How to rest during stressful times | Part 1: The art of breathing
“When we get tired, we must learn to rest not to quit”. Anonymous
Here we are. Confined. Finding new rhythms, creating new spaces within our homes to create separations between the different parts of our identity. But this shelter in place mandate is also a gift. Now that our day takes place within four walls and that we aren’t always on the move, we have been given the opportunity to learn how to be a human being and not always a human doing.
To lead a happy, healthy and creative life, it is essential that we learn how to rest. We must learn to create space, to seek the companionship of silence. Resting does not involve "numbing out", kicking back with a book or a podcast or scrolling through your social feeds waiting to be told what to buy or what to think. Resting means taking the time to just sit or lie for 10-30 mins a day to pay attention to your body and your inner world in silence.
Creating ritualized moments of stillness in our day, in our week, in our year signals to our bodies that it is time to rest and digest, to repair, to surface its needs because we are listening. Rest in the gateway to healing at a cellular level. The relaxation response may actually even alter the way our genes are expressed and reduce the damage of chronic stress.
Consciously or unconsciously, we make sure there is no silence in our life. We drown it with social media, terrible TV, great TV, music, alcohol, drugs or food. Solange beautifully describes our pain-avoiding tactics in her song Cranes in the Sky. We try to drink it away, run it away, dance it away, sext it away. When maybe silence and stillness is what we actually need most. This way our emotional snowglobe can settle, and its message can reveal itself to us. Thich Nhat Hahn, my beloved Zen teacher writes:
“Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.”
People think it’s selfish to take the time to care for themselves. Yet nothing is less selfish. Not stopping to rest because you are too busy, is like not stopping for gas because you have a long way to go. At some point, you will just grind to a halt. Resting helps us become a better employee, friend, daughter, lover, mother. Your mood impacts people all around you including strangers.
So I thought I’d write a series on different types of mindful restful moments you can punctuate your day and your week with including: the art of breathing, the art of meditation, the art of tea, the art of bathing and the art of napping. I'm going to keep it simple simple simple and easy to incorporate into your routine, whatever that may be. With that said, let's begin with the very thing we do all day everyday - breathing - and learn how we can play with it to restore and regenerate.
The art of breathing
The Chinese character for breath means “that which comes from the head/heart”.
This idea is so powerful. Our breath may come out of our lungs, but its depth and frequency is dictated by our experience and emotions. We breathe 24/7 but as soon as we choose to breathe consciously, more deeply, more slowly, we have the power to calm ourselves and change the quality of our thoughts.
Our breath is our most immediate connection to the present moment.
It is the simplest way we can signal to our body that it can relax and repair. Purposefully extending the exhale signals to the body that it can go into its parasympathetic mode of rest. Here are a couple of ancient yogic techniques that require very little time to get the body out of an over anxious, over exhausted or angry state.
If you only have a couple of minutes
Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, and exhale for a count of 6. Try and think of yourself breathing deeply into your belly but also widely, expanding your ribcage. Repeat for 1-2 mins. Take a mental note of how you feel after doing this exercise so that your body registers its profound and immediate effect. As you breathe you can repeat the mantra: In, Out, Deep, Slow.
If you have 5 mins
A powerful way to restore emotional balance, clarity and calm is alternate nostril breathing. Also called nadi shodhana in sanskrit. There are instructions below but while you get the hang of it you may want to watch a youtube video so you can see what it looks like.
Sit comfortably either on a chair with your feet grounded or on a cushion on the floor making sure your spine is straight and your heart is open.
Relax your left palm comfortably into your lap and bring your right hand just in front of your face.
With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows, lightly using them as an anchor. The fingers we’ll be actively using are the thumb and ring finger.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily.
Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.
Inhale through the right side slowly.
Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb).
Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.
Repeat 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.
Release your nose and enjoy full, deep breaths through both nostrils. The right and left side of your brain are now re-balanced.
Practise is far more powerful a way to integrate this knowledge into your body than reading about it. Commit to doing a breathing practise at least once a day. Pick a time and an existing habit to link it to. E.g. After lunch or before you type your password into your laptop in the morning. Stick to it. See how it makes you feel.
With that I will leave you with this quote:
“To rest is not self indulgent. To rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given”
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