5 Tips on how to take an instant mental holiday

We’re heading into summer here in Barcelona, although it’s been off to a slow start this year. I often find that by this time of year, I’m well and ready to kick off my shoes and take a break. Only problem being that the holidays have still not arrived. There are still deadlines to meet, exams to write and hard work to be done. That’s why I’ve put together a little list of tips on how to take a short mental holiday, before the real thing comes along, in order to keep your batteries charged. Of course it’s also good for your sanity and those around you as well.

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  1. Do Viparita Karani for 15 – 20 minutes (also known as legs-up-the-wall pose) This is definitely one of my top, go-to poses. If I feel tired, but wired and still need to get a lot done, 15 minutes spent in this pose will make the world of difference to how you feel. It’s an instant pick-me-up with rejuvenating, yet deeply grounding after-effects. So put on your favourite music to chill-out to and spend 15 – 20 minutes here. For instructions on how to do the pose, have a look here.
  2. Reconnect to your breath   Easier said than done, this thing of staying present. If you’re feeling stressed and as though you’re completely disconnected, taking just 2 minutes to sit quietly and watch your breath, will make you feel like a different person. An effective technique is to silently count your breath as you inhale, e.g. count to 3 or 4 or 5 and then keep the count the same as you exhale.
  3. Abhyanga   In Ayurveda, there is a massage called, Abhyanga, where you massage your whole body with warm, organic sesame or coconut oil, before taking a shower in the morning. Massage your limbs by using long strokes and use circular strokes on your joints. Then take a shower, at first with hot water and then finishing off with cold water. This Ayurvedic practice is incredibly detoxifying and revitalising. You’ll feel amazing afterwards.
  4. Put on your favourite dance track and dance your heart out   Our bodies are designed to move and often we need to get rid of some excess, negative energy in order to reboot our brains and get our endorphins flowing. Only requirement here, make some space, turn up the volume and have fun!
  5. Go and sit under a tree and watch the world go by   When is the last time you just sat down on a bench or on a patch of grass and drank in everything that was happening around you? Without any judgment, just watching people, animals, nature, everything moving at its own pace and feeling your connection and place in the world. Notice how time slows down, when we are more present to everything around us.

What are some of your favourite ways of taking a mental holiday?

uju news for June

Summer is in full swing here in Barcelona!

Any season is ideal to practice yoga, but I think especially in summer we have a need to move our bodies and we also have more energy to do so. If it’s been a while since you’ve been to class, or if you’re a complete beginner, you’re welcome to come and join any of the classes on offer.

Practising outside in the open air under the trees, with the birds singing is an amazing experience. The classes in Park Ciutadela are now starting a little bit later at 7 pm, so we’ll see you there! The meeting point is outside the gate of the park which is closest to Estacio Franca (and Barceloneta Metro station), a few minutes before we start the practice. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact me.

During the month of June, I will also be substituting Prenatal Yoga classes at 6 pm on Monday and Wednesday evenings at Yoga con Gracia, so if you are currently pregnant or know of anyone who is, you’re welcome to come and try out a class.

How this year has flown!

Astanga Yoga in Spanish

Oh wait. I should say, month. How does that happen? That life travels so fast, that we can hardly catch a ride on our own one? Last year felt a bit like that and now here we are already at the end of January of a new year. (Mmm, I still wanted to write a blog entry for December!) It’s hard to just slow down enough to really take in what is happening in our lives. That’s why I find practicing yoga helps. It’s a bit like pressing the slow motion button on the remote control of your life. You do a series of postures and through bringing your awareness to the breath and the different shapes you make with the body, you start slowing down and tuning in. Connecting with your centre and finding your way back to yourself again. Everything just seems to make more sense when we do that.

Last year, I started teaching yoga in Spanish for the first time. To be honest, for me it was quite scary to take that step. Getting up in front of a class and speaking for 75 – 90 minutes in a language in which I still didn’t feel that comfortable. That, in itself proved to be an experiment in mindfulness. I had to tune in completely and look at the practice in a completely different way, even though it was Astanga, something I had practiced perhaps thousands of times and where you always do the same series of postures in the same order. A student who had attended my class both in English and Spanish commented that I said a lot less in Spanish. I told her it’s simply because I lacked the vocabulary. Funny, but true. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Speaking less and listening more. Something that could be valuable for all of us. Whether it’s listening more closely to our friends and partners or listening closer inside.

In conclusion here, what is it that you really want to achieve this year? Not in terms of completing a long to-do list of resolutions, but more in terms of growing as a person – on the inside? Try to find some quiet time here at the start to a new year to sit down and really tune in and listen. And then start following that inner voice, which at first might sound faint, but will become more clear the more you listen to it. It will lead you down the path of a more authentic and ultimately deeply fulfilling life. At the end, that is really all we want to tick off on our to-do list: that we lived deeply and intensely, having savoured each moment along the way.

Be the tree

Many of the postures we practice in yoga are named after and based on the natural world, with poses such as crow, camel, eagle and downward facing dog to name just a few. That’s because the ancient yogis spent a lot of time observing the natural world around them and recognised qualities there that they knew we would do well to imitate and bring into our lives.

They further believed that our feet and legs are the roots of our bodies, which keep us firmly grounded when we have to weather the storms that life bring our way. Finding our stability we also start to work on balancing and grounding the first chakra or ‘Muladhara’ (in Sanskrit literally meaning to ‘root down’) which is located at the base of the spine.

I don’t know about you, but for me this time of the year always feels completely chaotic, as though I’m rushing towards some impossible (more often than not, self-imposed) deadline to fit everything in and get it all done before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. It’s as though our feet barely touch the ground as we’re rushing from one thing to the next, and we seem to spend all our time in our heads and very little time in our bodies, connecting to the breath and to the here and now.

If you are feeling particularly ungrounded at the moment, try to bring a lot of standing postures into your yoga practice, reconnecting with your roots through your feet and legs and focusing the mind by taking deep, smooth breaths. Try practising tree pose, or Vrksasana which is a perfect metaphor for illustrating that when we ground down through our roots, we can find stillness and stability within, no matter what’s going on outside of us.

How to do Tree Pose

Start by shifting the weight of the body on to the right foot. Keep your hands on your waist at first, to help with your balance. Begin rotating and opening the left hip towards the left. If you are a beginner, you can simply rest the left toes on the floor or on a yoga block beside the right foot. Taking the pose a bit further, rest the sole of the foot against the inside of the left leg, below the knee. Make sure to never place the foot directly on the knee joint, as this may cause injury to the knee. And finally, bring the foot right up into the root of the thigh and find your balance here, by strongly pressing the foot against the thigh and vice versa. Keep your gaze fixed on a spot on the floor in front of you or straight ahead of you. Slowly start bringing the hands into prayer pose in front of the heart and from here slowly raise them up overhead. If you feel steady, you can extend the arms outwards away from the body, like the branches of a tree and voilà! suddenly you become the tree. To come out of the pose, once again bring the palms to touch overhead and draw them down to the heart. Release the foot and repeat on the other side.

Introducing Creative Fridays

When was the last time you just played, and let your creativity take over (in whichever shape that might take for you) without thinking of the results or whether or not it was going to pay the bills? The answer from my side, would embarrassingly have to be, a very, very long time. About a week after I completed my 7 Day Fall Detox, I had an inspiring insight. I realised that I could give myself permission to take a creative day once a week. Whether I would spend the day painting, drawing, taking pictures, going to museums or art galleries didn’t matter – as long as it was a guilt-free day where I could let go of responsibilities and let creativity rush in. It was so simple, but also such a profoundly liberating moment for me.

That made me think again about how easily we place ourselves in boxes or live according to whichever image we’re trying to project to the outside world. We can very rarely place the blame on how we choose to live our lives on anybody else. It really is up to us. Once we acknowledge that, it can seem terrifying, but paradoxically, it is also an exhilirating and freeing place from which to live. That is also where we encounter the juiciness of life, which brings us right back to creativity. The one nurtures the other.

In terms of your yoga practice, how can you shake up your routine a bit and bring some playfulness into it? Why not create your own short 15 – 20 minute practice by combining between 3 – 5 of your favourite postures. Find creative, fun new ways to transition from the one pose into the next, allowing yourself to just tune into your body and move instinctively from your centre. Most importantly, give yourself permission to let go of the results and just enjoy the juicy, creative journey on which you’re embarking.

Spring cleaning in Autumn

4 Countries in 9 DaysBratislava • Vienna • Prague • Budapest

A few days ago, as we returned home from an impromptu action packed, 9-day trip which included Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Prague, I had the sudden urge to start spring cleaning. Except that seeing as I’m living in the Northern Hemisphere, it is, quite frankly, the wrong time of year. It could be due to the fact that I lived in Dubai for four and a half years, where there weren’t any seasons. Only hot and hotter than Hades. And now my body is finally tuning in to the change of seasons again. Presenting an ideal opportunity to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff (emotionally and physically) that we lug around in order to fully embrace the coming winter season and all that implies. Which is normally to slow down, and embark on a more quiet, inward journey, taking stock of where we are and how that aligns with where we would like to go with our lives.

In addition to the physical purging of clutter, I have also signed up for the 7 Day Fall Ayurveda Detox with Yoga Journal, starting on 12 September. The detox involves the following 4 steps: step 1 – slowing down and reducing stress; step 2 – following a detox diet consisting of ayurvedic foods specific to my dosha; step 3 – practising daily cleansing yoga; and step 4 – self-study or svadhyaya. I will blog a little bit more about Ayurveda in later posts, but in short, it is the ancient Hindu system of health and medicine, which approaches healing in a holistic manner.

If you are feeling inspired to join the detox, you can sign up here on Yoga Journal’s website to receive daily yoga practices, recipes and tips on how to make the best of your detox experience throughout the week. It’s completely free to sign up and a fantastic way to get your body and mind ready for winter.

Coming up against your edge

You’re likely to hear or to have heard this phrase many times in a yoga class: ‘Find your edge.’ So where is your ‘edge’ exactly? I would say it’s that place where you start feeling uncomfortable. Where you’re ‘gently’ being persuaded to become present. Your muscles, both those of the body and of the mind are being stretched in new ways. You can hear Dorothy saying: ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.’ Yes, welcome to the very frontier of your comfort zone. What do we do when we’re in this place of extreme agitation, irritation, fear or discomfort? Our practice offers us a safe place from which to explore this unchartered territory. We can use these lessons we learn in our yoga practice and apply it to our lives.

Case in point. I went on a little bicycle trip for 3 days this week in the countryside of Catalonia to Ripoll and Olot. On the second day, I had to cycle uphill for 7 km. To put you in the picture, I haven’t really spent any serious time on a bicycle, since my impromptu Cape Argus 109 km Cycle Tour in 1998. You could say I came up against my edge in a big way after the 2nd kilometer going up. I had to get off my bike and push it up the mountain for the next 5. I just couldn’t do it. My legs felt like jelly, it was hot, my heart was pumping in my chest and my breath was at this point not yogic. Closer to hyperventilation. I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of my surroundings; I was way out there in the Wild West of my comfort zone. And I had to remind myself of something I repeat often in class, really it’s the most basic of the pranayama practices, which is to just focus on the breath, on inhaling and exhaling through the nose. To come back into the moment and override the crazed panic-induced mental state that says you’re going to self-destruct if you don’t stop doing what you’re doing right now!

Needless to say, I made it. But it reinforced for me in a big way how our minds have this incredible power of setting boundaries for us. Measuring out our little gilded cage in which we feel we can cope with life. And how it is really important to go against this urge to live a so-called ‘safe’ life. If we don’t challenge our minds and our bodies, we don’t have the opportunity to grow and expand spiritually and it’s impossible to live our lives to the fullest.

So what’s so great about yoga?

I got into yoga for the same reason that many people are first drawn to the practice. I had been living with this dull, chronic pain in my upper back for years and I simply had to try something, anything to find some relief from it. Although I had known about yoga, and had always been curious about trying it out, it wasn’t until my physiotherapist urged me to try it in earnest, that I finally did. And this is how I ended up in a little Iyengar yoga studio in Cape Town. At this point, I would like you to imagine that the sky opened up and I heard divinely beautiful music and I had a big ‘Aha-moment’, because of course that’s exactly how it went down. Yes, because for the first time in years, there was an immense feeling of relief and openness and freedom in my body. And then incredibly, the same thing also started happening first to my mind and then to my spirit. So after almost 13 years of practice, I have finally figured out that this is the ‘hook’, or the ‘addiction’ of a yoga practice. That for many of us, we know that we have this practice available to us where we can return to that place where we are free from suffering, on a physical and mental level. And where we can connect with our true nature, which if we were to be honest, is a totally divine, joyous and cool place to be hanging out on any given day.