This incredible sunset is reflected on the facade of the church (and museum) of Santo Spirito in Florence. While I do not affiliate myself with any religion, there is something special about happening upon a structure like this when aimlessly traversing city streets that stops you in your tracks and makes you look up, breathe, and notice the light. I hope that is what resonates in this picture – a sense of sacred space illuminated by the sun.
September was a busy month and I got the sense from many of my students (not to mention myself) that it was stressful too. In September, schedules pick up again after the summer and we get caught up in planning ahead by filling our calendars. We quickly forget the spacious summer months and surge ahead just when nature is asking us to slow down. If that sounds familiar, then I’m giving you a few things to reflect on to keep that summer sun shining within even when skies turn grey. You’re going to need it for the winter.
It’s not always possible to simplify our schedules so we need to be creative about creating breathing space, moments to unwind, rituals to keep us grounded, and routines to keep us feeling on top, rather than buried under, our growing to-do lists. This comes naturally to us during the summer when the weather beckons us to idle away some time but it’s an effort when the year picks up and we spend less time outdoors.
When I have a mountain to climb (figuratively or literally), I always remember the ‘one step at a time’ saying. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we’re looking ahead and that’s because it pulls us from the present moment. The present moment is where we can observe, where we are attentive, where we can breathe. The breath is the gateway to the present moment so in many ways we’re taking things ‘one breath at a time’ (to quote a student of mine who says this is how he survived a stressful flat move and prevented getting emotionally overwhelmed). When you focus strongly on every inhale and every exhale you take, it’s hard to get distracted by much else, even anxious feelings.
This is why I slowed every flow class I was teaching right down and got everyone to really focus on their breathing. Our natural breathing pattern can tell us a lot about how we are feeling, if we’re in a state of anxiety or depression, under too much pressure, too stressed. And likewise we can take control of our breath to use it as a tool to counteract those feelings. There are times when it’s excellent to slow down your yoga practice (around the Autumn Equinox for example) and I always find these are the times we feel the biggest impulse to rush and run. The yoga mat is where I cultivate a lot of patience and tame my inner White Rabbit to drop the watch and stay in the now.
If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, you’re likely to have practiced a Sun Salutation. Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) are composed of 8 postures sequenced together and joined by the thread of the breath. They are an excellent place to start when developing a home practice, especially one that you can incorporate into a morning routine to greet the first rays of sun (depending on when you wake up that is). They are fantastic because once your body learns them, you don’t have to think about or get overwhelmed by choice of what to do on your mat. They start with a strong standing pose, then an inhale to raise your arms to the sun, and you’re off, gracefully moving your body to your breath in a series of simple poses that get your blood flowing, your energy soaring and your being soaking up each inhale and exhale as nourishment for the day (read below for an instructional link).
This is my simple go-to practice when I have an overactive mind and am looking to slow things down, when I need a block of time to myself to soften my pace and feel at peace. And this is why I love mornings – you’re much less likely to be distracted during the morning hours by people, tasks, and the general busy energy that increases as we approach noon. Sun Salutations together with restorative yoga poses have been an essential part of my Autumn cleanse (more below).
Digital media can also pull us away from the present moment. I was asked to write a blog last month about disconnecting from our mobile phones and computers and the timing was perfect. We know when we’re being productive at the computer and when we’re using it as a distraction. How many times do you actually pick up your smart phone to make a call? How does that compare to checking emails, playing games, and trawling the internet when you’re bored on a commute? Do you ever leave your phone behind so you have no distractions?
Just the other day I was in a gym class and a woman answered her phone! She didn’t even bother to leave the room or dismiss herself – it was assumed we would accept this as normal and that she could talk at a volume louder than the teacher regarding business affairs. I felt less bad for the rest of us and more sorry for her not allowing herself even 45 minutes to be phone free and just in her body. I put together some thoughts on this and 5 simple ways to have a digital timeout should you be addicted to your digital device in this blog.
Currently my iPhone serves two major purposes: photography (using the camera to capture moments of gratitude for lovely things in my life) and texting (to communicate with loved ones when I can’t see them in person). Otherwise I try to save emails for designated work time at my desktop computer, don’t play games, remember to read books, and generally keep track of my phone use, cutting myself off when I know I am using it out of boredom and my vision starts to get blurry. It’s an effort and I often fail, but I know it pays off in terms of creating space for my mind to breathe and obtaining mental clarity.
My suggestion this month would be to be a little soft with yourself. Allow for some down time. Even though the mornings are darker, allow yourself to wake up earlier to steal a few of those tranquil morning minutes when everything is a blank canvas and most of the city still sleeps (leave your phone in the other room). Incorporate contemplative activities, such as wandering around an art exhibit (I thoroughly enjoyed the vibrant colours and shapes at the Tate’s Matisse cut-out show) or photographing nature and the Autumn foliage. Connect with your spiritual side – the side that takes you inward to reflect by taking long walks, creating a sacred space in your home or finding one in the city somewhere where the sun is shining. Practice yoga in slow motion.
Finally, I am on day three of a 4-day Ayurvedic food-based cleanse. The cleanse consists of a mono-diet of kitchadi (warm, cooked moong daal). This is the fourth time I’ve done this cleanse and it never ceases to amaze me how much we resist foods that make us feel calmer and more centered, always reaching for a stimulant like caffeine or chocolate to keep us going, even in the evening when we’re meant to wind down. This cleanse is all about balancing and training the body to have a set routine of eating for nourishment only. It’s an incredible experience that teaches you a lot about how we often try to distract ourselves from the present moment by reaching for a mood-enhancing food and snacking. No snacks allowed – just three set meals and over time you learn to dismiss the false hunger and allow yourself to be tired and rest. You learn to surrender and hang up the towel before you over exhaust yourself. It’s something that should come naturally so listen for those signals and be aware of when you’re ignoring the need to rest your body, your mind, your digestive system, you name it.
Summary (and links):
I love this video for a gentle sun salutation sequence. Give them a try. I teach this in my Beginners Yoga Courses, so sign up if you’re interested in more…
Tips and thoughts on digital overload – Surrender to Simplification and take timeouts from your phone (I’ll be taking my own advice)
And just for fun, here’s last year’s Autumn blog on why I love Autumn colours
If you want to learn more about kitchadi and cleansing in the Autumn, send me an email.
If you need a song to get you into that slow down space, try Devi Prayer from 108 Sacred Names (many thanks to Romee for recommending this peaceful chant that smoothed out my September)
Enjoy the sun when it shines.