As published in Yoga Magazine, Aug/Sept 2011.
“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
— Author unknown
It’s not one of your finest moments. Your belly is tied in knots, competing for your attention with the palpitations of your racing heart. Moist pockets of sweat emerge in familiar places as your jaw clamps down and locks into place. Your breath tightens as thoughts scamper from one worry to the next. The insidious fear of losing control slithers into your every movement. You have reached your edge, perhaps as a result of some external event or strong emotion that is threatening your sense of safety and security. You may do something you will soon regret. Or already have.
… And then you remember you have the choice to stay calm, even in the face of incredible adversity and fear’s mighty grasp. Your breath softens and expands as you feel your feet touch the Earth. Muscles relax and ease the sense of being in your body. As you witness this shift, you begin to understand that what happened was a temporary event in your consciousness, a tidal wave of thought, emotion, and sensation. You have returned to the calmness within that is our natural state. Observing a parent soothe a baby so clearly reflects this organic cycle of agitation and peacefulness. As we get older, we are forced to develop our own capacities to self soothe. The inability to do so effectively distances us from this natural state of being within. This leaves our central nervous system consistently agitated, thereby depleting the efficacy of all the body’s interlocking systems. Our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health are all critically dependent on our ability to return to the peace within.
So as we mature in life, it becomes evident just how important it is to keep calm in the turbulent waters of life. Thich Nhat Hanh depicts this so elegantly as he reflects, “When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. They showed the way for everyone to survive.” Cultivating calm is a skill like any other, but one not always taught or modeled appropriately. Before you engage in practices to support your desire to keep calm in the face of difficulty, it may be helpful to understand the anatomy of keeping calm.
There are two main building blocks in the development of these life-saving skills: mindfulness and equanimity. Mindfulness is the capacity for honest and non-judgmental self-observation that reflects what is true in any given moment. It is akin to holding up a mirror to our thoughts, emotions, and sensations. This kind of discriminative awareness requires a surrender of our opinions, judgments, and habitual reactions. It allows our consciousness to slow down as we recognize the truth of our experience: we feel fear, our minds are filled with worries, the breath is stuck in our chest. Mindful awareness allows us to locate ourselves in present time and space and makes evident the source of our agitations. Underneath our stressful thoughts, we are always reacting to an experience in the body. Root your mindful attention in your body, where you will discover the manifestations of both your tension and your ease. Regardless of what arises in mindfulness, we make direct contact with ourselves where we are, as we are. This is always the first step.
Equanimity is the capacity to bring a steady and balanced mind to what we discover with mindfulness. The experience of calmness that we seek is a direct result of our capacity to cultivate equanimity. The term equanimity comes from the Latin roots “equ” which means same or even and “anima” which means living being, breath, soul, mind. It literally means even mind, even breath, even living; the necessary ingredients in keeping calm. Equanimity is not the squelching or stifling of what we think and feel, but an invitation to feel more deeply and objectively. It the conscious development of a compassionate witness to the rollercoaster of life within.
Attending to strong emotions such as anger or sadness with a steady mind allows us to witness and feel the wave of e-motion, or energy in motion, without attaching to it or pushing it away. As you soften the tension in your body and breath, the nervous system will find greater success in regulating the disturbances of afflictive thoughts and emotions.
As our nervous system guides the return to a natural state of calmness, we create and strengthen new pathways in our brain. Like everything, this takes time. If you have a history of trauma, you may need the assistance of an experienced therapist to help support you in processing unconscious blockages to developing equanimity.
There are, however, specific practices I recommend that will help to unwind the nervous system and uncover your capacity for calmness. Know that these practices have both an immediate and a cumulative effect. The more consistently you engage in these practices, the more you will be able to keep calm in the turbulent waters of life.
Sandbag Belly Breathing
You will need an 8-10 lb yoga sandbag (or a heavy book) for this practice. Find a quiet place to lie down in Savasana. Place a bolster under your knees or a folded blanket under your head if you wish. Place the sandbag perpendicular to the length of your body in the soft space of the belly, between the front of your rib cage and hip points. Make sure the center of the sandbag is over your navel. Setting an eye bag on your eyes can assist in relaxing mental activity. Close the eyes. Allow the breath to drop down into your belly. As a result, the chest will become quite still. Link your awareness with your breath in the space of the belly underneath the sandbag. Follow the full course of the inhale and the exhale in the belly. Do not attempt to push the sandbag with your belly. Simply receive the weight of the sandbag. Note the increased resistance to the inhale and the natural increase in force as you exhale. Keep the pace and volume of the breath steady. When your attention drifts, let it return to the weight of the sandbag on the belly. Mindfully breathe for about 10-15 minutes. This is an excellent way to ground yourself and cultivate deep calm.
You will need a wall, a yoga strap, an eye bag, and a bolster if you like. If you are using a bolster, place it parallel to the wall. If you are more flexible, you can place it close to the wall. Those who are stiffer in their low back and hamstrings will want to place it slightly farther away from the wall. Experiment with the placement of the bolster until it feels comfortable. Sit on the right or left end of the bolster or your mat with your respective hip adjacent to the wall. Make a loop in your strap. Place it around your mid thighs and tighten it about half way. Gracefully swing your legs up the wall and lengthen your shoulders and head towards the back of the mat. If you are using a bolster, let your sit bones dip down between the bolster and the wall. Tighten the strap across the mid thighs. This will help you to let go of efforting in the legs. Release your shoulders back and extend your arms by the side palms up. Place your eye bag on your eyes. Let yourself receive this posture. Use your soft breath as an anchor for your awareness. Stay for 15-20 minutes. This inverted posture will help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm an anxious mind.
Ujjayi Pranayama –Extend the Exhale
Ujjayi, often translated as victorious or triumphant breath, is the most commonly used breath in yoga asana. This practice can be performed in either a cross-legged seated position or lying on your back over a lengthwise bolster for beginners. Slightly contract the glottis muscle at the back of the throat to create a relaxed yet audible whispering quality to your breath. Keep the mouth closed but keep the tongue soft. As you inhale to a count of 5 or 8, breathe first into the lower abdomen, the mid torso, and then finally the upper chest. As you exhale the breath in the same order, extend the breath at least an extra 3 seconds. Find the rhythm that works for you and then keep the breath steady. Most importantly, keep the breath free of strain. This practice will help to calm the nervous system and develop deep concentration.