Progressive Relaxation Body Scan

sitting meditationHere is one of our scripts for a guided body scan with the goal of muscle relaxation and stress relief. Please feel free to use it (proper attribution is always appreciated) or record your own voice reading it to have a personal guided relaxation session.

Progressive Relaxation Body Scan

Shift into a comfortable position- one that allows your back to be straight and supports all of your limbs. Move around until you settle into the right spot, perhaps finding something to lean against to support your back. Feel free to lie down if that is most comfortable, or if your objective is to prepare for sleep. If you would like to set an intention, go ahead and do so now. You are free to adjust your position at any time during the body scan to become more comfortable and relaxed.

Become present and aware of your body and your surroundings. Let your eyes close gently if they are not already closed. Take in a deep breath through your nose, noticing how your chest and belly feel as they fill up. Let your breath out through your nose, and at the bottom of your exhale, gently push just a little more air out. Welcome your breath back in through your nose, and again, out through your nose. Let your breath become smooth, even, and equal. Take a few more breaths this way. Allow your pattern of breathing to follow its natural pattern, in and out. Any way this occurs is fine.

Create with your mind a beautiful, bright ball of light floating in the air above your head. See it in your mind or just sense that it is there. Notice what color it is. Feel a gentle warmth emanating from it and know that the light has special properties of comfort, healing, relaxation, and cleansing. Allow this ball of light to slowly move downward through your body and permeate each part of your body.

As the light moves down through the crown of your head, allow your scalp to relax, the muscles in your forehead, eyes, cheeks, jaw, and neck relax and become still. Let all tension release and melt away as the beautiful white light seeps into each body part.

Allow the light to move downward, radiating warm, healing light into your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. Notice how soft and relaxed all of your muscles here feel. If any tension lingers, feel free to keep the ball of light hovering over that area until it loosens.

Imagine the light continuing to drift slowly down, through your chest, back, stomach, and hips, and pelvic bowl until they are saturated with beautiful, bright, healing light and there is no longer any tension or residual stress. Allow the light to continue down through your thighs, calves, ankles, feet, and toes, warming, softening, and relaxing them from the inside, all the way out.

If any tension returns, take a slow breath in through your nose, imagining your ball of beautiful healing light coming in with your breath and smoothing and soothing any stress you are still holding. Now release that tension from your body with your breath as it passes back out through your nose. Notice your body feeling warm, relaxed, and light. You are now ready to {meditate, sleep, re-engage with your day, etc}.

Come back to an awareness of your breath, and of the feeling of your eyelids if they become lighter, and slowly blink them open. Stretch and move your body around. Any time you feel tension returning, you can take a few deep breaths and mentally pass your healing light through your body to return to this relaxed state.

How did you respond to the body scan? Were you able to detect tension lingering in your muscles? Were you able to release it and return to a state of calm awareness? We’d love to hear from you.

Photo- Meredith Carlson Photography

Setting an intention for meditation and yoga

Do you set an intention for your personal meditation and/or yoga practice? Or, do you wonder if there’s a point? Is it just a new age-y way to say you’re setting a goal? And what should your intention be, anyway???!!! If you’ve ever been stressed during yoga or meditation class about what this whole intention thing is, keep reading!

Setting an intention is a powerful way to align your head, your heart, and your body and attract positive energy into your life. It is a bit like making a goal, but there are some important differences. Understanding these differences between a goal and an intention might point you in the right direction.

Imagine that you’re planning a hike up to a beautiful vista- you’re not there yet, but you can clearly see where you want to end up when all is said and done. A goal has to do with reaching this *future* destination. An intention has to do with the journey you are currently on toward that destination, whether you arrive at the top or not. It has to do with being immersed in the *present* moment.

If you just love making goals, there’s nothing wrong with that! So go ahead and picture where you’d like to see yourself at a specific, later date- this is your destination, your goal for the future.

Now let’s focus on the journey- this is how you’re going to get there, starting right this minute. What do you want the journey to be like? Is there a feeling or quality that you would like to cultivate- in life in general, the next month, the next minute? Keep in mind that your intention is something you can attain, moment by moment, regardless of whether you reach a future goal- or not.

For clarity, you might want to ask yourself:

  • Who/ what matters most to me?
  • What am I most thankful for?
  • How do I feel when I am my happiest self?
  • What words resonate with me?

Examples of possible intentions include: peace, unconditional love (giving or receiving), balance, equanimity, optimism, forgiving self or others, courage, focus, patience, flexibility, faith, connection, embracing change, soft/open heart, resilience, etc.)

Once you have an impression of what your intention should be, try to distill it down to as few words as possible- focusing on what you want, rather than what you want to avoid. This is the feeling you want to come away with, after your practice. It is the quality you would like to color your life, your goals, your successes and your struggles with.​

You might find it helpful to write this word or phrase somewhere you’ll see it often, or create a “trigger” by associating your intention with an object you see or handle fairly often, like a piece of jewelry or a pocket stone, etc. For me, the wrist mala (meditation bracelet) I wear daily reminds me of my personal intention. Do whatever works for you!

These instructions can help you identify your intention for your life right now. However, you can always set a time- specific intention that is just for the duration of a yoga class, a difficult conversation, or some other short- term activity.

Now that you have identified your intention, you have a couple of options. First, you can just mentally set it aside. Yep! Your subconscious mind will remember it and help you create the connections you need. Second, you could use that word or short phrase of your intention as a personal mantra to repeat with each breath you take while you sit in meditation or do your yoga set. It’s totally up to you and what feels natural in the moment.

Got a question about setting an intention that we didn’t cover? Feel free to leave a comment, or send us a DM on Instagram. <3

How to Anchor Your Life by Letting Go

I want to make a disclaimer at the beginning of this post that I am not in any way stating that someone in an abusive relationship, extreme difficult circumstance, or who has serious mental health needs to accept these situations and continue allowing these situations to occur. It is important to seek help when necessary and sometimes really digging down deep into these difficult circumstances will help us realize changes that need to be made.

It’s pretty crazy the lengths humans will go to sidestep discomfort inside of ourselves, isn’t it? From avoiding a conversation with a loved one, to living in denial about our true feelings about something, we constantly avoid, overlook, or try to micromanage other areas of our life to help compensate for the lack of control we feel about this difficult situation or emotion in our lives.

The problem with this approach is that we ultimately can’t control everything around us. When we respond to a disruption in our lives or emotional well-being by resisting it, we are in essence trying to control it or change it instead of accepting it. We are trying to change what is. Doing so removes us from the reality we are in and since our lives are always unfolding in the “now”, it creates painful cognitive dissonance and added feelings of frustration. What I’m getting at is that the very moment we don’t accept something that already is, we begin mentally living in a state other than reality. This can cause feelings of helplessness, denial, control, anger, prolonged grief, anxiety, and depression – to name a few.

There is ample research that indicates that people who deal with emotions healthily, who “let things go” and move on, so to speak, rather than bottling their emotions, live happier, longer, healthier lives! Perhaps the reasons I stated above have something to do with that.

Life is unpredictable, for better or worse. Each circumstance that passes through us is like a balloon, impermanent and floating along at the whims of the wind and circumstances surrounding it. Sometimes these balloons may look appealing – they are an escape from the true reality of whatever we are dealing with. We can choose to identify with this balloon and its accompanying emotions as it floats by, at which point we sign over the control of our own experience and are at the mercy of where this circumstance or emotion goes. This is draining and exhausting. It also puts us in a position where we are no longer in control and although it was an impermanent event, it has now become part of our current story for much longer than it ever needed to be.

The other option is that we can choose to root ourselves in the rich soil of reality and the present moment, and let the balloons float through us and past us. We can be aware of the difficult circumstances we are in, and aware of the emotion balloons that may be passing by us, but we can view them for exactly what they are: impermanent. We are no longer identifying with them and grabbing on for the wild ride. Occasionally a balloon may blow around us and in our face, obstructing our vision for a bit, but they will float past eventually.  

This isn’t easy. We hold on to our experiences and emotions for dear life. Sometimes our difficult emotions and circumstances have shaped who we are and the thought of letting go of them makes us feel like we are releasing a piece of our identity with them. We are afraid of who we are without them. Other times the thought of facing these circumstances may make us shrink out of fear of pain, or you may feel too far down your path to change now.

In Buddhism there is a concept taught by Buddha called the Second Arrow. The idea is that if someone strikes you with an arrow, it’s very painful. That arrow represents pain from circumstances in life. This pain is unavoidable and part of the experience of being alive. However, humans do a curious thing. Rather than pull the first arrow out, painful as that would be, we often will drive a second arrow behind that first arrow and force more pain onto ourselves. The second arrow represents our own shame, anger, re-living experiences, and beating ourselves up over something we did. This is pain that is both unnecessary, and usually even more painful than the first arrow to come our way.

What in your life are you wasting precious energy and time resisting, or driving a second arrow into yourself? What balloons have you identified with and given your control over to, which no longer serve you anymore? It might be painful, just like pulling that first arrow out, and we need to acknowledge what has happened to us, or what we have done to ourselves. But we also need to be willing to dig in and really look at the situation or emotion, see it for what it is, and then move forward from it. In doing so, we plant our feet in the soil of reality and allow ourselves to experience life more freely and be at peace with ourselves.

Why Loving Yourself is the Most Important Thing You Will Ever Do

Before I started meditating I didn’t think much about self-love. The whole concept seemed a little new-agey and wreaked of over-used phrases like “self-esteem” and “treat yo self” for me to take it too seriously. I figured if there was something I didn’t care for in myself it was my problem to deal with. I didn’t see how it affected anyone else.

Brene Brown, the contemporary foremost authority on shame and vulnerability research, has studied and interviewed countless individuals on topics surrounding vulnerability, shame, and resilience. Do you know the number one common trait she found in people who live “wholeheartedly” as she calls it? Those rare people she discovered who lead their lives from a place of worthiness and compassion for themselves and others? Obviously, they must have lead lives of privilege, they couldn’t have known the dark holes of mistakes or years wasted in anguish over something. Was it that they were well-liked, or made a certain amount of money? None of the above. These people who lead shame-resistant lives were just as likely to have made large-scale mistakes, experience heartache and failure, and every other marker for difficulty as everyone else interviewed. The only difference? They believed they were worthy of love and connection. That’s it.

Hold up. So she is telling me that if I want live “wholeheartedly”, I don’t have to change a single thing about myself. I could go to bed tonight with all my annoying habits, my big nose, my past regrets, and wake up – with no changes! – and experience the deepest of human connections, the truest of human love, the kind of unencumbered joy that comes with no strings attached? Every day for the rest of my life? The only thing keeping me from my best life is my belief that those feelings aren’t for people like me?

Pretty much. Well, with the caveat that I would need to let go of all the baggage that comes with a lifetime of self-loathing overnight (insert Brene maniacally laughing as she knows she’s got my attention but I have no idea how much courage this is going to take).

Um. Ok? But still…why does loving myself matter so much?

Let’s pretend for a minute that I grew up in a family where sports were super important and I always really wanted to be good at sports but after a few painful experiences in middle school, I let go of that dream. There are many routes I could take, but let’s say that I decide that even if I’m not on a team, at least I can stay relevant by being in the know about sports. All my clothes proclaim my favorite teams. I always know the stats on the game and it’s my go-to topic of conversation. I don’t realize it, but I’m hustling for my worth and for my place in my tribe. I’m hustling because I don’t believe I’m enough without sports.

Ok, fine, you say. So you’re insecure about sports and you like to catch the game after work, there are worse things in life.

Sure. But it doesn’t end there. There are a lot of areas where this will haunt me throughout life. What about in college, how do I act every time I meet an athletic person? Hustling. How do I act when I meet someone who is bad at sports? I probably spit my own self-judgement right in their face. Hustling. Lastly, what if I have a child who reflects the part I hate the most about myself back at me. What if they try out for sports and they are “that” same kid that I was? Hustling. It’s very hard for me to offer compassion to that child when I’ve never extended it to myself for the exact same thing. And this time, my child is going to learn to hustle too.

Maybe it’s not sports for you – maybe it’s stretch marks, impatience, maybe you were a bully for years, maybe it’s a harsh internal dialogue from years of emotional abuse. Whatever it is, it doesn’t just affect you.

The first thing you can do is become aware of what you loathe in yourself. Judgement is a great signal for this because when we judge someone else it is almost always because we are trying to distance ourselves from something we are afraid of or dislike about ourselves. Do you judge that woman who is always late to work meetings because as a child it was instilled in you that being late it was a sign of laziness? What does your internal dialogue look like when you are running late? How about that bad habit you can’t get on top of? How do you respond when you see someone else exhibiting that same habit you hate? How about when your child expresses anxiety about a situation and you tell them to stop being a baby? How do you respond when you feel vulnerable or weak in a situation?

It’s important in these times when you realize how deep the well of frustration with yourself may run, to take a deep breath and try to suspend judgement for yourself. Get curious. Instead of judging yourself – ask yourself why you are acting or feeling this way? It’s a little scary, right? If I stop hating the things I hate about myself – even for a second, won’t I just keep doing that thing forever? Isn’t it the hatred and loathing that motivates me to be my best self?

The answer is a resounding “no”. When has hatred or anger ever inspired someone to change for the better? We can easily hear how ridiculous this sounds for relationships, yet we don’t apply it for our own personal relationship with yours truly. As long as you resist the things you hate and fear the most about yourself, you can’t really look at them. When you hold the things you loathe about yourself in judgement and shame, they are too rigid and condemning to conquer. Holding your self-hatred in compassion and understanding allows those rigid sharp edges to relax ever-so slightly. For the first time maybe we can acknowledge that we screwed up but we aren’t A screw-up. Maybe we can admit that while, yes, we knew better, we are still human. Maybe we can start to believe that we are still worthy of love and the best experiences life has to offer – even if we can’t offer that love to ourselves in every aspect just yet.

Learning to love ourselves is critical in meditation for another reason. Meditation is bringing us into the present, it’s making us aware of our true nature. Most of our self-loathing, however, is rooted in the past. Whether it was a bad experience, or endlessly wishing you could get back to your “ideal weight”, whatever it might be, your self-loathing isn’t serving this moment. Releasing your self-loathing allows you to fully explore the present moment, experience it, un-strangled by tendrils from the past.

Despite what I said earlier, learning to love yourself isn’t going to be an overnight process. But maybe tomorrow you can become aware of ways that you could eventually love yourself more. Maybe you’ll be inspired to intend to love yourself someday, which is fine. Take it one step, one situation, one thought at a time. And plan on mistakes and mess-ups and learning to love yourself through them along the way. You might find that clearing out all the baggage and festering insecurity brought on by self-loathing leaves behind deep, cavernous scars with just the right environment to become the birthplace of deeper relationships, more connection, more love, and deeper peace than you could have ever imagined.

-Alicia

 

How to respond to body-shaming comments

respond to body shaming“Wow! You are really short, aren’t you?” My head snapped around to see who had asked such a rhetorical and awkward question, and I discovered a pair of unblinking eyes, a head taller than me, looking straight down into mine. An older woman I had never met was watching me, waiting expectantly for my response. I was taken by surprise. Her question had transported me back to middle school, a time when I was the daily (maybe hourly?) recipient of similar observations about my small stature. A time when I felt not just physically smaller than everyone else, but smaller on the inside, too. Insignificant, immature, unworthy of notice.

I register at 5’1” on a good posture day. These days, I own being a short girl, although I prefer to refer to myself as “petite”. Whether you’re petite, or statuesque, willowy, or curvy, light skinned or dark-skinned, or freckled, or anything remotely “different” or sheesh, maybe even “normal” featured, whatever that means, I know you’ve been the recipient of a Comment (with a capital ‘C’)- perhaps it was well- meaning, perhaps it was malicious, or maybe it was just uncomfortably awkward. I know you probably felt a rush of conflicting emotions, just as I did- a sense of having the rug pulled out from under you, and of being forced to fight your way out of a corner.

For me, in that moment, I was caught up in those conflicting emotions and I didn’t really respond other than what felt like incoherent mumbling, and I moved on.  But I was bothered. Should I have just ignored it?  Put her in her place? I could have thrown her words back at her, with barbed edges.  However, I sensed that this woman’s body shaming comment did not have any malicious intent, and most likely was due to her feeling some level of insecurity about herself.  I certainly didn’t want to make the same mistake she did. Upon further reflection, I realized that I wanted to be able to respond in a way that was both a gentle correction, and that validated each of our worth as a person. Here’s how I would respond if that situation were to happen again:

Commentator: “Wow! You really are short!”

Me, with a smile: “And aren’t we both lovely? It’s amazing how beauty comes in so many different forms.”

We’ve all been the recipient of body-shaming comments, or comments that touch on a sensitive area for us. People remark on our height, weight, shape, coloring, outfit, hair, makeup, hygiene, marital/relationship status, apparent level of prosperity, etc. The list goes on and on.  It’s easy to get caught up in it, and create a never-ending cycle of resentment, self- loathing, and judgement. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time or the emotional stamina to be on that hamster wheel!

I would like to offer some advice:

  1. Don’t be the commenter in this scenario. Choose not to participate in body shaming. Do not remark on the size, or shape, or any other characteristic of someone’s body, either to their face, or behind their back. Sure, you may feel like you’re just being honest, but ask yourself these 3 questions first: 1. Is it true? 2. Is it kind? 3. Is it necessary? Do both of you a favor and make an effort to see past what’s on the outside and find out something about the person they are on the inside. Yeah, I know it can be hard to dig that deep, especially in superficial situations. But you might make a new friend and be better for it. If you really can’t figure out anything else to say, just close your mouth and smile.
  2. If you have an “oops” moment, and you realize that you just became the commenter (and we’ve all been there), take a deep breath, don’t beat yourself up, but acknowledge the feelings and thoughts you had that caused you to make the comment. Apologize if necessary. Make a commitment to yourself to use words that uplift.
  3. If you are the recipient of one of these “helpful” comments, resist the urge to be offended. Pause, and take a deep breath. Resist the urge to internalize those words. Resist the urge to fire back a retort about the other person’s height, or weight, or appearance in general. Instead, take a moment to internally reaffirm your worth. Recognize that the comment is most likely based in the other person’s insecurity. Choose to make this a learning experience for both of you. Don’t reverse- body- shame the other person- you might feel better temporarily, but it just puts the other person on the defensive and doesn’t invite positive change. Don’t respond to the comment other than to express love and total acceptance of yourself, and the other person if you can manage it sincerely. Yeah, I know it can be hard to dig that deep, and find something kind to say to someone who made an insensitive or rude comment to you. But you’ll be at peace, you’ll have self- respect, and you’ll hopefully teach that person to be better by your example.
  4. Lastly, make a conscious choice to love the skin you’re in. This body, this gift you’ve been given, is the only one you’ve got, and it is your vehicle for experiencing all the beauty and joy that life has to offer. The more you nourish your physical body with self- love, self- awareness, and total acceptance, the less you have to fear other people’s judgements. This is a process and a journey. Be gentle with yourself even if you find yourself sliding back into self-critical thought patterns. If you need to change deeply rooted, negative thought patterns about your body, may I suggest choosing a positive affirmation and saying it out loud, many times each day? We’ll cover crafting an effective positive affirmation statement in another post, but “I am…” statements are a good place to start. Here’s my favorite affirmation, that I come back to over and over: “I am beautiful, vibrant, and worthy of love.” If that feels difficult to say, just know that it gets easier the longer you practice it.

What do you think? Have you been the recipient of a well-meaning Comment? How did you respond? Or, were you on the other side of scenario? What would you do differently the next time you’re in a similar situation?

-Rochelle

Beginner’s Mind. Small. Life Changing.

Do you ever roll your eyes when you hear about the concept of “Beginner’s Mind”? Like if I just suspend judgement for a moment and make-believe that I’m a baby and don’t know anything at all, suddenly everything in my life will be solved. Riiight.

Well…kind of, actually.

As humans, we are experts at drawing lines from A to B and finding patterns that make life more efficient with subconscious lightning quick speed. We’ve done it since the moment we were born and we do it constantly throughout the day – if we are having a conversation with a relative we find annoying, we know how we are going to feel about what they say before they’ve even said it. In fact, this plays out in our conversations all the time: Try and have a conversation, or better yet, an argument, where you don’t think at all about what you are going to say until the other person is completely finished speaking. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

So how do we learn to differentiate between patterns that serve us, don’t exist, and patterns that we can trust and use with good judgement?

You guessed it: Beginner’s Mind.

Did you know that studies have shown that one of the reasons children are better at learning a second language than adults is that they aren’t afraid of making mistakes in front of fluent speakers of the language they are trying to learn? Adults, on the other hand, fear failure or looking like they aren’t proficient at something and shy away from taking risks in front of other adults while learning the language. Think about that. It’s in the creativity and even wrong use of the rules that children become experts while most adults never achieve mastery. It’s in the willingness to not be the expert that children gain a better understanding!

As soon as we view ourselves as the teacher or expert, we stunt our growth because we stop learning. When we approach a situation, even a mundane every day task like eating an apple, with curiosity and mindfulness, we experience things far beyond what someone who assumes they know what that apple tastes like and what the experience will be when they eat it. That same principle translates to our relationships with others and especially with ourselves.

Pausing for a moment when our child asks a question we already have a formulated answer to. Eating breakfast while aware of the tastes and sensations, even thinking about where it came from.  Taking a breath and observing why we are so critical of ourselves in a certain area. Waiting to formulate a response in our own head when someone else is talking are all forms of Beginner’s Mind. Often when I try to listen to someone else without thinking of a response I am surprised to find that my response is a question rather than a statement. The conversation takes me places I wouldn’t have expected, and I learn from it.

Beginner’s Mind comes from Zen Buddhism, which has an ancient legend that illustrates this beautifully.  The story goes that there was once a wise Zen Master who people came from far and wide to seek wisdom from. One day a person of high social status came to him, asking the Zen Master to show him the way to Enlightenment and teach him more about Zen. The Zen Master invited him in for tea and while the Zen Master prepared the tea, the man began talking extensively about all of his knowledge regarding Enlightenment. He droned on and on, clearly feeling very pleased with himself. As the Zen Master began to pour the tea in the man’s cup, he continued pouring even as it filled to the brim and spilled over, even going so far as to continue pouring when it began to pour onto the man’s beautiful and expensive robes. The man exclaimed “Stop! Stop! You fool, what are you doing?!” The Zen Master replied, “Your mind is like this cup, so full it cannot hold anything else.  No new ideas or thoughts. Come back to me when you have emptied your mind and I will teach you about Enlightenment.”

Beginner’s Mind is not abandoning reason or common sense. It’s making space in our cup to discover new solutions, experiences, and relationships. Instead of assuming that we learned everything we needed to know in the first few years of our life, we are open to limitless possibilities. It’s simply suspending judgement for the moment – the judgements we make so quickly we don’t even realize we are making them – and instead being curious about a situation. When we do that, we open up just a little space to possibly learn something. We stop the exhausting ritual of resisting anything that doesn’t immediately fit with our perception of life and pause. Relax. Learn.

-Alicia

 

Meditate with just one breath

“One conscious breath -in and out- is a meditation.”
–Eckhart Tolle

Did you know that out of all the systems in the body, the respiratory system is the only one that can be controlled either consciously or unconsciously?  By choosing to consciously control what is usually an unconscious process, you can change unconscious patterns in your thinking. Want to change the way you respond to things that trigger you to anger, fear, or shame? Start with the way you breathe. Notice if you’re holding your breath or breathing shallowly during stressful situations, then make a conscious choice to breathe more deeply and more fully.

Prana

When talking about breath, we can’t neglect addressing prana, which is tied to our breath. “Prana” is a Sanskrit word meaning “life force”. It represents absolute, divine energy. According to ancient masters, “Prana is a mystical force that is found in all living physical entities, but which is non-physical. It is in the air without being air. It is in water without being water. it is in food without being food.” Ancient sages taught that wherever there is life, there is prana.  They also taught that each person is allotted a number a breaths for their lifetime, and that conscious breathing would lengthen a person’s lifespan. Scientifically, this is true, because mindful breathing over time is shown to reduce stress, which is linked to a large assortment of chronic health problems.

Pranayam/ Pranayama

Pranayam is the use of breathing techniques to control the movement of prana- the life force energy- through our bodies. Though prana comes into our bodies with the air, it doesn’t necessarily go to the lungs. Prana can be directed to different areas of the body through conscious breathing.  Even a slight change in the way your breathe can change the way you feel and see the world. If you want to change your mental or emotional state, change your breath. Do these breath exercises in bed, seated at your desk, in the car, while making dinner, as part of a more formal meditation, or even discretely during a stressful workday (which for me includes my writing and working from home time, running my kids around during carpool, studying, cooking, and running the household). Here are my favorite 3 simple go-to pranayama, or breathing exercises:

North- South Breathing (aka Alternate Nostril Breathing)

This breathing technique puts the mind and body into harmony. It balances the right and left hemispheres of your brain. I love to use this pranayam to start my meditation time, and it is also extremely helpful to remain calm and grounded during transition times, such as ending the workday and moving into family time, before public speaking, or shifting into productivity mode. North-South breathing helps create a sense of well-being, and can even help mitigate headaches and other stress-related symptoms. Here’s how to do it:

  • Use the thumb of the right hand to close the right nostril, and gently and fully inhale through the left nostril.
  • Then close the left nostril with the index finger of your right hand and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.  
  • Close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
  • Continue repeating, alternating nostrils after each inhalation- so you exhale and inhale on one side, then switch and do the same on the other side, alternating which side you are breathing on.
  • As you alternate sides, visualize the air passing in and out as a cleansing light.
  • Complete 12 complete rounds of North- South breathing.

*Breathing through the left nostril is associated with Calmness, Empathy, Sensitivity.

*Breathing through the right nostril is associated with Concentration, Alertness, Readiness-for-action, Willpower

7-11 Breathing

This breath technique is a lifesaver during frustrating and stressful situations, especially ones that trigger anger and powerlessness. Best of all, it is sooooo simple.

  • Breathe in slowly for 7 counts, then breathe out for 11 counts (You are free to alter the numbers and do any variation of this).

The important thing is that you are breathing out for a longer time period than you are breathing in.  This may take a little practice but you don’t need to count slowly- it should be comfortable. The trick is to space your breathing so that you are inhaling and exhaling evenly over the  7 or 11- count span. By emphasizing exhaling during this exercise, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. (Remember the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? The sympathetic nervous system is where your “fight or flight” response occurs- the stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for resting and digesting- the relaxation response.) The parasympathetic nervous system slows the heartbeat and relaxes the circulation, nerves, and digestive system. It relaxes us and promotes elimination of waste and toxins, both physically and emotionally.

Humming Breath

Humming breath is a very soothing, anxiety- relieving breathing exercise. It is also very simple, but it might feel awkward to do around other people, so it’s best done when you won’t be worried about anyone raising their eyebrows at you. That said, it can be a very powerful experience to do Humming Breath with others in a group meditation setting.

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose.
  • Hum “Mmmmmmmmm” — in an even tone as you exhale. Hum until the very bottom of your exhalation, but do not strain.
  • Repeat this inhale/humming exhale cycle for as long as it feels good. For some this is a few breaths, for others, a few minutes. If you’d like a set amount of time, try starting with 3 minutes.
  • Finish with a few deep, normalizing breaths.

What do you think? Can you find a way to incorporate more conscious breathing into your day? We’d love to hear your experiences.

-Rochelle

PS- Follow us on Instagram! We’ll be talking a lot more about the specifics of breath this week, so check us out for how-to videos and personal application of this information!

Meditation- Is it just glorified relaxation?

I recently read an op-ed article by a mental health professional asserting that meditation offered no benefits over exercise and relaxation. My first thought was “If this were true, no one would be meditating, and this huge trend wouldn’t exist!” Indeed, the National Institutes of Health report that 18 million people in the U.S. practice some form of meditation (although this is only 8% of the adult population). source After my sense of righteous indignation wore off, I made a few observations.

1. Exercise and relaxation definitely have their place as far as things that affect our mental health and well being. In the future I’ll share some of the current research showing that exercise can be more effective than anti-anxiety medication in reducing anxiety. Pretty impressive stuff. Incorporating meditation with physical activity and relaxation time would definitely decrease anxiety and stress and promote wellbeing. Here’s the thing though: the “relaxation response”- a term coined by Harvard medical professor Herbert Benson in the 1970s- is just the name for what happens physiologically in your body when you meditate. This includes changes like lowering blood pressure, heart and respiration rate, muscle tension, and cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the blood. So meditation evokes a relaxation response which is really an anti- stress response, or an anti- fight-or-flight response. (Read more about Herbert Benson’s research in his book, The Relaxation Response, or if you want the summarized version, here’s a great article from Psychology Today explaining his main points)

2. Your “relaxation” might not be all that relaxing…. think of the last time you had relaxation time. Were you actually consciously relaxing? If so, good for you! Or were you treating your chronic stress by “zoning out”, or engaging in numbing behaviors (including media consumption, emotional eating, or any form of substance abuse)? This kind of mindless relaxation does little, if anything, to combat the very real and harmful effects of chronic stress (which can lead to heart disease, digestive disorders, chronic stress and chronic pain, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and hypertension, just to name a few). Conscious- that is, aware, or mindful- relaxation will combat those effects through the above mentioned relaxation response.

3. We use meditation and breathing exercises (pranayam) at times to move prana (life force energy) through the body in order to achieve greater levels of peace, body energy, and to process emotions. Exercise also moves prana through the body, and it would not be a huge stretch to say that certain exercise is, in fact, a form of meditation.

4. It is worth asking ourselves what the purpose of meditation actually is. Is meditation just a means of helping our bodies chill out, or vanquishing stress? I would say… no. I think those could be reasons to start a meditation practice, and they are certainly pleasant “side effects” of meditation, but I would assert that the purpose of meditation is actually to commune with your creator, or God, or The Source, or whatever language is most descriptive of what you believe. I listened to an interview once where Deepak Chopra said that the purpose of meditation is to enter the God- space. That wording is very thought provoking. To me, the God- space is an energetic place where we can perceive the seeds of divinity within us. Being in the God- space allows us to have a truer sense of self, cultivate peace in our hearts and in the world, and see positive change in our lives by becoming truer to the version of our self that is whole, or put another way, it allows us to change our habits in ways that contribute to our happiness and well-being.

I don’t think this needs to be a question of whether to meditate or to exercise/ relax/ etc. It’s not one vs. the other. Each has pretty solid reasons behind practicing them. So is it worth it? Does meditation have any benefit over exercise and/or relaxation? That depends on you. I wouldn’t give up exercising because I meditate, and I wouldn’t give up meditating because I exercise (although the two do overlap). I will say that meditation elevates my exercise and makes my relaxation time more restorative. It is essential to my physical and emotional health. It’s way more than just relaxation. So to me, yeah, it’s totally worth it.

-R