Your Home Yoga Practice

Think of your home yoga practice as basic self-care.

Self-care is taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally.

As well as attending to the body, mind, and emotions, regular yoga practice creates a container for developing interoception – your ability to hear your body’s signals, messages and intuitions.

Remember that yoga means the union of the body, mind and spirt.

A daily practice can take as little as 10 minutes!

In general, a daily yoga practice can consist of three elements:

  1. Physical movement – it can be a simple as decompressing the spine and moving the major joints through their range of motion
  2. A breathing practice – think of the breath as the link between body and mind
  3. Meditation – this helps cultivate healthy mind states and minimizes negative thought habits

Below are a few suggestions for each category.

Physical Movement

Decompress your Spine:

Add range-of-motion movement to the major joints:

  • Shoulder rolls, elbow circles and rolling wrists
  • Standing hip circles and ankle circles
  • Side bending (either sitting or standing)

From here, you can add any favorite poses you feel comfortable with.

Breathing Practices

Below are two relatively simple yogic breathing techniques. Choose one and do it for 1-2 minutes. Never strain when working with your breath. Always keep it easy and comfortable.

Meditation

Developing awareness is key to cultivating a steady mind and overriding the stress response. Meditation is the main tool for developing that awareness. Below are 3 simple meditation techniques.

  • Breath counting
  • Mantra: use any two words, like Peace and Joy. Silently say one word on the inhalation and the other on the exhalation. Don’t change the rhythm of your breath.
  • Breath-centered meditation (focus on the sensations of breathing)

Let me know how it goes! Ask me questions. Share your wins!

Photo by Scott Broome on Unsplash

Breath-Centered Meditation

Using Your Breath as the Focus of Your Meditation

Breath-centered meditation is one of the most common forms of meditation. In this sequence below, I point out aspects of the breath to pay attention to. Focusing on these subtle sensations will pull your attention inward and help to keep you from wandering off.

Notice the sensations of breathing.

  • Notice all the places where you feel the breath moving in your body (belly, chest, throat, nose). Try not to change the natural rhythm of your breath.
  • Choose one of those places and hold your awareness there.

Pay attention to duration.

  • Pay attention to the duration of just the exhalations. Without changing the rhythm of your breath, notice how long your exhalations are.
  • Then notice the duration of your inhalations (without changing anything).

Notice the turn-around points.

  • Now focus on the turnaround point between the exhalations and inhalations. Perhaps there’s a pause here. Perhaps not. Just notice when the exhalation turns into the inhalation.
  • Then notice the turnaround point between the inhalations and exhalations. Again, maybe there’s a pause, maybe there’s not.

Focus on the entire breath cycle.

  • Then pay attention to the full breath cycle and stay with that for as long as you like.
  • When the mind wanders into thinking, just label it “thinking” and come back to the breath (no judgement, it’s normal).

Meditation is the most tried and true tool for steadying your mind, developing awareness, and cultivating equanimity.

Deep peace is waiting for you.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Slow down, you move too fast.

One of my yoga class participants recently said that she’s never still – she’s always busy doing something, gardening, cleaning, community projects, etc.. This is all great, but it left me thinking about our cultural programming around stillness and busyness. We’re taught to value constant productivity. It’s not okay to just be still.

What I mean by stillness is really mindful being or meditation/contemplation/prayer or even just reading a book. Remember books? I suspect what she meant by stillness was the dangerous state of being a couch potato. These are two different things.

Our country thrives on do more and do it faster! And that mentality has given us some amazing gifts like outta-sight technology, for which I’m very grateful.  But that mentality has also seeped into our nervous systems, and done so to such an extent that anxiety and sleep disorders are a national epidemic. We no longer know how to slow down, to be still, to connect to ourselves.

And yes, it’s in our nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system settles into patterns at an early age. When we’re constantly looking for the next thing to do, we’re in an exteroceptive state (constant external stimulation) that’s fueling the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system). When we slow down and relax, especially when we let our selves feel that state of relaxation (interoception – internal awareness), we move into the rest and digest part of the nervous system (parasympathetic nervous system) where the body restores and heals itself.

So what’s a person to do? Take a mindful moment. Notice what your senses are offering you: what do you see around you – even if it’s mundane, really notice the colors, shapes and textures. Then notice what you’re hearing and smelling. Notice the textures on your skin or temperature of the air. Notice what your breath rhythm is feeling like right now. Take a moment to think about what you’re grateful for today.  Notice what if feels like to just be still for one minute. Then go for broke and try 10 minutes.

What does it feel like to do nothing, to just be? Did thoughts come up like, I don’t have time for this or is this really doing anything? What you’re practicing is mindfulness – noticing what’s really happening in this moment. And when you do it regularly you’re rewiring your brain (that’s cool). You’re teaching it to slow down, pay attention and maybe even relax.

If you’d like to get better at this come to my meditation class this fall or to any upcoming Yoga Nidra and Meditation events.

Take Your Laughter More Seriously

Every day, in my yoga-for-cancer work, I’m with people who are trying to take care of their bodies, quiet their minds and find some peace. So I think a lot about what it means to be healthy and happy, hence these writings about the 5 best things to give yourself (a quiet mind, a peaceful heart, a happy body, laughter and good sleep).

This month I’m talking about the benefits of laughter.

Q: What did the duck say when she bought lipstick?
A: “Put it on my bill.”

Did you know that laughter:

  • reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin
  • increases endorphins which can reduce pain
  • strengthens your immune system
  • reduces tension by relaxing your body
  • increases blood flow and circulation (blood vessels expand when you laugh)

Laughter changes your mindset, shifting your perspective away from worry and fear, even if only for a little while. It connects you to others, thereby strengthening your relationships, easing your emotional load and promoting a sense of community.

You can intentionally cultivate more laughter in your life in several ways. You could set a goal of watching the 25 best movie comedies of all time or you could subscribe to a funny cat video YouTube channel (I’ve spent a little too much time researching this and can attest to its effectiveness).

You can also hang out with children and emulate their sense of play and wonder. Or spend time with your funniest friends, people who like to laugh and see the humor in everyday life.

Aside from intentional actions, you can also be mindful when laughter happens spontaneously. We’re hard wired for negative bias which means we spend more mental energy on what’s wrong than what’s right. You can re-wire your brain for happiness by noting when joy is happening ­– Oh, I’m laughing! This is a pleasant moment. Noting!

Another approach is to start shifting your mindset by just smiling more. Not fake smiling, real smiling. Notice the effects on yourself and others. Smiling moves you away from negative thoughts and stress and helps you cultivate more positive moments. And it releases the feel-good neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.

Try being playful. Don’t take yourself too seriously, laugh at your foibles. Shake up your sense of self, by letting your inner silliness have more air time. My close friends would tell you that I’m pretty good at this practice.

MouseEared Headshot

Join a laughter yoga club. Yes, it’s a real thing! They simulate laughter by working the diaphragm and soon they are really laughing.

Think of this pursuit of laughter and joy as a serious prescription for healing. Don’t laugh it off (pun intended) as silly and inconsequential – give it value. Healing is not just about your ailment going away, but about achieving a vibrant state of peace, contentment and joy. Take your laughter more seriously!

Is Night Chatter Keeping You Up?        

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I recently heard someone describe the mental chatter that keeps you awake as “night chatter.” I think that’s a very appropriate term.

Many people talk to me about their struggles with sleep and most are complaining about night chatter – the mind that won’t turn off.

So, what to do?

My main suggestion is to use a concentration practice – give your mind a task. My favorite practice is breath counting. Count your exhalations up to 10 then backwards 10 to 1. Don’t change the breath in any way. Just feel its natural flow. Keep counting up to 10 and backwards 10 to 1.

Your mind will probably wander off at some point.That’s normal. When you notice that you’ve wandered off into ‘thinking’ just come back to counting your exhalations. You’ll probably do this several times so don’t judge yourself for wandering off. Again, it’s normal.

The mind is habituated to constantly thinking. It’s always commenting, analyzing and judging. Your mind is a highly specialized problem-solver and this evaluative mode of the brain is its default mode.

The problem is it doesn’t know how to turn off. Especially when you are trying to sleep. It’s ready to solve all the problems in the world!

Here’s how you turn it off – FEEL YOUR BODY. When you feel your body, you move into the experiential mode of the brain.

Really all you are doing is redirecting your awareness. Instead of letting the mind run willy-nilly into the land of thinking, turn your awareness toward feeling the body. Then give your mind a task that anchors you in the feeling mode. Like breath counting.

Sweet Dreams!

Why I’m Grateful for My Problems

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I’m grumbling about my challenges today: too many things to do, not enough time, not enough money, can’t make headway on my projects, gaining weight, menopause weirdness, sprained my ankle . . . but then I pause. I take a breath . . .

I’m actually grateful for my problems.

Yes, you read that right. I’m grateful for my problems. They are the byproducts of the world I’ve constructed for myself and they make me stronger; they’re tailored to me. And they could be much worse. Much, much worse.

And they have been much worse. No matter who you are, life will throw you a curve ball sooner or later. Your problems will get big. The scary kind. My worst one so far (and God, please, no more like this one) was watching my husband die from cancer. It’s hard to even type it. I was decimated, reduced to a puddle of flesh and tears, a non-functioning ball of emotion faintly resembling a person. My problems were big and unmanageable. How would I ever function in the world again when I certainly was not coming out from under my rock? How would I work like I used to? And since he was the breadwinner and I a scrappy artist, how would I pay the mortgage?

My family and sangha (a community of Buddhist meditators) carried me through that period. They cradled my messy, gloopy self, all spikes and meh. At some point, my yoga and meditation also began to hold me up and after a couple of years I started to look like a human again.

My point is, perspective helps. Telescope out and see the day’s problems and annoyances as they are – average adversities that make you stronger. Eat adversity for breakfast, someone said. It’s a motto I’m adopting. Gratitude helps. I’m grateful that these are my problems today. They are not fun, but they are manageable. And they could be much, much worse.

If you are having big problems right now, my heart goes out to you. I send you strength, patience and lovingkindness (a term used in Buddhist communities that means tenderness, kindness, affection, non-romantic love). I hope friends and loved ones surround you. May you have the wherewithal to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep taking big belly breaths.

And in your more lucid moments, may you see this period as a state of Grace. A kind of altered period where the heart is so open–perhaps because it’s been shattered (ugh)–that you cannot help but see your relationship to the Universe. Some may translate that as talking to God. Words fail here, but if you’re in it or have been in it, I think you know what I mean.

I send you Love and Strength.

And for the rest of us, let’s eat adversity for breakfast!

 

 

For Those with Breathing Challenges

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If your lungs have been compromised by treatment or other conditions, here are a few ways I can work with you to improve your ability to breathe.

First, work with your diaphragm.
Your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle and the first area I check. What you want to notice is whether your belly expands when you inhale. If so, how far down does it expand? Is it easy to do that? If it doesn’t expand easily that tells you that there is tension in the diaphragm and you’ll want to work on releasing that. Take a minute or two to focus on your belly expanding downward and outward on your inhalations. Just relax on your exhalations. Take your time. Don’t rush to your next inhalation. Let your exhalations really complete themselves, allowing the next inhalation to happen when it its ready. The breath cycles will begin to elongate. It’s important to never strain with the breath. This is called belly breathing.

Notice if you have belly tension – if you are used to holding your belly in, you will probably have a challenging time with belly breathing. Let the abdominals soften and expand. If you are accustomed to engaging your core for support, that is great! But see if you can just do that on your exhales, or only as needed, and allow the belly to be soft for your inhalations.

Should you breath this way all the time? No. But you want to practice the belly breath often enough to allow you to unlock your diaphragm from any patterns of tension.

Next, work on lung capacity.
To look at how well your lungs fill up, you’ll use a three-part breath technique. It goes like this: as you inhale, expand the belly, then the middle ribs then the upper ribs, all in one big breath. As you exhale, reverse that order, releasing the upper ribs, middle ribs, then soften the belly. So you’re inhaling from the bottom up and exhaling from the top down. Perhaps you can use the image of a balloon inflating and deflating. You’re gently testing your lung capacity on the inhalation – remember not to strain – and again, let your exhalation fully complete itself. Give it all the time it wants. Note: your belly probably won’t expand as much as it did in the belly breathing technique. That is fine.

Many people have postural habits that prevent them from achieving their full lung capacity. For example, if your upper body has a tendency to round forward (stooped), you might find it challenging to move the breath into the upper lungs because the muscles around the shoulders and upper rib cage are not accustomed to holding the torso upright. The muscles have likely become short in the front and weak in the back. Thus the upper lobes of the lungs are compressed with diminished function. Here’s where practicing the postures and movements in yoga can really help. If you’re not sure what to do, just try squeezing your shoulder blades together and lifting your breastbone. Notice the width across the front of your chest.

If part of your lungs have been removed or damaged . . .
You’ll probably need to work with a yoga therapist, like me, to increase your breathing capacity. I have two main strategies for working with resected or damaged lungs. 1.) we work together to get the healthy parts of your lungs, including the back-side, operating at full efficiency. This means unlocking patterns of tension in the various breathing muscles and working toward the fullest range of expansion possible. 2.) For areas of damage, I coach you to gently explore the sensations at the edge of this area. In other words, don’t ignore it, but notice what that area of the lungs feels like when breathing. And yes, you CAN direct your breath into different areas of your lungs including one side more than the other. Once again, remember to never strain or push the breath. To re-pattern these muscles, it will need to feel comfortable and manageable.

Working with the breath is not a one-size-fits all program, but becoming familiar with your breathing patterns can be a great source of peace and grounding.

The Diaphragmatic Breath

Of all the breathing techniques I teach the diaphragmatic breath is the most foundational and useful. I especially recommend it in times of anxiety or crisis since it slows down your breath and helps to relieve tension.

Here’s how it goes: place a hand on your belly. As you inhale, gently expand your belly outward and downward. Your hand will feel the belly expand. As you exhale you can either just soften the belly or, more actively, pull the belly in towards your spine. Minimize the movement of the rib cage with the breath and maximize the movement of the belly. Do this for about a minute then breathe normally.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that lives just behind the low ribs. When you breathe in, the diaphragm moves downward and outward, pushing the abdominal organs out. This action is actually what causes the inhalation – the downward action creates a vacuum, causing air to rush into the lungs. As you exhale the diaphragm softens upward, back to its resting state.

For some people the diaphragm holds tension and they find it difficult to expand the belly on the inhalation. Their rib cage wants to expand on the inhalation and the belly pulls in. Know that this is okay; that you’ve gotten along just fine all these years breathing like this and you’ll probably make it a good deal longer. But it’s that tension in the diaphragm that we’d like to address. Releasing that tension has a domino effect on tension in the rest of the body. This deep, relaxing breath will encourage any unnecessary tension to release and dissipate.