The hardest part of yoga is letting myself breathe after 7 years of practice it still feels impossible I've heard that meditation can turn toxic if you let yourself spend it ruminating on the negative listening to that hateful little voice inside I don't know how to avoid that sharp pang of self-criticism and still breathe into my belly to find deep, full, relaxed breaths I've spent my whole life disassociating from that area avoiding myself even in the internal mirror of my own self awareness Only on my back can I let myself fully expand and take up space with the help of gravity to hold me and keep venomous thoughts at bay How can I learn to love all of myself when some parts cause me so much pain this undercurrent of overwhelm at the idea of accepting it's something I cannot change
Narrowing Our Focus
If there is one thing I’ve learned from my meditation practice, it is the importance and value of focusing our minds. I’ve gotten to the point where I genuinely don’t think it matters what we decide to focus on. The simple act of focusing itself is what brings us clarity and calm. As someone who is easily distracted, it’s hard not to get caught up on the decision of what to focus on, even during meditation. Should I focus my attention on my breath, my heart space, my connection with the earth, a visualization? There are so many options that it becomes overwhelming. I find myself switching back and fourth a lot of the time, unable to settle on just one.
Until recently, I was under the assumption that breath awareness was one of the simplest forms of meditation. I often get frustrated with myself for having such a hard time with it after so many years. But recently I heard a meditation teacher discuss the challenges of this type of meditation, validating a lot of the recurring thoughts that pop up for me during my practice. For one thing, saying “focus on the breath” isn’t a very clear instruction. The breath is a very complex thing. It is fluid, ever changing, and tied to a lot of difficult emotions.
Another problem with breath awareness is the body image issues that often arise with it. Until hearing this person speak about it, part of me thought I was the only one that struggled with allowing a natural belly breath during a seated meditation. (It’s a little bit easier for me when lying down.) People, especially women, are told to suck in their stomach, to flatten and hide it. Yet now we are expected to allow it to expand fully and breathe deeply into our diaphragm? It’s hard to let go of years of emotional baggage in order to do so. I always get distracted by my feelings of shame and self-judgement while trying to breathe into my belly. Then instead of focusing on the breath, I’m meditating on negative self-talk, which is only harming me.
One thing that I’ve found helpful more recently is to get even more specific with my breath awareness. There is so much going on when we think about our breath. There a lots of different areas we can choose to focus on. For instance, I’ve been narrowing my focus down to the way the air feels as it leaves and enters my nostrils. You might also choose to focus on the way the breath feels in other areas of the body, or the temperature difference on the inhale vs. the exhale. Maybe you’d like to focus on the sounds you make while breathing. There are lots of different things about the act of breathing to pay attention to, if you find the “breath” too amorphous and vague.
At least for me, it’s very beneficial to pick something very small and specific if I want to achieve that soothing, flow-state of focus. Even though it’s tempting to bounce back and forth between options, it’s important to commit to whatever you decide to focus on and stick to it. Rest assured that regardless of what you choose, the result will be the same. It’s the act of focusing that we are trying to practice, so the object of that focus is irrelevant.
Racing thoughts are a common part of anxiety. It feels like there are just so many things demanding our attention. It becomes overwhelming. Focusing our minds is a great way to calm ourselves down when we are feeling stressed out. Even if you don’t have time to sit down and do a formal meditation, you can always find a meditative state no matter where you are or what you’re doing. All you have to do is decide on something small to focus on. If you are walking, you might decide to focus on the way the heels of your feet feel when they contact the ground underneath you. If you are drawing, you might focus on the movement of your hand or the sensation of touching your brush or pen to the surface of the paper or canvas. If you are cooking, maybe focus on the way the foods smell as you prepare them, or the sounds of chopping and heating the ingredients. If you’re washing the dishes you might focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels against your skin. Or the sounds of the dishes as they clink against one another.
In today’s world filled with endless distractions vying for our attention, it can be especially difficult to stay focused on anything for very long. If you’re someone like me who has had trouble keeping your attention where you want it, try choosing an even smaller, simpler point to focus on. While it hasn’t made things perfect, it has definitely helped me a lot during my meditation and also when stressful moments arise. Most importantly, practice offering yourself compassion when you’re struggling. I promise you it’ll be worth the struggle. Focus is a muscle that we can build up more and more of over time. The older I get the more I realize just how important our focus is. It genuinely shapes our entire reality. The more we strengthen our ability to direct that focus towards what we want, the more ease we will begin to experience in our lives.
Breathe Into It
One of the first things you tend to learn when getting into yoga philosophy is that resistance to unpleasant feelings, situations, or emotions only leads to more intense, prolonged suffering. In fact, it could be said that all of the suffering we experience stems from our aversion to certain things. Life is about perspective primarily. So if we can teach ourselves to see everything through the eyes of loving kindness, there is no where for suffering to take root.
This principle of non-resistance can be seen in the mind, but also in the physical body. I have always been someone who detests the cold and avoids it at all costs. Unfortunately for me, I also happen to live in the northern part of the country where winters can be pretty intense. I read the other day that when you brace yourself against the cold and try to resist it, you are actually only making yourself feel colder! When we tense up our bodies, our blood vessels are constricted. Therefore less blood is able to flow to our extremities, making us colder. If we can breathe deeply and relax our bodies, we won’t be as uncomfortable with low temperatures.
This also works with other types of pain or discomfort. The breath is such a powerful thing, if we can only learn to utilize it. I often notice when I am in some type of physical pain whether it be a stomach ache, a sore throat, or just muscle cramps, I desperately try to avoid and disassociate from that area of my body. Sometimes as a kid I would even visualize boxing that body part off from the rest of me. Needless to say that type of response has never worked for me. Despite my best efforts I am unable to ignore my body’s painful cries.
The other night as I was struggling to fall asleep due to such a pain, I decided to try embracing that pain instead of attempting to push it away. I turned to focusing on my breath. I imagined sending the swirling, healing oxygen to that painful part of my body with every inhale. As I exhaled, I relaxed and accepted the unpleasant sensations. This didn’t make the pain go away, but after a few moments I felt much better. Today I am struggling with a very upset stomach from overeating yesterday. Stomach pain has always been one of the hardest problems for me to deal with ever since I was little. I’ve felt tense and uncomfortable all morning. Nothing I’ve tried seems to have helped. However, as I sit here writing this, I’ve been trying to also take slow, deep breaths down into my belly. I can definitely still feel some discomfort, but it’s much less pronounced than earlier.
Just like with most meditative practices, the hardest part is staying focused. Even after years of practicing yoga and meditation it can be hard for me to take deep breaths as I move through a normal day. In fact, a lot of the time I find that my breath is exceptionally shallow or that I’m holding it! It can definitely be frustrating when it feels like despite your best efforts you aren’t making much progress. The good thing is each breath is another opportunity to practice. Breathwork is something we are able to work on anywhere no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing. Not to mention it’s free! It can even be quite fun once you start to notice the connection your breath has on your body and mind.
I find it really helps me to attach an image or an emotion to my breath to help me concentrate. Recently I’ve started to imagine each sip of air as a delicious food, drink, or even a drug that I get to consume. I look forward to every inhale and exhale. I savor the way it feels as it moves through my body. Sometimes I’ll also picture all of the wonderful things my body will be able to do with so much fresh oxygen. I imagine it providing me with energy and happy feelings. I imagine my body using it to perform all of it’s vital functions: building new cells, cleansing toxins, healing me, etc. Just thinking about it makes me so grateful for this body I have been blessed with. It inspires me to breathe deeply as a gift to this body. Inhale – I love you, body. Exhale – thank you, body.
The next time you are feeling upset or you’re in pain, whatever it may be that you find yourself resisting, try to honor that feeling rather than running from it. Perhaps it will even turn out to be a gift. It is easy to go through life without growing or changing when things are going well. However, pain and discomfort are necessary signals that we can learn so much from. For instance, my stomach hurting this morning is a reminder to take better care of my body. It is my body asking me for love, kindness, and respect. Instead of being frustrated and upset with my body for not behaving the way I want it to, I am going to listen to it’s urgent request. I am going to use this unpleasant morning to push me to do better for myself today and from now on. It all begins with the breath.
So just breathe
As I drove to my yoga class this morning, I was contemplating what I would say before starting practice. I have been having some minor issues involving poor circulation recently, so I thought I could emphasize directional breathwork. Teacher often tell their students to visualize the breath traveling through the body, often down to the soles of the feet or the tips of the toes.
Thanks to medical science we know so much about the body and the breath that the original yogis never could have known with any certainty. We know that our breath is absorbed by the lungs into the bloodstream so that oxygen can be transported throughout the whole body. So in a sense we really can “breath into our toes.”
I found this thought rather amusing so I continued pondering it. I began to wonder what other ways the wisdom within these ancient teachings may come to be better explained through science. I know we have come to learn even more in the last few decades about the incredible power the mind has to influence the physical body. Placebos can have real healing effects if we believe that they will, for instance. We are also somewhat able to control our heart rate and cortisol levels with mindful attention to the breath.
I wonder if directional breathwork can actually have the power to guide more oxygen to different areas of the body. Perhaps just focusing on the blood circulating, bringing that breath into every cell can really physically impact the way the body is working. Yet another concept I would love to have tested scientifically in a controlled experiment. I often wish I had my own research team at my disposal to gather new, interesting data for me. Without that these are all simply intriguing thoughts.
However, anecdotally, I have noticed that “sending the breath” to the areas of the body feeling the most tension in a pose seems to make a noticeable difference. I’ve always felt that helps my muscles to relax and find that sukha and sthira, the ease within the effort. I have little doubt of the breath’s power. And I am always finding new ways to explore that power.
Even though I am not sure I’ll ever discover the amount of truth behind this idea, I am going to try to implement it in my practice as if it were. After all, it couldn’t hurt. The next time I settle in for my daily meditation, I am going to focus not only on my breath but sending that breath into my toes, my fingertips, the tip of my nose. All of the extremities that are effected most by poor circulation. Who knows? I may even begin to notice a difference in my body. If you decide to experiment with this visualization in your own practice, let me know how it goes! I hope somehow it can be helpful.
The Mind-Body Connection
I’ve learned a ton of useful information in my psychology undergrad studies and yoga teacher training. I now try to use the amalgamation of that knowledge to help myself in my day to day life. I have always been a strong believer in the old adage “knowledge is power.” So I am happy to have an outlet where I am able to share this empowerment with others.
Over the years I’ve come to honor the fact that the mind and the body are intimately intertwined. When we are feeling stressed and our minds are racing, the body responds to this as if we were in physical danger. Our muscles tense (often our shoulders, hips, and jaw), our heart rate increases, our breath becomes quick and shallow. Exactly the things any other animal’s body does to prepare for a real or perceived threat.
The only difference is that unlike other animals, humans have the tendency to get stuck in this fight or flight response for far longer than nature ever intended. This is extremely taxing on the body, causing all sorts of medical issues eventually. While it can be difficult to figure out a way to make the mind calm itself, we can use this mind-body connection to our advantage.
The mind is able to send signals to change the state of our bodies, but the body is equally able to effect our mental state depending on what we do with it. If we think about the ways the body reacts when the mind is calm, we are able to consciously create that state in our bodies even when the mind is feeling agitated. Taking mindful deep breaths and scanning our bodies and relaxing each muscle sends signals to a worried brain that we are safe. It is impossible for opposite states to exist in the mind and body simultaneously.
It can be difficult to stay grounded in the body and apply these mindful physical changes when we are distressed. But with practice, it becomes easier to return to the body when the mind feels frantic. Make yourself comfortable, breathe deeply, relax your shoulders, un-clench your jaw, let the body’s wisdom quiet the storm in your head. I hope you will remember this the next time anxiety emerges in the mind.
Take care of yourselves, dear ones.
Breathing Through Discomfort
As my yoga practice continues to grow deeper, it is slowly saturating every corner of my life. It is amazing to be able to integrate this knowledge into my day. One of the invaluable things that yoga has brought to my life is an awareness and connection with the breath. There is so much power in the breath.
At first I began to concentrate on my breathing during my daily workout. Just like in yoga postures, I am often able to find a beautiful balance of effort and ease (sthira and sukha) as I am doing vigorous exercises. The connection to my breath assures that my muscles receive all the oxygen they need. Instead of focusing on how difficult my workout is, I am able to focus on full, deep, and steady breaths. I experience less discomfort (often even finding pleasure) as I push my body to its limits. In addition, time seems to fly by as I find a flow-like state. I find excitement and gratitude for what my body is capable of.
After seeing the benefits mindful breathing could have in my physical experiences, I began to utilize it to benefit my mental state throughout my day as well. I started to notice my breath in moments when I was experiencing something emotionally difficult. I realized that when I am feeling extremely stressed my breath is very shallow. Sometimes it even feels as if I am holding my breath! Once my mind has shifted to my breathing and I begin to breathe slowly and fully, I immediately feel much calmer and less overwhelmed. It’s incredible how much this has helped me cope with challenging emotions. Even my experience of mundane daily tasks, like vacuuming and doing the dishes, has become more pleasant.
I am still struggling with and improving my awareness of my breath every day. I am so grateful that my yoga journey continues to give me new perspectives and new things to focus on in each moment. I am so excited to be able to share the things I learn and give my future students the life changing gifts that yoga has given me. I am so lucky that in a few months I will be certified to teach this ancient, beautiful, and profound practice. Until then I am going to continue learning and growing and enjoying this beautiful journey.
Just breathe. ♥