Mountain brook: flowing breath

Create gentle flowing breath

Sometimes I can’t exhale when doing a breathing exercise. I take a nice smoothe inhale, but somewhere in my exhale there is a little bump. It feels like there is a knot in my stomach and my exhaling breath has to sort of hop over the knot before continuing out of my body. This knot is anxiety. Because of anxiety I tend to hold my body in a certain way, as if protecting myself. I do things to deal with my anxiety, but I also need to do something for my body to let out the tension that anxiety creates in my muscles. This self-care is essential in cultivating patience and loving-kindness which helps to lessen my overall anxiety.

May I care for myself joyfully.

May all beings are for themselves joyfully.

Of all the things I have tried to lessen this tension in my breathing, I have found that relaxing my belly is one of the most helpful. That doesn’t mean just letting my belly hang out. It goes much deeper than that. Relaxing my belly means relaxing the muscles in my core; that is, both my back and my front. You will have heard that good posture promotes better breathing; that is true. But adopting the appearance of good posture by puffing up your chest is only adding more tension on top of already stressed structure and won’t do much for your breathing. What will help more is relaxing the muscles that support your upper body and building good posture from the legs up.

Your body knows how to breathe well

The things we do in our daily lives tend to get in the way of easeful breathing. I notice, for example, that I tend to hold my belly in when sitting infront of my computer for a long time. (That’s anxiety!) Sometimes I get low back stiffness and that effects my walking, which in turn effects my breathing. For instance, when I go for a long walk (as I enjoy doing), and notice that my back is a little stiff, I slow down my pace and look for a softer movement so that I avoid creating more tension which can restrict my breathing in small but significant ways.

These things are subtle. It has taken me many years of observation and experimentation to make these connections. Today I’d like to share with you a self-guided practice that can help you to relax your whole body and breathe more evenly. It is called “mountain brook” because your body is arranged over blankets like the riverbed, and your breath flows like water running over smooth pebbles as it makes its way down the moountain.

Scroll down to view the practice. Download a printable PDF of the practice:


Mountain brook: flowing breath

A gentle, restful practice to soothe your breathing

Mountain brook position creates length along the front and back of your body. Imagine yourself like a mountain stream, flowing smoothly over the stones and enjoying the cool air. Your chest and throat are extended, allowing for deeper breathing. The position of your spine counteracts the effects of sitting in a chair, leaving you feeling more balanced and standing tall.

PREPARATION

Roll up one of your blankets to make a thin roll. Lie down on the floor with this roll just below your shoulder blades, as shown in the picture below. Your shoulders are resting on the floor.

Take a few moments to find a comfortable position. Your chest is lifted, and your shoulders are just touching the floor, as shown in the picture below. Move the roll up or down a little to find your sweet spot.

NOTE If you need to move the roll quite far down before it feels comfortable, try replacing the blanket with a small towel. You might feel a pleasant intensity but you should not feel any pain.

PRACTICE

Now sit up and place a rolled blanket under your knees and a folded blanket under your head. Lie back down.

Make a roll in the blanket under your head so that the back of your neck is lightly supported. See the image below.

Stay for 5-15 minutes. Breathe normally and allow your body to be fully supported. Roll onto your side to sit up.

MAKE IT YOUR OWN

You may enjoy changing the size of the rolled blankets under your knees and spine. Just make sure that you are always comfortable and that your neck is lightly supported.

Download a printable PDF of this practice:

Getting out of my own head

I’m standing in my bathroom, having just washed my hands, and I’m too busy to stop for a moment. I was squirming in my desk chair, wanting to finish what I had been doing before running to the loo. But I promised myself that every time I went to the bathroom, I would stop everything and take a short moment of mindfulness. That moment seems way too long right now. What was I thinking? Then another thought pops into my head: how nice would it be to take a break from my busy mind and enjoy mindful, peaceful silence?

What do I mean by “mindful”? Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to just one thing. That can be your breathing, walking, being fully present with a friend, immersing yourself in a hobby, or any number of things. A lot of the noise in our heads is distraction: thoughts about things that are not relevant right now. Many thoughts and worries are very important, but it is rarely necessary to think about them all the time. Mindfulness teaches you to be able to put aside distractions, create quiet in your mind, and focus on what is happening in the moment. Important thoughts will pop up again at a better time for you to deal with them.

I’ve got a goal for this year. Actually, it has been my goal for about ten years. That is, to meditate every day. After so many years of not achieving this goal I decided to change my approach. If twenty minutes was too long, why not one second? Who decided that twenty minutes was the best anyway?

I do one moment- one second! – of mindfulness practice every day.

I’ve been playing with “mindful moments” since lockdown began last year. I have a list of mindfulness techniques (such as listening to the sounds around me, or counting my breaths) and I do one moment- one second! – of mindfulness practice every day. I wrote down these techniques and agreed with myself that success is: doing one mindful moment every day. This might not seem like much, but it is a very powerful practice. Day by day I was creating space for peacefulness in my life.

It went great. I kept a stack of “mindfulness cards” in the kitchen and did one moment every morning. Soon I expanded my commitment to take a mindful moment every time I went to the bathroom. At first it was fun and novel. Then it became a bit of a chore and I slipped back to once a day. I didn’t look at this as failture – afterall, success is “doing one mindful moment every day”. After a few months, things began to change.

To me, mindfulness is comforting and brings me clarity.

That one daily moment of peacefulness became more enjoyable and meaningful for me. The sense of quiet peacefulness grew. The process was transforming from an abstract goal into a personal practice; it was becoming a part of me. The deep understanding that I could create this peaceful oasis for myself whenever I wanted empowered me. I began to apply mindful moments in all sorts of situations when I felt overwhelmed or emotionally unsafe.

Mindfulness is an anchor to the present moment. Being mindful allows me to focus and be more productive in my work and to be more skilled in my relationships. To me, mindfulness is comforting and brings me clarity. When I stop the endless rushing of my thoughts, I realise that I don’t have to be an angry or fearful person. I can be this person now, in this moment, breathing. Being mindful allows me to let go of judgements about myself and others. I can see and think more clearly.

I still don’t meditate for twenty minutes every day and I might never do that. I have let go of the “should”. I do look forward to taking a mindful pause before I begin my day, and short moments throughout. The benefits of mindfulness are cumulative, which means that it is quantity over duration. If you can give yourself just one second of mindfulness every day, you will feel the benefits grow with time. If you do a long meditation just once a week, the benefits will be fewer.

You can try it for yourself! Get creative with your moments. When could you fit in one second of noticing your breathing, or listening to the sounds around you? You can sign up to my Mindful Moments email course below for guidance and inspiration. Embrace your messy, distracted, mind and rejoice that you have taken a tiny moment of your day just for you. Giving yourself this kindness will make it easier to be kind to others. Kindness is, after all, the greatest contagion.


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Wild Geese

I believe that to be really creative, we need to know ourselves. We need to know the dark corners of ourselves – as well as the light – and embrace it all. Creativity is like a journey inwards. Like an explorer, we look with curiousity and wonder at everything we find.

The act of being creative is not to show “this is me”, but to ask the question “who am I?” The outcome of our creativity will always be a bit messy, and it is beautiful because of that.

Being unapologetically creative can be daunting. Creativity requires us to let go of everything we think we know for a while. For me, this poem captures the excitement and vulnerability of that process.


WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

by Mary Oliver

Rest and digest – a restorative practice

When I was young, an uncle of mine would delight in telling us children that Christmas wasn’t really about presents at all. Clutching our gifts from Santa, my cousins and I would stare up at him, uncomprehending. With glee he would impart his wisdom: “Christmas is about the food!”

As an adult I have come to agree with my uncle. If I am not staggering from dinner table to couch for an afternoon of movies and mulled wine, I don’t really feel I’ve celebrated the season. This years lockdown has given me a gift of sorts: time. I have been rooting out old recipies and trying my hand at some of the tastes of home. (I managed a fairly decent mince pie!)

After a few days of this my body usually says “enough”. An excess of eating, effort, and activity over the Christmas period is all part of the fun. It also leaves me feeling a bit frazzled. What I need now is some time to rest and digest. Legs-up-the-wall is a favoured post-meal pose of mine and I can’t beat simple relaxation pose for calming my nervous system – almost like a reset button.

Continue reading “Rest and digest – a restorative practice”

The 3 minute home-office commute

Several of my students have told me that they are much less physically active in their home office. One thing they point to is the lack of interruptions from co-workers. A normal day at work would be punctuated by chats at the coffee machine, moving between meetings, and frequent small interruptions in person or on the phone. The lockdown home office is characterised by sitting in front of a webcam for hours at a time, followed by a few short steps to another part of the house at 5pm. Whatever your physical training routine might be, I am hearing that people are also missing that diversity of sensory stimulation and the mental space to process the days events.

When my own partner emerges from his home office space in the basement it takes him a while to switch his mind to “home-mode”. This has at times led to silly arguments and sometimes he is preoccupied with a work issue long into the evening. As tighter Covid-19 restrictions are introduced in Oslo, and my partner is at home 24/7 again, I have been thinking about the value of ritual. Our daily habits, rhythms, and routines create a framework for moving through our lives. Woven into this framework are rituals. That is, doing things in a certain way that you enjoy and which helps you to thrive.

Continue reading “The 3 minute home-office commute”

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