“Humbly, we are asked to keep the flow real between what is taken in and what is let out. We have only to breathe to remember our place as a living inlet. Experience in, feelings out. Surprise and challenge in, heartache and joy out. In a constant tide, life rushes in, and in constant release, we must let it all run back off. For this is how the earth was made magnificent by the sea and how humankind is carved upright, again and again, by the ocean spirit that sets us free.”
Here are some resources on: the neuroscience of habit formation and cessation (spoiler alert: It’s not about willpower!), the power of breathing practices to support wellness , and the importance of deep presence when meeting grief.
An excerpt from Proper Breathing Brings Better Health, in Scientific American, By Christophe André on January 15, 2019
MIND UNDER THE INFLUENCE
“Even a rudimentary understanding of physiology helps to explain why controlled breathing can induce relaxation. Everyone knows that emotions affect the body. When you are happy, for instance, the corners of your mouth turn up automatically, and the edges of your eyes crinkle in a characteristic expression. Similarly, when you are feeling calm and safe, at rest, or engaged in a pleasant social exchange, your breathing slows and deepens. You are under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxing effect. Conversely, when you are feeling frightened, in pain, or tense and uncomfortable, your breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s various reactions to stress, is now activated. Less well known is that the effects also occur in the opposite direction: the state of the body affects emotions. Studies show that when your face smiles, your brain reacts in kind—you experience more pleasant emotions. Breathing, in particular, has a special power over the mind.”
Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and creator of Refuge in Grief and author of, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, narrates this animation on the importance of presence when grieving.
From where I sit, the wind is turning the sunlight on the ocean into rippling, silver streamers. Waves closer to the shore lap lightly, while the streamers flicker and swish. The evergreen and rock of Mouse Island on the horizon is an anchor, a landing, in this moving sea of light. All the ingredients are here for contentment, joy, even bliss. There is nowhere else to be, nothing else to do.
Rachael Naomi Remen, the pediatrician-turned-therapist and author wrote: “Our bodies hold us to our integrity.” She knew this personally, as someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager and still completed the rigorous demands of medical school, including sleep-deprived residencies. Over subsequent decades, Remen navigated multiple surgeries and medications that often resulted in further complications as she aged. Thankfully, her overall experience with Crohn’s appeared to become more manageable.
As a teacher of general and therapeutic yoga, I have experienced professionally and personally how our bodies, our somatic experiences, hold us to our integrity. We know on a sensory level things it can take minutes or years to acknowledge, repair, or integrate on a cognitive or rational level. Some of what we know lives deep in our bones and/or tissues, below or beyond words. It is an embodied wisdom, a wholeness, that is always accessible to us.
Yoga, as a mindfulness practice, helps us to listen deeply to the nuance and the obvious; it connects us to our physical narratives. The consistent practice of mindfulness, of returning to body, breath, and the present moment, aids us in becoming evermore attuned to the experiences arising in our whole being, enhancing our capacities for self-soothing, self-awareness, and compassion. The deepening of these skills will also serve us off the yoga mat or meditation cushion, whether we are meeting adversity, nurturing relationships, or connecting with the simple joy and beauty of the natural world. This is the integrity, the homecoming, the freedom of embodied presence.
This is a mindful, self-regulation practice that can support our capacities to meet the present moment with skillfulness and compassion, and in the process cultivate equanimity.
Stephen Cope (Excerpts and technique* from Yoga and The Quest for True Self) Riding the Wave Technique: Breathe: Soften the belly and bring your awareness to the breath. The body responds immediately. The wave of breath begins to flow into all parts of the body. Relax: Full breathing automatically initiates relaxation. In order to deepen this effect, it can be useful to coach yourself. “Relax.” You can consciously relax the muscles: The face. The brow. The belly. Feel: Actively begin to investigate the wave of feeling generated by this relaxation. Where in your body do you feel sensation, energy, movement? Investigate. Move toward the sensations and feelings, rather than away from them. If intensity is present, meet it with breath and attention toward the grounding energy or points in the body. Watch: As you begin to settle, you may be able to notice the capacity to witness your experience, to be the observer. Allow yourself to identify with the observing self. The Witness stands at the center of experience, and is able to be with the experience, the sensation, the feeling, and not be overwhelmed by it or practice this capacity. Allow: Coach yourself to allow the wave of feeling to wash through you. No need to block anything. It’s all safe. It will not destroy or annihilate you. It will not hurt others. Practicing staying with your true experience just as it is. Watching it begin, shift, and end.
Note: If a lot of intensity is present, you can modify this instruction to allow and invite calming, soothing breath awareness and the gentle reminder: present moment, safe moment.
“When we are judging or criticizing our experience, we cannot be fully in it. In order to witness we have to be able to interact with what is, without needing to fight against it. Nothing has to get rejected or closed down. No part of me is any more right than any other part. I am not more invested in one than in the other. I am curious. Accepting. Allowing. Interested. Watching…There is an essential corollary to the first law of the witness, however. It goes like this: Eventually, we will react, we will judge, we will censor. But this is not a problem either! When we do react, judge, or censor, we can simply take that reaction as the object of the witness’s attention.” Stephen Cope
Consider ending practice with this gift of a poem by Wendell Berry:
What We Need Is Here
Geese appear high over us, pass, and the sky closes. Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.
Stressed out? Worried? Frustrated? Feel like it’s difficult to plan ahead? You are so normal. Even five to ten minutes of mindfulness or simple breathing practices can help. Really.
Below are the links for a webinar-Zoom presentation and the related Power Point requested by and offered to the Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging (V4A) on May 15, 2020 to support direct service professionals coping with the heightened stress of the pandemic. The presentation offers fundamental mindfulness concepts, skills, and practices that can support individuals with daily self-regulation and self-care.
The peonies have returned, as the first lilacs begin their fade. This is the gesture of spring, of life cycle; the blossoms show us over days or weeks, what it is like to grow, shine, and release.
Around me, around us all, the human journey of individual, family, community, nation, and world unfolds. The human energies are heightened and tangled: fraught, frightened, lost, grieving, confused; out-of-step with what was expected, while grappling with what has arisen, what has been lost, and our historic wounds. While turning toward the possibilities within dynamic change is necessary and resourceful, there is no right or one way to walk through this moment. We each have our way. We can trust this. And yes, unrest, messy moments, and grief in the midst are inevitable.
Resiliency is not solely an individual quality or skillset, as it is so often described and touted, but a living connection to systemic supports and resources that allow us to find homecoming and shelter with others, as well as within ourselves. The roots of resiliency are nurtured through learning how to be compassionate with ourselves and others. Compassion engages the heart’s knowing and softer, kinder wisdom. It is the gesture, the practice that allows for the building of bridges and human connection.
More vulnerability, more tenderness, more distress are natural in times of instability, crisis, and systemic fragility. Take heart. Reach out when you need to. It’s all okay.