Keeping a Spiritual Journal: A Powerful Tool for Self-Exploration

August 18, 2010

If you’ve ever kept a journal, you know it can be a great means for self-study — whether looking back on the day or simply expressing emotions we may have held inside.  Given its usefulness, it’s no wonder many spiritual luminaries have kept journals, from St Augustine to Gandhi.  The great Yoga sage Swami Sivananda was no exception, not only keeping a journal himself but strongly recommending it for all of his students.  In this article I’d like to share his approach, including how it differs from a conventional diary and how you can use it as a powerful tool for your own spiritual work.

The Four Components

To begin, most of us who keep diaries use them rather casually — perhaps relying on them heavily at some stages while allowing them to lay dormant when things are going smoothly in our lives.  Swami Sivananda was actually much more systematic in his approach, for reasons we‘ll explore.  In fact, he encouraged students to use their journals on a daily basis and to strive to always include four basic components in each of their daily entries:

1. Recording Practices

2. Reinforcing Values & Goals

3. Reflecting on Progress

4. Revising Our Approach

Let’s look at each of these in more detail….

Recording Practices

The first purpose of a spiritual journal is to record our daily practices.  Swami Sivananda felt this was particularly important.  Just as an athlete carefully tracks his or her training in order to constantly improve in his or her activity, so we as spiritual aspirants can record both our efforts and whether or not they are moving us toward our spiritual goals.  This record can include both external practices — like study or asana — as well as internal efforts — such as watching mental patterns like fear or attachment.

In yoga, we refer to these spiritual practices as sadhana, which traditionally includes such activity as meditation, scriptural study, prayer, asana, pranayama, service, worship, etc.  Just like an athlete, we an use our journal to record not only our current practices but also the amount and even the quality of our efforts from day to day.  This portion of a spiritual journal can be quite simple — for example beginning each day’s entry with a simple list of our activities and a check system for recording what we‘ve done or, if we prefer, the time spent in each endeavor.  This gives us a simple but easily-reviewed record we can look back on over the days to see how we are doing in terms of the practices to which we have committed ourselves.

This record can be helpful for a number of reasons.  First, Swami Sivananda realized that most of us have far-from-perfect memories when it comes to our efforts — especially when we are working on multiple things at once. In fact we tend to have a distorted sense both of our strengths and the areas where we could be stronger.  We might think, for example, we are very diligent in our meditation but not so good at service when in fact it’s the other way around.  A journal can help us see whether we’re truly applying the practices we think we are and in turn better evaluate our overall program.

In addition, if we happen to be working on several practices at the same time, it can often be hard to know what techniques are helping and what are hindering. In turn, just like a chef records the different ingredients he or she is varying in a recipe, we can use our journal to evaluate what we have been doing against the results we are experiencing, allowing us to distinguish what is truly serving us and what can be changed for the better.

Reinforcing Values & Goals

This leads to the second component of a spiritual journal, which is reinforcing what we are working on and why.  This is especially important given the numerous distractions of contemporary life.  In this modern world, we are constantly surrounded by difficulties and distractions.  Some of these — issues at work or challenges at home — are important and necessary parts of life, while others — such as the media which surrounds us — aren’t necessary but can be hard to control.  Both, however, can dissipate our energy if we’re unfocused.  The yogis realized we are best able to minimize these distractions and honor our obligations when we are centered in our beliefs.  A daily journal gives us a chance to reinforce these on a daily basis, asking ourselves: “How do I want to approach today?  What are my priorities in terms of how I think?  How I treat people?  Where I put my focus…?”  By reminding ourselves of our values, we are better able to stay on track amidst the challenges and distractions of our busy lives.

Reflecting on Progress

Of course setting goals is only half the process.  Again, just as an athlete or chemist records the results of his or her efforts, a we can use our spiritual journal to do the same with our inner work.  Again, this is especially important when we are using a variety of techniques and/or working on a variety of goals.  For example, if we’re working on an ethical principle such as santosha (contentment), we can use our journal to look back on our day and ask how we did in observing that goal.  “When did I maintain my sense of contentment?  When did I lose it?  What were the situations that seemed to challenge me?”  This can give us a concrete sense of where we are improving and where we can still use work. This, in turn, leads us to the final component of a spiritual journal: Revising Our Approach….

Revising Our Approach

Once we‘ve identified areas in which we still have room for improvement, a journal can be a powerful tool for reevaluating and shifting our efforts.  We can look back on our practices, see what we’ve tried and with what impact, and then tailor our approach accordingly.  Again, just like the scientist or athlete, this can give us a concrete means for steadily moving forward.

An extension of this idea, and yet another way a journal can serve us in our growth, is by using it to shift patterns.  We all have situations in our lives which can trigger feelings that can overwhelm us, in turn leading us to patterned responses that don‘t truly serve.  A journal can be a powerful tool for shifting these patterns.  By taking the time to reflect on these situations and to envision healthier responses, we can teach ourselves over time to respond to them in more constructive ways.

To illustrate, imagine a pattern we’d like to change — for example, a tendency to get frustrated by a co-worker who is often late or absent.  We can use our journal to reinforce a more positive way of thinking about and responding to the situation.  To begin, we can ask: “What assumptions am I making about him — about his situation or his thoughts?  Maybe he’s dealing with a situation at home I don’t know about. Perhaps he feels guilty about his pattern but masks it out of shame.  Maybe as a child he wasn’t taught the same values I was….”  Often this alone can be enough to diffuse the negative, distracting emotions around the situation.  We can further shift our patterns by then taking the time to think through a healthier way to respond.  “If things were reversed, what would help me?  Is there a way to respond that would feel better for everyone involved?  If the Dalai Lama were in such a situation, how would he respond?”  By using our journal this way, in the future we can greatly increase our ability to stay in touch with our values and respond in a way that is healthy for everyone rather than falling into unconscious patterns that don’t serve.

Taken together, these four components provide a wonderful opportunity.  By tracking our efforts, reinforcing our principles, evaluating our results, and adjusting our practices, we can greatly improve our growth on all levels, moving even more strongly toward fully living our beliefs.  So if you’ve always assumed a journal was merely a place for recording feelings or experiences from the day, I warmly encourage you to try this approach — I think you’ll find it an invaluable tool for self-exploration and progress on your path.

About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), & personal trainer with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness. He currently offers private guidance both in person & via email integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition. To learn more, please call him at (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html

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Why Yoga Isn’t Enough: The Strengths & Limitations of Yoga as a Source of Fitness

March 17, 2010

Let me start by saying I absolutely love yoga.  With over 15 years’ experience as a practitioner, teacher, and devotee, I can personally attest to the numerous health, fitness, and spiritual benefits of a regular practice.  With its impact on flexibility, core strength, balance, posture, and comfort in the body, yoga is arguably the best single activity for over-all wellness.  In fact, it provides so many benefits that, as a personal trainer, I’m frequently asked: “Can the right yoga routine give me full fitness?”  You may be surprised to learn my brief answer is: “Very much no!”  In the following article I’d like to explain why, in my experience, even a well-crafted yoga routine falls short as a sole form of exercise and what avid practitioners can add to their yoga routines in order to experience exceptional all-around vitality & performance.

The first step to understanding the limitations of yoga is to look at the natural design and function of our bodies. We are clearly built for a variety of activities and know that regular engagement in them is essential for both ability and over-all health. Yoga of course addresses many of these, including range of motion, basic strength & stability in the limbs and core, etc. But clearly there are forms of motion it is hard to replicate through yoga, the most obvious being cardiovascular fitness. Of course, there are more vigorous forms of yoga that clearly offer a degree of aerobic conditioning, but comparison with other forms of training makes it clear even dynamic yoga is not the most efficient way to build aerobic fitness. If you’ve done 100 sun salutations at high speed you know it doesn’t raise the heart rate to the same level as, say, running up a hill, and you have also probably witnessed it doesn’t generate the same cardiovascular capacity. Of course this isn’t to suggest there are no benefits to such a yoga practice, merely to note it isn’t the most efficient or effective approach. Simply put, a person who relies solely on yoga for cardiovascular training will never have the same aerobic capacity as a person who trains more conventionally.

While this might be the most obvious limitation of yoga, in my experience it is far less significant than the greatest shortcoming which is its limited impact on the primary driving muscles of body or what sports physiologists refer to as the “posterior chain.” Trainers have long realized that the largest muscles of the body — and therefore those that contribute the most both to function and to over-all health — are the hamstrings, glutes, and muscles of the lower- and upper-back. These not only propel us forward but also allow us to lift, carry, and climb, and thus could be called the most “functional” muscles of the body. And because they constitute the majority of our muscle-mass, their over-all function has the greatest impact on systemic health including metabolism, insulin uptake, HGH levels, and immune function.

Of course, in nature, these muscles were used constantly — for walking, running, sprinting, jumping, climbing, lifting, and carrying. And because these are the biggest, strongest muscles of the body, they are designed for and require considerable challenge for optimal function. While a balanced yoga practice clearly works these muscles to a degree, even brief consideration should make it clear it is difficult to simulate the demands of intense motion and heavy load-carrying using mere body weight and static exertion alone. For the yoga practitioners reading this, considering your own practice should make this apparent — you can feel there is a big difference between even a long hold in, say, Warrior II or Bridge pose and lifting a heavy weight or climbing a steep hill. This difference is why virtually every “physical culture” system developed by man has involved at least some degree of load-bearing and why yoga alone cannot generate the same systemic impact. Again, please note that I am not denying some impact, but rather pointing out that it is difficult to achieve the degree of demand for which our bodies were designed and in turn if we were to rely solely on yoga we would be missing out on many of the benefits derived from more “complete activity.”

In addition to the lack of systemic impact, there is also the fact that with bodyweight activity it is generally easier to challenge the anterior chain (the front of the body) than the posterior. Again, a true yoga routine strives for balance, but obviously it is much easier to target the front with poses like plank and downward dog than it is to work the back. As a result, long-term yoga practice as a sole fitness activity tends to lead to muscular and functional imbalances. In fact, many of my clients have been established students and even teachers who had become imbalanced through exclusive focus on yoga. Of course, this is in no way to criticize yoga itself: again, I feel yoga is arguably one of the most complete health & fitness approaches out there and I strongly recommend a regular practice to each and every one of my clients. The key in this regard is to simply make sure we are engaging in additional activity to assure the strength of the back of our bodies is matching that of the front.

The third major limitation of yoga has to do with the nature of motion engaged in and its relation to muscle fiber types. Research tells us every single muscle of the body are made up of two types of muscle fiber: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Most of us are probably aware that some people have more slow-twitch than others, but what we commonly don’t realize is that fast-twitch fiber still makes up at least 55% of our muscle mass and for some of us as much as 65%. Why is this so important? Well, fast-twitch fibers are only activated in two situations: during maximal lifts or explosive motion. That means that if you are exercising slowly or with moderate weights, even if you are exercising every single muscle of your body, you are only really activating about 35-45% of your muscle-mass.

The connection with yoga should be obvious: even the most vigorous forms never come close maximal speed — again, a fact that is easily witnessed. Even if you’re a regular practitioner of demanding poses, you can feel that there is a significant difference between, say, a long hold in plank pose and a set of explosive (“clapping”) push-ups. Likewise, while it is certainly true that the more advanced poses of yoga involve shifting our weight in such a way as to increase demands on certain muscle groups so that we’re approaching their maximal capacity, most people lack the flexibility to achieve them, and those of us who can seldom hold them as long as necessary to fully challenge the muscles. And that means we are only using a fraction of our muscle fibers and in turn receiving only a fraction of the benefits. Again if you are a seasoned practitioner you can easily witness this: clearly, there is a substantial difference between, say, a long hold in wheel pose and helping a friend move a refrigerator up a flight of stairs.

Does this mean a long hold of wheel pose has no benefits or that there is no merit to a slower, more meditative form of motion as found in many yoga traditions? Not in the least. The point is, once we see these basic limitations, it becomes possible to compliment our practice with the missing activities that will restore muscular balance and stimulate the full, natural capacities of our bodies. By supporting the numerous benefits of our yoga with the other activities for which our bodies were designed — cardiovascular activity, including high-speed training; posterior-chain activity such as climbing and lifting; and explosive- or near-maximal training such as sprinting and the lifting of heavy weights — we can experience even better health, greater capacity, and even more joy in our yoga practice itself….

About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), personal trainer & yoga counselor with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness.  He currently offers private guidance integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition.  To learn more about classes or private sessions, please call (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html

Spiritual Nutrition: How Food Choices Can Fuel Inner Growth

June 3, 2009

For many of us, the term “spiritual nutrition” seems like a strange pairing, if not a contradiction. We tend to think of nutrition in terms of the body, which in turn we see as distinct from spirit. But we also know traditions around the world speak of the link between food choices and our connection with the divine. In this article, we’ll look at how diet can impact our spiritual growth and some simple, practical steps for bringing this into our daily lives.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between diet and spirit is how food impacts our mood and mindset. We all know certain choices can leave us tired or lethargic while others make us “spacey” or restless — all things that can conflict with our spiritual goals. We know compassion can be harder when our stomachs ache from over-eating or when we’re restless from too much coffee. The Yogic tradition, which offers considerable insight into the connection between spirit and diet, observes how certain spices and forms of preparation can impact our clarity, mood, and vitality. Spicy foods, for example, tend make us more agitated, while leftover or overcooked dishes tend to be draining. Simply being aware of this can be a big step toward achieving a mental state that allows us to put our spiritual values into practice.

A related issue, of course, is over-all fitness and energy. We all know certain foods serve better than others when it comes to providing energy and health. And we also know our spiritual values ultimately require us to have the energy to act. When we decide to eat things that aren’t ideal, we know on a certain level we are choosing to limit the energy we have to live our beliefs. Of course food is also a source of pleasure, and virtually all spiritual traditions would say it’s something we’re meant to enjoy. But this complex balance between “food as fuel” and “food as fun” gives us an opportunity to examine our self-awareness. Each time we eat, we have a chance to look at how much we wish to focus on our own pleasure and how much we want to think about serving those around us. By being more mindful, we can move toward a balance that runs closer to our beliefs, choosing foods that provide the right blend of pleasure and energy for service of others.

This brings us to another spiritual aspect of diet, namely the highly social nature of eating. From the pleasure of sharing with others to the act of sustaining and being sustained, food nurtures our social connections as surely as it does our bodies. On this level, every meal can be an opportunity to think of the joy of others and to deepen and expand our social bonds. Even when eating alone, we can take a moment to reflect on our connection with the many people who labored to bring that food to our tables. Even those who support our labor are present through the financial support they provided. By thinking of this, each meal can be a chance to nourish not only our bodies but also our sense of interconnection, of belonging, and of being supported. And these feelings, in turn, naturally lead us to want to sustain and support others….

Taking this interconnection to the next level, food also represents a direct connection to the world as a whole. Even in its most processed form, our food still holds a deep connection with nature, and, for many, with God or the Divine. Again, simply reflecting on this can turn each meal into a form of communion — clearly a large part of why Jesus chose bread and wine to represent him and his teachings. Whatever our faith, each meal can be a sacrament, a chance to witness our connection with something “bigger” — to celebrate it, to gain strength from it, and to reinforce our desire to honor it through our choices. Obviously, this is why every culture has a concept of saying “grace,” seeing each meal as an opportunity to appreciate our community, our connection with nature, and whatever we might sense beyond that….

Ultimately, the more we see food as a blessing and connection, the more we will want to honor it — to make the best choices we can in what we eat and how we think of it. For example, part of the Yogic view of spices comes from the fact they tend to mask the natural tastes of foods and stimulate the appetite, causing us to eat more than we need. Choosing to lessen our dependency on them not only makes it easier to find a healthy balance of “pleasure” and “fuel” but also allows us to enjoy foods as they are. And the more pleasure we derive from foods in their natural state, the more we feel directly cared for — again, by nature or the Divine.

So the next time you sit down for a meal, take a moment to reflect. And remember that the choices you make — both in what you eat and also in how you think about it — can be another significant step toward embodying the principles by which you wish to live….

About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), personal trainer & yoga counselor with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness.   He currently offers private guidance integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition.   To learn more about classes or private sessions, please call (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html

Spirituality & Fitness

May 26, 2009

Welcome to SpiritFit….

May 26, 2009

Welcome to SpiritFit, a site dedicated to exploring the link between health, fitness, and spiritual growth….

My name is Michael Lloyd-Billington and I am a yoga instructor & personal trainer in Fort Collins, Colorado.  For over 25 years I have been a serious student of nutrition and exercise physiology, seeking the most efficient and powerful ways to experience greater energy and health.  I have also during that same time been an avid student of religion, philosophy, and meditation and hold a degree in comparative religion and Eastern thought from Hampshire College. 

At first blush, this might seem like a bit of a contradiction.  Many of us see matters of the body as utterly distinct from matters of the soul.  And yet traditions around the globe have stressed the connection between our diet, our physical state, and our ability to live our spiritual values.  My goal for this site is to provide the latest information on how we can improve our vitality and fitness as a means to enhance our spiritual awareness and how greater mindfulness in the area of spiritual issues in our lives can in turn allow us to better care for our bodies as instruments of service and growth. 

In the near future you will find articles here on topics ranging from exercise to nutrition to meditation and self-study, all with an emphasis on how they powerfully inform our ability to serve, love, and realize.  I hope you will join me in this exploration and that you will feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences in this important area of personal unfolding….