Author: Erica H., Military Spouses of Strength SOFA Talks Coordinator
One of the first things I learned in my yoga teacher training was how to teach a yoga class to students. If you are unfamiliar with yoga think of it as a movie. The beginning of a movie takes its time to warm up and exposes the audience to all intricate details of the characters. The film gradually progresses and by the middle of the performance there is often a climax, which can be a tragedy or something that keeps you on the edge of your seat in excitement. There will be a few twists and turns after that and gradually making it’s decent to the end of the story. The climax of a yoga class would look like the top of a mountain-it can be exciting, terrifying, and challenging. Oftentimes this is when the teacher has the students try the most challenging pose for that class. The great thing about what is learned on the yoga mat is that it is also translatable into every day life.
As a parent I experience mountain poses often. I have a 4 year-old boy who is, I am convinced, my exact opposite. My friends describe me as friendly, easy-going, calm, and patient. My son however, is very passionate about all things and quite vocal. Just the other day we were in the library to check out an armful of new books. I was watching my friend’s daughter that day that was the same age. It was past nap-time for both of them and I could see that my son was starting to become over-tired so we started to head over to the self-check out line. Waiting in line is torture for anyone-let alone a 4 year-old constantly moving, jumping, and crawling-like-a-snake on the library floor. After several minutes of balancing on one foot, touching our nose with our right finger, and playing eye-spy it was finally our turn to checkout. My son normally helps me with this process and it can be very fun but today the fun scanner with its bright blue light wasn’t working so we had to wait in yet another line to check out with a human (must have been a busy day for the library). We waited….and waited and the kids began to play the common “he’s/she’s touching me duel”. Things escalated quickly and no amounts of distractions were working. My son went into full-blown tantrum mode. I could see his eye begin to water, his body tense, fists balled with rage. My son began shrieking and tried running around. I contemplated leaving. But we had spent so much time picking out the perfect books including two books for myself about mindfulness (how cliche it seemed now!) My heart was pounding, my body was becoming hot, and I wondered how may people were staring at us. I got down on the ground to my son’s eye level as I reached up with my free hand to hand the librarian my library card. My son was still screaming-in a quiet library. I could see my friend’s daughter in my peripheral still balancing on one foot. I said softly: “Look at my eyes. Let’s take a big breath” I can’t he screamed and arched his back onto the floor. This was my mountain moment. You could say that in moments like these they are certainly stressful. I’ve had plenty of these moments.
Stress is a physical and a mental response to the body. When we respond to stress our body responds too. The first thing that happens is that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system is activated. In the human body, the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands are responsible for the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. These substances cause a reaction and production of both cortisol (the stress hormone) and epinephrine (adrenaline). Both are released during times of stress or crisis. Adrenaline speeds up the heart and lungs and non-essential actions such as digestion slow down. The body is also affects our mental processes. The body responds to stress by releasing neurotransmitters store our emotions of stress thus in our long-term memory. At the same time our short-term memory, concentration, and rational thoughts are turned off. When we are in that moment of intense stress we forget to breathe. So what do we do when we are faced with a mountain moment? We bring ourselves back to the present moment. This is basic concept of meditation. When most people think of meditation they imagine sitting in a cross-legged position, straight posture, calm breathing, and pondering on….nothingness. As much as I’d love to be able to sit for a lengthy period of time before my leg falls asleep or to “clear my mind” it’s just not practical. Meditation or mindfulness can be practiced in all things. When cleaning dishes we can simply clean dishes. We can think to ourselves: “I am turning on the water. The water is warm. I am putting the soap on the plate and scrubbing it with my brush in a circular pattern”. This is mediation. There were no thoughts of the past or future- just the present moment of washing a dish. I try and practice this daily as I complete my chores, watch my child play, listen to my husband tell me about his day, hiking, cooking…..and the list goes on. Have you ever tried to cook your favorite dish but you have your mind on something else? You might be distracted with what you are going to do next, if you have enough time, what’s on TV tonight, did I feed the dog, etc. Then reality snaps back to over-boiling water or a burnt entrée. Another simple way of meditation is with the “Name 3 things” exercise. I do this exercise with my son when he is in a happy mood and when he is having a mountain moment. Here’s how you play: 1. Name 3 things you see 2. Name 3 things you hear 3. Name 3 things you smell.
In yoga one of the first and most important things learned is how to breathe. Most of us breathe incorrectly, using only half of our lung capacity. Pranayama is the regulation of breath through techniques that bring life (prana) to the body. It helps to release tension and bring relaxation to the mind. In addition it balances the nervous system, increases oxygen, increases mental clarity, alertness, and physical well-being. Yoga combines physical movement (asana) with rhythmic breathing (pranayama) creating the perfect opportunity for mind and body to connect.
Here is a pranayama exercise you can try on your own called “Equal Ratio Breathing”:
- Find a comfortable lying on the back, eyes closed, arms by the side. Count the length of your inhale and exhale. Notice if one is naturally longer than the other.
- Notice your breath starting in the chest, expanding the rib cage as you inhale and as you exhale pushing the air out of your chest, through the abdominals and out of the naval. Practice this a few times until you feel satisfied and the breath is smooth and unhindered.
- Now consciously inhale for 6-8 counts, and then exhale 6-8 counts.