When was the last time you listened to the rain? Or observed the quality of your breath as you move through your yoga practice? As New Yorkers, we’re constantly bombarded with external stimuli—sights, sounds, people everywhere—all the things that make city life so exciting. Humor me for a moment and imagine yourself standing on a street corner in the City. It’s a typical summer day in New York. You’re on a route you know well—perhaps a section of your commute, or a street in your neighborhood. Really take a moment to set the scene. Got it? Good. Now start walking. What do you notice? Scroll through your senses, one by one. What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell? (Ok, maybe don’t think about that last one for too long.) The point is that especially in a place like New York, stimulation is all around us. And whether we’re hyper-aware or desensitized to it, it impacts us all. How so? Good question.
Recent research in trauma studies has shown that chronic overstimulation gets coded in the body as traumatic stress, causing our brains to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and shifting our sympathetic nervous systems into overdrive, which, for many of us, is where we remain. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of fight, flight, and freeze as they relate to trauma, but did you know that chronic stress creates a similar reaction in the brain and body? Yup, true story. And when our sympathetic nervous systems are working overtime, we’re more prone to experience conditions like anxiety, emotional reactivity, high blood pressure, and adrenal fatigue (just to name a few.)
When we constantly move through the world on high alert, it carries over into our relationships and daily activities. We become reactive in situations rather than responsive, and we may have a hard time slowing down, even when we know it ultimately would be beneficial.
I recently had the incredible privilege of attending Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor’s month-long Ashtanga Teachers’ Intensive in Boulder, Colorado. Every day began with 20 minutes of seated meditation, followed by a two-hour Ashtanga class. For every five breaths Richard or Mary counted in our asana practice, I must have taken 30. In other words, it was s-l-o-w going. In between the counts, Richard and Mary detailed alignment, drishti, breath, and bandhas—some of the elements constituting what they call the practice’s internal form. They spoke of the importance of mindful transitions and had us check in with our “chitta vrittis”, the fluctuations of the mind that trip us up, on and off the mat. Usually about two minutes into holding trikonasana, Richard would share a funny story. For us students, there was nothing to do but take in as much as we possibly could, smile, and keep breathing.
It’s funny what happens when you begin to take your time and move a little more mindfully. Sensations come, and they go. Emotions rise, and they pass. The idea of a “textbook pose” becomes utterly ridiculous, as you realize that every posture is an endless dance between action and counteraction, inhaling and exhaling, prana and apana. As a trauma therapist, I believe that Ashtanga has an incredible capacity for healing. One reason is that the practice increases our window of tolerance for experiencing and responding to difficult situations. Through asana, we learn to move our bodies into increasingly complex and challenging shapes (think Marichyasana D!), remain there, and breathe. When we meditate, we observe thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise, and work towards allowing them to pass without judgment or attachment. Without a doubt, these practices carry over into how we navigate our daily lives.
About two weeks into my time in Boulder, I was sitting outside when it began to rain. I heard, “plunk, plunk, plunk,” as the heavy raindrops fell like notes of music onto the stone path in front of me. For a moment, I had a hard time placing the sound—the beginning of a rainstorm. Nevertheless, I sat, and listened.
I realized that day that my sympathetic nervous system had finally shifted out of overdrive. I was no longer so overwhelmed by stimulation that I barely noticed it, or so triggered that it sent me into an anxious frenzy. I had gradually settled into a slower pace. It felt like freedom.
I share this story with you because it was a powerful realization for me about the importance of slowing down, one I’d previously understood intellectually, but, until I put the practices into action, could not grasp on an experiential level.
I know what you’re thinking, “Well, sure, slowing down sounds great, but I don’t have a month to go to Colorado and listen to the rain.” Fair enough. Something I do frequently with my therapy clients is to work on breaking down seemingly insurmountable problems into potentially manageable pieces. On my way back to New York, I made a list of some of the major takeaways from my incredible month in Boulder. It was my way of finding the manageable pieces to making slowing down sustainable for me. Feel free to give these a try also if you’d like, or, even better, make a list of your own.
- Build your meditation practice. Start with what feels manageable, even if it’s only a few minutes a day.
- Experiment with not rushing through your asana practice, especially sun salutations and closing postures. Observe your breath, notice the way your body moves, and pay attention to how you transition from one posture to the next.
- Incorporate elements of mindfulness into your daily life. Be present as much as possible, but when you need to step back, allow yourself to do so without judgment. Check in with your stress level and take note of what leads you to feel overly stimulated. Come back to your breath, always.
- Live a life grounded in compassion and service. Allow these principles to act as a stepping stone for connecting more deeply with yourself and others.
- Give yourself permission to unplug.
- Allow for mistakes but try to be a little better every day.
- Listen first.
- Stay inspired.
- Never, ever stop being a student.