Give yourself a helping hand in meditation

There’s a pun in the title! Meditation is all about thoughts — or so we might think! And in some ways that might be true. But being with our thoughts (let alone trying to slow them down or even change them!) can be difficult and abstract. How about we give ourselves a helping hand — quite literally — and make the practice easier to grasp (another pun, sorry).

Mudras and mala beads

Involving part of the physical body can be a great way of keeping your mind more in the present moment. It can offer emotional steadiness if you are prone to anxiety in meditation or support you in focussing on an uplifting intention which will help you feel better overall, long after you’ve got up from the meditation cushion.

I often teach students to use a mudra when meditating, a gesture with the hand that helps direct energy or attention, as in the picture above. It’s subtle, but this can be a simple way of giving yourself a helping hand.

Another more obvious way is by using your hands is to count the repetitions through your meditation practice by touching the three parts of your fingers with the thumb. You can simply count repetitions of the breath cycle (can you get to 12 without your concentration dispersing?) or perhaps repetitions of a mantra or affirmation (om namah shivaya or “I am in peace” or “gratitude”, or whatever has meaning for you individually).

Another way of using the hands is the practice of Japa mālā. This is a form of meditation using a string of beads known as a mālā (a Sanskrit word meaning ‘garland’), instead of fingers, to count repetitions of a mantra which are ‘muttered’ (japa) slightly under one’s breath. A mālā traditionally has 108 beads which can create a short and manageable practice time (depending on the length of your mantra of course), or you could choose to flip the mālā and start a new cycle of 108 and continue on longer if you prefer.

Counting repetitions slows down thoughts and the respiratory rate which can bring about many benefits such as pain relief, lowering blood pressure, and increasing feelings of calm and positivity.

Old and new technologies

There are many apps and programmes available which can be helpful in guiding a meditation practice, but for me there’s nothing like meditating by myself, with my mālā beads as my guide. It feels like old technology, but it has more ‘soul’ and more beauty — plus mālā beads don’t need to be set to airplane mode to ensure some uninterrupted peaceful moments!

The mālā helps me find more focus during the practice, the tactile quality adds to the experience, and having a symbolic object can be helpful to create a personal ritual, a practice that I feel drawn to do over and over, maybe even daily, instead of it feeling like a chore or something on the to do list.

During lockdown while others were baking sourdough and banana bread or binge-watching a box set, I learned how to knot my own mālā beads! It’s actually quite a meditative practice in its own right.

If you’d like to purchase one of my hand-knotted mālās or join me on May 20th in Oxford to learn how to meditate with a mālā, please get in touch or see details here.

Phew, it’s not new year any longer

Hello February! How I welcome you! Not because you offer much relief from wintry grey skies, not because there’s anything particularly joyful about the month (for me at least) personally or professionally, but at least there’s a respite from the ‘new year, new you’ vibes of social media (and the more toxic corners of the wellness industry).

There’s nothing wrong with goal-setting and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to polish up those aspects of ourselves that feel a bit tarnished or rusty. That’s good work. Hard work, but good work. And we don’t have to shirk away from the hard work. It can give life meaning, give value to our actions and endeavours, and offer a sense of deep satisfaction.

My gripe is more with the underlying unease of new year’s resolutions. So often they arise from a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that we need to prove something to ourselves or others, that life will be better when…. when what? When we’ve nailed that gym habit, lost an amount of weight, played a meditation app every day, kept up with the journalling or whatever.

Can we shift the emphasis? Can we remind ourselves that these habits are simply tools to feeling better and that we are already doing a fantastic job of living life as a human being? We already do so much, care so much, and give ourselves a hard time. We don’t need more of that, we need more sense of ease and satisfaction, time to reflect on everything that we are already are, and from this place of steady satisfaction and trust in ourselves other stuff will bloom, we will bloom.

This is what yoga teaches me, at least. This is what I get from Patanjali, for example the four attitudes of maitri (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (delight), and upeksha (equanimity) or tada drastuh svarupe ‘vasthanam (when the mind stops getting in the way, we are able to see ourselves in our true divine form, recognizing God within — to paraphrase!).

So I’ve been asking recently (in my own practice and in the classes I teach): what do you want to feel more of this year? Not what do you lack that makes you feel bad about yourself, but what could you orientate yourself towards more strongly which is already inside you but just needs a little coaxing out into the light? What will make you feel better and light up those around you?

Do that work, feel better!

An affirmation of living

I remember once on a silent retreat being invited to do a walking meditation. Shoes off, I wandering around the gardens, feeling the grass tickling my toes, noticing the the coolness of the air on bare skin, looking down to where I was treading as well as looking up to experience my wider surroundings — and not bump into any fellow retreatant! With so much concentration, time collapsed down to how long it took to make one step, and then another. There was nowhere to go, just to be in the present moment.

These days I don’t practise formal walking meditation very often, but I like to think I introduce some mindfulness (with a small ‘m’) whenever I am walking.

Today I was alone so it was easier to turn inward without the distractions of company.

  • I was aware of my breathing and my pulse, the leg muscles required to power me up slopes, how my arms naturally stretched out to help with balance on the slippery mud, perhaps I detected the beginning of a headache hovering behind my eyes.
  • I observed my thoughts (mostly in the past) and my mood (happy and confident).
  • My ears took in the rustle of my waterproof jacket, a distant tractor and sheep bleating, a blackbird in a hedge close-by.
  • My eyes ranged across the landscape, observing where the fields rolled down towards the sea (grey today and almost indistinguishable from the sky), seeing a cluster of farm buildings and some patches of woodland.
  • I also took in details close at hand: the grain of the wood of the fenceposts, emerging flowers, animal footprints in the mud, a drop of raining clinging to the underside of barbed wire.

My field of awareness ranged from the pulsing of blood in my circulatory system to the far horizon and beyond into the unseeable distance. On some level I was aware of it all. And I was part of it, not separate from the natural world, not separate from the earth and the sky, breathing it all in with my lungs, taking it all in through my senses. In this way my observations were less a checklist of countryside sights and more an affirmation of living, an affirmation of my place in the world.

It’s the same in seated meditation practice or in the movement practice of yoga. Many layers of awareness, from the subtle and internal through to the grand physical forms of the whole body, bring us more into to the present moment by focussing our attention. We become closer to the essence of ourselves, to a place we can truly feel at home — home within ourselves. With awareness of the full field of our consciousness, joy and peace naturally blossom when we take care and nourish them with our time and attention.

If you’d like to practise the art of paying attention with me (aka a short introduction to mindfulness), I am offering an online course in May/June. Just get in touch if you have questions, I’d love to hear from you!

In the flow

Vinyasa Yoga is often also called ‘flow yoga’, sometimes — unhelpfully in my view — equated with Power Yoga. In Vinyasa yoga postures are strung together so the transition between postures is seamless, using the breath to initiate the movements. In this way the transitions are as much part of the practice as any individual posture. There is no fixed sequence of poses, so the practitioner or teacher can adapt the practice to suit their personal need or inclination.

This style can be more or less physically challenging, depending on the poses included and the means of transitioning between them. Whatever the physical intensity, the aim is always to move with the breath, keeping breathing and movement smooth and measured. In this way a state of ‘flow’ might arise, so that the practice becomes something of a moving meditation.

‘The ‘flow ‘state’ of consciousness was famously defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “that place of being fully absorbed and highly focused” on what we are doing. Csikszentmihalyi himself recognized the similarity between yoga and the ‘flow state’:

“The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact, it makes sense to think of Yoga as a… flow activity.  Both try to achieve a joyous-self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.” 

In yoga terminology we might think of the shift in meditative consciousness from focus (dharana) into absorption (dhyana).

A breakdown of the Sanskrit word is usually presented as ‘vi’ meaning ‘in a special way’ and ‘nyasa’ meaning ‘placement’. In a literal way this can be understood as referring to the linking of one asana to the next, and intelligent sequencing so that each asana or movement builds step by step on what came before to create a full, well-rounded practice each time, with more challenging poses being prepared for, mentally and physically. Understood as a philosophy, we could say that Vinyasa recognises the temporary nature of all things. We enter into a posture, are there for a while and then leave; eventually we come to realise the cyclical nature of experience as the physical forms repeat with variations.

At this point, you might be thinking that this all sounds a bit high-minded. Do we drop easily into a ‘flow state’ when we step on the yoga mat? Sometimes maybe, sometimes not so much. But it is perhaps the quest for physical grace and fluidity, the existential sense of losing ourselves in the moment coupled with the potential for a different, freer version of ourselves to re-emerge, the experience of forgetting our breath and settling back into it in savasana or meditation as we complete our practice… All this is what keeps us coming back in a cycle of always beginning again.

Seeing the detail

How long have you been practising yoga? Whatever length of time it is, whether months or a decade or more, one experience common to everyone is how many times you repeat common poses. In the vinyasa style sequencing is more creative than the set Ashtanga sequence for example, but even so many poses crop up in almost every class. Think about how many times you’ve done Downward Facing Dog or Warrior 2 or Child’s Pose. Not to mention ending in Savasana every time.

Does this mean the common poses get boring? I’d never thought of it like that, until a student asked me recently how I practise Warrior 2. Yes, the question was about how — she was curious about what I could still find of interest here. The implication behind the question was that I must surely have exhausted my enquiry into this pose and want to move onto other things that might be newer and more exciting. Actually I am still fascinated by Warrior 2, even after spending literally hours in this pose over the years of my practice. There’s always something new. Yoga poses evolve with us, our experience of them is ever-changing.

I still have vivid memories of the first time I tried Warrior 2 when I went to yoga class with a friend at university. The teacher and her assistant both helped me. They adjusted my stance, moving my feet with their hands, they supported my pelvis and encouraged me to reach out to the sides with my arms. Hey, I was doing the pose! Then they let go and stepped back and I simply fell over. They might have helped me form what looked like the Warrior 2 shape, but I had no foundations. I couldn’t yet stand on my own two feet — quite literally.

As the years passed I have accumulated much more experience of Warrior 2 and I have studied this pose deeply with my teacher, refining the physical actions and honing my attention so that I perceive the pose more fully. These days I’m much less distracted by learning to lift the arches of my feet or how to stabilise the front knee in good alignment. My experience of Warrior 2 has ceased to be a series of instructions aimed at engaging major muscles groups and turned into a more subtle, less physical experience. My current focus (to answer the student’s question) is on the drishti, the gazing point. How to orient my eyes towards the fingers of my outstretched hand (the middle fingernail, to be precise) not so much with my seeing eyes, but how to soften my eyeballs, so that I am looking inward as much as outward, merging myself with a sense of past, present and future… The outer form of my pose might not look so different but the inner experience shifts.

My Warrior 2 arises from all my accumulated experiences (on and off the yoga mat), from the willingness to pause repeatedly on my journey, to get down into the details and examine them closely and lovingly. There’s no rush to arrive; there’s just always more to discover. The yoga practice keeps in step with us and reveals more as our capacity for seeing develops. We are always exactly where we need to be. That’s why yoga works as a mixed-ability class. The same pose is different every time, and different for every body.

Warrior 2 photo credit: Ania Ready

Zoom room or studio?

I saw this bit of graffiti as I walked back from class this week. YOG. I laughed out loud. Something about the synchronicity, how this bit of vandalism paralleled my day, amused me. I was still laughing when I got home and my husband commented how different I was after my yoga class. He said I looked happy. More precisely he said I had a goofy grin on my face! I prefer to think of it as my ‘post yoga glow’.

I’ve only just started going to ‘real life’ classes again after more than a year of zoom and self-practice. I wasn’t sure how it would feel. The faff of getting ready, travel time, carrying a mat, as well as the covid protocols of spaced-out mats, hand sanitiser and masks… Should I bother? After all, I could just stay home and do yoga in my PJs.

But actually it was wonderful! There’s nothing like the feeling of being in class with other people. The sound of a gentle OM to begin, people gradually starting to move and warm up, then more synchronised surya namaskar as we found a rhythm, individual yet collective. Some challenging poses elicited a common groan and the room definitely got warm with us all sweating and focused on our practice. As we moved into the closing poses there were some low sighs around the room and finally we settled into our savasana and a beautiful stillness. The only time it feels right, as an adult, to lie down amidst a group of strangers and not worry about a thing!

Do you remember?

If you’ve missed in person classes and/or zoom doesn’t work for you, I’m teaching in person again with a weekly vinyasa class. I’d love to see you and share the energy of the room.

But don’t worry, zoom is also here to stay. In person can be great, but it’s also true that you can’t beat the convenience of a class at home before the working day. So let’s keep our Tuesday morning thing going — after coming together like this for more than a year, why change?

You decide what yoga you need: I’ll be there for both!

Yoga away from home

The continuation of online yoga classes means that it’s possible to keep up your practice and class attendance even when you’re away from home. If you’ve never tried yoga while you’re on holiday, you might be missing a treat! Provided that family or travelling companions can give you space for an hour (unless they want to join in with you!), the leisure of holiday time can make yoga feel more relaxed, rather than being something to cram in between working hours and mealtimes. And if you have time for a longer savasana to end, so much the better.

If tuning in for class doesn’t work, why not find some time for yourself and do your own practice? It’s easy to imagine that home yoga practice needs to look a certain way or be a certain level of intensity, but you might find that being on holiday and out of your usual routine (and mindset) some of these concerns melt away.

Find a clean, quiet spot, you don’t even need a yoga mat. A towel might work, or a patch of grass or sand…

Take some quiet breaths, without any particular intention or expectation. For the first practice in a new environment you might need a bit more time to settle, to ground, to absorb your surroundings and to feel safe.

Then you might begin some movements.

Start with something that feel familiar to you, from your own experiences. Some breaths in downdog might feel good especially if you’ve been sitting while travelling and feel the need to stretch out the back and the legs. Or you might take some stretches lying down. This can be particularly nice if you’re somewhere warm which might help the body feel softer or more flexible, or if you arrive tired and in need of some time to restore and relax after the inevitable busy days before the holiday starts.

Five or ten minutes like this might be all you need to feel refreshed and more connected with yourself. Or perhaps the holiday spirit has given you more energy and your movements become stronger or more dynamic and you increasing lose yourself in the joy of movement.

Holidays can be a great time to try something new, so don’t be afraid to experiment, to let go of old habits, trust your instincts about what’s best for you. You might come home with some new understanding of what your yoga is — that’s better than any suntan, I’d say!

Yoga challenges

What do you do when the teacher offers a pose that you can’t do? Do you compare yourself negatively to others in class or perhaps on social media?

How do you react to yoga challenges?

When I was a beginner, I remember getting quite angry with the teacher for suggesting a pose that was so obviously impossible. Then when I looked around the room and saw other students doing it, I used to get angry with them for being better at yoga than me! I don’t remember how long that attitude lasted. Hopefully not too long!

I then had a phase where I would jump right in and try anything even if I had no idea what the foundations of the pose were. I guess it was a pendulum swing away from my feelings of frustration. My first headstand, for example, was a complete disaster. I hadn’t built up any of the necessary strength in upper body or core and when I kicked up a bit wildly I toppled straight over and crashed down on top of my teacher’s altar. Not my finest moment, though of course my teacher was very gracious about it…

Sometime after that I moved onto the avoidance technique. I was at this time attending a much larger class and I thought that when something challenging came round I could sneak out for a quick loo break. Of course the teacher always noticed… I also tried the ‘hide in Child’s Pose’ technique for a while, not actually needed to rest, but wanting simply to disappear away from the difficulty of class and the embarrassment I felt at not being ‘good at yoga’. Of course that approach was never going to improve my practice! Quite soon I started to deliberately pause my practice and watch the students around me, particularly the more adept students in the front row, and this helped me begin to understand the poses I was confused by. Because I wasn’t hidden in Child’s Pose (or Ostrich Pose, as it really was for me:) ), my teacher could more easily help me and offer suggestions for how I might get started or find the foundation of the pose.

And I’d like to say “the rest is history”. Except that yoga doesn’t work like that. There is no end to the challenges it presents — sometimes in the form of obviously physically demanding postures, always in the invitation to stay present with whatever experience arises.

Certainly now I have a better understanding of the structure of poses, how to modify or use props to make a pose more accessible, and I am pretty realistic about what my body is capable of. But despite much greater technical knowledge, that doesn’t mean I don’t still get occasional flare-ups of anger, frustration, confusion, fear and so on on. And they aren’t necessarily in physically demanding classes, they can pop up suddenly in a restorative practice too. There’s nothing like stillness and quiet to unleash some of your old emotional gremlins when you least expect it. These days I’m unlikely to react by suddenly popping out to the bathroom! I now know that these emotional reactions arise and then disperse; they only hang around if I listen to them and get caught up in the old narratives. If instead I focus on breathing deeply and slowly into the belly and allowing my body to feel grounded, I can reset my mental patterns and approach my practice with more ease, with a sense of curiosity and good humour even towards the emotional roller-coaster.

Perhaps next time you’re in class, you can notice when the negative voices in your head put in an appearance. You might pause to notice what is going on without giving yourself a hard time. Eventually you might even be able to welcome them with a smile (“that old story again!”). It’s all part of yoga practice. It’s all part of being human.


Rollercoaster image from

“Listen to your body”

“Listen to your body” is something yoga teachers often say. I know I say it myself! I say it because I want you to feel you have permission to adapt the poses and the practice to your own needs on that day. And because I believe that yoga is about cultivating self-awareness more than about perfecting a pose.

But how do you listen to your body? I think this is quite an advanced yoga skill — I’m certainly still learning how to do this myself, hopefully with increasingly degrees of subtlety.

On a most basic level, you can listen for obvious messages or warning signs from the body. If you experience pain in a pose, particularly a sharp shooting pain in a joint, you should move out of the position slowly. This level of intense sensation is best avoided. It can be a sign from the body that this is not a good place for you right now.

Other physical feelings in the body can range from the intense to the more subtle and encompass a multitude of sensations like throbbing, aching, stretch, tingling, tightening, opening…. You will doubtless add your own words to this list from your personal experience. You will also come to understand over time something about what these sensations are telling you and to what degree and how you might respond to them. You might choose to shift position quite obviously, visibly changing the alignment. Or the movement might be a subtle shift in muscular engagement that is almost invisible, but is felt within your body. You might release the depth of the pose a little, pause, then move closer in again, noticing changes in the physical sensation along the way. Or you might feel you need to stay a while longer and simply observe the sensation, noticing perhaps that it changes over the course of several breaths.

Careful listening to your breathing and your breath pattern is another way of tuning in. You can listen in a very literal sense if you are employing ujjayi breath (also known as ocean breath). Or you might be ‘listening’ metaphorically. The quality of the breath (smooth, ragged, constricted, even, catching etc) or the pattern of inhale/exhale (even length and quality, more emphasis on breathing in or in breathing out etc) contains much information about your emotional state and can also help you determine if you are working too hard in your physical practice.

Ultimately the skill of listening to the body and the breath leads us to a greater understanding of, and intimacy with, ourselves. We develop patience and compassion as we observe our longings, our fears and our vulnerabilities, as well as our innate joy and sense of wholeness and wellness.

Restorative yoga for sceptics

Now that we’re all at home without the fancy props of a well equipped studio, we have to make the best of what we have for Restorative Yoga practice. A bolster and some yoga blocks are always helpful, if you have them, but what will really help you get comfortable in your poses is as many pillows, cushions and blankets or even bath towels as you can lay your hands on. These props are used to support the body; they provide a sense of safety and comfort, promoting the relaxation of physical tensions and allowing the mind to settle.

In class I layer up the instructions for each pose, to help you make best use of what you have available. I show the pose without props so you understand the basic shape and then add on suggestions for how to make it more comfortable. I know it can all seem like a bit of a faff at the beginning — I remember this from my first classes too! But after a while you might just find you fall in love with the ritual of taking the time and care to arrange your props and enjoy the experimentation of what works best for you. It’s a really profound act of self-care. You deserve this.

My husband isn’t usually a fan of restorative yoga, but this evening he asked me to set him up in a supported savasana. He just said he felt like it. I chose side-lying savasana as this is, I think, the most nurturing form of savasana there is. Savasana Royale! I asked him to begin by making the basic shape, lying on his left side with the knees drawn up. He told me quite abruptly: “This is the most uncomfortable position I’ve ever been in!”. So we got busy with the props and the cushions. A few minutes later once I’d fussed around a bit, supporting his neck, padding out the lower legs, and a comfortable way to support his arms, he looked pretty peaceful.

A final touch was to dim the lights, cover him with a blanket and tell him to rest there until I came back. I told him I’d just leave him five minutes (restorative yoga teacher’s joke!!).

His verdict afterwards was that he felt really relaxed — and he looked it! He even said he’d like to learn some other poses with me, which is the highest accolade I could imagine from this restorative yoga sceptic! 🙂

I guide Restorative Yoga class alternate Monday evenings via zoom, 6-7pm UK time. My husband probably won’t be there, but you could be! Class sign ups are here: Please be in touch with any questions if you’d like to join but you feel unsure. I’d be happy to help.