The power of now

I start all of my yoga classes with a brief meditation on the breath. The reason I do that is to help my students become aware of the present moment—the eternal now. Our bodies are always present in the current moment and in our current location. Our minds, however, spend most of the time in the past or in the future or somewhere else other than here and now. The practice of focusing the mind on the breath brings the mind back to be present in current moment and the current space with our bodies. For this reason, yoga refers the breath the link between the mind and the body.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Just focus on the breath, and it will bring you back to the present moment, the here and now. And it really is that simple. It’s also that difficult. Anyone who has tried meditation knows just how challenging this practice really is. And yet, everything we will ever do or accomplish in our lives must be done with our bodies. All of our actions, all of our communication, all of our work in this world happens via our bodies, which are always present in the here and now. It makes sense, therefore, to spend more time with our minds joining our bodies in the now to maximize our accomplishments.

This doesn’t mean that there is no value in thinking on the past or the future, however. The past can be a rich source of learning as we uncover lessons we have learned, patterns we keep recreating in our lives, or practices that we can make use of now. Thoughts of the future and the goals we hope to achieve can be very important in keeping us on track to continue growing and learning and becoming the people we wish to be. The problem comes when we want to live in some place and time other than the here and now.

My personal measure for determining whether I am consulting the past or the future for useful information or whether I am trying to live in the past or the future is to check my emotional barometer. When I am checking the past for lessons that might be useful to me today or envisioning future possibilities to help me make decisions or set goals, my emotions are those of curiosity and detachment. I am in a place of learning and inquiry. When I am living in the past by obsessing over things that have happened to me or dwelling in the future by worrying over things that I cannot do anything about in this moment, my emotions tend to be anxious, sad, angry, or discouraged. Most importantly, though, I am not learning. I am not detached. I am not curious.

When I find myself in those  spaces (and I often do), I find it helpful to start with a deep breath to bring me back to my body in this moment in this place. Then I can acknowledge the emotions that have come up and inquire about what I can learn from my sojourn in that other place and time that can inform my actions in this moment. By being curious about what it can do for me now, I don’t invalidate my feelings or my concerns, but it reminds me that I can only act in the here and now where my body is.

Here and now is all I have. It’s all you have too. What strategies do you use to bring yourself back to the here and now when your mind has gone off to another place and time?

This post is part of a blog hop series sponsored by students and graduate Coaches of ICA. Please hop on over to their posts and see what else you can learn about ”The Power of Now.

Esme Gosling – Money Coach

Sandra Seibert – Joyful Growth Coach

 Renee Vos de Wael – Intuitive Coach

 Namrata Arora – Life and Career Coach for women in transitions

Tracy Coan – Bodacious Possibilities

Jayde Gilmore – Wings LifeCoaching

Brandy Morris-Chaudhry – Illuminated Perspective

Nuria Lencina – Coachinu

Pamela Rudisill – In Sight Life Coaching

Louise Gray – Communication Coach, Learner Focused Coaching

Jenn Brockman – Kick Ass Website Coach

Rebecca Macfarlane – Turning Stones Coaching (Business Start Up and Career Coach)

Energizing a yoga class

I had the privilege to be the substitute teacher for an undergraduate level yoga class at IUPUI yesterday afternoon. This is a half-semester class, and yesterday was the second time the class had met. The surprise of having a substitute teacher seemed to disorient many of the students as we started the class time by moving all of the desks and chairs out of the way to make space on the floor for our yoga class.

The fact that we were starting at 3:00 pm when everyone seemed to be in their afternoon energy slump probably didn’t help their lack of enthusiasm any. As we went through the centering and warm-up portions of the class, that lack of enthusiasm was almost palpable. So before we headed into our sun salutations, I led through several rounds of the Breath of Joy.

The looks on people’s faces as I explained it were rather comical; they ranged from skeptical to downright disbelieving. Fortunately, everyone gave it try. After several of these breaths, I was no longer leading them through them, they were moving into each new breath on their own. When we stopped, I looked around the room, and every single person was smiling—some with big grins verging on laughter, some with small grins that seemed to be escaping their attempts to suppress them—but they were ALL smiling. I pointed that out to them, and they looked at one another with surprise and not a few laughs.

The energy shift this brought to the class lasted throughout the rest of our practice. As a group, the feeling shifted from lethargy to interest and enthusiasm. And I’ve never been so mobbed with people asking questions and sharing their excitement about a class as I was at the end of our session when we were putting the desks and chairs back in place. In fact, four people came up to tell me (with surprised but sheepish delight) that they’d fallen asleep in savasana!

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever included that breath in a yoga class, but it definitely will not be my last. What a simple way to energize a group who is having a hard time getting focused!

And if you haven’t yet tried this breath for yourself when you need a bit of energy, I encourage you to give it shot. The instructions are simple, and the energy boost is wonderful. I bet you’ll find yourself smiling after a few rounds too.

Mindfulness, meditation, and the breath

I just returned home from speaking at the 2011 Indiana Music Teachers Association (IMTA) Conference in Bloomington, IN, where I co-presented a session on Mindfulness in motion: connecting the musician’s mind and body with Julianne M. Miranda to a really wonderful group of music teachers. I haven’t seen such an engaged and enthusiastic audience in quite awhile! Thanks to all who attended for making it such a delight.

During our presentation, Julianne and I talked about mindfulness, meditation, and how the breath can support these practices. I arrived home to find that synchronicity had been at work to place a short video talk (3:27 minutes) by Sharon Salzberg, noted Buddhist teacher, on meditation and the breath in my Facebook feed from The Well Daily. It is a delight to listen to her echo the value of the breath in a meditation practice immediately on the heels of our presentation.

To see our handout or read more about our presentation, check out the event page for today’s talk. I’m delighted to say that we’ve already been invited to present on this topic again at another venue. Watch the News & Events page or the Facebook page for more information once it is available.

Breath of joy

In my last two posts, I talked about ways that we can use the breath as a calming practice by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Because so many of us spend much of our time with our sympathetic nervous system overstimulated, the introduction of calming practices is something that most of us will find the most beneficial.

However, there are times (like that afternoon slump) when we need something that will perk us up a bit and help us stay more alert. In moments like these, many of us reach for caffeine or sugar to achieve this energy boost, but both of these substances can have problematic side effects.

Fortunately, the breath can be used as a means of perking us up as well as for calming us! We have already explored the way that increasing the exhalation relative to the inhalation can bring a calming effect. The reverse is also true: increasing the inhalation relative to the exhalation brings an energizing effect.

The breath of joy, also known as the conductor breath or mad conductor’s breath, is a great way to do this because it includes this lengthening of the inhale relative to the exhale with physical movement to perk us up.

The breath of joy is performed standing and includes three inhales for each exhale. The steps to performing this breath are as follows:

  1. 1st inhale: sweep arms in front of body to overhead, then lower
  2.  2nd inhale: sweep arms out to sides to level with shoulders, then lower
  3. 3rd inhale: sweep arms in front of body back to overhead
  4. Exhale with a “HAAA” while sweeping arms down and bending over to allow arms to swing by knees
  5. Repeat

The YouTube video below may be helpful in seeing what this looks like. Notice how the expression on the face of the person performing the breath changes over the course of time. There is a reason this is called the Breath of Joy!

Full yogic breathing

In my last post, I talked about several ways that we can use the breath as a calming practice by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Taking deep breaths was one method I briefly mentioned for accomplishing this.

A full yogic breath, also called a three-part breath or a diaphragmatic breath, is very effective at accomplishing this task. This breath includes a complete filling of the lungs on the inhale to maximize the oxygen available to the blood and a complete exhale to fully release all stale air, carbon dioxide, and toxins that are excreted via the breath.

The diaphragm is a muscle that is extends across the bottom of the rib cage and separates the thoracic (chest) cavity from the abdominal cavity. As the diaphragm contracts, the thoracic cavity expands giving our lungs more room for air and causing us to inhale. It also presses down into the abdominal cavity causing our abdominal organs to be pressed outward. As the diaphragm relaxes, the air is forced back out of the lungs as the size of the thoracic cavity decreases and the abdominal organs settle back into place. This rhythmic change in the size of the abdominal cavity leads to this type of breathing sometimes being called “belly breathing” even though the breath does not literally fill the belly.

This breath can be done is any position, but sometimes it is easiest for beginners to get a feel for this breath by performing it while lying down because it makes the fluctuations in the abdomen easier to feel. In whatever position you choose, start with one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.

As you deliberately take a deep inhalation, notice how your belly expands, then your ribcage expands, then your upper chest expands as your lungs fill completely with air. As you fully exhale, notice your upper chest, then your ribcage, and finally your belly softening back into place. Use your muscles to push that last bit of air completely out of the lungs before your next inhale. Repeat this several more times and notice how this feels in your body.

If at any point in time you begin to feel lightheaded or are struggling to maintain an even flow of breath, take a break and return to your normal breathing. Most of only use about 30% of our lung capacity on a regular basis, so this deeper breath will give the blood much more oxygen than you may be used to having.

This is a wonderful breath that will bring higher oxygen levels to the blood, a more efficient removal of breath-borne wastes, and a calming effect to the body. And it’s all free and easy to use!