There isn’t a week that goes by without someone commenting to me, “But you’re a vegan right?” To which I reply for the umpteenth time, “No. I eat meat, vegetables and fruit and very little grains and that’s it. I’m allergic to gluten, dairy, and soy, and I don’t tolerate beans well, so most vegan food doesn’t work for me.” This always shocks people.
There are certain assumptions students and passersby alike make about yoga teachers, yoga practitioners and yoga itself. Veganism and vegetarianism are close to the top of the stereotypes, along with having tattoos, smelling like patchouli, being bendy like a pretzel and chanting OM all day long. One other assumption people make about yoga teachers and practitioners is that they automatically must be gifted with a super-relaxed mind. I would like to put this stereotype to rest.
Recently I was in Denver for a dear friend’s wedding. I arrived early and decided to take a trip to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Being a former anthropologist and scientist, I love going to natural history and science museums when I travel. This was a great one!
There was a particular interactive experience in one of the exhibitions at this museum that has stuck with me. It was a creative way to teach children about brain waves with a game about relaxing your mind. You walked up to a table with a partner in mind-crime, strapped a contraption around each of your foreheads, and proceeded to sit across a long table from one another. In the middle of the table was a covered strip with a ball in the middle. As your brain waves relaxed and got slower, the ball would move towards your opponent. If your brain waves were faster than your opponent’s (less relaxed mind) the ball would move faster TOWARDS you!
I sat down with my boyfriend to play, and I know you’re thinking, “She’s got this one in the bag!” He closed his eyes, smiled, leaned back in his chair. I sat tall like I was meditating, began to breathe steadily, and watched as the ball rolled quickly towards me. There was nothing I could do to stop it. It hit my side in less than 10 seconds. He opened his eyes, laughed, and said, “I’m more relaxed than the yoga teacher!” And it is true. In a moment of true regression to childhood, I took the contraption off my head and proclaimed, “This thing is broken!” to which he laughed harder.
The truth is that I do not have a relaxed mind at all. Most times it races quickly ahead of me into worry, anxiety, depression, and stress. In fact, that, along with some serious injuries, is what got me into yoga. It also got me my nickname, “The Yoga Teacher Who Can’t Relax.” Another fact: most of the fabulous, incredible, talented yoga teachers I know also have a mind that tends to race. Guess what: most people do!
The moral of the story is that your yoga teacher is just like you. They most likely are not naturally gifted with a clear mind. What makes these yoga teachers I know fabulous is that they have taken their time in the mind trenches to learn tools and techniques to calm their minds. Because of this practice and curiosity internally, they are uniquely talented at helping and guiding others into relaxing their minds.
1. Become Conscious of your Breathing Pattern: Slow it Down and Even it Out
When you get stressed or your mind races, there is a tendency for your breath to get short, shallow or constricted. A simple way to change this is to practice a technique called Sama Vritti – or Even Steady Breathing. Close your eyes, inhale without strain and count your inhalation. Now exhale for the same count. If you inhale to a 4 count, exhale to a 4 count. Continue until you feel calmer physically and mentally.
2. Move With Awareness
When the mind is agitated, sitting in the same spot ruminating can actually make it worse. But moving in a rote way just postpones the agitation. Another simple way to calm the mind is to move with awareness. Consider taking a vinyasa yoga class where each movement is consciously linked to a part of the breath. Or take your usual run, but commit to feeling every breath along the way. Seated forward folds with deep, slow, abdominal breaths are also great to soothe the mind. Scott Sonnon has a wonderful program called Intu-Flow that is an integrated joint mobility primer – it not only makes your body feel good, but it’s fluid, simple, conscious movements re-center the mind.
3. Write it Out
When the mind is racing, it is usually having a dialogue with itself or listing off things of some sort. Ana Forrest taught me the easy task of having a legal pad at my side all the time to write down my internal listing/worrying and dialoguing. The act of writing down the chatter in the mind helps to get it out. It also allows you to read through and witness the really funny things your mind comes up with. Both aspects create a situation where you can intercept and change the pattern of hectic mind through the use of your conscious witness.
4. Try a Guided Meditation or Yoga Nidra
When my mind is at its most frantic, I often cannot fall asleep or stay clear headed to get through my busiest days. I have found it useful at times like this to pop in a CD of a guided meditation or yoga nidra (progressive, guided relaxation). Just following along to someone’s voice through the motions of visualization, intention setting (sankalpa) or breathing helps to calm the mind. My favorites are from Rod Stryker and Richard Miller.
Just a side note – I don’t come from a tradition that believes in stopping the mind. I actually don’t think this is possible. The mind is meant to think. But I do believe there is a difference between a clear, relaxed mind and a hectic, stressed one. Try the above techniques and feel if they help you to practice a relaxed mind, unpacking the stuck thoughts of the mind, and giving you space to focus in the moment.
As we were leaving the exhibition space with the brain wave game, I heard a very young girl stand up, throw down the head piece and shout, “This game is broken, no fair.” I saw in this girl some of myself. I wanted to run up and hug her – tell her that all is not lost – that her sharp brain might race away, but it also could do incredible things. I wanted to teach her these tools early so that she might discover clear mind earlier in life. It wasn’t appropriate, but it inspired me to write to all of you. Add these tools to your lifebox and use them whenever your mind decides to run amok.