As a whirlwind of constant change and challenge, life comes at us rapid fire from the moment the alarm clock sounds until sleep gratefully wipes the slate of the day clean. Because of this pressure, most everyone living in the modern world feels some measure of anxiety. Wouldn’t it be a relief to have an inner peace that is sustainable regardless of what life delivers?
The ancient text of the Yoga Sutras offers us strategies for cultivating this balanced equanimity. Below are four practices to shift you quickly back to center when life feels chaotic.
1. Tend the garden of thought
If even for one hour you watch the quality and habitual patterns of your thoughts, you will find that many of them are far from peace inducing. In fact, they are probably more battle oriented. The mind is opinionated and tends to categorize things as good or bad, right or wrong. Because our thoughts determine our experience, we then fluctuate from desire and happiness to aversion and unhappiness as a result.
In order to cultivate inner peace, we must begin in the realm of thought. When you notice a critical, judgmental thought, try shifting it at least to neutral. Consider that having no opinion brings you closer to inner peace than spinning an analysis of why your opinion is ‘right.’ If you have a thought of doubt or worry plaguing you, see if you can shift to a positive and courageous one.
The Yoga Sutras call this practice Pratipaksha Bhavana. The premise is simple. If a thought causes you suffering, change it to the opposite. Although this practice is simple, it is not easy. The difficulty lies in catching our thoughts before they spiral out into lengthy stories and become saturated with emotions that are difficult to unravel. If we make a daily practice of tending our thought garden, we can plant kind and compassionate seeds and water them with gentleness and empathy.
2. Slow down reactions with conscious breathing
From thought initiates speech and action, and of course, these will not be peaceful if our thoughts are not peaceful. So to support the process of thought tending described above, it is essential to create a pause or space between thought and the following speech or action. In this way, we buffer our reactions and responses. The key to this step is learning to breathe intentionally.
The quality of our breathing is the number one indicator of our state of being. In my book True Yoga: Practicing with the Yoga Sutras for Happiness and Spiritual Fulfillment, I describe this in detail.
“With any change in our physical and emotional states, our breathing patterns change naturally. Think of how the breath quickens when we are upset or afraid. By reversing this equation, we see how employing strategic Pranayama practices to effect desired physiological changes gives us a new measure of self-control. Just by changing our breath pattern, we can shift our feeling state. If we are lethargic but need to accomplish a work or school project, we can employ Pranayama that quickens the heart rate and stimulates the brain. If we are feeling anxious and jittery, we can employ a practice that slows the metabolism and racing mind.”
Seven breathing practices that help to manage different emotional states consciously are described in the book. These are part of the practice of Pranayama, or energy control techniques that lead us to an enduring connection with inner peace.
To begin, simply deepen your natural breath. Take in your full lung capacity of oxygen and let it out twice as slow as you normally would. Even a few of these conscious deep breaths will move you in the direction of peace.
3. Use tension with intention
The next way to shift away from distress and towards equanimity is by employing a simple tension release exercise. No one likes the feeling of accumulated stress in the body but we all have places where it builds up. If we do not take notice until it is at a chronic level, it becomes more difficult to remedy. To prevent this, perform a mental body scan periodically throughout the day, especially if stress is present.
This can be done almost anywhere, even at your desk or in the car at a stoplight. It only takes a moment. Simply notice where in the body you are holding tension. Take a deep inhale and squeeze the muscles in the area where the tension is as tight as you possibly can. Then exhale and release all the tension and stress completely. Repeat several more times until you feel the muscles letting go.
There is great danger in ignoring the accumulation of tension in the body. Chronic stress is the precursor to depression, heart disease, weight gain, insomnia, and ulcers, as well as lowered performance capacity and emotional strain. When you have time, stand up and perform a full body tension and release exercise. Inhale and tense every muscle you can. Then exhale and relax completely. Repeat several times. In this way, you will prevent stress from building up.
4. Change your focus from outside to inside
The five senses are employed non-stop in our daily lives, feeding us stimuli and calling out for more. This creates restlessness in the mind and body that again is thrown between desire and repulsion depending on what the senses are experiencing.
On the other hand, to draw our attention inward, away from the senses, the Yoga Sutras offer a practice called Pratyahara. It requires a willingness to stop connecting outwardly, just temporarily, in order to experience a deeper state of peace within.
Once we have paused the sensory input machine for a few moments, the Sutras tell us to focus deeply on one thing that inspires awe or reverence in order to move into a state of meditation. Because it is impossible to go from our busy outer lives to the state of inner meditative stillness without a bridge to get there, a complimentary practice of concentrated attention (Dharana) helps us make the journey.
To initiate sensory restraint and inner concentration, shut off technology and anything else that might cause a distraction. Set a timer for 5-15 minutes and commit to the process of single pointed concentration. Choose something beautiful or sacred to focus on. An easy example is the word harmony. Breathe deeply as instructed before and drink in the harmony of simply being. Feel the peace wash through you.
To maintain this state of inner peace and equanimity takes time and continued effort. But over time it becomes easier to make the shift at will. This enables us to weather the waves of life while remaining strong and capable. When we are centered in our inner peace, we are calm and clear-headed, and non-reactive but still present and engaged. We do not get emotionally charged, but neither do we withdraw mentally or emotionally to avoid conflict. We remain fully available to any relationship or task at hand.
By learning to manage our thoughts, breath, body, and focus, we gain control of our life force energy (prana). We are empowered through this inner control even when life feels out-of-control externally. Inner peace makes us feel resilient, strong, happy and free. It allows us to be more empathetic with others, and able to give naturally from a place of well-being and wisdom.
When we are in our center of peace, we see clearly the right course of action for our lives and expand our creativity, connection and compassion.
The world will never stop being filled with challenge. It is up to us to be the change. As we transform our inner worlds from battlefields to peaceful playgrounds, the way we experience the outer world will change too. Even one step in this direction will bring big benefits to yourself and all of those around you.
Jennie Lee is a Certified Yoga Therapist who has shared the healing benefits of classical yoga and meditation with hundreds of clients for nearly 20 years. By using the practices she writes about in her debut book TRUE YOGA, she has helped people conquer anxiety, depression, grief, stress, and challenging relationship dynamics. She is known for her authenticity and practicality in applying yoga philosophy to life, notable by her diverse clientele, from celebrities to CEOs, doctors to military officers, and more. Her next book, BREATHING LOVE: Meditation in Action (Llewellyn Worldwide) will be released in January 2018. Jennie’s personal coaching is available by Skype (US & internationally) and in person on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband and teenage son.
Image courtesy of katerinaknizakova.