For many, October is the rubber meets the road, super-intense, super-crazy part of the fall semester. It's the time when we start feeling that we're living inside the checklist and that feeling of overwhelm starts washing over us. For me, a sure sign of this time of year is that my breathing patterns change to quick, shallow, near-hyperventilation patterns, and I can feel my heart starting to race.
The pace of life at these moments contributes to stress on the adrenal glands, which are primitive parts of the body, trying to keep you prepared for fight or flight. The bad news is that you can't really flee the month of October and as for fighting it, I'm not so sure.
The good news is that simple breath practice can both reduce the feeling of overwhelm and support our overtaxed adrenals. For example, becoming aware of triggers for racing feeling and shallow breath allows us to apply breathing techniques to these stressful moments: Be they the 5 minutes before lecture, or heading in to a faculty meeting. Taking five to consciously sit with the breath can be calming. Simply sit with the eyes closed, and breathe slowly through the nose, counting the breath for a long slow inhale and then a long slow exhale, Bringing the focus here, and working on the extension of the breath calms the body and draws the mind inward and out of the list.
Simple twists can also support the adrenals and may be tied to the breath. From a seated position, try slowly inhaling the arms overhead in time with a very slow inhale, On an equally slow exhale, release the arms down, taking the hands to the floor on one side, coming into a gentle twist. Repeat this process, moving side to side, connecting inhalations to arms overhead, exhalations to twists.
In very busy times, taking 5 minutes to breathe may seem like a luxury. But how silly it is to call breathing, the thing that keeps us alive, a luxury.
In class the other day, I heard the instructor give a bit of advice about doing downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) that I hadn't heard before. She suggested bending the elbows out to the side to let the back muscles engage, and then straightening the arms, wrapping the armpits in toward the face while maintaining that feeling of strength.
Downward Facing Dog is a yoga basic. Even people who have never practiced yoga before have heard the name. It's often among the first poses one learns in yoga.
You're never done with Downward Facing Dog. Even as one moves on to poses that more agressively challenging strength, flexibility, and balance, downward dog remains.
I've been thinking lately about the importance of the most basic elements of practice. They aren't fancy. They aren't likely to impress, but they get the job done.
In a busy time of a busy semester, the idea of going for the most extreme versions of our practice can feel overwhelming. Humble but functional, downward dog stretches and strengthens, opens and lengthens. The most basic aspects of our practice indeed form a kind of home base--a place to return to, again and again.
One of my favorite yoga teachers talks about using the yoga mat as a 2'x6' laboratory. Here, she says, a person can safely run experiments about focus, attention, comfort, discomfort, breath and effort. Ideally, these experiments spread to life off the mat as well.
I've been thinking a bit lately about another aspect of experimentation: data collection. Data collection can draw our attention to habits and patterns that may go ignored in our health and in our productivity. Data collection doesn't have to be fancy, and it can be qualitative as well as quantitative.
By running our own experiments on ourselves we learn to take control over our quality of life--our energy, our productivity, and our daily practice schedule. Right now I am living with the tough results of one such experiment with caffeine. By attending to how my body feels after drinking coffee, I realized that I tended to feel racy and anxious and too warm after my coffee, feelings I am trying to decrease right now. Faced with this data, I realized I needed to change out my coffee for herbal tea.
The point of such data collection is to reflect on the question, "How is this working for me?" If the answer is not so well, then there's opportunity to change.
For example, one might try attending to the matter of writing time for one week, tracking when the writing took place, the length of the session, and the quality of energy during the session. The same experiment might be run another week with writing location. Similarly, one might track what time of day yoga practice feels best or at which one is likely to practice. Then ask, "How is this working for me?"
In case any of us needed more reason to get regular with our practices, putting things on a schedule is good for our health. Alisa Vitti, author of the book WomanCode, a very helpful book about hormonal health, notes that while the brain likes to be engaged through changing stimuli, not so our adrenals. These guys--which support everything from our overall energy, to weight control, to libido, to menstrual support, to bone density, to stress response--well, they like to be bored. They want to be able to have a regular pattern to follow as they release key hormones, including cortisol.
Coming back to something after a hiatus can cause feelings of shame to rush up. Maybe more so than the period of not doing the activity.
During the period of not doing (yoga, writing, meditating, blogging, whatever), it's possible to suppress thoughts about the activity. But when trying to get back on the horse, embarrassment wends its sneaky way in: "No one noticed that I was gone before, but now that I'm back, they'll realize." Or "when I do it this time, people will know that I'm a failure, because they'll remember the time that I stopped doing it."
For me anyway, what's remarkable about the thought patterns that make getting back on the horse difficult is how much they concern ideas of how others will see me and how very little they are to do with my own feelings about the activity.
Writing these posts and making it to the yoga studio regularly (two things I've fallen off while getting used to the new semester and working on my book), bring me pleasure that has nothing to do with anyone's view of the activities. They are also activities that I do because I find them good for me, if others are happy I'm doing them, that's just gravy. And yet, like many, I suspect, while I conceive of my "successful" execution of these practices in private terms, my sense of failure is a public one. And one that's based in the stories I tell myself, not reality.
If we ask ourselves, "what is the main thing that will happen when I return to my practice?" The answer is very simple, we'll be practicing again. And that's a good thing.
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