By Will Donnelly for Spirituality & Health Magazine
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." - Theodore Roosevelt
I just completed leading a yoga retreat in Hawaii, and as we concluded, students asked how to keep their practice, and the wonderful feeling of inspiration associated with it, going once they returned to the mainland. I am asked this question toward the end of each retreat, and my answer is always the same: Take your practice home with you, and start with just a few minutes each day.
Though the notion of starting and maintaining a personal practice seems challenging to many, it may not be as challenging as you think. In fact, you may be able to keep inspiration soaring in as little as three minutes a day.
Yes, three minutes a day.
When I started practicing yoga, I was a bit overwhelmed at the idea of actually doing the yoga on my own. I felt I needed the teacher to be there, to guide me, to inspire me. Beginning a personal practice seemed so complex, and I would get bits and pieces of a class memorized in my head, yet had no idea how to carry out a full yoga class for myself, all by myself. But, as I later realized, I was simply getting ahead of myself.
As I soon found out, I could sit for a few moments and center myself before heading out for the workday, or before a stressful or important meeting at work, and I would actually feel much better. This process of centering brought me to my breath. I began to understand that the breath affects the nervous system, and can calm or stimulate “on demand.” And it does so very quickly.
I began to understand that the purpose of the physical postures was less about getting a firmer fanny and more about finding an inner sense of well-being. Yoga postures bring us to our breath, and this cultivates a calm, meditative mind, a perspective that helps us in all aspects of life. A healthy body is vital to feeling good, and yoga helps us succeed at this goal, but it is not the only reason so many millions of people continue to return to their practice day after day.
It’s interesting to note that the root word of inspiration comes from the Latin word inspirare, which means “to breathe in; to inhale.” So, it makes sense that our breath and inspiration are clearly related. The breath is the link that connects us with our higher self, the Divine, or our spirit –- whatever term you like to use. Use your breath wisely and with intention, and you can feel differently in as little as a few minutes.
On the physical level, shallow breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which engages the “fight or flight” syndrome. Over time, it has been proven that this type of stress can be very harmful. In contrast, a deep abdominal (yogic) breath engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which engages the relaxation response. This sends a signal to the brain that says “everything will be OK.” Over time, the relaxation response allows the body to do what it does best: find and maintain balance, health, and well-being.
So, one way to keep the inspiration going after a class or retreat is to sit down and just breathe, intentionally. I call it meditating, but you can call it whatever you’d like. In one of my previous posts, Practical Yoga: Catch Your Breath, I talked about simply breathing -- focusing on the inhale and exhale. It’s a great and easy one to remember -- and you can do it anywhere.
Here’s another simple breath practice you can try right now. It’s called a 4/4 breath, and here’s how you do it:
Sit in a relaxed position, on the floor or in a chair. Close your eyes. Take a deep, centering, full breath and exhale. Bring your attention to your breathing to help keep your mind off distractions. From a full exhale, take four “sips” of breath through the nose in equal parts up to a full inhale (really full!) and then exhale in four equal parts through the nose to a full exhale (really empty!).
Continue on with your eyes closed and at a very slow pace (it should feel good and relaxing, not rushed and forced) for at least three minutes. If the breathing seems too much, or if you get dizzy, either slow down the practice or stop altogether. If you enjoy it, you can build up to five or 11 minutes.
Remember, all great success is built from smaller successes. Your breath immediately impacts your nervous system and helps you feel better. So, do what you can, with what you have, where ever you are. Give yourself just three minutes -- and notice what happens to your state of mind.
May you find a sense of well-being and happiness as you connect to your breath, and may you inspire others to do the same.