I didn’t expect 2020. Or 2021. Did you?
If there’s one lesson the last two years have taught me it’s this: I have no idea what’s around the next corner.
I’ve decided to head into the new year accepting and embracing just … not knowing. In Zen Buddhism this mindset is called ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – and it’s considered a positive attribute. A Beginner’s Mind is a mindset that’s willing to see everything as though it’s the first time. It’s a way of approaching each moment with openness; free from expectations about what should happen next. You’re like an empty cup waiting to be filled.
In many ways, the new year seems a fitting time to adopt a Beginner’s Mind-set. A new year is a clean slate and a new beginning and a Beginner’s Mind is open, receptive and curious about what the next moment will bring - without preconceived ideas. When you have a Beginner’s Mind, you can respond to life’s circumstances with more creativity, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenges.
If you’ve ever met a 4-year old, you understand Beginner’s Mind. Young children are open, flexible, curious and accepting. They’re bursting with questions and curiosity. Their imaginations run wild as they grapple with how things work in the large & mysterious world in which they find themselves. They make simple observations and ask basic questions that are also strange, silly and profound. Children’s questions can force you to notice that there are a lot of miraculous everyday phenomena you take for granted.
“How do clouds float?”
“Do telephone poles hold up the sky?”
“Does the letter ‘W’ start with a ‘D’”?
And the relentless “Why?”
Kids are naturally gifted at practicing Beginners’ Mind because they’re beginners at everything. 20, 40 or 60 years of life experience can rub the glossy ‘fresh from the womb’ sparkle off of everyday living. We establish habits and routines that help us become more efficient at getting things done. That’s great in terms of staying organized and on task. However, too much habit and routine (same breakfast, same drive to work, lunch, home time, evening routine. Bed.) can make you feel like you’re trapped on a hamster wheel. Routines can leave you feeling stuck in expectations, thought loops and habit patterns. They can be useful – but they can also suck the wonder out of life and leave you stuck in the doldrums. You can easily fail to notice that *the moment you’re in is actually a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Never to be repeated again by anyone. Ever.*
I THINK WE CAN ALL USE A LITTLE MORE AWE AND WONDER IN OUR LIVES, DON’T YOU?
Jolt yourself out of autopilot by cultivating a Beginner’s Mind.
1.Set an intention
Say this: “I am open to inspiration.”
Make it your mantra. Repeat it to yourself throughout the day. When you’re open to inspiration you’re open to doing and seeing things in new ways.
2.Say ‘So Long’ to Self-Limiting Thoughts
“I’m too old … too fat … too (insert negative thought here).” Whatever your particular bugaboo might be, you have the power to stop your own growth-stunting, self-limiting thoughts. Whenever you catch yourself thinking this way, return to Step 1.
Repeat your new mantra: “I am open to inspiration.”
When you give up self-limiting thoughts, you create a possibility to transcend your ordinary experiences and limitations and to see yourself in a new, more flattering light.
3.Get Outside - Take an ‘Awe Walk’
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” – W.B. Yeats
Turn a walk outside into a voyage of inspiration of wonder. Awe usually occurs in places you’ve never been to before and in places that are physically vast (like the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or staring into the night sky). But you can find awe in just about any environment. No matter where you are, the key is having the right frame of mind. This practice will help you turn an ordinary walk into a series of awe-inspiring moments, filled sensory delight.
As you walk, open your senses to what you’re experiencing right now. Name:
4. Practice Mindfulness
In mindfulness meditation, you practice non-judgmentally observing the rising and passing of thoughts, breaths, emotions and sensations.
Did you know that you take more than 20,000 breaths each day?
That’s crazy, right? Most of those breaths, you’re not conscious of. Because you’re too busy – doing dishes, attending Zoom meetings and doom scrolling through social media. Stop and pay attention to your breath RIGHT NOW (click the video above for instruction). Prepare to be stunned by how interesting your breath actually is and how much there is to notice: texture, smell, sound, location, depth, asymmetries, pauses, and so much more! And it’s going on right inside your nose every moment of every day. All you have to do is stop and notice. Try this mindfulness practice and get a fresh perspective on your breath.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
~ Marcel Proust
5. Shake Up Your Yoga Practice
Remember when you were new to yoga and the art of placing attention on your breath or your alignment was new and exhilerating? Remember the first time you felt post-Savasana bliss? If your enthusiasm for practice has fizzled over the years, shake things up. You can still approach practice with the open curious mind of a newbie. Try:
-a style of yoga you don’t usually do. Swap Vinyasa for Yoga Nidra!
-a different yoga instructor.
-reversing the way you normally inhale/exhale in a Sun Salutation.
-if your practice is mostly physical, integrate more pranayama, meditation or philosophy
-Bring more yoga into your everyday life. Mindfulness can be practiced in any context: in your garden, your relationships, and in your job.
The possibilities are limitless! Yoga is everywhere. Get curious and experiment.
6. Do An Everyday Activity in a New Way
Open your mind to the possibility that there are other ways to do things.
-take a different route to work
-brush your teeth or eat your breakfast with your non-dominant hand.
-have a stir-fry 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. .Try Something New
When you have a new experience, it’s impossible not to have the mindset of a beginner. Learn how to yodel, do an oil change or how to do an African gumboot dance. Youtube has a ‘How To’ video for everything! Notice what it feels like to try something without any preconceived ideas. Just be present as a complete beginner – and absorb.
“We begin with beginner’s mind, and then, if we’re lucky, we deepen it, or return to it.”
~ Joseph Goldstein
A Beginner’s Mind is an opportunity to see the world around you with fresh eyes. You experience life with more awe and wonder. You’re more open to possibilities, you connect with people more intimately, and it makes life so much more fun and interesting. Beginner’s Mind frees you from expectations about the future based on what you experienced in the past.
What does 2022 have in store for us? No idea.
Stay open, receptive and ready to roll with the changes. That’s Beginner’s Mind.
Try not to eat and drink to the point that wearing pants becomes painful. Don’t leave all your holiday shopping til the last minute and don’t bring up politics with your uncle. Some holiday stressors are easy to avoid. Others require more thought and planning. Here are some simple things you can do to help yourself stay chill from now til the new year.
1. Schedule Some Quiet Time
Running from malls to grocery stores to dinners to cocktail parties is exhausting. When you have a million things to do, it’s easy to let your commitment to 'me time' slide - but that's exactly when you need it the most. Skip it and you'll feel frazzled and frayed.
Make time for rest.
Picture this: You, curled up on the couch under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and a juicy novel. Or you lying on the floor in savasana for 30 minutes.
You don’t have to say yes to every social invitation. So don't. Schedule time for activities that nourish you and foster your ability to show up in the world as a patient, loving, kind human being. That's a gift that benefits everyone.
2. Meditate While You Wait
Send Metta (loving-kindness) to the man ahead of you in the check-out line holding everyone up while he requests a price check, and to the mom that is losing her mind while her toddler has a meltdown in Aisle 3. And don't forget your cashier. They will definitely need your good vibes too.
As you wait in line, pick out strangers and mentally direct kind and loving thoughts towards them:
"May you be safe, may you be peaceful, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from suffering and its causes, may you know your heart’s true joy.”
Practicing metta expands your capacity to be a radiant source of friendliness, love and compassion. Turn on your love light and let it shine on everyone.
3. Move Your Body
When stress and anxiety show up your body generates a tremendous amount of energy in preparation for 'fight or flight'. Burn up some of that excess energy with movement. Try some Sun Salutations paired with Ujjayi breathing. Movement is a natural way to combat stress and tension.
You can take long, slow, deep exhalations anytime, anywhere in any situation - without anyone ever knowing. Nervous about a gathering? Triggered by an inappropriate comment? Left alone to clean up the kitchen after dinner? Before you explode, take a pause and breathe deeply. Calm your nervous system and get centered before responding.
Inhale: Count to 4
Exhale: Count to 8
5. Transport Yourself With Chanting
Instead of worrying about office politics and inappropriate co-workers on your drive to the company holiday party, chant. Repeating a mantra is an incredibly effective way to transport your mind to a peaceful place and cut through anxiety-inducing mental chatter.
Chanting OM turns off your amygdala (the part of your brain associated with fear and stress). Get in your car, turn up your favourite OM track and chant your way into the zen zone in time for the party. Here's one of my fave OM chants to chill out to.
Not so long ago, everyone wanted a ‘yoga butt’ or Madonna’s ‘yoga arms’. But yoga offers a more impactful and important way to re-shape your body - ‘yoga brain’.
Our understanding of how the brain works has come a loooong way in the last few decades. We now know that the brain is incredibly adaptable, and keeps changing right up until the end of life - and possibly beyond. People who have been clinically dead come back with their brains changed! In the same way that your muscles grow or shrink depending on how and whether you stimulate them, parts of your brain also grow and shrink based on how you use it!
Your brain can change its own structure and function based on what you think and do. This concept is called ‘neuroplasticity’. ‘Neuro’ for neuron and ‘plastic’, meaning changeable or malleable. And your brain is malleable - with the consistency of a brick of tofu. You can literally re-shape it; adding or subtracting neural connections based on how you use your mind. When you learn new things, for example, you add new neural connections. You can also lose neural connections if you don’t use them.
This is the most wonderful, hopeful and exciting news!
It means you can learn new things and new ways of being with regard to habits, love, relationships, pain, learning, addictions, and more. And it means your past is not a prison sentence. You’re not necessarily doomed to repeat the same patterns. You can re-train and re-structure your own brain in ways that help you live life better.
Yoga Meets Neuroscience
Yogis have known this for a long time. The proof is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a 2500(ish) year old book that lays out the blueprints for yoga practice. A hefty chunk of the Yoga Sutras is dedicated to explaining how the mind works and how to work skillfully with your thoughts so you can unlearn habits that cause suffering and create new habits that lead to peace and freedom.
In yoga-speak, the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ is known as a ‘samskara’ –a behavioural ‘rut’ or ‘groove’ that you sculpt into your body/mind by repeating thoughts and behaviours. It gets easier to fall into a thought/behaviour ‘groove’ every time you repeat it. That’s how habits are formed. You can also create new ‘grooves’ by practicing new thoughts and behaviours.
Both neuroscience and yoga agree: the way you think, feel and act changes the structure of your brain. When you become aware that this is how your brain operates, you can start to use that knowledge to consciously re-shape the way you think and act. You can steer the direction of your brain’s growth and evolution by choosing to practice thoughts, feelings and behaviours that grow your brain in a direction YOU CHOOSE.
That’s an incredibly empowering idea! Let that sink in…
In mindfulness practice, that’s exactly what you do! Steer yourself away from habits and thoughts that lead to suffering and create thoughts & behaviours that shape your mind into a more serene and peaceful place.
Neuroplasticity is a simple concept: when you repeat a thought or behaviour, you create a robust neural pathway in the brain that grows stronger with every repetition. Repeated use shapes that circuit’s function and strengthens it. Want inner peace? Practice thinking peaceful thoughts.
When you alter the physical structure of your brain, you alter the way your brain functions.
Proof That Yoga Re-Structures Your Brain
Thanks to modern brain imaging technology and the recent boom in yoga research, we an actually SEE the kinds of changes that take place in the brains of yoga practitioners. Three areas of the brain that are re-structured by yoga practice are your Amygdala (fear and emotions), Hippocampus (memory & learning) and the Insula (self-awareness).
Your amygdala is part of your limbic system. A very old (reptilian) part of your brain that is dedicated to your survival.
If you think about the history of human development, and what the human body looks like compared to other animals (wolves, bears and tigers) we don’t look like a predator. No fangs, no claws, no talons. We look like prey. As prey, our brains developed to be hyper-aware about things that could potentially harm us -so we could be prepared to react quickly to save our skins.
This is where your amygdala comes in. It’s a part of the brain that plays a role in emotional reactions and fear responses, amongst other things.
If you’ve ever found yourself in panic mode when your child is late coming home from a friend’s house or flown into a full-on freak-out about how unprepared you are to give a presentation (even though you’re perfectly prepared) … you’ve felt your amygdala doing it’s thing. Your evolutionary biology has predisposed you to focus on identifying potential threats. While this is useful in certain situations – like when you’re walking alone through a shady neighbourhood at night or trying to survive on the savanna - You DON’T want your amygdala running your life and injecting fear into situations where it doesn’t belong.
The amygdala shrinks in yoga practitioners. This can be seen with fMRI imaging. And as a result of this structural change to your brain, your propensity for reacting with fear and anxiety shrinks too.
A number of studies highlight changes in hippocampal volume following yoga practice. The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory processing. It shrinks as you age, and it’s the structure first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, beefing up the amount of gray matter in your hippocampus is a great idea – and yoga practice does just that! Studies have shown that middle-aged meditators have the same-sized hippocampus as people in their 20s. And no deterioriation compared to age-matched subjects who aren’t meditators.
Interestingly, your hippocampus is also related to body awareness and is critical to dampening stress. Both also improve with yoga practice.
Research shows that the insula plays an important role in many different kinds of meditative practices. It’s central to interoceptive body awareness. Interoception is your ability to sense signals coming from deep within (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, hunger, satiation, etc). It also seems to be involved in empathy, postural changes and slow breathing.
Here's a practice to hone your interoceptive awareness
Various neuroimaging studies have shown that interoceptive awareness is associated with stress resiliency and low interoceptive awareness is associated with depression. It’s believed that the insula is involved in our present-moment awareness and in processing bodily sensations which are used to make decisions (choosing how to react to a situation based on a gut feeling or recognizing that your blood sugar is low and you need to eat).
Increased interoceptive awareness allows you to be in touch with early warning signals coming from your internal environment that let you know something is out of balance and needs correcting (you need water, are fatigued, are under stress). When you’re aware of imbalances in the early stages, you can take steps to address the situation before it gets out of hand. Perhaps that’s what allows yoga practitioners to experience more physiological, mental and emotional balance.
In addition to its involvement in your sense of presence and self-awareness, your insula seems to be connected to your awareness of others and their feelings. Exercising your insula gives rise to feelings of compassion, social connection and attunement to others. Yoga means union and the practice is meant to help us experience our interconnectedness. The insula may be the key to understanding this effect.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for awhile, you likely already know, deep in your guts, that yoga has changed your mind/brain. The evidence is in the way you show up and respond to situations in your own life on a daily basis. But now, thanks to brain imaging technology, we can SEE and point to the ways yoga physically changes your brain and positively impacts its health.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog, where we investigate Pratipaksha Bhavana, a yogic tool for transforming negative thinking.
Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6971819/
What Has Neuroimaging Taught Us on the Neurobiology of Yoga? A Review
Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity
Neurohemodynamic correlates of 'OM' chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.
Yoga International, Anatomy of the Meditative Brain (video)