Monday, 18 July 2016

My Mindful Pregnancy

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child I was overjoyed! I knew being pregnant would be a massive change in my life, a whole bunch of new questions were whirling in my mind, would I be a good enough parent? What would the birth be like? Will I manage the sleepless nights? How will I feel not having the same amount of freedom to do what I want?

I’ve been a mindfulness teacher for a couple of years now. It is my absolute passion and it never fails to amaze me how much I continue to learn from the practice. As all these questions were spinning through my mind I thought what better time to really deepen my mindfulness practice then bringing a new being into the world!
As the early weeks of my pregnancy passed I began to see that I was really holding on. I became aware that I had this constant background fear: what if something goes wrong…what if I lose the baby….I began to notice I was wishing days away just trying to get through the next hurdles until the 12 week scan, a sigh of relief, 16 week appointment first time you hear baby heart beat…all ok another sigh of relief..and then back to wishing the days away to the 20 week scan… 

One afternoon I was meditating and thought: hang on a minute! Can you see what’s happening here Carla-Jo?! Instead of being with each experience of pregnancy in a kind and non judgemental way, I found myself getting caught up in thoughts of anxiety and fear. It’s obviously natural to have these feelings during such a life changing time but it can be so easy to run away with them so they become unhelpful and end up causing you to feel stressed. 

The wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that it allows you to begin to see things clearly, you begin to see destructive thought patterns in your mind. I realised that all this holding on was creating tension in my body.  It meant I wasn’t enjoying my pregnancy and by trying to wish the days away, constant date watching was making it feel like a drag! I took a deep breath and realised that I had to let go, to let be… and in that moment I felt my shoulders soften.  I breathed a sigh of relief..I could be in the present with things as they are and that is enough. 

I began to really bring awareness to destructive thought processes, noticing each thought as it arose, “this is fear, this is anxiety” and then meeting each thought with a sense of non-judgment and kindness, and gently letting them go one by one over and over again. As the weeks passed I became much better at letting things be. It’s important in mindfulness practice that we never push anything away, always acknowledge things as they arise, seeing them non-judgmentally and bringing a sense of kindness to ourselves throughout the process. 

The thing is I have absolutely no control over what my body is doing with this pregnancy, so by learning to let go and let be I can just lean into and relax in the not knowing, and this, I felt, was the key to being mindful in pregnancy: we just don't know, and that it's ok to 'not know'. I often see the quote on social media ‘Relax nothing is in control’ and it always makes me chuckle! This is by no means an easy thing to do! But daily mindfulness practice truly helps.

In life we have no idea really what’s going to happen from day to day. Mindfulness practice gives us a choice, it enables us to be in the moment fully, with practice (usually a lot of practice!) we can rest in the beautiful space of awareness that we all have as human beings, and that space includes not knowing. Mindfulness practice gives us more resilience, we become more able to cope with the ups and downs of life.  

Since seeing more clearly what was going on for me, my pregnancy has been much more enjoyable! More and more I’m able to be with each day and moment of this utterly incredible process. Holding it all in a loving awareness, all its joy’s and aches and pains, its uncertainties, its frustrations, its anxieties. Holding on and wishing time away is so exhausting, learning to let be enables you to move through life with more of a feeling of contentment. For me having my mindfulness practice has been invaluable throughout this incredible process of being pregnant! 

My Mindful Path Through Dyslexia

Before I started to practice mindfulness I had a sort of faint awareness of how I didn’t feel a particularly confident person and I had the worst inner critic and that I never felt good enough! But the more I practiced the more I became aware of this and I realised how harsh I was on myself and I began to think where did this come from… I feel it came from being dyslexic and struggling throughout my entire education. I didn’t find out I was dyslexic until I was at university when I was 22, I was really struggling in the second year I just couldn’t keep up anymore so I went to student services for help. 

Up until that point I had worked myself into the ground to try and keep up with my classmates but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I think that’s why it never got spotted at school because I worked soooo hard to try and keep up. I was actually in the top set for English!!! But I always got awful results in tests and exams but my English teacher felt I had something , so she kept me in that set! This constantly working hard pushing myself was utterly exhausting, I was burning out. After hours of hard work I would just get poor or just average results, other class mates wouldn’t spend half the amount of time on things as me and would get much better results. That stuck, everyone was better than me. The more this happened throughout my schooling the more I felt I wasn’t good enough, I could never keep up. 

College classes and seminars at university were awful. We’d have to read a paragraph and then talk about it with the group, I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t retain the information and then make sense out of it, to be able to talk about it that quickly, this left me feeling ashamed and I would just sink to the back of the class in silence. So as a result of not knowing I had dyslexia and then not having the right support my self confidence was rock bottom, my inner critic was on over drive and talking in front of groups was an absolute no no!!! My mindfulness practice has completely turned all this around for me! 

Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating moment-by-moment awareness with kindness and without judgment.  This practice has allowed me to reconnect to my self kindness, to be able to step back and look at those thoughts of not being good enough and realise that they are just constructs of my mind, to be able to be aware of situations that I might find a bit difficult and do things to help myself. To connect to a space of deep peace within and this space is something that we all have. 

Mindfulness really has changed my life! Now I’m a mindfulness teacher so I have to stand in front of others and teach, I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing that a couple of years ago!!! In fact when I was teaching recently I had to write words from the group on the board and I couldn’t spell them! But it didn’t matter!! I explained I was dyslexic and actually it made the group feel closer, more connected as they all helped me to spell! I give my self-time now, I recognise the learned drive in me and slow down, so I don’t exhaust myself anymore. 

There is a lot of educational support out there for people with dyslexia but often the emotional effects are completely forgotten about and these can last a lifetime. It doesn’t have to be that way though! For me mindfulness has turned my life around, I am happy to be dyslexic, I am happy to be me. 

The Beautiful Breath

When was the last time you actually took notice of your breath? When was the last time you felt the rhythmic motion of your lungs drawing in the cool air through your nostrils?

I know I never paid much attention to my breathing, when I was living at home and going through a stressful time, Mum (who is a yoga teacher) would often gently say Carla-Jo you’re hardly breathing!! This would just irritate me and I’d probably just hold my breath even more!!! I was totally disconnected from my breath. When I was feeling particularly anxious I would unconsciously hold my breath, my chest would feel tight like I couldn’t breath, it was really scary. This way of breathing became a pattern even when I wasn’t feeling worried or panicked.
When we feel stressed, anxious or depressed we often hold our breath or breathe very shallowly. This affects our overall sense of well-being and can create layers of tension in the body. In mindfulness connection with the breath is integral. We build up a relationship with the breath, begin to notice the rhythms it creates in our body, we are curious about all aspects of it.

I invite you now to just take a minute to explore your breath, see if you can bring all of your awareness to the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of the body. See what you notice about your breath? Remember to be non-judgmental and kind to yourself, see if you can note just the sensations without allowing any stories surrounding them to arise.

You may find you tend to breathe more from the upper chest area, we often find we breathe from here when we are feeling stressed. The best form of breathing for our well-being is diaphragmatic breathing. So instead of breathing from the upper chest we breathe from the area below our ribcage. This movement is caused by our diaphragm muscle below the lungs. When the diaphragm flattens on the in breath it causes our belly to swell out wards moving the internal organs, giving them a lovely massage and fresh supply of oxygen and blood. The spine is also gently rocked.

By breathing in this way we can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system the part of the nervous system which is associated with relaxation, and calmness. When we focus on the sensation of breathing it can help to break the ruminating cycle of unhelpful thoughts, our awareness becomes anchored in the body.  This process helps us to become more aware of the present moment. You can only ever be with the sensations of your breath in the here and now. When we are with the rising and falling of the breath, resistance to or tightening around stress or pain begins to soften our experience of anxiety will reduce.

So see if you can take just a few minutes a day being with your breath. First just becoming aware of your whole body, it’s sensations, any thoughts you may be having and then focus your attention more on the breathe. If you get distracted by thoughts, just gently noticed that and bring your attention back to the breath. Then after a minute or so expand your awareness back out to your whole body again being with what you find in a non-judgmental and kind way. Then see how you feel. By practicing this everyday even at times when you’re not stressed you can begin to develop an inner calm so that when you do get stressed or feel anxious you can use this powerful tool with more effect.

This form of breathing transformed my experience of anxiety and I now see my breath as a close friend who is always to help bring me into the present moment and is a huge support in times of need. It’s incredible how something so simple as paying attention to the breath can be so deeply powerful!