Friday 23rd October - Five Senses, Swifts and Swallows
Class Notes... When Things Are Shifting Again Stay Grounded... and a Little Bit More About Traction
For many of us things are feeling a little unsettled and unsteady again right now. Uncertainty is creeping in and the mind can present us with a never-ending commentary of what-ifs and if-onlys. Checking in with the present moment is a good way to feel more grounded - this is the practice of mindfulness.
In some of my classes last week we did the 5 Senses Meditation. This simple exercise is a great tool to have on standby if ever you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and you don't need to roll out your yoga mat to do it. Mindfulness moves your awareness away from the thoughts and feelings that might be causing you anxiety and helps you to focus on the present moment and what is right here, right now. There are lots of different ways to do this and I like to share a variety of them in my classes regularly so that they become familiar to people. Different ones are helpful for different people - those that do resonate have the possibility of becoming a default option to turn to when needed.
If you're reading this at home why not do this meditation right now, following these instructions and see if you find it helpful? If you're out and about though, there's another way to practice this safely - I'll share this method afterwards.
So, for the first one...
Take a seat either on a chair or on the floor and get comfortable.
Close your eyes once you've read the instructions or, if you'd prefer, lower them to rest on a spot on the floor in front of you.
Take a few long slow deep breaths....
Inhaling for a count of 1,2,3,4
We’ll begin with the sense of touch - ask yourself 'what can I feel?' Can you notice how you are supported by the floor or the chair beneath you? The feeling of your clothes against your skin? The texture of the fabric? Pause here for a minute or two - don't hurry.
Now move on to the sense of smell. Can you notice the scent of anything? Maybe the smell of washing powder on your clothes? Maybe some hand-cream you recently put on your hands? Or maybe there isn't anything - you might just notice the absence of smell.
Moving on to the sense of taste. Again, you might notice the absence rather than the presence but maybe you've recently cleaned your teeth or had a cup of tea. Just bring your awareness to the sense of taste even if there is nothing to observe.
Next we’ll bring our awareness to the sense of hearing. Can you hear anything inside the room where you are sitting? Maybe the hum of your computer? The gurgle of a radiator? The sound of your breath? And now what about in the rest of the house? Are there other people moving about? The sound of the TV or a radio? And then listen for sounds outside the room - can you hear traffic noise? Birds singing? A neighbour working in their garden? And can you become aware of the silent spaces between the sounds too? That's an interesting way to bring your focus to the sense of hearing.
Finally, we’ll tune in to the sense of sight. Gently open your eyes and let the light and the colours come back to you. Don't actively look for things, just see what you notice in your current range of vision. Notice the materials that things are made of - smooth shiny metal objects, textures and patterns of fabrics and variations in any grainy wooden objects. Pause for a while to look at the familiar things around you as if you've never seen them before.
You have now traveled through the fives senses in this meditative mindfulness practice, now let's finish with a few more rounds of deep breathing...
I hope you feel a little more connected to the present moment now. This is a good way to cut that constant stream of thoughts that can so often mess up our minds and steal our peace so practise it regularly so it becomes comfortingly familiar.
If you want to practice the second variation if you feel overwelmed or anxious while you're out and about you can do it like this:
First starting with the sense of sight, observe 5 things around you that are slightly unusual, things that you wouldn't see in your everyday life. For example someone nearby might be wearing a bright pink rucksack, you might notice a tree that has an interesting shape, or there might be some other obvious landmark that stands out. Then, notice 4 things that you can feel - the texture of an item of clothing you're wearing, an object in your pocket, the wind blowing your hair. Next, tune in to 3 sounds around you - there will usually be something that you can hear, but if not, notice the absence of sound. Then 2 things that you can smell - maybe something cooking nearby or maybe you notice something not so nice! And finally, 1 thing that you can taste - if you have a drink with you use that, or maybe you have a peppermint stashed in the depths of your bag that you could use? Or it might be that you notice the absence of taste.
Try it next time you're out somewhere - you'll be quietening your mind by moving your awareness away from your thoughts and out into the environment around you - the present moment. And how reassuring it is to know that you can, if only for a short while, be in control of that wonderful, imaginative, creative, but sometimes way-too-talkative mind you have. It gets easier the more you practise too.
A Little Bit More About Traction...
I've been adding some poses into my classes this half-term which include a little traction. Traction is defined as the application of a sustained pull on a limb or muscle and it's helpful in creating a sense of space in areas of the body that are feeling compressed. In my last post I shared a simple way to stretch your back and here I'll show you another one for your back and two for your shoulders.
For the back traction, lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels up close to your buttocks. Place your palms at the very tops of your thighs, right up close to the hip crease. Breathe in and draw your tummy in and then, as you breathe out, push firmly into the thighs with pressure in the heels of your hands, whilst pushing into the floor a little with your feet too. This will give you a sense of your abdominal area contracting and sucking in, and your low back lengthening. If you can't quite reach to be able to press strongly into the thighs (some bodies have longer torsos and shorter arms) make a fist out of your hands and push with your knuckles instead - it will give you some extra length and strength.
For your shoulders, stand in an open doorway and reach up to place your palms against the doorframe. If you can't reach you can carefully stand on some blocks or books. Breath in and then, as you breathe out, gently ease your bodyweight forward a fraction to increase the sensations in the front of the shoulders. Pause here for a while, breathing well, then release. Go gently and feel the range of movement in your shoulders increase gradually over time as you practise this regularly.
And finally, another one for the shoulders and the top of the chest - stand in the doorway again but this time take one arm out to the side, bend it and bring the forearm and palm to the wall. Lean very gently forward until you feel an appropriate stretch to your inner shoulder and upper chest - you want to feel sensation but not strain or pain. Stay and breathe here a while, then release and pause to notice any difference, before doing the other side. These two shoulder stretches are great postural corrections - especially useful if you sit at a desk using a computer all day.
This Week's Recipe... Indian Masala Carrots with Coconut Lentils
My husband Gideon loves a curry - and he likes them spicy! I prefer a more gentle flavour so this recipe from www.riverford.co.uk was just right for me - really tasty but fairly mild. I initially made it as a side dish but it was substantial enough to have as a main course if served with rice.
To serve two as a main dish you will need:
500g carrots, peeled and chopped into angled pieces
2 onions, cut into wedges
1 tbsp garam masala (I know it seems like a lot but it's what the recipe said and it worked fine!)
oil for frying and roasting
1 chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (I used a sparing sprinkle of dried chilli flakes)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tbsp curry leaves (I didn't have these the first time I made this, but I did buy them in Waitrose for the second time - I think they did make some difference to the flavour but it wasn't that noticeable)
2 tbsp medium curry powder
150g red lentils, rinsed well
400ml tin coconut milk
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 bunch coriander, leaves and stalks chopped
salt and pepper
4 flatbreads or roti
And here's how to make it...
Preheat oven to 220°C/Gas Mark 8.
Place the carrots and onions in a roasting tin, add the garam masala and 2 tablespoons of oil, season and stir well. Roast for 25 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times, until the carrots are tender and coloured at the edges.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan and add the halved chilli, garlic, mustard seeds and curry leaves. Fry gently for 1 minute until the mustard seeds start to pop. Tip in the curry powder, lentils, coconut milk, tomatoes and 150ml of water. Bring the lentils to the boil and simmer on a low heat (so they don't stick to the base of the pan) for about 25 minutes until the lentils have softened. (Add more water if they start drying out; you want a loose, porridge-like consistency.)
When the lentils have cooked, season them well to taste. Fold in half the chopped coriander.
Serve the lentils in a shallow bowl. Spoon the roasted carrots and onions on top and finish with the remaining coriander and the warm flatbreads.
The photo above is from Riverford's website. It makes it look lovely an appetising.
My photo below, on the other hand... not so much! But it was still delicious.
If you'd like to make your own flatbreads (Indian roti) they're really easy to make - courtesy of the Bosh boys, masters of vegan cooking, at www.bosh.tv:
You will need:
200g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
half a teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
vegetable oil for frying
And here's how to make them (this recipe makes 8 roti so you might want to halve it):
Put the flour, salt and oil into a large mixing bowl. Make a small well in the centre and pour in the water. Use your hands to mix the ingredients together and knead until it comes together in a smooth ball of dough. Cover the bowl and set aside to rest for 20 minutes.
Then take the dough out of the bowl and divide into 8 equal pieces. Dust a clean surface with flour and roll out each piece of dough into a neat, flat, thin circle. Put the frying pan over a high heat until very hot, pour 1 teaspoon of oil into the pan and swish it around to coat the base. Place a roti in the pan and cook until it starts to bubble, then flip it over and fry the other side for another minute. Transfer to a plate and repeat to cook all the roti. Note: be careful not to set your smoke alarm off like I did! Put the extractor fan on.
This Week's Mother Nature's Magic...
Two weeks ago, whilst out on a dog walk one morning in, I saw a group of swallows flying low over the fields around Norbury Park. Swooping and diving, they had clearly they had found a good patch of insects to feed on. I've always associated these little birds with lining up on the telegraph wires getting ready to leave the UK in August and September so I was surprised to see them this late in the year. I wondered if this was normal so I did a little research about them. A few pages of the RSPB website later, and I'm much better informed about these amazing birds.
I'm fairly sure that I saw were swallows - they were that dark, glossy, bluey black colour with a red throat and pale coloured underside and were most easily identified by their long forked tail feathers. I love their scientific name - swallows and martins are known as Hirondines. I learned that it's not unusual to see them in early October so I can stop worrying about them in that respect, but I shall now wonder about where they are and if they made it on their long journey to Africa which takes about six weeks. Apparently, swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations - the ones from the UK will travel about 200 miles a day down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, before crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest – finally reaching South Africa and Namibia. They rest up each night, gathering in large flocks and eat as they fly along. Many will die of starvation (especially as insect populations are in decline) but, if they survive, they can live for around 16 years.
I had thought swifts were part of the same family as swallows but I discovered that they are a completely different bird. Their scienfitic name is Apus apus (the swallow's full name is Hirondo rustica) and they are a dark sooty brown colour with a pale throat but they fly so high and so fast (they can reach speeds of around 69.3mph!) that you're unlikely to be able to notice that. They have short forked tails and their wings are shaped like a boomerang. They rarely land, eating, drinking, mating and sleeping on the wing, only landing to sit on the nest so it's never going to be them I occasionally see lined up on the telephone wires. Amazingly, this means that once it has fledged a young swift will fly non-stop for 2-3 years before landing to breed.
Then there's the martins - in the UK we have the house martins (glossy blue-black with a white underside and throat, a distinctive white rump and a short forked tail) and sand martins (smaller, brown in colour with pale undersides but with a darker chest stripe). These little birds will migrate to Africa too, often hanging around until October, and you are likely to see them flying acrobatically over water to catch insects.
I'm interested to find out more about these tiny but tough birds now and will look forward to their return to the UK in springtime - any time from early April to early May - so I can pay more attention to them. I marvel at their ability to navigate thousands of miles to migrate, returning to the same nesting sites each year without getting lost. I marvel at their speed and also their resilience, despite the difficulties they face. If you're interested too you can find out more about them on the RSPB website:
This Week's Musical Offering... Duvet by Niklas Paschburg
This featured in my Monday night Stretch & Relax live class playlist this week. Its slow, gentle melody perfectly suits a quiet seated or supine sequence, a Yin or Restorative Yoga pose or Savasana - or maybe you could pause now for just three and a half minutes to sit still and listen? Even the name of the track sounds relaxing doesn't it?
This Week's Video... 'All in the Mind'
'Do you see the beauty in life, or do you just exist? Be careful to just exist - that's dangerous'. - Elrieda Pillmann. This short film contains some wise words from a beautiful soul. (If you can't quite catch what she's saying sometimes, turn the subtitles on.)