When Science, Spirituality & Real Life Collide
Being Present; The Best Present
Emma Renee Usher, Registered Dietitian, Yoga Teacher, Mummy
This term in our yoga classes (online) we have been thinking about “being present” & we have been utilising mindfulness techniques to help us achieve this intention. The idea for this course of classes was drawn from my experiences of Christmas & the demands of the festive season.
I usually feel that I float through Christmas in a haze of guilt, frustration and exhaustion; never quite feeling good enough. There is so much pressure to buy the perfect gift, give your child a pile of presents, attend every social event, visit family, make Nigella-esk food, give your child as many memorable, enchanting experiences as possible and do it all wearing a sparkly jumpsuit with a giant smile and a heart full of jingle bells. Then you look on social media and it appears that everyone has done it so much better than you!
I barely remember my daughter’s first Christmas. I felt so much pressure to make it amazing. I had gone back to work in the October after maternity leave when Ceej was only seven months old to be able to afford Christmas (and life in general). A lot of my Mummy friends were still on maternity leave and were attending the playgroup Christmas parties & events; posting social media photos of smiling babies in Christmas onesies whilst I sat at my desk and cried. I would then push myself so hard to try to attend each and every event that I could at the weekends and on days off. I also remember advising a patient to stay in hospital over Christmas as he was too unwell to go home; he was with his grandchildren and I broke their hearts. I felt terrible for them, but I also felt solidarity; I just wanted to be at home with my loved ones too. When the big day finally rolled around I was so unhappy and exhausted I could not enjoy it.
During subsequent festive seasons I did not fare much better.
Well, no more!
This festive season I am giving myself the best present; being present! I’ve set time limits for social media on my phone, I will keep my yoga practice and fitness routine consistent (yet realistic), I will enjoy food mindfully, I will set boundaries and say “no”, I will practice self care and continue to work on a variety of mindfulness techniques.
Ceej and I enjoying a Christmas drive-in movie
“Yoga Chitta vritti nirodhah”; yoga helps to calm the chatter of the mind (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)
I commented on citta vritti during my last post; the chatter of the mind. People refer to this chatter in a variety of ways Singer (2007) refers to this chatter as voices; your “flatmates” whilst the amazing Ru Paul refers to your “inner saboteur”. Mindfulness master Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) comments that we waste an enormous amount of energy reacting to this inner chatter & the emotions it evokes. “Being present” involves being aware of what is going on in our mind and how we engage with it.
A good mindfulness technique is to observe this chatter; stand back & notice what is going on in your mind, without judgement, without spiralling; just watch. You can learn a lot from this.
Another good technique is to give the mind something else to think about. Take the awareness to the breath; the sound of the breath, the rise & fall of chest/abdomen, the sensation of the breath at the nostrils, you can visualise the breath as light or strands entering or leaving the body or you can count the inhalations and exhalations. Try to hold the awareness here. It can be difficult, especially if you have a lot of chitta vritti. Be kind to yourself & take the awareness back to the breath as soon as your “flat mates” or “inner saboteurs’” sneak in. You can also take the full awareness to menial day-to-day tasks; washing up, laundry or choose fun things such as making Christmas cards or cookies.
Trying a walking meditation could also be beneficial. Many people promote the benefits of being outside in nature. During a walking meditation you would be mindful of the feet and each step you are taking. Be mindful of the world around you; the trees, colours, flowers, sky, warmth, cool. Ideally a walking meditation would be done with bare feet however I am not advocating this in England in December!
I also find mindful mantra meditation or yoga chants beneficial. Thinking about a phrase as you breathe helps to keep the mind focused and away from the chitta vritti. I like “Samprati Hum” “I am present” (inhale “samprati”, exhale “hum”) aloud or silently to yourself. “Om Shanti” (peace) is also nice along with “So Hum” “I am”. You may wish to pick a mantra that is personal to you, I often use “I am calm yet energised” during my morning yoga. Use “I am” phrases where possible. There are also a number of chants that you can play or sing if you know them. “Om Shanti” by Deva Premel is nice and I particularly enjoy the Ganesh mantra “Om Gan Ganapataey Namaha”(to evoke Ganesh and help to remove obstacles). When listening to chants or chanting to yourself try to take your full awareness to the sound, the meaning, the vibrations and pauses.
Responding, not reacting
Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) states that we waste an enormous of energy reacting to the outside world as well as our inner experiences and Williams (2011) notes: “It’s not a mood that does the damage; it’s how you react to the mood”. Allowing thoughts and situations to spiral in your own mind takes time and energy. Author Mark Twain’s quote really resonates with me “some of the worst things in my life never even happened”.
Thinking back to Ceej’s first Christmas, in my mind my Mummy friends had the perfect first Christmases with their babies, my patients’ grandchildren hated me for not pushing for their grandfather to return home, I was low on funds and everyone disliked their Christmas presents, Ceej was unhappy as I was working a lot. In reality most of my Mummy friends were struggling too, my patients’ grandchildren understood that he was sick, the gifts I bought were cheap but well thought out and everyone loved them and Ceej was happy with family whilst I was working (she has subsequently developed amazing bonds with her grandparents and Aunties because of this time).
When thinking back to the time spent worrying it was wasted time that could have been spent enjoying my daughter’s first Christmas. Be mindful of when your mind starts to react like this and again, utilise mindfulness techniques to come back to the present moment. Also, questioning the evidence for these thoughts is also helpful; most of my thoughts were based on assumptions and emotions; not facts and evidence.
Food and eating
The festive season seems to provide a free pass to consume as much food as humanly possible in a manner that is guilt-free until January 1st. Then the detox begins (don’t even get me started on those). Whilst I do not believe in restrictive diets, especially at Christmas time, I do think being mindful about what we eat can be a positive experience. I do not mean counting calories or counter-balancing food with work outs. What I mean is choosing foods you truly enjoy, eat them slowly, and savour the taste. If you have never tried the chocolate meditation before I would encourage you to try it. I tend to do it in my yoga classes at this time of year (another thing COVID has ruined for us). Eating mindfully really changes the experience.
I would also encourage opportunities to listen to your body; tune into sensations of hunger and satiety and know when to stop!
Using a body scan technique can be helpful. Lying in comfortable position scan the body from your head to your toes noticing any sensations, tension, tightness, aches or pains. Observe these sensations, try not to judge or criticise yourself or your body.
Be kind to yourself if you do over-indulge, let’s face-it, most of us will! Be mindful, notice it has happened, don’t judge yourself or let your thoughts spiral; a few days of over-indulgence will not affect your long-term health. Adding an additional component to the body scan; bringing awareness to your emotions may be helpful here. Ask yourself what emotions you are feeling, why you feel them, if you are suppressing any emotion and if you feel it anywhere in the body. I’ve been writing a series of blogs on obesity, yet to be published, so will explore the emotional side of eating in more detail next year.
My message for the season is be present! Enjoy every moment; the twinkling lights, the shiny wrapping paper, the cool crisp air, the sound of the rain, the smiles, the tastes, the smells; try to keep your awareness here and away from the chitta vritti.
Namaste and Happy Christmas!
Kabat-Zinn, J (1990) Full Catastrophe Living. Bantam books. USA
Satchidananda, S (2012) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (translation and Commentary). Integral Yoga. USA.
Singer, M, A (2007) The Untethered Soul: the journey beyond yourself. New Harbinger Publications and Noetic Books. USA.
Williams, M & Penman, D (2011) Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to finding Peace in a Frantic World. Great Britain.