Connecting. Creating. Directing.

I’ve not been able to write here for a while. Simply because there has been so much happening in my life that work, teaching and other writing commitments have gotten in the way.
Also because I’ve not really had the clarity to write anything I feel is in alignment with the theme of this blog…until now.

I recently posted a badly-recorded cover of ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries, translated into Gaeilge (the Irish language), and uploaded as a way to pay tribute to an inspirational female Irish artist who died this week, Dolores O’Riordan.
Also this week, I gave my first private yoga and meditation classes, alongside my regular public classes and retreat coordination in the stunning bamboo yoga shala in Sanur, Bali, that I now call my ‘office’.  Any spare time I have is spent also practicing yoga, meditating, writing – anything from poetry to short stories to songs to whatever random thought pops into my head at the time – listening to Blindboy’s amazingly insightful podcast, learning Bahasa, planning classes, and reading….and overall really just tapping in to this overwhelming sense of connection and flow I’ve managed to access since being here.

Connecting vs Creating

CREATING. I’ve realised it’s all really just about connecting things. Having the awareness to connect certain aspects of life to another. Whether it’s the resemblance an old tree stump holds with the face of a vaguely familiar famous sportsperson, or something a bit deeper – it doesn’t matter. Formulating these connections into words, thoughts, artistic expression, photographs, drawings….however you do it. Whatever way occurs to you and presents itself in that moment. It’s all creating. Drawing something new from what your reality already presents you with. No matter how small it might seem.
What I feel that people find in following famous and inspirational artists such as O’Riordan is the feeling of connection they get on hearing the artist’s interpretation of things. After all, we live in the same world, have experienced and heard about the same events such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland to which ‘Zombie” refers. But it’s in hearing someone else’s well-crafted interpretation and connection of various elements of these occurrences that a way for us to feel connected to something a little bit bigger is presented to us, and ironically also allows us to see that deep down underneath it all, be it artist or soldier or victim or onlooker – we are all the same.

The important part is to GRASP this connection when it happens. When a thought occurs, a situation presents itself, an idea forms or inspiration suddenly hits – the necessity of acknowledging it for what it is is key to being able to solidify it into something tangible. Yoga and meditation have helped me to cultivate and expand on this awareness, just meaning that it happens a little more often now than it did before.

‘Trust the Process”

A huge aspect of this acknowledgment is self-belief. If we believe ourselves capable, trust in our own creative instincts and push forward with the vague idea that what we’re connecting is something of worth – even if you’ve no set plan for it whatsoever – then you will see beautiful things happen. Yoga has also helped me see that the end goal or product is not the point. The point is the process.

The creative process. The buzz I get from making these connections – in the form of jigsawing words together to express thoughts or feelings or ideas, or jigsawing notes into chords to fit those words and a tune to vocalise them musically – THAT’S the point of it. Not the response something gets. Not how many views, or likes, or clicks, nods of the head or generated web traffic.
Yes, it’s nice to teach a full studio of yogis there to take your class, or sing to a full room of people who want to hear you, or write for an audience I know will be larger than just my own mother (hi, Mum!). But sometimes that’s just not the case, and the creativity comes, regardless.
What happens then?

Directing Energy

I used to let this excess of ideas and creative energy flow into negative places. I used to let it fuel the opposite beliefs of the ones where I send it now. What I’ve realised from becoming proficient enough with yoga and meditation to call myself a ‘yogi’ (for want of a better word) and cultivating this awareness is that if I’m honest, it TERRIFIES me how powerful our thoughts are.  How capable we are of creating whatever reality we send energy towards. It scares me because there are as many negative outlets for my energy as there are positive ones, and it’s a constant battle to remain on top of it and ensure it doesn’t stray down old pathways and habits again.

If there’s one thing I’d advise anyone who is struggling to master negative cycles of thoughts or habits, it would simply be first to find a creative outlet.

Write things down. Scribble a shitty picture of what the inside of your head looks like. Sing a poorly formulated song about your commute or take some half-arsed pictures of your kitchen floor. There are connections to be drawn from even the most banal-seeming aspects of your life, and the truth of the matter is that human beings thrive on connection, in whatever form that takes – be it creatively, socially, or otherwise.
Thriving means to be connected to these areas, to be aware of them, and to use both positive and negative sensations or emotions or experiences to propel you forwards. To go the only way that it’s possible for us to go.
The only ‘you’ that exists is the ‘you’ that is reading this right now. There is no ‘used to be’, or ‘aiming to be’. Use what you have right now, to create something and gradually to draw some contentment into the present moment as you live it.

After all, it’s all we’re ever going to have!

Aforementioned cover is here

Meditation vs Mindfulness – What Is the Difference?

(pic Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka)

 

Meditation vs Mindfulness – What Is the Difference?

Is anyone else guilty of vaguely agreeing to participate in a mindfulness or meditation session without really being clear on what they’re getting themselves in for? Even after it’s over? I know I am.
Surely it’s all the same, wishy-washy, inhale-exhale, breath-through-your-third-eye kind of stuff, right?
Wrong.

While both meditation and mindfulness stem from the same flowerbed, each complimenting the other and each a tool for focusing the mind and creating space for our authenticity to grow and manifest itself out into the world around us, there are several fundamental differences between the processes involved.

Meditation

I have to be careful here. I don’t want to delve too deep and scare people away.
While meditation has been defined and redefined over centuries and by a vast number of religious groups and otherwise inclined practices, its premise has fundamentally remained the same.
In simple terms, meditation is the art of sitting with our breath; with a certain thought; with a particular occurrence or sensation, and focusing all of our attention and energy towards it. That’s it. The one thought, thing or sensation, and all attention and awareness, including breath, is focused there. Gradually, somewhere in the midst of this blurb of directed consciousness, that one thing merges with the awareness and we’re left with a beautiful sense of unity and ability to relate whole-heartedly to the object of our meditation, as if it is part of us.

This has led to the establishment of the likes of breath meditation, chakra meditation, guided meditation (where all attention is focused on the guiding words), heartbeat meditation, visualization, kundalini meditation, walking meditation, samskara meditation, pranic (energetic) meditation, intention meditation…the list goes on, and it will forever. As long as humans can consciously think for themselves.
The central idea being that all of this conscious energy and attention is directed towards that one thing, without straying to follow any shiny new thoughts or enticing smells that may pass seductively through our brains in the meantime.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is, admittedly, a branch of meditation. Yet while we still engage that same focus and intention as with general meditation, instead of a single chosen action, thought or sensation, mindfulness requires us to focus all our attention on the moment as it is right now. On our current set of emotions, sensations, actions and circumstances. The present moment, any current physical or mental sensations which we may be experiencing.
A lot of mindfulness comes down to the present experience. In fact, all of it does. How much of something are we really experiencing if our mind is off meditating on something that happened a week ago?

Let That Shit Go

This is where the core difference between mindfulness and meditation comes into play – the ability to differentiate between the present moment, the body and minds current situation, and any thoughts which may be hindering that by not being entirely relevant to what’s happening right now. All of this, along with the ability to let them go.
In order to focus properly on what’s happening right now, we have to be able to put our fingers obediently on the lips of any incessant thoughts persisting from elsewhere, and draw the attention back to the present moment.

A fairly simple explanation of my understanding of the differences between these two practices, yet in reality this simplicity and ease of mental activity is exactly what we seek to embody by practicing meditation of mindfulness. Simples.

 

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Angkor Wat, Nov 2015

 

The Science Behind Yoga & Meditation & Their Benefits for Mental Health in Ireland

The Reluctant Enlightenment of a Nation

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Yoga and meditation are slowly becoming more and more popular and ‘acceptable’ to talk about in Ireland. This is a fact. With an increasing number of businesses, schools, and public figures jumping on the band wagon (or brightly coloured mat) and openly engaging in and speaking about the benefits of having a regular practice, it’s almost fashionable now to engage in some brief introspection…Almost. Following on from the ‘I never thought I’d tell anyone this’ mantra of recent personal-story-exposing trends on social media and the general increase in open discussions of mental health issues in Irish culture (an amazing thing in itself which should not ever be ridiculed), yoga and meditation seem to have graduated past the boundaries of speculatory ‘indie’, ‘hippie’, and ‘NFATR’ (fans of OMGWACA on Facebook will understand) kinds of ideologies and slowly but surely tiptoed quietly into the realm of ‘things-which-are-ok-to-do-now’, in our restricted and resistant-to-change Irish frame of mind.

Regardless of public opinion, my own personal practice of yoga and meditation has helped me overcome several run-ins with Illnesses Which Must Not Be Named and have benefited me far more than any visits to Doctors Who Help With The Nerves ever have, and having recently returned from a stint abroad where I qualified as a yoga teacher, this is something I now wish to share.

“But What Do The Instructions Say?!”

The need for scientific fact and validation when discussing yoga and meditation with peers and ‘non-believers’, as various advanced yogis have lightheartedly described them, is ultimately an obstacle we as yoga practitioners and teachers have already and regularly face everyday in the world around us, not just in Ireland – and that’s ok too. Knowing how closed off and resistant to change older generations and Irish society as a whole has been over the years, it makes sense that people need Solid Facts, followed by A Radio Discussion and That Ad With The Lad in the Hoodie before openly entertaining anything remotely personal as a real and pressing issue or concept. But this is how we are, and part of the teachings of yoga enable us to acknowledge this unfortunate tendency and use it to progress forwards, instead of hindering our path.

“Ah. Right, ok. I see. Mmm.”

For what it’s worth, researchers in Harvard University (yep, the really famous, really prestigious one in America) conducted a three-month experiment a few years ago with participants who had been experiencing particularly high levels of emotional distress (me nerves!) to determine the effects of a regular yoga and meditation practice. A control group continued their normal daily routine, while another group were required to participate in group yoga and meditation classes three times weekly.
Easy community service, you’re thinking? Maybe, but let’s continue.
From improved mood and physical functioning to increased awareness and concentration, the group of yoga-attendees noted numerous positive effects of the experiment, with depression scores reducing by 50%, anxiety by 30%, and overall wellbeing by 65% (I promise I won’t mention Those Words again). Another Harvard study references yoga’s ability to ‘regulate the stress response system’, decreasing levels of cortisol in the bloodstream while increasing oxygen levels and bringing the often invisible effects of yoga and meditation to the physical body. By learning to recognise and acknowledge thoughts, emotions and sensations as they occur and slowing down long enough to really process their significance, meditation when combined with yoga can enhance our ability to exercise an element of control over our minds and bodies. After all, they do say that ‘meditation is for the mind what exercise is for the body’. Combining it with yoga then surely is a win-win??

“The Young Ones Would Never Sit Still”

This school in America’s genius move to replace detention with meditation is also a testament to just how far along we’ve come in terms of accepting it as a conventional and almost required element of our lives, I mean, if they’re letting the kids do it now it must be alright, surely?!

After all, it’s just basic neuroscience really. (‘Neurowhat??”)
Noticing the tendencies and pathways our thoughts take and over time building up the strength and resilience to alter them and repeatedly steer them away from the negative ones, in favour of positive and beneficial habits is in simple terms what these practices help us to achieve. It’s been noted that yoga and meditation strengthen our ability to form these neural pathways, and while modern neuroscientists and
psychologists agree, still we’re met with scoffing and raised eyebrows when we announce we’re off for a quick meditation before the family dinner to mentally prepare our carefully balanced and cared for psyches for the onslaught of dubious questioning and ridiculous weather discussions about to occur.

“But Sure, Can You Not Just Go For a Walk?

Having already encountered those who challenge my new interest and choice of career-path, not with outright contradictory comments but with dubious speculation of where, how, and in what frame of mind I’ve spent the past year of my life, I wrote this article out of amused frustration that we as a nation still seem embarrassed to entertain the idea that meditation and yoga can actually drastically improve lives.
Are drastically improving lives, present tense.
By clearing out the space previously reserved in our minds for anxiety and The Things We Don’t Tell Anyone and god forbid What Would Happen If The Neighbours Found Out, a kind of spaciousness and lightness becomes available to us. It’s this space and lightness that we as Irish people have been shunted from one claustrophobic classroom to another overcrowded and overpopulated living room for generations not knowing. It simply wasn’t there to be experienced. So naturally, we shy away from it – from anything unfamiliar. It has become part of society.

“That Bressie Fella Is Very Handsome, Anyway”

We’ve only just started to talk about mental health issues, and so it follows that solutions to these issues will presumably (hopefully) follow the naturally delayed and reluctant Irish inclination to face them. The enlightenment of a nation takes time.

Those of us who’ve given it a shot already will just be here meditating til it gets there.

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Indonesian Company….Ubud & The Yogabarn

Is that the hum of a juice blender I hear or the Om of the latest yoga class finishing up?

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Chances are strong it’s either one. As I sit here in the Yogabarn in the heart of Ubud, Bali, in the middle of monsoon season with the rain pelting down on the bamboo and banana leaf- awning overheard, I can’t help but wonder at myself and at how far I’ve actually come in the past few months. Not just physically and in the ‘other-side-of-the-world’ sense, but mentally, spiritually, metaphysically…I’ll stop before I get too airy fairy altogether.

Up until now my blog has served as a way of keeping track of my journey – my literal journey, starting in Cambodia and continuing on up through Vietnam, all the way back down again and through a painful yet fascinating 30-hour stopover in Singapore as I headed on towards Indonesia. I’ve documented various aspects of places I’ve travelled, aspects of travelling alone, travelling with a group, travelling as someone who never thought she’d be able to and praciticing yoga along the way, whilst also trying to be funny and lighthearted in whatever way I can to keep people at home engaged and informed, instead of merely using the blog as a platform to show-off pictures and stories of faraway lands and living through the medium of social-media ‘likes’.

Since arriving in Bali, however, I haven’t posted a single thing. Zilch. Zero. Less than that. I’ve yet to string a sentence together to sufficiently describe this place; the atmosphere; the people; the food; the attitude and general way of living; the sheer contentedness and ease and peace of mind I’ve felt….even this description falls short. I don’t even know where I’m going with any of this.

Do I have to be going anywhere? Bali has shown me that I don’t. Yoga in Bali has helped me call this into question, and realise that instead of constantly looking forward, aiming to get somewhere, do something, be something and somewhere other than what and where I am right now, I have every right and capability to occupy my current space, to be where and who I am in each moment and to stop wishing otherwise.

I’m here, I’m now, I’m content… that’s all I can be sure of.

After spending a week at Serenity Eco-Guesthouse and Yoga, I genuinely didn’t want or feel the need to leave Canggu and the surrounding areas in any way. The three main beaches and surfing spots I grew to love are easily accessible via various narrow, windy streets that are best navigated by motorbike, which are available to rent from reception at Serenity and also from a huge array of places along the mainstreets. I would happily have stayed there exploring as I did every day after my yoga class, swim, or surf lesson, settling in different chillout spots and cafés for the remaining two weeks of my travels, yet Ubud and the Yogabarn were calling, as so many of my recent new aquaintances and Google Search results had recommended.

Ubud is…the Templebar of Bali. Without the booze. The ‘creative’ and ‘artsy’ centre of the small island is renowned historically for it’s temples, arts and crafts and traditional fare, yet more recently for it’s yoga, holistic, and healing retreat centres, the more expensive of which embody everything you’d imagine from a soul-searching American tourist desperate to follow Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love. kind of spiritual path in a tendency to lean towards the excessively naff and moneymaking kind of superficiality.

That being said, the Yogabarn is actually the most incredible place I’ve ever stepped foot in. For any yoga practitioner (I still find it difficult to use the word ‘yogi’ without thinking of Star Wars), no visit to Bali would be complete without at least coming to see it. The grounds themselves are enormous, and have a commune-like atmosphere and positive, healthy vibe that is honestly as infectious as the chants and repetitive mantras I encountered in my first Kirtan Yoga session the other day (more on that experience later). This variety in itself is one reason to visit and stop in for at the very least a class or two, the going rate to stay here being slightly overpriced for anyone on a budget such as mine. Again however, I seem to have struck lucky in my choice of accomodation. Despite the lack of wifi in Detri Inn hostel, it’s cheap, cheerful, clean, and more importantly is situated literally twenty metres away from the entrance to the Yogabarn, a happy accident that I still refuse to believe happened by chance.

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The Yogabarn restaurant Garden Kafé is a must to try during any stay here too, every single option packed to the brim of the coconut-bowl servings with nutrients and health foods so fresh you nearly have to clean the organic compost from them yourself. Atman Café located a few minutes walk away too is also an extremely delicious and yet again healthy option, and has totally revolutionized the way I think about porridge for good – something I genuinely never thought could ever happen. I’ll be returning home with a wealth of knowledge on making healthy, raw and vegetarian dishes aswell as new ideas and motivation to make them.

I feel Serenity Guesthouse in Canggu was also a gold mine of a find accomodation-wise, as it included everything and more that the Yogabarn in Ubud has to offer, at a fraction of the price, whilst also providing a balanced choice of nightlife versus retreat and holistic medicinal pracitices, classes, and information all within walking and biking distance of a beautiful beach. Honestly, the only reason I left Canggu was to experience Ubud, and I’m already looking into ways to get back there…

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I leave Ubud in the morning to meet a family member down in Seminyak, and while I’ll be sad to leave the soothing and medatitive environment that is my current proximity to the Yogabarn, I’ll be sure to take with me the lessons and experiences I’ve had there and around the Monkey-laden streets and lively centre of Ubud. Until then….

Useful Links
Serenity Eco Guesthouse & Yoga
The Yogabarn Ubud
Yogabarn Garden Kafé
Atman Kafé Ubud Facebook