Practical Tips For Staying Positive & Optimistic

It’s mid-March now and this is the time of year in the northern hemisphere when, even if it’s still cold or snowy, we begin emerging from winter. Sometimes it’s just a mental emergence, and other times we can see it happening around us in nature. As life begins to rumble beneath the ground, making its way upward and outward again, and as buds begin to appear on otherwise bare branches, we see reflected back to us our own chance to be in a gently wakeful state as we live a happy, balanced life.

Winter months can make us sleepier, down, or more sluggish. If we’ve been powering through this natural time of rest, we will likely begin to feel the effects at this point in the year. Effects like the beginnings of burnout, overwhelm, confusion, discontentment. Before we succumb to any of that, this is a great time of year to check in with the state of our minds and make any necessary mindset shifts that could help us emerge in spring with more energy and clarity.

In an effort to help you function from a place of santosa (contentment) and experience fuller happiness, today I’m offering these practical tips for getting—and staying—positive and optimistic.

As you read on, you’ll learn about 3 tried and true practices to help
shift your mindset for the better:

Breath of Joy (what it is, and how to do it)
Mindfulness For Practical Life (by way of breath / by way of body)
Trusting (prompts for practice)



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BREATH OF JOY…


Getting out of our heads and into our bodies is one of the quickest, most effective ways of shifting our mindset and priming ourselves for being positive and optimistic. My favorite yoga practice that always brings me the instant gratification of heightened energy, clarity and happiness is Breath of Joy! It’s a simple practice you can do any time you need a pick-me-up. Breath of Joy is especially helpful to me when I hit an afternoon slump, when I’ve been sitting still in my body but working my brain for a long period of time and I need to shake off the stagnation, or any time I feel my emotions or thoughts waning toward anger, resentment, confusion, judgment, negative self-talk, or sadness.

If you’re new to Breath of Joy, watch my video here to learn the basic moves. You can follow along with it for the first few passes and then do it any time you need to. It’s a little whacky looking at first, but you’ll get it quickly! It’s sure to give you a clearer, more joyful mindset. Once you get the hang of it, I suggest practicing 10 rounds at a time.

MINDFULNESS FOR PRACTICAL LIFE…

One of the greatest tools derived from yoga and meditation is present moment awareness, otherwise known as, practicing mindfulness. Want to change your mindset? Give yourself the gift of present moment awareness!

When you’re stressed, you’re likely future tripping or dwelling on the past. You are not present. You may find yourself mentally spinning, as if in an eddy, wanting that which is impermanent to be permanent. You’re caught up in your thoughts, not your present reality.

STEP 1— ATTENTIVE BREATHING

If you’re feeling particularly anxious and like you “can’t breathe”, skip this step and go straight to step 2 below. Then return to this. Typically we start with the breath to calm us down, but having had panic attacks before, I know sometimes we need to go through the gross body and thinking mind before we can truly slow, and pay attention to our breath.


Usually the first, very accessible way to get present is to utilize the breath. Try taking a deep breath through your nose and, if only for the moment it takes to breathe one breath in and out, BE HERE NOW. Be fully present with your breath. For this moment, pay attention only to your breath. Let everything else besides your breath fall away. Be sure to breathe through your nose and not your mouth. Nasal breathing centers the nervous system.

Bring yourself to full present moment breath-awareness by asking these questions:

  • What does the breath feel like?

  • What does it sound like?

  • What muscles activate in my body as I breathe in and out?

  • Where am I holding tension in my body?

  • How does it feel when I slow the breath and consciously release that tension?

  • Do I feel completely full when I inhale, or could I take in more breath?

  • Do I feel completely empty when I exhale, or could I send out more breath?

  • You have time to do this. You deserve this. I mean really, it’s just one breath!

I have the sneaking suspicion however, that once you get truly present with one breath, you will continue to breathe this way for several more… and your mindset will change to a more calm, optimistic one.

STEP 2— JOURNEY AROUND THE BODY


The quickest path I’ve found to become presently aware, is though the body: Notice your body in this moment. I’m talking about noticing your body position, where and how you are holding yourself in space—not what you look like. Name what you notice in nonjudgmental terms. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. There just is, what is. How are you feeling physically? What sensations are you aware of? Where are they?

Take some deep, slow breaths, close your eyes and, with no judgment whatsoever, just awareness, take yourself on a journey around your whole body. Relax each part of your physical self as you bring your attention to them. Don’t skip any part of your body. Be sure to relax the muscles of all the little forgotten parts—like your earlobes, the back of your neck, the back of your knees—just as much as the parts you're usually more aware of like your arms and legs

Let go of every distraction around you and stay focused on the state of your body and your ability to relax it in this moment.

Once you’ve brought awareness and relaxation to each part of your body, land on your mind. Notice any thoughts or busy chatter in your mind. Notice the mind’s general focus (or lack thereof). What are you thinking about? What are you paying attention to? What’s your general demeanor? Are you thinking positively, negatively, or indifferently in this moment? Again, there is no right or wrong, good or bad. There just is, what is. What’s the energy level and emotional state of your mind in this moment? Try to relax your mind just as you relaxed your muscles. Let go of any and all thoughts from before and choose your next thought with wisdom and consciousness.

You get to choose what your mind focuses on!

You get to choose how you’re going to respond (feel) in any given moment!

Working with our minds is challenging work, but it is worth the time and effort. It’s the stuff of magic on earth because it’s so transformative!

A TRUST PRACTICE…


When all seems glum or overwhelming, seek first to trust that all is well. To remain hopeful is to remain in a mindset of trust.

I find positive words to be a big part of my healthy, happy mindset practices. You can use the prompts below as actions to take, affirmation statements, or journaling prompts.

It takes effort for a while, and can feel awkward or clunky at first. It will eventually become second nature to the practiced mind to skip right to a place where you trust yourself to get through things that have gone awry and be better for them, and where you trust that you are always being guided. To get there, try these prompts when you’re called to:

  • Trust that you are loved and supported. You might repeat to yourself, “I am loved and supported!”

  • Trust that good things are coming and good things are happening now. You might say to yourself, “I may not know what they are, I may not see them in this moment, AND, good things are available to me. Good things are in the works! Good things are happening!” As if magically, when I do this I become aware of good things in the world around me, and in my life. Once that awareness comes in, possibility comes back and I become capable once again of solving my problems (or at least seeking out useful help). You might also try listing out the good things you become aware of through this practice and reading them often, adding to your list as you notice more.

  • Trust in your amazingness — you are such brilliant design, capable of shifting your thoughts from negative ones to positive ones. “I am capable! I am human and that inherently means that I am an amazing being!”

  • Trust that the world is always healing, always in good hands. Even when we don’t see or grasp the healing, or when we fear for the greater good, there is healing happening now. There are good people everywhere who want what’s best for everyone. When we look from that lens, we either find or we create healing, so trust in your ability to look for the healing opportunity in every situation.

  • Trust the people in your life who always have your back, who always speak the truth to you. When you’re unsure, go to them and listen with your whole heart.

  • Trust the sweet, little signs coming to you. The pages you automatically open to in a book, the object that falls at your feet, the bits of nature that catch your eye as if for the first time ever. Listen for the messages that rise up through you and trust your intuition.


All of these tips are practical applications of ancient teachings that hold true to this day. All of them take some practice, and not one of us is perfect at them every single time. We will all find our positive mindset dwindle at some point. Humans are beautiful, perfectly imperfect beings in that way. We are all also capable of reining our thoughts in and directing them toward a more positive, optimistic view… it just sometimes takes some know-how, practice and reminding.

Try these methods and let me know how they work for you. I hope every word here serves you well and leads you back to your inherent happiness. May you live a life of positive optimism! Namaste!

How To Breathe To Engage The Parasympathetic Nervous System And Calm Down

Did you know that by taking even just a minute to slow your breathing and focus on it enough to deepen your inhale and make your exhale as long as possible, you are actually signaling to your nervous system that all is well and both your mind and body will calm down?  

It’s true!  

To understand how this works, let’s review what our amazing Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is, shall we?  The ANS is responsible for controlling the activities of organs and involuntary muscles like the heart and smooth muscles.  Because the ANS oversees and directs them to do their good work in their world (our bodies), these all function harmoniously without us consciously thinking, “Beat, heart, beat…. Release acid, stomach…. Hey, liver, I think now would be a good time to secrete sugars and enzymes…”  

The ANS is made up of two parts:  Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.  The Sympathetic Nervous System is the part of our physiological stimuli that signals us to respond with increased action.  This is where the ever-famous “fight or flight” response comes from.  The Sympathetic Nervous System tells the heart to speed up and the mind to become increasingly alert.  The Parasympathetic Nervous System activates more tranquil responses in the body like a lower heart rate and releasing saliva when something smells yummy.

Our primitive mind is wired to look for stressors — that’s why it’s so much easier to recall negative thoughts or get caught up in dramatic imaginings than positive ones.  That’s also why when we are stressed we tend to become more scatterbrained or overwhelmed with fearful thoughts of what might be.  What sometimes feels like a fluke (to me, at least) because we seem to become stuck in an uncontrollable loop of negativity, is technically a protective measure of the Sympathetic Nervous System.  The good news is, the human brain has been found to be quite elastic and this pattern is easily shiftable by mindfully engaging our breath.  

Yes, our breath.  

Breathing is a conscious action we can take on the more superficial level to signal to our behind-the-scenes automatic self.  A miracle of being human if you ask me!

 

***My 8 year old daughter walked into my office at this point in this writing as I was reading it aloud from the beginning to make sure it flows sensibly and she listened attentively.  When I was done her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she simply said, “Whoooooaaaa.  That’s cool!”  It really is, isn’t it?!  We should all take a moment every now and again to acknowledge the coolness — for lack of a better term — of being human.***

 

I digress…

Doing relaxed breathing exercises on a regular basis when we are not experiencing stressful circumstances is a healthy effort that can help us stay calm more often.  This practice can generally lead us to have calmer responses to stressors.  Think about it, when your best friend is super stressed and freaking out, isn’t your first instinct to tell her to breathe?  

When we practice pranayama* as part of a weekly routine, we learn to automatically slow down our anxiety with the breath.  Over time we become more calmly responsive and trusting in the face of negative tension.  Taking those settling breaths in the midst of angst becomes second nature.  Or at least a little easier.

*Pranayama simply means, “breathing exercises.”  The Sanskrit word translates into life sustaining energy — or breath (prana) being drawn out (ayama).

The reason I prefer a breath-centered, flowing yoga practice is because it includes constant calming pranayama.  The body only moves once and inhalation or exhalation has been activated.  The breath is the trigger that sets off the reaction of movement in the body.  The breath is slow, deep and long so the body moves gently even into the most advanced postures while the mind slows down its chattery thought patterns.  I recommend practicing mindfully flowing yoga with attention on the breath as well as focused breathing exercises as part of a regular routine.

You won’t always have a lot of time to do a full yoga sequence.  I totally get that.  So, below I’m outlining a simple breathing exercise you can do every single day, to generate a more naturally calm state throughout your entire being by conjuring your brilliant Parasympathetic Nervous System.

This exercise is so simple, you can even do it in public without looking like a “weirdo.”  LOL! 

 

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STEP 1:  NASAL BREATHING

One of the most effective yet simple ways to beckon a soothing internal response from the Parasympathetic Nervous System is to slowly breathe through the nose.  When we are stressed we tend to breathe in a panting-like manner, quicker shallow breaths through the mouth.  Nasal breathing is naturally slower.  So, to start a calming breathing practice, simply breathe as deeply and slowly through your nose whenever it occurs for you to do so.

The first step in most mindfulness programs is to simply pay attention.  So by taking little breaks throughout your days to pay full attention to your breath, you are becoming more mindful.  Look at you, all monk-like and stuff!

Before moving onto Step 2, take at least 1-5 minutes engaging in this deep, slow nasal breathing:  

  • Sit up nice and tall with your shoulders in a relaxed position drawn backward and downward to softly open the chest.  Let the natural sway of the lower back remain intact, but don’t over-sway and jut out the lower ribs.  Line up the shoulders over the hips and the chin over the belly button.

 

  • Notice the current rhythm of your breath.  Does it feel stuck or tight anywhere along the way?  Are your inhales and exhales short or long?  Don’t judge, just notice.

 

  • When you feel ready, slow that rhythm down.  Take deep, slow breaths through the nose into the lungs.  Work to fully expand through the ribcage, diaphragm, and mid-back with each inhalation.  See if you can take a teensy pause between your inhales and exhales, holding the breath in or out.  Just be calm and quiet during the little pause.

 

  • Blow your nose if it gets stuffy or runny and begin again.

 

 

STEP 2:  EXHALATION ELONGATION (this would make a good name for a Jazz record)

Now that you’ve centered yourself with nasal breathing, it’s time to do the deeper work that will bring forth a tranquility response from your Parasympathetic Nervous System.

  • Take a deep slow breath in through the nose.

 

  • Softly pause before exhaling.

 

  • Exhale quietly through the mouth for as long as you can.  This exhale will be longer than the inhale was — almost like if you were singing and holding out a note.  The breath should not be forced out in any way.  Let it be released gently, incrementally.  Do feel a small engagement at the top of the diaphragm as you push out the last bit of the exhale, but this is a natural engagement.  You are not to pull the belly back or thrust the chest down at all.  Keep the shoulders relaxed.

 

  • Repeat for 1 minute.  For most people this will be somewhere between 5 and 8 breaths.  Try to calm the thoughts in your mind by only paying attention to your breathing.  It can help by thinking, “I am inhaling.  Inhale.”  / “I am exhaling.  Exhale.”  That way your mind has something to do at the cognitive level and won’t wander so much.

 

  • As you enjoy this practice, increase the time you spend doing it to up to 5 minutes.

 

 

I hope this practice brings you closer to a sense of reverence for being human, for being YOU.  I wish for you to find a calm state more often, especially in stressful times.  There are always going to be stressors in our lives, but our response can be shifted from fight-or-flight to one of trust and calm clarity.