Posts

The Breath Blog

For most westerners, the word “yoga” conjures up something that looks like Cirque du Soleil auditions. In truth, you can only use the excuse that you are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga 1/8 of the time, (and that doesn’t really float since yoga postures are a way to gain flexibility safely). Let me explain the 1/8 comment. The yoga postures, contorted or comfortable, function as “Asana” which is the third of eight facets in the yogic system. The purpose of Asana is to get your body into shape to sit still in meditation with as little fidgeting and discomfort as possible. Can you believe that? The goal is not to put your hands below your toes, drench yourself with sweat or increase endurance. The body is the vehicle for the spirit. Asana is not what this blog is about though, and it doesn’t even have to be part of your yoga. It wasn’t part of mine for many years since I was introduced to yoga to alleviate anxiety.

A common phrase in the yoga community is that if you can breathe, you can do yoga. This is only partially accurate. Philosophically speaking, breathing IS yoga. In the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga), yogic breathing practices (Pranayama in Sanskrit) are so important that they claim their very own limb #4.  Pranayama is an essential part of a complete yoga practice. It involves regulating the breath to control the mind. Pranayama is also it’s own practice (no pretzel-like postures needed!). Pranayama is used to prepare for meditation; its an invitation into limb #5 Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), the first stage of meditation.

Most yoga traditions would tell you that Pranayama is much more important than Asana when it comes to heath and happiness. If we subscribe to the philosophy that the goal of yoga is to decrease suffering, develop inner peace and feel our aliveness, it is typically Pranayama, not Asana, that awakens us to our highest potential.

The classic teaching of all wisdom traditions is that humans suffer because we forget who we are – Divine beings. We forget who we are because as humans we are hard-wired pleasure seeking survivalist. We seek enjoyment and relief from agitation and pain from things outside of ourselves – drugs (both the prescription kind and the ones that will get you in jail), alcohol, food, working too much, and in our relationships with others. The yogic path reveals that who we seek and what we need is buried inside of us under all of our human roles and repetitions of self-defeating stories.

It is just one yoga teacher’s opinion that many American yoga classes are another form of exercise. What is missing is the link of movement to a reasonable breath pace. Asana is supposed to introduce the student to regulating the breath. When the practice is too physical or choreographed like the Jimmy Fallon History of Music Video Dancing (recommended if you need to laugh after this!) the breath is strained or forgotten about all together. You may as well be hitting a punching bag or doing crossfit; nothing wrong with that – strenuous sweaty stuff can be a release valve. Additionally, a gymnast or high-endurance athlete may one up you and excel quickly at Asana practice; it is beautiful to watch the flexibility and strength of the physical body. But can that fit body sit still in meditation? That takes a fit mind! Admittedly, if what you want is a good looking exterior, any exercise may work. What about exercising the mind? Do you do something that increases awareness and brings inner peace? Sleeping does not count – unless you have mastered lucid dreaming. We are multi-layered beings with a physical body, mental body and spiritual origin. Pranayama is experienced on the physical level as the breath, but it takes us beyond into the mental and spiritual layers of ourself. Pranayama is a fitness program for all the layers of our being.

On the physical level, Pranayama positively influences the systems of the body including respiratory, immune, cardiac and nervous system. Typically, our breath is automatic and involuntary. It is continuous and we do not have to think about it, but we only use about 20% of our breathing capability. The mechanics of your default breath might include chest breathing, which is too shallow to bring in maximum oxygen and does not allow the lungs to be fully expelled. The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration but it is is often under utilized. The chest muscles are considered accessory muscles in breathing. When we maximize the role of the diaphragm in respiration, our breathing is slower, fuller and more powerful. We increase our oxygen consumption and the ability to release carbon dioxide. We also exercise the often tight respiratory muscles.

The pattern of your breath is intimately connected to the mind. There is a breath pattern for every emotion. By learning to control the breath, we control the mind and emotions as well. Our involuntary breath responds to fatigue, stress or fear unconsciously by being incomplete or unbalanced. This auto-response ranges from the more obvious hyperventilation, shallow rapid breathing or to a simple reflexive sigh. The breath is the bridge between the brain (what your thinking) and body (what you feel). A starting point to control emotions is to simply observe the breath as it is. You could even close your eyes and do that right now for 1 minute…

Breath observation makes us more sensitive. Observation takes us into the present moment were we notice when the mind runs off to ruminate over the past or worry about the future. Our breath is a built in mindfulness teacher. But put your phone down – it doesn’t require money or meditation apps. We learn to block outer distractions and uncover what is especially present inside us. This is not for everybody and contrary to popular belief, it can be unpleasant. We may learn what troubles or agitates us; a bit like being stuck sitting with a blabbermouth stranger on a small airplane. You just want to put your headphones in and block her/him out, but the stranger is you. Instead of escaping physical or mental pain, we embrace it and lessen it with acceptance.

Once breath observation reveals what we are hiding from, we learn to safely and consciously lengthen and control the inhale (puraka) and exhale (rechaka). This practice alters the brain’s information processing. When we breath voluntarily, we actually change the region of the brain that we breathe from – unconscious breathing is controlled by the lower brain or brain stem and conscious breathing is function of the upper brain. We also balance the heart rate; the inhale slightly increases heart rate and the exhale relaxes the heart. By controlling the breath, we can listen to the chatty stranger in our mind with kindness, and redirect the story when it is not serving us. Pranayama is a free companion fair where you get to pick the person you want to sit with (you) and tell them when they are being irrational.

Energetically or spiritually (choose the term you like), Pranayama is how we begin to direct our Prana, Chi or life force (again – pick the term that works for you). On the subtle level, inhalation increases our focus, energy and vitality; the breathe out is an opportunity to purge, purify and relax more deeply. Eventually, you can learn to add a breath retention (kumbaka) which culminates in a balanced mind and provides a “peaceful pause” in energy body. The power of controlled breathing leads to a fusing of the complimentary opposites of solar/lunar and expand/contract. In this state of balance, the pleasure seeking senses and physical cravings are controlled.

Yogis believe we are all given a particular number of breaths in each karmic cycle. A lifespan is only limited by the number of breaths you breathe. Listen to the sound of breath in your own body as the argument of being alive.

Namaste,

Megan

PS – If you are looking for a place to get started with a Pranayama practice at home, visit the Breath Meditation Series in the free meditation library. BFY also offers free meditations the second Wednesday of each month or a private Pranayama and Meditation session with Megan can address your unique needs.

Mindfulness Practice for Fear

Mindful observation is a skill we can use in our daily lives at any time, not just in a quiet meditation. And fearlessness is not the absence of fear; Fearlessness is mindful observation that results in the awareness and perception of fear. 

When we practice meditation or any mindfulness practice, there is an awakening of self knowledge. Unfortunately, not all that knowledge is pleasurable or expected.  In self study, we may discover that fear is not only present, but controls our lives to some degree. Fear can be misunderstood and mislabeled. We may not realize our decisions are made by feelings of fear disguised as worry, apprehension, dread, or distrust. In some spiritual traditions, fear is the basis of suffering.  An important aspect of a mindfulness practice is to study fear—to understand and accept it enough that we do not live under its influence. Fears are obvious when they prevent us from engaging in normal activity. But sometimes we don’t recognize the ways in which we avoid, ignore, or resist fear. Part of spiritual awakening is identifying fear in its different stages and forms: the fear itself, shame, guilt, embarrassment, excuses, discouragement and anger.

 

Buddhism gifts us the Four Immeasurables:

Metta- Loving Kindness

Karuna – Compassion

Mudita –  Sympathetic Joy

Upekkha – Equanimity

These powerful mindset manipulators are also included in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I.33 “To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes:

Kindness to those who are happy

Compassion for those who are less fortunate

Honor for those who embody noble qualities

Equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values.” – Nischala Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

 

You Become What You Practice

The brain does not differentiate between thoughts and feelings. Practicing these four virtues, particularly Metta, changes the way the brain is wired (the neuroplasticity thing mentioned below). Metta is the heartfelt intention for the well-being of oneself and others. We start with loving-kindness because it is all encompassing and makes the other Immeasurables more accessible. In addition to changing the brain, loving kindness develops a calm, protected heart; we increase the heart energy vibration (www.heartmath.org can tell you more about this).  When used together, the Four Immeasurables can replace not only fearful thoughts, but those of jealousy and righteousness among others.

The Metta meditation is simple and can be used as an antidote to fear:

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

If you have difficulty being mindfully present with fear, start by offering yourself this meditation as a way of finding some calm in the storm. You can substitute any verbiage to suit you. Then offer the same loving-kindness to others in your fear response scenario; this can include both those who you worry about and those who cause the worry. When working with fear, we don’t have to confront the fear directly, especially if it seems overwhelming. Just the intention of loving-kindness changes our course and keeps us afloat above the water. When you feel stronger, split your awareness between loving-kindness and investigating the fear.

 

Breathe

Repeating the words, thought or feeling of loving kindness is a portal through fear. Another course to find calmer waters can be breath observation. The more fully the mind engages with the breath, the less it thinks about the fear, and so the fear loses some of its power.  Feel the temperature and movement of the breath on the face, the edges of the nose, in the throat, around the heart or maybe in the abdomen. There is no need to direct or control the breath or do any fancy pranayama; just observe the natural breath.  Keep it simple and if breath observation sinks you deeper into a fear response, go back to Metta.

Once the breath calms us enough that we are not gripped by the fear, we can openly observe the the fear itself. In mindfulness practice we do not get rid of fear by denying it – that would only strengthen it. Instead we explore it, sense it, and become the captain of our ship of fears. In doing so the troubled waters become more tranquil.

 

The Issues are in the Tissues

Interoception is our ability to feel ourselves on the inside. By being the observer of thoughts and breath, we prepare to be present in bodily sensations. Fear can cause us to disconnect  from the body and disassociate from an experience and the subsequent sensations.  One of the primary ways to investigate fear is through the felt sense where we consciously feel ourselves. When we step outside of the fear and into the felt sense, we are less likely to be sunk by the other forms of mislabeled fear.  There might be sensations of butterflies, heat or cold, changes in heart rate, tightening in the chest, sighing, or clenching in the stomach or face. When the fear is strong, it can be difficult to be with the sensations directly. In that case, return to the Metta meditation and breathe with and through the discomfort, as though the breath is the whole ocean and the fear is only one big wave. The wave will crest and trough. Guided the mind to float in the ocean of the breath.

 

Feel To Heal

Breathing into bodily sensations can allow us to move through the fear without drowning in it. It is helpful to discover what sensations are associated with the fear.  When we are ready to anchor the attention on the sensations that signal fear, the fear loses its wind. We recognize when we begin to tell ourselves or others stories that manifest as fear and shift back to the present moment. Mindfulness teamed with loving-kindness and the breath allow the bodily sensations to compassionately move through us.  Eventually we begin to notice the samskaras or mind loops we unconsciously course through and learn what triggers them.

 

Trust Yourself

From the time we are children, we are told what we need and when: when to be hungry (“it’s time for dinner”), if we are hot or cold (“put your jacket on”) how to feel (“stop crying” or “don’t  pout or your face will stay like that” ), when we are tired (“go to bed”) and even when to urinate (“go to the bathroom before we get in the car”).  We turn away from ourselves and our instinctual, intuitive voice. To everyone else, you are a bio-mechanical model – only you have the ability to get to know yourself as a soma – a being of internal sensation. It is from this unique space that we slowly learn not to destroy, disassociate from or control our feelings. We discover them and can be present with them in order to discharge them. We begin to see how they work when we enter into them and give them room to express and release.

 

Shit and Shift Happen

Remember the slogan “shit happens”?  Shift happens too, and at the same place in the brain.

“The very mechanisms in the brain that allow adversity to get under the skin are the same mechanisms that enable awakening.  We can harness this power of neuroplasticity for the good by cultivating certain types of virtuous qualities.”  – Dr. Richard Davidson, Neuroscientist

The time it takes to recover from “shit” is termed resilience. Mindfulness can strengthen our resilience and disempower fear. Exploring fear begins by being aware of how it manifests in our lives using witness consciousness. We don’t analyze it, but rather take the role of the observer: make no comparisons, make no judgements and delete the need to understand in the words of W. Brugh Joy. Have a relationship with the fear without living in the power of it’s stories. When working with fear or any other emotion, mindfulness is initially a disciplined practice. As the brain rewires, mindfulness becomes more automatic and we wake up sooner to the fear and change our perceptions around the fear.

Peace,

Megan

As another option to mindfully work through fear, you can access my free guided meditation “Navigating the Waters of Your Mind” below.

 

Gardening the Soul

Have you considered going on a spiritual quest?  The short, cold days and holidays season provide a particularly inviting opportunity and energy to explore spirituality. But the problem is we cannot take a spiritual journey because we are spiritual beings having a human experience. What we can do in the dark of winter is garden our soul.

On our human journey, accomplishment and success are measured by our intellectual pursuits that are sustained by what we learn and do in the external world. Make no mistake; how we interact with our outer environment is critical.  But as spiritual beings, we have the innate ability to perceive our outer environment through intuition instead of intellect.  Intuition is sometimes a soft voice inside ourselves, but more often it is a feeling in the body – the heart racing or butterflies in your stomach for example.  These voices and sensations are misread or missed entirely because of the constant stimulation in our outer world. Even though intuition is our essential nature, it needs to be cultivated like a garden through meditation or another practice of inner knowing.  When we purposely get quiet and still, intuition becomes the all powerful weather app for Spirit. Except, it actually predicts correctly because it relies on our internal senses.

In spiritual practices, there is an image that is widely used of the body being the temple of the soul.  I prefer to think of the body as a greenhouse.  Everything we take in with our five senses is a seed that is planted in our greenhouse.  Our words (to ourselves and others) are containers of energetic vibration that we put the seeds in. The enlightened spiritual Self is the gardner who decides what to water and where to make the best use of our Light energy. Spirit gardens from a higher sense of knowing than intellect, even though it may defy reason and logic.  It is the mind that often makes the mistake of providing the wrong seeds. The seeds of the mind can either take us toward or away from our recognition as Spirit. The good news is that even when we unconsciously plant rows of weeds, and no matter how much they take over, the spiritual gardener can step in and pull them to make space for new plantings. 

When you know your stress is at an unhealthy level and things are so overgrown in your greenhouse that they are blocking out the Light, 2 things can happen: 

Option One – the glass on your greenhouse will break; the body will experience anything from a cold to slight physical discomfort to disease. 

Option Two – you can remodel, split the heathy plants, reuse what you want and reseed. Sometimes that includes making changes in relationships, jobs, or moving.  If external changes can’t be made (at least right away), there is the opportunity for climate control within the greenhouse; establish and honor boundaries.  Spirit as the gardner has the right to say “no” to anything that is detrimental to our Being-ness. If visitors to your greenhouse are annoyed by your boundaries, it is because they are the ones who benefit from you not having any.  In recognizing that we are spiritual beings, we can offer unconditional love to others from the heart, but not like what they do or let them seed our mind.  It’s the heart, not the mind or body, that is in tune with our infinite nature. In remembering this we transcend the stories and trauma on the human journey.

When I live from my soul as Spirit, I am empowered to honor the notices the gardener posted in my greenhouse:

Refuse to just cope with things or settle.  Unfortunately, our human system is hardwired for that – coping or settling.  The proof is in our tendency toward addiction and all the drugs created to mask pain, depress emotion, function with disease etc. When I remember I’m a spiritual being, I want more. Joy is the natural state of Spirit, but it doesn’t fall into your lap on the human journey. I’m disciplined and motivated to find happiness. 

Refuse to be a victim. No matter what difficulties I experience, it is only the mind that can take me away from spiritual wholeness; and only if I let it.  Pain is real – physical and emotional – but the mind can make me a victim of that pain or lead me to my true nature as Spirit, where every difficulty, flaw, and failure is an opportunity for growth and transformation.

Refuse to have expectations.  As humans, we need to have desires and goals to guide us.  But Spirit asks that we include a clause that when we ask for something, we understand that we only get it if it is in alignment with the highest good of all.  In yoga, this is referred to as ishavara pranidhana – surrendering to a force greater than ourselves. Failure does not need to cause pain and suffering; it is a flaw of the mind and ego. Spirit does every action for the sake of itself and not for reward.

Refuse to feel alone.  I am never alone when I am in the presence of my higher power.  It also helps to be grateful for and keep contact with my friends in the garden club. 

Peace and Light,

Megan

 

In the Irish tradition, honeysuckle was believed to have power against evil spirits. In other places it’s believed that grown around the doors it will bring good luck. Its clinging nature in the language of flowers symbolizes, ‘we are united in love’.

Honeysuckle or Fairy Trumpets

Spiral Meditation

If you would like to experience the Spiral Meditation as a guided practice, it is available as a digital download on my website: Spiral Meditation

The Spiral Meditation is a technique developed by Dr. W. Brugh Joy that uses sacred geometry as means to heal and nourish the body, mind and spirit. It can be used on a daily basis when dealing with illness or as desired in a healthy person to maintain a deep sense of inner harmony. It is also beneficial as a pre-surgery meditation to encourage the body to heal more rapidly, or before any stressful situation to bring your whole being into balance.  To experience flow of energy in and around the body more fully in this meditation, please use your hands as guided and/or sit in a comfortable position.

You may also consider doing this meditation in place of “counting sheep” before bed! If doing the meditation to promote sleep, you may want to lie down and keep the hands on the heart center throughout the meditation; it is not necessary to close the spiral before sleep and you can set your intention for the light field to finish the expanding spiral pattern if you fall asleep before it is completed.

The power of this meditation is in its ability to teach the meditator to experience their conscious awareness as both the giver and receiver of energy. This meditation is taught to practitioners in the Healing Touch Program as a technique for self-care and often given to the client to do as self healing. It is also used by the practitioner on the client to encourage a deep state of expansion and peacefulness.

Energy is a dance, and a spiral is a very special dance. By placing the center of energy awareness in the heart, the higher states of awareness in the upper energy centers can be integrated with those in the lower energy centers. Above all else, enter a state of Unconditional Love when you experience this meditation.

As with all guided meditation, once you have done this often enough, you will no longer need my voice to guide you. You may choose to listen to the music only file as you bring yourself into the Spiral Meditation’s expanded state of awareness.

Peace and Light,

Megan

 

What Is Yin Yoga?

Most types of yoga asana are yang in nature meaning they require that we use the muscles, build heat and dynamically “do”. Yin yoga is a quiet, still practice that relaxes the muscles to stretch the deep tissue and release energy to the joints.

Yin/Yang principles explain why even graceful aging includes morning stiffness. We begin our life being more yang like – having lots of mobility with limited stability.  As we age, muscles strengthen and stability increases. Our bodies find balance between stability (yin) and mobility (yang) in our 20’s or 30’s. Eventually, our aging bodies are more yin in nature and that stability leads to rigidity in the ligaments, bones and joints. Most types of exercise and yoga keep the elastic-like muscles healthy with heat and movement. Conversely, the yin tissues are more plastic like and need long held postures to be stimulated.  Yang and yin health is a balance between stretching and stressing. Muscles can be safely stretched to elongate them and shortened to strengthen them. Part of their job is to protect the joints. But when the muscles are purposely relaxed, the connective tissue and joints can experience heathy stress.  Over time, the strategically placed stress can make tissues stronger.

Because yin yoga requires the muscles to relax, not all yoga poses can be done safely as yin poses. A limited number of poses are held for 2-4 minutes or longer and each pose is designed to apply mindful stress to the connective tissues to prevent the natural deterioration of aging. Specifically, yin yoga targets the spine, hips, pelvis and legs. Equally important, it opens the meridians (energy channels of the body that carry prana). Yin differs from Restorative Yoga in that you are encouraged to find deep sensations without strain. Props can be used to to help support the pose, making it suitable for all body types.

A yin practice is a fantastic compliment to dynamic yoga, enhances athletic performance or can simply help you to keep doing the things you like to do. If stress release is a motivator, consider yin yoga as an entryway to meditation. In fact, sometimes the most challenging part of a yin practice is staying present for whatever arises. But being present just makes it that much sweeter when the pose is released.