It is winter here in Australia and where I live, just over the Great Dividing Range in Victoria, it is freaking cold compared to Melbourne, and like a different planet compared to the intense heat of late summer. We get down to 0 degrees or a few below Celsius at night and a couple of weeks ago we even got snow… I missed it, it was at 4am.
I’m not sure if it is the cold, the dark, the change in diet that winter brings (more on that in the next post), the lack of sleep from my partner’s outrageous snoring or just general winter malaise settling in, but my daily mindfulness meditation has recently become a whole lot harder.
I practice two kinds of meditation practice daily ( and occasionally, most likely on the esteemed ladies holiday or moon days I may do some lovely sanskrit chanting )
First up I do an energetic/chakra/visualisation based yoga meditation technique for a while ( as I was taught by Gregor Maehle – see his awesome book here ) – to make the most of the energies generated from my asana and pranayama practice. It is upward moving from lower to higher chakras and, though increasingly complex and taking a lot of focus and effort, I love it. I see it as brain training.
Then I do mindfulness meditation for longer- as long as I have time for- as mindfulness meditation gives me that beautiful buzzy feeling that just makes my day. It’s mindfulness meditation that I believe can truly change someone for the better in time, as with this technique you deal with the detritus and trauma of the unconscious. Stuff comes up.
Asana alone is never going to do that for you. Never.
In the warmer months I tend to rise much, much earlier, do the kriyas, pranayama and meditations, then the asana to keep the body clear, light and healthy. Or if I’m not sleeping too well and need extra sleep, I do the first three, then go inside for some kid wrangling. Once they are safely at school I head back into my little yoga-studio-at-home for asana practice.
But in winter I often get straight into kriyas and asana to keep me motivated and warm as my heaters crank up. It sure is easier to hold lotus position after an hour or two of warming asana!
However at the moment, not long after I get settled into my seated meditation pose with my favourite cushion just right, and my leg blankie and favourite felted cotton shawl I got in Laos, my mind just baulks and off it wanders into the ether. I either sit there drifting off into inane thoughts, fitfully remembering to attend to the breath, or I just nod off like a junkie 😉
It has been driving me mad, which of course doesn’t help a bit.
I get a bit attached to the good times when meditation practice flows. Don’t we all. When it feels like it is being done TO you, rather than you trying to do IT.
But I don’t often get to that place in winter and for a long time I have been wondering why.
But it seems, for now at least, I have found, perhaps not the answer, but an alternative solution.
Standing meditation is my new beloved… my sanity saver. I’ve been teaching it in mindfulness classes lately and most people just love it too…. ( although there are always a few people who don’t, maybe 20%, so if this is not for you don’t stress, just go back to sitting and be happy.)
Buddhist texts say walking meditation is the hardest, one of the more advanced forms of mindfulness meditation- try it, you’ll agree.
Lying down meditation is also in the bit harder basket- although delicious to practice- it is mostly challenging to do properly as we tend to drift off into la-la land when lying on our backs. It takes considerable effort to attend to sensation in savasana.
Standing meditation is seen as a moderate practice- not too hard, not too easy. Less concentration is required than for sitting, but more physical effort.
It is great for when you are sleepy ( tamasic energy dominates- see post on gunas ), for when you have sore hips, knees, back or bum or are unable to sit for whatever reason. It is also recommended to practice in between seated sessions if you are doing some kind of marathon meditation deliciousness.
I like standing meditation as it makes me feel alive, vital and awake- an energetic calm. I feel grounded and planted on the earth, and when I finish up I feel super connected to the world around me.
This meditation practice can be done indoors or outdoors, in a place where you will not be or feel disturbed. Shoes off on bare earth is ideal, however in warm socks or comfortable shoes is great too. Hell, do it in your ugg boots, it’s all good.
These are the basic guidelines:
1: Stand with your feet hip distance apart and your knees slightly bent- do not lock (hyperextend) the knee. Check over each shoulder to ascertain if your feet really are shoulder width apart. Turn the toes in very, very minimally. Just a tad, a wafer even….
Let your arms fall to your sides with palms facing up and out, hands naturally cupped.
Pull your chin in a little so your ears are over your shoulders- jutting your chin out aggressively won’t help any kind of meditation or indeed do much good for anyone or anything.
2: To begin with, don’t be closing your eyes on the job! Take a few long and deep diaphragmatic breaths, more if you feel tension in your body. Breathe into the navel and feel the connection of the breath to that area, expanding up into your chest and ribs in all directions, not forgetting the collarbones.
3: If you have just done asana including savasana, you can go straight into step 4. Otherwise spend a few minutes doing a simple standing full body scan, part by part, from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head with your eyes closed or the gaze softened.
4: If you haven’t already closed your eyes, do so now, or soften your gaze if closing them makes you feel too unbalanced or vulnerable. Bring your attention to your feet. Feel the soles of the feet on the floor or within your shoes. Notice everything about the soles of your feet. The parts of the feet that touch the floor, the pressure there, where there is firm pressure, where it is lighter. The arches of the feet. The individual toes on the floor. Spend some time looking closely at pressure, it’s differences and similarities. Do not attempt to visualise the soles of the feet. Though a mental image may arise, do not dwell on or try to cultivate the image as this is in the realm of imagination/visualisation- i.e. a different form of meditation.
Here we are attending to sensation, only.
If you are a visual artist of some kind ( pick me, pick me Fat Cat! ) a visual learner or a visually dominated person, this might be damn hard. Stick with it, just keep going back to the sensation again and again and gradually the internal imagery will back off and lose it’s agency…. hopefully.
Now begin to notice the temperature of the sole of the foot where it touches the ground, sock or shoe. Notice the differences in temperature in detail. Bring to your focus a sense of devoted attention, a curiosity, even a delight in the tiny details of sensation as you become aware of them.
Repeat with the sensation of texture as you scan your awareness over the soles of the feet, the fabric of your socks or the grass or sand beneath your feet. Do this with the same exquisite attention to detail as any other sensation.
Notice the movement within the sensations. Is there a feeling of flux and change, or a quiet solid stasis? Notice and accept these phenomena.
Notice and accept any sensations of discomfort or pain, and even perhaps comfort.
You may find an incessant, internal dialogue rambling along… ‘oh here is a hot spot, hot spot, I can attend to that for a bit, ooh, mind is wandering, ah here it is, pull it back in, hot spot, hot spot, yes, must stay on this hot spot what’s for breakfast, hot spot, oh that reminds me of….’ etc etc.
This is not ideal… although entirely normal. If your mind is the kind that wants to chatter to you ‘in words’ choose instead to do some simple labelling. e.g.- ‘Sole of foot, heat, heat, heat, cold, warm’ etc, etc.
The mind will and does wander. That is the nature of mind. No need to beat yourself up about it. Practice makes perfect and here you are practicing… well done! This is you time for you alone ( and by extension the entire universe benefits, ideally! ) To bring judgement into the practice is just not fair on yourself. You are just so damn lucky to have the time, space, presence of mind and life conditions to be able to give meditation a go, right?
Remember- as Jon Kabat- Zinn … says
‘Mindfulness meditation means paying attention, in a particular way. On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’
Spread your awareness to include the whole of the feet, outer edge, heel, inner edge, top of the feet, all sensations of the feet, the ankles, the shins, the calves, the knee cap, behind the knee, all of the lower legs including the feet, the front of the thighs, outer edge of the thighs, back of the thigh, inner thighs, groins, hip creases, buttocks, sit bones… all of the legs and feet. All of the legs and feet. Stay there a while.
Move your attention back down into the feet OR pay attention to the breath as it manifests at the navel or throat or nostrils or the whole cycle of the breath. OR indeed, as invariably happens in my practice, pay attention to the cycle of breath while being aware of the entire body sensations, how it feels standing, any and all sensations and the involuntary movements and automatic balance finding.
Choose one of these places in which to enquire- and if changing at all, change only once in the standing practice, as shifting from one to the other over and over is just another way for the mind to distract you with its tricky tricks.
Whenever the monkey mind wanders, gently and with kindness bring it back to the sensation at hand. Every time, over and over. And over. If you get lost and wonder where you were, go back to the grounded sensation of the feet and stay there a while until you reestablish yourself.
Ten to fifteen minutes is a great place to start, longer if you already have a solid sitting practice evolving. Five minutes is better than nothing. Depending on what you have been doing that day or if you stand on your feet a lot on an average day, you may be surprised at how tiring it isn’t!
Next post I will detail some of the things I have found out while trying to research why winter makes my- and others- yoga and meditation practice so much harder.