Some points on observing emotions in the body and how you can begin to gain awareness around how they are affecting you physically.
Your thoughts become your beliefs
Pregnancy humbled me as a yogi, even when I thought I was already humble enough in my practice. I don't want you to wait until you are pregnant or injured before taking a leaf from my book and looking at the way you approach things in a new light. How can you be more humble and start doing things mindfully?
When I started yoga, I came to it with a pretty solid footing. Flexible and energetic from a young age, I had already worked my way through childhood gymnastics, dance classes, muay thai kickboxing, and swimming before I found yoga.
I maintained a regular meditation practice and I had tried yoga many times in my 20's but was still caught up in the notion that you have to do, do, do to be really healthy. As some have said, I was a human doing rather than a human being.
Does this sound familiar?
What I felt was, yoga just wasn't fast enough.
If I'm really honest, it wasn't really punishing enough to be considered a legitimate exercise. At least not the yoga styles I tried.
It wasn't until I started thinking about balance in my life that yoga moved back to the forefront. I was living in arguably the busiest, most rat-fuelled city in Australia, with a go-go-go work ethic, fighting the waves of commuters into the cbd every day to work, and running from there to push my body through hours of muay thai training.
You'd think I would go home and collapse into a deep, golden slumber, right? Wrong.
Most nights I ran home from training, showered and ate quickly, and spent the next few hours fidgeting, tossing, and over-thinking in bed.
Why?...Well, to be honest, sometimes something can be staring me in the face and I look right past it.
Despite all my training, despite my meditation practice, despite knowing it intuitively, it took a while for me to cotton on that my lifestyle was not well balanced at all, and it showed up in two ways.
Firstly, I realised my lifestyle was overly rajasic, a Hindu term I'd been familiar with for many years but had neglected to consider for myself. Rajas is one of three qualities or Gunas in Hindu philosophy and denotes energy or motion. The other two qualities are Tamas, considered heaviness, or ignorance, and Sattva, meaning purity, goodness, or wholesomeness. It is thought that we have all three of these qualities inside us all the time in varying proportions. In some schools of thought, too much rajas or too much tamas in a person is considered an imbalance.
--> When I looked at my life then, I saw too much rajas, no doubt about it. I was super rajasic and it was my health and well-being that was paying the price, even though I ate really well and worked out religiously.
The second sign of imbalance came in the form of my attitude. Again, I saw this steely edge in me that didn't belong. There was a certain competitiveness, seeping into bouts of aggression. Aggression doesn't have to be physical, it can be found in your thoughts and your actions, and that's where I found mine. It seems the go-go-go attitude, the over-performance and stress at work, and the hardcore approach to exercise was bringing out the masculine in me. Here I am referring to the yin/yang understanding of masculine, and feminine energies, not gender.
--> I saw an imbalance in the way I was approaching my life by overloading it with yang energy in the form of over-working, over-playing, over-exercising, over-thinking...you get the picture.
So, how balanced is your life, truthfully? Are you mindful of the way you approach things?
After pondering balance in my life, my true yoga journey began.
I slowed down. I listened to my body. I aimed for balance in my actions and attitudes.
And what happened?
I got more sleep.
My health improved.
I was stronger
I was happier in myself and my relationships.
I felt myself beginning to shine from the inside out.
It was great!
But it wasn't until 2016 that my yoga reached new heights in a way I had not even contemplated. I got pregnant and, consequently, for the first time I became truly mindful in my yoga practice.
Suddenly I needed to modify the practice for my condition. Instead of starting at a well-worn point and continuing my reach forward to stronger, better positions without thinking, I was literally forced to stop and change the way I practiced, and I had to do it mindfully.
In the first trimester I stopped doing some poses from the get-go. Other poses had to be modified, and still others changed more and more over time. At times I watched while others in my class performed difficult asanas, fighting against envy and the desire to do them myself. It was hard.
there were some days where I honestly wanted to just lay down in Savasanna for the entire class.
I had never felt that before.
I was humbled.
I felt like a true beginner for the first time, in spite of my years of practice, and in spite of the balance I thought I'd achieved.
It was the first time I really had to place my baby and my body above my ego. It was there that I learned the true nature of listening to your body.
I thought I had been listening, but underneath it imbalance was still lurking. Sure I had really found a certain gentleness in the way I approached life. Sure I had tipped the scales way back to a more centred self. But, prior to my pregnancy, I never went for the 'easy' modification. If there was a higher level to the pose, I went for it. I never slowed down and really considered the results of each pose.
Are you really listening to your body and mind, and are you really thinking about your energy state as you do things?
I got more out of practicing yoga in this way than I have from all my years of practice. I felt more connected to my body, my energy state, and my growing baby. I felt more compassion and understanding for people who really struggle with their own demons in their practice, whether those demons be physical or mental.
I was more mindful than I have ever been and, as a result, I had some of the best yoga classes I've ever had.
How mindful are you in the things that you do, and how is that going for you?
What I'd like to suggest to you is, whatever it is you apply yourself to, have a go at doing it mindfully.
Really put yourself in the shoes of a beginner and feel what it is like to do it as if for the first time.
It may be yoga or meditation, it may be a sport, or it may even be something you do at work. We are constantly changing and growing. It isn't enough to simply do things without awareness, without listening. Bring your full presence to the activities you perform each day and see what comes to light for you. See what flashes of inspiration you have. See what empathy and understanding you develop, for yourself and for others.
Go on, give it a go.
Have a go at doing something in true mindfulness, doing it for the first time even if it is your thousandth, allowing yourself to simply 'be' in that moment.
And when you do, let me know how it went!
Any of you who have been to one of my classes would know that I looooove talking about the breath!
Whether it is releasing breath through the muscles in my yoga class, or following the in and out breath in a mindful meditation class, you can be sure that breath is a key part of my message to you.
Because for me, the breath is what unlocks your potential.
That's because it is intense! If you don't pay attention to your breath, you can be opening yourself up to a world of pain in the form of increased stress and anxiety, increased risk for cardiovascular issues, poor sleep, and the possibility of damaging relationships by not thinking clearly.
Not only that, daily breathing practice can bring you into the present moment, allowing you to think clearly and calmly about whatever is at hand, releasing emotional baggage that is preventing you from moving forward constructively, and bringing a deep appreciation for the very moment you find yourself in - no strings attached! This is how your potential can be unlocked through your breath. You can become a better, healthier, and more balanced person, simply by becoming conscious of your breath.
With all of our rushing around the place trying to compensate for the past or prepare for the future, how often do we just sit in the present moment, being aware of our breath and of the moment we find ourselves in?
In yogic philosophy, the breath connects to your prana - life force. Breathing techniques - pranayama - are employed alongside physical poses - asana - taking breathing from an autonomic (automatic) process to a conscious process. Attention is constantly paid to the quality of the breath, because the quality of the breath can indicate the quality of the mind.
On a practical level, the quality of the breath can be seen in the way someone breathes. Is the breath coming rapidly and concentrated in the upper chest? Or is it longer, slower and deeper, allowing the abdomen to move in and out?
Consciously directing the breath means that a person can move from a fight-or-flight response to the relaxed, rest and digest response. I have talked a little about this in previous posts here and here.
The benefits of moving away from the fight-or-flight response to the rest-and-digest response are huge.
The rest-and-digest mode is seen through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Once activated, the flow of oxygen and blood are altered. Here are a few benefits that result from this:
- decreased consumption of oxygen - increased relaxation
- decreased heart rate - increased relaxation, less work for the heart, lowers risk of heart disease
- decreased blood pressure - reduced risk for stroke, less strain on heart
- increased theta wave amplitude - boosts immune system, reduced anxiety, activation of healing mechanisms
- improved digestion
- experience of heightened alertness and energy.
(Jerath, Edry, Barnes, & Jerath, 2006)
So what are some tips to help me get in touch with my breath?
There are so many ways for you to get in touch with your breath. Here I share 3 simple and effective breathing tips that you can begin today.
I teach yoga and meditation in corporate settings and usually one of the first things I ask people to do in class is to stretch out their breathing apparatus - yep, that's right, breathing apparatus. The neck, chest and rib muscles are part of what helps you to breathe. If these muscles are tight and shortened, you can be sure that your breathing will also be tight and shortened.
Many people enter my class after sitting at their desk all morning working on stressful and tiring projects. They know it is a good idea to stretch, but it doesn't always happen when in the midst of a heavy workload. Often, my class is the first time in the day where they can sit down, switch off from work, and actually breathe.
So a few simple stretches can go a loooong way to loosening those breathing muscles.
- A simple neck stretch: Let your head drop to the right side and bring your right hand to sit gently on the side of your head. There is no need to put pressure on the neck, just let the weight of your hand help the neck muscles to lengthen slowly. Hold it there for 30 seconds, then do the other side.
- Stretch the chest muscles and activate the upper back muscles: Clasp your hands behind your back, roll your shoulders back, and squeeze the shoulder blades together. Hold it there for up to a minute.
- Lengthen and stretch the side ribs: Clasp the hands together, turn them out and bring your arms over your head. Stretch up through your arms, but keep your shoulders pressing down away from your ears. Keep the feeling of reaching upwards with your arms and bend your body over to one side. Be careful not to collapse into your waist here. Keep pressing upwards and outwards with your ribs. Come back to centre and do the other side.
2. Just breathe!
You might think this one is a bit of a no-brainer, but let me ask you, how often do you stop and notice your breath? Twice a day? Daily? Weekly? Ever?
Most of us go about our lives without ever thinking about our breathing, to our own detriment.
What I want you to do is really simple:
---> Just close your eyes and become aware of your breath. Notice it's quality as it enters and exits your body. Don't try and change it. Just follow it in and out, in and out. As you tune into your breath, start to recognise the four parts of the breath that run in a continuous cycle:
- the inhale
- the tiny pause after the inhale
- the exhale
- the tiny pause after the exhale
- and so on, the cycle continues.
I promise you, just checking in and doing this once or twice a day is a fantastic first step to becoming more aware of your breath. Incorporate it into your routine so it becomes habitual. In the morning after you wake up, splash your face with cold water to make sure you're fully awake, then sit down and take 5 minutes of breath awareness. In the evenings when you get home from work, do the same thing. Splash your face with cold water to wash away the day. Then sit down and take 5 minutes of breath awareness.
That's it. All you need to do is bring 10 minutes of conscious breathing into your day and you will notice a difference!
3. Count your breath
As you become more aware of your breathing, you can begin to add a count into your relaxation practice. Counting is a great way to avoid getting distracted.
You can also notice the quality of your breath by seeing the length of breath you can inhale and exhale comfortably. What you will probably find is that, with practice, it will be easier for you to lengthen your inhale and exhale. This can indicate a more relaxed state.
Try this simple counting method:
- Exhale all of your air
- Inhale for a count of four
- Notice the slight pause between the in and out breaths
- Exhale for a count of six
- Notice the slight pause between the in and out breaths
Often a 4 to 6 count is a good start, but if it is too much, just shorten the count to 3 to 5. Once you can do this count comfortably, start adding more counts to both the inhale and exhale.
If, at any time, you feel yourself straining or uncomfortable, you've gone too far. Straining can bring on the stress response - the opposite of what we're striving for here! Just dial it back to a shorter count. No need to get ahead of yourself, there will be plenty of time to lengthen the breath with practice.
So, there are 3 simple ways to calm down and unlock your potential using the breath. Give them a go and let me know what you think!
If you would like to learn to meditate but think you can't sit still or find the time, my 20 in 20 Meditate for LIFE Course is just for you! Join the no obligation pre-sale list and you will save when the course is released. Or, come and join us in the live and private Facebook group to be inspired and motivated to meditate daily.
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Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V., 2006, 'Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system', Medical Hypotheses, Vol 67, Iss 3, pp 566-571.
Do you suffer from IBS and other digestive complaints?
Did you know that your digestive system is another part of the body that can be easily affected by stress?
What can you do about it?
A healthy digestive system is essential for good long term health, through proper nutrient absorption and delivering energy to the cells of the body, among other things (Better Health Channel, 2014).
This article in The Express, UK (Lerche, 2016), describes a survey of 2000 UK adults aged 25 to 65 in which 70% of respondents reported moderate to extreme levels of stress. Survey participants also reported physical complaints from stress, such as headaches, exhaustion, and digestive complaints.
There are many causes and triggers for IBS and other digestive complaints and I don't purport to know all about IBS. However, my quick bout of research indicates that identifying and controlling life stressors can be used in conjunction with other treatment to help reduce the symptoms of IBS.
The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) states that a person with IBS [and, presumably, others with digestive issues] should identify the stressors in their life that are associated with IBS and work on addressing and reducing those issues (IFFGD, 2016).
A few things you can do that may help:
1. Focus on relieving emotional stress in your life - take up exercise, drop an activity if you're over-doing it, work on relationship issues - you be the judge on what you need to do to relieve emotional stress.
2. Take some time before your meal to sit calmly and focus on breathing - eliciting the relaxation response before you eat will help move your body out of flight-or-flight mode into the rest-digest mode you need.
3. Eat slowly and mindfully - slow it down! Take your time to chew the food and savour the taste. Allot sufficient time to eat and don't just squeeze it in between 'important tasks'. Give your eating and digestion the priority it deserves. After all, this is how you fuel your body and give it the energy it needs to get you through the day!
If you are seeing that stress is overtaking important parts of your life, like your eating habits, routines, or health, it might be time to take things down a notch in a more permanent way - I can work with you to design a coaching program based around your individual needs and challenges. Three months of your time and you'll be hitting stress on the head - you'll be a new, calmer, healthier version of yourself with your life under control.
Send me a message using one of the booking forms online here and I'll be in touch to set up a free 15 minute Discovery call with you to see whether stress management coaching is the right fit for you.
It's your health - it's so worth it.
Better Health Channel, 2016, Digestive System, August 2014, accessed 22 June 2016, <https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/digestive-system>
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, 2016, Stress and IBS, 15 June 2016, accessed 22 June 2016, <http://www.aboutibs.org/what-is-ibs-sidenav/stress-and-ibs.html>
Lerche, O. 2016, 'Stomach ache? One in THREE Brits say stress gives them bouts of irritable bowel syndrome', UK Express, 21 June, 2016, accessed 22 June 2016, <http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/681846/irritable-bowel-syndrome-stress-bloating-one-in-three-herbal-remedy>