety, promotes emotional health, enhances self-awareness, lengthens attention span, improves sleep, helps control pain…and more. Why wouldn’t you want to meditate?!

My personal experience is regular meditation makes me feel calmer, more resilient and more positive – even though when I’m actually doing it, I feel constantly distracted! This is the case with only rare exceptions – for example, usually towards the end of a week long yoga and meditation retreat I find the constant chatter in my head has calmed down a bit. And that’s a great feeling. However, my personal experience has also been that I’ve found it incredibly hard to get in the habit of meditating regularly.

I started doing the Yoga Scotland Foundation course in 2011 because I wanted to make yoga a regular part of my life – and now it is, much more than I anticipated! A year or so ago it occurred to me that my meditation practice was like my yoga asana practice used to be: I knew I felt better for it, was very erratic in practice, and knew I’d get more benefit if I could make it part of my daily routine, as everyday as brushing my teeth. It was simply a question of working out how…

So how did I do it? And how did it go?

We all tend to feel we’ve got “no time” to do X thing we feel we want to do, or know we should do. In recent years, I’ve tried to catch myself when I realise I’m about to say “I’ve no time to…” (weed the garden, write a blog post, clear out that cupboard  – or whatever it is I conveniently have no time to do) because I’ve noticed everyone who says it, myself and my closest loved ones included, could carve out 5 minutes a day to do something new if we really, really want to (we all have more ‘dead time’ than we think we do. e.g. do you ever watch TV? Netflix? Surf the internet? Scroll through Facebook or Instagram?!). And if you can spend 5 minutes regularly on something, the 5 minutes tends to grow.

I had had previous attempts at building a new habit of daily meditation, generally aiming to do 20 minutes of seated meditation every evening. This had never been super-successful and when I started reading more about meditation at the end of 2016, I realised it would be more realistic for me to commit to a shorter time every day, and do it earlier on, rather than risk leaving it so late I felt 20 minutes simply couldn’t be squeezed in.

In an ideal world, I’d meditate for about 20 minutes before bed in the evening, and I’d also meditate at the end of my personal yoga practice, which I’d do at the same time every morning…but that ain’t going to happen in my current circumstances. So rather than holding out for the ideal and failing to get anywhere at all, I decided I’d do a 15 minute meditation practice every day if possible, any time I could fit it in.

To give myself some structure and the support of like-minded people (as both these things were so helpful when I was doing the Yoga Scotland Foundation course then Teacher Training course), I put a shout out to see if anyone was interested in coming to a group meditation session one evening a month throughout 2017. I held this in the yoga room in Borve, and people took turns to lead the sessions – which was sometimes as simple as keeping an eye on the time for everyone, or reading a quote, and sometimes involved sharing a favourite meditation technique in more depth. While it was quite a lot of work organising the sessions, it definitely did help me keep up a regular daily meditation practice. It was also really interesting to hear more about what worked for different people, and lovely to learn some new styles of meditation and take part in a group session rather than always meditating alone. Four months on, my daily habit of meditation seems pretty well established – as long as I’m at home. Although it would be easy to meditate for 15 minutes a day while I’m away (I mean, you can meditate on a bus and no-one would know you were doing it – so you can certainly meditate in a friend’s spare room or in your holiday cottage) I find I completely forget to do so. Last time I was away for a week, I took mala beads with me so I’d see them every day and it would act as a physical reminder to meditate. And that worked not at all. So, that’s my next step – taking my meditation practice with me wherever I go. If you’ve any suggestions on how to remind myself to do 15 minutes of meditation when I’m away from home, please let me know.

Resources

I’ll do another post (and I promise I’ll try to find time to do it soon!) about resources I’ve found useful in developing my meditation practice – from websites, to books, to timers, apps, beads, cushions, kneeling stools and so on. I didn’t want to put the ‘STUFF’ upfront for the same reason I encourage people to come to yoga classes for several months, and use free resources online, before they buy a yoga mat, books, DVDs or any other equipment. The STUFF doesn’t develop the habit for you. Knowing you want to do it, doing it, and gradually working out what might best help you do it – is the way to go. Otherwise you just end up poorer and with a whole lot more unused STUFF gathering dust in your house or ending up in landfill.

And you?

I’m going to forward a link to this post to some of the folk who came to the meditation group, in the hope they may share their own ideas, experience and tips here. If anyone else would also like to share their thoughts below, I’d really enjoy reading them.

 

Moving Matters

Originally posted on yogainborve.wordpress.com on 4.1.18. Not as many global readers as the post ‘Which yoga mat should I buy?’, but Moving Matters out of all my posts so far is the one which struck the strongest chord locally. I was delighted to hear in January and February from many yoga regulars that it had inspired them to get off the couch and start moving more.

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A slightly longer post this month. So why should you bother to read on? Because it…

…tells you more about how and why I take my yoga ‘off the mat’

…could seriously improve your health and longevity

…summarises and points you in the direction of great resources to help you make positive, achievable changes in your own life

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The longer I do yoga, the more I ‘take it off the mat’ – i.e. connect it up with what I do in the rest of my life, outside of a yoga class setting. I think this is probably the case for all long-term yoga practitioners, and in fact some people (not me!) quickly make the ‘off mat’ connection when they’re pretty new to yoga. It’s also true of aspects of yoga which touch on emotional well-being, and values or philosophy of life, rather than physical self-awareness, alignment, etc. But in today’s post I’m going to focus in on the physical movement.

I mentioned in my last post, Daily dose of yoga, that despite having scoliosis and a history of back pain problems, I’ve found I can pretty much avoid back pain altogether as long as I do a bit of walking and yoga-type stretches and movements on a daily basis.

I used to walk loads: twelve years ago when everyone in the school I taught in was given a simple pedometer as part of Healthy Highland Week, I discovered I was clocking over 10,000 steps without thinking about it, every normal day of the week.  But my walking reduced drastically when I moved out of the village (so instead of walking to work and the shops I had to drive), stopped primary teaching (which involves constant movement), got new dogs who need much less exercise than my first dog did, started working from home and at the computer, and began using most of my daily exercise time for yoga and pilates.  The result, particularly in prolonged periods of bad weather and looming writing deadlines, was a daily step count which must have been under 3,000 most days.

Yoga and pilates have been great for me in so many ways – but doing only yoga and pilates (in classes or specific, time-limited practice sessions) is not enough for optimal health. Because it was particularly gruesome weather over Christmas 2016 and the whole family were lying about like slugs, I reached a tipping point where I could feel all the cells in my body screaming BRING BACK WALKING!  The oft-cited 10,000 steps a day for health may be to an extent a rather arbitrary figure, but I reckon human beings are definitely meant to be walking more than most of us do.  I mean, 6,000 steps is only the equivalent of spending one hour out of every 24 on your feet!  I wanted to get moving again, so I clipped on a pedometer and got going. For several months in 2017 I aimed to get over 7,000 steps per day.  I noted the daily tally in my yoga practice journal, and ended up averaging 9,000 a day. Just wearing the pedometer (or downloading a free pedometer app, if you’re the kind of person who always carries your smartphone) makes you more mindful of how much you’re moving and encourages you to walk more. My particular pedometer has a little figure who pops up, arms waving in cheerleader mode, when you hit 10,000 steps. This is just like the ‘rewards’ you get in maths computer games for 8 year olds so I find it amusing that I too feel chuffed every time I see the wee guy going ‘yaaaay!’ for me.

Any time I consistently wear a pedometer and aim to increase and record my daily step count, I notice within a few weeks I feel a bit fresher and more energetic, and also more physically tired, in a good way – I sleep better at nights.  We don’t have scales in the house so I practically never weigh myself, but my trousers get a bit looser round my hips and thighs after a couple of weeks walking briskly and regularly. And if you’re reading this in the Hebrides, please know it made a huge difference to me when I finally invested in good quality waterproof trousers, cagoule, hat, gloves and footwear. If you wait for nice weather to go for a walk here, you’re rarely going to get that step count increased!

Walking matters, but so does how you walk. I’ve known for years I’m anatomically wonky, and that this has implications for my current musculoskeletal health and longer-term wear-and-tear. So I’ve done a bit of looking into how I can minimise the potential effects of my mild spinal curvature and lopsided hips.

The internationally-respected Mayo Clinic says ‘a fitness stride requires good posture and purposeful movements’:

 

Image of woman using proper walking technique

If you want more information about this, and a few varied and detailed programmes for increasing the amount and pace at which you walk, and improving the style in which you walk, check out the work of Joanna Hall. When I loaned this book to my mum, I had to say ‘ignore the terrifyingly jolly cover – there’s good stuff inside’. And she agreed. So if you too find the relentlessly cheerful and ultra-slim author photographs off-putting – please give it a go anyway!

Image result for joanna hall walkactive front cover image

Image credit: amazon.co.uk

The first time I followed Hall’s walking technique tips, I was impressed and also quite surprised by what I learned.  As a long-term yoga practitioner, I have better proprioception than many people, yet I was almost oblivious to three important aspects of how I was moving:

  • I knew my feet and ankles are quite flexible, and I roll through my feet quite well when I walk.  I knew my right foot is slightly larger than my left. And I’d felt, with all the yoga over the previous few years, my toes had been spreading and lengthening. But I hadn’t noticed my right toes were really squashed up in almost all the shoes I owned! I gave away lots of my shoes that year, and bought ones which fitted better.
  • I knew I sashayed about a bit as I walked, but I’d never noticed that was because my poor wonky left hip was shoogling all over the place, so my left leg was going round and round like a porridge spurtle. I’m structurally lopsided so I can’t completely correct my gait, but becoming aware of this has led to me walking more mindfully and with better alignment.
  • I had a mental image of myself striding along, arms swinging, because that is how I used to walk. The combination of walking a lot less and then in recent years mainly walking with a lead in one or both hands had gradually resulted in the top half of my body becoming almost motionless. A sort of Irish step dancing version of walking. It felt great to get my shoulder girdle moving again.

So – it was an education, and I can only say ‘thank you, Ms Hall’ because by paying attention and learning her techniques, I quickly felt more easy, smooth and energetic as I walked. I revisit her book regularly and some of the techniques suggested in it are almost second nature to me now.

In 2016, I also discovered the work of Katy Bowman. I’ve referenced two of Bowman’s books at the foot of this post, but if you prefer podcasts, a massive blog archive, or Instagram – Google her and you’ll find she has a very active online presence. I first read Whole Body Barefoot, on the recommendation of an excellent yoga teacher who I was training with. I’d noticed Joanna Hall recommended minimal shoes – wide toe boxes, flexible and not too thick soles, and flat – and I learned a lot more about why you might want to transition slowly to this type of footwear by reading Bowman’s book. I’m not going to say a lot about the book here other than when I talk about it in yoga classes, there’s always at least one person says ‘I always wear flat shoes, I never wear heels’ – without realising that the flat shoes or boots they’re wearing that day do in fact have heels. Have a look at your trainers and you might be surprised to find how much the heel is elevated relative to the front of the shoe. I’ve always mostly worn fairly wide and flat shoes and sandals, though many years ago, I used to have a thing for wearing ankle boots with heels to work (until even I in my ignorance noticed it was related to knee and toe pain I was experiencing). Over the last couple of years, I’ve gradually shifted to more genuinely flat (‘zero drop’) shoes and the only downside is my feet are so happy in them it’s become difficult to wear more ‘dressy’ alternatives.

Whole Body Barefoot is a short book which explains how the way we treat our feet impacts on…well, everything to do with posture, alignment and gait. Which can have negative consequences in terms of knee, hip or back pain. There are also great foot, calf, hamstring and balance exercises which you’ll probably recognise from yoga classes. Bowman is a biomechanics and natural movement expert, not a yoga teacher, but a lot of what she recommends chimes well with movements made in yoga. Squats, for example. She’s very keen on squatting. There’s a lot more about squatting, other movements, and other research in her much larger book, Move Your DNA (which also includes the exercises which feature in the much shorter Whole Body Barefoot). Don’t be put off by the size of Move Your DNA, because Bowman has a very readable style. I do find the strength of her convictions occasionally lead to her over-reaching the evidence for some of her claims, but despite this, there’s lots of great stuff in Move Your DNA including a more extensive programme of exercises, many of which you’ll recognise from yoga. She’s also passionate about and good at suggesting ways of building a wider range of healthy natural movement into your normal day-to-day activities, rather than sitting for hours then trying to find the time in a busy life to squeeze in separate sessions of ‘exercise’ such as a fitness class or gym session.

The final book on my list, Designed to Move by Joan Vernikos, was actually recommended by Bowman in a December article suggesting movement-related Christmas gifts to her email subscribers. Dr Vernikos was director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and a pioneer researcher in the physiology of immobility (investigating how lack of movement in gravity affects astronauts and those on Earth who are immobile, e.g. in bed-rest studies). To summarise, space research into astronaut health discovered that ‘Physiological changes in highly fit astronauts in the near-zero gravity of space, or those caused in healthy men and women by continuous sitting or lying in bed, are similar to those in the elderly’. There’s a two page table of the sort of changes they mean – you can probably guess some of them – decreased muscle mass, arterial stiffness, decreased brain blood flow, slower movement and reaction times, increased body fat, lower bone density….etc. etc.

This is a small book and the first 80 pages or so are dedicated to explaining the research and evidence which underpins the message that sitting still for hours a day is seriously bad for human beings. Even if you also do an hour’s vigorous exercise a day, this doesn’t counter the negative effects of long periods sitting still. Whereas, building in some simple changes of habit – even as simple as standing up every half hour for a minute of stretching tall or walking around, then sitting back down again – can have a huge positive impact on your health and well-being over the longer term. The remainder of the book, pp85-111, focuses on these simple activities, habits and movements which you can build into your life to counter the pernicious effects of sitting still for long periods (at your work desk, in the car, on the sofa in front of the TV, etc.).

Although it’s a slim book, I feel it could have been slimmer with the work of a good editor. It is well-written in that the grammar, spelling and so on are fine, and it’s a clear read. However, there is a lot of repetition, which I found quite irritating. It’s as if Vernikos has delivered her profound, evidence-based yet essentially simple message so many times that she’s lost sight of whether’s she’s explaining things in the right order and whether she’s repeating herself within this one book – and no editor has dealt with it. To take one example, the exact same University sit-&-rise-from-a-chair test (which is really interesting, and fun to do!) is described twice, once on p54 then again on p85. There’s also a diagram on p9 using terms such as Gz and Gx, but these gravity science terms aren’t properly explained until pp61-62. And lots of repetition of the advice to GET UP OUT YOUR CHAIR AT LEAST EVERY HALF HOUR. I guess it must be very frustrating to know there’s this simple thing which people can do to make themselves healthier and happier, but they’re just not doing it… Despite this, I do recommend you read through the whole book – and probably read from p85 until the end a couple of times, noting down any and all of her tips which you could build into your daily life. It takes time to make even simple changes, so it might be worth pinning a short list of moves as a reminder in the places you need them – such as by the TV or computer screen.

If you’ve got this far, congratulations! And also, it’s time for you to stand up and move 😉 I hope I’ve inspired you to look into these resources a little more. Or even if you don’t want to read more about it – simply to time your sitting, to ensure you stand up and move a little every half hour. Or next time you arrive early at my yoga classes, get out of your car and go for a short walk – it’s a great warm up for yoga, and so much nicer for your body than sitting for even longer in the driving seat.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to stand up to do another stretch and squat break now…

Books reviewed in this post – ask at Portree Library if they are on the shelves yet, and if not, you can borrow mine!

  • Katy Bowman, ‘Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement’, Lotus, 2014.
  • Katy Bowman, ‘Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well To Minimal Footwear’, Propriometrics Press, 2015.
  • Joanna Hall, ‘Walkactive Programme: The Simple Yet Revolutionary Way To Transform Your Body, For Life’, Piatkus, 2013.
  • Joan Vernikos, ‘Designed To Move: The Science-backed Program To Fight Sitting Disease & Enjoy Lifelong Health’, Quill Driver Books 2016