The only way out is through

I’ve learned cross country skiing as an adult, and it has taken me many years to feel more or les confident on the tracks. It is until recent years that I took the courage to try to ski down steep hills (or what I perceive as steep hills) instead of taking my skis off and walking down. I think I started skiing more often more or less at the same time as I started practicing and studying Yoga more seriously. I remember I once was skiing on my own at a place that I didn’t know very well. As I approached a downhill, I felt my body getting stressed, but I decided to give it a try. Half way through it, I started panicking until I remembered this phrase from my Yoga teacher “the only way out is through”. I was already on my way down, there was no way back, it felt like it was going to last forever, but I knew that wasn’t possible, so why not try to relax my body, pay attention to what is happening and trust a bit in myself? And it helped! I couldn’t help but thinking that it is similar to when we experience downhills in life. We panic and want to change direction, but if we remember that the only way out is through, if we spend less energy on wanting to be somewhere else or doing something different, we will feel less stressed and/or distressed, and maybe get through it stronger and wiser.

In life, the most challenging situations offer us opportunities to learn and grow but, most of the time, all we want to do is run away. You might have experienced though, that the more you avoid the challenges that life presents you, the less they disappear. Asana, pranayama and meditation are good tools to get through challenging situations because, when practiced regularly, they help us cultivate a calmer state of mind. They help us create a space to be with ourselves no matter what, and listen to what our body and mind need to tell us.

The Yoga practice is not always necessarily a pleasant one, sometimes, especially when sitting in silence, it will open windows that we would rather keep shut. We need to be brave and patient. We need to see our vulnerability, our weaknesses, our limitations. When we dare to look at things directly in the eye, we give them less power. The whole practice of Yoga is to get to know and accept yourself better. To open up to whatever is happening in your internal world. In Yoga we are encouraged to direct our attention inwards.

An important subject of study in the practice of Yoga are our emotions. Emotions are messengers from our mind. For this reason, we do better by listening to them. Let them come, observe them, take some deep breaths, and when they feel less intense, reflect. Please note that there is a difference between allowing emotions be and feeding into them. When you notice a specific emotion, you can focus on how it feels, where it feels, but avoid analysing it, or trying to change it or even worse trying to justify it. Just observe, note and try to be with it and with your breath.

We have a tendency to believe that emotions are a consequence of what happens ‘out there’ but in reality, they are the result of what in Yoga is called our ‘belief system’. Whether we like it or not, our minds are conditioned by previous experiences, personality and DNA. Every reaction we have to the external world is connected to this ‘belief system’.  More often than not, this belief system limits us. We perceive ourselves and the world out of our likes and dislikes not giving the situation a chance. I invite you to observe your emotional reactions during the coming weeks. Are you, at all times judging a situation out of your own perception? What happens when you detach from that perception? Can you feel any difference? Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with your perceptions but if some of them are bringing distress, they are not serving you.

What about the moments in life when we are being really challenged? When life is tough. Yoga invites us to cultivate equanimity of mind. The less energy we spend rejecting a situation, the more energy we can use to take care of ourselves and those around us and act in a skilful way. It is not always easy, especially when we are used to live in a reactive way, but little by little and with patience and practice, it is possible to keep a calmer state of mind, even in difficult situations. For this, we need to be able to see the whole picture and to remind us that this too shall pass. We have to have faith in the process, in ourselves and in the Universe.

Allow

Allow, flow with life and take time to observe what is happening. Avoid labeling every situation as good or bad. When we refrain from liking/disliking a situation, we let go and can act more skilfully. We neither run away nor cling to what is agreeable. 

Allow yourself to experience feelings and emotions. Allow yourself to experience what we call difficult emotions. Do not suppress, but do not feed into them. Be curious. Where does frustration, anger or sadness come from? Can you find the source inside you? Is it because of attachment? Is it because of expectations? Can you let go? If you are not ready to let go, do not push it. Just observe when they come, and as you would do with someone you care fondly of, be kind towards yourself, show compassion and understanding and tell yourself that slowly, little by little you will be able to let go. You can start by being aware.

Allow people to walk in their path, show the same curiosity, compassion and understanding, but do not allow their actions to disturb your inner peace. Remember that we all seek the same in different ways. That we all make decisions out of what we perceive and expect. 

Allow, flow and see how a lot of energy is saved, the energy you can use to live a clear and more creative life.

Be patient, it takes practice and time.

‘Behind all our efforts, our basic motive is to find happiness and thus to find peace. All our actions are for that good. We are all working toward that happiness. Even all these wars, fights and competition are ways people look for happiness. Even when people steal things, they think they are going to be happy by stealing. So the ultimate motive behind all our actions is to find that joy and peace.’ Sri Swami Satchidananda in Living Gita

Breathe!

Our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have to calm our mind and connect to our deeper self. You most probably know how soothing it is to stop for a moment during the day and just exhale deeply. We do it mostly unconsciously, to take a break. Some people take it even a bit further and make a sound at the exhale. My dad has the habit of sighing sometimes throughout the day. He likes to joke about this and says that it feels good to ‘complain a bit from time to time’, but I think it is soothing to sigh from time to time.

Breath is one of the functions in our body that we don’t pay attention to, it happens by itself. Unfortunately, because of the pace at which most of us are living, our breath tends to be short and shallow, especially on the exhales, and it becomes a vicious cycle: because we are stressed, we constrain our breath, and because we constrain our breath, we feel tired and stressed.

In the yoga tradition, the mind and the breath are intrinsically connected. When the mind is relaxed, the breath is balanced and easy, when the mind is agitated, the breath is imbalanced and effortful. So by breathing evenly and smoothly, we calm the mind, and by consciously working with calming the mind, we keep our breath nice and easy.

By focusing on our breath, we bring the mind to the present moment, and by being in the present moment, we can slow down our thoughts and tackle any situation more skilfully. Like with almost anything, it takes practice to learn to smooth our breath and thereby our mind. Here are two very simple exercises that you can practice at home or anywhere. Remember that the more you practice something, the more it becomes part of you and the easier it is to bring it forward when you need it.

Create a habit. As with anything new you introduce to your daily routine, try to keep it simple and start with two to three minutes before you go to bed, or before you get out of bed (or both). As it becomes a habit, you can then add more minutes to your morning/evening practice and even include another session as a break from your everyday life if you have the space.

Prepare for breathing. Keep it simple, sit on a chair if you are more comfortable, or at the edge of your bed (you don’t need to sit on the floor on lotus pose to practice breathing consciously). Just try to keep your back straight, shoulders relaxed and your gaze soft by not fixing your eyes on anything, at the same time as you don’t move your sight from one object to another. If you feel comfortable with closing your eyes, close your eyes. If sitting straight without support is challenging for your back, sit with your back against the back of the chair or the wall, but be conscious of not slouching. It takes some practice to find a good sitting position that keeps you awake and energised at the same time as relaxed. Be patient and curious with yourself, experiment a bit and find your perfect position. Keep both feet well grounded on the floor, hands relaxed on your thighs or knees.

You might want to lie down if you do this right before going to sleep, the challenge is that you might fall asleep right away which is good for your sleep, but not good for the practice of breathing. So be clear with yourself, what is the purpose of your session? If it is to help you fall asleep, then go for it, but if it is to practice being aware of and soothing your breath, then sit.

I like to use a timer because I otherwise keep checking the clock to see when I’m done and this distracts me too much. I use an app called Insight Timer because I don’t like the sounds of the regular timer on my mobile. You can find Insight Timer for free on any app store.

Breathing exercise 1: Inhale with the nose and exhale with the mouth. Inhale slowly, smoothly and deeply through your nose, and allow yourself to exhale through your mouth. Make sure that you breathe out completely before you start inhaling again. Pay attention to your body as you breath and avoid lifting your shoulders and tensing your chest as you inhale. Deep breaths are not supposed to feel stressful for your body, on the contrary, you should feel that at each exhale, your body melts a little bit more.

2.

Breathing exercise 2: Inhale counting to three or four, exhale counting to three or four. To even the breath. During this breathing exercise, you will inhale and exhale through your nose. Exhale completely, and then as you inhale count slowly in your head to three, four or five, depending on what feels good for you. Finish your inhale and slowly start exhaling counting equally to either three, four or five. Make sure you gradually start making your inhales and exhales even. It is quite common to start with counts of three or four, and as you practice more, you will notice that you can count a bit longer. As with the previous exercise, pay attention to your body while you’re breathing. Avoid stressing your shoulders and your chest. Again, as you breathe in imagine you become lighter and taller , and as you exhale feel every part of your body relaxing.

Once you feel comfortable with the rhythm of your breath on either of these two exercises, notice what happens to your mind. It will most probably start wondering around, that is ok. That is what the mind is supposed to do, but gently and without judgement, bring it back to what you are doing right now: breathing. If you have had a tough day and you are experiencing stress or any difficult emotion, try to be with it as you are with your breath. Your mind will constantly go back to creating stories about what happened, and why and blah blah blah but again, kindly and gently bring your mind back to your breath and the sensations in your body. Don’t worry, this stress/distress, will eventually go away. Be patient.

As with anything, these two exercises require practice in order to be almost part of your system. The more you practice, the more aware you can be, the more they bring you back to your core which is a calm and safe place. Be patient, be kind to yourself and take it easy.