Pausing to Rebalance this Holiday Season

It’s tough to stay balanced during the buzz of the holiday season. There never seems to be enough time to fit everything in, including yoga. When you feel strapped for time, use these three practices to refocus your awareness.

Take 5
Take five slow breaths in and five slow breaths out. It sounds easy, but when you’re overwhelmed or stressed the breath tends to be shallow. Reset with five mindful breaths and if you feel you need more, take ten.

Rebalance your intentions with tree pose. When we feel unbalanced emotionally, it’s often apparent in our practice. Tree pose will help you find stability and strength to endure the holiday season.

  • From a standing position, take your hands to heart center. Shift your weight into the right leg. Bend the left knee and bring the sole of the foot to the inner thigh of the right leg (other options: bring left foot to the calf, tent left foot with toes on the floor and heel against the right ankle).
  • On the standing leg, focus on rooting down through the sole of your foot, as though you could spread roots into the floor.Press the sole of the left foot into the right leg. Picture them merging together to form a strong base, like the trunk of a tree.
  • Notice the stability you’ve created with this strong base. Notice the freedom it gives to the upper body, a feeling of lightness. Feel free to take your hands overhead like branches of a tree.
  • Take 10-15 breaths in the pose and repeat on the other side.

Half Sun Salutations
No mat? No space? No problem! You can do half sun salutations anywhere. Start your day or refresh your afternoon with 3-4 rounds.

  • Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Inhale – reaching the arms out and up overhead to Urdvha Hastasana (Tall Mountain Pose)
  • Exhale – hinging at the hips to fold forward in Uttanasana (Forward Fold)
  • Inhale – lifting the chest and lengthening the front of the spine for Ardha Uttanasana (Halfway Lift)
  • Exhale – bowing into Uttanasana (Forward Fold)
  • Inhale – hinging up to stand in Urdhva Hastasana (Tall Mountain Pose)
  • Exhale – to Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Creative Ways to Meditate and Cultivate Mindfulness

We hear the word “meditate” quite frequently nowadays. It’s often associated with an image of a person sitting crosslegged on a cushion with eyes closed, likely in a peaceful setting. For smartphone users, there are many apps available to aid in meditation, you can even find them on planes. But what are we seeking in meditation?

As a generalization, most people use meditation as a way to calm the mind or relax. A calm mind for some of us can be found by sitting quietly or listening to a soundtrack of rain, but it will be different for everyone. If you can recall moments in which you felt truly peaceful and recreate them, meditation will become more accessible and natural for you. Not everyone likes to sit in silence on a cushion. Instead of struggling with a practice that doesn’t work for you, find what does.

Below are some creative ways to meditate and cultivate mindfulness from the book I Am Here Now: A Creative Mindfulness Guide and Journal

Drawing Meditation
1. Find a piece of paper and something to draw with. At it’s simplest, it can be any scrap paper and writing utensil you have. To get more complex, find a nice piece of drawing paper and use colored pencils, paint, charcoal, etc.

2. For every inhale, draw a line. For every exhale, draw a line. Let the process be fluid, give yourself creative freedom.

Counting Meditation
On your way home, pick one thing to count. It could be anything – people wearing scarves, dogs, mailboxes, bicycles…

Upon waking in the morning or going to bed at night, think of 3 things that you’re grateful for.

Make a List
1. Make a list of all the things you like to do to relax – making a pot of tea, getting a massage, taking a bath…

2. Start doing these things! It can be once a week, it can be once a month, just make sure you do it.

It doesn’t matter if you think you have moves or not. Put on your favorite song – in the car, with headphones, wherever. Notice the rhythm and move your body!

A Day in the Life of Your Breath

In yoga asana practice, we bring awareness to the breath. In everyday life, many of us lose the awareness. What might we learn from observing our breath over the course of a day? You might be surprised how often we hold our breath and perhaps even more interesting, when we hold our breath.

Pick a few activities from the list below and observe your breathing pattern during the activity over the course of a few days. If you notice yourself holding the breath, bring the breath back and take note of any changes you feel in doing so.

  • Eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner
  • Talking on the phone
  • Preparing a meal
  • Talking to someone in person
  • Writing an email
  • Dealing with a stressful situation

Taking your Asana Practice to the Next Level

The journey to advancing your asana practice starts with the self.

Last month, we wrote about turning the awareness inward with breathwork. Inward awareness is what’s truly going to transform your asana practice. Our bodies are unique which means the way we move is unique. Teachers are invaluable, but only we know what’s going on inside our bodies. Taking your practice to the next level begins with bringing all your focus and attention to the body (internal and external).

Try this exercise:

After a warm up, come into your favorite standing posture. From the feet to the crown of your head, evaluate the posture internally. What adjustments can you make to breathe easier? What adjustments can you make to feel more spacious in the body? Repeat on the opposite side and note any differences.

Since we can’t see what our bodies are doing, it’s always helpful to have a teacher, friend or even a mirror to observe how our bodies move. If there is a pose you are working on improving, use that second set of eyes to get yourself into the optimal posture. From there, use that inward awareness and get the body to “feel” the alignment.

Turning the Awareness Inward

A great way to shift our focus inward is through breathing exercises. The exercises below can be used at any time throughout your day or if you’re feeling inspired, build them into your daily routine.

Preparation for Breath Work

Find a quiet and comfortable place where you can sit or lie down. Notice if your clothing is restrictive in any way and make adjustments as needed. Find a posture that is restful and that can be held for several minutes or more. Close the eyes or maintain a soft gaze and start to notice your breathing. If you are on the go or at work and this isn’t possible, skip right to closing the eyes or setting a soft gaze and start to notice your breathing. Once you’ve observed your breath for a minute or two, try “smooth out” the breath. The breath should feel effortless, not labored. Inhales and exhales might begin to get longer and you may feel more expansion in the rib cage on your inhales.

Now we can begin the exercises!

Dirga Pranayama or Three-Part Breath

Dirga pranayama is a great way to relax the body and quiet mental chatter (Monkey Mind). In dirga pranayama, we observe the breath as it flows through the chest, rib cage, and belly (three parts). On the inhale, we fill the belly, rib cage and then chest. On the exhale, we reverse that, releasing chest, rib cage, and belly. Three-part breath stimulates the body’s relaxation response and massages our internal organs.

Step 1: Bring both hands to your belly and take a deep inhale, sending the breath into the belly. Feel the belly expand into the hands.

Step 2: Exhale and notice the contraction of the belly. Before moving to step three, take 2 or 3 rounds of breath like this.

Step 3: Move one hand to your rib cage and inhale. Send the breath to the belly and then to the rib cage, again noticing the body expanding into the hands.

Step 4: Exhale from the rib cage and then the belly, feeling the body contract beneath your hands. Before moving to step five, take 2 or 3 rounds of this breath.

Step 5: Move the hand on the rib cage up to your chest. Inhale – filling the belly, rib cage and chest. Use your hands as a guide, sensing the expansion of the breath it moves into the belly and all the way up to the chest.

Step 6: Exhale from the chest, rib cage and then belly.

Repeat steps five and six as many times as you like.

Breath retention or kumbhaka pranayama

In kumbhaka pranayama, breath is retained after an inhale or exhale. At first, this can be difficult. Our bodies need oxygen to function and holding the breath may cause our minds to panic. Breath work is just like asana, it takes practice. With time, your mind will calm down and the amount of time that you are able to easefully retain the breath will become longer and longer. Once you’ve practiced kumbhaka pranayama for a bit, you might find that it’s especially helpful at times when you feel panic or anxiety.

Step 1: Take a deep breath in

Step 2: If retaining the breath on the inhale, hold the breath at the end of the inhale for 3 seconds. The hold should be as relaxed as possible. Try to relax the muscles of the body, especially the face.
If retaining on the exhale, let the breath go and hold on empty for 3 seconds. Again, relaxing as much as possible during the retention.

Step 3: For inhale retention, slowly release the breath. Take another deep breath and hold again. If you’d like to add another second or two, feel free.
For exhale retention, take a slow inhale. Exhale the breath and hold on empty, adding another second or two as you wish.

Repeat for 10 breaths and then let the breath be natural. Bring your awareness to the mind and body and take note of or jot down how you feel.

Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing

Nadi shodhana is said to balance the brain and enhance mental clarity. Since the practice requires a gentle focus, it tends to have a calming effect on the mind. Before beginning the practice, it can be helpful to clear the nasal passages. If one side of the nose is blocked, try a dab of a nasal clearing essential oil (peppermint, tea tree, eucalyptus) or Tiger Balm at the base of the blocked nostril.

Step 1: Bring the index and middle finger of one hand to rest on the space between your eyebrows (third eye).

Step 2: Take a deep breath in and a deep breathe out.

Step 3: Use your thumb to gently close the right nostril and inhale with the left nostril.

Step 4: Use your ring finger to close the left nostril and exhale with the right nostril.

Step 5: Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.

Step 6: Close the right nostril and exhale left.

Repeat the cycle 3 to 5 times and then drop your hand and return to your natural breathing pattern. Take a moment to notice any changes in the mind and body.