As a Teacher, I’m aware that “I want to learn how to meditate” often means “I want to learn how to calm myself.”
The Yoga traditions offer both wisdom and practices that help us feel calm, centered, and peaceful, regardless of what’s happening around us. You don’t even have to be a meditator or a yoga practitioner to experience the benefits of Yoga’s foundational wisdom and practices.
Wisdom from Classical Yoga
One of the many definitions of Yoga, from the Bhagavad Gita, is Yoga is evenness of mind. Just remembering “Yoga is evenness of mind” can cause you to inhale, exhale, and release whatever has caused you to feel off-center. It can be a cue to move back into your center, this state of equanimity.
For total newcomers to yoga practice, this sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is also helpful: Yogas citta vritti nirodha or Yoga is the state in which the mental-emotional fluctuations are still. Yoga is also the practices that help us calm the “citta vritti,” 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 stressed, tune into your breath; notice if you’re doing shallow, upper chest breathing. If so, use the experience as a cue to breathe more slowly and deeply.
You might start to notice if there are anxiety-producing moments (like encountering technology issues when you have a deadline) that cause you to stop breathing or to breathe in a shallow way.
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. When we have many of these moments throughout the day, it has a positive impact on our mental-emotional state. Over time we cultivate a more peaceful resting state and a calmer nervous system.
During our busy days, we can 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 (of a handful of recommended practices) 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, so bringing our awareness to our feet is particularly helpful for the chronically time-stressed.
The Benefits of Practice: New Habits Kick In When We Most Need Them
If you have a regular yoga practice, you might find yourself doing this spontaneously. The first time I became aware of automatically bringing my awareness to my feet was when I was checking on the progress of my kitchen renovation. It was a gut renovation that created unspeakable levels of dust, noise that my neighbors quickly tired of, and a state of utter upheaval in my entire apartment which was mostly zip-locked away 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 my contractor, my unhappy neighbor, and the unexpected level of sheer chaos created in my home.
More About the Breath…
We always have 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.
Flying through a long and rough patch of turbulence from London to New York, I fantasized about taking over the British Airways broadcast system to teach simple breathing techniques. It was clear the infrequent flyers were suffering and it would be so easy to help them. That fantasy was followed by the vision of being escorted off the plane at JFK. 🙂
I like to bring my awareness to my posture when I bring my awareness to the breath. The physical cues are: lengthen up through the spine and crown, gently take the top of the arm bones back, and relax the shoulders and shoulder blades, letting them release downwards.
Here are a few gentle breathing techniques that can help you stay calm regardless of what’s happening around you.
Bring Your Awareness to Your Breath
Sometimes it’s enough to simply bring our awareness to the breath and notice how we’re breathing—or even IF we’re breathing.
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? 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).
A Psychology Today article which explores the research, notes that “Especially slow, deep breathing and longer exhales stimulates the vagus nerve (which controls heart rate) and helps us enter the “rest and digest” mode versus the “fight or flight” mode. The author, Christopher Bergland, mentions that “Especially slow and deep breathing with emphasis on long exhalation is dominant across traditions.”
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, a little more potent than Sama breath and lengthening the exhale. 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.
Learning how to cultivate steadiness and evenness of mind are lifelong endeavors.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.