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.

Be here now

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As I'm writing these words, a rough week for many of us has just come to an end. And not a very satisfying end. An end that has more of a question mark on it then ever. Many of us have been forced to relive our own traumas that we may have set aside for years. Many of us may have engaged in heated debates with friends or family members. Many of us are feeling worn out and dragged through the dirt thanks to media in many forms.

I don't care what side of the debate you stand on. What I care about is that you take care of yourself in the best way possible right now. One strategy I've been using and I'd like to offer to you is being fully present. How can that help in times like these? Read on.

This may seem like the exact WRONG time to be talking about being present. How do we do that when the present is just almost too much to bear? I’ve asked myself this question a lot this week. I’ve wondered how do I stay present with what’s happening, keep being an informed citizen and yet not loose my mind as I watch horrendous suffering come to the surface in others and old traumas rise in myself as well? How do I do any of this when all I really want to do is run and hide?

First, I have to know my limits. I am only human. I can do my best and my best has to be enough. My limits may not be the same as yours. I have to accept that. My limits may not be the same as those of my family and friends. I have to accept that and I have to call upon them to respect my limits and respond in ways that honor my boundaries. I may need to speak clearly about my limits to others. I may have to accept that they will not appreciate my limits. I will need to honor them anyway the best I can, perhaps without their help or support. No one else can know your limits. Only you can know where your boundaries are. Be clear in protecting your limits. And when you’ve reached that limit, turn off the TV, put down the paper or turn off or put away whatever it is that all this was coming to you through, or ask the person you’re talking to to allow you to change the subject or simply walk away. It’s more than ok to make it stop for awhile.

Second, I can use what I know about the brain and yoga/meditation to stop the repetitive loop of past traumas playing out in my mind. Did you know that when you relive a memory, your brain doesn’t know if it is something that happened in your past or if it is happening right now? Many times the same chemical responses, such as the release of stress hormones, can be found when we recall an event. If we end up in the endless thought loop of remembering a trauma, we are basically putting our bodies and minds through the same experience over and over again. Sometimes we need to do this to make sense of the event, to find resolution or to simply fully deal with the trauma. But sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of thought that just becomes harmful. This is why knowing your limits is first. If it’s time to get those negative thought loops to stop, being present is where we begin.

How? Start as above in step one and turn off the news, put down the paper or the social media or whatever it is that’s triggering you. Choose a technique you find calming. Your technique might be similar to one you use in meditation. You can follow your breath, you can look at an uplifting image or you can repeat a mantra. Whatever you choose, bring your mind fully to it. See it, feel it, experience it for all that it is. The more curiosity you can bring to it the greater the chances of stopping the cycle of damaging thoughts.

But what does that really do? It empowers us to reclaim the here now. And the here and now is actually pretty safe if we really look at it closely. If you are reading this you are likely sitting at a computer or looking at a device. If you take a deep breath and let it out the next breath is going to come. And the next. There is no one attacking you. There is no one hurting you. You are just here, reading these words and taking a deep breath. It’s all pretty simple right here and right now. The next moment may not be that way. But this moment is. This breath is ok. This breath is safe. In this breath all is well.

So you take this little vacation from it all and you live and breathe to see another day. To take action in another moment. You are rested enough and centered enough to do whatever is next. And that is all anyone can ask in these crazy times we live in.

And if you truly need help processing and dealing with it all, remember that yoga and meditation can only take us so far sometimes. Don’t be afraid to call and ask for professional help. There’s no shame in that. That’s also part of knowing your limits.