Are you holding your breath?

We breathe approximately 18 times per minute, 1,080 times an hour and 25,920 times a day. Breath is fundamental to being alive and yet, often unknowingly, on average, we use [just] “30 per cent of our respiratory system, sometimes even less”.

Many of us suffer from shallow breathing, which is the “drawing of minimal breath into the lungs, usually by drawing air into the chest area using the intercostal muscles rather than throughout the lungs via the diaphragm“.

Shallow breathing or “under-breathing” is a symptom of anxiety.  When our fight or flight system activates, many of us have developed a habit of not breathing deeply enough, and unknowingly we hold our breath for short periods when under stress.  According to Dr. Margaret Chesney, a breathing researcher at UC San Francisco, both of these unconscious practices can raise carbon dioxide levels in our blood, which can be harmful over the long term.

Another way of looking at this, is that the way we breathe reflects our body’s memories of all of our previous stressful experiences.  If, for some reason, we haven’t fully processed or released some of these emotions and traumas, they remain stored within our bodies.  By restricting our breath, not only are we holding onto these suppressed patterns, but we’re also restricting a significant part of our vitality, the flow of positive energies and our subtle power.

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I’ve been aware of this broad concept for a while and have been practising various forms of yoga pranayama for many years, but still felt as though I could work with my breath at a deeper level.  I stumbled across Transformational Breath ® in a newspaper article about the benefits of the technique and was inspired to attend an introductory workshop. I was genuinely surprised and amazed by the profound impact of actually experiencing the practice.

This YouTube clip offers an illustration of how the session works.

In essence, Transformational Breath® is a conscious diaphragmatic breathing technique, combining acupressure and affirmation with healing sound and movement.  Unlike other techniques such as integrative breathwork or yoga pranayama, Transformational Breath® demands no pause between the inhale and exhale. A rough time ratio for the inhale:exhale should be 3:1.

The emotional effect of this breathing pattern seems to be to allow us to access and clear emotions or behavioural patterns that have been suppressed or repressed, within a gentle and safe environment.  The session is profoundly healing and offers the opportunity to return our body to its natural state of breathing freely and deeply without restrictions. At the end of a session there is time for relaxation and reflection, similar to a meditation session.

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The good thing about this technique is that you can practice it yourself anytime, anywhere after only a couple of sessions, so it’s definitely something that I’m going pursue further.

Breathing properly has a host of health benefits including: reducing stress and anxiety, improving mental focus and athletic performance, helping control high blood pressure and mending other health problems.

However, beyond the physical benefits, I was struck by the connection between the breath and the essence of who we are.  Apparently everyone has a unique breath signature, which reveals a lot about their personality and spirit.  This is touched on in the YouTube clip mentioned above.  The greater the connection that we have with ourselves, the more we learn to trust and feel safe to express who we truly are.

It’s deeply empowering to become aware of such a simple foundational tool – breathing – that can be used for: self-healing; a more profound body-mind-spirit connection; and to move forward in life with greater awareness and ease.

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Featured image “Breathing Fire” by Jeremy Brooks via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License.
[Note: This is a personal reflection on my experience of a Transformational Breath® session and is not a sponsored post.]

 

 

River deep, mountain high

Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam (The Sky Priestess) asked me this week:

“Who wins: the Ganges or the Himalayas?”

Both the Himalayan mountain range and the Ganges river were formed as a result of the collision between the Indian Plate and Eurasian Plate which began 50 million years ago and continues today.

Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the Himalayas and on Earth rises to 8,848 metres above sea level.  The Ganges flows 2,700 km from her source in the Himalaya mountains to the Bay of Bengal in northern India and Bangladesh.

Regarded as the most sacred river by Hindus, the Ganges is personified as the goddess Ganga. Ganga’s mother is Mena and her father is Himavat, the personification of the Himalaya mountains.  Ganga is a central figure in sacred Hindu texts.

The Sky Priestess’ point was that the erosion of the Himalayas by the Ganges is a metaphor for the under-valued power of feminine energy against the seemingly impenetrable and stable masculine energy.

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The Sky Priestess advised that individually we need to be more aware of and respond to the flow of our emotions, because they are also a source of power, which is something I’ve already written about a few times.

..but can the metaphor be taken any further?

Perhaps some of the environmental issues that are being faced in the Ganges basin, in Flint, Michigan, the Standing Rock reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, in Mexico and elsewhere all over the world, offer a wider metaphor for the imbalances in our collective relationship with feminine energies and our lifesource from mother earth.  Perhaps part of the healing for this needs to take place on a spiritual or emotional level, in addition to the physical cleanup.  This is something that Jez Hughes covers incredibly eloquently in his book “The Heart of Life Shamanic Initiation & Healing in the Modern World“.

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Sources:

Featured Image “Tranquility” by Travayegeur (Sahil Lodha) from Flickr.com used under Creative Commons License.

Mark Cartwright, “Ganges,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified May 27, 2015, http://www.ancient.eu /Ganges/.

 

Forest bathing

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished” – Lao Tzu

I’ve been feeling slightly overwhelmed, and one of the reasons for this is that I haven’t been spending as much time in nature, as I usually would, in recent weeks.

I love the term “shinrin-yoku” (森林浴) in Japanese which translates as “forest bathing”, which a term popularised in the 1980s to describe the healing benefits of mindfully visiting a forest, walking slowly, breathing and opening the senses.  This is now one of the cornerstones of preventative healthcare and healing.  Whilst this type of healing has deep roots in many cultures throughout history, what’s interesting is the burgeoning and robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of shinrin-yoku to back up the intuitive benefits of spending time immersed in nature.

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks”  – John Muir

One example is a study released by the University of Kyoto and published in Public Health, entitled, ‘Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction‘ which describes a link between walking in forests and reducing chronic stress.

According to Shinrin-yoku.org, the scientifically-proven benefits of forest bathing include:

  • Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep

This is in addition to anecdotal improvements in intuition; energy flow, sense of connection, communication and happiness.

Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better” – Albert Einstein

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the concept of “nature deprivation,” a lack of time in the natural world, largely due to hours spent in front of TV or computer screens, which has been associated with depression and isolation. A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, concluded “there is an independent, deleterious relationship” between “screen-based recreational sitting time” and not only cardiovascular disease “events” but “all-cause mortality.”  However, for many of us, “screen-based occupational sitting time” is part of our daily reality, so it’s more a question of finding creative ways to weave nature a deeper connection to nature into our daily lives.

To walk in nature is to witness a thousand miracles” – Mary Davis

Featured image “Forest Walk” by CSeeby from Flickr.com. Used under Creative Commons license. 

 

How to go to sleep and stay asleep

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In these troubling times, many people are struggling to wind down in the evening and get a decent night’s sleep.  Without the foundation of a solid night’s sleep, it’s very difficult to function optimally during the day.

These are some practices that I’ve found to help me to go to sleep and stay asleep:

  1. Hydration. Dehydration is my number 1 reason for insomnia and restless nights  Drinking at least 1.2 litres of water a day helps to avoid this.
  2. Meditation.  I have a twice daily meditation practice (15-20 minutes) at the start and end of the day.  Meditation is sometimes described as a “shower for your brain” and helps to calm the nervous system before bed.
  3. Windows open.  The optimal ambient temperature for a good night’s sleep is 65ºF or 18.3ºC.  Recent research suggests that body temperature is actually even more important for improving and maintaining sleep than either light or time.
  4. Curtains open. Although I live in an urban area, I’m lucky that I don’t have a lot of artificial light outside of my bedroom window at the moment, so my preference is to sleep with the curtains open. Some people believe that moonlight can help to regulate the menstrual cycle.  I also enjoy waking up to natural daylight so that I feel refreshed and ready to go in the morning.
  5. Sleeping on my right side.  A tip from yoga is to induce the body to switch to dominant left nostril breathing.  The nasal cycle refers to the phenomenon that at any given moment you are breathing through one dominant nostril; then some time later (usually every 2-2.5 hours) you switch to the other one and this continues in a rhythmical fashion.  When we breathe through the left nostril, we relax and calm down because the left side of the body represents the moon, feminine channel (Ida, luna nadi). When we breathe through the right nostril, we are energized and stimulated because the right side is the sun or masculine channel (Pingala, the solar nadi). To switch to the left side, lie on your right side, block off the right nostril and breathe long and deeply through the left nostril for a minute or so. Slowing down the breath to 4 or less breaths per minute also facilitates sleep.
  6. Ignoring the usual tips. Personally, I use my e-reader until the minute I’m ready to go to sleep.
  7. Bonus tips.  If I’m really struggling to get to sleep or have woken up in the middle of the night. Moving around, Yoga Nidra and bedtime yoga sequences can all help, but a failsafe is sex or masturbation.

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Featured image by Kristina Kuncevich via Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/fvNNnr) and used under non-commercial Creative Commons license.

How do you find balance as a Strong Black Woman?

Earlier this week, Vegan Sista posted a short video on YouTube about a typical experience of micro-aggression in the workplace and ended by asking how other black women find balance in such situations.

As I’ve said before and I’m sure I’ll say again, the whole Strong Black Woman archetype is a myth.  It’s true that we’re often brought up to take pride in our strength and resilience in the face of adversity, but without balance, this can lead to the manifestation of complex forms of depression in black women.

This is an except from Black Pain: It Just looks Like we’re not hurting by Terrie M. Williams “African American leaders in particular face tremendous obstacles rising to the top and even greater challenges staying there….And being a Black woman, you have to fight four times harder to succeed…We are the face of the struggle and are expected to always show strength, grit, determination and confidence. Depression looks like the corporate executive who wears and airtight game face all day and collapses at home every night, so tired of acting the part that [s]he can’t enjoy h[er] own life”.

Terrie M.Williams interviewed hundreds of women of colour on their experience of dealing with race and gender bias in workplaces that are largely dominated by white, male culture. In the course of these interviews, she identified several survival strategies that many of these women were using and which I can identify with:

  • “Shifting” speech, appearance and/or behaviour according to the situation, in order to navigate racial and gender bigotry, at the expense of their authenticity.
  • Diassociation from emotions and lack of self-nurturing, which she dubbed the “Sisterella Complex”.  Women who were working very hard, but seem quite disconnected from their own needs.
  • Remaining silent about their problems and not letting stress show, which is a legacy of how black families evolved to cope with slavery.  In Power Choices: Seven signposts on your journey to wholeness, love, joy and peace, Dr Brenda Wade writes “Generations ago ….the luxury of being depressed or taking a day off didn’t exist. So we’ve incorporated it into our own mentality today that no matter how tired I am, no matter how bad I feel, no matter how much pain I’m in, I will keep moving, keep performing, keep working”.

The problem with all of these coping strategies is, if practiced long-term, they all lead to various forms of depression.

So how to find balance?  For me, I’ve found the following helpful.

1. Getting back in touch with my body through yoga, meditation and menstruality.

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2. Listening to and responding to my own emotions & intuition.

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3. Recognising the primacy of selfcare

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4. Living by The Four Agreements, which is such a valuable gift from Don Miguel Ruiz.

In this context of seeking balance in the face of adversity, Agreement 2 “Do not take anything personally” was particularly transformational for me and Agreement 3 “Don’t make assumptions”.

When I practice them faithfully, all Four Agreements help me achieve a deeper level of self-mastery in any situation, whilst remembering Agreement 4, there is no such thing as perfection so all you can do is your best.

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Sources:

Featured image by Rikard Elofsson via Flickr under Creative Commons license
The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America by Tamara Winfrey Harris (2015)
Black Pain: It Just looks Like we’re not hurting by Terrie M. Williams (2008).
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden (2004)
Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth by Brad Blanton and Marilyn Ferguson (1994)
Power Choices: Seven signposts on your journey to wholeness, love, joy and peace by Dr Brenda Wade (2005)
The Four Agreements: Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Toltec Wisdom) by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997)

The first step to controlling your emotions is to recognise that you can’t control your emotions

The inspiration from this post came from some of the interesting comments on one of my previous post’s entitled Stoicism is overrated, self-care is the solution

 

 

Emotions get such a bum rap in western society. They are often seen as something to be mastered. Something to be controlled. A scary thing.

But what if emotions are actually a really good thing? What if instead of looking outside of ourselves for inspiration, all we need to do is to pay more attention to our emotions as one of our greatest sources of truth and intuition.

In the book, The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren describes emotions as “reliable…evolutionarily evolved responses” which are all trying to tell us something.

In his somatic market hypothesis, neurologist Antonio Damasio describes decision-making as the “emotional process of attaching value and meaning to data”.  This is because his research demonstrated that when the emotional brain centres are disconnected from the rational processing centres of the brain (through surgery or brain damage), his patients were unable to make decisions.

Once we can access the emotions within our body, we find that unlike the mind, the body doesn’t lie.

The point of emotions is to help us to survive by moving our energy, abilities and information from one place to another by feeling things and then reacting to them.

To give some examples from The Language of Emotions; the feeling sadness makes you more aware of your interior state, this calms and relaxes you and helps you to release uncomfortable attachments.  The feeling of anger fuels the setting and rigorous enforcing of boundaries for self-protection and self-preservation.  On the positive side, the feeling of joy is a powerful tool for rejuvenation.

However, if we try to ignore or suppress an important, valid, emotion: rather than go through the process of recognising it and completing the actions that are required for the emotion to recede naturally and gracefully; the unconscious mind will start to increase the intensity of the message.

We can take anxiety as an example.

In its soft state, anxiety helps us to be aware of what we might need to pack for an upcoming trip.  A small amount of healthy anxiety helps us to prepare for eventualities in the future.

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[Image: The Fireplace by Robbie Sproule from Flickr.com via Wikipedia under Creative Commons license]

If we delay packing until the night before the trip, our anxiety will ramp up to the mood state.  At this point, we will be feeling a greater sense of pressure to focus our energy on completing the action.

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[Image by KC Green from Gunshow – On Fire]

However, if the morning of the trip has arrived and we still haven’t packed, our anxiety will ramp up another level to the intense state.  Being in this state for a short, defined period can provides us with tremendous energy to complete a task.

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[Image by Ada Be from Flickr]

 

 

 

 

However, if this state continues for a prolonged period of time without being properly discharged, this is when our anxiety can become problematic.  This intense energy can become trapped in the subconscious leading to it mutating from overthinking, feedback loops, up to escalating mood swings and then even further into compulsions, addictions and psychosomatic illness or neuroses.

In this context, I think it’s very difficult to separate worthy emotions (eupatheia, which are feelings that result from correct judgment according to the Stoics) from unworthy emotions (propathos or instinctive reactions according to the Stoics) and to try change, stop or suppress these instinctive reactions through self-will alone.

A better distinction would be between the emotions that guide and support us in their softer state and under-acknowledged emotions that have ramped up to the more intense states.  With this distinction, peace of mind can be achieved by developing much fuller emotional awareness in order to distinguish and act on valid emotions early on before they become reach the more problematic intense state.  If a brief period of intense emotion is required, developing the ability to discharge that excess energy soon afterwards, so as to reset our equilibrium.

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Sources:

[Cover Image: Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, taken from Wikipedia under Creative Commons license]
The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren
Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio 
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine

 

The most sacred time of the month or a medicalised inconvenience?

We can find cycles everywhere – the journey through each day and night, the passage of the moon every month, the orbit of the earth around the sun each year and the stages of our lives on earth.

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[Image of the passage of the moon via http://likesuccess.com/img4397856%5D

Women are blessed with their own personal cycles, the menstrual which culminates with a period of menstruation or moontime.

In her ground-breaking work “Her Blood Is Gold“, Laura Owen suggests that in ancient cultures, for example in some of the Native American Indian tribes, there was reverence for the mystery and magic of menstruation.  Women honoured this time as a period of natural purification, rest and renewal.

 

However, sadly, much of the knowledge of these ancient traditions have been lost or may even have been twisted into ‘invented traditions‘, as a result of the devastating impact of colonialism in the USA and Australia and the African Diaspora.

Fast forward to the present day and the current prevalent attitude to menstruation in society is overwhelmingly negative and shameful.  These are just a handful of English slang terms for menstruation.

redmoonMenstruation is seen as a curse, as dirty, inconvenient and shameful. There is an overwhelming focus on the misery of Pre Menstrual Syndrome, during which time women are ridiculed and belittled as being “bitchy” and “crazy”.  It’s even now being used as a tool to question a woman’s competence in the workplace.

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[IMAGE: from Julius Willis via https://juliuswillis.com/2016/07/30/why-thin-skinned-donald-trump-felt-hurt-when-nothing-nice-was-said-about-him-at-the-dnc-convention-or-why-he-deserves-what-was-said-of-him/]

Unsurprisingly, in this context, many women seek to delay, suppress or even eliminate their cycles with drugs, handing control of their bodies, happiness and brains to pharmaceutical companies.

But.

What if women who are experiencing painful menstrual symptoms are actually receiving a message to slow down, honour their cycle and start paying more attention to what’s going on in the bodies?

What if, as Laura Owen wrote, moontime is an opportunity for women to connect with their power and intuition?

 

Shifting from crashing through life without care for the messages my body was trying to deliver, to living in harmony with the changes in rhythm of my body over the month has been a hugely positive shift for me.  Making these changes didn’t actually require much effort and actually felt much easier than fighting my cycle.

I recognise my worth and honour my cycle. I don’t give anyone permission to make me feel ashamed of my body and my bodily functions.

I rest, take care of myself and schedule longer time to sleep more.  It was actually a revelation to give myself permission to skip the gym in order to conserve energy.  Meditations and dreams are definitely more powerful at this time.

I’m aware that my body is purifying and renewing so this is a good time to “let go” of anything else that no longer serves me, for example old patterns, habits and thoughts.

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[Image & Quote by Roxana Jones via https://healthruwords.com/inspirational-pictures/hunters-moon/%5D

 

Sources:

Owen, Laura. Her Blood Is Gold: Celebrating the Power of Menstruation. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
http://www.taraka.pl/moon_time_is_blessing