Journaling my way to happiness

Truthfully, I have never been very good about journaling. I always start strong, write for a few consecutive days, and trail off within a week. For me, a journal has always served as a sort of sounding board or outlet to vent about my day or how I was feeling about a current problem, but there had never really been a true intention for my entries. However, that has changed over the last few years.

During the fall of my junior year of college, I helped lead a youth group retreat for first-year students at SMC. During some of our down time between talks and activities, it was common to spend it journaling about the weekend. However, I was a bit stuck. I wasn’t really focused on the retreat I was leading but instead, worrying about things back at school or at home. That whole semester, I had been finding it more and more difficult to remain present in the moment, and too caught up worrying and upset about other aspects of my life. It was very draining. This looming black cloud was following me into my classes, my yoga time, even my precious free time. Stuck, I went to the adult group leader for some guidance.

Anna, our assistant campus ministry director and head of all the campus ministry programming, was the group leader for this retreat. If you don’t know Anna personally, I can tell you she is empathetic and kind, sort of a mother figure for students in this home away from home. When I explained my situation to her, I received some truly wonderful advice. She had said that she had gone through something similar when she was in college and was advised to begin a gratitude journal. In it she would write everything that she was grateful for that day. That way, she was able to look beyond the troubles of the day and see just how many wonderful blessings that she did have. I was intrigued by this sort of intentional journaling and decided to give it a try.

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I decided to give myself parameters for this gratitude journal so that I didn’t get off track like I had been known to do before. First, I bought a new leather bound book for the sole purpose of my gratitude journal and planned to write in it every night before I went to bed. This would serve as a cleansing tool = the blessings and positive aspects of my day would be fresh in my mind before bed as opposed to the things weighing on me that I might otherwise mull over all night. Second, the goal, per Anna’s advice, was to write down a list of everything that I was grateful for that day. She had said that every day might not be wonderful all the way through, but there are always at least five things that we can be grateful for. Then, to build off of this, I gave it one final parameter. I started writing a second list, at least three things that I was praying for that day. These would be my intentions.

I have to say, I absolutely loved the idea of this gratitude journal when Anna first told me about it and I love it even more so now. I am able to end my day on a positive note and feel less weighed down by things that are stressful during the day. I am able to be more present. I also have been finding myself more in touch with my goals since I have been writing them down as intentions. I feel that writing them down gives me accountability so it motivates me to actively work on them, and ultimately be successful in my endeavors. It has also encouraged me to change my perspective and shift my focus away from just thinking about myself. In writing the things that I’m praying for that day, I’m now also thinking of who else might need a prayer and some support in their own endeavors. I love ending my day this way.

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Gratitude journaling has become an important aspect of my before-bed routine and leaves me with a clear, happy, and open mind. What are some of the intentional journals that you keep?

-elise

What I’d like to call the cat/cows of yoga

If you’re wondering, the cat/cows that I’m referring to are the ups and downs. Yoga is a joyous, restorative, and devotional practice for me but that doesn’t mean that sometimes it doesn’t leave me drained and questioning.

First off, I love the physical practice of yoga. I started with my mom doing children’s yoga when I was around six and reconnected with the practice in high school. It was a Vinyasa Flow class mainly geared towards the elderly. Slow, grounded, gentle. I absolutely loved it. The teacher eased us into practice, her voice soothing and her flow compassionate. At the time I was highly involved in my competitive dance team and it was such a relief to go to yoga to gently stretch and strengthen my body after a strenuous week of pushing my body to greater and greater heights. Monday nights with the lights off, the room just barely illuminated by the candles up front…those were the nights I felt restored.

Fast forward to college. My very first class, my First-Year seminar, was centered around Yoga and Yogic Philosophy. In that class we studied the history and cultural relevance of yoga, read the Yoga Sutras of Patangali, a bit of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads and practiced Yoga on Friday afternoons. This class taught me so much about the eight limbs of Yoga, asana being only the third of eight. We studied the devotional and metaphysical aspects of yoga and I began to understand it as so much more than just a physical practice.

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With that in mind, I was expecting to love the practice on Friday afternoons where we were training ourselves to experience yoga in a new light, with the teachings we’d learned throughout the week. I did not. This practice introduced me to blocks and blankets, bolsters and belts. Our poses felt less restorative, more like a wringing out, the same that one does to a dripping towel. Instead of inspiring a light from within, this seemed more like expunging the bad. It was a deep-seeded uncomfortableness, not so much in the poses but in my experience. The teacher, the same that guided us through such heavy texts with ease and nurturing, felt colder and more stringent, a stark contrast to the warm, grandmotherly teacher I was used to before. Even the light of the room on that afternoon felt wrong. I much preferred the serenity of the dark.

I began to question my thoughts about yoga. The physical practice itself wasn’t very hard so why did this yoga feel so wrong in my body?

Sadly, I did not answer that question nor return to yoga after that until my senior year. In yet another philosophy class, the final class in my psychology major, my Senior Seminar, I studied yoga again. This time, I focused on the meditative aspects. I was studying the effects of a mantra on well-being. I led a five week course on the practice, each week focusing on a different aspect (posture/asana, picking one’s practice time and space, breathing techniques, tips for clearing one’s mind, etc) and found myself returning to the centeredness and restoration that I had felt from the class in high school. I studied guided meditations and wrote my own. I even finally understood the concept of a clear mind during meditation. Not necessarily empty or void like I had thought, but clear and open, like looking out at the vast blue sky from the top of a mountain. I was grounded once again. (I did find, by the way, that mantra meditation was more effective than a simple guided meditation or none at all in increasing a sense of well-being. I studied 30 college students over the course of six weeks…in case you were wondering).

I could feel my own sense of contentment and well-being rising, in what could have been an extremely tumultuous and stressful period. Graduating college can do that to you. I was calmer, more even in my emotions and was viewing situations more positively than I was before. I couldn’t give that up now.

I continued yoga throughout the summer, finding a small class of again primarily adults to practice with at noon taught by a librarian at my college. The practice, though during the day, was reminiscent of the class I had so enjoyed. It was gentle and grounded, and serious. No young people talking. Everyone who was there wanted to be. This one though introduced music. I found I liked quiet instrumental the best. It was better than complete silence where my mind sometimes wandered but music with words, no matter how gently delivered, felt jarring and woke me from my sort of meditative daze. This teacher also introduced a scent during the practice. The teacher sprayed a small spritz of an aromatherapy spray called Indu: Nectar of the Moon during our shavasana at the end of class which I absolutely LOVED. The scent and my deeper meditation through shavasana became linked, classically conditioned. As soon as the scent permeated the room, I was able to fall deeper into my meditation, less stirred by external sounds. This class I loved. Unfortunately, being a college graduate, I was looking for a job and by the grace of the universe I found one that I loved. However, it meant that I now I’d be deeply entrenched in work at noon and not at my beloved class. Time to look for a new studio.

During the winter, I made some resolutions and one of them was to get back to reading. One of the books that I chose was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. The memoir chronicled a spiritual journey of a 30-year old divorcee through her year of exploring and finding herself. She begins her healing in Italy, drinking in the sweet nectar of pleasure, namely language and food. She then develops a strict practice in an ashram in India to get in touch with her spiritual side, and finally relaxes and enjoys simplicity in Bali where she falls in love.

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While I loved the whole book, the second part of the book, her story in India really spoke to me. Liz really struggled with a daily chant and prayer (182 verses long) called the Gurugita. As part of her practice, it was mandatory but she absolutely hated it. It made her sweat, feel tense, frustrated, angry, upset, nauseated – this was reminiscent of the early college class that I took. She consulted her teacher about the chant and the physical effects that she was experiencing, hoping that she could substitute another prayer for that one. However, he told her that it sounded like it was working on her and that she should stick with it. That’s when she began to realize that part of the cleansing process is getting rid of any bad before any good comes in. And I finally got the picture. I should have stuck with the uncomfortable asanas long after the semester ended as I likely would have experienced some really wonderful effects only after the detox or cleansing had occurred. After the bad, my stress mainly, had been worked out. Needless to say, I was understanding yoga a lot better after reading this.

Lo and behold, I did find a new studio to try. It was recommended to me by my teacher and I tried out some classes during the winter. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction! Sangha Studio -North’s Spa Yoga and Slow Massage Flow classes are my absolute favorite Logoof all the classes I’ve ever taken (which admittedly is not a lot but bear with me). These night classes work primarily with grounded asanas and hold for long durations to allow us to sink into and breathe into areas that need it. The teachers also use hands-on assist, re positioning us. On top of that, they do a bit of massage which eases any tension that might be building up. I absolutely love this aspect. It helps that when some asanas are especially working on releasing any of the bad, the massage acts as an assist to relax me and fight through it. Sometimes they use essential oils to massage as well, reintroducing the scent that helps link me to my deeper meditation. I look forward to class every week and each time return happier and rejuvenated.

Yoga has not been a part of my life for long and it hasn’t always been easy and relaxing. But I am learning to be gentle with my body, to treat it right, and to work through discomfort with an openness. I hope to continue my practice for a long time. It is such a powerful tool for cleansing and restoring. Who else here likes yoga?

-elise