If you’ve ever driven home from work and realized you have no idea how you got there, you have experienced life on autopilot. As much as structure and routine can help keep you organized and on task, they can also get you stuck - in expectations, thought loops, and habit patterns.
The Sanskrit word for a deeply ingrained thought or behaviour pattern is ‘samskara’. It literally means a ‘rut’ or ‘groove’. Just like a tire that travels the same path over and over wears a deep groove into the ground, ‘grooves’ or ‘ruts’ get worn into your neurology through repeated thoughts and behaviour.
This is good in the sense that it makes you more efficient at doing everyday things. When your brain automates a task, like walking, it saves you a ton of time and mental energy. However, repetition and routine can also leave you in the doldrums and wondering how you can become more present and interested in your own life.
Worry not! You CAN restore your feelings of curiosity, amazement, wonder, and feel more connected in your relationships. You can jolt yourself out of a life on cruise control by cultivating a Beginners’ Mind that is present, open and without preconceptions.
I’ll walk you through 9 WAYS TO TUNE INTO 'BEGINNERS' MIND' RIGHT NOW.
1) SET AN INTENTION
For example: “I meet each moment with openness and curiosity.” Say it often and mean it.
2) BANISH YOUR SELF-LIMITING THOUGHTS
“I’m….too old, too fat, too stuck in my ways, too (insert negative thought here).” Whatever it may be, you have the power to stop these self-limiting and habit-forming thoughts. Whenever you catch yourself thinking this way return to 1) and recite your intention. “I meet each moment with openness and curiosity.”
Be open to the idea that if you give up your self-limiting thoughts, you might astonish yourself.
3) PRACTICE MINDFULNESS
You take 20,000 breaths a day. That’s crazy, right? I know you’ve been far too busy doing dishes, creating Power Point presentations and making Zoom calls to count breaths. Which is WHY you simply must stop and pay attention your breath NOW. Prepare to be stunned by how interesting your breath actually is and how much there is to notice: texture, smell, sound, location and depth, asymmetries, pauses, and so much more! And it’s been going on right under nose this whole time. Try this mindfulness practice and get a fresh perspective on your breath.
4) SHAKE UP YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
Has the novelty and wonder of your yoga practice worn off? Try:
- a pose you’ve never done before.
- a different yoga instructor
- a style of yoga you don’t normally practice (with an open mind)
- reversing the way you normally inhale/exhale in sun salutations.
The possibilities are limitless! Get curious and experiment in your practice.
5) SLOW DOWN
When you drive by a field at 100 km/hour, you will see a green blur. If you take a leisurelywalk through that same field, you will see individual blades of grass and a variety of vibrant and colourful wildflowers. Same field, different perspective. Life is like that too. Details are what make life interesting and you can’t see them if you’re rushing. Practice noticing the details by taking something you normally do quickly and slow it waaaaaay down.
-put down your fork between mouthfuls and savour each bite.
-slow down your yoga practice.
-explore that beautiful place you have driven past and always wanted to see up close. Get out of your car and walk through. Real slow.
Notice the details.
6) DO AN EVERYDAY ACTIVITY IN A NEW WAY
-take a different route to work.
-brush your teeth or eat your breakfast with your non-dominant hand.
-have dinner for breakfast.
-next time you go grocery shopping, start at the opposite end of the store than you normally do.
Notice how small changes alter the quality of your experience and your attention.
7) RECLAIM YOUR CHILD-LIKE CURIOSITY
Every child goes through the “Why?” phase. Why? Because the world is new to them – and so full of mystery and wonder. When my son was very young he asked me whether eagles, seagulls and beagles were related. That question stopped my mind in its tracks. I could see why he thought they might be related -but I had never made that connection myself. Like a thunderclap, I was jolted out of my know-it-all mind and invited to appreciate a connection between things I had never noticed before.
A question is an invitation to look at the world through new eyes. What have you always wondered? Go find an answer. Learning expands your perspective.
Speaking of learning…
8) LEARN A NEW SKILL
Appalachian clog dancing, painting rocks, how to do an oil change…
Notice what it feels like to try something with no preconceived ideas. Just be present as a
complete beginner - and absorb.
9) DUST OFF YOUR JOURNAL AND START WRITING
You might be surprised by what flows out of your pen and onto the page when you sit down to
write. Try not to censor yourself. Just put your pen to paper and go. You can use journal
prompts or write free-form and see what comes up for you. If you like prompts, try these.
When you cultivate a Beginners’ Mind, you’re more open to possibilities, you become more creative and you can connect with the people in your life more intimately. Those people get the thrill of experiencing your renewed interest in them, and they become more engaged in sharing their thoughts and ideas. Call it a positive feedback loop.
Beginners’ Mind also frees us from expectations about the future based on our past experiences. What’s next? Nobody knows for sure! How’s that for a mystery?
So, get outta cruise control and get tuned into the present moment - like you do when you’re driving down a dark, unfamiliar road at night and can only see as far ahead as your high beams. Stay open and alert. That’s Beginners’ Mind.
When I teach Beginners' Yoga, I always begin by asking students WHY they have come to yoga; what they are hoping it will do for them. Usually I get answers like ‘I want to be more flexible’, ‘I want some ‘me’ time’, ‘I need to learn how to relax’ or ‘I need to strengthen my core’. Practicing yoga can certainly help people do those thing - but it also has the potential to transform our lives in profound and unexpected ways. Let’s unpack some of the more subtle gifts of yoga!
THE GIFT OF SELF-OBSERVATION
“The ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts from moment to moment is key to understanding ourselves better, being at peace with who we are and proactively managing our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.” - Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence (Why It Matters More Than IQ)
Whenever you step onto a yoga mat or sit on a meditation cushion you are engaged in a practice of self-observation: watching your body move through space; watching your breath move in and out; observing the nature of your own thoughts, and moment-to-moment changes in bodily sensations.
All of your self-observation practice on the mat eventually spills over into everyday life. When you get really good at practicing self-awareness, you get to know yourself. That includes knowing what you desire for your own well-being, for the well-being of others and for the well-being of the world. As you become more adept at the art of self-observation you also begin to notice when your actions don’t align with your deepest desires - and you begin cleaning up those inconsistencies so that your thoughts, words, feelings and actions are in harmony. In this way, mindfulness leads to more harmonious living.
TRY THIS MINDFULNESS PRACTICE:
THE GIFT OF SANKALPA – LIVING FROM THE HEART
Many yoga classes begin with setting an intention; a focus for the practice. For example, you may work with an intention to leave class feeling 'balanced' in your body, mind, emotions. Then the class is spent practicing breathing techniques, postures and meditations that support this goal. In a similar way that you can create an intention for your practice and follow through on making it a reality, you can also set an intention for your life.
‘Sankalpa’ is the Sanskrit word for intention. When you create a sankalpa, you identify your heart’s deepest desire and commit to living your life in a way that is focused on what you have decided is most important. Think of it like taking a personal vow to support your highest truth. A Sankalpa can inspire you, create focus in your life and remind you to keep your eye on the prize.
When you put an intention/sankalpa into words and recite them often, you become your own source of inspiration and guidance. You also create a powerful tool for silencing the voice of your inner critic. We all have one, and he can take over your thoughts and stop you from pursuing what you want in life with negative, discouraging self-talk. Having a sankalpa at the ready gives you a helpful script for talking back to turning off that critical inner voice.
How do you create a sankalpa?
You could simply think about something you would really like to have happen in your life that is not currently happening. It could be related to work, relationships, finances, health, spirituality – whatever is most important to you. When you have identified what your deepest desire in this life is, you’re ready to craft your sankalpa. The sankalpa statement you create for yourself should be:
-short (so it’s easy to remember)
-present tense (as though it’s already true)
This helps to flip the script on negative self-talk and focus on speaking to yourself in a way that is positive and loving instead. Here’s an example: many people think about their relationship with food and alcohol around this time of year – and what they DON’T want to do over the holiday – namely, eat and drink too much. Replace any negative mental chatter with a positive, intentional sankalpa like, ‘I make healthy choices.’
Short. Positively framed. Easy to remember. Leaves you feeling good about yourself. No negative self-talk. No beating yourself up.
Some other examples of Sankalpa statements:
-I am a positive presence for others
-I create opportunities for success
-I am enough.
Having a Sankalpa at the ready helps you to catch your inner critic and silence him quick. It also helps you to catch the behaviours you engage in that don’t align with what you have decided is actually important to you. THAT is where change begins.
Our thoughts become our actions and behaviours. When you catch yourself about to engage in a behaviour that doesn’t align with your heart’s deepest desire for yourself or for the larger world, you have a choice in that moment – to act out of impulse or to act intentionally and build a bridge to the reality you have decided you DO want to create.
Repeat your sankalpa to yourself when you wake up in the morning and reconnect with your positive intention throughout the day to remind yourself to live from your heart and align your actions with your aspirations.
THE GIFT OF PRESENCE
I love this quote from renowned yoga teacher, Rod Stryker. He says that after practicing yoga for a few years “either you will begin to change for the better or you will stop doing yoga.”
Yoga encourages positive transformation by encouraging you to be present in the here and now. There is a saying that goes ‘anxiety lives in the future and depression lives in the past’. When we spend too much time worrying about things that have not happened yet or ruminating on the past, we steal from our enjoyment of the present moment.
People who live in the present moment are generally happier, calmer, more relaxed and more appreciative. The ability to let go of heavy over-thinking is a gift. The ability to see and experience life and relationships without preconceived ideas is a gift. Being present puts us in touch with openness, creativity, playfulness and possibility.
For many of us, unpacking these larger gifts of yoga begins with the physical practice. If you begin your journey into yoga with the intention to become stronger and more flexible and you stick with practice, you WILL become stronger and more flexible. If your intention is to get in some time alone or to learn how to relax, you WILL. One of the simplest and most powerful gifts of yoga is that it empowers us to shape and transform ourselves and our lives simply by bringing our thoughts and actions into alignment. As we get skillful at doing this, we are also emboldened to bring bigger, more beautiful intentions into reality - transforming ourselves and the world around us.
The benefits of yoga are wide-ranging and it has been touted as a cure for … just about everything, at this point! While calling it a ‘cure-all’ is definitely overstating the case, it is true that yoga has wide-ranging health benefits: including improving the functioning of your immune system.
The way this works isn’t difficult to understand. In a nutshell, immune function is suppressed in times of stress. When you’re stressed your body gears up to fight or flee the threat to your security, and in doing so diverts energy away from your body’s restorative, healing, maintenance functions. Stress that is out of control increases your risk of heart disease, digestive problems and depression. It can also lead people to engage in dysfunctional coping strategies like smoking, substance abuse, poor food choices and exercise habits. All of which are linked to poor immune functioning.
One of the main ways that yoga ‘works its magic’ on the immune system is simply by lowering stress levels and tapping into the power of your body’s relaxation response. Chronic stress affects almost every biological system in the body – but so does chronic relaxation (see chart below for examples). While the effect of chronic stress is to create wear and tear on your body’s systems. The effect of yoga is to positively influence the biological processes that bolster healthy immune system function. Yoga also improves lymph circulation and downregulates your body’s inflammatory processes, and has been shown to improve mood, foster community, encourage healthy behaviours, downregulate inflammatory processes, and improve sleep and digestion – all of which are associated with better immune system functioning.
Science and research have helped us to understand the underlying mechanisms of yoga – and how posture, breath, meditation, deep relaxation practices, massage and movement can impact our health and well-being. If you are looking for simple, effective, pleasurable practices that you can use to help bolster your immune system, I’m here to help. Read on.
Normally, we think of heart rate, blood pressure, immune function and digestion as being outside of our control. And they ARE outside of your DIRECT control, but you can INDIRECTLY gain a measure of control over these processes by turning OFF your stress response and turning ON your relaxation response. A simple physiological trick is to get into a comfortable, passive reclining or inverted position
THE SCIENCE: When you flip your body upside down, a reflex (called your baroreflex) kicks in, lowering your blood pressure and decreasing your heart rate so that you don’t experience dangerous levels of pressure in your head/brain/eyeballs. See here for a video explaining how this reflex works. This natural reflex has a sedative effect and anytime you’re in a relaxed inversion, this is what is happening to you on a physiological level. Flipping upside down is a very simple form of physiological trickery you can use to turn on your body’s relaxation response.
Turning upside down also encourages lymph circulation by reversing the pooling effect of gravity on the fluids in your body.
Try this version of Viparita Karani Mudra (Inverted Psychic Attitude). In addition to making use of your body’s natural reflexes, it gives you a mental focus – which is useful for turning off mental chatter.
Use self-massage to give your immune system a leg up by changing your muscle tone, your nervous tone, your digestion and lymph flow.
When you are under stress, your brain signals your muscles to tense in preparation to fight or flee (or freeze) in order to escape the perceived threat to your safety. Luckily, the pathway of communication between your brain and your muscles goes two ways. When you release muscle tension through massage, it sends a signal back to your brain that it can let go and relax too.
THE SCIENCE: Your body is loaded with pressure receptors that when activated through touch (massage, a hug, a weighted anxiety blanket) signals a reflex loop that relaxes your nervous system. Massage is relaxing, hugs are relaxing, being wrapped in a warm blanket is relaxing. We know this intuitively. So, one route to turning off your stress response is through the application of gentle pressure of massage. You can focus on high tension areas, such as shoulders, jaw or upper or lower back to start your process of unclenching.
You may have noticed that after a good, relaxing massage, you end up lying in a puddle of drool! Relaxing stimulates the production of enzyme-rich saliva in your mouth – which is where the process of digestion starts. When you massage your masseter muscle, you actually manually stimulate your salivary glands
Massage also has the effect of circulating blood and lymph. Your lymphatic system is incredibly important in your body’s defence against disease. The lymphatic system fights off infection and circulates lymphocytes and other immune system cells throughout your body. It disposes of cellular waste and circulates bacteria from your body fluids to specialized cells located in your lymph nodes, where they are destroyed. Unlike your circulatory system, which has a heart that pumps your blood around your body, your lymphatic system does not have its own pump. You have to circulate your own lymph by moving or with massage.
Self-massage can also Improve your sleep – and sleep is so important to your immune function. It is while you are at rest that your body does its important healing and tissue repair work.
Try this massage sequence for tension relief in your jaw/face.
As discussed above, movement and muscle contractions are important for moving lymph throughout your body. When you contract and lengthen muscles as you come into and out of yoga postures, you improve your lymph flow and with that, your lymphatic system function. But ANY movement will do!
Consider heading outdoors for a walk in the sunlight, and while you’re at it, soak up some valuable Vitamin D.
You have probably observed that when you are deeply relaxed or relieved you naturally fall into a pattern of exhaling deeply (think sighing with relief). You might also have noticed that when you are stressed your breath tends to be short and shallow. Just as your mental state can affect the way you breathe, you can affect your mental states by changing your breathing patterns. By exhaling fully and deeply, the way you would breathe if you were completely relaxed, you can shift yourself into relaxation mode. In a way, you sort of fake it until you make it, by breathing like you’re relaxed until you are actually relaxed.
Another breathing trick is to hum as you exhale. This is called Bumble Bee (or Brimhari) breathing because it creates the sound of a buzzing bee hive inside your head. While the thought of bees may not relax you, it turns out that humming (and singing) can be very relaxing.
Click on the video below for a quick tutorial on Bramhari Breathing
The healing effects of meditation are very well-researched and documented. Meditation is known to relieve stress, reduce inflammation, possibly reduce viral replication and lead to more positive psychological states.
Certain forms of meditation, such as Loving-Kindness (Metta) and Compassion (Tonglen) Meditation can also build feelings of social connectedness, which we need now more than ever. The current state of the world demands that we put some distance between ourselves – but this can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are also associated with hampered immune function. It is possible that meditations that focus on bolstering our sense of community can help to deal with feelings of loneliness and isolation - in addition to the known benefits for our immunity.
Try this Metta Meditation
The stronger your immune system is, the better able you are to fight off disease and infection when you need to. Do a little self-care practice every day to take care of your health and well-being.