Self Regulation: The Key to a Happy Life?

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Life is messy. But if you’re reading this, you’ve probably been around long enough to know that. 

In the yoga and spiritual community there’s often a notion that if you just think positively and align your chakras just so and make your full moon intentions, while drinking your green juice at the stroke of 6am after three hours of meditation everything will be just fine.

And that’s all good stuff, but the universe can also from time to time look at all that, laugh and say,

“Oh yeah? How about THIS!”

What do you do in that moment?

You probably already know.

  • Scream.

  • Cry.

  • Throw a fit or an object.

  • Give up.

  • Curse a blue streak to the point where you don’t call your Mom for a week because you’re pretty sure she’ll know about your behavior even if you live several states apart.

  • Become a giant ball of stress that moves through the world like hurricane, demolishing everything in its path.

Don’t worry. Me too.

I think a lot of people are attracted to yoga because they think they will learn how to NOT be that person in those moments. I’m here to tell you, after a reasonable amount of time and practice, that notion is false.

I’m still that person. Ask my husband about the last time the printer didn’t work while I was working on a deadline to get something done.

But here’s what IS different:

  • Those moments are farther apart. 

  • The little things that used to set me off all the time have lost their ability to do so. 

  • And in the times when I do turn into that hurricane that I mentioned above, my recovery time is a little better.

All of that is due to my yoga practice and the tools of self-regulation that are inherent to the practice. 

Self regulation is hard to define on its own, so we might define it by the feelings it generates. When we are self-regulated we feel grounded, centered, and present in the moment. On the flip side, when one is dis-regulated there is a general lack of control over one’s emotional state and/or behavior.  We are reactive rather than responsive, impulsive rather than thought out. 

Hence that streak of blue language referenced above. * ahem *

So what are the tools of yoga that help us achieve self regulation? Here are a couple of my favorites:

Notice your surroundings - what do you see around you? What colors, textures or patterns do you see? If you’re in a familiar place, can you find some detail that you may have missed before?

Grounding - feel your connection to the earth. Whatever is touching the ground is your foundation and your connection to stable, calm energy. Feel the quality of that connection.

Breath - learning to slow and control your breathing activates the rest and digest response. A single deep breath can start to turn down the flood gates of all those chemicals and hormones that have you feeling like you’re ready to fight a grizzly bear (Pro tip: you are really no match for an actual grizzly bear. Take a deep breath and know what to do should you be the type of person that might be out in grizzly country. Just saying.).

These are wonderful ways to help you self regulate. But here is the main key:

You must practice them when it/life/things are EASY so you remember them when it/life/things are HARD.

Without practice, you can know the best tools, but you won’t be able to use them when you need them most.

We’ll be working with these tools all this month in my public classes. I hope you’ll join me for practice.

The perfect breathing practice to relieve stress and anxiety

In all my classes this month we are focusing on our breathing. Breathing and yoga go together like bread and butter, but it can take a bit of practice to make it all work. The overall effect is a calmer mind and body when done well. While the breathing practice we try to maintain during a vinyasa practice, called ujayi breath, is wonderful calming breath, if you’re experiencing stress and anxiety there’s another one should should really consider practicing.

That breath is alternate nostril breath.

I often say I wish I had known about this breath when I was auditioning for orchestras when playing the bassoon was the career I thought I’d spend my life in. The anxiety of that experience always left me with shaky hands, a dry mouth and not much in the way of coping mechanisms to work with that bodily state other than taking more auditions. Now, I use this breath any time I’m experiencing stress or anxiety. The key though is to have an established practice. Only then will you remember to do it in your time of need.

Alternate nostril breath is said to balance the energy channels on the two sides of the body. Those energy channels just happen to coincide with our two nostrils. The right side is said to be the more energetic side, the left side is said to be the more calming side. By doing this breathing practice you are bringing those two sides into greater balance and harmony. The effect can often be felt after just a few repetitions.

Here’s how to practice this breath:

First, choose a hand position that works for you. I usually offer three different possibilities. The first is Vishnu mudra. The first two fingers are curled into your palm. You use your thumb and the last two fingers to alternately open and close the nostrils. It looks like this:

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The second possibility is to instead take the first two fingers and anchor them at your third eye space or the space between your eyebrows. Just as above, the thumb and pinky fingers are then free to open and close the nostrils. That looks like this:

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The third option is to just choose to do it however is most comfortable for you! That might look something like this:

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Once you have a hand position that works for you you’ll then follow this sequence to perform this breathing practice (these instructions assume you are using your right hand):

  1. Close the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left nostril.

  2. Immediately close the left nostril with your right ring finger and little finger, and at the same time remove your thumb from the right nostril, and exhale through this nostril.

  3. Inhale through the right nostril. Immediately close the right nostril with your right thumb and exhale through the left nostril. This completes one full round.

You’ll continue this sequence for about 3-6 rounds to start. Allow the breathing to be slow and deep without being forced. Always end with the exhale through the left nostril (remember how we said this was the calming side above? That’s why. We want to end on a calm note!).

When you’re finished, take a few breaths through both nostrils and take the time to notice the effect of your practice.

If you are experiencing congestion or there is a blockage in the nostrils best not to try to do this breath. If you’ve been practicing it for a while, imagining it can be highly effective as well, but you first need to have an established practice.

You can practice this breath a couple times a day for a couple of rounds to start out. Over time as it becomes more comfortable, you can extend how many rounds you do at once. With time and practice you’ll notice a greater calming effect. You may also find this breath helpful in times when your energy is feeling low. The balancing quality of the breath works the other way as well.

Did you find this helpful? Do you practice this breath regularly? Do you have questions about this practice? Let me know in the comments!

Tools to keep you cool during the summer

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Seemingly overnight we've gone from the depths of winter to summer heat and humidity here in southern NH. While some may love this time of year, it's important to consider that the heat and humidity can take its toll on our bodies just has much as the cold of winter. As always, yoga has an answer for managing these changes but we should also consider science as well. Here are a couple of things I've learned from yoga and hiking that can help you manage how you feel this summer!

As many of you know, I've been doing a lot more hiking this year than I have in the past. I've always had a love for the outdoors but for a variety of reasons I've been limited in what I could do. With some new knowledge and new equipment I've been able to get out more and really enjoy being out there. But with the heat of summer comes one big challenge that we have to consider - hydration.

People talk about staying hydrated all the time, but did you know it isn't just about drinking water? And did you know that you can actually drink TOO MUCH water? While drinking water is very important and increasing your intake is necessary, especially if you are engaging in any challenging physical activity like your fast sweaty vinyasa yoga class or hiking a mountain, it isn't the only thing to consider. We also need electrolytes or we run the risk of potentially experiencing a condition known as hyponatremia. Hyponatremia occurs when the level of sodium in your bloodstream is too low. In rare cases it can be fatal. Many factors can be involved including medications you may be taking, but drinking too much water can also be a factor. Consider following this advice from the Mayo Clinic (full article linked above):

“Drinking water is vital for your health, so make sure you drink enough fluids. But don’t overdo it. Thirst and the color of your urine are usually the best indications of how much water you need. If you’re not thirsty and your urine is pale yellow, you are likely getting enough water.”
— https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hyponatremia/symptoms-causes/syc-20373711

I've also had good luck with adding these tablets to my water recently. They have less sugar than typical "sports drinks" and fit into my yogic diet requirements. They're pretty tasty too! And just for the record I don't receive any money from these guys for an endorsement. ;-)

Yoga of course helps us manage something like the potential for Hyponatremia by being more aware of our bodies and recognizing more quickly what we need. But it also has a breathing practice that can help - Sitali!

To do Sitali breath you'll start by curling your tongue into an O shape like this:

If you're going to put a ridiculous selfie on the internet, at least include Ganesha!

If you're going to put a ridiculous selfie on the internet, at least include Ganesha!

If you can't do that don't worry! It's totally genetic. Either you can or your can't. If you can't, just let your tongue rest low and flat in your mouth instead.

Once you've got the position of the mouth you simply INHALE through the O shaped tongue or the open mouth over your flattened tongue and EXHALE by closing your mouth and breathing out through your nose. Do this several times and you will start to feel the cooling effect! I used to use this breath when I worked in NYC and had a 10 block run/walk to the train station in 90+degree weather like we're having now and didn't even break a sweat!

Give it a try and let me know in the comments if it works for you!

Spring Cleaning with Deep Breathing!

Spring Cleaning with Deep Breathing!

Spring is in the air (or at least it is on the calendar... gotta love New England!)! You may be feeling the stirring of wanting to get out side, in the garden or out on the hiking trail. You may even be thinking about doing some spring cleaning inside your home, releasing the clutter that may have built up over the long cold winter.

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Disclaimer: Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Please consult with your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The information provided in this blog is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor.

A breathing technique for controlling stress and anxiety

I continue to hear from many of you that controlling stress and anxiety and taking care of yourself are a main focus for 2018. You are not alone! This is one of the wonderful things about marking a new year; we get to rededicate ourselves to something important. 

Here's a simple breathing technique that might help. We tend to think that in order to help ourselves the solutions need to be complicated or involve a complex sequence of steps. The truth is that it can be as simple as conscious breathing. That's not to say that you'll never be stressed out again if you do this technique! As we all know, life happens! But what we can do is make sure our toolbox is full and our practice is steady so we can reach for the right tool in that moment of anxiety.

Here's how it works:

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Lay on your back with one hand or both hands on your low belly just as you see above. Do your best to breathe through your nose, but know if you're a bit congested you can always breathe through the mouth. Close your eyes if comfortable and focus on your breath. As you breathe in, direct the breath down into the hand on your belly and allow your belly to expand so it lifts your hand up to the sky. As you exhale, let it all fall back toward the earth. Continue like this for several breaths. It may take a few tries to get your belly to relax enough to really fill with the breath. Don't get frustrated, just keep going. 

That alone is a wonderful practice and could be complete in itself!

If you'd like to take it a step or two further, try this:
Shift one hand to your rib cage. Now when you inhale, expand the belly just as you've been doing but then continue that expansion into your ribs and the hand that's there. Feel the ribs move out into your hand. On the exhale, reverse the process. Ribs draw in first, then the belly deflates.

Repeat that several times.

If you'd like to go one last step further, shift a hand to your heart center or center of the chest area, just above your breastbone. Now breathe into the belly just as you have, the ribs just as you have and then see if you can find one last little sip of air under your collarbones. Again you'll exhale in reverse, so the chest releases followed by the ribs and then the belly. Do this for several breaths.

When you're finished, let the breath return to normal for several breaths before you roll onto your right side and come up to sit. Take a moment there before moving on.

This is called three part breath and is a wonderful way to help calm mind, body and spirit when life is a bit tense. You can do this in bed before you go to sleep or even when you first wake up in the morning. If you notice you get a bit light headed at first it should pass, but just let the breath work go if it gets uncomfortable and try again at another time. 

When you finish the practice, pause to notice the difference in your body, mind and perhaps even spirit.