Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

Advertisements

How to revamp your resolutions

So we’re eleven days in to 2016, and the tension might be starting to mount. Will it be the fresh start or the old ways that win out? Just how stressed are you about your new year’s resolutions? Are you wondering why a promise to yourself might be harder to keep than one you make to someone else?

If you’re having trouble, take heart. You’re not alone and there’s still a way to salvage your resolutions for 2016. But change is hard, and stress is a given as we fight against those entrenched habits of mind and body that just want to maintain the status quo. Dealing with the stress of change has to be the underpinning of the other resolutions.

Sydney_69

To help you out, I’ve adapted my top ten stress management tips to relate them to your new year’s resolutions and goals. I’ll share the first five here, and the others next week:

Know what you value — We all have core values, which may include things like health, family, religion or money; and then satellite values that we feel less strongly about. How are those values playing out in the resolutions you’ve made? If your core value is good health, for instance, and appearance is more of a satellite value, then maybe your weight loss resolutions need to be tweaked. Rather than setting a specific weight loss goal so that you can fit into a certain size, a health goal of consuming less sugar might be more aligned with your values.

Nurture your relationships — The support of the people around us can play a major role in the success or failure of our resolutions. How strong are your relationships with the people in your social network? Are there things that need repair in some of your friendships? Have you been supportive of other people’s goals? Think about how turning your attention to someone near you might provide emotional support to you both.

Practice gratitude — When we hit a roadblock, or cheat on a diet, or fall off the wagon, it’s easy to start berating ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. Use those moments to practice gratitude instead. Be thankful that you had five good days of healthy eating before something tempted you. Express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to get out and exercise, even if you didn’t yesterday. Say thank you to the employer who is paying for your smoking-cessation program.

Be present — Slowing down and paying more attention in each moment can make us more aware of the choices that precede our actions. When we’re trying to make “better” choices or break “bad” habits, mindfulness makes the choices more conscious, less rote. For instance, when you’re eating, just eat — don’t work, drive or watch TV at the same time. Sit down and look at the food, smell the food, notice the colors, before the first bite goes in your mouth. When we choose food deliberately, eat slowly, and savor each bite, we can feel more satisfied with less, because we have been fully engaged in the process of eating.

Don’t forget to breathe — Breathing mindfully can focus attention in a way that may clarify your resolutions for you. Thich Nhat Hanh has a breath exercise he suggests for bringing the mind back to the body. While slowly breathing in and out, you say “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.” If you’ve been living too much in your head, and neglecting your health, this can be a way of turning your attention back where it’s needed, while letting go of any tension that might have built up.

Wayne Dyer says that our intentions create our reality. It’s my hope that these five ways of bringing more intention to your resolutions will help make them your reality.

The sun rises every day — you can too

When my kids were younger, if they had a bad day, I would often remind them, “Every day is a new day.” It sounds like a platitude, but I was trying to get across to them that we don’t have to be defined by our mistakes. We have the opportunity with each new morning to start fresh, set a new intention, smile and act differently than we did the day before.

That might seem daunting, but the capacity for reinvention is in all of us. This idea was brought into focus for me while reading Laura Bates’ book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life”. She has taught Shakespeare in prisons for many years, even to people in maximum security who have no chance of parole. Her star student, Larry Newton, was convicted as a teenager, and sentenced to life without parole or even the right to appeal. He had never attended school regularly past 5th grade, and had been in isolation for years because of behavioral incidents in prison. If all of that isn’t a reason for despair, I don’t know what is. Yet, after he was accepted into Bates’ program, he blossomed. He started examining his life and his choices, he read and studied voraciously, and he became a teacher of other inmates. Here is what he said after realizing that he had been faking it, not making his own choices, but just trying to impress others in his earlier life:

And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.

When the prisoner-students read and discuss Shakespeare, they frequently talk about prison as a metaphor, even though for them prison is real. But they can see that all of us put ourselves in prisons on a regular basis, when we trap ourselves in negative patterns of thought or irrational beliefs about ourselves. If a maximum security prisoner who will never get out can start looking at himself differently and more positively, shouldn’t we all be able to?sunrise2

Too many times, we become passive bystanders in our own lives, just letting circumstances drive us and other people define us. Yoga teacher Jo Tastula says that we need to be more aware that we are the creators of our own lives, and that our thoughts, our words, and our behavior set us on the path to what we make of it. When we are under stress, or experiencing a lot of negative emotions, it’s easy to veer off the path we want to be on. Somehow we can sense that things aren’t lining up right anymore, but we trap ourselves on that wrong path because we think there’s no way back.

That’s why paying attention to the cycles of nature can inspire us. Every day, the sun rises again. Every month, there’s a new moon. Every spring, the trees and flowers come back to life. These are reminders that change can happen over and over again; and they are opportunities to renew and reinvent ourselves. So tomorrow when the sun comes up, ask yourself: If a convicted murderer and prisoner for life can become a scholar-writer-teacher-mentor, what can you become today?

How high do you bounce when you hit bottom?

Humans may be unique among species in our potential to be resilient in the face of change. Biological imperative drives most species to persevere in a programmed way even when circumstances become dire. The sea turtle returns to the same beach no matter how much development or predation occurs there. The monarch butterfly’s route to a certain Mexican forest is encoded in its DNA and it flies as if on auto-pilot. The salmon will swim upriver to spawn even when a dam is in its way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerseverance is necessary for our success too, and sometimes it’s enough. But today, more than ever before, the world is changing at a breathtaking pace and we need something more than drive and diligence. We need resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to change, to bounce back from losses and hardship, to thrive anew after experiencing adversity. Our resilience benefits us in small ways every day, but especially when life throws a big curveball our way. Think job loss, natural disaster or personal tragedy.

Resilience is about having inner strength, but it’s not about being a Lone Ranger kind of tough guy. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a resilient person is being socially connected: having supportive relationships, working collaboratively with others, and asking for help when necessary.

Our ability to be resilient isn’t fixed — it’s not even something we’re really born with. According to This Emotional Life, resilience develops as people grow up. We gradually gain more knowledge and experience, and that enhances the belief that we can cope with new situations. Ideally, we also learn self-management skills such as how to express emotions. And if we enjoy supportive relationships with our family and community, they help us gain trust and optimism.

Of course we’re all born with different kinds of temperaments, and most of us don’t grow up in that kind of ideal environment. So it comes as no surprise that many of us aren’t all that resilient. We become rigid in our beliefs, resistant to change, and unwilling to look for silver linings. We dig in our heels, deny that change is necessary and hold on to the status quo as long as possible.Detour

See, decide, believe. That’s how someone who resists change can change himself. Like any behavior change, first it’s necessary to see that you might not be so resilient, then decide you want to change. After that, start telling yourself that you are resilient. Believing it helps make it so, because brain research suggests that resilience depends on communication between the logical, prefrontal cortex part of the brain, and the limbic system, which is the seat of emotions. So what we say, what we think, the story we tell about ourselves, helps make the reality.

Other tips for building resilience come from the Mayo Clinic and the Centre for Confidence:

  • Try to see change as a meaningful challenge, and make each day have purpose
  • Learn from experience, and use it to build problem-solving strategies
  • Nurture connections with others; try to resolve any persistent conflicts with family or co-workers
  • Stay positive and hopeful
  • Know that you cannot control all events, but you can control your reaction to events
  • Take care of yourself – being physically, mentally and spiritually well prepares you to adapt to change.

Nothing lasts forever, change is a given and there are no guarantees. The headline of a piece in the Harvard Business Review said it best: “Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.” Be ready.

What needs changing?

No one ate many sweets at my New Year’s Day party. Yoga class was packed yesterday. Gyms are full. In other words, a normal January.

Statistics are dismal, though, when it comes to people maintaining their new exercise routines, keeping pounds off, adopting new habits. By the end of the month, most of us will be back to our old, comfortable ways.

That may be because we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Having a view of the big picture can help us figure out which tree is going to fall today, or which aspect of health lends itself most to changing. Much as you might not want to hear it, maybe exercising more isn’t the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference for you right now.

Michelle Singletary, who writes a personal finance column for the Washington Post, gets it. She wrote a column last week about how better financial health is inextricably connected to physical health, social support and gratitude. She makes the point that health care costs can eat up retirement savings — so isn’t it a good idea to stay as healthy as possible before you reach that point? Are your relationships with family and friends weak or broken? Those are the people you might need if you fall on hard times, so Singletary says it makes sense to keep the ties strong.

In other words, all the dimensions of health — physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, occupational — help hold the structure of self together, and are equally important if we are going to reach an optimal state of well-being. So while you might want to lose a few pounds in the new year, is your physical health really the dimension where you are most in need of change?

I think of the dimensions of health like a Trivial Pursuit game piece. Each different colored piece of the pie has to be filled in before you can win the game. The same is true for overall wellness. So if you’re already strong with the piece that signifies physical wellness (even if you would like to lose that extra 5 pounds), but you’re struggling to obtain the piece for spiritual wellness, doesn’t it make more sense to focus your efforts in that area?

stick figureIn my stress management class, I sometimes use an activity from a text by Olpin and Hesson to assess balance in the different dimensions. Students get index cards and are asked to draw pictures of their bodies. The head represents the intellectual dimension; the trunk is the spiritual dimension; the arms are social and emotional, respectively; the legs are physical and occupational. If they feel balanced and healthy in a dimension, that body part is drawn so that it is in proportion to the rest of the body. If they feel that they overdo in some dimension, that body part will be outsize. And if there is an aspect of health that is lacking, the body part will look small compared to the rest.

If you do this exercise, are you wobbling from the imbalance? Is one leg shorter than the other? Is your head too big from overthinking everything? Let that be your guide to better new year’s resolutions. Sometimes making a change that no one else can immediately see is the missing piece. As Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

Expanding my circle of comfort

“Change is gonna do me good,” goes the lyric of Elton John’s song “Honky Cat”. I’m one of those people who has to say things like that to myself, to force myself to stretch a little. No matter how much there is to gain outside what’s familiar and comfortable, most of us have to be convinced and cajoled, or forced by circumstance, out of our comfort zones.

 Because I’m traveling this week, I tried a yoga class at an out-of-town yoga studio yesterday. It was a good class, and I’m glad I went, but there was still the point in class when the teacher told me to do something in a way completely opposite to what I’ve been taught.Was her way right or wrong? Is there a right way? Does it matter? Those were the questions I asked myself as I mentally resisted what she was telling me. My comfort zone was definitely being challenged.
Six months ago, my two favorite yoga teachers shut down their studio and stopped teaching. The studio, my yoga “home”, was gone, forcing me to change whether I wanted to or not. It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I can take a class  with one of the teachers I liked from the old place, but mostly I was forced to try new teachers. Some I’ve enjoyed and some I haven’t. But I have learned to appreciate at least a few things about each of them. I realize now that in leaving, my former teachers gave me a great gift —a lesson in practicing yoga off the mat. Staying focused. Breathing through change and uncertainty. Accepting what I cannot change. Expanding my circle of comfort.
Often when I see friends from the old yoga studio, we talk about which teachers we are practicing with now, but we always finish by saying, “It’s not the same as…” And it’s not, it can never be, the “same”. Nothing stays the same, everything changes.  And luckily, we humans have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions; the question is do you adapt with resistance, or adapt with acceptance? How much energy do you expend denying and complaining before you acknowledge the new reality?
Like the mice in the fable, Who Moved my Cheese?, we can either respond to unwelcome change by spending our time looking for someone to blame, hoping that everything is going to go back to “normal,” or we can go look for new opportunities. Relatively small changes, like finding new yoga teachers, train us for the bigger life events. If you learn to keep your balance in the shifting sands of everyday life, it’s easier to embrace the idea that  “change is gonna do you good.”

Lessons from “30 Rock”

Toward the end of the “30 Rock” finale, Liz Lemon is explaining to Tracy Jordan how difficult he has been to work with, and how hard he made her job, but she says “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” she loves him anyway.

The “30 Rock” characters have change thrust upon them as the show ends; they experience love and loss, see dreams fulfilled and have wishes granted. Above all, the last episode is about how sometimes our hearts and our brains are at cross purposes. We think we want one thing, but when we get it, we find out it doesn’t make us happy. Or we discover that the thing that makes us happiest has been right in front of us all along.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has written, “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present…We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”

The question is whether instead of always using the present to project a rosier future, can you stay focused on the here and now, the reality of what is?

In “30 Rock”, Liz gets the children she wanted and becomes a stay-at-home mom, only to realize that she misses work terribly. Her husband gets a new job, and is miserable because he desperately wants to be at home with the kids. Jack gets his dream job as head of G.E. and immediately starts questioning whether he is truly happy. Jenna and Tracy struggle to figure out their identities now that their show is over.

The only character who doesn’t seem to experience any angst in the face of change is Kenneth. As the intern who becomes the head of the network, he is the only person completely comfortable in his new role. Perhaps he was the only one who had stayed present-focused all along. With his sunny optimism and his homespun wisdom, he never lost touch with his inner compass.

In an article in Yoga Journal, Kate Holcombe wrote about the idea of getting to know your true self, and how we often mistake some external attribute for who we really are. The Sanskrit word “asmita” refers to this misidentification which “happens when you identify with the parts of yourself that change – everything from your mind to your body, appearance, or job title – instead of with the quiet place within you that does not change.”

It’s easier to accept change on the outside if we are more connected to our unchanging self, says Holcombe, and not identifying “too closely with the changeable aspects” of ourselves. That requires a great deal of self-acceptance because the answer to the question, “Who am I?” doesn’t change.IMG_0271

Accepting and connecting with the unchanging self makes it easier to see when you’ve gotten off course, easier to see what it is that serves your needs at any given moment. So, like Liz Lemon, you might realize that being a stay-at-home mom isn’t right for you; or like Jack Donaghy, you might see that it’s not getting the dream job that makes you happy, it’s what you can do in the job.

Sometimes you get your heart’s desire; sometimes you don’t. But “because the human heart isn’t properly connected to the human brain,” you might find that you’re very happy anyway, just because of who you are.