Belly breathing

The other morning I opted for a home yoga practice using the audio from a Yoga Teacher Training class that had been recorded for our use.

calvin the sandbag.jpg
Let me help you. I can be your sandbag.

The first practice called for a small sandbag to lay across our belly as we lay on our mat, to provide some sensory input to feel our diaphragmatic breath. I had no sandbag at home, so I used a small pillow to simulate at least the shape of a sandbag on my abdomen.

As I was considering whether I should place an order for such a thing, my big sandbag of a cat (Calvin) came up and draped himself across my belly, negating the need for that.

It’s hard to know why my cats find me so appealing when I practice yoga. I often think they like it when I am on the floor, practicing poses that get me closer to them. They also seem to understand that, after I practice yoga, my body seems to emit blissful energy and calm.

Calvin face.jpg

I realize that is probably fairly anthropomorphic for me to interpret their behavior in that way. There is something about those long inhales and exhales, those full belly breaths that get me into a state of ease. So many of us get used to breath-holding in our daily lives, bracing against stress, or simply holding ourselves in with uncomfortable clothing, belts, braces or even neckties.

What if we learned to embrace that full belly breath and to stop “sucking it in”? Our bellies are made to expand during the inhale. When we only allow for chest breathing, we end up with tightness and muscle tension in our shoulders and our neck. Shallowness in our breath can result in confused and disoriented states of mind.

It took me not very long on a therapeutic spinal strip to realize there was a lot of chronically held tension held in my back and shoulders. Indeed I have to consciously bring my shoulders down when I notice the slight scrunch that seems to happen subtly or when I am at a keyboard, mentally focused and working.

Calvin bored now.jpg
When are you gonna be done, Mom?

I am dismantling some of these patterns, and actively reminding myself in meditation and yoga to breathe fully. At the same I am learning to notice and slow down at more points throughout my day when I find my thoughts racing (and then usually notice the breath has followed). Then I consciously take in a few long inhales and exhales, bring myself back to the present and realize that my mind was caught up in a story about the future, or perhaps a regret about the past.

So simple, and yet so radical. Thank you, Calvin, for helping me sense and feel that breath deep into the belly. I know you do not struggle with this, and I appreciate re-learning this skill that we all master as infants and then forget.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

 

Comfortable with uncertainty?

How comfortable are you when you do not yet know the eventual outcome of a particular decision or choice you have made in life? 

You know it was something you wanted to do, for multiple reasons, and yet it did not turn out exactly as you had planned. For some reason though, you trust that is is still the direction you are meant to follow, and that each bend in the road helps you master new a set of skills for the next part of the journey.

Unsettling for a while though, isn’t it? 

Especially when all of the advice you are getting leads you back to the place you left. It is well-meaning advice, but it simply does not satisfy the place in your heart that yearns for growth in a different direction.

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Photo credit link 

So you politely thank people for their advice, which may be based on their own fears about their situations more than an accurate assessment of yours. Then you continue doing what you know you must do, following the intuition that will lead you to the next right thing. It is not for the faint of heart, this uncertainty. And yet it can open us up to the types of growth we are meant to experience.

When the doors start to open and your path becomes more clear, you again begin to trust that inner compass. You know that you can choose to remain in your wholeness, and approach your life with presence and lightness every day. And all of these gifts and lessons travel with you to the next place where you will face new trials, and traverse new territory.

Uncertainty can feel uncomfortable. But ultimately knowing that you have the resourcefulness and resilience to meet the next challenge with grace, or at least with a willing and curious spirit, can make all the difference.

Keep your heart open to those moments of knowing, even when your inner critic starts voicing the doubts that others may speak openly. This is that nexus where your vulnerability joins with courage (thank you, Brené Brown). This is where the magic happens.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

Walking the hills

I have been a runner for a while now, off and on since I was about 15 years old. In my mid 30’s I met my husband while I was starting to ramp up my distance, going from 10k runs to 10-milers and half marathons. One crazy year (2011) I opted to run a full marathon, and was relieved to check that off my bucket list. It certainly was a feeling of accomplishment. I started wondering what else I could do if I simply put together a training plan and followed it.

When we trained, sometimes friends would get together and run “hill repeats,” workouts in which we would run repeatedly up hills to build strength and stamina for those long races. We would “power up” those hills, maintaining the speed you would have kept up on the flat surface. They were intervals, not continuously run, and they also helped build confidence for those times in a race when a hill would loom ahead.

hill with flowers
Photo credit link

These days I am not so interested in improving my running times, but rather just staying fit and enjoying the experience. When I am training, I take walk breaks, particularly on the hills, rather than “powering up” and maintaining the pace. I find that slowing a bit gives me time to take in the view, and to ensure that I’m maintaining good form.

On my run yesterday I started thinking that this is a metaphor for life. We have a challenge (hill) ahead, and some of us want to keep running, to keep making relentless forward progress. But I have gotten increasingly comfortable with walking up that hill, taking in the beauty of the view, appreciating the journey in a new way.

There is no rush. Finishing faster does not necessarily mean better. At some point, on the other side of that hill, likely there will be a downhill angle, where the momentum will allow us to run back down with less effort. By not getting stuck in one speed, we allow our bodies the flexibility to adjust to circumstances. In life too, we so often want to keep going at a fast clip. And sometimes slowing down helps us know when we want to turn off to explore a different area, or perhaps even change direction.

We may not have realized there is a path that was there all along, only we never saw it before. Suddenly the old route is new again. We see it in a new light. We arrive at our destination with a renewed perspective.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

51 percent

From a young age I have been encouraged to strive for excellence. My parents did not exert much pressure, mind you. But I think the fact that they were teachers probably drove my expectations about academic achievement. I thought that “winning” was doing well in school, and since learning came fairly easily to me, I aspired to this type of achievement.

Looking back, I remember taking on a heavy course schedule, especially in middle and high school, when we could select our electives. I also participated in many school activities, band, forensics (what they called public speaking) and various other extras I was encouraged to add because I was deemed “gifted” due to test scores.

At the same time, some teachers in middle school in particular thought that I was not working up to my potential. I distinctly remember my 6th grade reading teacher explaining this to my parents at conferences. We had page number requirements for books we had to read and I remember that 1500 per quarter was considered grade A level (1200 = B, 900 = C). My reading list typically listed 4000-5000 pages for each quarter, or about 300% of A level.

I was (and am) a voracious reader, but not as excited then about writing reports or summaries of what I had read. Of course, I did not always remember a lot of what I had read (and I now know variable attention was a factor). At the speed I was going, I just wanted to cover as much ground as possible. Even today, I typically get through books quickly. But now I tend to read them more closely a second time if they have a larger impact on me. This habit worked well in college for getting through vast amounts of material, and then selecting what needed to be studied rather than simply read.

Fifty one percent

At work, it has been my habit in my career to attempt to give 110%, to go above and beyond what is needed. I realize this was a cultural norm for the company I recently worked for, which had in its mission statement the words “striving without reserve” for the greatest possible reliability and quality. While I appreciate the intent, the “without reserve” part always bothered me.

For many years, my personal “reserves” ran low constantly. By giving so much to my work so consistently, I short-changed close relationships, friendships, and even my own health at times. I received promotions and advancement, but at what cost? Since I experience variable attention, I often arrived early or stayed late so I could work while it was quiet and there were less interruptions.

Ironically enough, in my final year I realized that cutting back on work hours generally, and giving less (more like 90% rather than 110%) made me much more effective in the hours I actually worked. When I use the tools of more sleep, meditation, better mental and emotional management, and good quality food and exercise, and more time away from work to rest and play, I make better decisions.

In yoga teacher training, we are learning about the concept of non-striving, about giving 51% in our practice, the just right stimulus for growth, rather than 110%. As someone who has taken a break from the full time work world for 9 months, I likely embrace the concept more readily than many. It chafes against our cultural conditioning. And that can be a good and necessary thing.

In a world that often tells us we are “never enough” we need to re-think what is essential, and what is extraneous. Not all days or phases of our lives are identical, of course, and we may need to adjust accordingly. But sometimes giving 51% and keeping some energy for ourselves is appropriate and what gives us resilience for the longer term.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com