Category Archives: meditation

Yoga and mindfulness at Woodbrooke

One of the highlights of my summer is teaching at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.  This year the course is slightly earlier, running Wednesday, 15 August 2018 – Friday, 17 August 2018.  Our title this time is “Sense and Perception: Bringing Together Yoga, Mindfulness & Photography.”

The yoga sessions will be gentle and suitable for beginners, with an emphasis on mindful practice rather than physical ability. Mats and blankets will be provided, but you will need to bring a digital camera you are comfortable using – your phone camera will be perfect.

The course costs £170.00 non-residential or £245.00 residential and places can be booked online with Woodbrooke by following this link.

I hope to see you in August!

A workshop at Woodbrooke

Towards the end of August I taught on a 3 day workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak.  Our topic this year was “Looking, seeing; Doing, being.”  The intention was to explore how the different ways in which we approach life and the world around us can have a significant impact on our experience.

After several weeks of mixed weather, we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine.   This made our enjoyment of Woodbrooke’s beautiful gardens even more delightful.  We spent our time on a mixture of yoga, meditation and photography.  We explored the gardens, walked the labyrinth and enjoyed plentiful and scrumptious food.

We will be there again next August, with a similar course entitled ‘Sense and Perception’.  Details will be on my workshops page nearer the time, and places can be booked directly with Woodbrooke from April 2018.


In the pink

For a few weeks in April and May, the cherry trees in Bournville explode into a spectacular mass of pink blossom.  Although short-lived, it is a sight worth seeing and if you feel so inclined, photographing!  Each year, I imagine I amuse more than a few passers-by as I wander around the trees along the verge with my camera.  Each tree is a positive smorgasbord of opportunity. It is hard to know where to start.

Of course, when I get closer, the individual clumps of blossom resolve into flowers and then there is the question of finding an appealing composition.  What jumps out at me?  Although from a distance they may seem still, the individual branches of blossom are invariably bouncing around merrily in the slightest of breeze, causing a certain amount of frustration as I attempt to find an appealing arrangement of my favourite blossoms that doesn’t include a school, houses or road signs.

Of course, it takes just a short spell of the stormy weather so prevalent at this time of year to cover the ground in a confetti of pink petals in a strident reminder of transience at its best.

Sudden attraction

I went this week to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, for a meeting to plan the workshop I will be co-delivering this August.  We had a very productive day, and as usual a lovely lunch in Woodbrooke’s canteen.  I always find myself drawn to bowls of fruit, not necessarily to eat, but because of the beauty of their contents.  There were several bowls there yesterday and one contained the prettiest blush pears.  I had to have one!

I love the subtle shades of warm yellow, slightly lime green and that pinky-red flush that is neither pink nor red, yet both at once.  The shape is also extremely pleasing, and somehow nature has deemed to make them the perfect shape and size to sit snugly in my hand.

We have a great couple of days planned for the course, only a few weeks away now.  We will be immersing ourselves in personal reflection and mindfulness, in the fantastic setting of Woodbrooke’s house and gardens.  There are still places available so if you would like to join us why not give Woodbrooke a ring or check out the details on their website?

Mindful Photography Meditation

Last weekend I spent a day teaching a workshop at Selly Manor, in Bournville, Birmingham.  Our topic was ‘Creative Mindfulness: Meditation and Photography.  I planned the day to offer a balance between formal seated meditation practices and opportunities to practice photography as a contemplative experience in the beautiful house and gardens of the venue.

We started close to home, meditating on the body and on the breath.  The body is the means by which we experience each day that life gives us, but how much attention do we pay to it?  We explored the subtle changes in the body as it breathes and we considered our sense of vision in more detail via mediating on an object.  Later in the day we contemplated the actual process of receiving an image into the camera.  We considered how the camera is open to receiving any image and the process is completed without judging or labelling the scene as it is recorded.

A large part of the afternoon was spent on individual practice, seeking to create images that would remind us of the qualities we hoped to enhance through bringing meditation into our lives.  Participants explored ways to represent love and harmony in their images.  The weather brought challenges with a mixture of sunshine and showers, but somehow this made the gardens even prettier as the raindrops glistened in the sunshine that followed.

If the opportunity to take time out of your busy schedule in this way appeals to you, I am offering this workshop again at the Midlands Arts Centre in Edgbaston on 9th August.  Alternatively, if you would really like to treat yourself, I will be teaching a longer workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in late August.  Details of both these workshops are here.

Switching off the autopilot

How would you like more hours in the day?  We spend so much of our modern high-speed lives in a haze of multi-tasking we may actually be missing out on a substantial part of it.  According to Maria Konnikova, author of ‘Mastermind: how to think like Sherlock Holmes’,  “When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.”  She goes onto suggest that “meditation-like thought, for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive.”

Of course, the brain coordinates a huge amount of activity for you without your intervention.  Just imagine if you had remember to take each breath, or blink your eyelids regularly; there would never be time for anything else, as our whole existence would revolve around managing our physical body.  Sometimes, however, it seems that we allow our inner autopilot to take on more than it might and the end result is that we get to the end of our walk, morning or day and find we have little recollection of what we actually saw during that time.  The time has gone but we have not experienced it.

If you have ever looked through your photographs and thought “I don’t remember that!” you may well have been on mental autopilot, indulging in a form of ‘photographic multi-tasking’, happily snapping away at all and sundry without paying a great deal of attention to the subject of your photograph.  Personally, I think that digital cameras encourage this approach.  According to figures published in 2013, Mary Meeker estimates that over 500 million images are uploaded daily to Internet sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and Snapchat.  That’s pretty mind boggling!  I remember in the days of film, I would take two 36 exposure rolls with me on a fortnight’s holiday.  That would give me 5 or 6 frames a day, and as a result, I would consider the content of each frame very carefully indeed!  The photographic multi-tasking autopilot was most definitely NOT engaged!

Even if you are using a digital camera, it can be an interesting exercise to limit the number of pictures you make in a day or weekend.  It really encourages you to look very carefully at each scene and explore its full potential with your eyes before you press the shutter.  Engaging more deeply with the experience brings the meditative qualities of photography to the fore, and we can feel the benefits in our images and in ourselves as a result.

Finding balance

Hatha yoga is all about finding balance.  The word yoga means union or oneness and the word hatha refers to a bringing together of opposites.  Even the word itself is made up of balancing opposites, as ‘ha’ is the sun and ‘tha’ is the moon.  When we feel that we are in balance our lives are more harmonious.  We use the right amount of effort to achieve what is needed but no more.

Balance is also considered to be an important element in visual design.  When we are able to balance the elements within the images it creates a more harmonious feeling in the viewer.  We are born to like symmetry and this is not surprising as so much around us is symmetrical from one side to the other.  Think of your face in a mirror, a leaf, a tree. We can also see balance in asymmetry, if the relative impact of the different objects is more or less the same.  Or perhaps we see balance in the symmetry radiating out from a central point, like ripples in a pond after you toss a pebble into the water.

So just as hatha yoga is intended to bring all parts of our being together in a balanced way, we can also look for balance in the elements within the scene when we explore photography as a meditation.  When you are attracted to photograph a scene when you are out for a walk, consider whether it was the inherent harmony and balance that appealed to you. Sit with the view for a while and consider the concept of balance.  Think of how the whole world is in balance, everyone and everything breathing in and out in a constant exchange that results in a harmonious equilibrium.  A little give and a little take, all part of a greater whole.

Photography and mindfulness

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” – Dorothea Lange

Mindfulness is essentially giving our whole attention to a particular subject or activity.  It does not involve trying to get anywhere or achieving anything specific, more it is about allowing yourself to be wherever you already are.  Yes, you might do this sitting on your mat in meditation on your breath, but there are many more hours in the day that you can spend mindfully by bringing this awareness to everyday activities.  In this wider sense, you are inviting yourself to look very carefully at your surroundings and the objects there, to see what might normally be overlooked and to observe at a deeper, more fundamental level.  We can be mindful in any of our waking moments, transforming them into a time for ‘being’ rather than merely ‘doing’.

In a yoga class we often practise mindfulness by watching our breath or exploring the sensations of the body as it moves.  Just as with sensations that come and go, whatever you see in any one moment may not there seconds later.  Perhaps someone has walked by, a breeze has moved the flowers or the light has changed.  Each moment is unique, subtly different in some way.  Watching these moments with a camera in hand helps me to pay attention, letting me see things I might not have noticed if I had not been out with photography in mind.

Yes, you could just go out and snap a few pictures of whatever catches your eye, but there is another way.  Spend time looking carefully and be with your subject.  Consider what has attracted your attention, the flash of perception that made you stop and look more carefully.  Observe the play of light and shadows, consider its history and future, its place in the world.  Be with your subject in the making of the image and transform the physical activity into a meditation that connects you to the wider world.

Eureka! The creative potential of taking time out

When I started this blog I was worried about how I would get ideas of things to write about.  Once I became open to ideas about what I might write about, little things began to strike me over the subsequent days and weeks.  Little thoughts, that popped up unannounced, which I would have otherwise pondered briefly before letting them go.  Having a mind like a sieve, that would normally be the end of it, but I started writing them down.  Before long I had generated quite a list! I have been reading recently about ways of getting ideas and the consensus seems to be that the more ideas you have the more you get.  That’s certainly true in my case.  One little idea, however good or bad, prompts me to consider another, related idea and before I know it I have developed quite a list.

It’s also true that these surface at the strangest of times.  I often have ideas whilst in the shower, waiting for the kettle to boil or walking the dogs.  Apparently this is not uncommon; our minds are frequently busy, gathering information, storing all manner of snippets that are added into the melting pot and then, when you least expect it, and indeed often have stopped trying to think about it, they coalesce in the strangest of ways to resurface as a new idea.  This seems most likely to happen when you least expect it, when you are relaxing or taking time out, or maybe engaging in a repetitive or routine activity that doesn’t require a great deal of thought.  When we are working hard the mind sometimes seems to be blinkered, following the planned path and ignoring distractions in order to achieve our goals.  I have spent years like this, in high-pressured jobs where it seemed there was no time to think.  I felt completely stifled, as when I did have free time my mind was exhausted, certainly in no state to be creative.  Taking some time out allows the mind to be more expansive, to mull over those snippets subconsciously, and to reconfigure them into something interesting.  You might be meditating, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn and, Bingo! a great new idea pops up as if from nowhere.  So the moral of my creative story is to take time each day to be in the moment, to unwind and let the mind feel spacious.  You might practise a formal meditation, be mindful of an everyday activity or just sit quietly and listen to the birds singing at dusk.  Create the conditions for being creative and be open to whatever comes.