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

Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

IMG_2189

By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!

 

Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.

 

Listen well to those still, small voices

Sometimes in yoga class I hear voices in my head. No, I’m not losing my mind – rather, I keep being reminded of lessons I’ve absorbed from my teachers over the years, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t. Their “voices” trigger muscle memory, but also something more – a deeply ingrained wisdom.

We’re nearing the end of the traditional school year; my semester of teaching is already over. I often whether my  students have taken anything away with them from our short time together. Sometimes I tell them straight out what I hope they will remember: pay attention, don’t lose sight of your strengths, remember to breathe. But once they’re gone from my sphere, what do they recall? Have I given them anything that serves them in their future?

Current pedagogy tells us that teachers talk too much, that if students are really going to learn and internalize concepts, they need to be the ones generating the ideas and doing more of the talking. But it takes a special kind of teacher to pose the right questions, the challenging statements, or even the metaphors that prompt students to think critically and come up with valuable ideas.

When we take the responsibility for our own learning, it doesn’t necessarily matter if  what we hear from one teacher contradicts what we were told by another. This happens sometimes in yoga class. One teacher will instruct that the position of the feet be just so for a certain posture; another will say something different. Or one will say the hand should rest just here, another will say no, it shouldn’t. That used to annoy me, now it just makes me smile, because I know I can count on the wisdom of my body to position feet, hands or whatever just where I need them to be. At the same time, I’m still hearing the voices of teachers saying things like “Don’t collapse into the posture,” or “Imagine that your shoulder blades are the temple doors,” and their whispers tell me what adjustments I need to make in that moment.3-Co. Kerry-Slea Head loop (35)

Most of us talk too much, and listen not nearly enough. What if we were to see ourselves as being both teachers and students, simultaneously? Instead of passively taking in information, students also need to be able share and teach it, but they need tools and the right environment for that shift to happen. Otherwise the wisdom – whether it’s the teacher’s voice or our own — doesn’t stick. My younger sister, who just received her doctorate in education, has mastered the creation of that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter whether she is sitting with a class of sixth graders or with a group of adult learners — she raises everyone up by the respect she shows them and the joy she brings to the process. She perfectly embodies the concept of taking your work very seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. She is humble enough to know that she has as much to learn from the sixth graders as from her professors.

Last week, my sister shared a reflective practice on her professional blog that came out of a course for educators. The first two questions of it could (and perhaps should) be used by anyone who aspires to be a lifelong learner:

What have you learned this week?

How have you learned this week?

Her point is that to incorporate learning into practice, we need reflection. We have to be able to articulate not only what we learned, but how we learned it. Whether that’s kinetically, through practicing postures in yoga, or through the use of a metaphor, like the temple doors, reflection on the process reinforces learning and stores those voices in memory.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a former student unexpectedly. He wasn’t a particularly stellar student, nor had I been that close to him. It had been at least a year, maybe more, since he was in my class. But he emailed me to say that he was using the breathing techniques that he learned in my class and they were really helping him. I guess he was hearing voices too.

 

This January, don’t resolve — repose

 

It’s interesting that January 1st brings on a frenzy of promises to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking and similar action-oriented resolutions when I always feel like all I want to do is hibernate like a bear. So I was happy to find out when I went to my yoga studio last week that the pose of the month is Savasana.

Savasana (shah-VAHS-anna), also called Corpse Pose, usually is done at the end of every yoga practice, and it looks deceptively easy. After all, what could be that hard about lying flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out away from the body, and closing the eyes for 10 minutes or so? But I say “deceptive” because Savasana can be the most difficult yoga pose of all — first, because it’s hard for many of us to truly relax, and second because Savasana is about relaxing “with attention”. Yoga Journal says that in Savasana we attempt to “quiet the physical body and pacify the sense organs”, so we need to pay particular attention to relaxing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It asks us to surrender to the point where the boundaries of the body begin to dissolve, where we can symbolically “die” to old ways of thinking and doing. savasana_in_yoga_gembira_community

Savasana is the bridge that allows you to take the benefits of class into your everyday life. This is why yoga teachers tell people who have to leave class early that they should plan to stop the regular practice with enough time left to take a few minutes in the pose before going. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Not forcing anything, we just do our best to line up with the warp and woof of body and mind, floor, and world, staying in touch.” Savasana brings together all the disparate pieces of the yoga class and gives you time for processing them and absorbing their benefits.

Sleep, which we tend to crave during the cold winter months, is like Savasana in that it is important for integrating the separate pieces of our days. We can be more effective the next day if we’ve spent time in sleep, regrouping and consolidating everything that we learned and experienced during the day. In addition, sleep sometimes helps us problem-solve because the useless information that came in during the day is forgotten, and only the crux remains. While there is still much to learn about the purposes of sleep, some researchers theorize that it helps the brain be “plastic”, to dial down synaptic activity for a while and use less energy. We are literally resting the brain, perhaps more so than resting the body.

Animals hibernate in the winter as a way of saving energy too, because food resources are scarce. Most of us don’t have that problem, but there’s still a case to be made for looking at January as a month of repose. It’s the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and has some of the shortest days, so why not sleep a little more and yes, get down on the mat in Savasana? Use the darkness to gather energy, reflect on where you’re going and prepare for the longer days ahead. The word “January” comes from the Latin word meaning “door”. Consider opening the door to the new year slowly rather than abruptly. Take the time to first figure out what’s on the other side.

Indira Gandhi said that, “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” That’s not only the challenge of Savasana, but also the way we manifest it in our everyday lives.

 

Now what?

What do you with what you know, what you’ve learned, the gifts you have? Is having it all enough for you, or does meaning only accrue when you act on what you have? In “The Illuminations” by Andrew O’Hagan, one character says to another, “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books. You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Several days ago, I went to a yoga workshop billed as “Yoga: The Advanced Practices”. Now that title might make you think that I’m someone who can do a headstand with ease, or twist my leg around neck, or any number of other challenging yoga postures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. And, in fact, the workshop’s “advanced practices” weren’t about asana (physical postures) at all. They were about the real “meat” of yoga — pranayama (breathwork) and meditation. We spent only about 40 minutes of the three hours doing asana.

Why do the other practices matter so much more? As our teacher, Greg, said, they provide the answer to the question, “Now what?” As in, “I’ve mastered a handstand. Now what?” Or, “I’ll never master a handstand. Now what?” Breath and meditation give you the space, the way, to take the yoga off the mat and into the world. As you grow in emotional awareness and focus, they help you be the person who can give back to the community, who can be the better spouse, the better friend, the better parent.

The very next day after the yoga workshop happened to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As I was reading through the prayerbook, I came across this meditation: “Why be concerned with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex and power…are as characteristic of animals as they are of us. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

Now what?

The world we see reflects who we are. Sometimes we need to correct our course or re-affirm our best qualities and intentions so that they are manifested in that reflection. Any kind of meditation helps us do that, as does the meditative practice of affirmative writing, part of the “Writing to Heal” program. Affirmative writing can crystallize values and create a vision for one’s life; it helps us identify our gifts and be grateful for them; and it can be a guide to living a life where you flourish and grow.

So take paper and pen, find somewhere to sit quietly, and answer these questions in writing (resist the urge to self-edit):

  1. What are your gifts? You best qualities, what you offer to others?
  2. What gift do you feel is ready to emerge, evolve or resurface?
  3. How have you denied or hidden any gift in the past?
  4. How is your life and others impacted when you withhold your gift?
  5. How might your life and others be impacted if you offered your gift?
  6. What might living with this gift look like and feel like?
  7. What support from others do you need to develop your gift?
  8. What does your gift need from you?

Naming your gifts, and thinking about how others are impacted when you offer them, is a powerful way to answer the question, “Now what?” When I did this exercise, and I responded to question 6, how would living this gift look and feel, the words I wrote were, “spacious, exciting, vibrant.”

An authentic life is an examined life. Living with questions like these can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But eventually, if we want the answer to “now what?” we’ve got to go out and test the answers against reality.

How to take a time-in

My breath slowed as I rolled out my mat and sat down to await the start of yoga class. I looked around at the mostly-young group of people there for the 5 pm class. Had they left work early? Do they have flexible hours? Do they work part-time? Were they going back to work later?

As I silently congratulated all of us on taking time out of the day to do something good for ourselves, I realized that it wasn’t really a “time out” – it was very much a “time in”. It might even have been the most time I’d really spent “in” and engaged all day.

What is “time in”? It’s not just time spent looking inward, though that could be a part of it. It’s time being fully present, and in the moment. It’s time when our brains get a rest from the over stimulating environment that we’re exposed to most of the day. It’s time when we pay attention to our senses, stop multitasking, and regain focus and concentration.

Spending time in meditation, for instance, leads to a restful, yet awake, state where we have more alpha wave activity in the brain. This brings greater mental clarity, fosters creativity and enhances memory. Research shows that regular meditators can stay on task longer and are less distracted even when they are in a multitasking situation.

Less formal meditative experiences happen in yoga, where the sequence of postures commands focused attention, or in exercise such as running, when the sounds of the breath or footfalls become a focal point. Such activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, making us alert to what’s happening in the moment, and sometimes opening a window to better directions or opportunities.

I’m continually surprised by the way that an idea will just pop into my head when I’m in a yoga class or out for a run. Even when I’ve been blocked creatively about something for days, allowing some mental space from it and taking “time in” almost always helps. That must be why companies such as Google, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappo’s have on-site meditation classes or nap rooms for their employees. Resting the brain can have surprisingly productive results (like new ice cream flavors!)

Being able to bring intense focus and concentration to a project is a necessary element of what is called a “flow” experience in positive psychology. Flow is “a joyful state” that we experience when “we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills”. During “flow”, we lose track of time and self-consciousness. People who are “high-flow” generally demonstrate better performance, commitment to goals, and greater long-term happiness. Without the motivation or ability to focus, however, high-flow activities seem too hard. We choose the easier low-flow activities (like watching TV) that might provide immediate gratification but don’t really lead to long-term satisfaction. That’s why it is so important to well-being that we strengthen the capacity to focus through “time in” pursuits.

Instead of saying we don’t have time to meditate or exercise, we should be saying there’s no time to waste before starting. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that “Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” Maybe today’s decision to spend “time in” will be the start of a recurring pattern for you – one with a far-reaching effect on your fulfillment in life.