Sometimes it is in the simplest of things that we experience the most profound change, those beloved “ah-ha” moments. When boiled down, this is exactly what Mindfulness is and what it brings to us, those simple “ah-ha” moments. It’s the simple act of paying attention that can completely change everything about life. Being 100% present means giving 100% to everything and everyone that you are with in the moment. Just think about it, how different would your life be if you gave each and every moment 100% of your peak performance? But being present is not easy, neither is meditation… says the girl that has spent the better part of the last decade dedicated to it.
The game changer for me came in yet another simple package: the breath. Without the breath, yoga, mindfulness and meditation are anything from acrobatic to abstract. At the risk of sounding cliche, without the breath we are nothing. From time to time in my yoga classes, when coming out of savasana, I have students just lay still and observe their breath and try to inspire them to a state of awe, that this simple act of breathing is literally everything. Every moment of our life, our greatest successes, would be nothing if not for our breath. When I pause and take that in it makes me feel a little bit like a child seeing snow for the first time, being filled with both wonder and gratitude. I think as adults we could use a bit more wonder and gratitude.
But it is in these brief glimpses of the breath in the present moment that we have the opportunity to regain our control, our power, and come to our senses. The breath is often called the anchor, just as an anchor holds a boat in place, our breath serves to hold our mind in place. The breath is always there, so it is totally reliable way to quickly check in and come back to the moment. Mindfulness is essentially paying attention, or in other words it is watching our mind, but this requires virtually splitting our mind in two, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While our Mr. Hyde mind is running all over the place, panicking, reacting and judging, our Dr. Jekyll mind is sitting there watching it, aware of the insanity of it all. It is only the calm, non-judgment of Jekyll that can calm the insanity of Hyde. But this brings me back to my original comment, that you must split your mind in two to achieve the ability to control it. This is no easy task, especially if there is a history of stress, trauma, anxiety or depression (which at this point, many of us have).
Before we get to this more advanced state, we have our breath. Simply stated, the breath is the one thing that we always have in every single present moment, thus it is the best tool to support us in becoming more present. When we pay attention to our breath we are subsequently slowing our mind down to pay attention to what is going on here and now as well. Yes, stopping and paying attention to the breath, or stopping and taking a deep breath, is hugely helpful in stressful moments. But it goes many steps further when we practice intentional breathing, or breathing exercises (pranayama in Yogic terms). When we practice breathing, we are putting our breath to work with specific patterns, holds, depths, etc. This is not just paying attention to our breath but it is working with it, manipulating it and ultimately controlling it. We typically breathe without paying attention to it, it is automatic. Similarly, our minds tend to think automatically and our bodies tend to move automatically. Thus, when we learn to be fully in control over our breath, we gain a similar degree of control over our minds and bodies. Ten years later I still struggle with meditation, however, anytime I start my meditation with breathing exercises my meditation is pristine, because I have not just observed my breath, but controlled it and that control extends almost instantly to my mind as well.
My yoga teacher training had a profound affect on me not because of the poses, but because of the breath and how much my work with my breath changed my life very quickly. In yoga we are taught that before we can move and breathe, we must first breathe. It seems so simple, but for most of us and on most days being able to follow our breath for two whole minutes without being distracted is no easy task. Although we can experience yoga in a very positive way before we fully connect with the breath and the body, it is when we connect with the flow of the breath and the body that our practice becomes much more profound and impactful off the mat. When we master our breath we are capable of mastering the perceptions of our minds in any given situation. What does “master our breath” mean? Well, in pranayama practice we have exercises with a slow, calm breath and ones with a rapid, short breath and ones with long, deep breaths and ones with long holding times. All of these exercises induce stress upon our lungs as well as our brains reaction to the stress on our lungs- the challenge is to create this stress but practice keeping control and calm. Aside from creating a very strong respiratory system, this also has an amazing affect of being able to override the brain’s reaction to stress, thus creating a great deal of control and power. In yoga training, what happens next is that we can then practice more challenging poses, holding longer, doing wacky things with our bodies and all the while using our breath to create a calm and controlled mind. This process works in reverse too, with a calm and controlled mind we are able to challenge the body in much greater ways because the element of panic is removed. An important point to note though is that stress is not actually removed, it is simply cut it down so that when stress does come forth during practice it is objective and letting the practitioner know that something is wrong and needs to be attended to. Eventually, this moves off the mat and when we experience stress whether in the form of physical or mental anxiety, our minds are moving slower thus making us more capable of recognizing the stress, digging through the drama and emotion of this stress and getting to the objective facts of it and thus responding in a much less reactive manner.
If, as you read this, you are thinking, “this is simple,” please remember that it is, that is the point. We have so many tools within us, empowering us to be our best selves- I don’t believe in magical pills or cure-all programs. I believe in each of us having the power within our own hands to take care of ourselves perfectly. But this only comes with a certain degree of dedication and practice. Start by dipping your toes in the water: pay attention to your breath at certain, marked times of the day. I have a clock in my house that chimes on the house, every time I hear that chime I stop whatever I am doing and take a few slow breaths, paying attention to the inhales and exhales. Create a habit! Every morning before you have your first sip of coffee you take five slow breaths, or you practice a breathing exercise for 3 minutes. Every day that you get in the car after work, breathe. Every evening when you get out of the shower, breathe. Just because it is simple, doesn’t mean we can dedicate less of ourselves to it.
Sukapranayama aka Easy Breathing
This breath is intended to be easy so you want your breath to be comfortable and natural (i.e. not forced). Do this for at least 3 minutes but really as long as it feels good. This is great to do during stressful times and before bed.
This is a great exercise to strengthen lungs and smooth out jagged breathing. You can do this breath 10 times, or you can do it for 5 rounds then do another 5 rounds inhaling to 7, holding for 7 and exhaling for 10. There is a need to find balance between being relaxed and in control, thus allowing you to get a full inhale in exactly five counts.
Chelsea M Latham
When I was a kid my mom would occasionally refer to me as a Reverend, because I had the need to speak so passionately about just about everything. Little did she know that some day I would build a business upon sharing the wisdom that I am so passionate about. So here you go, here are some bits and bobs of thoughts strung together for your enjoyment.