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This blog has now been moved to www.artofrelaxation.org domain.
Please keep following the updates.
It’s funny how little things can throw us off course. Our body gets so used to its rhythms and patterns that any changes to our daily routine can have a big impact. I really noticed the phenomenon after the clocks went back at the weekend. Just the difference of an hour can affect how we sleep, and our feelings about ourselves as a result.
Sleep problems are increasingly common, thanks to the hectic pace of life today, and the 24/7 culture that expects us to be available whenever, wherever. There are some sleep problems that are largely unavoidable, such as the fatigue associated with parenting babies and small children, nighttime shift work and international travel. But many people still struggle to drop off and sleep soundly, even without intervening factors.
It was problems with sleeping that led me to discover Autogenic Training (AT) in 2004. Despite the severity of my insomnia, it disappeared in a few short weeks as I learned how to take my body and mind into a deeply relaxed state. About a year later I began to experience sleeping difficulties again, and was worried that I had relapsed, or that the AT had somehow ‘worn off’.
However, I was reassured to discover that it was just another layer of my development, and that I had several more to go in order to help my body and mind to truly heal. A few things I learned from that experience were:
- It takes time to develop a condition, and will take some time (but not as long) to heal it. There is no quick fix, whatever we might like to believe.
- It can help to befriend your condition, rather than view it as an enemy. This will help you to understand what it needs.
- Things might temporarily get worse before they get better, as if to remind you of your problem’s existence before you can let it go.
- Your condition might flare up again from time to time, but less severely and for shorter periods. This is all part of the healing process.
One of my clients had suffered from insomnia for 50 years, but after five weeks of AT training could sleep for five hours instead of the usual two to three.
Another client admits that he does his best business brainstorming when he’s not able to sleep. He actually enjoys these creative times. I’ve observed this with other people too – we may experience a condition for years and wish to change it, but on another level we’re kind of attached to it. We actually need to go through a grieving process and say goodbye to the nights when we enjoyed the silence and mystery of the darkness.
You may also find you buy into the ‘romance’ of insomnia, or the competitive sleeplessness that pervades our society. People often boast about working into the small hours and still hitting the gym at 6am. Margaret Thatcher was well known not only for surviving but thriving on four hours’ sleep a night. It’s important if you do hold some positive’ associations with insomnia, that you let them go so you can truly relax.
Sleeplessness should not become a lifestyle.
However you choose to treat your condition, it’s important to regularly recharge your battery. I’ve written about the importance of ‘me time’ in a previous post , and that you enjoy what you are doing. Autogenic Training (AT) has been proven to help with insomnia. If you would like to come for a trial session, please get in touch. Anyone can learn AT. It’s simple, you can practise it anywhere, and the results can be life-changing. You’ve nothing to lose but your insomnia.
A lot has been written about pregnancy and birth, much of it contradictory, but one thing all the books agree on it the importance of preparation. We tend to focus a lot on the outcome of the birth (and you will often hear people say “the most important thing is a healthy baby, regardless of now it came out). But the process of ‘giving birth’ for the mother, and of ‘being born’ for the baby, are nonetheless very important events. The way you enter the world has more bearing on the rest of your life than you might think, as I discovered when I looked into the circumstances of my own birth.
You might have heard about the concept of rebirthing – in a nutshell, it is all about how what happens during those hours of labour and entry into the world is repeated during our later life. I found it quite astonishing to see how I was repeating the patterns set from my birth. So, for example, I tend to prefer working in isolation, am comfortable in my own company and find it hard to accept help or work well in partnership. How interesting to draw a link, then, with the circumstances of my birth, where I was separated from my mother for long periods and only given back for sporadic feeding. I learnt from the very first days that I had only myself to rely on, and over 30 years later I am teaching myself about accepting help and working as part of a team.
According to the psychiatrist Dr Stanislav Grof, the creator of a form of breathwork aimed at achieving wholeness and integration of mind and body, there are four significant aspects to birth:
1. Amniotic Universe – The only world that life knows at this point. Blissful feelings of peace and joy in a healthy womb.
2. Cosmic Engulfment – No exit. Equilibrium disturbed, contractions begin. Unbearable feeling of being stuck in hell with no way of escaping.
3. Death versus Rebirth Struggle – Second clinical stage of childbirth; intense struggle for survival. The pathway starts to open.
4. Death versus Rebirth Experience – The child is born – ‘I survived’. Intense ecstatic feelings of liberation and love. A new world begins.
If you’re pregnant and approaching the birth, you’ve probably thought a lot about how you will deal with your labour and what pain management techniques you may choose to use. But it can be enlightening to view the process from the baby’s point of view as well. Having spent eight or nine months feeling safe and protected in the womb, you start to feel uncomfortable – there isn’t enough space any more and you know you need to leave. You have no concept of how this will happen, whether it will be easy or hard, or what will happen on the other side. You have no patterns yet to follow, only your instinct.
You can tune into your baby during periods of relaxation and be on the alert for the signs they are giving you. It might feel silly to you but try to talk aloud to your unborn child, let them know you’re there and are listening to them. Tell him or her that you are really looking forward to meeting them and you will be receptive to their signals that they want to make an appearance.
A friend of mine once told me that the most surprising thing to her about giving birth was that a baby came out! She had focused on how she would experience the sensations, deal with contractions, etc, but couldn’t quite believe that there was another person suddenly there. Had she thought about the birth as a partnership with her baby, with each playing their own special role, it might not have been such a shock to the system.
Birth is still one of the few truly magical processes left to us and symbolically surrounds us in many ways. The very act of waking from a night’s sleep is a rebirth of sorts, leaving our warm, safe bed for a day of unknown experiences. Or think about the seasons and the way nature constantly renews itself. I find it a wonderful reminder that we actually ‘know’ so much less about the way the world works than we think!
I remember that I became an aunt for the third time exactly a year ago, and I found it just as exciting and special as it was first time around. I couldn’t help but marvel at the perfection of my little niece’s tiny body and limbs – and of the process that had created her. For nine months she was growing in the perfect environment at the perfect temperature with just the right amount of light and shade. Everything she needed to become a perfect human being. When you think about it, you can understand why babies scream as soon as they’re born. What a shock to leave such a comfortable and familiar environment, what an assault on the senses!
Of course, there are also times that the baby will be affected by some of the goings on outside that warm, safe place. A physical shock (such as the mother falling or experiencing significant pain) or high levels of anxiety will disturb that calm and comfortable interior. While it is impossible to avoid everyday stress and worry (as life, sadly, doesn’t always turn out as we might hope) research has shown that high levels of stress can adversely affect the developing foetus, causing behavioural and developmental problems. A study conducted a couple of years ago found that babies whose mothers had experienced significant stress in pregnancy (such as a bereavement or severe relationship problems) had on average a 10 point lower IQ than those without.
Still more research has shown that mothers who consciously used relaxation techniques gave birth to calmer babies than those who had not. It was as if the baby had already learnt about relaxing before they were even born! And if we needed further proof, a study of over 1,000 women in Germany found that 70 per cent of those who had used autogenic training (AT) techniques during labour and childbirth experienced ‘notable pain relief’ and were more likely to experience a natural birth process.
A certain degree of anxiety during pregnancy is absolutely normal. Especially if it is your first baby, you will probably have many questions regarding the health of your baby, its effect on your relationship, family finances, the kind of mother you’ll be – all manner of normal and sensible concerns. The key is to not keep it all bottled up. It’s crucial to find someone to talk to, be it your partner, a family member or a good friend. Don’t worry about sounding stupid or suffer in silence – people want to help and be supportive!
I don’t want to scare any pregnant readers out there, especially as there are many stressors over which we have no control. So please don’t feel guilty if you’ve felt anxious during your pregnancy, the likelihood is that you and your baby will be just fine. But, knowing what we do about the correlation between stress and foetal development, it makes sense to arm yourself with the best possible tools so you can make things as easy as possible on yourself and the life growing within you.
Relaxing during pregnancy
There are many things you can do to make yourself more comfortable during pregnancy. Here is a simple relaxation exercise that you can practice on a daily basis to get in touch with your body and your baby. At the end of the exercise, try and focus on your abdomen and the baby inside. You might even want to talk to him or her – from 20 weeks it has been proven that babies can ‘hear’ and maybe even recognise the sound of your voice.
Lie down whenever possible, although after 30 weeks it is advised to lie only on your left hand side, rather than flat on your back as this can put too much pressure on your blood vessels and make you feel faint. Exercise can help you feel more energised, although the further advanced you are in your pregnancy, the easier you should take things. Yoga, swimming and walking are all good, low-impact exercises that can help, but make sure you check with your GP or midwife before starting any new exercise programme.
Other good ways of relaxing include listening to calming music or a relaxation tape, or getting a specialised pregnancy massage or reflexology treatment.
Remember, happy mum = happy baby!
It’s also important to spend time having fun and relaxing with your partner, if you have one. Having a new baby can be an immense challenge to the strongest of relationships, and time you put in for the two of you, both before and after the birth, will pay immense dividends during those broken nights and early days.
Above all, enjoy relaxing in your pregnancy! You will be run off your feet when the baby actually arrives, so this is a time to slow down the pace and let yourself be pampered and looked after by people who love you. It’s not all a one-way street…
Do you ever get the feeling of being so overwhelmed with life and its challenges that you just want time to stop completely? It was this urge that drew me to a retreat in France at a place called Plum Village. I knew I needed to slow down and reevaluate my life but, once there, I spent the first few days wondering what I’d let myself in for.
This was no swanky spa break, but a proper spiritual retreat, led by Buddhist monks and nuns, in accordance with Buddhist traditions and ceremonies.
One of the philosophies that struck a real chord with me was the importance of letting things happen without forcing. Three days into the retreat, I went on a walking meditation in the hills, which involved focusing on how your feet make contact with the earth, helping to prevent other thoughts and worries intruding and distracting you from the moment.
As a result of focusing on my moving feet I found it increasingly difficult to continue. I became aware of how each step contributed to a greater change and had to force myself to go up a small hill. This was a very significant experience which put me in mind of the rebirthing I had undergone a couple of years before.
On my return I felt very tired and sad, as if I was grieving something lost, but I wasn’t sure exactly what.
The mind can go in a thousand directions
But on this lovely path, I walk in peace
With each step a gentre breeze blows
With each step a flower blooms
(F72, Walking Meditation Gatha)
Another important experience for me happened during a walking meditation where a strong and powerful energy moved me to run ahead of the group. I felt it was a healthy, positive energy rather than a destructive one so I let it lead me – but ended up lost in the beautiful French hills. I closed my eyes and tried to get in touch with the intuitive part of me that might know the way, but without success. I had to wait for one of the nuns to arrive to point me in the right direction, which was another way of changing old patterns. I have always found it difficult to ask for help, but this situation forced my hand and I have found it easier to do since this episode.
I also found that even when strong emotions surfaced, I was able to make them melt away – almost to tame their overwhelming power - by practising a variety of meditations. What seemed to really work was to stop watering the seed of grief, anger or fear, but instead to focus on my breathing to help me stay present in the here and now.
Why not give it a try – follow your in breath from the beginning to the end, than follow your out breath, again from beginning to end – it is not as easy as it sounds! Once you calm down the inner chatter, amazing things start to happen.
Embracing the Way, you become embraced;
Breathing gently, you become newborn;
Clearing your mind, you become clear;
Nurturing your children, you become impartial;
Opening your heart, you become accepted;
Accepting the world, you embrace the Way.
Bearing and nurturing,
Creating but not owning,
Giving without demanding,
This is harmony.
From Tao Te Ching
We all know that Christmas is supposed to be a time of fun and relaxation, but for many it is a limitless source of stress and anxiety. From family ‘issues’ to exorbitant gift requests, the pressure to enjoy the ‘perfect’ Christmas may be so great that we feel disappointed and inadequate because our holiday somehow does not measure up to the ideal.
Here are my top 5 suggestions that have enabled me to enter into the Christmas spirit with minimal stress.
It’s easy to forget that some people would give anything to be surrounded by family, arguments and all. Being alone at Christmas can be a bleak and depressing experience, especially if the individual is recently bereaved. If it feels appropriate, do invite people you know will be alone to join you. It’s just one day out of the whole year and might make a real difference to them. If they’d rather be alone, they’ll let you know.
If it’s you who’ll be spending it alone, decide how you want to play it. If you want to ignore it, why not! Or you could always look into volunteering as a way of being surrounded by people without feeling like you’re ‘imposing’.
It would, of course, be remiss of me not to include a juicy plug for my own business – why not give the gift of relaxation by downloading a gift voucher from my website! And please do get in touch with some of your Christmas de-stressing tips. It’s great to know what works for others. And have a wonderful break, whatever you do.
Sometimes an image is worth a thousand words. I find I get so used to reading that I can too easily forget the power of the picture. But when I came across this film I knew I wanted to share it with you as it conveys a very serious and important message with more charm and humour than I could ever aspire to!
Yes, it’s a cliché, but most of us have at some point felt like a cog in a machine, robotically carrying out the same tasks and raging against inanimate objects that are supposed to make our lives easier but seem to conspire against us. I could only nod in sympathy at the protagonist of the film, having just the other day experienced the frustration of the photocopier breaking down on me at an incredibly crucial moment.
The beauty of the film, in my opinion, is that it not only holds up a mirror to the shortcomings in our own lives but also provides some very simple suggestions and solutions that can make a big difference. Sadly, it often takes a serious event such as a heart attack or long-term illness for many people to see how their stressful lifestyle is damaging their most precious possession – their health.
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to wait for a major crisis before we took stock of our lifestyle and made some changes for the better? So, to take the example in the film, our hero makes himself some fresh food for breakfast and eschews the TV in favour of simply watching the world go by. He has fun playing table tennis and makes contact with another human as a result.
Recreation for the sake of it is one of life’s great joys. It puts us back in touch with our real selves and helps us shake off the labels (and some of the self-importance) we can assume at work. In the same way, so can surrounding ourselves with nature. As the film shows, we don’t need to move to the country to enjoy the natural world – the simple act of buying a pot plant or two for the office or sitting outside and listening to bird song can be incredibly healing and calming.
Be honest with yourself – how much of what you’ve done so far today has been out of habit or routine? What small changes could you make to your day that might help you deal better with life’s unexpected but inevitable frustrations?
I found that making time to cook a big meal from scratch and then freezing the rest for another day was not only enjoyable in itself (and significantly cheaper than stuffing my fridge with ready meals) but made me feel I was doing something nourishing for my body and soul. I also made an effort to look out of the window rather than burying my head in a book during my commute to work and realised how much I enjoyed noticing the leaves changing colour.
It’s all about balance, in the end. And you don’t need to give up your job and live on a remote farm to reap the benefits of a more holistic lifestyle. But see how many small, painless changes you can introduce, then sit back and enjoy the positive effect they have on bigger areas of your life. Why not get in touch and tell me about your successes, I’d love to hear from you!
I had initially planned to write this week’s blog about something entirely different – but then life never turns out exactly as we expect! Following feedback from readers of last week’s post, I have decided to write more about the subject of change – and specifically, the kind of mindset we need to adopt in order to effect positive and lasting difference in our lives.
One of my favourite quotes is from the author Will Garcia, who writes: “The first step toward change is acceptance. Once you accept yourself, you open the door to change. That’s all you have to do. Change is not something you do, it is something you allow.” I find that such an empowering concept, and it also comes as something of a relief for those of us who expect change to be effortful and exhausting.
Some people are instinctively suspicious of the idea of acceptance – they think it means resigning yourself to a bad situation, or sheer laziness in the face of a new behaviour or situation. But think of it this way for a moment: if your partner or best friend told you they were unhappy with a particular behaviour or habit of yours, had been fed up with it for ages, and wanted you to be different immediately or they’d be very unhappy, how would you feel? Would that kind of approach inspire you to change, or would you feel hurt, angry and defensive, and more likely to continue with the same behaviour?
Nagging someone we love to change rarely produces the results we desire, or if it does, they are usually short-lived and accompanied by much resentment. But if they make a gentle observation, follow it up with facts and information, and then give us the space we need to decide if we want to change or not, without coercion or emotional blackmail, we are far more likely to see their point of view and decide to alter our behaviour for our own good. Their acceptance of us as we are is essential for us to feel safe and comfortable enough to change.
In the same way, we need to accept ourselves and the situation we would like to change before we can move forward in a positive and healthy way. When we are feeling attacked and defensive, we waste a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy that would be much better used creating strategies for change. We obsess with thoughts of blame and “shoulds” and excuses, none of which will help us achieve the change we desire.
Of course, if you’re used to giving yourself a hard time, you’ll need to practice the habit of acceptance. Start small, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a big mental leap to make all at once. It could be as simple as accepting the fact that there’s nothing you can do to make the rush-hour traffic go faster, or accepting that a delivery you were expecting didn’t turn up on time. Instead of rushing headfirst into blame and anger, try and physically relax yourself. Take some deep breaths. Close your eyes. The fact is that no amount of trying to force things to be different can change the impossible. By giving yourself some space and time to relax, you’re far more likely to come up with practical solutions to your current situation rather than waste time and energy focusing on how things “should” be. When we are in a state of calm about our present circumstances and have accepted things, and people exactly as they are (and this includes ourselves) then we can work on the change we so desire.
I love this time of year – you can really feel a freshness in the air of a morning and see the leaves on the trees starting to turn. I also look forward to the nights drawing in, getting out my autumn clothes and hunkering down to a cosier existence. London is beautiful in every season, but there’s something about walking through a city park in September that fills me with excitement and optimism.
Change means different things to different people – some love the novelty and excitement, while it fills others with fear and anxiety. It’s a cliché, but the one thing that never changes in life is change. Whether we like it or not, it’s impossible to keep things as they are. The cells in our body are completely renewed every seven years, our hormones are in a constant state of flux, not to mention our moods and emotions. From one moment to the next, we are literally different people!
Whether you embrace change or find it something of a struggle is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’; but understanding your reactions can help you roll with inevitable ups and downs. If you are a ‘change junkie’ it can be worthwhile just stopping and trying to stay in the moment for a few minutes. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths. Now open them again. What’s going on with you right now? How do you feel?
If you have a tendency to fight change, it’s worth getting to know some of the psychology behind your resistance. There’s a great book called Changing for Good that I found really helpful in getting me through experiences that I wouldn’t have actively sought out given the choice.
The authors describe a five-part process, but in the interests of brevity, here are the three that I consider to be most significant:
This last year has been full of upheaval for me – big changes in my personal life, moving house three times (yes, three!), saying goodbye to old colleagues and learning to work with new ones, even physical changes like moving desks. I had to really sit with my emotions and work out how I wanted to act and what I wanted to happen in my life. I had a lot of work on and needed to shift my attitude from ‘this is hard’ to ‘I’m creating lots of opportunities’. I also really focused on increasing my energy levels to help me cope with the added demands on my time. This all took some time to process, but being gentle with myself while the change has occurred has been really worthwhile.
Don’t give yourself a hard time if change doesn’t come easy – especially change that’s been forced upon you. It’s a process and all change has to start with awareness. It took me two years to realise that I was reenacting conflict-avoidant behaviour I had learnt from my parents, and a further year to change it.
Lasting change takes time. So whatever stage you’re currently at in the change cycle give yourself a break. Accept you are where you are right now and that you will deal just fine with the change that comes. You might even enjoy it!