I long ago gave up setting resolutions for a new year, but I do like to start it with some conscious intention. To help me do that I usually reflect on the year that has been but with this being the year of years (!) I wanted to keep it simple. So I went with five lists of 5 things! They are:
5 things that I am grateful for in 2020
5 things that probably wouldn’t have happened this year without the pandemic
5 things that I was sad about in 2020
5 things that gave me joy in 2020
5 words (my intentions) for 2021
If you like to reflect back too then they might help as a guide.
Here are my lists
5 things that I am grateful for in 2020
1. Best friends: For keeping each other jovial, holding each other’s tears, kicking up the proverbial every so often and knowing just what to say when.
2. Technology: I can be guilty of slamming technology, but where on earth would we have been this year without it!
3. Nature: For having fields and trees and countryside on my doorstep and for teaching me the cyclical nature of everything
4. Books: I eventually picked up on the unread books on the shelves and then some. I can’t imagine a evening without reading now
5. Sleep: When lockdown came, I started to sleep through the night for the first time in years. I think I finally gave up trying to control everything that I couldn’t!
5 things that probably wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic
1. Writing: I had a strong sense in March that I needed to write weekly to my email list to send out positive vibes. The writing evolved, I started a daily writing habit, I joined a writing group. I now call myself a writer and am working on ‘stuff’
2. Homeworking: I’ve been wanting to work form home for 2-3 years now and while I dipped my toe in the water, I hadn’t really fully committed to it. Well now I am!
3. Online Classes: Both teaching and participating! I’d never have thought of teaching online, but it now makes so much sense and is now part of my long term business model. Online classes have also allowed me to ‘go’ to classes and trainings from other teachers all over the world.
4. Walks with my husband: a need to just get it of the house has left us with a regular walk habit where we catch up with each other and take in the joys of the countryside around us. I cherish these walks
5. Appreciation of what’s actually important: Honestly, I reckon without this year I probably wouldn’t have appreciated what and who keeps the country going, how important community is, how little words make a big difference and how the busy-ness of life can get in the way of seeing the real stuff of life
5 things that I was sad about in 2020:
1. My brother and sister-in-law split up after 30 years together. I didn’t see it coming and I cried for days.
2. One of my best friends experienced an acute and serious deterioration in her mental health. She’s still not well but she is now getting support she needs
3. Clashes in values around how we all interpreted limitations and some of the divisiveness that came from that
4. Foodbanks, poverty, businesses going under, businesses hanging on for dear life
5. Not being able to hug
5 things that gave me joy in 2020:
1. Dancing - in the kitchen, in the supermarket, anywhere really!
2. Box sets in the evening - in particular ‘Schitts Creek’.
3. Being outdoors - every single damn day
4. Walks with friends
5. Growing my hair long again and faffing about with updos, plaits and accessories
5 words that I’m taking into 2021:
The issue of 'form' has come up several times this last week or so when working with clients. And it’s been mulling about as a concept for me as I’ve been doing my own practice.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase ‘I want to know I’m doing it right’ over the years. And certainly way back in the beginning of my time as a movement practitioner I also wanted to make sure my clients were doing it right. I looked at their shape, their position, their symmetry and what I believed to be the best form in the movements we were practicing. My head hurt. I was analysing, thinking and focused on what wasn’t right, so I could help them to ‘get it right’. And I was constantly disillusioned with my own lack of ‘good form’ no matter how hard I tried.
I'm not exactly sure when it was, other than a good few years ago now, but I realised I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. I wasn’t seeing all the GOOD movement that was going on. And I wasn’t building the support that I was giving clients around that - as I could have been! I threw the rule book out, and instead kept concepts, connections, guidelines about what ‘good’ movement is.
I’m not going to lie - that wasn’t an easy direction take. I questioned so much of my training. I drifted massively from my association of being a pilates practitioner (and I’m not sure I’ve ever integrated it back in). But the more I studied psychotherapeutic and other somatic practices the less I could believe in there ever being a ‘correct’ form.
We are all as unique in our anatomy and movement patterns, as snowflakes are from each other. We are each formed by our DNA, our early physical and emotional development, our experiences, our beliefs, our personality, our environment, our interactions.
How can there EVER be ONE right posture, version of a pose or movement??
And yet, somewhere and at sometime ‘they’ decided there was. (I have no idea who ‘they’ are either!!)
So we learn to lack trust in our own ability to FEEL form. We get caught in the visual of what it might look like & seek confirmation we got it right - even if it means overcompensation, lack of easy breath, increased tension and it feels painful!
Yet, we ultimately know better than anyone when form feels right - in the same way that we know when a jacket doesn’t fit (or maybe it does but we know it’s ‘just not me’).
I get that if you’ve never known how to feel the best form for you then how can you know? And I guess that’s where I come in... i’m not here to contort you into a version of yourself that you can’t do life as! I’m here to help you do YOU! To feel how YOU stand, sit, bend, walk, run, jump, do cartwheels (if you wish).
And we both know it when it’s ‘right’ for you! I see it, yes, but not as a text book symmetrical posture or movement. I see it as an ease in how you breath, or hold yourself. I see it in the brightness of your skin and the lightness in your energy. I also in my own way FEEL when your form is right for you. I’ve learnt to trust that as being gut feel and intuition.
Someone this week called it ‘magic’, someone else called it ‘weird shit - good weird shit’. To me it’s the thing that happens when we stop trying to conform and fit into shapes that suppress who we are. And instead explore who we are and our own unique form.
I miss hugs. My arms ache for them. I miss giving them and I miss receiving them. My heart feels a little bit less full, a little bit sadder, for not giving out the hugs that I now realise 8 months ago I was offering out several times a day.
While I know I’m missing the sharing of the feel good hormone ‘oxytocin’ that we get from hugs, it feels more. I miss showing my love. I try to smile more from my eyes, I animate my face differently and I’m conscious that I’m now verbalising my hug to friends by telling them how happy I am to see them. These all feel really positive new strategies and yet, my arms feel the undispersed energy of ungiven hugs.
Our arms could be said to be our first source of expression. In utero, our arms developed before our legs. And they originate from our heart, which was beating and developing before our brain was even on the horizon. Watching the video below of embryo development, it looks to me like the arms express out from the heart and around the body in a big hug. A huge big hug from the heart saying ‘here I am’!
It makes sense to me now how much our arms are an expression of our heart.
Notice when someone talks passionately how much they use their arms to add more vigour and depth to their subject. The expression of grief as arms wring or lift upwards or hug around ourself to somehow hold the loss. And the opening of the arms in a hug to express our love in a way that words cannot.
In so many ways this year we have lost that expression of our arms, whether we are conscious of it or not. We spend even more time on technology working away with great finger dexterity, but keeping our arms quite close in to our body and expressing through our gadgets rather than with our body. And of course, we’re socially distancing, less able to hug, or offer out a gesturing touch or hold to show that we care. We can’t dance together with arms above our heads or around our space connecting with others through our dance.
I wasn’t always a hugger. I’d class myself as ‘arm-shy’ for many many years. It felt too vulnerable, too exposing. I see now I was protecting my heart. Through my training as a movement therapist I began slowly, first some gentle pushing and pulling and then a little swing here and there, and finally I found fully expressive hugs that I could sink into and fully hold. And now I really miss that.
So imagine my joy yesterday when my fellow therapist, Michelle, and I were both seeing clients in TRC Edinburgh at the same time and she had an idea! It was the first time we’d seen each other in person since February and the unhugged hug was palpable. So, she asked me to take 2 big cushions from the couch, as she did the same. She gave her two cushions a huge big bear hug. She gestured for me to do the same. “Caroline, I’m so so happy to see you. It’s so good to hug you” she said as drew the cushion to her heart. “Oh Michelle, what a beautiful hug. I am so very happy to see you too” I said. We hugged our cushions and we felt the connection. I know I breathed a little bit fuller and my arms ached a little bit less for the instinctive interaction. Michelle, you are a genius!
So in this time when just maybe our heart needs our arms more than usual, what can we do to give it a bit of a lift:
1. Grab your cushions and hug them as you tell your friend how much you care - just like Michelle and I did.
2. Open your arms wide and air hug with the fullest expression your arms can offer
3. Place both hands on your heart and feel all the love from your heart flood into your arms and come back round to yourself. The circle of giving and receiving.
4. Stretch out in your space – reach out and lengthen your arms as much as you can, raise them above your head and let your heart breath fully.
5. Dance with the music on fully, Shake your arms, move them in all directions and let your heart express itself.
We will hug again. I look forward to when we do.
As I write this, I can feel a sense of anticipation and nervousness going around about what changes might be ahead and a dog-tired feeling of how long all this might last. I’m feeling it too. I’m down in Dumfries & Galloway this weekend on the mountain biking trails and found myself smiling to myself as I realised the metaphor they presented to me as I rode them!
The routes we’ve been on have been particularly rocky, gnarly ones and it struck me as I navigated my way through them, just how much it felt like navigating through the ongoing uncertainty and rockiness of the pandemic!
Mountain biking asks you to keep going, even when you don’t know what’s ahead, even if you’re not sure how you’ll tackle the tough bits and even when you get tired.
You can’t look just at what’s right in front of you or you’d never go anywhere. You’d avoid the obstacles, detour them around and convince yourself it’s too difficult. You’d see all the divets & tufts as individual obstacles & the route would feel impossible.
Trails need to be tackled by looking a bit further forward at what’s ahead, finding the line through it that smooths out the rough and then committing to that line. The more you do this the more you trust your judgement - or you learn from it. You learn to have faith in your ability to ride what’s ahead, even if you’ve never ridden the path before. You learn to gauge your pace, knowing that too fast & bullish means less control and too slow & cautious means too much control. You learn to roll with the rockiness and to bounce back & adjust when the rocks try to throw you in a different direction. You keep looking forward to where you’re going, and deal with the bumps & shoogles on the way, knowing they’ll come, but not letting them stop you from going on.
The trails you’ve never ridden before naturally hold more uncertainty. You’re nervous, but you give yourself the grace of having a go and doing your best. You adjust - maybe a little different in pace for now, maybe the easiest line you can find this time, maybe today you do walk down that particularly gnarly section that you can’t find any other line in. But you get on your bike, you ride regardless of not knowing what’s ahead.
Some times you DO take a thump, you might have a fall, or you might indeed get the collywobbles. But you get back on, you carry on, & you feel a certain pride in yourself for not letting it beat you. And at the end of each ride you revel in your sense of achievement, your new found resilience and the little bit more courage and faith in your ability that you’ve nurtured.
I know this weekend many of us are wondering what changes are ahead, and how long this ride will last. You might not be a mountain biker, but you can see what I’m saying, eh? And you now we’ve got this too, don’t you? We get back on it, we work our way through it. We ride together.
3 years ago, a great teacher* of mine taught me a phrase that I really love, and now often use in my own classes. She said:
“We know what the weather outside is. But how is the weather inside for you?”
The first time I heard it, I was able to tune in instantly, curiously and with no sense of judgement as to how I was feeling at that point in time. It is that latter point that was a completely new revelation for me. Tuning into my body had become second nature to me by then, and I'd become so much better at being able to identify how I was feeling on an emotional level as well as physical. Yet I struggled to not feel a need to do something in response to identifying my emotional state. I would judge how I was feeling to be positive or negative, and would either begin a process of trying to hold onto that feeling, or running away from it. Rather than acknowledging 'how' I was, I'd make a judgement about 'who' I was based on that emotion and change my behaviour accordingly.
Let me say this clearly: No emotion is a bad emotion.
We need to be able to tap into different emotions to give us our whole range of being human and to give perspective to each individual emotion. We need sadness, joy, guilt, anger, grief, embarrassment and the whole gamut of emotions. They are a fundamental part of what makes us human, and they teach us how to relate to and connect with others. Way back, before we had language, these emotions WERE the language we used in our social cultures and tribes. They were also our internal signals as to what we contributed to, needed from, and how well we were functioning in our tribe.
Now, I think I logically knew this a few years back. I'd probably seen the Disney animation 'Inside Out' by then (watch it and get your kids to watch it - it perfectly encapsulates our internal emotional system). So I kind of got it. But I certainly didn't really believe it within myself. It took an analogy for me to see my emotions more objectively and as a result to, ironically, feel them more clearly.
Considering my emotions and moods as internal weather allowed me to accept their presence and that they would pass. I saw the 'feel goods' like sunny days and rainy days (I absolute love the rain!!!) filled with energy, creativity and joy. I saw the 'feel mehs' as foggy or dull days where energy was lower or flatter yet things still happened just in a different way or at a different pace. And sometimes it was just a storm that would be messy, but it would pass. I realised that I accept all atmospherical weathers unquestionably and accommodate them accordingly, yet I hadn't been doing this with my own weather. I became kinder to myself as a result of accepting my emotions, and my emotions become more regulated and less extreme (at some point I'll wrote a blog about emotional regulation - a fascinating subject - but it's not for today!).
By accepting how I am, and FINALLY with no judgement, I now make better choices for myself with regards to how to best meet my needs. Sometimes the changes are subtle. A bit like knowing I'd best take a warmer jacket when it's cold, I might choose not to go to places that will make me feel worse or potentially dull my sparkle. Sometimes the changes I need to make are more substantial. I might need to have a difficult conversation or, yup, give myself a kick up the backside. Usually the big changes come when I realise certain emotions aren't passing as naturally as they might otherwise, and I realise I'm stuck.
As Brits we’re socially conditioned to talk about the weather pretty much most days. But I wonder how often, in general as a nation, we take time to observe our own internal weather. I suspect not enough. Maybe our starting point is to clock when we mention the weather of the day, and to have a wee internal check inside to our own feelings too.
As Billy Connolly once said "There's no such thing as bad weather - only the wrong clothes". Indeed there’s no such thing as bad clothes, just inappropriate or misinformed self care.
* thank you to Clare Gates-Sjoblom, known affectionately by us teachers as 'yin yoda', for this phrase and for your teachings. That simple turn of phrase hit me deep and changed much. <3 <3
Over these last few months, we’ve found ways to stay in touch and socially interact because our need to connect with others is a fundamental instinctual drive within us. This powerful need is hard wired into our system and we seek connection to experience feelings of safety, love, care and of being seen, valued and accepted.
Trying To Change Ourselves To Feel Connected
A lack of self-acceptance can lead to us trying to change how we are in order to feel connected and seen. We seek validation from others that we are accepted, to feel that we belong, and we may do that by trying to emulate what we believe others admire or value in a person. For those with a negative body image, this can manifest in trying to look a certain way, or cover up what they don’t like about how they look. I wrote previously about what makes up our personal sense of body image, which you can read here.
Throughout history, cultures have revered different body shapes and sizes; from the Egyptians to the Rennaisance period, to the 1920s and through to the current day. In the last century in particular, this has changed rapidly, each decade bringing it’s own apparently ‘ideal shape’ around which fashion is formed. The increased speed of these shifts coincides with rapidly expanding marketing, consumerism and selling. Advertising feeds on our insecurities and the promise that if we could somehow look like a certain way, then we would feel better about ourselves.
“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
In this age of social media, multi-channel television, 24-hour news and incessant advertising we are now constantly exposed to these messages. Even with healthy levels of self-esteem, it can feel overwhelming, impossible even, to know how to navigate through these continual messages about how we are apparently supposed to look.
Why You Might Be Feeling Worse About Your Body Image
Life during the pandemic has brought new challenges to this conundrum.
Our increased lack of real contact has made us even more vulnerable to the messages around us. We may have used social media and television more to keep us feeling connected with others. Yet, it can also create increased anxiety and stress about how we might have been spending our time during the lockdown. Feeds and news stories have been filled with conversations around daily exercise, who’s eating what to keep healthy, and how we could be using ‘this opportunity to improve ourselves’.
It can lead to pressure to keep up with what we think everyone else is doing and a belief that just coping with getting through a pandemic is somehow not enough. Those who already had negative feelings about their body may find that these feelings are accentuated, and many who aren’t used to feeling insecure about how they look may be finding fault with their body or scrutinising their changing shape.
If any of this resonates with you then you may find these tips helpful:
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Feeling beautiful has nothing to do with what you look like” - Emily Watson
Lockdown living for some has brought a liberating change of choosing comfort clothes over formal wear, relaxing hair and makeup routines or experimenting with different looks, colours and styles as going to the hairdresser was put on hold.
For others, it has raised concern about their weight or body shape and how it might have been affected by changes in their usual patterns and behaviours of exercise & eating. And as we now transition our way into more social interactions again, many are worried about how others might judge them because of how their body looks.
If you are feeling this way, then please know that you are not alone. It is important to understand that these feelings are not actually about how you look. Rather they relate to your perception, thoughts and feelings about how you look – your body image.
4 Aspects of Body Image
There are 4 aspects to body image. Knowing these can help us understand our own sense of body image:
Changing Your Perspective
Things that may be helpful to improve your body image are;
I'm asked reasonably often what it is that drew me to yin yoga, and why I teach it. People are sometimes surprised that I teach such a still, quiet practice, when, well frankly, I'm active and chatty and seemingly quite the opposite. Yup, yang comes fairly easy and naturally to me, yin not so much.....
My first experience of 'general' yoga had an incredibly profound effect on me, leaving me feeling like I'd been smacked across the cheeks with the change I felt in myself. I was so disconnected from my body, from myself, and yoga gave me the connection that I'd never experienced before. I left not knowing what had happened to me - I couldn't articulate then that I'd connected, felt and inhabited my body - I just knew that it felt good and that somehow I felt better about everything in general. I didn't know then that I had found a way to feel better about, and within, MYSELF, but in reality that was what was happening.
I grabbed yoga by the horns and went regularly to classes. I relished the routine that came with ashtanga yoga, the flow that came with vinyasa and I found teachers that I liked and I could feel at ease with. I relished in the new-found strength I was feeling in my body and I decided I was going to 'nail' yoga - from forward bend to arm balances and back down again. (hmmm, and just maybe my tight hips might eventually loosen up a little bit too)
My first experience of a yin yoga class was not the life altering event that my first yoga class had been. Quite the opposite, infact. I went along because I'd heard it was good for active people like me, a good compliment to my sport, and that it worked with the connective tissue. Connective tissue meant nothing to me then, but I thought it had to be a good thing to be working with it?
The reality of my first yin class was that I left 90 minutes later wondering what that was all about! I wasn't entirely sure what we'd done other than spend time with my head which I wasn't at the time so convinced was a good thing. Someone at the end of the class asked me how I'd found it. I'm not sure how I responded, maybe I just smiled, or maybe I said I found it good - I know it wasn't a question I actually wanted to answer.
But yet, the next day I felt surprisingly good. Like, REALLY good. My run felt bouncier and things felt different. I felt a bit more steady on my feet, and seemed to have less tension.
Now, I'd love to say that I was sold, embraced yin and never looked back. But that wouldn't be the truth. Yin crept up on me, found it's way within me and finally I came to love yin, and the yin within me.
It was a long time before I went back to a yin class. But I discovered that the bits that I enjoyed most about yoga classes, and the bits that I felt most benefit from, were the slower sections, the longer held poses, the breath work and the stillness. My overworked and punished body was allowed to slow down and be cared for. The volume of my harsh inner critic reduced and I could hear kindness inside my head. As my practice of yoga slowed down, I found my way back gradually to yin yoga. It was about 3 years before I went back to my next yin class!
This time, I could cope with being still with myself. I could be with my head, and my thoughts, while feeling the sensations in my body. I relished in the permission that I had been given to stop. I loved the concept of meeting my edge. Bizarrely it fitted so much with what sport meant to me. In my triathlon racing I loved the place where I sat on an edge - never so uncomfortable that I needed to stop, but never so comfortable that I didn't have to focus on keeping myself moving. It was a place of flow for me. In yin the edge was different. Where could I be in the pose to maintain stillness, yet still feel sensations of stretch? How could I be with myself, accepting all of my being, without the negative thoughts creeping in, or judging that I had to change myself to be better in some way.
Learning to accept of myself and find peace with who I am has come though my practice of yin yoga. I learned to meet my yin side - my femininity, my creativity, my introvert, my soft side. I stopped trying to push away the times when I just wanted to stop and reflect or rest. These parts of me were of course the compliment to my yanginess: the athlete, the chatterer, the girl that relishes a challenge and is none too uncomfortable with the odd bit of time with an audience. And I'm happier and more grounded doing these yang things now that | bring my yin-side with me. I found my balance and I know when they get a bit out of whack either way.
I resisted teaching yin (infact yoga of any kind) for so many years because it was my thing that I kept for me. The yoga teaching crept up on my much like the yin did. Eventually I did my training because it 'just made sense to'. I have times when I do the odd bit of yangy teaching, but for me yin is where my teaching's at just now. I hope what I bring to my teaching is a space that lets go of outcomes and judgement and instead fosters acceptance and presence. I hope that I bring an appreciation of each person's experience in each class, whatever that may be. I hope that in some way I can help busy minds find a little bit of calm. My ultimate hope is that I can help others to meet their whole self, in stillness and peace, and that they learn, and love, who that person is just a little bit more.
For many of us, staying at home means we have more time available and more space in our day. Perhaps this offers an opportunity for us to do some of the things that we have been wanting, meaning, to do for some time. Perhaps instead this new found space and time offers up less of the distractions that we unconsciously create to shut out our inner critic, and we find we're unable to get away from the one person we don't want to be stuck with - ourself.
Too much time to think, too many changes to negotiate our way around and less interaction with others can be breeding grounds for our inner critic. We find ourselves self soothing in various forms - food, drink, binge watching - or creating new distractions to keep us away from ourself - cleaning what's already clean once more, visiting the supermarket 'just because', or online shopping for things we 'need'.
Now, this comes with no judgement from me - I get it! I seem to have cultivated a new passion for duvet covers and pillow cases that I didn't know I had!
But I do also know what it feels like to be full of dislike for yourself and to sit with yourself when you'd rather run the other way. It takes courage. It IS challenging to self soothe in kind ways and to show ourself love and attention when we'd rather point out all our flaws and make a list of how and when to eradicate them. And it does take strength to notice who we ARE and accept all parts of Ourself. I also know that ultimately until we learn to do that then we will continue on the same old, same old cycle.
Now, let's be realistic, we don't make one big leap from disliking ourself to being filled with self love. That's a hell of a big ask I reckon.
So, we start small! I've recorded and attached this short activity that you can try. Just maybe it can help you can discover that actually some part of you is ok and worthy of some kindness. You may find that it feels nice to do this activity and you feel good for taking the time to look after you. Maybe it's the start of getting to know your body, building a relationship beyond the distractions and disconnection. Maybe you do it once and never again! But maybe it's the first step in making friends with yourself and being ok in your own skin.
You will need some hand cream, or lotion that you can rub into your skin. If you don't have anything like that at the moment then you could also use a couple of drops of olive oil or cooking oil.
Life, as we know it at the moment, has limitations. The space that we each inhabit with our daily patterns and behaviours has decreased to a smaller range as we stay at home and reduce our interactions. We interact with screens and we spend most of our time in our living space. We cope with these limitations in our individual ways and we seek, and find, a new normality.
So too do we respond to these limitations by moving differently. As we go about our daily lives we express, respond and react with movement. We gesture, we habitually move from one place to the other, we move according to our emotions and to our interactions with others and the world around us. We move unconsciously in different ways and in different directions every single day of our life. So as we stay at home, living differently, our patterns of movement are changed, the variety of our movements are reduced, and, without being aware of it, we reduce the full expression of our self. Couple this with challenging feelings we may be experiencing as a result of lockdown, and we can find ourselves becoming stuck in uncomfortable patterns. How we feel affects how we move, and how we move affect how we feel.
What this means however, is that we can use movement to unstick our patterns and change how we feel. By consciously expanding our movement we can expand our expression again. By moving in different directions - bending / stretching, squatting/ reaching / rotating - we can bring back some of our 3D self again. We open into the space we are in, rather than locking into it. .
By moving through a few really simple movements we can shake off the physical feeling of lockdown that might be adding to already challenged emotions.
The attached video takes you through a short movement practice. It's 5 minutes long and opens and moves the body in 3 dimensions. You don't need any special clothes or kit, just you, your body, yourself.
I am Caroline Toshack. Movement is my passion, my mirror, my creative source and outlet. I am a therapist, coach, educator, geek, yogi, mover and creative who loves getting muddy on her bike, running in the hills and having pyjama days.