“Recognize in what way you are too mind-full or mind-less.” With Beau Henderson & Dr. Stephanie Minchin

In order to be more mindful, you firstly need to recognize in what way you are too mind-full or mind-less. Is it around particular behaviors, or feelings, or in certain situations where auto-pilot switches on full mode and takes control without any sense of awareness? Ask yourself exactly what it is about the Covid-19 situation […]

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In order to be more mindful, you firstly need to recognize in what way you are too mind-full or mind-less. Is it around particular behaviors, or feelings, or in certain situations where auto-pilot switches on full mode and takes control without any sense of awareness? Ask yourself exactly what it is about the Covid-19 situation that is causing most distress, and let that be your starting point for where the work of mindfulness is needed the most.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephanie Minchin, clinical psychologist, yoga therapist trainee, and yoga teacher at MoreYoga.

While pursuing the clinical psychology dream and falling in love with yoga along the way, Dr. Stephanie Minchin developed a career path integrating yoga, psychology, and yoga therapy. Stephanie is the co-founder of the holistic wellness workshop series, the MoreMind Project for MoreYoga, London’s largest independent yoga studio, sharing her integrated approach to improve mental and emotional wellbeing. With a passion for working in mental health and trauma, Stephanie juggles clinical work with children and families alongside therapeutic practices of yoga, from classes to workshops and training across London, all with a view to improving mental and emotional wellbeing.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Asa teenager, I had a curiosity about psychology, which was born out of a fascination of the human mind, growing up with instilled ethics around helping others, and the dream of working in a hospital as a doctor. All throughout my childhood, I had a love of sport and excelled in many team activities, so upon making degree choices for university, I pursued sports science. However, after the first year of a lot of heavy biomedical modules and dissecting human bodies to learn anatomy, I changed my degree course to study psychology and sociology. Although I knew very little about sociology at the time, as it was historically viewed in opposition to psychology — one about the individual, the other about the group — I was fascinated to learn more about social and cultural contexts, social psychology, and systemic thinking.

I graduated with a first-class degree at the time of the recession in 2009 and, despite having every aspect of work experience alongside my shiny new degree title, it felt like it meant nothing, as there were no jobs available. I was unemployed for eight months, which was a shot to my self-esteem as a very capable graduate with a huge amount of debt on the dole. I finally landed my first job as a behavioral therapist in London working in a school with children with autism. For the next three years, I soaked up all the preparatory experience London had to offer in order to gain a place on clinical training — from working in the NHS as a therapist in a medium secure forensic unit, undertaking research projects with University College London, co-leading a committee branch within the British Psychological Society Division of Clinical Psychology and volunteering with Mind, a mental health charity, to additional learning with a Clinical Research Masters program. In 2013, I enrolled on a clinical psychology doctorate training at the University of Hertfordshire.

During my early years in London, I also discovered yoga. What had started as a twice-weekly fix with a wonderful yoga teacher supporting staff in my first job, became a need for regular practice in my life. I loved the feeling it gave me — a little less anxious, a little more grounded, a little more space between my breaths and in my perspective. As a break before embarking on my training, I checked into the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, India for a two-week yoga vacation, which is when I discovered I also wanted to be a yoga teacher.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to complete my first Yoga Teacher Training (YTT 200 hrs) part-time alongside clinical psychology training. My beloved peers were often my yogi guinea pigs! Upon donning these two metaphorical hats, I initially kept these two professions separate. I worked in the clinics by day and yoga studios in the evenings and weekends. Yet, the more I journeyed on each of my professional routes, I realized they were so parallel; inevitably the body and the mind are not separate entities so why should disciplines and professionals be marketed as if they are?

In 2016, I was at a conference and had a light bulb moment listening to a talk by Heather Mason, founder of The Minded Institute, as I discovered the existence of yoga therapy! The path was clear for me, it felt like a calling — the perfect way to integrate my two passions. Yoga therapy integrates so many aspects of learning from neuroscience, physiology, psychology to yoga philosophy and is the practice of yoga to create physiological and psychological shifts to physical health conditions and mental health difficulties.

In 2018, I made a lot of decisions in my personal life, and many changes brought about major opportunities to develop my career path. After connecting with MoreYoga at the Om Yoga show, I started teaching in their studios, and also made the commitment to pursue yoga therapy. Since taking this step to complete my yoga therapy training, my career path has really blossomed and I couldn’t be more proud of how far I have grown. I’ve advanced in my clinical psychology work, completed several more yoga training in Yin yoga and Mandala yoga, as well as co-facilitating a new project called MoreMind with London’s largest independent yoga studio, MoreYoga, with yoga therapy at the heart this wellness workshop series designed to support the physical and mental wellbeing of our community.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I’m not sure I can narrow it down to one!

In the earlier stages of my career, I was fortunate enough to combine travel around various volunteer projects abroad — from teaching in local schools in rural Kenya to assisting in an orphanage for children with disabilities in Bangkok and working in a psychiatric hospital and rehabilitation center founded by Mother Theresa in Kolkata. During this time, I was fully immersed in intense experiences, living, and working in one location for months. These experiences provided so much more than an education, they deeply impacted me on a personal level, my view of the world, how I made sense of mental health, my understandings of different socio-cultural belief systems, and influences of different relational dynamics and influences of power.

I also believe that every person I work with has their own interesting story. We are all made up of complex chapters in the story book of our own life, and I really learn something from each person and the aspect of our work together.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

That it’s all about relationships. As human beings, we are social creatures and need to feel a sense of belonging to our community. The workplace is like a family. In yoga philosophy, we call it a sangha, which is a Sanskrit word meaning community or company.

Just as we exist in families, we exist in the workplace in a web of different hierarchies, relationships, positions and dynamics of power. Inevitably, in families, we won’t necessarily all get along all of the time. It’s about accepting differences. Noticing our similarities and differences, allowing them to be part of how we are seen and heard and valued by others, how we are appreciated for our own unique individuality, yet working together for a shared common goal.

I deliver training workshops on trauma to a charity for looked-after-children and it’s all about attachment, how our early life experiences as an infant become a template for how we form relationships. Be it in a family, friendships, intimate partnerships or with colleagues, these styles of relating permeate our ways of being with one another.

A secure attachment provides a secure base where one feels safe as well as independent enough to explore and develop, it allows the other person to feel validated and valued, and ultimately have one’s needs met. A workplace culture very much reflects its ethics and values, and will only be as happy and healthy as its employees and their relationships within.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Before embarking on my clinical training, one of the most influential books that enhanced my position and values as a Clinical Psychologist is Demedicalising Misery: Psychology, Psychiatry and the Human Condition (Rapley, et al., 2011). The book encourages the reader to look beyond the medical model, to deconstruct mental health difficulties and to critically question how people’s unique life experiences do not fit into diagnostic categories. In my therapeutic work, I very much work from a social constructionist stance, which makes sense of presenting difficulties outside of individual blame, and pays attention to social, cultural and relational contexts, interpersonal relationships across multiple system levels, and draws on re-framing and re-storying experiences with more humanistic language. Other influences in the field of psychology include Carl Rogers’ Becoming a Person in understanding how it is to be human, as well as the incredible trauma-focused work by psychiatrists Gabor Mate and Van der Kolk.

Discovering Anodea Judith Eastern’s Eastern Body, Western Mind was a true gem that supported me to learn more about the chakra energy system within our subtle bodies, and integrate this understanding through developmental psychology, science and spirituality. This book is a foundation for my yoga teaching and yoga therapy, and I weave the ideas into my classes to help my students gain more insight into their experiences. Also, Yoga for Mental Health (Mason & Birch, 2019) is a core text of leading experts describing the benefits of yoga across a full range of mental health difficulties. The research described is incredible and the book offers practical yoga sequences that can provide support for each condition.

When I do make time to read fiction, I delve into classics by John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and GJ Ballard or plays by Tennesse Willams and Arthur Miller.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

In its simplest form, being mindful means being aware. Purely paying attention. It does not mean that one’s mind is “empty,” nor is it a one-way ticket to enlightenment. Being mindful means tuning in and truly listening, listening inwards to the subtle signals of the body as if micro-focusing on the ever-changing multi-faceted sensations of one’s experience. It also means observing the external world, truly noticing what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Being mindful means giving permission for your senses to be alive and attuned. Mindfulness is an art of listening to what your body is communicating to you to enable you to experience the present moment a little bit more finely, with detail and depth. As Stephen Cope describes in the book Yoga and the Quest for True Self, the more we practice listening to our body, the more our body will speak to us — and when the body knows we are listening, it will reveal more secrets. Being mindful is therefore about being fully aware of, and attuned to, your experience as it is right now, with full acceptance.

Mindfulness is the now, not the tomorrow or yesterday; the present moment is the only real moment and any other thing is stealing you away from your lived experience as it is right now. However, It’s important to acknowledge that being mindful is really bloody hard! Our mind is too skilled at thinking (over-processing!) and requires constant taming, literally coming back to the experience as it is right now. Being mindful isn’t about having no thoughts, it’s about slowing down the space between each distraction and noticing where we’ve gone in order to come back to the now. Mindfulness may be best approached as a skill, one that we start to learn, in small building blocks, little by little, and start to transfer to different parts of our lives bit by bit, allowing for more transformative effects to grow with practice over time.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

In yoga therapy training, I have learned about the kosha model. In yoga philosophy, kosha means layer or sheath, and represents the various layers from our outer shell to our inner subtle energy channels; this model enables us to understand human experience.

Our physical health can be viewed as the first (Annamaya kosha) and second (Pranamaya kosha) layers. Anna meaning food and relating to how we fuel our body. In this layer, being mindful may mean our eating habits, our physical posture, our movements and exercise. Prana means energy, so in relation to physical health, this layer is considering our physiological functioning, such as sleep, digestion, breathing rate, heart rate and all the other automatic systems that run through our body. Mindfulness may encourage us to look at our energy levels and pay attention to these different processes, how they change from day to day, consider what impacts them, and make positive changes to support healthy functioning.

The third layer (Manomaya kosha — with mano translating to mind) applies to the content and quality of our thoughts and emotional processing. Being mindful may mean catching that inner critic, practicing non-attachment (aparigraha) and finding ways to let it pass, rather than getting caught in a conflict with negativity. Here we may notice the interplay between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, or stories we tell ourselves or our sense of our emotional self and identity.

Being mindful within the more inner subtle layers (Vijnanamaya kosha — Vij meaning wisdom; Anandamaya kosha — Ananda meaning bliss) encourages us to connect with aspects of our higher selves, nourishing deeper insights and learnings and to engage with what brings us joy.

The kosha model approach supports mindfulness by encouraging one to notice how each subtle layer of their experience impacts the next, as part of the whole individual experience. Within this model, it may be important to consider what your needs are, and how and where you need or want to be more mindful in your life. In which layer of your experience do difficulties arise and where may mindfulness help the most. Meet yourself where you are.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Anxiety is like a little greedy monster fuelled by uncertainty, and right now, it is having the time of its life! Firstly, let’s recognize that anxiety is a variation within the nervous system. We all have our own window of tolerance, our own standard of normal in which we like to happily exist. On a daily basis, our nervous system is fluctuating, even with every breath, to activate and slow down, on constant repetitive cycles. It is only when the activation (stress) becomes too high for too long, without adjusting back to within our own normal range, and interferes with our lives that we call it anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal response to what we perceive as a threat to safety. It is normal to feel anxiety when as human beings we have developed a propensity to control and plan in order to feel safe, especially now when we are forced into an uncertain and unstable time.

In order to be more mindful, you firstly need to recognize in what way you are too mind-full or mind-less. Is it around particular behaviors, or feelings, or in certain situations where auto-pilot switches on full mode and takes control without any sense of awareness? Ask yourself exactly what it is about the Covid-19 situation that is causing most distress, and let that be your starting point for where the work of mindfulness is needed the most.

As a response to anxiety, we are being called on a mass level to sit with uncertainty, to tolerate the distress. This is exactly where the work lies.

My daily practices are really helping me during this time: morning meditation, journaling for 15 minutes, running, yoga, healthy eating, early bedtimes and early risings, online contact with friends and family, maintaining work routine where possible and practicing gratitude daily, to fully appreciate what i do have rather than what I don;t.

Right now we are all adjusting to a new normal. Take the time to go inwards.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

From both personal and professional experiences, I have learned that we need to fuel our own tank first before we are able to support others. If we are running on empty (and yes, no professions escape burnout, not even psychologists or yogis!) then what is left to give? Think of the life jacket metaphor, suit-up and secure yourself, then help others.

When ready, willing and able to support others, start with simply asking how they are. And really listen to their answer. A really powerful idea in mental health is that it’s not what is wrong with you, but what has happened to you. Talk with the person about what they think they need or what has been helpful in the past when similar feelings have been around. Sometimes it is hard to know, but often we already know the answer, yet getting there is the hard part. Also, know that anxiety is normal — it is a fluctuation in the nervous system and it is impossible for it to last forever.

Incorporate soothing practices into your routine to try to quiet the nervous energy, awaken the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system), and stimulate endorphins and happy hormones, such as breathing techniques, grounding skills, progresive muscle relaxation, yoga, or meditation.

Go back to basics. The power of sleep and nutrition is often underestimated in their ability to reduce stress and build stronger immunity. Consider following sleep hygiene guidelines or completing a food diary

Maintain routine. Think about a schedule for the day, plan activities within timeframes, and create a balance of work, play and downtime.

Cultivate community connection. There are high associations between loneliness and mental health difficulties; stay connected in whatever way serves you and those in your community.

Do what works for you! There are no rules about what one ‘shzould’ be doing, and you are the expert of your own experience. Do what makes you feel good, little and often — consistency as key.

Other things that may help include boundary time around the use of social media, and using it wisely. Follow positive and inspiring accounts and avoid getting drawn into the dark art of comparison with anything that makes you feel like you’re not enough. Journalling may also help as a form of emotional expression, getting the words and feelings out. And take the pressure of; although for some, this time of social distancing and social isolation may support the learning of a new skill, we don’t all have to come out the other side as newly equipped creative geniuses. Find your own way.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

Being mindful doesn’t always mean being serene. I think it’s important to highlight that, especially as in our super busy, urban modern worlds, so many of us operate on an auto-pilot mode juggling multiple tasks at any one time, which takes us away from being mindful. It is so easy to function like a highly skilled robot than to be truly aware of the current present moment — which is all the more reason to cultivate mindfulness.

My first introduction to mindfulness was through the Headspace app. The guided audios were incredible support and with a daily dose of ten minutes, it was very accessible. Apps are a really fantastic resource, you can practice them anytime, anywhere; Mindful (I do the body scan every night!), Calm, Just Breathe and Mindvalley all have a selection of mindfulness-based activities. For daily inspirations, the Motivation app is great, and ActCompanion is based on acceptance and commitment therapy with daily exercises to be present, open and become more aligned with one’s inner core values.

For those more ready in their meditation practices, I can suggest Vipassana silent meditation retreats. Certainly an intense experience yet a very introspective and powerful journey.

No matter what resource suits you best, remember consistency is key. It’s better to do five minutes daily than one hour per week — it is all practice.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

No man ever steps in the same river twice; for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man’. Heraclitus.

This quote takes me back to clinical training. One of the very first group work projects tasks that we were given in problem-based learning had the most ambiguous and quizzable title: “I stay the same, I change’. We were just given this as a phrase and had to work cohesively to make sense of it, give it direction, formulate an answer that was clinically relevant to our training and psychology work and deliver it all as a presentation. Regardless of the outcome, this experience was actually very focused on the group dynamics and process, and reflection and self-reflexivity were integral to that. The very essence of the topic title really pushed me to deconstruct the inner workings of myself, my identity and my values, question what aspects of myself I feel attached to as stable and consistent, and elements of myself that are ever in ebb and flow. It’s a really deep and profound question to critically consider if you stay the same and/or change and whether it is one or the other, or both. For me, this idea really draws on the law of impermanence, that nothing is fixed, change is inevitable, and with every passing moment, there is difference and growth.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not even sure these ideas are new, they are just building on what is already out there — yoga, yoga, yoga!

Starting at the grassroots and education, I’d love to bring yoga and meditation into the school curriculum from primary school. Swap detentions for meditations! Instead of punitive spaces with negative consequences, I’d like to see schools encouraging children to have a space to learn to self-soothe and regulate difficult emotions. It would be incredible if there was more community education for families and schools alike to teach children how to be more self-aware so that they learn a language of emotional literacy, how to feel feelings, and the power of the body.

Establishing yoga as an evidence-based treatment as part of the NICE Guidelines (National Institute for Clinical Excellence), meaning it could be offered and prescribed as a therapeutic treatment for physical health conditions and mental health difficulties. Yoga is already on the NICE guidance for lower back pain and I would love to see it on the NICE guidance for mental health difficulties so services and clinicians would be more willing and able to use yoga as a therapeutic intervention.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

I share regular daily stories and posts on my Instagram @theyogapsychologist

You can learn follow my work for MoreYoga’s MoreMind Project here.

I regularly contribute to MoreYoga’s blog and PlusMinus Magazine

Also, look out for the soon-to-launch The Yoga Psychologist website where you can connect with me for psychological therapy, yoga teaching, and yoga therapy, as well as read regular blog articles reflecting on all of my passions!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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