Remembering a simple exercise to relax the mind from Thich Nhat Hanh

A perfect example of why I am working through my old notes in this blog format – I came across this note from 2009 and it makes me recall how wonderful and beneficial this practice was when I was doing it for a couple of months at that time.  It is a simple practice suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh that really takes your attention outside the ego and brings you into the mind of “the witness” while helping you be mindful of your facial muscles which are a terrific guage — like breath– of the stresses and anxiety in your mind.  Like slowing the breath, relaxing the forehead and cheek muscles van help relax the mind:

From The Miracle of Mindfulness (Thich Nhat Hanh) :

 Half-smile when you first wake up in the morning Hang a branch, any other sign, or even the word “smile” on the ceiling or wall so that you see it right away when you open your eyes. This sign will serve as your reminder. Use these seconds before you get out of bed to take hold of your breath. Inhale and exhale

Experiments with daily practice 

I started a daily yoga practice in 2006 and have practiced every morning since (with a few medically necessary exceptions).

I started my daily practice when I spent 2 weeks away from my wife and son for the first time since he was born in 2000.  I had moved back to California to start my first law firm job and the family would follow me two weeks later.  Finishing law school at almost 40 years old, with a profoundly disabled son and no saving, the pressure to succeed at my new job felt intense.  And I was worried about my wife and my fragile son thousands of miles away.

I had been doing yoga for a year and had already seen how it could help with stress and anxiety.  Yoga teachers, articles and books had praised the importance of daily practice.  So when faced with this new stress, I decided to start my own daily practice.  Since then my morning practice has become like an anchor for my self: it is the foundation for my mental and physical fitness and allows me to start each day with a little more clarity and focus.  Like all aspects of yoga, just having a morning practice of asana is not enough — but it sure helps with the rest of the day!

And it’s not as hard as it sounds.  Here are some key tips:

  • You don’t have to go to a yoga studio class every day — that’s too expensive, too time consuming and if you are not careful, can be too stressful on the body.
  • Set a minimum time though.  My minimum is 20 minutes of asana and 12 of pranayama.
  • Podcasts and online classes are great!  And there are a lot of 20 minute ones!  Yogadownload.com has a 20-minute podcast with — as of today — 100 different 20-minute yoga classes.  I also use Giamtv.com – but there are tons of them out there.  It helps keep it interesting to find new classes to try.
  • Don’t always practice at home though — working with a teacher is important. I try to go to at least 2 and often up to 4 classes at a yoga studio per week, but when I started 1 in-person class a week was enough.
  • For me, it’s important to get the yoga out of the way before anything else in the morning — at first, because I might not do the yoga if I ran out of time, and now because I am so used to yoga as my first step of the day that I do not function or communicate as well until after my practice.  But other people I talk to prefer a noon practice or one in the afternoon.  You need something that works with your body and your rhythm; but something that you can fit in at the same time every day.
  • One great thing about practicing daily is that you don’t have to push hard on every practice — feel ok about doing a slow restorative class occasionally, or even spending 5 minutes each practicing cobbler’s pose, shoulder stand, bridge pose and shivasana.
  • Come up with your own favorite routines and practice to your favorite music, but don’t let them become so routine that you lose your mindfulness– make sure to always keep your mind on the poses.

Taking hard poses with ease and easy poses with concentrated effort

Somewhere along our journey as yogis, all of us find a way to find he’s an difficult poses. To calm the mind and release the fear when holding a warrior three pose for a while, or in crow pose. 

But what I started to realize is the opposite is even more important.This morning, I did a slow hatha yin class. And I realize that doing these long easy poses, like a simple twist well seated or even a standing forward bend, is the perfect time to practice my uddiyana bandha – keeping the abdomen firm to support the pose – to concentrate on perfecting the alignment of my spine, my pelvis and my arms and legs, and to focus on my breath.

Maintaining focus and effort in easy poses is the other side of maintaining ease in hard poses – perhaps it’s keeping that balance where we find yoga.

Early Experiments with breath

I began my routine of practicing asana every morning, and it brought me a terrific confidence and equanimity.  But within a few months, that strong, stable feeling began to slip away — my practice had became more rote, but more importantly, the asana was not enough to compensate for the stress of my work or for other bad habits like sleeping too little, eating too much, and drinking too much alcohol.

For the first of many times I realized: asana is not enough.

So I bought some more books, including Iyengar’s Light on Life, and began working on practicing the yamas and niyamas.  But I also bought a fantastic book that really transformed my practice and my understanding of yoga: The Yoga of Breath by Richard Rosen.

yoga of breath

I encourage everyone everywhere to buy this book and read it many times 🙂

But when you start digging into it, go to the end of the book where there is a suggested schedule for working through the book to develop a pranayama practice.  The schedule gives you a daily practice and ends up taking almost a year to get through all of the lessons in the book.

So I followed the schedule and practiced each lesson in the book — working through it took nearly a full year.  When I finished, I practiced on my own for a few months, and then I started at the beginning of the book again and this time worked through the book in about 6 months.

Since the first day working with the book, I have had a daily practice of pranayama.  I practice pranayama after my asana practice every morning.  I generally set a timer for 12 or 15 minutes and work through a few different pranayama breaths in each session.

The results of this experiment were very favorable.  I can feel a very noticeable difference in my mood all day long after practicing pranayama: it promotes a calmness, confidence and equanimity.  It also gives you a practice you can turn to any time during the day when stress or anger or uncertainty appears: when pranayama is ingrained in your life it becomes easy to immediately turn inward and begin an ujayii breath or a hum-sah mantra and return to a place of equanimity.

I found some surprising results of pranayama practice too.  Since childhood I have been plagued with hiccups when eating very spicy food.  More seriously, I have a heart issue called paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT), which causes my heart to race up to over 200 beats per minute for minutes or hours at a time.  The PAT episodes have occurred since I was 7 years old very occasionally — sometimes monthly, sometimes only a couple of times a year.

After practicing pranayama daily for a few months, I got hiccups and instead of trying other remedies, I closed my eyes and began deep ujayii breathing.  My hiccups went away.  Since that day I have consistently been able to rid myself of hiccups quickly and easily with pranayama.

More importantly, I have almost always been able to stop a PAT very quickly using a deep ujayii breath.  I recall clearly the first time it happened after I had been practicing pranayama daily for 9 months.  I was in a recording session with a band I played in during law school, and I felt the PAT begin.  I sat down on a chair, closed my eyes, and engaged my breath, and the PAT went away.  Since then, I have nearly always been able to stop a PAT this way.

Why yoga? Address subtle physical and mental issues so you can handle the unexpected 

Rebecca Hersh, a wonderful yoga teacher at Laughing Lotus SF, had a terrific theme for a class this week.  I love it when classes have a theme that runs through both the asana part of the class and the philosophy part.  It shows a lot of preparation and thought, and few teachers do it well.

Forgive the paraphrasing in what is to follow.  If anyone who was there – including Rebecca – would like to correct anything below, I’d be honored.

Rebecca started Tuesday’s class explaining that when a muscle is a lttle tight, it sends you little messages all the time saying “I’m tight, I’m tight.”  But it’s not so bad so you walk around throughout your day with the muscle complaining “I’m tight, I’m tight” and you not really paying attention to it.  And then one day, something unexpected happens: you are playing with your neice and she wants you to run after her and suddenly this tight muscle siezes up and causes far more tightness or cramping or even a tear.

The same thing can happen with your mind.  There’s something nagging you in the back of your mind all the time and you don’t take the time to look at it and listen to it and address the issue.  And then one day, something unexpected happens: you lose your job, or a family member has cancer, or you get a chance at a great new house.  And if that nagging problem was at all related to your unexpected event then your ability to respond is unecessarily limited.

So her point was that yoga works at addressing this issue both for the body and the mind.  You stretch that hamstring so it doesn’t cramp up when you chase your niece.  But more importantly, yoga citta vritti nirhoda: yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind.  By stopping the fluctuations we can calmly and with ego set aside, deal with what we need to deal with.  And that includes unresolved nagging issues as well as new unexpected events.

Or at least it was something like that 🙂

Made me think auto maintencance (or maybe motocycle maintenance).

108 salutations for the equinox

Today as on every solstice and equinox I celebrated the change of season with a morning practice of 108 sun salutations.

I first learned of this practice at Inland Yoga in Riverside California, where they had a 108 sun salutations class every solstice.  I did it that winter, in 2007, and have done it pretty much every season since.  Google shows many websites discussing the practice and I’ve heard of a fee others doing it too, but I don’t know if there is any special reason for the practice other than as a way to mark the passage of time.  If you have more information on the background please let me know!

I like the practice both as an excellent ritual for remaining mindful of the passing of the year and as a great workout for bothe body and mind. 

It takes me about an hour. It’s important not to rush it both so you pace yourself and so you can remain focused on the movement and maintain proper alignment.  So I set aside an hour and a half just to keep from feeling rushed.  

The first few times I tried this, I lost count a lot.  Apparently that’s one of the reasons Buddhists practice 108 mantras- to make sure that at least 100 are done :). But now I say the number our loud as I bend forward into uttanasana.  That seems to help but I still lose count sometimes.  Not today though!  It was a beautiful, calming and refreshing practice today and I’m grateful to have the time and health for it.  Happy Spring!