This isn’t the November post that I expected to write, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write about avoiding neck pain during your asana practice when the attention of our nation and the entire globe has been arrested by the events of the past few days.
While I have strong opinions about the outcome of the election, this post is not about my opinions, or your opinions, or the opinions of the millions of Americans who turned out to vote this past Tuesday. Each and every one of us is entitled to our own opinion. I fully respect your right to have yours, even if it’s radically different from mine.
Regardless of your political affiliation and your feelings about the election results, it’s unlikely that you’ve been immune to the stress of the last few weeks and months. You may feel like you’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster – steep climbs, sudden drops, sharp turns, little bursts of exhilaration and dark moments of fear.
As yoga practitioners, how lucky we are to have the opportunity to come together and share a practice that is specifically designed to bring us back to balance in an unbalanced world.
The various practices of yoga – pranayama (breath control), asana (postures), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) – weave together to form a discipline that leads us towards equanimity. These practices allow us to experience peace, even when we’re hanging on, white-knuckled, as we ride the roller coaster of our ever-changing emotions.
You don’t have to do anything fancy or complicated to reap the benefits of yoga. Something as simple as a breathing exercise is one of the most potent tools for dealing with stress.
By working with our breath through pranayama, we can regulate our emotions, enhance the activity of our nervous systems, and optimize our bodies’ response to stress. The stressors we encounter may be the physical trials we intentionally create for ourselves on our mat, or the challenges that are unexpectedly hurled at as us as we navigate our daily lives.
Below this post is a breathing exercise you can practice anytime, anywhere. All you need is a little space in which to sit or lie down, and the desire and discipline to turn your attention inward.
Whatever you’re feeling this week, remember: you can turn to your yoga practice. I’d love to see you in class! I’m offering free passes to anyone who’d like to take my Friday night 6:15 Open Flow at Sacred Sounds or my Sunday morning 10:45 Vinyasa Basics at Exhale for the rest of November. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like a pass.
If you can’t make it to class, clear a space on your bedroom or living room floor and lie down, breathe, maybe move. Remember that whatever winds may toss you this way and that, there is a place deep inside of you – a place of stillness, of peace, of calm. When you breathe, and move, and pay attention, you get little glimpses of that place. You can return to it whenever you feel surrounded by darkness or when you’re tempted to give into despair. That place is always within you. You just have to give yourself the space to find it.
I’m not saying that yoga can solve the problems of the world. That kind of thinking is too simplistic. But it can help you to find a few moments of peace. It can calm your mind. It can soften your heart.
By turning inward and connecting with that quiet, still, peaceful place within, we gather the strength to move forward with a clear mind and an open heart; to continue to fight for what we believe is right; and to hold on to hope and love, come what may.
A Breathing Practice
This simple pranayama is called sama vritti in Sanskrit – in English, “equal breathing”. Those of you who take my class regularly are very familiar with it! It’s something I include in virtually every class I teach, because it’s so simple, yet its benefits are profound.
• Sit or lie down in a comfortable, relaxed position.
• Become aware of your breathing. Notice that you’re breathing in, and notice that you’re breathing out.
• Little by little, begin to breathe more deeply.
• Let your breath gradually settle into a steady rhythm. Breathe in for the same amount of time that you breathe out, matching the length of your inhale with the length of your exhale. It might help to count as you breathe, inhaling for a count of perhaps five, then exhaling for five. Find a length of breath that feels deep but comfortable.
• Spend anywhere from one to several minutes breathing in this way.
• When you’re finished, let go of the equal breath and allow your breath to resume its natural pace and rhythm.
• Notice how you feel.
Deep, steady, even breathing reverses the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight” response, which is the body’s habitual reaction to stress. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “relaxation response,” which slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and calms the body and mind.
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.