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esther m palmer

engaging with your breathing: an introductory series

The practices are here! I've been sharing a lot of concept and theory and now am ready to begin sharing a series of breathing practices that might help put some of the ideas of becoming more engaged with your breathing into practice.

In case you're stumbling on to this for the first time or just want a refresher on the intention of this practice series, I recorded an introduction that you can listen to here:
 
Listen to "Breathing Series Introduction"
 

ready to practice?

Below is the first in the breathing series practices. It's an observation and awareness-building practice. It's about 10 minutes long.

If you'd like to give this practice a try, please do as you need to feel prepared, whether that's in setting up your space or finding a quiet moment to yourself or pre-listening to make sure you want to go through the practice at all.
 
Listen to "Breathing Practice 1"
 

practice notes

If you found this practice useful, I encourage you to consider repeating it --perhaps in another week or as often as every day-- in between now and the next practice in the series, which I'll release on Dec 12.

And as ever, if you have questions or feedback on how this practice works for you, I welcome hearing them!
 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit jesse martini, found on unsplash

starting with the perfect plan

When I get excited about an idea for a new project or objective, I make a plan that is full of hope and idealism. I tackle something new with the same confidence in my ability to follow through as if it were old hat, counting on expending only the time and energy it would take to do something solidly in my wheelhouse.

You might think about your daily responsibilities (at home or work or elsewhere): probably there are tasks that you can get done satisfactorily even if you're tired, unfocused, or just not feeling it.

Those are the kinds of tasks that are easy to put in a plan. You know how long they take, you know what resources you need, you know your mood or energy or motivation isn't a critical factor in getting them done.

But when you're doing something new or imposing a change on your patterns, there will almost surely be a lot of surprises, emotion, and learning to contend with. Even if it's in a field in which you have experience, establishing a new skill, knowledge, or habit takes extra time, effort, and creative energy. You're building something new in yourself; it's not going to go according to the first plan.

there won't be just one plan

These days when I plan out a new project or schedule, I start out with the ideal. And then I double the time allotted. This is to make space primarily for *anticipated* realities of the process: days when I am too tired to be productive, days when I'm distracted and don't get enough accomplished, something taking twice as long to learn, or wanting to go back to the drawing board with a particular question or idea. These are all things that almost *always* happen during a new project.

Planning for these is my least favorite part, even though I've been doing it for years. I like responding to changes in a plan, but planning for them is frustrating because you can't know when or where or how these anticipated twists and turns are going to show up. It is a bit like going step by step into the unknown... pretending like you are in control.

So, when embarking on a new project or objective, like, say, exploring your breathing and building a practice of focused breathing, it might be worth sitting with your hopes and expectations not only for an outcome, but also for the process.

finding what pulls you in

In every big project I've ever done, there's been a period during which I just lose interest. I get bored with my own ideas and question the validity of what I'm doing. And I've learned that this lull is a phase like any other. It's always been worth sticking with it through the days or weeks of stalled progress to take stock and look deeper into the original motivation and where things are actually at, usually through reflection or research (rather than actions steps on the plan, because at this point, it's not the right plan anymore!).

I am motivated by interest and joy, rather than, say, accomplishment or reward, and so staying the course is about continuously exploring what's pulling me in.

With breathing work, for example, I am drawn in by the ways it feels. The experience of feeling my body change in the moment because of something I'm doing. Other ways one might be motivated could be by the way you feel after doing a breathing practice or by believing that you're doing something good for your health and longevity. You might find yourself motivated by one or several factors.

It's helpful, when bringing a new idea into action, to reflect on and come back to whatever it is that pulls you in and makes you want to learn, to build a new skill or knowledge, or to shape a new way of being, because your sure-fire plan will most certainly shift and change with the journey.

Here's to letting it be an enjoyable, if complex, process!
 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit roma kaiuk, found on unsplash

defining your "better"

Some of us have a general sense that we want to breathe "better" --but what does that mean? Because of the way breathing works, it is going to mean different things for different people. It involves both where you want to end up and where you are now. I share more about that in the video below, enjoy!
 

 

A full-bodied approach to breathing

Last week and at the end of the above video, I mentioned an approach to breathing that I've referred to as "ribcage breathing," "directional breathing," and "core-connected breathing" --and all of these names are clunky and limiting. Sometimes words just aren't the best means of communication!

And because this is an approach that brings in a few layers of awareness and skill, drawing on any one element for the name is selling it short. Perhaps it should remain nameless?

In the next series of recordings, I'll guide you through a process of becoming aware of the way you breathe now, exercise some conscious breathing, and some controlled breathing. I hope you'll take from it what is useful to you and let the rest fall by the wayside.

And instead of naming the breathing, I'll just give this series a label: An introduction to engaging with your breathing. Below is an overview of my plan for what that introduction will include!

 

Engaging with your breathing

An introductory series
 

1. what you do now

I'll begin by guiding you to become aware of some aspects of your current breathing patterns. I say some because there's a lot there to notice -- you might uncover a little or a lot. You could repeat this practice daily and discover new things each time!
 

2. getting used to effort

In the second practice, I'll invite you breathe in and out through your nose and/or lengthen your breathing and notice your response to any accompanying effort.
 

3. where is the effort?

We'll revisit the practices from video two with a new focus, noticing where in your torso you feel any effort that comes along with nose and/or lengthened breathing.
 

4. belly, sides, chest, back

Building on the previous practice, I'll guide you to direct your lengthened breathing into the major areas of your torso.
 

5. positioning your torso

In this practice, I invite you to repeat breathing into one major area of your torso at a time with the addition of limiting movement into other areas at the same time. This practice pulls together awareness, effort, lengthened breathing, and directed breathing to create a manner of breathing that can take a lot of work!
 

6. ribcage quadrants

In this video, I'll guide you to breathe into different quadrants/sections of your ribcage.
 

7. flexible ribcage

Once you've practice breathing into sections of your ribcage, I'll invite you make use of the flexibility of your ribcage to reshape the expand and compress action that goes along with breathing.
 

8. ribcage and pelvis connection

This video will be part anatomy lesson! We'll look at the core abdominal muscles that connect ribcage and pelvis, support the spine, and can move in concert with the diaphragm when you breathe.
 

9. positioning your ribcage

In this video, I'll invite you to practice exercising the abdominal-diaphragm connection to encourage your ribcage to move into a "postural neutral" position.
 

10. bringing awareness into all shapes

In this final practice of the series, I'll guide you through some familiar yoga / exercise movements while referring to some of the breathing principles covered in the series, taking your new knowledge and skill into form and movement!

That's the plan anyway... we'll see how it turns out in practice!
 
Be moving, be healing, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit kensuke saito surf photography, found on unsplash

what should we call this?

I'll be the first to admit "ribcage breathing" is a terrible name for what I want to share with you --at best it's vague shorthand (that's how I landed on it) and at worst it's alienating jargon. I apologize! I do not have a better term today, but as I invite you to watch me talk about this thing, I'm making a promise to find a more welcoming term...
 

 

that's all for today

Tune in next time for a term update and more detailed information about how intentionally engaging with your breathing (whether it's about your ribcage or not!) can be a powerful tool for a handful of different objectives.

Along with that, I plan to share a series of practice videos that will build on one another, potentially serving as a loose guide for developing an intentional breathing practice.
 
Be moving, be healing, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit the blow up copy, found on unsplash

what can you do with awareness of the front and back of your body?

Lots of things! In the video below, I offer a brief overview of why (and what I mean by "front and back body awareness") and how to learn more and start a practice.
 


 

ready to practice?

This video offers a short practice in bringing awareness to your front and back body. Much of the activity of the session involves conscious breathing. If you give it a try, I welcome hearing what you think and how the practice goes for you!
 


 
Be moving, be healing, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit hennie stander, found on unsplash

What's in a practice?

What goes into moving from an idea or a need to action and follow through?

This is a question that I imagine we all run into *somewhere* in our lives, and then in other places not so much.

For example, I have almost no difficulty creating a plan to exercise regularly and in a way that meets most of my needs --and then carrying out the plan. Makes sense, right --movement is innately interesting to me, so I'm intrinsically motivated to do it. How I go about it keeps shifting and changing with my interests and needs, but that it's gonna be part of my daily life is a given for me.

But if you expect me to cook a meal, I need to plan for the fact of the task, figure out a strategy to overcome my resistance to it, and get started early to make sure I finish on time... and then being tired or in a bad mood could derail the whole thing.

So, I've been thinking about "practice" --taking a thing you want to accomplish and breaking it down into manageable pieces that require dedicated attention to make progress.

There are scores of articles and books on how to do all the things you could want to do. And sometimes all you need is a step-by-step guide or some general advice.

And then there are those times when a guidebook just doesn't cut it --developing a practice seems impossible. (There are lots of articles and books about that, too --this is definitely a known phenomenon.)

Lately, I've been thinking about what it takes to build new practices in my office work (in addition to teaching movement, I also spend my days steeped in project management), where there can be lots of external and internal roadblocks. And that makes me think about how to make movement a practice, especially when it doesn't come easily, which is what I hope to share with you here over the coming months.

 

building a practice off of gimmicks?

Almost everything I read about getting yourself to move more includes what I'm cheekily referring to as "gimmicks" but are really just good-natured shortcuts. Smart ways to sneak movement into your day because movement is a big part of health and longevity.

I like these suggestions, I've given them, and I'll share some that I know. But what do you do when they're not enough? I for one am not likely to voluntarily do anything that I haven't learned to care about or find interesting. Without your own will, shortcuts can feel like tricks --and no one likes to be tricked.

So, if you like the idea of using some shortcuts to building a movement practice, what do you need to be able to trust those shortcuts? To see them as valuable tools rather that trickster's gimmicks?

In my case, knowledge goes a long way. The why behind the what and --critically-- the proof behind the why, if it exists.

But that's not usually enough. I need to check in with myself -- through awareness of myself -- and compare the evidence with my self-knowledge to determine whether this is a reasonable shortcut for me.

 

awareness turns shortcuts into tools

The classes I teach are driven by a practice in awareness, building awareness skills while also moving in a way that feels good and is self driven.

Building that awareness can and does happen in many different ways; one path can be through learning movement/body concepts and skills as taught by another person, and then practicing putting your understanding (or questioning) into action, transforming the skill into your own awareness.

Awareness of myself has always been necessary to develop a practice in anything. Following someone else's suggestions only works if I know how to make them my own. And I suspect the same is true for lots of folks when it comes to building a movement practice.

Building awareness of yourself through movement often comes through trying new things or taking a familiar action and looking at it from a new angle... and it can also come from doing the same thing day in and day out and making new realizations over time. There's no one way and some ways are more comfortable than others --it's fine to choose one path over another.

For my part here, I've chosen ten awareness-building skills that we don't typically think of as skills --more like innate aspects of being-- but are indeed learnable, practice-able, and possibly foundational to pursuing movement, exercise, and sport for fun and achievement. I plan to introduce each of them --the what and the why-- and then offer a short session for putting the concept into practice if you wish. I created a quick video introduction to what I plan to share. Watch the video here.

Stay tuned for the first practice in the next two weeks --and if you want to engage with this idea in the meantime, perhaps consider whether you can come up with three movement skills that you think are fundamental to moving well and with joy!

 
Be moving, be true, be you,
Esther
esther
 
 

photo credit jamie davies, found on unsplash

How do you build awareness in movement? There are many ways, and one might be learning some movement concepts and practicing applying them. I had the idea to offer just such a series of movement concepts and below is the introduction!
 


 
Be moving, be healing, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit gils coolen, found on unsplash

preface to a movement

Next week begins a new beginner's yoga series that I'm teaching in town, which of course raises the issue for me of how best to introduce yoga --as a "thing" and as a practice and as what I intend to teach folks. Yoga in our world today is not just one thing (is anything?) and the word will carry different meanings to different people, so I want to share with my class what meanings I'm bringing with me so that they can understand my perspective and choose when to share in them and when to let them be. It may be helpful to know that I'm in no way a scholar of yoga or Indic philosophy, and my knowledge is grounded in a Western perspective through the trainings and teaching I've done in the United States.
 

what is yoga?

I like to introduce yoga as a practice --in particular, a movement practice. And this movement practice that we'll be exploring in the beginner's series as well as in my online classes is connected with a worldview (darshan, which might also be translated as "a philosophy") that uses observations and practices of the human mind and body to understand or know self in relation to whole (or universe).

The norms and practices of this approach to self-realization have evolved over time and the system of yoga invites and allows for this. The movement component grew up out of a period when the body was denied as relevant --or suspected to be getting in the way of self-realization. That didn't work out so well! Today, we have more and more evidence that we treat the mind and body separately at great cost to our well-being and self awareness. And so, movement practices have in one way or another become part of the exploration of self (and being).

I teach movement in this form we refer to as yoga (i.e., a stylized system of movement practices) as a means to both increase self awareness and regulate or contribute to well-being. For me, that means using the practice to build or hone our ability to notice our individual needs and preferences and the autonomy to make choices within the system. One of the ways I like to enter this process is through anatomy with insights into how breathing and muscles and joints work, using the forms and movements of yoga as examples.

This is just my take on yoga --and just a tiny introduction to it at that. I hope it's useful to you and that you will find your own take on yoga over time!

Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit parco chan, found on unsplash

In a previous post, I shared how your breathing and body/mind state relate to one another through the autonomic system, as well as how trauma and triggers should be considered when breathing to regulate your physical and mental state. You can read that here.

In this post, I’m going to outline two breathing practices that I like for everyday or as-desired use. I’ll point out what they might be useful for and when and how you can enter into them with compassion and consideration for yourself and your story.

 

Breathing can be a stand-alone practice

You’ve likely encountered breathing practices as meditation and in yoga or other somatic forms. You can also adopt a stand-alone breathing practice.

Why might you want to do that?

  • If/when they feel good
  • If they create an effect of influence on your mood and regulation that you like
  • To improve health in any number of ways – there’s some research on effects of various breathing approaches, but not everything you’ll hear is proven or has evidence to back it up.

I’ll address breathing and general health in a future post, so let’s move on to examples of “feel good” and “mood shifting” breathing practices.

What “feels good” will be individual, so I’m offering a “relaxing breathing” practice along with some suggestions for how you might explore and acknowledge what feels good to you when you’re hoping to rest and relax. I encourage you to leave aside expectations or assumptions and trust how you feel in a given moment, even if it takes a while to figure out how that is. You’ll see it took me years to frame my own experiences within conscious choice.

 

Practice #1 – Relaxing Breathing

The objective of this practice is to relax and feel good doing so. I encourage you to consider environment, body, relationship, and time – all can affect your experience.

Environment

  • Where do you feel comfortable? In a certain room in your home? Outdoors? In a public space? In a private space?
  • What makes the space feel even better? Nothing? Candles? Music?
  • I suggest you follow your instinct and go to as much or as little trouble as makes you feel good.
  • For me, a hardwood floor, dim or natural-only lighting, and music create the perfect environment –all features of the dance studios that were my happy place growing up.

Body

  • What’s a comfortable form to set your body in? Do you want to lie down or stay seated? Lying down could be on your back, on your belly, or on your side. You could use pillows and blankets and eye pillows. Or sitting on a park bench just as you are.
  • For me, lying on the floor is ideal (a practice borrowed from years of dance training), knees bent, blanket over belly make it sublime (additions learned through my restorative yoga practice!).

Relationship

  • Will it be more comfortable for you to do this practice alone or with someone you trust?
  • Will you enjoy having both experiences or is another person or being alone a requirement?
  • For me, being in a group class with a teacher I trust adds a layer of comfort that I don’t get on my own. And practicing this solo, I sometimes get to a place of open reflection with myself that I don’t usually experience in a class. So, I like both.

Time

  • How much time will you give yourself? Is it bounded by external obligations? Or by your desire to stay with the practice?
  • If you want to set a time boundary, are you using it to encourage yourself to stay with the practice for a certain length of time, or to make sure you get up in time for the next thing?
  • If you don’t set a time boundary, will you take note afterwards of how long your practice was?
  • For me, the length of time always makes a difference. 1 minute can be useful if I’m trying to clear my head quickly, but if I really want to relax, I’d say 10 minutes is my minimum and 30 minutes my maximum (unless I fall asleep!). I don’t use a timer unless I know I have to get up for an appointment. I don’t “make” myself to stay for a certain length of time when I’m just trying to relax (though I will do that when I’m sitting for meditation).

So those are the non-breathing factors that I think all make a difference. Whether they make a big difference or just a background difference for you only you can determine.

 

A breathing practice for rest (with 3 options)
  • I encourage you to begin by just noticing your breathing.
  • If you like, you can continue simply observing your breathing. (Option 1)
  • If you prefer, you can eventually begin to consciously deepen or slow your breathing. (Option 2)
  • Alternatively, you can consciously attempt to lengthen your exhales. The thought of slowing your exhale can be enough for this or, if you prefer, you can count your inhale and exhale and then use that count to gradually slow your breath until your exhale is longer than your inhale, and maybe 1-2 counts longer than it was before. (Option 3)

That’s it.

In sum: make yourself comfortable in any way you like and observe or slow your breathing. Doing such a “simple” practice may take more intention and be more challenging than you anticipate, which is why I gave you the examples of my own preferences – preferences that have always been with me and took years of observation and reflection to recognize.

 

Practice #2 – Mood Shifting

The objective of this practice is to shift your mood from either sluggish/depressed or frenetic/anxious to relatively centered/grounded. So, it can liven up low energy or emotions, and calm down high energy or emotions. You might have different words to describe the shift or how you feel, and I encourage you to use the words that make sense to you.

For this practice, I invite you to consider environment, body, relationship, and time just as you may have done above. I’ve added some thoughts specific to this practice. And just a heads up, since it will give context to some of my comments, the practice is alternate nostril breathing, in which you use your right hand to alternately block one nostril at a time.

Environment

  • Where do you feel comfortable or safe to try shifting your mood? In a certain room in your home? Outdoors? In a public space? In a private space?
  • What makes the space you choose support your ease even more? Nothing in particular? Candles? Music?
  • I suggest you follow your instinct and go to as much or as little trouble as makes you feel prepared.
  • For me, in truth location doesn’t matter as much in this practice as it does when I want to relax – just so long as no one’s watching who wouldn’t understand what I was doing. That makes me self-conscious.

Body

  • Sitting is probably the most advantage form for this breathing practice, but you might find you prefer standing or reclining in some cases.
  • If you choose to sit, is there one way you prefer sitting over another? Do you want to sit in a chair? On the floor? With or without cushions, blankets, or other supports?
  • If you choose to stand, is there one way you prefer standing over another? Shoes on or off?
  • If you choose to recline, is there one way you prefer reclining over another? Do you want to prop your upper body up? With or without cushions, blankets, or other supports?
  • For me, sitting in a chair so that my feet can be planted evenly on the floor feels best. It’s worth noting that I usually use this practice to calm down 😉

Relationship

  • Will it be more comfortable for you to do this practice alone or with someone you trust?
  • Will you enjoy having both experiences or is another person or being alone a requirement?
  • For me, I’m happy with or without others for this practice, with a slight preference to be alone. It’s one of my favorite ones to get lost in.

Time

  • How much time will you give yourself? Is it bounded by external obligations? Or by your desire to stay with the practice?
  • If you want to set a time boundary, are you using it to encourage yourself to stay with the practice for a certain length of time, or to make sure you get up in time for the next thing?
  • If you don’t set a time boundary, will you take note afterwards of how long your practice was? I.e., is how long you practiced important to you?
  • For me, my arm always tires before I’m ready to stop, so that’s my boundary! I prefer doing the practice when I have at least 10 minutes for it, but even 1 minute can be useful. My arm probably gives out around the 5 minute mark, which is when I stop doing the technique, and then I sit and breathe normally for several more minutes.

So those are the non-breathing factors that I think all make a difference. If you read all the options and my examples, you may note that while all the factors still matter, they don’t have as strong an effect on me, so the breathing practice ends up being the most important element (that’s just me, one case – your story will be your own, and I encourage you to explore as you like!).

 

A mood-shifting breathing practice with 2 options

Below are two versions of the alternate nostril breathing practice to read through and try if you like.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (aka Nadi Shodhana)
To alternate breathing in or out of one nostril at a time, you can block one nostril. The classical technique instructs using the right thumb to block right nostril, and right ring finger to block left nostril. The middle and pointer fingers can rest on the forehead or curl in toward the palm.

Below are the steps for one full round of alternate nostril breath. Classic teachings advise completing full rounds only – so if you do 5 rounds and you started by breathing in the left nostril, you’ll finish by breathing out the left nostril

  • First inhale: Gently block the right nostril with your right thumb while breathing in through the left nostril
  • At the end of your inhale, gently block both nostrils
  • First exhale: When you’re ready, open the right nostril and breathe out the right (keep the left nostril blocked)
  • Second inhale: At the end of your exhale, keep the left nostril blocked while breathing in through the right nostril
  • At the end of your inhale, gently block both nostrils
  • Second exhale: When you’re ready, open the left nostril and breathe out the left nostril (keeping the right nostril blocked)

It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds written out. I think of the pattern like tossing a volleyball back and forth over the net: the idea is to breathe in or out “where the ball is” in the process of tossing back and forth. The bridge of the nose (or blocking both nostrils) is like the net: the space where you transition from breathing in one side to breathing out the other side. In one side, block both, out the other. In the same side, block both, out the other. And repeat.

The next version I’m sharing includes no blocking and some may find it more comfortable or easier to do.

Alternate Nostril Breathing without physically blocking the nostrils
This version is less precise in terms of directing air flow in and out one nostril at a time (which is fine!) and may feel more comfortable. It’s also the version I prefer if I want to be lying down.

Below are the steps for “prepping” the cycle and one full round. As with the regular version, I recommend completing a number of full rounds, rather than stopping in the middle of one cycle, largely just because it feels better to me, which may be a result of education rather than actual experience, so you know, grain of salt there.

Prepping the cycle

  • Become aware of air flow in and out your nostrils.
  • Then direct attention to your hands. I recommend placing the hands palms face up so that you can easily open and close them. Curl your fingers gently in towards their palms.
  • The next time you breathe in, direct attention to your left nostril, imagining you’re breathing in only through that nostril (but air may still enter the right nostril and that’s ok).
  • When you’re ready, breathe out while: opening your right fingers and directing attention to your right nostril, again imagining you’re breathing out only through the right nostril (but it’s still ok if air flows out the left nostril as well).
  • When you’re ready, breathe in through your right nostril while curling your right fingers gently in.
  • When you’re ready, breathe out through your left nostril while opening your left fingers gently.

One full cycle

  • When you’re ready, breathe in through your left nostril while curling your left fingers gently in.
  • When you’re ready, breathe out through your right nostril while opening your right fingers gently.
  • When you’re ready, breathe in through your right nostril while curling your right fingers gently in.
  • When you’re ready, breathe out through your left nostril while opening your left fingers gently.

It’s not uncommon to keep going longer than you anticipated with this one – or to stop because you’ve shifted into deep rest. Both are ok!

 

Next steps

I hope reading through these has been helpful and that you’re ready to try them out. If you’d like to try them with some guidance or in the company of others, I encourage you to join one of my yoga classes, as we always start with a breathing practice, and I often teach alternate nostril breathing.
Or check out the Everyday Meditation podcast (for nadi shodhana) and the Moved to Heal podcast (for gentle breath observation).

As always, if you have questions or experiences you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you – you can use the comment box below anytime.

 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit mitchell luo, found on unsplash

Let’s all take a deep breath…

Have you heard that deep breathing is a good way to calm down and relax? Well, I’m here to say it’s true! …except when it’s not. Like the day I left meditation class with my heart racing because I’d overdone it on a breathing exercise. I was surprised because this wasn’t my usual experience in meditation class. What had happened and why?

 

Your breathing is linked to your nervous system

The explanation for my odd reaction is simple. I had, through breathing (and probably a lot of attitude), revved up my heart and charged up my nervous system for a confrontation –when I had no need of fighting anyone. Our breathing and physiological state (and therefore our emotional state) are causally linked. Breathing is part of a network of systems with many moving and interrelating parts. It ebbs and flows with the risings and fallings of your autonomic nervous system and is a key player in autonomic regulation – when you can access it.

Before I get into that, it’ll be helpful to review the fancy terms and some basic facts about your nervous system.

 

Your nervous system in brief

The human nervous system has two main parts: the Central Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System. The CNS is made up of your brain and spinal cord. The ANS is made up of everything else – all the nerves running from the spinal cord out into your body. Nerve signals travel between CNS and ANS, between your body and your brain, and that two-way communication is essential. The rest of what I’m going to share sounds like it’s all about the ANS –and it is, but I just want to make to point out that the ANS is sending and receiving signals to the brain throughout it all!

Your Autonomic Nervous System
Within the ANS there are subsystems that are in constant interplay for each of us throughout the day, regulating our response to our environment (both external and internal) so that we can stay alive. These subsystems are useful to know by name, because I’ll refer to them a bunch:

  • Sympathetic nervous system – responsible for preparing the body/brain to respond to danger. A sympathetic response charges up our muscles and brain for a physical fight or flight. This process diverts resources away from slow thinking, digestion, reproduction, and immune system function.
  • Dorsal vagal system (part of the parasympathetic nervous system) – responsible for shutting down the body/brain as a last attempt to survive a threat. A dorsal vagal response freezes the body and/or mind, essentially “playing dead.” This can explain fainting, and also depressive moods and behaviors.
  • Ventral vagal system (part of the parasympathetic nervous system) – responsible for restoring or continuing the body/brain in a state of safety, healing, and life maintenance. A ventral vagal response puts the brake on any sympathetic or dorsal activity and resources are re-routed to all those systems necessary for not just surviving, but also thriving.

 

How do these responses affect your breathing?

Changes in nervous system activity can change your breathing (and vice versa).

When your sympathetic response charges up, your breathing rate speeds up as part of the need to power up your muscles with more circulating blood and oxygen. Rapid or sharp or irregular breathing is a sign of an SNS response.

When you start to move back into a ventral vagal response, your breathing returns to normal and can be steady or deep and slow.

 

It goes both ways

You can also use breathing to shift your nervous system activity. We use breathing to move into a ventral vagal response all the time with practices like calm deep breathing and lengthening your exhales in a comfortable way. There are simple breathing practices you can learn and use when needed or daily, and I’ll share two of my favorites next time.

For the other side of the ANS, you might also use breathing to stir up the sympathetic response to prepare for a physical challenge. This is how I got stuck with my heart racing –except that it wasn’t intentional! The primary breathing practice we use in ISHTA meditation uses a challenging breath ratio, and I was working on lengthening my breath retention. Normally this would be ok with the long exhales and shorter inhales. But I was pushing my body further than it was comfortable going. Without realizing it, I had entered into a competition with myself, waking up my sympathetic response. My body was ready for a fight!

After that, I wasn’t really in a state to use “deep breathing” to calm myself down, at least not without help. Luckily, my next appointment was a teaching swap with a colleague and friend who immediately understood the state I was in and suggested I teach rather than be put through exercises. Seeing a friendly face, hearing a reassuring voice, and getting to teach (which usually grounds and centers me) all helped me gradually shift back into a ventral vagal state.

My meditation episode came about by taking a conscious practice too far. It was quickly brought on, but also pretty quickly resolved. Had I been alone, I’m confident I could have calmed myself down one way or another because I know my body well, know what calms me, and am used to doing practices to encourage a certain body/mind state. I’ve learned how to regulate my nervous system responses using various practices.

 

What happens when you don’t know how to regulate?

We all have the same ANS, the same capacity for engaging with it – either to take conscious control of our body/mind state and to be shifted “automatically” in response to an event, a thought, or a trigger.

Triggers awaken a stress response that was once useful for survival. These are sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses that were stored in your body/mind for quick retrieval in future – in case your life is threatened again in a similar way. And while our nervous system is really good at protecting us, it’s not always so good at splitting hairs when it comes to things that may or may not be life threatening. A loud sound is a loud sound. A rejection is a rejection. Whatever your body or mind links with a past experience is likely to be broad enough that there are other examples in the world. Your nervous system still calls on protective action before your mind has a chance to assess what kind of threat you’re experiencing – a manageable one or a life threatening one. This makes what might otherwise be a manageable experience into a trigger for a strong response.

As we’ve seen, your nervous system state and your breathing are intertwined, and how you breathe may trigger or come about with a triggered stress response. More importantly, you might breath the way you do to keep you in a protected state. Changing it, even if it would eventually be useful, might in any given moment be frightening and feel impossible. And so if “take a deep breath” initiates a sympathetic response, whether it’s to avoid a direct threat or to avoid lowering your shield, the calming effect of lengthening and slowing your breathing will be inaccessible in that moment. Thankfully, you can learn how to gain access again. (Movement practices on Moved to Heal are all created with this learning in mind.)

 

Breathing is universal and personal

Breathing is very personal. In my teaching, I avoid instructing the breath, offering instead options, suggestions, and rhythms you can choose to follow or ignore. I encourage you to find your own way in, over time. Once you can feel comfortable tapping into your breath as a resource, you can use it to help regulate your ANS (we call that autonomic regulation). When you start working with breathing as a practice, there may be some experiences along the way that are unsettling or uncomfortable or even scary, which is why it is helpful to start breath work with a teacher who can help you regulate in the moment through other means (more on that in a future post). If you’re a survivor of trauma, you might consider seeking out a therapist with some kind of body-based modality in their methodology (such as trauma-sensitive yoga, somatic experiencing, NARM, and many others). Of course, if you’re already seeing someone you like who doesn’t have that experience, consider trying a separate body-based practice, which might be as simple as joining a yoga class, either one that is expressly trauma-informed or taught by a teacher with trauma-informed training (such as my Sunday classes!).

In a follow up post, I’ll share some breathing practices and suggestions for how to find a comfortable way in whenever you’re ready to try them.

Be moving, be true, be you,
esther

photo credit mahdis mousavi, found on unsplash

Body awareness and being you

You might be here because you want to feel joy in moving in your body --and in being yourself. One way to recognize joy as such is through cultivating your body awareness. So what is body awareness?

 

Defining body awareness

There’s the body and then there’s the awareness.

 

Body

Body can be “a body,” a specimen of the human body. The kind of body we study through many lenses (science, medicine, sociology, history, art, and more). Collectively, humanity knows a good deal about this body!

Body can also be your body. Unique, experiencing, being. Individually, you can know a good deal about this body, too.

 

Awareness

Awareness can come through your knowledge of something. Like what we collectively know about our bodies (and any one of us can then look up or study). Your knowledge affects your awareness, which is why I’m including it as a kind of body awareness. Body knowledge is part of how you can be aware of your own body.

Awareness is also your sense of, or consciousness of something. Awareness is what you can tune into and feel or notice or hold in your mind's attention, either while it's happening or after it’s happened. You don’t need to be able to label or define or understand an experience to be conscious or aware of it.

Some sensations guide our basic survival behaviors (hunger, shelter, sleep, community). If we feel them, we usually understand them instinctively. Without anything else to get in the way, if you feel tired, you will rest, if you feel hungry, you will seek out food. Of course, there is plenty that gets in the way, including our own history of experiences and our meaning making.

Because we are all meaning making creatures. When we become aware of sensations we don't understand instinctively, or can’t explain through all we’ve learned, we tend to seek meaning. Sometimes it’s an urgent quest, sometimes we come to that exploration gradually.

Making meaning is not body awareness. It comes after. It's the stories we use to make sense of what comes into our awareness. It's the individual contribution or connection to the collective. It's the knowledge building that we do. Of course, once the knowledge is learned, then it can become part of our capacity for feeling, for being aware through our own senses.

For most of us, body awareness is a blend or blurring of felt sense and learned knowledge of our body. Where that blurring can happen I’d like to unpack further in a future post and for now simply share some examples of what might be just one type of awareness or the other.

 

Felt sense
  • Sensations coming from within
  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Fullness
  • Emptiness
  • Sex drive
  • Pleasure
  • Pain
  • Being warm
  • Being cold
  • Being hot
  • Feeling stiff
  • Feeling sore
  • Feeling numb
  • Wholeness
  • Separateness
  • Belonging
  • Being
  • Being you
  • Stillness
  • Movement

 

Learned knowledge
  • What part of me are bones
  • What part of me are muscles
  • And all my parts in anatomical terms
  • Strength
  • Weakness
  • Shape
  • Size
  • How I fit in
  • How I stand out
  • What I look like
  • Belonging

 

What can you do with body awareness?

Does all that we’re aware of need to have meaning? Do we need to explain all that we can sense in our bodies? Of course not.

Being aware of being, of sensing without explaining --or being aware with curiosity and patience-- can be a gift.

When I’m meditating, my sense of my body, how my body feels, is unique to meditating. As a novice, I sought labels and explanations for the feeling, but that search yielded more mysticism dressed up as science than solid information, so I let it go. I try to just enjoy the experience, understanding it in myself -- even if I can’t explain it to anyone else.

On the other hand, pain in my body, in my muscles, bones, and organs, tends to drive me to seek meaning, and persist in the search. That’s why I study anatomy, teach yoga, and love helping others move out of pain and into healing. When I’m hurting, I want an explanation or cause, so I can either understand and accept or accept and heal.

I’ve learned over the years strategies for cultivating awareness --and being ok with whatever it can teach me. Movement and meditation practices have been key in my own education, which I love to share here, and of course there are also many, many other ways to go about it. I encourage you to explore what works for you, and let awareness of your body, of yourself, be part of being you.

 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit lisa yount, found on unsplash

Movement is part of who we are

Whether your capacity (or desire) for movement is small or great, whether you're thinking of visible movement of our external bodies or "invisible" movement of our internal spaces, movement is part of being alive.

Perhaps because movement is so fundamental to life, we often don't notice it. Or we notice it when it gets in the way.

For myself, I'm inclined to notice limitations before capacities, and capacity more so when it is extraordinary. I notice difference before sameness. I notice pain before pleasure. Or at least, I would say I used to --before I started paying attention.

As a yoga and movement teacher, I tend to notice all of it these days. I look out for possibility and limitations. I look out for objectives and curiosity. I look out for joy and boredom, pain and relief. I strive to notice what biases are interwoven into my observations -- mine, society's, or the individual's.

 

Where I see movement

We move to get things done. To build a house or keep up with others.

We move to show our spirits. To dance, to play, to feel alive.

We move to stay healthy. To exercise our bodies and minds with routines that sustain us.

We move to get healthy. To create a shift or change in our bodies and minds with new movements that can challenge us.

We move to heal.

We move to feel. To release feelings, to bring on feelings.

We move to flee. To get away from ourselves and others.

We move to approach. To draw towards ourselves and others.

We move to endure. To build strength through challenge.

We move to overcome. To break barriers and build bases.

We move to be social. To feel connected and to laugh.

 

movement is something we need

And movement of all kinds! For all reasons!

As a movement teacher, sometimes my emphasis lines up with my students' -- and sometimes it doesn't, like when I show up remembering they like a challenge, and on that they day they just need to feel good in their body. The same can be true of how we approach our internal conversations about movement -- what we want to need and what we actually need don't always sync up.

I encourage you to be curious, to explore the kinds of movement that suit you (whether for health, healing, joy, or no particular reason that you know of). When you discover movement that resonates -- whether it the shape of a sport or practice or just moving without a label, let it become part of your life. Notice when you need it and when you don't.

Gradually, one move at a time, you can build your own movement resource library, just by doing and noticing.

 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit kristen alyce, found on unsplash

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