A Middle Path

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I am packing for the first weekend of my Yoga Teacher Training course! After months of planning the day has finally arrived. I am hoping the next year will bring spiritual enlightenment, an amazing sense of wellbeing, perfect health, great friends, beautifully performed asanas and maybe even the skills to teach. Not much then! I am excited, but now it is upon me, slightly nervous too.

I thought I was completely chilled about the level of asana that we will be doing. After all, good yoga is more about what is going on internally than the final position you achieve, right? My anxiety dream suggests otherwise; in my dream I am curled up on my yoga mat in class while some young and muscular thing performs incredible tumbling routines that have the teachers in raptures. Meanwhile I am still a blob lying on my mat. That was Monday’s dream anyway.

Age new perspectives in yoga.There is no longer any point in chasing difficult asanas; indeed, some poses that I used to be able to do are now frustratingly beyond my reach. In my twenties and thirties, the only yoga injury I sustained was a strained knee while I was pregnant. In my forties, I can pull a muscle in the simplest of poses. My body changes daily; what could do easily yeasterday can be a challenge today, and every pose has to be done with fresh awareness.

I am not really expecting to achieve any asanas that are more “advanced ” than those I can do already. If I learn to do my existing asanas with more insight and technique, that will be fine.

I find myself treading path between two different challenges.  On the one hand, I need to let go of my attachment to being able to do particular physical poses. There is no point in being competitive, even with myself.  Letting my ego drive my practice only leads to injury. Exploring each pose without expectations is a great lesson in non-attachment, but it is not always easy.

On the other hand, I don’t want to sell myself short by allowing self-limiting beliefs guide my practice.  If I am well warmed up I can take on some more challenging poses and I sometimes surprise myself with what I can do – a tricky balance, an inversion or a strenuous flow. Sometimes it is more about my state of mind than my flexibility. The middle path is a constant balancing act, and I fall off my tightrope pretty regularly.

Yet again, yoga provides a lesson that we can take to work as well. Getting very attached to goals, and then driving ourselves hard to achieve them is a sure recipe for stress and eventually health problems, especially if we forget to take care of ourselves. We skimp on sleep, exercise and relaxation, and ignore the warning signs. Being overly focussed on the goal means that we only see what is right in front of us; we miss the valuable information that is on the periphery of our awareness, and we might achieve the goal without ever questioning whether it was still the right goal.

On the other hand, self-limiting beliefs can keep us in our comfort zone. We tell ourselves that we can’t do things because we are too old/too young/not confident enough/not experienced enoug/not talented enough/too tired and we miss the chance to stretch and grow. We stick to the same old dull routine, and we tell ourselves it is all we are capable of.

So, this is the year of the middle path, not getting too attached to my goals, but allowing myself to be challenged and to stretch, and most of all enjoying the journey. I will let you know how it goes.

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Snow Days – What Can They Teach Us?

 

In Britain, we have a strange custom known as “snow days”.  Since we have snow so rarely, we are entirely unprepared.  Once every few years, we have enough snow to make the roads treacherous, the trains unreliable and for the schools to close (since the teachers can’t get to work).  The snow rarely lasts more than a coupe of days, but while it does, it dominates the national conversation and throws everything into chaos.  We do not have four wheel drive, snow chains in our cars or grit on every steep hill.  There are not enough snow ploughs to clear every road and railway line.  Offices are quiet and people go out to play instead.

This year, my son had snow on his birthday for the first time, and it brought the unexpected gift of two days off school.  He, his brother, and their friends, took the their sledges to the nearest steep hill and spent happy mornings racing down the hill before coming home wet and cold for hot chocolate.  It was the best birthday present of all.

Meanwhile, I had two days of important back-to-back meetings planned, and a rare opportunity for a a Christmas meal with my colleagues from around Wales, which I was really looking forward too.  I was determined not to give up on my plans.  My car was buried in snow, and there is a steep hill at the end of our road, so I opted to take the train.  I arrived at the station to find no trains were running, since a tree was down over the line.  Fortunately the train from the opposite direction turned around, and I got to my first meeting.  My colleague was not so lucky – she did not arrive until mid-afternoon.  After the meeting, I headed to the station for my onward journey, stepping with care since the pavements were so icy.  The delayed afternoon trains were still showing as not arrived, which did not fill me with confidence.  With much reluctance, I gave up on my social event, and felt lucky to make it home.  The closest I got to my meal was a running commentary of everyone’s journeys on Whats App.

The next day, I Skyped into my meeting – a lesson learnt.

So, what do snow days have to teach us?

  • Non-attachment – on a snow day, it doesn’t pay to be too attached to your plans.  You need to be willing to let go of them gracefully.
  • Compassion and connection – people say hello to each other and help each other out.  People check on their neighbours, they talk to each other about transport delays, they help each other clear the snow from the pavements, they smile in the street.  Everyone seems friendlier.
  • See the world with fresh eyes – everything looks different in the snow.  You can take time to see how things are right now in the present moment, rather than carry out your journey on auto-pilot.
  • Remember how to play – build a snow man, go sledging, have a snowball fight!
  • Think flexibly – is there another way of connecting to people?  Do you really need to travel? Could you try working from home?
  • Enjoy some welcome rest – if you end up staying home because the kids are off school or you cannot get to work, make the most of the time by snuggling up and getting cosy.  This is a time of year when we could usually use a bit of extra time to relax and refresh ourselves.
  • Gratitude! Having to do without a few things can help us appreciate what we do have – all those days when we have access to good transport, electricity, warmth, childcare, simple routines.

Gratitude and Attachment

Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?

To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions.  Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.

This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary.  I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:

  • Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
  • Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
  • A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
  • The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
  • Great leave and flexitime
  • Decent pay
  • Autonomy – no one micromanages me
  • The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
  • A decent computer with two screens
  • The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers

When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted.  Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted.  They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.

Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.

However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.

So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.

However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move!  I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.

So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!