The below article was submitted by our dear friend and Austin, TX-based writer/yoga teacher/health outreach coordinator/all-around great person Julia Winston. Would you like to learn more information on how to contribute to our site? Have some articles of your own that you would like to submit? Email us at [email protected]
Your Secret Weapon
By Julia Winston
“Just be where you are, Julia.” This is a line my father, a psychiatrist, often says to me. It’s his standard response to my frequent bursts of anxiety and hyperactivity. Sometimes he even says it with a shrug or a sigh, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. He makes it sound so simple. “Just be where you are…”
Be where I am?! My body may be where it is, but my mind is all over the freaking place. It’s traveling to distant lands, it’s eating my next meal, it’s reliving treasured moments. It’s busy, dammit! “Be where you are.” Yeah right, Dad. How?
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Well. One of the loveliest things about yoga is that it enables you to connect your ever-present body with your often-absent mind. One of the most common English translations for the Sanskrit word “yoga” is “union.” This union can refer to a variety of things, for example: the union of your mind and your body; yourself and a Higher Power; yourself and the present moment; the Ego Self and the Higher Self.
So that’s all well and good, but how is a person to be where they are during all the distracting moments between yoga classes? Most of the time, our minds occupy themselves by reflecting on the past or conjecturing about the future. But what good does it do to analyze moments that are long gone, to hold on to thoughts and feelings that don’t serve us anymore? And likewise, jumping headfirst into the future—my mind’s favorite activity—is silly, because how can you go somewhere that doesn’t yet exist? All you can do is speculate about what could be, which leads to fear, anxiety, and the buildup of expectations, from which that dreaded emotion, disappointment, often arises.
But I know the secret to Being Present. You know it too, but, like me, you constantly forget you know it. It lies hidden in the crevices of your preoccupied mind, only revisiting your consciousness when you will it to do so. But you have the power to know it all the time, and therefore, you have the power to Be Where You Are anytime. The secret is that oh-so-crucial and yet shockingly forgettable necessity: Your Breath.
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There is only one thing in this world you can’t go without for more than a few minutes, and that is the faithful flow of your own inhales and exhales. Your breath can’t be in the past or in the future or in another country. It is always with you, always happening, no matter where your mind is. Therefore, when you recognize that your mind is disconnected from what Eckhart Tolle refers to as “the Now,” all you have to do is focus on your breath and, inevitably, you’re back in the moment. It is a reliable tool, an unassuming weapon against suffering, and here is why.
When we are upset or anxious, our bodies react. Not unlike prey feeling suddenly threatened by their predators, we humans can become so worked up by our own thoughts that our nervous systems go into fight-or-flight mode, or acute stress response. Sometimes when we get upset, our breathing patterns go haywire; for instance, we subconsciously forget to breathe for inconsistent stretches of time and sit there holding our breath, or we unknowingly take quick, shallow breaths, both of which cause the heart rate to speed up and the body to go into a state of panic. I suspect that this disturbance of equilibrium occurs for most of us far more often than necessary.
Smokers, here’s a thought for you. Maybe when you reach for your trusty cigarette during times of stress and agitation, what you’re really doing is trying to take a deep breath. The nicotine is addictive, of course, but as a former smoker, I can decidedly say that taking a deep drag off your cigarette is also a desperate ritual for acknowledging the necessity of your own breath.
Smoker or not, I invite you to take a moment to explore your breath. The sad truth is that most people don’t know how to breathe. Here are some tips:
- Your belly should inflate with each inhale and deflate with each exhale
- Allow your shoulders to be loose and lowered away from your ears
- Relax your jaw and facial muscles
- If possible, breathe in and out through your nostrils to filter each breath, making it last a little longer and travel a little deeper
- With each exhale, imagine stale, negative energy leaving your body
- With each inhale, imagine fresh, positive energy entering your body
- Think of it not as taking a breath, but as receiving a breath
Make it a practice to just sit and breathe with awareness for a few minutes every day. The best way to start is by focusing on your breath before you go to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, count the seconds of each inhale and exhale. (It’s kind of weird to think about sheep like that anyway, considering how irrelevant they are to most of our lives).
Your breath is an extension of who you are; it is your life force. By utilizing the power of your breath, you can begin to part with patterns of suffering and absent-mindedness. So acknowledge it. Familiarize yourself with it. Work together. Unite. Arm yourself with your breath when you go out into the world, and use it mindfully.
Fresh out of college and stressed about the “real world,” Julia Winston decided to try yoga as a way to chill out. In no time at all, she had fallen hard. She practiced with Sri Dharma Mittra and other inspirational teachers in New York City until her love for travel and her desire to explore Inner Self and collective consciousness led her on a yogic journey through India, Nepal, Thailand and Israel. Upon her return to the US of A, she became certified as a yoga teacher and taught in Harlem before moving back to her native Austin, Texas, where she now works as a writer, voice-over artist, yoga teacher and health outreach worker.