I’d like you to pause for a second.
Sit with a tall spine. Place your hands on your knees. Breathe in from your abdomen, hold the breath at the top, and gently release with a longer exhale. Again, breathe in through the nose, retain the breath at the top, and breathe out smoothly. Once more, feel your body expand with air, pause and hold, and feel your body breathe out.
There. That’s better.
Momentary relief and relaxation, as you just practiced, is truly accessible. Just like it doesn’t take much to become anxious, it doesn’t take much to become relaxed.
The trick is making mindfulness a daily practice. Making it something as automatic as brushing your teeth, so that it doesn’t feel like effort or a chore. It just becomes something you do.
Recently on a podcast interview with Simple Daily Practice, I divulged how my mindfulness routine has changed over time. I’m the first to admit that it takes time to change your self-doubt or anxious or depressed patterns. But it can be done.
In the beginning of a mindfulness routine, yoga and meditation and even controlling your breath can feel unnatural and unwelcome. It’s not that you don’t want the change — it’s that your natural resistance to change takes over.
This is what I want you to know: It’s not your fault and you’re not the only one who resists change. To prove it to you, here’s a little bit of scientific geekery into why you physiologically resist change — any change — in your routine.
Your head needs your heart
Every day, you ask a lot of your brain. It’s no wonder that we get tired and fatigued after working a full day or engaging in emotionally-draining conversation or discussion.
For those of us who have high expectations of ourselves, we spend energy living up to our expectations AND THEN we spend more energy in our brain feeling like we never do.
Your brain needs a lot of oxygen to run. As the main computer of the nervous system, it’s the head honcho in charge. But, it still relies on the body to keep it running. In fact, it relies on the heart.
An adult brain requires around 20% of the body’s oxygen, pumped to it through a constant blood supply from the heart. After about 10 seconds of that blood supply cutting off to the brain, the brain stops its activity and usually becomes irreversibly damaged.
So this relationship between your heart and your head isn’t just metaphorical. It’s literal. It’s survival.
I love this analogy from Yoga Instructor Elena Brower: “When you open up a lot of tabs and applications on your computer, it slows down your computer.” You are this computer when you overload your brain with tasks and thoughts and pressures to accomplish and be better — always be better.
We meditate and become mindful to decrease the load on our system. To decrease the buildup of samskaras, those habits you may have carried around since childhood, that are holding you back from your heart’s desires.
The way to activate calm
By measuring oxygen levels in the brain, scientific studies now show us which areas of our brain are more active and less active. The ones that are more active use more oxygen. In one study, experienced meditators showed a deactivation in the “default mode network” of the brain, the part involved in self-referencing and daydreaming and “mind wandering.” This deactivation helps to explain how meditation helps you feel more focused.
Controlled breathing through pranayama techniques, like the one you just did, also gets the parasympathetic nervous system on board, which triggers a relaxation response. Combined, breathwork + meditation are a one-two punch that brings your head and heart back into balance.
For too long, our desire has been to find out what is wrong with us in our head… and fix it by, again, using our minds. The way to activate calm and focus is right in front of us. Or rather, right inside of us.
What endlessly fascinates me is that there weren’t scientific studies 2000 years ago. It was right around 400 CE that The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was compiled. These people devised yoga asana, meditation and pranayama through intuition and experimentation.
They devised it because they were seeking the same goal as you and me: freedom. They knew the best way out of their minds was through their heart.
Love. It all comes back to love.
Practice: Exalted Crescent Lunge, Anjaneyasana Variation
Here’s a new variation on a routine yoga pose, Crescent Lunge.
Some practitioners take this pose into a deep backbend. Here, I focused on lengthening my heart up to my head, without compromising my low back. On the top arm, I drop my index finger to my thumb for Jnana Mudra, promoting knowledge and calm, while the other arm reaches around my back to grasp the opposite outer leg.
- From the top of your mat, step your right leg back into a lunge. Bring your hands to your hips and square your shoulders. Bend the right knee slightly, stacking shoulders on top of hips. Bring the right heel over the right toes. Then, extend through the right thigh, staying low in your lunge.
- Inhale the arms up and lift from the low belly, reaching the bottom ribs away from the pelvis. Exhale and soften the tops of the shoulders down, but keep the crown of the head energetically reaching up. Find one point of focus in front of you to maintain your balance.
- Exhale the left arm behind you, capturing the outer right thigh. Continue to reach up through the right arm and drop your index finger to thumb for Jnana Mudra. Breathe evenly for four to six rounds.
- Exhale both hands down to either side of your front foot. Step your right leg forward. Hang in Standing Forward Bend before practicing the other side.
Note: A portion of this post was excerpted from The Trust Intensive weekly dharma talks. If you want to go deeper into the whys and hows of mindfulness, sign up to get notified when The Trust Intensive opens again.