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 cultivate equanimity and calm ourselves. You don’t even have to be a beginner meditator or a yoga practitioner to experience the benefits of Yoga’s foundational wisdom and simple practices.
Wisdom from Classical Yoga for Cultivating Calmness
One of the many definitions of Yoga, from the Bhagavad Gita, is Yoga is evenness of mind. According to this definition of Yoga, both the goal and our intention as practitioners is to cultivate this state of equanimity and steadiness. Just remembering “Yoga is evenness of mind” can cause you to inhale, exhale and release whatever has caused you to feel off-center.
For total newcomers to yoga practice, this sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is also helpful: Yogas citta vritti nirodha, or Yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind. (Some prefer as a translation, Yoga is the calming of the thought waves of the mind.)
When our minds, our thoughts, are agitated, our breath and our nervous systems are also agitated.
When you feel overwhelmed, notice if you’re doing shallow, upper chest breathing and if so, deepen and lengthen the breath. Notice how that impacts your state.
Having the intention to just breathe can be helpful. You might even start to notice if there are anxiety-producing moments that cause you to stop breathing or to breathe in a shallow way (like technology issues when you have a deadline).
A great mantra to adopt regardless of what you’re experiencing is:
When we enjoy the breath, we soothe our nervous systems and create, in that moment, a peaceful awareness. When we have many of these moments throughout the day, our “micro” moments of practice have a cumulative effect. Over time we cultivate a more peaceful resting state and a calmer nervous system.
Learning that when we calm the breath, we calm our minds and nervous systems, is usually a welcome revelation and enough to digest for a total newcomer to Yoga.
(For those who want a deeper understanding, the next sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is: Tada drashtuh svarupevasthanam or Then the Seer abides in itself. When our minds are calm and we are no longer identified with thoughts, we discover and rest in our true nature.)
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 practices I prescribed for him) 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 I see the appeal of bringing our awareness to our feet for the chronically time-stressed. It gets us out of our heads and into our bodies even if our availability for practice is very limited.
If you have a regular yoga practice, you might find yourself spontaneously bringing your awareness to your feet without mentally planning to, as I sometimes do.
The first time I became aware of bringing my awareness to my feet spontaneously 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, a bit 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.
We Always Have the Breath
We can also do very simple, gentle breathing practices anytime, anywhere to cultivate equanimity. 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. (I also like to bring my awareness to my posture when I bring my awareness to the breath – to lengthen up through the spine and crown, and gently take my shoulders back.)
Flying through a long and rough patch of turbulence from London to New York (after a meditation teacher training), I briefly fantasized about taking over the broadcast system of the British Airways’ flight I was on – 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 do highly recommend these simple breath practices when you’re flying through a seemingly unending stretch of turbulence. When others are reaching for the sick bags, there’s a good chance you will be freakishly calm.
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 otice 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 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 vrittis, which is Sanskrit for whirling thoughts.
Lengthen the Exhale
Another simple breathing practice for calming the vrittis and cultivating 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 – calms the nervous system (activates the parasympathetic nervous system) and quiets the mind.
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 rather than “fight or flight.”
After practicing this and any breathing practice for a couple of minutes, return to your natural breath and observe any impact to your mental state.
In my opinion, this is possibly the only breathing technique you will ever need. It’s a little more potent than Sama breath and lengthening the exhale. This is how I teach it:
- With your mouth slightly open make the “HAAAAA” sound on the exhale, pushing the air upwards to the top of your mouth, the palate.
- Now, close your mouth and your eyes. For a few breaths, just let the inhale and exhale be the same length – steady, even, continuous.
- On the exhale, with your mouth still closed, make the same HAAA sound, pressing the air up towards the palate. It might sound a bit like the ocean.
- Practice Ujjayi on the exhale for a few breaths, 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. To me Ujjayi feels a little lighter on the inhale and I think it’s a little more challenging for newcomers. It’s fine if your Ujjayi is lighter on the inhale.
- Do Ujjayi on both the inhale and the exhale for a minute or two.
- Then, with your eyes still closed, return to your natural breath. Enjoy the breath. Notice any shift in your mental state created by a round 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 back to the breath or 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.