The 8 Week Yoga Therapy for the Mind Course and the different themes
For the past 5 years, I have been teaching the 8 Week Yoga Therapy for the Mind Course on a regular basis in Notting Hill and South Kensington. The evidence based program, created by Heather Mason of the Minded Institute with it’s different themes, is a great way to introduce those who are particularly anxious and stressed to a Mindfulness practice, as well as those that are suffering from depression. The groups to who I have been teaching the program have been a real mix, some were Yoga Teachers interested in the work of the Minded Institute, others read about Mindfulness and were also interested in starting a Yoga practice and a high percentage though were young women that were finding it very hard to juggle their careers with a personal life, often on the verge of a burn out, sometimes not even aware of that. Life, in London particular, can be very tough for many and the pressure is on, often deadlines are to be made and employers often have such high expectations that targets are almost inhumane, working overtime is the rule and what I noticed is that just because they enrolled in my course they got to leave the office early that day as it was a good enough excuse to tell their employer that they had to take steps to avoid a serious break-down.
In this post I will discuss the different themes of the 8 Week Course and what they mean, why they are part of the course.
The first couple of weeks into the course the theme is about breathing. I ask everyone to observe their breath and often I witness that this is something very new, almost alien, to many, actually to connect again to your breath and feel it! Something as simple as breathing, for me to teach them the power of the breath has been incredibly beautiful. I would sit on my knees with each person, and often I notice how insecure they are, almost frightened, if they are doing it wrong….I then tell them to relax and teach them a technique that makes the breath more steady and smooth, a way where they have a little more control over the breath, the technique of Ujjayi or Ocean Breathing, and you can see on their faces that after a couple of minutes they soften and they really start to feel more relaxed already. By altering the way we breathe we are sending signals to the brain that we are ok, so, this is very powerful, a body up approach where we use the breath to calm our nervous system.
Often those that come to my courses are relatively new to yoga, or they have practiced but never really been taught how to breathe properly, this is something that also has amazed me. Sometimes students have been practicing yoga for a good few years but were never told to go back to the breath and connect to it. For me Yoga is all about the breath, without the breath it would be something else or just exercise, I teach over and over again that the breath is your anchor, when we connect to the breath we are practicing present moment awareness. The breath and the body are always in the present and it’s only the mind that keeps up away.
In the first week I introduce the group also to a physical practice, Yoga Asana or Yoga Exercises, and while they do those exercises they keep practicing the Ujjayi breath, but in the first week it can be a bit tricky when you are new to this practice as you also need to familiarise yourselves with the exercises but I teach them that it’s ok, it’s a practice for life and plenty of time to get familiar with all the elements. Mindfulness really is to be in the present moment, without judgement and with compassion and that is something I also very much emphasise and remind the group repeatedly…it’s not a competition, it’s not something to be good at, it’s learning to be ok with who you are and what is in the moment, this moment and every moment. That’s the power of now, the power of the moment.
We finish every session with sharing in a circle. This is a time where you can share your experience, or where you can ask questions. The first week, before we start, everyone also introduces themselves and most of the time that’s also when they share why they decided to take part so everyone gets to know each other a little. If someone does not feel like sharing than that’s perfectly ok too. I have a feeling that the sharing does help, often very beautiful insights are being shared, most of the time one feels much more relaxed at the end of a class then when they first arrived.
Every week there is homework. I also offer support through a Facebook Group where I share articles related to what we do and people can share also their articles or just ask questions. In the Course book the homework is very much explained, I personally have also made a You Tube Video where I share the practice so students can practice with that video at home too.
In week three of the course we are going to look at the mind for the first time. Often for those that are stressed or anxious it can be challenging to be with the mind, and now we have learned already some skills to calm the nervous system while practicing mindfulness. So, time to take it one step further and go into the mind slowly. This week we are learning techniques to create space, space within our minds and space in our body’s, and also learning that when we feel more space in the body the mind also feels the effect. Space is not something tangible, the space of consciousness is the very thing that enables everything else to be, and in this session about space I try to help through guidance that you can connect to that space and get a grasp of it.
Whenever there is beauty, kindness, the recognition of the goodness of simple things in your life, look for the background to that experience within yourself. But don’t look for it as if you were looking for something. You cannot pin it down and say, “Now I have it,” or grasp it mentally and define it in some way. It is like the cloudless sky. It has no form. It is space; it is stillness, the sweetness of Being and infinitely more than these words, which are only pointers. When you are able to sense it directly within yourself, it deepens. So when you appreciate something simple — a sound, a sight, a touch — when you see beauty, when you feel loving kindness toward another, sense the inner spaciousness that is the source and background to that experience. Our practice helps us to experience this and through the sharing in the groups I have often had the feedback that they experienced something new, had an insight or just felt that it is true that we don’t always have to think but that it’s possible for the mind to quiet down and that you can also be in this space, rest in stillness, effortless…..it’s beautiful to guide my groups in this practice and take them deeper within where they can find this stillness.
The theme of week four is grounding. What does it mean to be truly grounded, to be truly grounded allows us to stay calm with whatever situation arises. When we are not grounded our mind and body are split. We live in our heads. Our body is neglected. We clench, hold our breath and forget to breathe.
Tension, anxiety and stress gets trapped in our body. We lose our ability to receive vital nourishment from the earth, switch off from our intuition and find it difficult to complete tasks (we jump from one thing to another without really finishing anything). Basically our energies are scattered and all over the place. We are leaking energy everywhere. On the other hand when we are grounded we are “plugged in”. Our mind and body are one. Our breathing is more relaxed and even. We tend to feel soft, still and anchored on the inside. We are less reactive to the world around us. We are connected equally to both our inner world and outer world at the same time. Energy flows easily from our head down to our feet and back up again. There are no road blockages at the neck, shoulders or stomach. Thinking is calmer and clearer. It’s important to learn skills to stay grounded especially when one starts a practice like mindfulness as we learn and see things about ourselves that maybe we have neglected and when all comes to the surface we have to be grounded and embrace all that comes up including our shadow.
In week five the theme is body sensations.
Awareness of bodily sensations is an other aspect of our experience which we can be aware of. Bodily sensations are whatever we feel in the body, in the present moment. Being aware of bodily sensations grounds us in the body and awareness of our present moment experience. However, we will find out that many sensations are associated with certain thought, memories, feelings, emotions and our state of mind, in which we can easily be caught up in.
All bodily sensations are vibrations of different frequencies. Bodily sensations are temporary and changing in nature. They have the characteristics of arising, staying for some time and passing. This all happens within our field of awareness. Through practicing mindfulness of the body and relaxed attention, you learn to be with whatever sensation is arising in the body, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, without trying to hold on to or push away the experience. Having mastered the body, you are then able to turn your attention to your mind states, all of which register in the body, and gradually learn to become non-reactive to each of them. As a result, your mind becomes spacious, alert.
My experience is that especially this session is very helpful to anyone dealing with chronic pain, the relationship they have with their pain often radically changes and they can use the pain as part of their practice and embrace it. Often the feedback is that they start to live their life again, and the pain is not anymore their main focus, it’s still there but much more in the background.
In week 6 and 7 we are really looking at, observing, the mind. In the weeks leading up to this we have learned skills to help us regulate our nervous system. First, in week 6, we watch, is the mind in the past or future and later in week 7 we are going to look at thought types.
One of the big challenges for mindfulness practice is our thinking. For some people thinking is a very powerful force that keeps us distracted, keeps us in the future and prevents us from really being present in a quality way. And mental noting is a very simple way in which we use thinking to stay present rather than having thinking carry us away. And it’s using a very primitive aspect of thinking, the very simple naming of an experience, a simple word that names an experience. It’s not discursive thinking like thinking about the experience, analysing it, and judging it, and having conversations in our minds about it with people. It’s – we hear a sound, and it’s just ‘hearing.’ We label it, it’s that simple. It’s not “Oh, that was someone coughing and I bet they have a cold and I bet now I’ll catch it. I should go see my doctor tomorrow and I can’t afford my doctor.” You know, the mind runs off. And then you forget that you are here.
One of the functions of mental labelling is that if you don’t think in meditation, if you’re trying not to think, the idle mind will get in trouble. And the tendency to think is so strong, so we use a very primitive form of thinking to stay present. Stay here “analysing, remembering, planning, judging, worrying, doubting”. Naming something, can be very, very powerful – a truth-telling act. It can free something inside of us in doing that. Another function of mental labelling is that it pulls us out of being entangled or caught by our experience. If you keep thinking about something over and over again, you’re entangled. If you let go of the thought and you come right back, you’re entangled. Or maybe you can’t even let go of it, you’re so concerned or wrapped up around certain feelings, certain things, you’re entangled or caught by them. If it is challenging to watch the mind we know that we can always go back to the breath, the breath is our anchor. Many students who have taken my course more than once tell me they use the mental labelling a lot in their daily lives and they are finding it very helpful.
Finally in week 8 the theme is Loving Kindness.
This week we will look for the positive. In every moment there is something positive to find, where we can put our focus on. Maybe you can find a pleasant body sensation, or maybe you just like to be with the breath. If you choose the body sensation or breath it will be good as we have learned that those will automatically bring us back to the present, whereas if you choose a nice thought, it can happen that the thought will take you away again from the moment, and again to other thoughts, including maybe less pleasant ones, so it will be a little more challenging.
We learned in the previous weeks to bring the mind to the breath, or the body sensations, this week you learn to bring the mind to the positive, the pleasant in the present.
Every thought and every emotion causes a reaction of hundreds, if not thousands, of neuropeptides and hormones that orchestrate a symphony of positive and negative effects within the body. That is why it is so important to pay close attention to the thoughts and emotions that are running through your mind, as they dictate the symphony of neurotransmitters playing in your body. As an example, would you rather be listening to the soothing sounds of classical music or the heart-pounding, adrenaline-charging sounds of heavy metal?
Love is a strong emotion, representing human kindness, compassion, and deep affection. Love is unselfish and benevolent. Love is pure. Love is self-directed and directed toward others. Most importantly, love is a vital component for the health of your heart, body, mind and soul.
Through the course we can learn how we can cultivate a feeling of Loving Kindness and learn to be more loving towards ourselves, this helps to increase feeling of well-being, reducing stress levels and enhances our quality of life.
Apart from the 8 Week Yoga Therapy for the Mind Course I also teach the Yoga Therapy Vitality Program which equally includes Mindfulness and similar steps to this course but at the same time is also beneficial for people with Auto-Immune Conditions, those that are looking to increase fertility and those healing from trauma, physical and psychologically.