This week’s goal: Calm down your wild pet (just kidding – but seriously); learn how beginning a personal yoga practice can translate into peace of mind and incredibly fulfilling personal relations.
Yet, when Heather practices yoga in her home study, Hobbes regularly sits still without so much as a tail flop for up to three hours at a time. Without fail, when Heather is just beginning to come out of her last pose, something changes. Hobbes sprints up to her and licks her on the face, seemingly saying “FINALLY you finished! Now come pet me!”
Hobbes clearly does not know which pose will be Heather’s last – it depends on the session, her motivation levels, allotted practice time, and if any new poses are being practiced. Instead, what he feels is an energy shift that signals when he should remain quiet, and when he can be his wild self.
It was this amazing phenomenon that brought me to Heather’s house to gain insights from her as to how the practice of yoga can help us to live the good life by managing our energies (I fully believe that managing energy is the key to living the good life), our stresses, and even upgrading our bodies to perform better.
Heather: I've learned to slow down. I've learned to breathe, to pause, to be still. I've learned to listen to my body, and- at least the way I see it- connect my body to my soul. Essentially you do these strange poses, tangle your limbs into uncomfortable positions, and make yourself physically uncomfortable. Sometimes, very uncomfortable. At first, it's hard to concentrate on anything but the physical: the burning in your quad or the force pushing on your shoulders. But over time, you learn how to stop freaking out. You start learning to be in the pose and create calm, slow your breath, release your jaw, aim to be as soft and relaxed, inwardly, as if you were lying on your back. And it becomes practice for life because basically you're learning to be in a very difficult outward situation and maintain peace inwardly.
And so over time you can learn to do this very intentionally; you can practice in order to get a certain effect. This is incredibly empowering. So if I'm really busy and my mind is racing, standing poses are good because they're ‘grounding poses’ and help slow and still the mind. Twisting poses are extremely effective for digestion and moving lymph, which can serve to increase immune function and detoxification. They're also one of the deepest way to access/exercise obliques. Or if I am emotionally stressed and feel kind of closed down, I'll do back-bends, which physically and emotionally help open back up your chest (and heart.) The physical posture of back-bending makes you feel as vulnerable as the emotional equivalent; it's easy for your breath to start racing, to start getting nervous, anxious, and irritated. But you learn to calm yourself, over time. And in doing so, you learn how to be peaceful, even in difficult situations. Deep hip openers are also great for relieving stress, as it's common for people to store stress in their hips. I go to these when I feel like I hardly have energy to expend, but need a release. Many of these deep hip poses will really hit the nervous system hard and sometimes people will break into tears; it's happened to me. And it's because you can physically access some really deeply held stuff. It's kind of awesome.
Me: What are the key principles for better controlled-breathing during times of high physical stress?
Heather: The first thing is just becoming aware of your breath. Often, when we are stressed or angry or reacting emotionally, breath becomes jumpy and short. So first, try to extend the length of your inhale and exhale, making each longer. Try to breathe all the way from the core of your pelvis up to your collarbones, inhaling fully, and exhaling completely. When you're practicing breathing, a good exercise is to breathe in (through your nose) for a fixed count (start with something low, like six), then hold for half of that count (three), breathe out for six again, and then hold for three at the bottom of your exhale, before you inhale to begin the cycle again. Concentrate on trying to make your breath as even as possible: the inhale and the exhale, from right lung to left, and from pelvis to collarbones. Also, concentrate on the sound of your breath remaining as steady as possible. Start with very gentle, basic breathing techniques when you're beginning and be sensitive to the effect it's having on your nervous system. Some agitation and anxiety (as you hold your breath) is normal, but you're playing with a delicate system, so do so with care.
Me: What are your favorite resources or books on the subject – the things that you suggest people check out if they wanted to learn how to practice yoga on their own?
Heather: In terms of books, Light on Yoga. Yoga Glow is a website that offers unlimited classes online, by some of the best teachers in the world, for $17/month. There's also an iPhone app called "YogaHour" by teacher Darren Rhodes that's $1.99 and will lead you through a complete one-hour practice. I will say, though, that taking some classes with a teacher when you're beginning is very beneficial, both to teach you alignment, helping you learn how to protect yourself and injury, and at the same time, gain the most from the poses.
*Heather agreed to go through several important poses with me in the coming weeks to get a beginner started on their own home practice. Stay tuned for these!
More of Heather's work can be found in the student profiles at The Yoga Experience - check them out!
After the interview, I hooked Heather up to my Emwave2 (see Part II - Meditation) to show her how it works. Using her deep breathing techniques, this is what her graph looked like:
1. The first half of this graph looks very different from the second half. This is because Heather was using her deep breathing technique for the first 2:20 of this session, and for the latter half we were talking about the results.
2. Heather’s HRV jumps from ~60 to ~90 during the time she was using deep breathing techniques – a much higher variability than my graph showed. A higher variability is better, because you are using more of your heart’s capacity (or space). This is because Heather, after years of practicing yoga, is able to breathe much more deeply while maintaining control of her nervous system response (the “BREATHE NOW YOU DUMMY!!!” response of her nervous system to not having air). I am currently working on a technique that should help me to reach that state much more quickly.
3. Notice that there is a dual peak at the top of all of her breaths, and a similar jump at the bottom. This is where Heather admits that she still needs work – she knows that these jumps are caused by the fact that her nervous system still freaks out a bit while she is holding her breath at the top and bottom of her breath cycles (she breaths in for 6 seconds, holds for 3, out for 6, holds for 3 and repeats).
Using Your Heart to Influence People and Control Dogs
Back to Hobbes - I have always found it amazing that animals can sense how a human is feeling, or what energy they are putting off. However, modern science is beginning to show that the idea is rooted in our evolutionary biology and, in fact, isn’t just some hippy-talk. It turns out that the heart has an electromagnetic field around it that extends out in doughnut-like fashion, touching every cell in the human body as well as extending out beyond it.
But, the electromagnetic signal does more than just influence our own brains - it can also influence those of people (or animals) around us. This explains why and how Hobbes can literally feel Heather's energy shifting... and why certain people seem to 'give' you energy just through their personality.
Stay tuned for more on this topic next week, including how we can use our own heart's signals to help us become 'smarter' and to make friends and influence people.