November 2018 Gratitude Prompt #4

Hollie Holden recently posed this pondering on her blog: “What if the detour is the path?”

Hmmmm…

Yes, Hollie. Good question. What if?!

In my life the detours — those unexpected happenings that took me somewhere I was never planning to go that were sometimes met with kicking, screaming, resisting, being unaware (because if I chose to be aware there was the possibility that I might actually let go of control, be okay with where life was leading me, or learn something along the way), and me just being pretty dang anxious, overwhelmed, grumpy or forlorn — have often been the biggest blessings.

We humans tend to want to line things up neatly. We like point A to point B with no bumps in the road. But life doesn’t happen in a straight line. Everything on earth happens in cycles and swirls. We live on a round planet (at least according to most) that sits a bit wonky on its axis and spins. We orbit the sun in a solar system that rotates. Rather than shine on us with the exact same brightness every single day, our moon waxes and wanes. Our seasons shift and surprise. In an ironic twist of fate, it’s often the winding paths that lead us to the most adventure and beauty.

Fear can keep us from seeing that all is well along an unexpected path, and ego can keep us in a state of stuck-ness and resistance. (I hear yoga is really good for helping with this…just saying.) No “make wrong” for having fear or ego; they’re part of being human, which is a brilliant and worthy adventure! Plus, usually we wake up somewhere along the path and get perspective. Or, once we step off at the end we can see more clearly where it all led. Hindsight gives us deep learning and appreciation. It’s that whole ‘we can’t see the forrest through the trees’ thing.

This week is all about thinking back along the paths we’ve taken so far and feeling deep, deep gratitude for the blessings we’ve gotten from the unexpected twist and turns.

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Maybe you’ve stepped on every path consciously. I bet there were still some unexpected, choose-your-own-adventure moments.

Maybe direction has been forced upon you through no choice of your own.

Maybe you’re on one of those unexpected paths right now and you can’t experience the learning and the blessings just yet. That’s okay. Can you trust that at some point in time there will be a moment when you will be able to?

Sometimes just stating even the most simple thing you’re grateful for along the path can help clear it.

So, this week I ask you to compile a little list of the paths you’ve been gifted with. Joyful and otherwise, there are gifts to them all. Then, make a list of what about them you are grateful for.

Have you grown or learned something? Have you met someone interesting or influential along the way? Have you helped someone?


I’m getting inspired by these prompts right along with you…

The obvious unexpected path along my lifetime so far that has led me to gratitude is
the scoliosis-induced one that led me to yoga and natural living.
This ultimately led me to teach yoga and be in your inbox today.
I’m so grateful for all I’ve learned and continue to learn from this path.
I’m so grateful it has led to me being able to share with others, touch lives, meet people
and have some amazing experiences.
I veered off a professional path I expected to continue on forever and onto this one
when I was forced by my physical body to do so.
I’ve had so much confusion and resistance about that at various points in time because
I’ve worried that maybe I took a wrong turn.
But there’s no way a “wrong” turn led me to a happier, healthier life I love!

I hope every path you step on has blessings.

May there be more apparent blessings, and less blessings in disguise, but when they’re not so apparent, may you always remember to keep your eyes, mind and heart wide open to see the hidden goodness, the almost-missed opportunities, the unexpected growth and newness and joy!

Can’t wait to hear about your amazing life’s paths! And how this whole month of more mindful gratitude practices has gone for you. Thank you for sharing and playing along with me. We’ll do it again next November. In the meantime, as always, feel free to email me or share this blog post with people who might like a little grateful pick-me-up and use #mpgratitudeprompt2018 when you share your grateful musings about this prompt on social media.

It’s been a real pleasure doing this with you!

Be well, happy, and always grateful!

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.