Holding Your Breath

Pranayama Benefits for Physical and Emotional Health

Stop whatever you are doing and take a moment to just notice your breath. Don’t worry about changing it, just observe how you breath when you aren’t paying attention. What is your breath like? For me, at pretty much any given moment unless I’m doing yoga, my breath is painfully shallow. Often I’ll notice that I’ve actually been holding my breath! I particularly notice this tendency when I’m feeling anxious.

For most of my life, I never thought about breathing at all. Breathing is unconscious, it’s a reflex, our bodies are taking care of that for us. These are the things I remember learning when I was growing up. Without yoga, I never would have learned the power that is held inside of my breath. I had no idea that we had the ability to retrain ourselves to have more beneficial breathing patterns or that the breath had any significance besides keeping us alive.

Society tells us that we need all of these magic fixes for our depression, anxiety, fatigue, etc. We medicate and distract ourselves, doing anything to avoid the signals our bodies are sending us. We are never taught how to value and honor our breath for the miracle that it is. In my opinion, pranayama (breathwork) is one of the most advanced aspects of yoga and also the most important.

Living in a world of excess, it seems impossible that there could be so many life changing benefits from something as simple as breathing. Yet there is a breathwork practice for anything that you may want to achieve. Through the power of our breath we can energize ourselves, we can calm our nervous systems, we can elevate our mood, we can cool ourselves down, warm ourselves up, we can even experience altered states of consciousness! And we can do all of this for free, regardless of where we are, regardless of who we are. If you’re living, you can practice pranayama.

Unfortunately, I am still far away from unlocking the full potential of my own breath. Even after years of yoga and meditation, I am still working on just being able to notice my breath as I move through my day. I’ve particularly been trying to focus on checking in with my breath when I feel anxious. When our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) kicks on, the body naturally makes our breath quick and shallow. It is under the assumption that it needs to prepare to either flee or attack whatever threat may be nearby. However, this is supposed to be a short-lived experience. When we find ourselves perpetually in this heightened state, we start to experience various mental and physical health issues.

Interestingly enough, this feedback loop works in both directions. Our mind is usually the one running the show, telling the body it’s time to act. The body has just as much control over the mind though. If we can learn to recognize our stress response, we can override it with our breath. Now, this is no easy feat, and it definitely takes a lot of practice, but it is worth it. Don’t give up. Keep practicing and eventually we can all cultivate a beautiful symbiotic relationship with our own breath.

There is so much pleasure to be found in the simple act of breathing. One of the most valuable parts of my last acid experience was finding a stronger connection to my breath. As I laid in the grass with my boyfriend, enjoying the sun streaming down through the leaves above us and listening to the hum of locus in the background, I became intoxicated with the feeling of my own inhales and exhales. Each sip of air felt incredible, fresh oxygen, the gentle expansion of my lungs. Each out breath was a gorgeous release, a cleansing. I could have spent the whole evening just savoring my own breathing.

That experience has stayed with me since then. I am still able to tap into that sense of gratitude and wonder as I breathe. My breath alone can be better than any drug or addiction out there. And it’s mine to enjoy whenever I wish without consequence. I’ve even come up with a little visualization that helps me get back in touch with my LSD experience. I think it would work well for anyone who has been or still is a smoker.

As you breath in, just imagine you are taking a nice long, delicious drag off of a cigarette, vape, or joint. I genuinely think one of the reasons humans seem to enjoy smoking things so much is because it allows us to slow down and focus on our breath for a few minutes. You may even find it helpful to visualize the air as smoke moving in and out of your body. This would be an excellent visualization to try the next time you find yourself holding your breath or breathing very shallow.

Wherever you may be in regard to a pranayama practice, for the rest of the day, just try to come back to your breath whenever you notice yourself feeling anxious. Are you holding your breath? Is washing the dishes really that unpleasant or is it because you are unconsciously trying to not breath until you’re finished? No matter what is sparking that anxiety in me, checking in with my breath is always a huge help.

Let me know what your experience has been like regarding breathwork. When did you first realize the significance of the breath? What are some of your favorite pranayama practices? If you decide to try my little visualization, let me know how it went for you.

Pranayama for Anxiety: 4 Breathing Exercises to Try | YogiApproved.com

When Self-Love Turns Toxic

Self Love with Sigrid Tasies — Jodi Plumbley - Bespoke Boudoir + Portrait  Photographer

Ever since I began my “self-improvement journey” I’ve struggled with toxic self-love. I’ve heard this term used to describe a few different things, and it seems counterintuitive at first, so let me just start by defining what I mean. For me, toxic self-love is when my best intentions become new ways for me to criticize and cut myself down.

Here is an example: I’ve been practicing yoga for years now. I started with just seven minutes a day and for a while I was doing 30-60 minutes. However, recently I’ve found myself being too busy to do more than 15 minutes of yoga on my lunch break at work. Yoga is about self care, self love, self exploration, mindfulness. It’s not about a rigorous, unbending routine. Nevertheless, I’ve been super hard on myself about doing less than I once did. It’s ironic, actually. In the end, what’s worse for my mental health, missing 15 minutes of yoga or berating myself for it for the rest of the day?

Often the very routines I cultivated to manage my anxiety become sources of stress instead. I’ve always had a hard time avoiding that “all or nothing” mentality. If I don’t do an hour of yoga and meditation every day, than I might as well have done nothing. If I don’t eat with perfect mindfulness, then I might as well scarf down my food as fast as I can. This kind of black and white thinking has the potential to be more detrimental than if you had never started the practice at all. It seems like when I do manage to find time for a 60 minute yoga flow, I don’t give myself any credit. I think, “Well of course, I don’t get a pat on the back for doing what I’m supposed to do.” However, if I only have time for 5 minutes one day, I agonize over what I failure I am.

This is toxic self-love. It isn’t loving at all. Self-love doesn’t mean I’ll love myself when I’m perfect. Self-love means I’ll love myself where I am right now. I’ll love my flaws and imperfections. I’ll love myself when I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning. I’ll love myself when I gain 5 pounds. I’ll love myself when I’ve made a big mistake. Self-love is unconditional. Toxic self-love says: meet these standards first.

This pressure we put on ourselves to perform and keep up with all our positive habits every single day without exception, ends up making us forget why we began these habits in the first place. Was my goal to check a box, to be unwaveringly consistent? Or was my goal to be happy and to take better care of myself? Regularly reminding ourselves of our intention is so important, so that we don’t become sidetracked while going through the motions.

It’s also important for us to pay attention to the way we talk to ourselves. What kind of language are you using inside your own head? One of my worst mental habits is saying “I have to.” This is probably one of my most repeated phrases each day. I have to workout. I have to do yoga. I have to meditate. I have to eat healthy, mindfully. I have to go to work. Honestly this phrase probably comes before most of my thoughts. It’s no wonder I always feel so stressed and exhausted.

My entire life might be completely transformed by gently correcting myself when I notice this phrase coming up. I don’t have to, I get to. It’s even a more accurate and truthful statement. I genuinely don’t have to do any of the things I do. I choose to do them, because I enjoy doing them. It’s only after months and years of repeating to myself that I have to that I lose sight of the fact that I want to. When I give myself permission to not do the thing, that’s when I finally allow my natural desire to bubble to the surface.

Sometimes I even catch myself thinking that I don’t deserve to feel calm and content, because I didn’t do a certain thing. I feel my anxiety welling up and think, “Good. That’s what you get for fucking up today.” How sick is that? I am purposefully withholding happiness from myself as a punishment. It’s wild to realize the “self-love” I practice is so harsh and domineering. Often I’ll even beat myself up for beating myself up! It’s madness!

True self-love is gentle, kind, forgiving. It’s recognizing how far you’ve come. It’s acknowledging the things you’re still struggling with and being okay with that. Even though I still have things to work on, I am proud of myself for all the progress I’ve made. Before I wouldn’t have even had the mental clarity to recognize the ways I’m being too hard on myself. Instead of perpetuating that cycle with more self-criticism, I am excited to use all of the tools I’ve gathered over the years to show myself more loving kindness. When I notice a negative thought arise, instead of seeing it as a cue to become upset with myself, I can see it as a cue to be proud of myself for even noticing it at all. It’s a beautiful opportunity to practice softening, to practice opening my heart even wider. I am so grateful for the chance to keep growing in my journey toward peace, happiness, forgiveness, and love. I sincerely hope you will try to offer yourself that same grace on your own journey.

8 key signs that you are lacking in self-love - Life Coach Directory

Equanimity

Finding the fortitude
to simply surrender
Nodding in acknowledgement 
toward all that's disconcerting
Breathing into the tight spaces
of not only our bodies
but of our minds as well

Saving space for the unknown
bowing down to the bigger picture
that we cannot yet see
humbly accepting
a limited perspective
of this life

Noting our indignation
as it arises in opposition to adversity
and asking ourselves:
What is this?
Do I really know what's best?
Can I release my opinions 
and embrace what is?

Learning that our white knuckled grip
is doing us no favors 
practicing unclenching our grasp
on the way things "should" be
the way others should act
should think
should be

Having the humility to say:
I don't know
Having enough trust to say:
And that's okay
Cultivating curiosity
in place of judgement 
Letting go
Meditation | El arte de la meditación, Diseño gráfico ilustración, Diseño  de ilustración

Learning to Be Happy (Even When You Don’t Get What You Want)

True Contentment: In Simplicity — SECOND CITY CHURCH

The other day, while listening to a talk given by the American spiritual teacher and guru, Ram Dass, he said something along the lines of: Learn how to be happy even when you don’t get what you want. For some reason, the way he said these words really struck me. There is something about listening to the gentle, slow, thoughtful voice of a spiritual leader that allows simple ideas to penetrate directly to your soul. Since then I have kept that idea close to my heart.

It’s so easy to forget that external circumstances don’t dictate our internal state. Finding contentment where we are now, doesn’t mean that we won’t want things anymore. However, we won’t allow the outcome of these wants to decide how we feel. Certain desires are easier to let go of than others, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we always have the power to let go and reside in happiness.

All of us already know how to do this to a certain extent. We have varying levels of wanting. We may want to have a certain fruit for breakfast only to realize that it has spoiled and we must find something else to eat. Depending on who you are, this usually isn’t enough to ruin your day or mood. We simply think, “oh, rats” and prepare another food. On the other hand, we may be planning to get married only to have our
fiancée leave us at the alter. That’s not going to be as easy to let go of as a rotten mango.

I wonder, though. How much the variation in reaction has to do with our preconceived ideas about the “appropriate” reaction in each scenario. When I used to get upset, it genuinely felt like I had no choice. Then in addition to not getting what I wanted, I felt an added level of suffering due to a feeling of powerlessness. There is a certain freedom in simply knowing we have the ability to choose.

When my ex left me the last time, I remember feeling frustrated that now I’d have to go back to being sad and miserable. The idea of doing that seemed so repulsive to me that I decided I didn’t care if that’s what I was supposed to feel. I decided to discard my ideas of what I thought society expected of me in that scenario. I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and for the first time in such a situation, I realized I had the choice not to be.

Sometimes just remembering that we have that choice is enough. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience sadness, anger, frustration, or suffering again. There are some times in life that we actually want to feel sad, and that’s okay. There is a difference between holding space for a genuine emotion and feeling trapped by one.

The next time I find myself not getting what I want, rather than getting upset and ruminating, I’m going to use it as an opportunity. Each time something doesn’t go the way you planned, it’s an opportunity to practice being happy anyway. One of my favorite questions to ask myself is: Can I love myself even though…? Fill in the blank. Now I’d like to add another question: Can I be happy even though….? Sometimes phrasing the issue in this way allows us to see the choice we have. When I’m getting down on myself because of some small flaw, asking the question, “can I still love myself,” brings things back into perspective and reminds me what really matters. If I can still love myself anyway, why bother being upset about whatever it may be? The same goes for “can I be happy anyway.”

Asking these types of questions also helps me be more lighthearted about the problem. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear in that moment. Then I become curious. Can I? Let’s find out. It can be fun to explore our own hearts and minds and find a path back to happiness. And just like paths in the forest, these paths become more worn and easier to follow the more we use them. So don’t worry if your mind seems like particularly dense woodlands right now. You can still make those paths. Even if it’s hard at first, know that it only gets easier.

Ram Dass talks about 'Becoming Nobody,' the documentary on his spiritual  journey | Datebook

Finding the Feeling

For years now, I have practiced yoga, meditation, and gratitude daily. While I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental health since implementing these practices, it still feels like the changes I’ve experienced have been underwhelming. I thought that after such diligent effort over so many years, that I would be further along in my spiritual journey by this point. I still struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, etc.

In the beginning, these daily practices were done very intentionally. It was easy to remain mindful because everything was so new to me. However, after solidifying these routines, they became just that, routines. Many days I find myself just going through the motions. That is the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy more of the benefits ever after so many years. I also think this may be a reason some people find themselves giving up on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness all together.

We must always be careful not to allow these things to become just words, just routines. Going through the motions may be better than doing nothing at all, but it isn’t going to result in the profound changes we’re seeking in ourselves. Yoga isn’t about the shapes the body takes, it’s about where the mind goes, learning to watch our own thoughts, learning to let go, to make peace with our perceived flaws or shortcomings, and so much more. In the same way, a daily gratitude practice isn’t about how fast you can list things off, or being able to fill up a whole page. It’s about the energy, the emotion behind the things your listing.

It’s almost funny when I think about it. I don’t know why I would expect writing a list of things I’m grateful for to be any different than writing a grocery list considering the way I normally feel while doing so. I usually don’t feel anything at all. If anything, I feel annoyed. “Ugh, I don’t have time for this. I can’t think of anything to write. Why am I such an ungrateful person? Why is this so hard for me?” That’s usually the kinds of thoughts occupying my mind as I struggle to think of enough bullet points to fill the page in my gratitude journal. Saying the words, “I am grateful,” isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel it too.

Now for some people this may just be something that blossoms naturally from doing the practice. That’s how it is for all of us at the beginning I think. But for an emotionally blunted person like myself, after the initial novelty of the practices begins to wear off, it takes a bit more effort to uncover that emotional energy. Words and actions may help to illicit certain feelings, but we can’t allow ourselves to become to distracted by the words and actions alone. It’s the energy, the emotion, the sensation, that really matters. Having the emotion without the words, will still work wonders. Having the words without the feeling behind it, does nothing.

So the next time you embark on any mindfulness practice, try to focus on the energy behind your intention. What is your goal in doing this practice? What types of feelings and emotions are you trying to invite into your life? Are you trying to train your brain to quickly list things? Or are you trying to train your brain to actually experience a certain kind of energetic state? If you want to be able to more easily experience gratitude, you’ve got to actually practice feeling grateful, not just telling yourself you are.

This may be a lot more difficult of a practice, if you’re like me. I really struggle to get in touch with my emotions. If someone told me to imagine what love feels like, I’d feel confusion and maybe anxiety rather than love. If that sounds like you, try this short exercise:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out.
  3. Now, imagine someone or something that you love. At first, you might still struggle to feel anything. If that’s the case, keep concentrating on more and more details. You might try to remember and recreate in your mind a memory with this person/animal/object.
  4. Once you’ve got a clear image in your head, move back into your body. What types of sensations are you experiencing? What do you feel and where are you feeling it? Maybe you feel an opening in your heart space or a lightness in your stomach.
  5. Whatever you’re feeling, focus on those bodily sensations. That is love. Not the words, not the thoughts, but this, right here, this feeling.
  6. Stay with that feeling for awhile, breathe into it, explore it, try to savor the subtleties of it so that you may more easily call yourself back to this energetic state in the future. Try to memorize every aspect.
  7. When you’re ready, you may release the practice and open your eyes. You can come back to this practice as many times as you need to. Eventually it will become easier and easier to cultivate this feeling whenever you want to.

If you’ve been practicing for a long time like I have and are just now coming to this realization, no worries. Obviously it took me this long to realize too. No need to be harsh on yourself about it or feel like you’ve just been wasting time up until now. The foundation you laid by “going through the motions” has led you to a place where you’re now able to delve more deeply into your practice, to add a new layer to your daily routine. We all move through our spiritual practice at our own pace, with our own unique obstacles along the way. Honor where you are now and keep moving forward.

If you have a daily gratitude practice, maybe today try to list only 1-3 things. Rather than quantity, focus on the quality of emotion behind each listed item. Let me know how it goes! I’d also love to know: What does love feel like in your body? What does gratitude feel like to you?

Gratitude Journal for a positive mindset - The Happi Empire

What You Damn, Damns You

Anger Meditation in Four Forms - Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

What you damn, damns you.

What you place in darkness, calls you to the darkness.

Paul Selig

Paul Selig was the guest on the podcast I was listening to as I drove home yesterday. At first I was skeptical. He was described as an author and “medium.” He talks about “channeling” these other voices and entities that tell him what to write in his books. Anytime I hear outlandish claims like this, my defenses immediately go up. My first instinct is: this is a charlatan, a grifter, a scam artist. I am angered at the audacity of some of these so called mystics and the way they blatantly take advantage of their trusting, if not naïve, followers.

After listening to him speak for awhile, I did hear a lot of interesting ideas. Whether or not he actually believes he is channeling spirits that tell him these things, I have no clue. However, a couple of the things he ended up saying really struck me. Particularly the quote I shared above: What you damn, damns you. What you place in darkness, calls you to the darkness. I even tried to look it up to see if this quote could be attributed to anyone else, but wasn’t able to find it anywhere. This actually makes me curious to read at least one of Paul Selig’s books, in case there are anymore insightful tidbits like this.

I wanted to talk about that quote today and dissect it a little bit. It reminds me a lot of the famous Buddha quote: Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I never really realized that this idea could be expanded to encompass practically all negative emotions. Often we lash out at the world around us, thinking subconsciously that our refusal to accept someone or something will help us maintain distance from it. But in fact, that hatred, that anger, that denial, that distaste, actually allows the very things we want to avoid to have more of an effect on us. It is equanimity toward all things that will set us free.

Take a moment to reflect on some of the things (or people) that you hate. How does thinking about these things feel in your body? Perhaps you notice a tightening in your chest, a narrowing of your eyes, growing tension in your shoulders. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s likely not pleasant. Now consider how these thoughts affect whatever it is you’re thinking about. I’m guessing it doesn’t affect it at all, right? So why do we continue to lower our own vibration for the sake of anger, hatred, etc.?

Sometimes it genuinely feels as though we have no choice. We’re made to feel these emotions. That’s how I thought about things for most of my life. And at times, it’s still hard to remember I have a choice. It definitely takes a lot of practice to resist that spark of fury when someone cuts you off in traffic or offends you in one way or another. I may not ever be able to eliminate these visceral reactions from my life completely. However, just reframing the way you see things is the first step. It makes a huge difference. I used to cling to my anger and avoidance. I claimed it as part of my identity even, defined myself not only by the things I loved but by the things I hated as well. It wasn’t just hard to let go, I didn’t want to let it go. These negative feelings felt important somehow.

Just noticing my own thought patterns and emotional reactions has made my life so much easier. While I’m not able to completely avoid getting angry or upset, it is a hell of a lot easier to calm myself back down and let those feelings flow through me without clinging onto them. Now I have much more energy to direct toward the things I love, the things I’m grateful for, the things that bring me peace and joy.

If you notice yourself ruminating about the things that irritate you today, try to remember that you are the only one being affected by these thoughts and feelings. Hating the slow driver in the left lane in front of you, doesn’t do anything to that driver. It doesn’t bother them, nor does it make them drive any faster. So why are you making the situation even more unpleasant by punishing yourself? Can you let it go? Do you feel resistant to letting it go? Can you get curious about why that is? Don’t be too hard on yourself if this is challenging at first. I still struggle with it all the time. The important thing is that you’re aware and you’re trying. That is something to be proud of.

Default Mode Network

NeuroScience

If you haven’t heard the term default mode network (DMN) before, you’re not alone. Yesterday was the first time I did. Although I still am new to this concept, I wanted to talk about it today. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out first thing. I’m certainly not an expert on this. I hardly know anything about it. What I do know, however, is already enough to enthrall me and make me eager to learn more. So don’t take my words here as gospel. Go read about it for yourself.

I first heard about this term while continuing to read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. If you’ve read my other posts referencing this book, you already know where this is going. That’s right, psychedelics. Scientists have discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brains of people tripping on LSD or psilocybin. These psychedelic substances inhibit or turn off the default mode network in our brain.

So what is the default mode network? From what I’ve gathered, the default mode network includes many different parts of the brain that are active when we are “in our own heads” so to speak. These are the pathways we are using when we are ruminating, daydreaming, planning, remembering the past, contemplating the future, etc. Basically this is the network that is active when we are lost in thought, rather than focusing our attention on something in the outside world. In the book, it also specifies that this DMN kicks on when we are thinking about ourselves.

This aspect of self-awareness encompassed in the DMN is one of the reasons why we are able to experience “ego death” while using psychedelics, which switch off this network. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that ego death and transcendent experiences are both known to occur while tripping. The DMN, while useful, is also being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. People that spend a lot of time in the DMN are often less happy overall than people that spend less time in this brain state.

I find this very fascinating because it seems to reflect a lot of the advice you hear given to people that are unhappy. “Try to focus on someone else for awhile.” “Rather than ruminating, use that energy to help someone you love.” “Become a more active part of the community.” All of these shifts in focus are actually helpful, but now it seems science is getting a better idea exactly why that’s the case. And I don’t know about you, but I find it more easy to follow through on advice if I know the facts back it up.

Another thing I found interesting is the idea that social media tends to strengthen the DMN. When we are scrolling through Instagram or checking how many likes we got on our last Facebook post, our brains are in the default mode network. Apart from all the other reasons there are to disengage from social media, this one is quite compelling. No wonder I feel happier and less anxious now that I don’t use those apps!

If you’re looking for a way to experience the bliss of brain states outside of the DMN, but don’t want to take a drug to do so, you can try meditation instead. Surprisingly fMRI scans of experienced meditators and those of brains on psychedelics are remarkably similar. Training our minds through meditation can give us the power to focus. That focused attention in itself is another way to get ourselves out of the DMN. I believe that is why the “flow” state we experience when we loose track of time while working on a task that completely absorbs our attention is so pleasant. It’s a great feeling to “lose ourselves” in our work.

I have yet to see any research related to this, but I’m interested to know how the DMN functions in adolescence. I hypothesize that it may play a role in the unhappiness a lot of us experienced during this time in our lives. It also appears to be a time in life when we tend to be the most selfish. We’re learning who we are and what we want, finding our own identities. While this is an important and necessary part of growing up, it also requires a lot of self-centered thinking, which as we now know, can lead to a greater sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As we get older and start to think more about others, the emotional turmoil of youth also seems to subside somewhat.

As this term was only coined in 2001, there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about this brain state. A lot more research needs to be done. I’m excited to see what else neuroscience will discover about our brains and how exactly they work in the future. But as I said earlier, I am not at all a voice of authority on this subject. I just couldn’t resist sharing the concept and the things I’ve learned that have got me so excited about it. I highly recommend doing your own research and reading more about the default mode network for yourself. Feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the things I’ve shared about this network. Also Let me know in the comments if you find out anything interesting that I didn’t mention.

Find Neutral First

One of the things that I don’t see addressed enough when people talk about affirmations or positive self-talk is where to start. It always sounds so easy. Just say: I love myself, I am perfect just the way I am, good things are coming my way, etc. But what if you simply can’t make yourself believe those things no matter how many times you repeat the words? Not only will repeating these phrases half-heartedly not help, but it can actually be harmful. If saying “I deserve to be happy” is immediately followed by a flood of negative thoughts, you’re doing more harm than good.

This was something I really struggled with in the beginning of my spiritual journey. I am still working my way up, taking baby steps. Sometimes it feels like the self-help gurus out there don’t really understand or remember what it’s like to be lost and depressed. When you’re starting from so far behind, some of the affirmations people offer can seem laughable. The sad part is, I think most people are on the opposite side of this positivity and self-care movement. Feeling so far away from, and misunderstood by, the people in these better head spaces only serves to discourage those that are struggling the most. It feels like they are in a different world all together.

I used to be one of these people. My sister, whom I love dearly, still is. That’s what has inspired me to write this post and speak out about this troubling disconnect between self-love/self-care advocates and the people that need their help the most. We need to establish a middle ground in between these two extremes of perception in order to bridge the gap. Otherwise, even the people that work up the courage to try to step out of their negative mindsets will find the very practices designed to help, discouraging instead.

I’m here today to help the people like me find a foothold. If you are looking to improve you mental health, your self talk, your self image, or all of the above, it’s okay to start small. I mean, really small. Especially when it comes to affirmations, the important part is finding an affirmation that you can actually believe. Start where you are. Try out a couple different, fairly neutral affirmations at first. So take the example I gave earlier: I deserve to be happy. If that stirs up resistance or negative emotions inside of you, try tweaking it a bit. What about saying: everyone deserves to be happy. Sometimes more general phrases like this are more palatable. As you progress and become more comfortable with that phrase, you might try adding on: therefore, I also deserve happiness, or: so do I. Maybe one day you will feel confident saying: I deserve to be happy, but if not, that’s okay too.

Here are a couple other affirmations for you to try if you’re just beginning an affirmation practice:

  1. It’s okay to feel anxious (depressed, angry, sad, etc.)
  2. Whatever I manage to do today is enough, even if it is just existing.
  3. I know I am doing the best I can even if it may not appear that way to others.
  4. Everyone deserves to be loved.
  5. This feeling will pass. Nothing lasts forever.

Feel free to use these or come up with your own affirmations that feel true to you. The final tip I’ll offer is, do what you can. And let yourself be proud of how ever much that is. Sometimes we get so fixated on how much other people are doing that we don’t feel we have any right to be proud of the “small” things we do. But we all have our own struggles. Regardless of how different or “trivial” our struggles might look compared to someone else’s, we know how hard it is. Let yourself celebrate the small victories. Because those small victories add up. If you want to start yoga or meditation, that doesn’t mean you have to pay for a studio membership, buy a bunch of fancy props, or even dedicate an hour of your day to practicing. I started my yoga journey with just 7 minutes a day. Does even 7 minutes sound overwhelming? No big deal. Try 1 minute, 1 deep mindful breath, or even just 1 pose. This is your journey, your life, and you can take it as slow as you need to.

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Calm Amidst the Chaos

Even when I don’t have a lot of free time in my day, I always make time for my yoga and meditation. Some days that’s a half an hour, others it’s only 5 minutes. I try not to let myself get caught up in an all or nothing mentality. Just because I can’t find the time to do my normal routine, doesn’t mean that those five minutes I do have won’t make a difference.

Today I noticed myself getting caught up in a totally different problem, though. I was exceptionally pressed for time. I had to squeeze my meditation into the 15 minute span before a new client was coming in for an appointment. As I tried to drop into my breath and let the world around me fall away, I couldn’t help but become preoccupied with what was going on in the rest of my office. I was fixating on every little noise, anxiously anticipating the client to show up early and force me to jump up and greet them. I was worried my coworkers were irritated at me for still being closed away in my office so close to our appointment. I considered giving up on my meditation all together. I wondered if it was just a waste of time, if I was too on edge to meditate.

I’ve found myself in this situation many times before. Sometimes I can’t find a quite place or I keep being interrupted or whatever other kind of inconveniences the world likes to throw at us from time to time. Occasionally, I will actually decide to forget about meditating all together. I tell myself that it’s not the right environment or I’m just too distracted or uneasy.

For some reason, the ridiculousness of that reasoning really struck me today. How silly it sounds to say: I’m too anxious to meditate. I can’t meditate because I feel rushed or it’s too loud. These are all perfect times to meditate! Meditation and yoga aren’t things that we need ideal conditions to practice. One of the most beneficial and important parts of these practices is to learn how to use them to cope with hectic times in our lives. Through these practices we can learn how to sit with these moments of discomfort. We can use them to step back from our own drama and distress and simply observe ourselves from a calm neutral perspective.

If you are just beginning to incorporate mindfulness into your routine, it may seem impossible to meditate unless you are in the right atmosphere or headspace. Developing a designated area where you can feel calm and relaxed is an excellent way to help you stick with it in the beginning. However, if you have been practicing for a long time like I have, it may be time to challenge yourself a bit more. You’ve laid the foundation, now it’s time to test it. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Give yourself a chance to notice what it feels like to be rushed, or irritated, or interrupted. Get curious about this experience. Ask yourself questions. What is happening in your body? In your mind? What is your internal dialogue telling you in these difficult moments? How is that self-talk exacerbating the already tense situation? What might be a kinder or more gentle form of self-talk you can implement instead? This is the perfect time to start changing patterns of thought that are not serving you.

Meditation isn’t always supposed to be easy and effortless. No matter how long you have been practicing, you are going to find yourself struggling from time to time. Going through phases of discomfort internally, externally, or both is all part of the human experience. The incredible experience that we are all here to witness. Meditation is about learning to be present through it all, not just the calm, clear moments, but the rough and tumultuous ones as well.

Becoming the Observer

I am large. I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman

I have always loved that particular quote from Walt Whitman. As I grow and change, I always come back to those words of his with a new insight or depth of understanding and resonance with them. I found myself contemplating that quote again a few days ago as I was meditating. Normally we tend to identify with one version of ourselves. We play the role that we have given ourselves in our own story. We become overwhelmed by our emotions, only imagining ourselves as the one feeling the emotions, not realizing that we can choose to be another part of ourselves entirely.

To better explain what I mean by this, take the example from my meditation the other day. I began to feel tension seeping into my body, winding up my muscles, shortening my breath. My initial instinct is to succumb to these stress reactions. “I’m anxious. I’m so anxious. I don’t want to feel anxious. I’m wasting my meditation. Why am I so anxious? I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I can’t even relax while I meditate. What is wrong with me? There must be something wrong with me.” This is the death spiral of thoughts that come over me when I start to notice my own anxiety.

The pathways craved out in my brain supporting the habit patterns I exhibit internally in response to anxiety are quite strong. It isn’t always easy to switch to a different aspect of myself when confronted with these difficult feelings. Occasionally, I am able to flip a switch inside my own head, though. After taking a moment to come back to my breath and surrender to the thoughts and feelings that I was experiencing, I felt a significant shift. Suddenly I wasn’t the anxious girl, full of frustration and despair at my own inadequacies. I became the neutral, yet compassionate observer.

Suddenly I was the witness, the me outside of me, the higher self within me, watching lovingly, offering that other self understanding and tenderness. A healthy amount of space existed between me and the emotions I was experiencing. I could see that we weren’t one and the same, I and the anxiety. I began to tell myself that it was okay to experience those uncomfortable feelings. It was okay to be scared and stressed out. I didn’t need to run from those experiences. I could choose to hold space for them instead. I could choose to accept them and surrender to the moment, even if that moment wasn’t what I wanted or expected.

This internal shift is something that we can all learn to utilize with practice. It’s not the same as denial or disassociation. It wasn’t that I was using this other version of myself to run from or ignore the anxiety I was experiencing. In fact, it was just the opposite. I used that other version of myself to create a safe space for me to acknowledge those feelings while at the same time being emotionally available and separate enough to also offer myself comfort in that moment.

This concept is quite hard to explain, but it can be easy to practice. The next time you feel overwhelmed by a situation or an emotion, try this: When you catch yourself falling into unhelpful thought spirals, pause. Return to your breath. Take a moment to just explore the feeling. What does it feel like in my body right now? Then instead of thinking: I’m so anxious, I’m so sad, I’m so angry, etc. Change your internal dialogue to: I am noticing that I am anxious, sad, angry, etc. This shifts you from the perspective of the one suffering to the one observing from a distance. It helps you disentangle yourself from the more visceral reactions and gives you a bit of space so you don’t feel as overwhelmed and consumed by the way you are feeling. It’s much easier to be the observer and be able to offer your other selves comfort.

This technique may not always work to find relieve from difficult situations and emotions, but it is always worth a try. Shifting which “self” you identify with is also a practice. Don’t get upset with yourself if it seems hard or even impossible at first. I hope this explanation hasn’t been too confusing. Let me know if you would like any further clarification or what your experience with this type of mental exercise has been.

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