The coronavirus outbreak is teaching us a lot about ourselves isn’t it? We are learning much more about who we are, both as a collective and as individuals.
As we stay home with family, or on our own, we have a fantastic opportunity to come face to face with ourselves. In this time of increased isolation, we can dig deep and explore what drives us. When our usual behaviours, habits and distractions are taken away from us, what is left?
Of course, we can spend all our days distracting ourselves. And sometimes this can feel very tempting.
The weirdness of the world gives us enough to be distracted from. Spending too long reading news and social media updates, articles and theories can leave us drained, negative and fearful.
The endless stream of media available through our devices means that we don’t need to be alone with our thoughts for more than a few seconds. We don’t *need* to look at how we feel. I know that my thoughts can be overwhelming and very unhappy a lot of the time. It isn’t pleasant to look too closely at them sometimes.
And yet when we don’t spend the time looking and processing what we feel, it has a negative impact on us. You might not notice it, but the stress you feel in your mind is taking its toll on your body.
Disconnect to reconnect
I tend to distract myself a lot most of the time. Music is one of my regular distractions. I love walking in nature, but usually have my headphones on and am immersed in music when I am doing it. It doesn’t stop the endless stream of thoughts my ADHD brain creates, but it does give me something else to focus on.
Yesterday, when I took my dog for a walk, I chose to leave my phone at home. I am finding it more essential than ever to give myself time away from it at the moment. To find some silence in the constant noise.
While walking, the inner monologue was going strong, but I was ok. Emotions were coming and going, often overwhelming and saddening me. I was breathing and walking through them. I was watching birds, feeling the breeze on my skin, and enjoying the sound of the water flowing in the stream.
In the space created in the quiet, and by being in nature, I could process my thoughts clearly and calmly. I was able to work through the emotions that were coming up, and move to a sense of comfort and clarity.
In a glorious ‘lightbulb’ moment, I could see how much am growing stronger through my current challenges. I had a profound sense that certain things in my life were working out exactly as I needed them to.
And I knew with absolute certainly that I am more than capable of meeting the challenges life is sending my way. That more pain might and almost certainly will come. That there will be times when I will feel weak and lost. But that those will be the moments when I will gain more strength, and find a clearer path.
In the few seconds it took for me to process this train of thought, I felt my whole body relax and shift. The thoughts I had released actual physical tension in my shoulders, jaw and arms. My mind relaxed. The thoughts I was experiencing became calmer, more peaceful and positive. My emotions shifted from self pity and overwhelm, to gratitude and acceptance of the situation.
My whole being changed in a moment. This was thanks to thoughts I wouldn’t have experienced had I been blasting my consciousness with loud music. I hadn’t even noticed the tension that my body was feeling in that moment until it wasn’t there anymore. This is often the way with stress. This is why it leads to so many long term health problems. By the time we notice it is there, it is often too late.
You are not just a body
The body, thoughts and emotions are profoundly connected. The more we can be aware of these aspects of our being, the more we can control our response to the world, and shape who we are. We might be powerless to control the world around us to a very large degree. But through self-awareness, we can control how we respond to it. We can take charge of how we show up to others and ourselves. And we decide how we care for the body, mind and spirit that is our vehicle in to live in the world.
Yoga provides us with a huge range of tools to be able to do this. There is so much more to Yoga than how much you can bend and stretch your body. The bending and stretching are tools to help you reach awareness and inner peace. They are not goals in themselves.
The purpose of Yoga is to guide us to awareness and connection to our inner Self, and to the whole of creation. More than ever, this virus has shown us how intimately we are connected as humans. We are not separate from one another. The things I do in my life can have a profound impact on so many other people’s wellbeing and happiness. Isn’t it funny how we need ‘social distancing’ to highlight how much we are connected?
Our need for connection runs deep in our collective psyche. And this connection begins with the deep and profound connection we have with ourselves.
Yoga teaches a concept called The Four Fold Awareness. This teaching helps us to remember that we are more than just a body. That we are made up of the body, the emotions, the mind and the spirit. That what we do to one aspect of our being influences the rest of our being. And, as you will see when we explore more about Yoga in the weeks to come, how we treat and see ourselves has an impact on how we treat and see the world around us.
The first aspect of the Four Fold Awareness is awareness of the body.
THIS is the goal of your Yoga class. It isn’t about having the bendiest, thinnest, most sleek body in the room. It isn’t about being able to touch your toes, wrap your legs around your neck or any of the other things Instagram Yoga might make you believe. It is about connecting to your body. Accepting and learning to value the body you have. Working with it and taking better care of it.
We have one body in this lifetime. Yes, modern medicine can give us new body parts when we need them. It can give us medication to help heal when we get sick or injured. It can make parts of our body work that wouldn’t otherwise. But we have a responsibility to care for the body we have as well as we are able.
How we are starting to see the folly in this way of thinking now.
Yoga teaches us to slow down, to connect to the body, to notice the movements and relationships between different parts of the body and to listen to what the body tells us.
How many times have you ignored your need to visit the loo because you are ‘too busy’? When was the last time you went to bed the minute your body started to tell you that you were tired?
When you connect to your body, you can read the signs that it is giving you, and act accordingly. We have been conditioned to ignore the signs our body gives us. When you can learn to listen and respond to your body, you become attuned to what it needs, rather than what you think you want. When you can learn to do this, your body repays you with greater health, energy, relaxation and vitality.
When you tune in to your breath, you can bring your body into a relaxed, peaceful state very quickly. Slow, conscious breathing calms the nervous system. This brings you out of the ‘flight or fight’ response, and into the ‘relaxation response’ very quickly. You let go of tension in the body, bring clarity to the mind, and soothes frazzled emotions. The ‘5 Minute Breath‘ that I offer in my free course is all you need to give yourself a mental and physical reboot.
When you can connect to your breath, you can increase your awareness of the thoughts you are experiencing. You can alter the impact those thoughts are having on your mind.
Awareness of the emotions is the second stage of the Four Fold Awareness.
Your emotions have a direct impact on the body. Think about the way you hold your body when you are feeling confident, compared to when you are feeling insecure. The emotions affect everything about how we show up in the world. When you are feeling good, you have more energy, more focus, you are more likely to smile, and walk with confidence and certainty. The opposite is true for when you are feeling down.
Beyond this, the emotions impact on your physical wellbeing. Stress affects sleep, appetite, focus, libido, energy, respiration, muscle tension and more. It can cause problems such as hair loss, obesity, asthma, pain and digestive disorders. Long term, stress can lead to (or contribute to) serious health complications such as heart disease, stroke and even cancer.
Learning to recognise and process your emotions, instead of ignoring them and ‘numbing’ them can help you avoid much of this negative impact of stress on the body.
You might not be able to change the circumstances you find yourself in that are causing you stress. But you can look at how you respond to it, and find healthy tools to learn to process it.
But first you have to learn to recognise it. Learn to recognise the signs of stress in the mind and body. Pay attention to your emotions. Writing is a powerful tool for doing this. When you write, you often find your subconscious brings up thoughts and emotions your conscious brain suppresses.
Connecting to your breath is another very valuable tool for doing this. In the stillness you create when you sit with your breath, you can process your emotions and let them pass through you instead of holding them in.
I wrote this blog post, ‘Soothing the emotions with the breath‘, after a 30 minute ‘quiet sitting’ session. This stillness prompted a stream of consciousness writing session. The breathing and writing together helped me heal and process a great deal of stuck emotion.
Our emotions are not to be feared. Pain and suffering are inevitable in life. We do ourselves no favours when we don’t allow the pain to come. When we suppress it, fight it or numb it, it doesn’t go away. It simply sits within, growing and festering, and will toxify the rest of our life. When we face our pain head on, sit with it, allow it to be, and work through it, we can grow and heal. This leads to greater happiness and physical and mental health in the long term.
Our emotions come from the thoughts we think. This is the 3rd stage of the Four Fold Awareness.
We experience so many thoughts every day. Most of them are totally unconscious. The brain processes what it sees around us, and filters the information and thoughts we need to focus on in order to live.
The thoughts you think affect how you feel about yourself and the world around you. Many of the thoughts that affect your world view have been conditioned into you from a young age. Many are fed into your mind without you even noticing by the media you consume either consciously or unconsciously. Newspaper headlines, for example, affect our perceptions without us even reading the articles.
Developing an awareness of what you think can transform how you see, and show up in the world. Becoming aware, for example, of unconscious bias in your speech and actions can change how you speak and act. Questioning long-held beliefs, such as religion, race, politics, can highlight that they are not your beliefs. Much of the time you see that they have been passed down to you by parents and other childhood influences.
The thoughts we choose to focus on impact how we feel and what we see.
If you always assume the worst in people, that is what you will see. If you think that you are a failure at everything, you will fail, or at least, you won’t recognise your success. Everything that humanity has ever created grew out of a thought. Your thoughts are important. They shape your reality.
Spending time exploring what you think, looking at the patterns of thinking you repeatedly engage in, and increasing your awareness of the impact your thoughts have on you is a huge work of personal growth and healing.
Again, writing and breathing are fantastic tools to help you to slow down your thoughts. When you slow them down, you can hear what you are really thinking.
When you start to recognise thought patterns that aren’t helpful, you can begin to change them. I will explore some of these tools in the posts to come in this series.
These three stages of awareness might seem, on the surface, to be simple. But in truth they take work and ongoing effort. It is so easy to slip back into unawareness at all 3 levels. Daily practice, careful attention and mindful living is required.
The fourth stage of Four Fold Awareness is the culmination of the first three, and is the Awareness of Awareness.
This is ‘Enlightenment’ , or Oneness… the true goal of Yoga. Many of us will not achieve this high level of awareness in this lifetime, and that is ok. This life is a journey, and if we make any effort to achieve any of the steps along the way, we will reap many benefits from it.
So don’t worry today about the ultimate goal. Life is never about achieving the goal, not really. It is about who you become on your quest to the goal. If you made it your life mission to deepen your awareness of your body, emotions and thoughts, you will grow, heal huge amounts of past pain and live a full and rich life. You will end your days with a deeper connection to yourself and to the world around you.
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to get there. Enlightenment would be lovely, but I’ll be happy to know that I am on a path of constant improvement and inner peace. This time of increased isolation is the perfect time to dive deep into yourself. A time to journey back to you.
You can begin your journey by joining me on the ‘5 Minute Breath‘ mini course. Over the course of 10 days I will share inspiration and encouragement to help you begin to create a daily practice of connecting to your breath. This is a wonderful practice to help you develop awareness of your body, emotions and breath, and create Space to Breathe in your day.
Find out more and start today here