Applied Mindfulness: Balancing Self-Doubt with Reason

We all know that voice. The one that tells you you’ll never be successful, or beautiful, or thin, or creative, or married, or it tells you it’s not worth attempting something new because you’ll never be good at it anyway. So what do we do about it? Can we actually overcome self doubt, or do we just have to learn to live with it?

It’s time to get introspective, folks.

Step 1: Noticing the Voice of Self-Doubt

Noticing our own patterns is a difficult thing to do. For that reason, you might want to keep a little journal handy, or just keep notes in your phone. You could even team up with a friend and be each other’s accountability buddies, so whenever you say something that screams of self-doubt, you can point it out to each other.

The important thing is to start thinking critically about your own mindset, and the main point to understand here is that a lot of your thoughts happen habitually. You don’t actually have that much control over your thoughts. Humans are prone to thought patterns that become so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t notice them happening, which can lead to anxiety and depression, or can also be a cause of anxiety and depression.

So what kind of things can we actually start to notice?

Look out for subtle out-of-the-blue negative thoughts.

For example, if someone asks if you saw their email, and you did see it but didn’t realise there was something in it that you were supposed to reply to, are you likely to think “ugh, I’m so stupid”? If someone asks if you finished the book you borrowed from them, do you say “ugh I’m sorry, I’m such a slow reader”? These are the kind of small, seemingly inconsequential things that can really add up. When you feel/hear yourself thinking/saying these things, take note. Write it down. Note what happened, and note what your response was.

Does giving someone else a compliment make you feel worse about yourself? Look out for sneaky never-thoughts.

If you’re out with a friend and they try on a great outfit, do you say “that looks great on you! But it would never look that good on me…” Or how about if a friend gets a new partner, do you think “I’m glad they’re happy. But I’ll never be that happy because nobody wants to date me…” Or if a friend achieves something in their career, do you say “I’m so proud of you. I’ll never have a good career like you do…”

This kind of never-thinking is damaging and downright unproductive. The things that other people have or achieve actually has nothing to do with what you have or achieve. Notice if you’re using your perception of other people’s successes to feed your inner negativity. Everyone is on their own path, and it’s not helpful to compare your path with theirs.

Take note of your negative rumination.

This one is really hard, because when we’re stuck in an unhappy situation, it’s almost always easier to stay in the same place than to try and go somewhere else. But if you find yourself constantly thinking about all the things that are making life difficult, it’s worth examining those patterns. Do you get swallowed into a spiral of negativity? Try writing it all down and see if there are any patterns. “I hate where I live, but I can’t go anywhere else because my job is here.” “I hate my job, but I can’t get another one because I don’t have any other skills.” “I’m so lonely, but I don’t have time to see my friends because when I get home from work I just want to relax.” Often these thoughts follow a pattern: first there’s a statement of displeasure, followed by some kind of ‘justification’ (note: I say ‘justification’ like that because it’s not a real justification, it’s one crafted by the voice of self-doubt, not the voice of reason, which brings us to Step 2…)

Step 2: Making Friends With the Voice of Reason

Once you’ve started to identify your negative thoughts, it’s time to examine them a little closer, and to work out if it’s the voice of self-doubt or the voice of reason that is doing most of the talking.

But first, it’s important to recognise that self-doubt comes from a real place, based on all of your previous thoughts, patterns and experiences. Your self-doubt was partially learned from the behaviours and actions of all your friends and family. Your self-doubt was influenced by things you didn’t even know you were influenced by: media, advertising, music, film, magazines, etc. Your self-doubt also has a basis in your biology, your physiology, your psychology. Your self-doubt has a rich history, just like the rest of you does. On the other hand, reason is something that develops slower over time, based on real, factual experiences. The voice of reason is logical, based on empirical truths and real-time influences; the voice of self-doubt tends to be based on speculation and emotion.

I’m not saying that self-doubt doesn’t ever have a place. But when your self-doubt holds you back, that’s probably a sign that it’s gone too far.

So how do we actually invoke the voice of reason?

Take a look at one of your negative thoughts. For example, the subtle “I’m so stupid” from before. Let’s say you did mis-read that email. Does that actually mean that you are stupid? Or is it more likely to mean that you were tired when you read the email? Or that you picked up your phone while watching a TV show, glanced at the email and then looked away because something exciting was happening in the show, and you were simply distracted? Or maybe you did fully read the email and you simply forgot to reply? Does that really make you stupid? Or does it mean that you just forgot something, like all humans do sometimes? If your friend forgot to reply to an email from you, would you tell them “you are so stupid”?

If you wouldn’t say it to someone you love, why would you say it to yourself?

Let’s look at one of the other previous examples: “I hate my job, but I can’t get a different one because I have no other skills.” So in this statement, what would it actually take to get a different job? If it really is just a matter of skills, skills can always be learned. Maybe there’s an online course you could do, or books you can take out from your local library. Maybe there’s a local college course to get you started. Maybe it’s something you could do freelance to build up a portfolio. Or maybe you don’t really know what you want to do, you just know you hate your current job. That’s fair, but let’s apply some logical thinking to the negative statement of “I hate my job.” What, specifically, do you hate about it, and is there something you can do about those specific things? Note: just saying “everything” here doesn’t work. Be specific. Do you really hate everything about the job? Then write down everything you can think of, point-by-point. Maybe you hate the way your workplace is run - if that’s the case, is there someone you can talk/complain to within the company to express dissatisfaction? Can you ask for more responsibility so that you have more of a say in how things happen? Or can you ask for less responsibility so you don’t have to worry about it so much?

Let your rumination powers really mull over each of the statements, but remember to do it with reason. Let yourself think curiously and creatively, think about the what-ifs and the maybes, but do it step-by-step, considering the facts and the truths of the real-life situation.

Step 3: Letting Go of Self-Doubt When it Doesn’t Help You

Working through self-doubt is not easy. It’s not a direct path to enlightenment or happiness, and noticing all your negative thoughts won’t just make all the painful and difficult things in your life go away. But in approaching self-doubt with a sense of mindfulness, we can learn about the way our minds work, and we can investigate what we each individually need in order to heal and grow.

Sometimes, self-doubt is useful. It comes from the same place that gives you a feeling of “hmm, maybe this isn’t a good idea” when you see a truck coming and you’re not sure if you quite have enough time to dash across the road. In that sort of situation, it’s trying to protect you. But sometimes our inner voice of self-doubt just gets a bit too big for its own boots, and it takes over our lives, holds us back, keeps us in a holding pattern of negative thoughts, and makes us afraid to make changes to move away from it.

By noticing our patterns, breaking them down into actionable points and approaching them with logic, reason, and kindness, then we can start to make positive changes in our own lives and beyond.

Important note: if you feel chronic helplessness, sadness and self-doubt, please consider finding a therapist to talk to. Find a therapist in the USA; Find a therapist in the UK; Click here to view the International Therapist Directory.

How To Find A Beginners' Yoga Class (And Be Able To Tell If It's Actually Good For Beginners)

As someone who started out on their yoga journey at home through books and DVDs, I can empathise completely with anyone out there who might be a little terrified at the idea of actually going to a yoga class. In person. Surrounded by strangers. It took me several years to build up the courage to do it, and of course as soon as I left my first class I felt elated and, frankly, very silly that it took me so long. But I definitely know how hard it can be to take that first step.

I was fortunate that my first in-person class was wonderful, but since then I’ve been in plenty of classes where I thought the teacher was varying states of misguided or just downright bad. If I’d ended up in one of those classes early on, I might have been put off or scared out of going back. So I’ve put together some tips on how to approach finding your first yoga class, particularly if you’re looking for something gentle, accessible, and/or suitable for beginners.

So where do you start?

Searching For Beginners’ Yoga

This might seem obvious, but Google is your friend. You could start with a general search for “yoga classes in [your town here]”, but if you live in a big city you’ll likely see a huge and overwhelming number of responses, so it’s good to narrow it down a bit. Try “gentle yoga in [your town]”, “beginner yoga in '[your town]” and see what comes up. Secondly, when you skim the the results, look at the kind of places the classes are held. Is it a yoga studio or a gym? There’s nothing immediately wrong with yoga classes in gyms, and it’s always worth considering all your options, but consider what kind of place you’d feel comfortable in for your first class. There is a chance a gym-based location might have more emphasis on athletic yoga or weight loss, which might not be conducive to approaching yoga with a sense of wellness or self-love.

When you’re searching, you’re likely to see the words ‘vinyasa’ and ‘hatha’. These can both be great for beginners. Vinyasa is more of a flow-based practice, and hatha tends to be longer-held postures. If vinyasa appeals to you more, look for something that says “slow flow” as opposed to anything that uses words like “power” or “challenge” or “advanced”.

Are ‘All Levels’ Yoga Classes Suitable For Beginners?

You’ll see that some classes say they’re for “all levels”. This can sometimes be a great option, because it means you’re not expected to already have any yoga background. But from personal experience, some All Levels classes just aren’t good for complete beginners, or for anyone with a chronic illness or injury. If you do have an injury or illness, do not assume that a yoga teacher has experience with any particular health condition. Yoga teacher trainings can vary wildly from one to the next, so while one could have an emphasis on anatomy, another might not, and most yoga teacher trainings do not contain any medical training at all. For this reason, if you do have a specific ailment, it’s probably a good idea to look around for a teacher who might be more suited to your needs. If a quick google search doesn’t come up with anything obvious, you could try contacting local physiotherapists, for example, and asking if they could recommend any nearby yoga therapists.

If you don’t have any particular ailment but you’re nervous about not being able to keep up in a yoga class, you could look into more of an ‘orientation’ style yoga course. These seem to be more common in the UK than the USA, but typically you sign up for 5 or 6 weeks, and then you attend one class per week where you’ll be guided through the basic types of postures and you’ll explore an overall understanding of what yoga is. This could be a great way to become more familiar with yoga while being in a class with other people who are new to it.

So what about if you’re not nervous at all and you’re just ready to dive right in? What if you’ve been walking past your local yoga studio and their first-timers’ discount is just calling your name? Well, if you want to just go for it - go for it!

For those of you who just can’t resist Yelp-ing and over-researching every little thing you do, check out the studio on Yelp. Search the reviews for “beginner”, and see if other people in your situation have any comments. You might be surprised how specific people get in their reviews, and that can be very helpful!

See if the studio has a website. They often list all the different teachers they have, with information about what kind of things each person likes to teach. As I mentioned earlier, yoga teacher trainings are so different and this is reflected in every teacher’s individual style, so one might appeal to you (or not appeal to you) in particular. If you’re interested in learning a more traditional yoga, you might gravitate toward a teacher who has spent time in India studying in a specific lineage. Or if you’re looking for a more secular yoga, one teacher might note that they prefer to teach without using traditional Sanskrit, choosing instead to teach the English language names of postures. If you’re a woman, you might prefer to choose a female teacher. Or you might not have any criteria and you’ll just be looking at the teachers’ biographies and think “that person sounds nice!”. That might seem like a really arbitrary way of choosing, but yoga teaching is very personal, and teachers’ personalities come across in their teaching style, so sometimes just getting a good vibe from someone might be all you need.

Feel free to call the studio and ask questions! You can ask about which classes they offer that are geared toward beginners. You could ask if they’re experienced with Accessible Yoga. If you have reduced mobility, maybe ask if they utilise props or if they have a chair-based class. Ask if the room is heated: hot yoga is very popular, and while some people do love it, it might be a strange and intense situation for a beginner if you didn’t know to expect a room heated to over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Ask if the classes are fast-paced or gentle. Ask if they play music or not - some teachers like to use a modern soundtrack, others use traditional instrumental music, and some prefer silence. One of those options might appeal to you moreso than the others. Ask if there’s chanting - if you’re not prepared for Sanskrit chanting it can be confusing or even uncomfortable, so it’s good to know if that’s something you might encounter.

Remember who is in charge.

The yoga teacher might be the one all the students are watching, but remember this: you are in charge of your body. Yoga is a personal discovery of your own body, breath and movement. No teacher has any right to tell you to do something if it makes you feel uncomfortable or if it hurts. If you know you have an old knee injury and the teacher says to come to your knees, you do not have to do it. Feel free to put your hand up and ask if there’s something you could do instead, or if you could use a blanket as padding, for example. A yoga class might feel too quiet or meditative or, well, too yogic to ask for help, but that’s what the teacher is for, and you should always feel empowered to ask for ways to personalise your practice. After all, yoga is personal. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I’ve definitely been in classes that claimed to be “All Levels” but were definitely only appropriate for very advanced practitioners. And in those moments, I convinced myself that I could force myself to keep up. And guess what - I got hurt. I strongly encourage you not to physically push yourself in a yoga class, especially when it comes to inversions. Sometimes a teacher might advise that you “push past your edge”, and this is a concept I strongly disagree with and have made a point in my work as a teacher and practitioner of gentle yoga to distance myself from. Ultimately, use your best judgment. If you feel like it’s too much for you, trust that feeling.

A note on inversions:

If you’re in a class as a beginner and the teacher says to come into a headstand or shoulder stand, I would personally advise against doing it, especially if you have any known problems with your neck, heart or blood pressure. Again, if you want to explore inversions in a way more suited to a beginner, please feel free to ask the teacher if there is a variation you could take that is less physically demanding (I really like ‘legs up the wall’ pose as a beginner-friendly alternative to these). If you feel uncomfortable attempting a difficult posture, and you ask for assistance and the teacher tells you to just try it anyway, take this as a warning. The yoga teacher is there to listen to you, not bully you into doing something you don’t feel comfortable doing.

In the most extreme circumstances, you might be in a situation where you’re just not comfortable in the class. Please note - I’ve never experienced this myself, and I think it is a very rare occurrence, but I still think it’s worth talking about. Remember, you can always leave. Yoga teachers are still just regular people, so there’s always a chance that you could come across one who is offensive or sexist, or just a bad teacher. Whatever the case, you do not have to stay in a class where you don’t feel welcome. You should always feel empowered to speak up, or to simply walk away.

If you don’t love your first yoga class, that’s ok! Don’t be put off or disappointed. Take some time to think about what it was specifically that didn’t work for you, and use that to find something different. I do believe that there’s a yoga for everyone, and hopefully this article helped you learn a little about what type of yoga is right for you.

Can You Be Mindful While Using Your Phone?

We use our phones for everything these days. To keep in touch with old friends, to make new friends, to find a place for dinner, to show people pictures of our dinner, to tell us how to get places, and very occasionally to actually speak to people on the phone.

I’ll spare you any of the scary data around the health risks of phones (here’s a link to a rundown of some associated risks in case you’re interested), because let’s just jump right to the chase - many of us already know the phone isn’t really helping us as much as we’d like to think. So here are a few thoughts regarding our phone usage, and some ways in which we can try and be more mindful while using them.

Are you actually connecting with the content you’re seeing?

Think about the most recent time you used your phone (and if you’re reading this on a phone, think about what you were doing on the phone right before you came to this page). Do you remember what you saw? Can you think of what images you Liked? Do you remember who posted them? If you were browsing websites, did you read full articles or did you skim? Do you remember what they were about? If you don’t remember these things, chances are you’re not actually engaging with the things you’re seeing.

Tip: Slow down! Avoid the urge to scroll or click away. Actually look at the things you’re seeing, don’t let them be just another thing that you glance at and then move on from. Try and refrain from the superspeed Like - do you actually like that thing? Does it actually promote a positive feeling in you? If it does, then great! If it doesn’t, then move on. Pay attention to who is posting things. Does Person X post a lot of things that you genuinely feel positively about? That’s good! Sounds like a good person to be following. Does Person Z post a lot of things that you don’t feel anything about, or, even worse, that you feel negatively about? Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate if it’s worth following that person.

How do you feel when you use your phone?

Do you feel bored? Do you feel entertained? Do you feel bad? Do you feel good? Do you feel unfulfilled? Do you feel tired? Do you feel in physical pain? Do you feel… nothing?

Really consider how the phone makes you feel. Sometimes the things we see on the phone can distract us enough from real life into thinking we’re involved in something social and exciting, but is it true? If you’re a casual phone user you actually might enjoy using your phone, but in the case of phone addiction, it’s not really about the phone making us feel good. In fact, it probably isn’t about feeling at all, it’s just about doing it. You get to a point where you don’t know why you’re doing it, but there you are, picking up the phone again.

Tip: Employ some mindfulness to fully notice the feelings that arise when you find yourself reaching for your phone. Do you actually have a reason to pick it up? Do you actually want to pick it up? If the answer is no, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Examine the urge and breathe through it. Maybe after you give yourself a moment to thoughtfully question your desire, you might decide you can do without it right now and instead engage in a different activity. Alternatively, if you still want to act on the urge, you can decide to, but at least you will have done so thoughtfully and mindfully.

Where does phone usage fit into your daily life?

Is your phone also your alarm clock, your news source, your navigation, your source of all knowledge, your source of entertainment, your camera, your music player? It’s so amazing that we have these devices that can do so much, but it’s worth asking if maybe it’s just a little much?

Ask yourself if your phone is where you go to get away from what’s happening in real life. On your lunch break at work, are you scrolling while you’re eating your food? While you’re waiting at a red traffic light, do you switch from your GPS app to check your email or your instagram? When you’re at a restaurant with a friend, do you get out your phone the second your friend gets up to use the toilet?

Tip: Is there a different activity that you’d like to do but you feel like you don’t have time for? What if you substituted a portion of your phone time for a new hobby? For example, you’ve been aiming to exercise more, instead of spending those 10 minutes looking at Facebook, you could use that time to go for a little walk, or do some lunges, or some gentle yoga. Maybe you’ve been wanting to learn a new language, so if that’s the case you could get a foreign language book and learn a few new words and phrases. If you tend to use your phone until you fall asleep, you could try reading a book or magazine instead - just make sure to keep the book right there by your bedside so it’s nice and easy to reach.

Do you want to try breaking away from phone dependence?

Sometimes, even if when engaging in a real-life activity, the phone can be enough to pull us out of the moment. Think of things you use the phone for, and consider if there’s a real-life version of it you can fully enjoy. Even if you do fully engage with a particular app, simply just having the phone there might be enough to lead you astray. For example, maybe you love using a recipe app, but if having the phone there in the kitchen means you close out the app every time you’re done chopping, or while your pot is simmering gently for five minutes, maybe you’re better off putting the phone aside and using an actual book.

Tip: Do a phone purge in the name of self-care! If there are apps you don’t use, delete them. Go through the accounts you follow on social media and unfollow any that you find unnecessary. If you find yourself constantly distracted by pop-up notifications, turn off notifications. If you tend to start your day by picking up your phone and scrolling until it’s time to get up and rush out the door, choose a different morning schedule - your ideal morning schedule, one that you feel would truly set you up well for your day - and actually write it out on paper and leave that paper by the side of your bed so you can see it when you wake up.

Everyday Mindfulness: 3 Techniques To Start Your Practice

We all know that mindfulness and meditation is good for us, but probably the biggest question that people have about meditation is: how do you actually do it?! Well, it’s a big question, with many possible answers, but in this article I’ll tell you about three different approaches you could take to get started on your mindfulness journey.

Mindfulness isn’t really something you “do”, it’s a specific kind of awareness that you can cultivate. You don’t necessarily have to do a sitting meditation in order to be mindful, and nor do you have to be sitting at all! You can do it anywhere, any time, no matter who you are. If you’re new to mindfulness, give these a try and see how you feel; some people prefer particular methods over others, and other people like to bounce between different methods and keep their mindfulness practice varied. Remember - your mindfulness practice is unique to you. There’s no doing it right or doing it wrong, there is only doing it!

Regardless of which technique you choose, your mind will always wander. That’s what it does. Mindfulness is simply about noticing when your mind gets away from you, and bringing it back. If it wanders twice, bring it back twice; you are still being mindful. If it wanders a thousand times, bring it back a thousand times; you are still being mindful. One more time, I repeat: your mind will wander.

You cannot fail at meditation.

And one more note before you get started - don’t feel like you need to try meditating for a long time, or for an undefined amount of time. You can start at 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, anything that works for you. Feel free to use a timer if that helps. You could just use your phone timer if that’s easiest. Personally I like the Insight Timer app because it has very pleasant bell tones to ease you into and out of your allotted time.


1. Sitting Meditation

The classic. This is probably what you think of when you imagine someone meditating.

  • Take your seat. As long as you’re relatively comfortable and reasonably alert, you can sit anywhere and in any position.

  • Bring your awareness to your physical body. Notice the urges to fidget. It’s natural to want to keep fidgeting, but unless you feel actual pain, let yourself notice any discomfort you feel. Notice any itches you feel. Notice if it feels like you’re holding tension somewhere.

  • Notice your judgments. Are you judging your sensations in manners such as “my shoulders are tense, probably because I had to work late yesterday and I was hunching over the computer”, or “my back hurts because I had a terrible night of sleep”. Let go of those judgements. For this moment, it doesn’t matter why your sensations are, it just matters if they are.

  • Become aware of how you are labelling your sensations. Are you labelling things you feel as “pain” or “tension” or “itch”? See if you can let go of calling it that and just take a look at the sensation.

  • Bring your awareness to your breath, without trying to control it in any way. Just notice it, coming in and out, all by itself.

  • Keep your awareness on your breath. There are four parts to the breath: the inhale, the “peak” retention of the inhalation, the exhale, and the “valley”, the space where the exhale has occurred and there is a moment of relaxation before the next inhale. The peak and the valley are typically shorter than the inhale and the exhale. Notice the four parts of the breath.

  • Notice when your mind wanders. Your mind will wander! It’s normal and natural. The act of mindfulness isn’t about having a blank mind, because a blank mind is impossible for a living human. Simply notice that your mind has wandered, and bring your attention back to your breath, with no judgments. Judgments here would include “my mind wandered, therefore I have failed at meditating” or “my mind wandered, therefore I’ll never find peace”, “I can’t focus on my breath, therefore mindfulness isn’t right for me”. 

Tip: Try this on your public transport commute. Just take a few moments to expand your awareness to notice the things you hear, feel, and smell. Then bring your awareness inward. Can you notice your breath even while the hustle and bustle of life happens around you? Can you resist the urge to distract yourself with your phone for a few minutes, and just sit with the sensation of being?

2. Mindful Observation

 If you’re more of a tactile person and the thought of sitting quietly with your eyes closed makes you want to cry with boredom, you’re not alone. Objects have been used in traditional types of meditation for a long time, for example observing a candle, or saying a prayer or mantra with each bead on a string. In the spirit of making these tips as accessible as possible, though, my suggestion for this is to choose a really mundane object and use that as your focus. For example: an apple, a pencil, a mug, a remote control (as long as the TV is off). Don’t use anything you might be tempted to interact with intellectually, like your phone or a book. Choose an item that is passive, that you don’t often spend much time looking at.

  • When you’ve chosen your object, set it down on a surface in front of you. For the purposes here, I’ll use an apple as an example.

  • Let your awareness come to the apple. Ignore the fact that it is “an apple” and simply observe the fact that “it is”.

  • Notice other thoughts that come into your mind. Your mind will wander, it will want you to stop looking at the apple. Just come back to the apple.

  • Avoid making lists of attributes. Your instinct might be to describe the apple, mentally thinking “round, red, shiny, smooth”. Your mind might also take you to descriptions like “juicy, sweet”. But remember that these are judgments. The apple might be juicy and sweet, but in this moment, you are not tasting it. You cannot observe the fact that it is juicy and sweet. Allow yourself to let go of those judgements. You’re simply looking at it. Allow yourself to let go of the things you cannot know, they are distractions and they are keeping you from fully observing this moment.

  • Take the apple into your hands. If you’d like to, you can close your eyes and let your hands do the observing from here. If you’d prefer to keep your eyes open, that’s fine too. There is no right or wrong.

  • Touch the apple, rotate it in your hands, run your fingertips over its surfaces and its textures. Notice your natural desire to label descriptions of what you feel. Your instinct may be to make mental notes like “this part is rough”, “this part is smooth”. Notice when those descriptions come up in your mind and then see if you can let them go. Imagine you don’t know what “rough” or “smooth” mean, and simply experience the physical sensation.

Tip: take a mindful time-out at your desk by doing this for a few minutes with any mundane object you might have.

3. The Cloud Method.

Some people don’t like visualisation techniques, but I find they can be helpful, especially if you find the idea of meditation too abstract. This is a visual adaptation of the classic mindful awareness technique as described in the Sitting Meditation section above.

  • It is recommended to do this sitting down, somewhere you can be comfortable but alert.

  • Bring your attention to your posture, and notice if you’re holding any tension or have any discomfort. Unless you’re in pain, see if you can sit with the discomfort, and simply observe it.

  • After a few moments of observing your posture, move your awareness to your breath as it flows in and out. You don’t need to change your natural breath pattern, just notice however it moves on every inhale and exhale. Notice how your body expands and releases with each breath.

  • If your eyes are still open, let them close, and imagine a clear blue sky.

  • You have some flexibility in where the visualisation goes from here: if you like being outside in warm weather, imagine yourself outside, bathing in the warm sunlight. If you’re more a fan of colder weather, you could imagine yourself enjoying a crisp breeze. Maybe you’d prefer to be inside but looking out a window. You’re in charge of the setting here, and you control the thermostat, so you can choose your own parameters.

  • Bring your awareness to your sky.

  • Simply gaze into the blue, without any judgement.

  • Your mind will start to wander. This is totally normal and a natural part of the mindfulness process.

  • When you notice your mind wandering, put a cloud in your sky. If it’s just a little thought, maybe something like “what will I have for lunch?” You could make it a fluffy little cloud. But let it float into your sky, and look at it. Acknowledge that the cloud arose. And then on your next exhale, blow it gently out of your sky. You could even do the cloud-moving exhale through your mouth if you’d like. If a scary or negative thought comes into your head, maybe consider that a big grey rainy cloud. Let it be there, for a moment. Acknowledge it. See it. The thought is a part of your mind and it arose for a reason. But you don’t need it right now, so it’s time to let it fly away. Take your inhale, and then exhale it out of your sky.

  • Remember that your sky will never be fully cloud-free. Clouds come and go. But this particular sky is yours, and you choose when to blow the clouds away.

Tip: Many people enjoy a visualisation-based meditation because they find it more tangible technique to grasp. You could give this a try when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your thoughts. If you’re overwhelmed, you could even use it as a way of breaking down your thoughts into more approachable “clouds”. Visualise your sky, and then notice the thoughts when they come up. Let the cloud linger in your sky a moment and just sit with it. Then when you’re ready to move it, blow it away and see which one comes up next.

Yoga and Gender Stereotypes: We Need To Do Better

A Google image search of the word “yoga” results in something very telling about the current state of Westernised yoga.*

In this image you can see the results for the words “yoga” and “woman”:

A screenshot of top Google image search for the words “yoga” and “woman”

A screenshot of top Google image search for the words “yoga” and “woman”

The images look familiar: almost all the women in the pictures are white, almost all appear to be in their 20s or 30s. Most are in cropped tops. All are slim; many are in complicated postures. Overall, these images are indicative of the average presentation of the modern yoga industry. But if we look closer at the headlines and descriptions of the images, we can delve a little deeper into the portrayal of women in yoga:

”Peaceful beautiful woman” reads one caption. “Poses every woman should practice…” reads another (firstly - the pose in this image should not actually be practiced by every woman because it could be dangerous for someone with hip, ankle or knee injuries. And secondly: this image didn’t even appear in the article describing the so-called ‘poses every woman should practice’; instead it was just a stock image used in the header of the article, which illustrates an additional danger in the potential of spreading misinformation about yoga).

If we just scan across most of the pictures, it becomes clear what they’re actually doing: selling. We can see the captions inviting us to look at “yoga legging active pants”, “sport jumpsuit”, “mesh bra & cropped yoga pants”, “yoga bra tops for running”, “women’s yoga shirts”, “women’s yoga clothes”, “high waist yoga pants”, and so on. The clothing, fitness, and wellness industries have all learned that yoga sells. And that’s because the yoga industry has put itself forward as a lifestyle, but in our modern age of quick clicks and short attention spans, the content-makers overlooked the personal work and habits that actually go into forming a lifestyle and instead just sells you the image of a lifestyle. All you need to do in order to be beautiful and peaceful is buy some leggings for $98. Easy! Getting your Om on is as swift as a swipe of your credit card. The yoga industry is working like the beauty and fashion industry: it wants to sell women the illusion of perfection.

To be fair to the yoga industry, it doesn’t really have much power over how other industries choose to present yoga. For example, to take a visit back to our yoga+woman image search up there, there are images with the captions “women sexy splicing yoga…” and “40 Sizzling Hot Women in…” Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know what '“sexy splicing yoga…” might entail, and I’ll let the ellipsis keep the air of mystery regarding that topic. But one thing is certain, across all trends in marketing: when it comes to women, yoga has to be sexy.

Let’s take a look at what happens if we change the search to “yoga” and “man”.

A screenshot of top Google image search for the words “yoga” and “man”

A screenshot of top Google image search for the words “yoga” and “man”

At a first glance, yoga+man is pretty similar to yoga+woman. Mostly white. Mostly slim. Mostly shirtless. All positively bulging with manly muscles. Plenty of postures showing perfectly yogic levels of bendiness. But then we have a slightly different vibe when it comes to the descriptions. “Why real men should do yoga”, “5 Reasons Why Men Are Afraid To Try Yoga”, “Why don’t real men do yoga”, “Is Yoga Manly Enough for Men?”, “10 Rockstar Yoga Men to Follow on Instagram”, “53 best real men do yoga!”, “All the Reasons why Guys shouldn’t do Yoga”. So, for women, yoga is presented as an almost guaranteed road to 100% femininity complete with beachy tousled waves and that post-meditation glow. But with the superficial and over-feminisation of yoga, it seems that when presented to men it doesn’t bother selling them anything, it just cuts right to the chase and calls into question the very nature of their masculinity. The industry has, image by image, marketing campaign by marketing campaign, strengthened a platform of gender stereotyping within yoga itself. Consequently, as a result of yoga’s massive reach within popular culture, this unfeminist and retrogressive platform contributes to the unproductive and dangerous stereotypes that so many of us are already fighting against.

We often think of yoga as a spiritual kind of practice, as it brings about ideas of liberation and peace and finding connection with our deepest, most authentic selves. Even in modern yoga when we choose not to view it as overtly spiritual, we can still acknowledge the mind-body connection and incorporate evidence-based practices such as mindfulness meditation and breathing techniques. But it seems that the yoga industry has lost its way. The healing and meditative benefits of the practice have been bulldozed by the titans of yoga industry who made it their mission simply to manipulate yoga into revenue. They stripped yoga of its meaning and squeezed it into a sports bra.

The yoga industry continues to market products to women, to convince them to spend money. It sells workouts promising fat loss and toning, amplifying the little voice that so many women already hear on a daily basis that says “you’re not good enough”. It promotes stock photos of women in exotic locations, in fabulous and expensive clothing, in complicated postures, in Vogue-perfect make-up, in perfectly smooth, hair-free, sweat-free skin. It embraces the superficial and neglects the individual woman. It fails to notice the larger women, the disabled women, the trans women, the women of colour, the women in religious attire. It promotes the illusion of woman and leaves the reality of woman in the dust. And in doing so, not only does it alienate an entire population of people who don’t see themselves represented in the yoga industry’s portrayal of women, but it’s also been alienating a population of men who have now been told that yoga isn’t for them.

The yoga industry has forgotten that yoga is for everybody.

However, there appears to be a growing backlash to the yoga industry. With the rise of Accessible Yoga, Curvy Yoga, Body Positive Yoga, and so many other organisations that are trying to break the status quo and bring authentic yoga to those who want to experience it, the tide might be about to turn for the yoga industry, and I’m going to do my best to contribute in order to make some waves.

Let’s do better.


*I did this search from the US, and Google search results will vary based on location. If you want to do this experiment where you are, feel free to let me know what results you get!

A Mindful Approach to the New Year

Here we are again, friends. Here we find ourselves in that magical time of year where we dip our toes into the river of existentialism with questions like “where did the time go?” “how is it 2019 already?” “what have I achieved this year?” and “how can I change my life for the better?”

There’s always such a sense of optimism at this time of year. We all start thinking of the things we finally want to do, places we’re finally going to visit, changes we’re finally going to make. All the magazines start advertising their latest low-calorie diet plans, with headlines like “NEW YEAR, NEW YOU!” and “6 MONTH EXERCISE PLAN TO GET THAT BIKINI BODY READY FOR SUMMER”. Somewhere in the world, a legion of gym owners are rubbing their hands together at the thought of all the cash they’re about to get from January sign-ups.

But here’s the thing. We all know how this goes. A New Year’s resolution is like crash diet: it works at first because you’re the most motivated at the start, but it’s unsustainable because we give ourselves too many goals, with too-high stakes. And most fundamentally, in my opinion - the New-Year mindset is unhelpful because it puts goal-making into a conditional state.

What I mean by this, is that the goal is only there because it’s New Year’s. So it’s all very well and good to be motivated at the beginning of the year, but what about when March comes? What about when the New Year has passed and we’re saying “how is it already March?”. And even worse, we’re all so accustomed to beating ourselves up that we almost thrive on failing our New Year’s resolutions. Because then we can say things like “typical, I can never stick to my exercise goals” or “I’ll never find a new job” or “I’ll never learn that language”. It reinforces the negative beliefs we hold of ourselves.

So here are some ideas of how to approach your New Year with a little mindfulness:

Be realistic.

Take a look at everything you have right now. Consider your home, your friends, your partner, you job, your hobbies, your finances, your possessions, your health, your habits… everything. Now think about your goals. If your New Year goals involve making changes to a lot of things, it might be a good time to re-evaluate. You are deeply woven into the fabric of your life, and making a lot of big changes is probably not realistic. Maybe pick one change to make and then follow that thread: how will those changes affect the rest of your life? Will you be able to make changes to that thread without dismantling all the others? Do what’s right for you, at this moment. Keep your goals attainable and healthy.

Break it down.

You do not have to make a huge change overnight. If your goal is to run a marathon, you can’t wake up on January 1st and run ten miles. You’re going to hurt yourself and then suffer the consequences. Habits form slowly, and with time. Take it slow, let yourself learn from the process, and allow yourself the freedom to deviate from the plan, if that’s what’s right for you in the moment.

Do it now.

If you’re waiting until January 1st to start your new habit, ask yourself if you’re really motivated to make this change. Or, ask yourself if you’re actually just setting yourself up for failure. Because if you are stuck in a cycle of too-big-goals followed by beating yourself up when you fail, do yourself a favour and don’t even let yourself start. It might be healthier to avoid trying to make a change than to give yourself a massive goal that you know you can’t achieve, especially if you’re naturally inclined toward self-deprecation. However, if you feel that you truly are motivated to make the change and you feel inspired, let your inspiration be the condition on which to make that change. Don’t let January 1st be your condition. If your goal is genuine, you can start right now. Because, sure, when January 1st comes, that’ll be your ‘right now’. But when January 1st passes, your ‘right now’ will be different. And if you’re always waiting for your ‘right now’, you’ll be waiting forever. Your right now is already here.

Be kind.

Bad things happen. They just have to. There’s no way to avoid it. We can always do our best, but sometimes things happen outside of our control. There will be moments in 2019 that will make us sad or angry. We will suffer, because suffering is just a part of life. But we can be kind, to ourselves and each other, so that when suffering occurs, we can heal and continue on, so that we can be present for the things that are good and joyful.

Yoga Beginners: What Do You Really Need?

Yoga mats, yoga leggings, yoga towels, yoga bags, yoga jackets, yoga socks… ARRGGHHHH! The yoga industry is mayhem right now. And if you’re new to yoga, I wouldn’t blame you for being completely overwhelmed. So I wanted to break down a few things in case you’re interested in starting a practice but you’re not sure what you need in order to get up and running. Maybe you’re wondering about purchasing your first yoga mat, or pondering what kind of clothing you need… hopefully your answer is here…

”Do I really need a mat?”

The short answer here is ‘no’. Yoga is an ancient practice, but the yoga mat is actually a pretty new concept. A mat is generally recommended for athletic styles of yoga that involve a lot of movement and many different postures, because it can help by providing some cushioning on a hard floor, or acting as a non-slip surface. However for gentle styles of yoga that are less sweaty and less movement-based, a mat isn’t really a requirement.

Mats can also vary drastically in their thickness; some are as thin as 1mm, and others can be 1 inch. There’s also a lot of choice in mat material. Some are just fabric, but the more commonly seen these days are plastic or rubber. There’s really no right or wrong when it comes to buying a mat (that is, if you even want one), it’s all down to your own preference.

When I started practicing yoga, I didn’t have a mat for a long time. I practiced on carpet in my house. It actually wasn’t terrible or uncomfortable, and even to this day, I often will do short sequences on the bare floor without getting my mat out. For longer practices, though, I very much like my mat. But I think it’s actually more of a psychological thing than a functional one; I like that when I lay down my yoga mat, it’s as if I’m establishing a designated space in which to devote time to my wellbeing. I have a small home, so all my rooms tend to be multi-functional, so it’s not necessarily easy to find a spot that I don’t associate with another part of my life. But my mat is only ever my yoga mat. It’s a safe, welcoming space.

If you’re new to yoga and you’re planning to go to in-person classes, most studios do have mats you can borrow or rent, so it probably isn’t necessary to buy one first. Especially if you’re planning to just do gentle yoga at home, I’d say you definitely don’t need to rush out and buy a mat. All you really require is a non-slip, somewhat-comfortable surface. For standing practices, the floor is probably fine. For seated/floor-based practices, you could put a towel or blanket down for padding/warmth, and see how you get on with that.

”Do I need classes at a yoga studio?”

Going to an in-person class is a very different experience than practicing at home, but I know that for many people, going to a class isn’t an option. Whether it’s for financial reasons, or schedule conflicts, chronic pain or illness, anxiety, or perhaps you live in an isolated area and there literally are no yoga classes near you. These are all very valid reasons to not go to a yoga class. But that does not mean you can’t do yoga. There are yoga DVDs, online courses, and countless resources on YouTube (for example, the Plenteous channel). I did yoga at home for around a decade before I ever went to my first in-person class. A home practice doesn’t make you any less of a yoga practitioner. Your yoga is personal to you; the heart of your yoga is wherever you are.

”But for a home practice, don’t I need a lot of space?”

You definitely don’t need a lot of space. If you have enough space to lie down on the floor, you’re probably going to be fine!

”I need yoga clothes, though, right?”

NOPE! As long as it doesn’t restrict your movement, your breath, or your comfort, you can wear whatever you like.

”Do I need to be flexible?”

Nope nope nope nope nope! Authentic yoga is adapted to your body, not the other way round. There is plenty of yoga to be enjoyed without the famous pretzel-poses and leg-behind-the-head kind of stuff. Increased flexibility might happen as a result of yoga (even gentle yoga), but it is definitely not required in order to start.

Mindful eating

Eating probably isn’t something you consider when you think about mindfulness, but it’s actually a really interesting and effective way to practice mindfulness in your everyday life. How many times do you find yourself eating as a secondary activity? For example, eating dinner while watching TV, or eating your breakfast in the car on the way to work, or quickly munching on snacks while you’re walking around? When was the last time you let your food be a primary focus?

It can be a really thoughtful experience to try mindful eating just once. Many mindfulness courses suggest doing this exercise with a single raisin, so you could try that. Otherwise, I recommend giving it a go with anything you’re about to eat today: maybe that apple you’re saving for your afternoon snack, or even a whole meal if you like! The choice is yours, but do make sure you can be somewhere comfortable, where you can be free from distraction.

Take as long as you like for each instruction, there's no time limit on this.

We’ll start with sensory exploration. First, simply look at the food.

Notice any feelings that come up. Some people will find themselves automatically considering the calorie/fat/carb content of the food. Some people will find an overwhelming urge to eat it quickly. Notice the shape, size, colour. Notice any marks or lines.

If it’s applicable to the item you’ve chosen, take it into your hand. Notice how it feels. Notice how light or heavy it is. Run your fingers over it, and notice any textures, smooth or rough or maybe both.

Bring it to your nose and see how it smells. Notice if it smells sweet or spicy and fragrant or something else entirely. Notice how your body reacts, if smelling the food makes you more hungry or increases your desire to eat.

And when you’re ready, take a bite, but don’t chew at first. Just notice how the food feels on your tongue, notice the first flavours that you taste. Notice any feelings that arise upon this first taste.

And eventually start to chew, but chew as slowly as you possibly can. Notice any urges to chew quicker, or to bring the next bite closer to your mouth before you’ve swallowed this bite. When you do swallow, try and stay with that entire bite before taking the next one. Notice the physical sensations involved in swallowing, from your mouth, to your throat, to your belly. Leave some extra time before you take the next bite.

-

It’s not practical to do this exercise with every single thing that you eat, but it’s really worth doing at least once. Especially these days when it seems everyone is so busy and eating on-the-go, it becomes very easy to get disconnected from our food. But the fact is, farmers and food producers all around the world worked to grow or make the food we eat. It travels on trucks, planes, and ships, is handled by potentially hundreds of people who work to get it into shops and markets so that we can purchase it. But when you take all of that away, what's left is the essence of food: nourishment. We all have to eat, because food gives us the nourishment and energy that we need just to be alive. But when food becomes secondary to other things, we can end up denying ourselves the enjoyment of eating, and we can forget about the innate enrichment we get from our food.

When we apply mindfulness to the process of eating, we allow ourselves to take a little break from the stress and madness of life, and get back to basics.

All or Nothing

It's not a concept we really think about too much, but we're actually pretty obsessed with it. We feel like we can't be a healthy person unless we're working out every day with muscles bulging out in every direction. Or the second we eat a cookie, the diet is blown so we might as well just eat a massive plate of fries and settle back into routine with our old friends Guilt and Self-Loathing.

Something that has become clear from talking with you guys about mindfulness is that people have a tendency to apply the all-or-nothing thinking to mindfulness too. I've heard "I don't have time to sit down and meditate every day, so I don't think I can be a mindful person" and "I tried to practice mindfulness every day but then I forgot and feel guilty for failing."

So I'd like to address these.

Firstly, I'd just recommend forgetting about the label "mindful person". Becoming a "mindful person" is not a goal. Mindfulness is not a permanent state of being. Mindfulness is simply a concept that you can apply to your life in different ways. And secondly, you don't have to sit down for a formal meditation every day to be mindful. As you'll see in the Breathing Space meditation I posted, I recommend just doing that one for three minutes. But coming up I have some posts about how to use mindfulness in other ways, outside of a sitting meditation.

As for the guilt of not practicing every day, I think a good step is just being mindful of that guilt. In many cases, it's the same guilt that we feel when we have a plan to exercise every day but then skip a day. Or if we're trying to be really healthy and then give in to a slice of cake. Or if we're trying to learn a language and then fall out of it after two weeks.

I'm not saying it's easy to not feel guilty. Guilt is habitual. It's ingrained. But it's worth being mindful of; it's worth noticing when you feel it. Then you can ask yourself: "how is it serving me to feel guilty about this?" "is it beneficial to punish myself?" "does this guilt/punishment/loathing help me do better next time?" "does it help me address my goals?" "do these negative feelings inspire me to make improvements in my life?"

We can't simply ignore the negative things we feel about ourselves, but we CAN be mindful of them. And then maybe when we really start to consider how these feelings are affecting us, maybe we can start showing ourselves a little forgiveness and a little compassion.

Wishing you well on this day <3

A Little Space

Recent studies have shown links between observing the breath and the areas of the brain that respond to stress. When life gets a little overwhelming, one very simple mindfulness exercise is what I like to call Breathing Space.

Here's a little exercise for you to do at home, at work, or anywhere, really!

(Note - I think this is nice as a 3 minute meditation, so if you have a timer you can set to chime after each minute, you could keep track that way. Otherwise, you can just wing it and feel it out. You could really do each step for as long as you like, but a minute per step is a good place to start. Read through the steps first, then give it a go whenever you're ready!)

1. Observe

You can close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so, and just notice how you feel. Notice the breath, without trying to change it. Feel each breath coming in, washing the inside of your nostrils and throat. Notice how your body expands and contracts with each breath. Notice the pause at the top of each inhale and exhale.

2. Lengthen

Bring some more control to the breath. Let each inhale and exhale be long and smooth. Use a slow 1-2-3-4 count for each part of the breath. Inhale-2-3-4... Hold-2-3-4... Exhale-2-3-4... Hold-2-3-4. Repeat.

3. Release.

Let go of the counting practice and let the breath return to its natural state. Bring an element of release to each exhale. Imagine your body letting go of any physical tension, any mental stresses, anything that might be holding a dark cloud over your head. Let each exhale be a breeze, pushing those dark clouds away.

And then let go of the practice.

Enjoy!

(p.s. Let me know if you'd like a guided audio version of this)

Mindful May

It’s Mindful May!! Throughout the month I’m going to be posting some tips, links, videos, and some guided meditations to help you bring mindfulness into your every day life.

But first, just one note - what I’ve heard most from people who have tried meditation is “I can’t meditate, I tried and failed”

And let your first tip be this: there is literally no way to fail at meditation. If you’re doing any kind of meditation, you’re succeeding. It’s really one of those cheesy “it’s about the journey, not the destination” kind of things. There are no winners in meditation. Everyone gets a participation medal.

So feel free to ask any questions, leave any comments, let me know what you’d like to know about mindfulness and meditation, and let’s spread a little kindness, starting with ourselves.