What Is Yoga?

imageMy regular readers will know that I have recently started a Yoga Teacher Training course with Universal Yoga.  The course is beautiful and I feel very privileged to have this opportunity.  It is also challenging on many levels – emotional, intellectual and physical.  By the end of the second weekend, my head was spinning from philosophy, teaching techniques and anatomy and physiology, and I had done more asana (physical poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, mindful walking and chanting in a weekend than I believed could possibly be fitted in!

Our starting point was the seemingly simple question, what is yoga?  We examined dictionary definitions, definitions passed down the ages from the early yoga texts, and more modern descriptions from eminent yoga teachers, before moving onto our own personal definitions.  We all agreed that yoga is more than a set of exercises to do on your yoga mat each week, but what more it is seems personal.  Some of the group are very drawn to chanting and devotional yoga, while others are more drawn to secular mindfulness or strong physical practice.

For me, yoga is a set of tools that I can use to energise myself, maintain equanimity in difficult circumstances, stay healthy and find more joy in everyday life.  When I practice yoga every day, I feel different: lighter, looser, happier, less irritable, more focused and more compassionate.  It is hard to put my finger on exactly what is different, but other people notice it – my professional discussions go better, my family are more relaxed, I have more random conversations with strangers, and I pass less stress onto my team at work.

Many people are drawn to yoga for the physical benefits.  Through practising yoga, I have certainly become both more flexible and stronger.  It helps me cultivate stamina, since a vigorous set of sun salutations is definitely cardio-vascular.  Practising yoga with careful attention makes the poses safe; by learning how to come to my edge, and release with the breath, rather than forcing myself into a pose, I can practice without getting injured.  After a yoga practice or class, I may leave feeling energised and joyful, or calm and restored.

When I first practiced yoga, I thought of it as a mainly physical practice and I enjoyed challenging myself to achieve more difficult asanas.  I had enjoyed gymnastics as a child, even though I was never very good at it, and yoga just seemed like grown up gymnastics.  I got a kick out of being able to stand on my head, get my forehead to my shins and twist myself into the lotus.  Other benefits of yoga quickly started to creep up on me though.

As a university student, I experienced a lot of anxiety, and my Mum gave me her Sivananda yoga book.  I started a daily practice and this helped me to control my anxiety  by focusing on the present moment rather than my large, existential concerns.  Each pose is a moment of stillness and focus, of noticing what is happening in the body and remembering to breath slowly in each different shape.  Yoga means “to yoke” or “union” in Sanskrit, and one way to think of this is the bringing together of attention on breath, mind and body at a particularly moment in time.  I wasn’t aware of the concept of mindfulness at the time, but without anyone ever explaining it to me, the yoga asanas (postures) helped me to be more mindful in the present moment.

Through my twenties and thirties, I had periods of practising and periods of not, but in most of the more challenging periods of my life – relationship breakups, health issues, bereavement, job insecurity, starting a family – I have been drawn back to yoga.  My mat is my sanctuary, a place where I know I can find respite from whatever problems I have.  My pregnancy yoga teacher was particularly keen on teaching us how to breath through physical discomfort, and this is a skill to return to over and over in life.  When I come into the present moment on my mat and focus on my breath, I come back to my true self and find my inner strength.  Yoga reminds me that I am still alive, still breathing and quite safe in the present moment.

In fact, the present moment is not much short of a miracle – the collection of atoms and molecules that make up me will only be together for a very short time in the life of the universe, and here I am, experiencing my own version of consciousness right here today.  One day my atoms will no longer make up me anymore, but will mix up again with the rest of the universe = the period of time that they are configured as me is short indeed.

Yoga asanas are intended to release built-up prana (life force) and to help energy to flow smoothly through the body.  This can be experienced immediately after any asana, when a few moments inward exploration will reveal energy changes – there may be a calm release of tension or an uplifting, even euphoric lift of energy.  By choosing a balanced sequence of asanas, the overall practice leads to a balanced energy.  When I practice yoga in the morning, I feel energised and focused throughout my day.  If I don’t practice for a few days, I feel sluggish, slow and heavy.

Patanjali’s opening sutras can be translated as:

Now, the teachings of yoga.

Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature. (translated by Chip Hartranft)

Yoga is a way of bringing stillness to the mind, so that we can let go of all the conditioning we have experienced, the assumptions we make, the thought patterns we have developed and our habitual ways of telling stories about the world, ourselves and our relationships.  In letting go of all that, we can experience stillness and a sense of unity with the rest of the universe.

Patanjali describes this as the uniting of individual consciousness with the universal consciousness – recognising that they are the same.  Achieving this sounds like a lofty and esoteric ambition, and would probably put off many beginning yoga students who just want to feel healthier and calmer.  A little research into modern neuroscience also calls into question his dualist perspective.  Nevertheless, as we progress in yoga, we may more inclined to wonder what this self or consciousness that we experience really is and to experience it in more subtle ways through meditation.

We are constantly narrating stories about ourselves and world around us to ourselves.  Nowhere is this truer than on the yoga mat, where I may be thinking, “I can’t do this, my arms are too short”, “We’ve been in this pose for ages, has the teacher forgotten us?” “Look at me in this amazing, clever pose”, or “This meditation is so boring, when will the time be up?”  In noticing my own internal monologue, I can start to step back from it and be less enmeshed in my beliefs and assumptions.  I might notice my ego fluffing up, boredom setting in or my resistance to a physical sensation, and in noticing it, that story and the set of emotions that went with it lose their power.  So yoga becomes a way of not just enquiring about my physical abilities and limitations, but also a way of enquiring about my thought processes.

Occasionally in yoga, there are moments of real stillness when the monkey mind ceases it’s chatter and all is quiet.  In these moments, there is an experience of something that sits underneath all our thoughts – the self that witnesses all those mental events but does not become them.  Experiencing this self helps me to realise that I am not my emotions and thoughts – these are just events that happen to me. In this way, I become less attached to the things that I think I need and want.

Seeing all of life as an opportunity to learn more about myself and to loosen the bonds of attachment to the things I want can also help to get through difficult times.  I remember a particular time when a group of us in my workplace had our jobs downgraded.  This was, of course, a huge threat to my sense of self, my status and my position in the organisation. But, by thinking about it as an opportunity to learn about my attachment to these things and practice letting go, I could get through it with a little bit more grace.  I still wouldn’t say it was graceful, but probably a lot more graceful than it could have been.

There is also a moral code in yoga.  The Yamas and Niyamas which Patanjali outlines in the Sutras cover ethical principles that include non-harming, truthfulness and non- stealing.  Most yoga teachers do not discuss these moral principles in general interest classes, but I believe the practice of yoga naturally draws people towards a more thoughtful and compassionate lifestyle.  As my ego has softened, I naturally see myself as part of a large inter-connected universe.  Harm to one part of the universe is harm to the whole, and therefore to myself.

Although I have been vegetarian or longer than I have practised yoga, I find yoga increases my commitment to avoiding harm to animals and the environment.  It seems natural to be concerned about the well being of other people, animals and our planet.  Of course, I am very far from perfect, and I lead a normal Western lifestyle, so I am aware that I do have a negative impact on the planet.  It’s not always easy to make ethical choices (is imported soya in a plastic bag better or worse than free range eggs in a cardboard box?) and the great temptation is to give up on thinking about it altogether (often guilty, sadly).  Awareness is the first step towards taking some steps to minimise harm but this is a tough journey.

Yoga, and the increased self-awareness it brings, also leads to noting the impact of what I eat on my energy levels and general health.  Caffeine tends to give me headaches, so I try to avoid it, and sugar gives me an unbalanced energy that later leaves me with more cravings, so again, I try to minimise it (difficult because I don’t have a lot of willpower when there is a packet of biscuits in front of me).  Yoga helps me to mindfully enjoy food as a daily pleasure, without getting too drawn into either depriving myself or over-indulging.

So, if I had to sum it up, I would say yoga is like a secret super-power that enhances the good days and gets me though the bad days intact.  The teachings are a treasure chest of amazing tools, and we are lucky that there have been so many great teachers who have spread the word.





A Middle Path


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.

Are We All Oversharing?

Facebook, Social Media, Phone, Android

I was recently sitting with a group of yoga teachers, lovely people who I generally have a lot of time for.  However, on this particular occasion, I had that rather uncomfortable feeling that you get when you really don’t agree with the heated opinions being voiced, but can’t quite find the words to speak up.

The topic of their vitriol?  People who share their emotional angst on Facebook.

“People just share far too much on Facebook.  Really personal stuff about how depressed they feel.  It’s just attention seeking,” one said.

“I barely know this person, and she is sharing posts about how much she misses her dead sister.  I don’t feel comfortable with it,” said another.  “I’ve never met her sister.”

“I know.   And it annoys me when this woman posted about how much she appreciated her wonderful husband on his birthday.  I mean, she could have just told him to his face.  It’s just showing off,” said a third.

Now, I am not a yoga teacher, so I didn’t feel very qualified to comment on whether sharing your thoughts and feelings on Facebook is yogic or not, but I didn’t feel comfortable.

On reflection, surely if we are working towards kindly acceptance of all our emotional states, then being able to name them is important, even when they are grief, loneliness or existential angst.  Appreciation and gratitude are also attitudes worth cultivating. Naming these emotions in public is a strong way of acknowledging them.

Facebook can sometimes feel a bit like Smugbook – all those perfect holiday snaps and nights out – so personally I find it a relief when people allow their less than perfect lives to be seen in public.  It helps me feel that I am not alone with my domestic chaos or my quiet night in.

If a friend of mine shares that they are lonely or grieving, I give them a few moments of kind thoughts and post a message to let them know they are not alone.  I might give them a ring or make a point of chatting to them in the office next time I see them if that seems appropriate.  It can make the connection between us stronger.

I’ve noticed that it tends to be my male friends who are more likely to share feelings on social media.  One friends recently posted that he felt inexplicably lonely, even in a crowd of friends, whilst another posted that he missed his recently deceased father.  Men are often criticised for not being emotionally literate, so surely this sharing is a great step forward in redefining masculinity.

Female friends seem more likely to share the frustrations of parenthood or juggling home and work life.  The laundry that fell in the mud, the child behaving like a brat, the baby that won’t sleep, the babysitter that didn’t turn up or the cake that just didn’t rise. Letting a less than perfect life be seen in public builds intimacy.

A bit of appreciation for the long-suffering husbands/wives and mothers/fathers who support us through this quagmire reminds us all to appreciate those around us.  And doesn’t everyone like to be acknowledged in public for the great things we do?  Even if those great things are not ending world poverty or inventing a solar powered aeroplane, but simply being a supportive partner or parent.

So, now I have finally gathered my thoughts, here are my replies to those yoga teachers.

  1. If you really don’t care that someone is grieving for their sister, there is a simple solution – don’t be friends with them on Facebook.  You are obviously not friends in real life, even if she thinks otherwise.
  2. It’s good to be appreciative of all those who help and support you, and appreciating people in public is a lovely gift.
  3. If you need support, it’s fine to ask for it.  Nothing wrong with that.  Your real friends will be happy to send you kind messages when you need them, and make time for you.
  4. Sharing your real life with its emotional ups and downs helps all of us to know that we are not alone, that no life is as perfect as it may look from the outside.
  5. If you want to share person information about your life, think about who your friends are, and your privacy settings.  Make sure you are sharing with the people who really do care about you.




To count or not to count…

Counting my breaths is a habit that has become ingrained by years of Ashtanga yoga.  Five breaths in this asana, twenty breaths in that asana, oh and a hundred breaths in Tolasana (that was always a challenge); I counted my practice away until it was over.

Plank, Fitness, Muscular, Exercising

And now my yoga has slowed down, but I still count the breaths – ten breaths, twenty breaths, thirty breaths.  I’m still counting!

There are definitely some benefits to counting.  It’s a good way to measure the time in an asana and regulate the practice.  It helps me to ensure I challenge myself sufficiently, without letting myself off the hook as soon as I start to feel any discomfort or impatience.  It helps me practice evenly in the poses I like and the poses I don’t. It does help to focus the mind. Focusing on a count is obviously better than focusing on tonight’s supper or the things I must not forget to do tomorrow!

And yet, the more I practice and count, the more I feel that counting is actually distracting me from being really aware of what is happening in my body.  I am focused on the counting in my head, instead of being fully present to the sensations of my legs, back, arms or even breath. I am slightly disassociated from my body when I count. I am focused on the end goal, rather than the moment, and sometimes my breath speeds up if I am particularly eager to reach that goal.

And yet, when I don’t count, it is a real challenge to judge how long to stay; staying long enough for the asana to be challenging, yet not so long that I lose my sense of ease and balance.  It’s a new skill to notice the beginnings of discomfort, acknowledge them and then decide to continue a little longer before choosing the right moment to complete the asana.

I often get into an internal narrative about how long I have been there, and whether it is long enough, and of course that is even more distracting than counting.  Some days I am impatient and can’t wait to move on, while other days I get so comfy in a pose I could stay there all day, so my practice is less even.  I don’t know whether that matters or not. Maybe I just need to acknowledge that every day is different.

Of course, there is always the kitchen timer option!  A timer can be useful for longer, restorative holds, as it does get rid of that internal narrative about how long I have been there.  With a timer, it is easier to let go of impatience and allow whatever is there to be.  But it also removes the challenge of listening to my body and making the right judgement.

And like so many things in yoga, there is a metaphor for life here too.  How many times do I set myself a target of work to do, and complete it no matter what (even when I am tired, thirsty or need the loo); I ignore the inconvenient messages from my body.  Whether it is completing my blog post before I go bed, tidying one room of the house every day, sorting out my email box before I go home or analysing that spreadsheet before I move onto another task, I set myself goals and focus on completing them, rather than truly listening to my mind and body, and using that to judge how much to do.  I would probably be healthier and more productive if I took that break when my body is sending me thirsty/tired signals, rather than soldiering on to reach the target I have set myself.

So, later today I need to tidy and sort out my younger son’s bedroom (with his help, I hasten to add).  Should I:

  • A) Work for half an hour and then stop, no matter where I have got to
  • B) Do half a bedroom and then stop, no matter how long it takes
  • C) Stop when the time feels right – when I have made some decent progress, but before I feel tired and irritable (even if that is not very long at all!)

Answers on a postcard please….



A Chakra Based Approach to Career Development

Chakras are some kind of mystical sources of energy beloved by tree-hugging hippies, right? Until quite recently this was pretty much what I thought. I had chakras filed away along with various other bits of yoga philosophy that seem a bit supernatural or hard to believe, as “interesting but probably not real”. After all, doctors have never actually located these chakras in the body.

I know from experience that different yoga sequences produce different energetic responses in the body, ranging from calm and grounding to light and euphoric, but I hadn’t really made the link with the theory of chakras.

However, I have recently been doing some research, (particularly Anodea Judith’s book,  Eastern Body Western Mind)  and it turns out there is more to the chakras than you might think. The chakras are thought to be the energy centres of the body, each with a specific function and associated with a particular part of the body. Each chakra is also associated with life stages, needs and developmental  tasks, which is where the link to career development comes in. Each chakra is associated with both a stage in childhood, and an adult developmental task.


The structure of the chakras and the developmental tasks they are associated with is very similar to some Western psychological models, including   Maslow’s Hierarchy of  Needs,Erikson’s Stages of Pyschosocial Development and Super’s Developmental Stages.

The first chakra, located at the base of the spine is associated with grounding and survival.  It is associated with the baby’s task of feeding and surviving, and also with the early adult task of learning to survive independently and make a living. People with insufficient development of this chakra may struggle to make enough money to cover their needs, even when they have the skills and qualifications to do so, perhaps because they sabotage their own attempts to make a living, refuse to conform to social expectations or lack self-discipline. They may feel unstable and fearful, and at some level be unsure if they have the right to exist. This chakra is similar to the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in that until basic physiological and survival issues are addressed, issues related to the higher level chakras will go unaddressed.

The second chakra is associated with lower abdomen and also with sexuality and pleasure seeking.  It is linked to the childhood tasks of getting needs met and the early adult tasks of forming sexual relationships. Over-development is associated with hedonistic choices, which might lead to ill-advised workplace affairs or putting pleasure ahead of work!

The third chakra is linked to the solar plexus, and is associated with action in the world, purpose and self-esteem. This chakra is most obviously associated with work, since it relates to our most purposeful activities. It is similar to the fourth level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, self-esteem, since we often find self-esteem through purposeful activity. When it is over-developed, people can end up becoming workaholics, being power hungry, competitive, manipulative or arrogant. When it is not well developed, people can be too passive and struggle to take action at work. They may suffer from low-self esteem and feel they are a victim of circumstances. Where this chakra is balanced, people feel they can take on challenges confidently and have balanced ego strength. This chakra is also associated with the childhood task of developing autonomy and the adult task of establishing a purposeful career.

The fourth chakra is associated with the heart centre, and our relationships to others. When it is balanced people expereince self-compassion and compassion for others. It is associated with the childhood task of forming friendships outside the family, and the adult tasks of forming lasting relationships and family. Career related issues may arise as people try to balance family and work roles. Where this chakra is insufficiently developed, people may struggle to form relationships, and experience relationship difficulties at work, since they may lack empathy and compassion. This chakra is the bridge between the upper and lower chakras; some people never cross this bridge, but remain preoccupied with issues at the lower chakras.

The fifth chakra relates to creativity and communication, and is associated with the throat. If it is deficient, people may find it difficult to speak up and get heard. They may not feel they have the right to speak, or they may struggle to produce creative ideas. They may find it hard to network or promote their ideas. Job interviews and public speaking may be a struggle. This chakra also relates the childhood task of learning to create things, and the adult task of self-expression and creation, and to Maslow’s need for self-actualisation. It is balanced when adults are able to contribute to society though building a business, building a house, creating arts and crafts, starting a community group, gardening or writing, for example.

The sixth Chakra is located at the “third eye”, and is associated with vision, intuition and perception. When it is balanced people can use visualisation as a tool, and get in touch with their intuition to make sound decisions. They are good at recognising patterns. They may be able to remember their dreams well and think symbolically. They may also be able to relate to archetypes, such as the hero, the mother, the teacher, the artist or the father. These archetypes can be inspirational, but can also be limiting if people associate themselves too closely with one archetype.  This chakra is associated with the adolescent task of establishing a personal identity, and growing self-awareness, and the adult task of searching for meaning, which can intensify as children leave home and careers plateau (Super’s maintenance stage).

Finally, the seventh chakra is located at the crown of the head, and is associated with wisdom and spiritual understanding. It can be associated with sharing knowledge with others, particularly late on in a career, as a mentor or advisor, and disengaging from the competitive rat race, through retirement. This is rather like Super’s disengagement stage, but it is more positive in that it emphasises spiritual growth.

So, what would be the advantage of using the chakras rather than a Western model of developmental stages?

  • Some people might relate better to the chakras, particularly if they already have an interest in Eastern philosophy
  • The chakras can provide a way of organising the career story, identifying themes and making connections,  that might make more sense for some people
  • The later chakras have more association with positive growth where the Western models emphasise decline in later life
  • Working with chakras can suggest a range of potential solutions, including working with the body, energy levels, posture, breath, creative expression,  intuition, meditation, dreams, affirmations, symbols, stories, myths and legends, as well as more traditional approaches to career development
  • Some of these solutions have the potential to bring about deep change, particularly if practiced over time, which will support the ability to manage multiple career transitions and issues rather than just provide  quick fix for the problem at hand.

Fourteen Books That Might Change Your Life

image.jpegLike Hermione Granger, if in doubt I go to the library. Many times in my life, I have been full of doubt or negativity, and the right book has come along at the right time to help me turn things around.

So, these are the books which have changed my life at different times.  I’m not saying they are the best spiritual guides out there, just that they are the books that came and spoke to me at the right time in my life.  Maybe it is a right time in your life for one of these books!

Benjamin Hoff – The Tao of Pooh

I was given this book as a teenager, by my Mum, and it was my first introduction to Eastern philosophy.  It’s a simple book, but was very comforting at the time. It makes Taoism very accessible.

Anne Dickenson – Assertiveness

I found this book as a teenager, just as I was getting into feminism and political activism.  I was a very unassertive teenager, and this book helped me claim my right to express my point of view.

Carl Rogers – Client Centred Therapy

His concept of unconditional positive regard is a beautiful one, and learning to extend acceptance and warmth to others, we inevitably learn to extend it to ourselves as well. This book changed my relationship with m,y clients, but also with myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace Is Every Step

This is a beautiful and easy introduction to mindfulness and meditation from a Vietnamese monk.  He is super practical and gives mindfulness activities that you can do while washing up, in a traffic jam or answering the phone. This book helped me appreciate the beauty in the present moment long before I did any kind of meditation course.  I have to thank my step-father for this gift.

Martin Seligman – Learned Optimism

I read this whilst the organisation I work for was going through a major restructure and redundancy exercise. This book helped me to recognise some pessimistic thought patterns that were making me feel mildly depressed, and I was able to re-write my internal script with the help of this book, and feel a lot more optimistic. Seligman is a leading expert on cognitive behavioural therapy and positive psychology, and this book is very practical.

Patanjali – Yoga Sutras

I first read the Sutras when I was doing a Yoga Mind course with my yoga teacher, Ade Belcham.  This book and the discussions we had transformed my whole understanding of yoga and changed they way I think about my practice quite profoundly.  It’s often said that the Sutras are like an onion and you need to peel away the layers with each read, and I think that is true. Definitely one to re-read.

Martha Beck – Finding Your Own North Star

This is a career development book that both annoyed and challenged me. Beck’s book is a guide to finding your true calling or dream job, and I often find these sorts of career books slightly annoying, for reasons I will explain in a future post. But this book did really challenge me to identify what I really wanted to achieve with my working life. It’s career planning with a spiritual heart, and that is much needed in the modern world.

Donna Farhi – Bringing Yoga to Life

This is a wise guide to taking the lessons of yoga off your mat and into real life. A lot of what she says about yoga at different stages of life really resonated with me and inspired me to deepen my practice.

Tara Brach – Radical Acceptance

This book takes mindfulness and meditation a bit further, and talks a lot about acceptance (as the title implies) – of difficult emotions, limitations, loss – and gives brilliant guidance on how to sit with those difficulties and just let them be.

Carol Dwek -Mindset

Dwell has researched the difference between the fixed and growth mindset and through many experiments, has shown the power of the growth mindset. This book made me very conscious of the language I use, with myself, my kids and at work. It gave me confidence that it is ok to make mistakes and more important to focus on learning and getting out of my comfort zone.

Sheryl Sandberg – Lean In

Sandberg’s book was quite controversial when it was published, but it gave me  the professional kick up the backside I needed, at a time of self-doubt.  It’s a call to professional women to stretch themselves at work rather than hideout in the shadows.

Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Seagal and Jon Kabat-Zinn – The Mindful Way Through Depression

This was my introduction to structured mindfulness and I first did the eight week mindfulness programme from this book.  There is a great CD of guided meditations that comes with it, which I still go back to if I need some focus. Karat-Zinn has a lovely voice that instantly makes me feel peaceful. It’s also a very clear explanation of the theory of mindfulness, and you definitely don’t need to be depressed to read it.

The Charisma Myth – Olivia Fox Cabane

This sounds like it is going to be an awful book for people who want to make it in sales or as the next CEO, but it is actually a rather lovely book that is very rooted in mindfulness and body awareness.   She talks a lot about the power of “presence” and developing real listening skills, about developing more positive mental dialogue and being more aware of body language and how that both influences your own mental state and how others respond to you.  It’s more a book about how to be your best authentic self than how to perform for others. Great if you are training, chairing meetings, networking, or influencing people.

Eastern Body Western Mind – Anodea Judith

This is my current read. It’s a fascinating guide to the chakras, explaining them using concepts from Western psychology. The chakras are linked to life stages and developmental tasks as well as energy flows, and this book explains how childhood experiences can impact on the energy balance we experience as adults, and the behaviour and thought patterns we enact.

I hope one of these books speaks to you as well, at a time you need it.

Which books have changed your life? You are welcome to add to this list in the comments.

Sparkly Moments and Appreciative Inquiry

Traditional organisational improvement focuses on what has gone wrong – complaints, poor performance, failures – and then looks at how to improve. This is anxiety provoking for all involved and people learn to associate improvement work with negative emotions. Doing improvement work implies that something is lacking.

Appreciative Enquiry turns the traditional approach on its head, and uses questions from solution-focused coaching to find examples of where things are going well and then to amplify them. A good solution focused question could be, “Think of a time that things were going well, or customers/clients were particularly happy. What was going on then?” This helps people to focus on where things are going right, generates positive emotions so people want to do improvement work, and can lead to rapid improvements because people engage. After all, what you focus on, you tend to get more of.

A fun workshop activity to get started can be to ask everyone in the room to think of a “sparkly moment” from their working life, a moment that gave them pleasure and satisfaction. Ask them to describe it to a partner, while the partner uses active listening skills. The listener then notes down all the strengths that were described or implied by the story, and then feeds them back to the storyteller.


I did this recently with a team of careers advisers, and took note of all the strengths that were described and turned them  into a word cloud poster. They were reminded of all the times they have been resilient, passionate, caring, proactive, determined and helpful.  The activity also reminded them of the wide range of professional skills and knowledge they have. Reminding the team of the strengths they have on a good day is feelgood exercise, and by helping them to identify more strongly with their strengths, they are being helped to amplify them.

In yoga, we sometimes choose a sankalpa before meditating or doing yoga nidra. The  Sankalpa is a intention formed with the heart and mind. Although it is a statement of a quality or situation we want to bring about, we say it to ourselves as if it has already been achieved. So we might hold the thought “I am compassionate,” “I have abundance in my life,” “I am loved,” or “I am successful,” depending on what we want in our lives. By stating it in the present tense we are acknowledging that we already have this potential inside ourselves. The sankalpa is a tool to help us focus single-mindedly and at every level of our being on the situation we want to cultivate.

Appreciative Inquiry is an organisational development approach that acknowledges that the organisation already has the potential to become whatever it needs to become. There just needs to be a strong united focus on what the organisation wants to achieve and a determination to grow. A statement of intention left sitting on someone’s hard drive is meaningless, but a statement of intention genuinely owned by the people is powerful. The seeds of improvement are already planted, we just need to find them and water them!