Inhale deeply. Exhale completely. 

Meditation, dhyanaThe 7th limb. Familiarizing yourself with the present moment, with the thoughts that come and go, and witnessing them without judgement. 

 

But where do I begin? Starting a meditation practice can be intimidating. It can be more daunting than starting a new diet, a yoga practice, or even a new job. Asana, the third limb, or what we call ‘yoga’ in the western world, is the physical yoga practice. Think downward facing dog, childs pose, and bridge pose. By moving with the breath, focusing, and working hard to put our bodies in different poses, in a way, we force ourselves to become present. When you’re trying to stand on one foot with the other leg extended into the air and your arms twisted up like a pretzel, it’s a bit easier to be present. But meditation?? Sitting down, closing your eyes and spending a few minutes alone with yourself and your thoughts? Terrifying.

We’re constantly distracted in this fast paced world that we live in. A 2012 research study done by Harvard showed that on average, our minds are lost in thought 47% of the time. That's almost half of your life spent distracted. Add in all of the stressors from work and personal relationships to the mix, and you might find yourself in a state of chronic stress. Being in a state of chronic stress can begin to change your brain -- its size and structure. Meditation is here to help. Think of meditation as a preventative practice rather than an aspirin/tylenol for stress. Over time, meditation can rewire how your brain responds to stress by improving its working memory, executive function, and your emotional intelligence. On top of that, you'll find yourself with lower blood pressure, fewer headaches and joint problems, a boost in your immune system and energy levels, decreased anxiety, increased attention span, and better rested from deeper sleep. 

Start out with a 2 minute meditation practice, 1x a day for a week. The following week, ramp up to 5 minutes a day. See how that goes. Increase the length of your meditation practice each week by a minute or two. Set a timer for yourself, sit alone in a quiet, clean space, and feel the positive effects take place.

Check out a sitting group for an in-person, guided meditation. If you're in San Francisco, check out the 'Spiritual Vibes' Group led by Adam Coutts the first Tuesday of every month at the Liberation Institute. This is a donation based session and no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Breath, pranayama: the 4th limb. Life force. 

Breath is the most valuable asset in our lives, the most cherished tool in the tool kit. We pay far more attention and take more care of our material things than we do of ourselves. Think cracking your iPhone screen is devastating? Think again. Our breath is what fuels our body, what keeps us going. Most of us go through our days without even noticing the air that flows in and out of our lungs. 

Take the biggest breath you've taken all day. Fill your lungs to their fullest capacity. Now hold for the count of 4. Exhale completely through your mouth. Repeat. Refreshing, right?

Day in and day out, our breath goes unnoticed and becomes more and more shallow. We're constantly so under-rested, over-stimulated, and under-breathed, that our bodies call the sympathetic nervous system in for duty way too often. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) regulates our fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) regulates our rest+digest response.  The SNS becomes engaged if we start to panic when we can't find street parking in Nob Hill at 9pm on a Sunday night, or when you're sitting on the tarmac and the flight attendant announces that you'll be delayed another hour. Your blood pressure increases, your heart beats faster, and your digestion slows down. If we re-learn how to use our breath, we can begin to react in a more controlled manner, eventually taking full control and not letting these situations phase you. 

Think of breathing exercises as a way to prepare you for your meditation practice. During your meditation practice, you'll focus your awareness on your breath, focusing on the flow of the natural pace of your breath. 

Try these two pranayam exercises before finding your seat (meditating). 

Kumbhaka Pranayama, breath retention

  • Sit in any comfortable cross-legged sitting posture with the spine upright, arms and shoulders relaxed.
  • Inhale through the nose for a count of 4. Hold for a count of 4. Exhale through the nose for a count of 6. Repeat 10x.
  • As you become more familiar with this exercise, you can begin to introduce retention after the exhalation.

Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing

  • Sit in any comfortable cross-legged sitting posture with the spine upright, arms and shoulders relaxed.
  • Lift the right hand, palm rotates toward your face. Gently place the index and middle finger (together) in between your eyebrows. 
  • Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your right ring-finger. Open and exhale slowly through the right nostril.
  • Inhale through your right nostril, then close it with your thumb. Exhale slowly through your left nostril.
  • Lowers heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety. Especially helpful to ease racing thoughts related to anxiety, stress, or trouble sleeping. Supports our lungs and respiratory functionality. 
  • Said to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain
 

 

The power of 120 seconds: yoga @ your desk -- Yeah. be that guy. 

We all know that sitting or standing at our desks for long periods of time can have serious consequences. How awesome does it feel when you take 45 seconds to stretch your neck, or interlace the hands behind your back and stretch the chest, or simply hang in a forward fold, allowing fresh blood + oxygen to get into the brain? It's a fast, simple, easy way to refresh your body and mind. 

Take every opportunity you can to get up and move. Can't find time? Set an automatic alarm for every 25 minutes. Each time it alerts you, take 3 minutes to stretch. Hold yourself accountable to that alarm. Your work will still be there waiting for you when you return. I promise.

If you find yourself ignoring the alarm and hitting 'dismiss,' label the alarm as something creative. For example, "Hey you. Grandma would be so disappointed with your posture right now." Try to overcome the excuses that pop into your mind. Taking these short breaks will ultimately increase your focus, lower your stress levels, and ultimately guide you to be more present-- at work and at home. Ultimately, this means you'll be better positioned for that upcoming promotion. Because, science... **

**I made that part up, but a quick Google search revealed that it's certainly not unheard of. This dude seems to fully support it. 

Try this sequence out. You can do it at your desk or in a quiet closed off space. 

>> My two cents: keep it simple. Resist the urge to kick up into a handstand, headstand, bird of paradise, or even savasana. 

>Rub your hands together to build a bit of heat. Then place your hands over your eyes. Hold for 3 breaths. 

>Interlace fingers, press palms up towards the sky, take cat/cow variations. On the inhale you'll press the palms up and press chest/heart forward, on the exhale, press palms forward and round the upper spine like an angry cat.

>Eagle arms – this addresses the most common sources of tension in the neck and shoulders that lead to/can lead to headaches. Wrap left arm under right; lift elbows up and move forearms forward to create more space. Hold for 3 breaths. Repeat other side. 

>Spinal twists on chair or floor

>Shoulder rolls

>Interlace fingers behind you. Press knuckles down, press heart up. 

>Seated Figure 4 (on a chair or back up against a wall): cross right ankle above left knee. If you need more, sit hips lower. If you're on a chair, take right palm to right inner thigh and encourage the knee/thigh closer to the floor. Be mindful not to press directly on the knee. 

>Neck stretches

>Eye ball stretching (keep head stationary but shift gaze side to side, increasing speed)

Recommended Reading

1. Dosha Quiz

2. Healthy Habits

3. The Buddha Walks Into a Bar

4. 12 Yoga Poses to help with pain

5. Meditation + Mindfulness could make your career

6. Intro to Meditation