As a Teacher, I’m aware that “I want to learn how to meditate” often means “I want to learn how to calm myself.”
Wisdom from Classical Yoga
This sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra can be helpful: Yogas citta vritti nirodha or Yoga stills the mental-emotional fluctuations of the mind.
When our minds are agitated, our breath and our nervous systems are also agitated.
When you feel overwhelmed or even just a little stressed, tune into your breath; breathe more slowly and deeply.
You might start to notice if there are anxiety-producing moments that cause you to breathe in a shallow way or even to stop breathing.
A great mantra to adopt regardless of what you’re experiencing is:
When we enjoy the breath, we soothe our nervous systems and create a peaceful awareness.
During our busy days, we can also use simple sensory triggers to remind ourselves to pause and breathe and come into the present moment.
Bring Your Awareness to Your Feet
A friend who is a globe-trotting executive with a brutal travel schedule told me his favorite practice is to close his eyes and bring his awareness to the soles of his feet. He then feels into the sensations of his feet connecting to the ground which, in his case, is often the carpet of a hotel room.
Most of us live in our heads, especially when pressed for time. Bringing our awareness to the soles of our feet for a few seconds is especially helpful for the chronically time-stressed. It grounds us and provides a break in the stream of thinking absorbing our attention.
If you have a regular yoga practice, you might find yourself bringing your awareness to the soles of your feet spontaneously. The benefit of regular practice is that new habits kick in when we most need them. I first noticed doing this automatically during a gut renovation of my kitchen that created a thick field of dust, noise that my neighbors quickly tired of, and a state of utter upheaval in my home which was mostly zip-locked behind large plastic tarps.
In my bedroom, away from the renovation fray, the appealing softness of the wood floor under my feet drew me inside. I closed my eyes and felt into the sensations – the warmth and smoothness of the wood, how good it feels to balance my weight evenly on my feet, and how pleasant it is to “enjoy the breath.”
Within a few moments, I felt centered again, content even, and equipped to deal with the chaos created all around me.
Bring Your Awareness to the Breath
When we’re waiting for the light to change to cross the street, in a long line at the post office during the holiday season, or in an unpleasant meeting, we can tune into the breath.
It’s good to bring your awareness to your posture when you bring your awareness to the breath. The physical cues are: lengthen up through the spine and crown, gently take the top of the arm bones back, relax the shoulders and let the shoulder blades release downwards.
Sometimes it’s enough to simply bring our awareness to the breath and notice how we’re breathing—or even IF we’re breathing.
Here are a few gentle breathing techniques that can help you stay calm regardless of what’s happening around you.
Become aware of your breath and notice if there are any areas in your body where you’re holding tension—in your abdomen, chest, shoulders, face, jaw? If so, just release the holding and let your inhale and exhale become deeper and fuller.
Notice if you’re doing shallow upper chest breathing as opposed to deeper diaphragmatic breathing.
Now sit in an upright, relaxed posture—your spine lengthening up and your shoulders relaxed—and have the intention to practice these simple breathing practices easefully and gently for a few minutes.
Sama means even. With sama breath, we simply let the inhale and the exhale be the same length—even, steady, continuous. This kind of steady, even breathing is soothing and calms the thought waves.
Lengthen the Exhale
Another simple breathing practice for cultivating calmness, evenness of mind, is to make the exhale longer than the inhale. Do this in a way that feels easeful for you, simply lengthening the exhale so it’s a few counts longer than the inhale. You might try inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 8 counts.
Breathing this way—with a gently lengthened exhale—quiets the mind and calms the nervous system (activates the parasympathetic nervous system).
After practicing this and any breathing practice for a couple of minutes, return to your natural breath and notice how you feel, the impact to your mental state.
In my opinion, “Ujjayi” or “Victorious” breath is possibly the only breathing technique you will ever need. It’s very soothing. This is how I teach it:
- To start, enjoy your breath. Inhale and exhale a few times with ease. Let the inhale and exhale be steady, even and continuous.
- Inhale and then on the exhale, open your mouth slightly and make the “HAAAA” sound, pushing the air upwards to the top of your mouth, the palate. Do that a few times, making the HAAAA sound on the exhale.
- Now close your mouth. Inhale and exhale. On the exhale, with your mouth still closed, make the same HAAAA sound, pressing the air up towards the palate. It might sound a bit like the ocean.
- Practice Ujjayi on just the exhale for a few breaths, with the mouth closed, remembering to keep both the inhale and the exhale the same length—steady, even and continuous.
- Now add Ujjayi on the inhale as well. Gently push the air up to the palate on both the inhale and the exhale. I think Ujjayi can feel harder on the inhale. Know that it’s natural and fine for Ujjayi to be lighter on the inhale than the exhale. If you’re aware it’s naturally lighter on the inhale, you can drop the expectation that it be the same as on the exhale and the idea that it’s harder.
- Do Ujjayi on both the inhale and the exhale for a minute or two, remembering to let the inhale and exhale be steady, even and continuous. Let your mind be absorbed in the soothing sound of the breath.
- Then, with your eyes still closed, return to your natural breath. Enjoy the breath. Notice any shift in your mental state created by a few rounds of Ujjayi.
When you’re in a roomful of people doing Ujjayi breath in a yoga class, it can sound like the ocean.
Know this is a portable breathing practice you can use anytime and anywhere. It works just as well when you practice a light version, when the sound is barely audible or audible only to you.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate Nostril Breathing, also known as Hilary Clinton’s favorite, is another relatively gentle pranayama or breathing technique. It’s better taught in person where a Teacher can demonstrate options, answer your questions, and observe you as you learn the practice.
Cultivating More Ease and Calm Long-Term
Learning how to cultivate more evenness of mind, more mental-emotional steadiness, and more ease, are lifelong endeavors. Over time, your new habits – and your ability to calm yourself – will become more automatic. Regardless, the moment you realize your breath is shallow or that you’re no longer in a state of equanimity, you’re in remembrance. You can bring your awareness to the breath or to your feet. You can literally breathe and feel your way back to your center, the ground of your being, the state of calmness that is your birthright.