How many times do we put off our happiness? How many times do we look back to happier times in our lives which are draped in nostalgia? We look forward to the weekend, to the next lunch date, the next holiday. We project our hopes and dreams on to some elusive future where everything will be perfect or we look back to our childhood, our wedding day, a time where we realised in hindsight, we once were happy. It may be that we try to find happiness in escapism through buying new clothes, going out for wonderful meals, enjoying a good bottle of wine and watching the latest movies. There is nothing wrong with these pursuits but are they really the most effective tools for lasting happiness? If we look deeper, it may be that we each need to carve out a life which we no longer feel we need to escape from.
Happiness is like a balloon drifting just in front or just behind us and we keep trying to grasp hold of the ribbon and bring it closer. We chase the balloon but are also mindful that is delicate and could pop at any time, our dreams of happiness vanishing into thin air. What if that balloon was held in our grasp all along, we just had not realised it?
The eight limbs of Yoga as described by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras provide a pathway towards peace and happiness. The second limb Niyamas consider how we deal with ourselves in the world around us. One of the Niyamas, Santosha or contentment teaches us that beneath the fluctuations of our everyday lives there exists an endless well of peace and harmony, we just need to know how to tap into it. Even more encouraging is that this contentment can be found amidst the challenges of our everyday lives, here in the now of this very moment!
This is liberating because it means the search is over! What we seek through external means lays within. Happiness is our natural state of being and the tools of Yoga can help us to uncover it.
We can stretch and feel better with each breath in our practice on the mat. We can let go of grasping for things and feel the contentment that comes from feeling we have enough. We can focus on the horizon as we walk and take in scent and sound in a moving meditation, the birdsong a gentle symphony to our connection with nature.
The eight limbs provide us with an arsenal of tools which allow the radiance of our lives to overflow from our hearts and give us the inner resolve to meet adversity with equanimity knowing that joy and pain are a part of life and that our natural state of happiness is not dependent on the shifting tide of emotions and experiences which make up our lives. It runs deeper. We run deeper.
We can choose to be happy now, amidst the bills, care of family and loved ones, whilst weeding the garden, whilst working through a ‘To-Do’ list, because this is the life lived now. Our birth right is happiness, comprised of moving moments of wonder if we take the leap inside and tap into our true nature.
By Emma Conally-Barklem
First published in Om Yoga & Lifestyle magazine August 2021
Bereavement is a messy business. It chews us up, hollows us out and folds us in two. For me, the death of my mum and best friend continues to be the most painful experience of my life. Without the anchor of my Yoga practice, I’m not sure where I would be. Amidst great pain there exists great hope but this is not always apparent when you are in the throes of hurt, absence and regret.
The most prevalent narrative around grief in western society is that of the stages of grief. Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced her five stage grief model in her book On Death and Dying (1969). Her work was based on the study of terminally patients and their emotional response at the prospect of their own mortality. She identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages have come in for much criticism in recent years because of the false perception of their linear nature and chronology of the grieving process which many see as reductive. Kübler-Ross has stated since that these stages are non-linear and that people may not experience some if any of them. Still, however, this idea of grief which is able to be packaged neatly up into boxes is an enticing and persistent one.
The stages are familiar and I’m sure most people have experienced each emotion or process in relation to their grieving process at some point, they do not however allow for the immensity of emotional feeling which marks the grief experience which lays outside of language, an inarticulate knot of sorrow which evades any claim to rationality. It is here that yoga and grief intersect.
Yoga, like grief is non-linear and stands apart from the cage of language. If yoga students are asked how they feel after a yoga class they may say ‘calm’, ‘relaxed’, ‘chilled out’ but the stillness which emanates from them and the centred, mindful way they move belies a deeper feeling. Grievers similarly may say they feel ‘sad’, ‘angry’ but scratch the surface of these somewhat anodyne descriptions and a furled heart of pain which shifts shape and cannot be boxed into stages is evident.
Yoga is a holistic 8 limb path into self-realisation and healing. Rather than pushing emotions such as anger, frustration and sadness away, we learn to sit with the feeling, allow and observe without running away. Yoga practice is a natural fit with the grieving process as it is always a moving away from self-judgment and shame towards self-acceptance. Grieving in a grief-illiterate society is isolating and lonely. Unhelpful platitudes to ‘stay strong’, ‘move on’, ‘time heals’ can make the griever feel as though they are failing, that there is a time limit to grief when in fact the grief becomes a part of that person. Tears and emotional outbursts are seen as a sign of weakness when in fact such emotions are healthy indicators of the love the person had for the deceased and the necessary pain that loss means to the griever. The process is non-linear and best taken day by day. Like yoga, the present moment is all there is and we can live that moment fully without expectation and judgement. We feel the samsaric cycle of birth and death in the birth of the inhale and the death of the exhale. Each breath a metonym for our brief precious time here on this plane of existence. We practice ancient ways to breathe which honour our hearts and cultivate peace whilst seeking out the resistance and aches in our bodies by either shaking them up or letting them rest and be. We practice ‘Wood chopper’ breath to release anger and anguish, feel the comfort of belly breathing to dispel anxiety and tension, we sit and follow the repetition of our thoughts and guide the mind gently back to the breath.
We read the poetic truth of The Upanishads which describe death and the circle of life. We study The Yoga Sutras which describe tersely our suffering caused by our fear of death and the loss of others. In this we feel ourselves to be part of a continuum in the ocean of humanity, our DNA and genes invisible traces of the lost loved one threading through our everyday existence. Some days we question, bargain, rage, despair, other days we laugh, relax, or our mind is just there. We learn to take these shifting sands of emotion in equal measure, a place beyond recrimination.
Here, we enter a vast space of all that is and all that is felt. We move beyond the efficacy and limitations of language to a place of pure awareness where the very fabric of existence compels us to feel the truth that all that was will always be.
Grief is the flipside to love, and the love which connects all sentient beings, is yoga.
Author: Emma Conally-Barklem
Previous Publications: A Little Insight (online magazine)
The fear response, anxiety, and sheer panic has been triggered in many of us right now due to the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, this is going to be a trying time for children, adolescents, and teenagers alike, as they try to decipher what is happening in the world right now and how this impacts us.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukriane, the word war most likely not commonly heard by (younger) children and for the older ones, it may have been in a different sense such as playing video games or playing in the playground. I have outlined some ideas of how to approach the sensitive subject with children.
Check how you are feeling first
Before starting the conversation with your children be mindful of your feelings of the war, children will take emotional cues from adults, you will be your children’s safe places, which means your child will need you to have your emotions under control so you can help them to process theirs. You don’t need to know the answers, just provide the space for them to talk about their worries. Talking about a problem together can help to navigate their feelings so they can better understand what is happening. Whilst discussing the war and any worries be careful not to over share your fears with your child. Be ever mindful of your emotions and your body language. Remain calm and focused.
While adults try to understand the overwhelming news, children will be hearing reports of what is occurring and feel confused and frightened. It’s happened in my house; the news was on constantly and naturally I wanted to protect my daughter and so I would turn it off. If it was my decision, it wouldn’t have been on whilst she was up. But I realised she will need to have the space to talk about it or for me to explain a little of what is going on. She is 6 and hasn’t covered wars and aside from playground games and nerf battles she may find it all confusing. I found it confusing and overwhelming, what could I do?
It’s only natural to want to protect children from frightening things, but as parents and caregivers we need to be able to talk about war and the unpleasantness that we know is in the world with them. For example, when I gave my daughter the space to ask questions, I was surprised that she expected to see tanks coming down our street, to bundle all her worldly possessions in a carrier bag; as she has seen on the news and she didn’t know what to take. From this interaction, I realise now I maybe should have been more prepared- what did she need to know? What do I need to explain to her? What are the facts? But also gave me insight that she was after comfort and reassurance- she wanted to know are we safe? And she wanted the facts, I didn’t need to go into great detail. It is from this interaction that gave me the awareness and understanding of what children may need from parents at this time. Children will always look to their parents/ caregivers for the sense of safety and security, and even more so in times of crisis.
I showed her on the map where Russia is and where Ukraine is and how far away, we are and how we are protected by the sea. Explaining that the war is far away and we are safe, we don’t need to prepare for anything- we can continue as normal.
Be open, give them the space to explore how they feel
It is important to find out what they know and how it is making them feel, don’t discuss it before bed time but find a time when you can bring it up naturally, allow the time, try not to rush the conversation. Maybe at tea time when your child is more likely to feel comfortable. It is better to have the conversation and find out that they don’t know what is happening or maybe aren’t bothered by what is happening rather than having a child who is silently worrying about the war. Children might find it helpful to draw, or make a story of how they are feeling. If your child does ask at bedtime, try to answer their concerns but aim to finish with something positive such reading a loved story or singing favourite songs to help them to sleep well. When possible, create positive distractions; playing games or doing outdoor activities.
Remember you won’t be able to answer every question- that is ok. You may need to find the answer or con find the answers together- if your child is older.
Control the news
It maybe worth checking how your child can access news, as a society we are always connected to the internet, our phones notify us of world events constantly, it could be the same for your child. Be mindful of how exposed your child is to the news while there are upsetting images and worrying reports. It is important to check their devices and monitor what they see and hear- checking their devices is also a good way to reassure your child and ensure they are receiving accurate information. They may be talking about it at school, in the playground or hear us discussing it, they will need a chance to understand it as we do. It maybe you decide not to have the news on around young children. With older children you may use it as an opportunity to discuss what news sources they trust. Help to separate between the facts, rumours, possibilities and of course fake news.
Reassure, reassure, reassure
Younger children may see and hear upsetting reports from the war but not be able to distinguish between what they see on the screen and their own reality- they may think the war is here and believe themselves to be in danger. For older children, they may be monitoring the news and fear how events can escalate and what it means for them.
As often as you can offer reassurance that they are safe and free from danger.
It’s important for our children to know they can approach us to talk to, even if their question catches you by surprise- you will know what is troubling your child. It is important not to dismiss their concerns. Always acknowledge your child’s concerns and feelings, tell them what they feel is a natural response. They will need reassurance, but also it is important to find out what they have heard and what is causing the worry. The key is trying to understand it from their point of view and this change in viewpoint, you are more likely to provide comfort, understanding and reassurance. Show your child you are listening- give them your full attention and let them know they can talk to you whenever they need to.
Keep it age appropriate
It is important to keep it age appropriate; all children have a right to know what is happening in the world but our role as parents and caregivers is to do this in safe environment so that they don’t become more distressed. Therefore, it is important to watch their reactions and consider their level of fear.
Careful not to discriminate
As we explain the war we need to be careful if what words we use, so that we aren’t causing prejudice or discrimination towards people or countries. Avoid using words such as evil and bad people. Try to focus on compassion and empathy for the families that have been forced to flee their homes. Children will copy what we say, we want to reduce discrimination and bullying. Even though the war is in a distant country, it can still generate discriminate behaviour and language; check your child isn’t experiencing or contributing to bullying, encourage them to tell you or an adult they trust if they have been called names or bullied at school- everyone deserves to feel safe in school and in society. Encourage kindness and support of each other.
Look for the helpers
Remind your child there are people working to help solve the conflict- some you will see; some you won’t be able to see and these people are working very hard to stop the conflict. It maybe helpful to focus on the helpers. It is important with this level of violence children know there are people helping other people, there are others that are showing compassion, kindness, courage, gentleness. Look at the people queuing to give blood, look at the emergency services, look at the people calling for peace. Look for the positive stories. It maybe your child wants to raise money or take part in some positive action for people on Ukraine. Often the sense of doing something, no matter how small can provide great comfort.
Regular check ins
When you’re coming to the end of the discussion, try to assess their level of worry- check their body language, their breathing, ensure they aren’t in distress. Remind them that you’re there to listen and support them with their worries and that you care. As the conflict continues, ensure you check in with your child to see how they are feeling, if they have any new questions or anything they want to discuss with you. Monitor their behaviour- anxious worries could been shown as physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches or changes to sleeping routines. As the war continues, younger children may show different reactions and the signs of distress may not be as obvious as older children. Signs to look out for in younger children are increased clinginess, older children may display intense grief or anger. All which are normal if they last a short time, if it is for a prolonged period of time, your child may require specialised support.
To help reduce stress in your children, it could be beneficial to do some belly breathing exercises together:
Place your hands on your tummy, take 5 deep breaths, 5 seconds breathing in and 7 seconds breathing out; in through your nose and out through your mouth.
When inhaling explain you are softly bowing your tummy up like a balloon and exhaling, the air is slowly leaving the balloon.
The global pandemic has changed life as we know it and how we conduct our everyday lives. As such it has had profound effects on peoples’ quality of life and mental health.
Our lives can be divided into the time before Covid-19 and the time after Covid-19. The time before seems like a technicolour dream of freedom and possibility. An existence where we would hug, share food, sing in crowds and come together in ways which now would seem careless at best, dangerous at worst.
L.P Hartley’s classic novel. ‘The Go-Between’ begins with the infamous line, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’(Hartley, 1953, p.5 ) The seeming distance of the recent past stands in stark reality to the new present which is framed in a new lexicon of shielding, aerosol transmission, home schooling, self- isolation, support bubbles, R numbers and social distancing. Our minds and our bodies are having to adapt to this new reality day by day as we collectively grieve for the past and yearn for a brighter future. So, how can Yoga help with this process?
Yoga is a philosophy for life with an 8 limb road map which details how we relate to the world around us and how we relate to ourselves. As the world and our choices have narrowed, Yoga points to the strength (sthiram) and comfort (sukham) which can come from our inner resources if we only know where to look.
The one thing we can all relate to and a point for connection is the breath, we all breath. As we manage working from home, trying to supervise home schooling or running the gauntlet of supermarket shopping, how often are we aware of how we are breathing? We know when we feel anxious or worried or excited our breath becomes shallow. We know if we feel miserable or lacking in motivation or relaxed we sigh and take longer exhales.
The 4th limb of Yoga is breath control or pranayama. A simple resource we all have is our breath. We can’t control the pandemic, other people or the weather but we can control how we react and one way of gaining a mindful awareness of our reactions is by harnessing the healing power of the breath. Simply by observing the breath coming in and the breath moving out we can begin to feel the quality of our breath and our thoughts. This concentration is the 6th limb of yoga (dharana) and is a precursor to the 7th limb of meditation (dhyana).
When we focus on our breath and our shifting thoughts we can begin to see patterns emerge. With self-knowledge comes agency, an ability to change the quality of breath to bring more ease to the mind. Yoga has a range of pranayama practices which can be helpful but the starting off point is the simple awareness of breath coming in, breath coming out. When breath awareness is coupled with movement, the 3rd limb of asana or posture, to release tension and stress then a body-mind-breath connection is established in a state of Yoga. Life is often overwhelming but the simple process of settling into the felt sensations of the body and linking this to the breath is a way to process the past, meet the challenges of the present and to make peace with the uncertainty of the future.
Author: Emma Conally-Barklem, EmmaLiveYogaDecember 2020, All rights reserved.
The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley, 1953, Penguin Classics, London