“The cause of all agitation is the constant modification of mind. The mind easily becomes concentrated and one-pointed through the practice of yoga. When control of the mind is obtained, the kingdom of peace is established.”—Swami Kripalu
Do you suffer from anxiety, poor digestion, or lack of focus? When life’s demands overwhelm us, Angela Wilson, Manager of Evidence-Based Yoga Curriculum for Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, explains in her R&R retreat lecture Cultivating Inner Strength, our nervous system gets out of balance. Through the practices of yoga meditation, and mindfulness, however, we can build resilience in order to be fully aware of all our experiences.
As Angela explains, there are two main branches of the nervous system. There’s the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight-or-flight response in reaction to stressful situations. It’s a hot, reactive state, which increases heart rate and primes the body for action. The other branch is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated when the body is relaxed. The parasympathetic supports a cooling, restful and state. It soothes the system, aids in digestion, and can be fostered through yoga practice.
“Can you create the life of your dreams?” asks Susan B. Lord, MD, in her R&R retreat lecture Mindful Living. More often than not, however, creating such a life can be challenging. As Susan points out, our culture can be quite isolating, demanding, and overstimulating. We live in a society that promotes linear thinking; meanwhile, our intuition, what Susan refers to as “the gut brain,” tends to be set aside. Because of this emphasis on a linear, head-centered existence, many of us are divorced from our bodies, and thus removed from the intuitive wisdom that resides within. We neglect our bodies—and our intrinsic physical needs—by sitting, often slumped, in front of a computer for eight (or more) hours a day; by not drinking enough water; or by over- or undereating. Because of this, Susan notes, many of us deny what we truly need through temporary measures, such as seeking out comfort foods or other unhealthy distractions, whenever we feel stressed, agitated, or lonely.
By cultivating a sense of mindfulness in our actions and experiences, however, we can create more space in our lives and encourage our intuition to flourish.
One of the keys to tapping into our intuition and creating a more mindful life is to step back and dis-identify from your stressors. You can do this, Susan says, simply by observing your stressors without judgment whenever they arise, and perhaps writing them down. For example, are you so harried that you often skip breakfast and end up feeling cranky and depleted before you even get to the office? By noticing this habit, you could make a plan to set aside time each morning to nourish yourself with a healthful breakfast before jumping into the day’s demands. “Pay attention to your body and give it what it needs in the moment,” Susan says. When you listen to what your body is telling you, you bring more awareness into your life.
The benefits of meditation for seniors
In a recent study, nearly 70 percent of people over the age of 60 reported experiencing loneliness, a risk factor for functional decline and early death. But those who took part in an eight-week meditation program reduced those feelings of loneliness—and gave their immune systems a boost as well. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, is published in this month’sissue of the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
Yoga has long been known to help ease depression and loneliness by raising concentrations of gamma-amminobutyric acid (GABA), the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating the nervous system. High levels of GABA have a calming effect. Of course, loneliness isn’t just an emotional issue; it’s a form of stress that can have physical manifestations as well, says Randal Williams, a Kripalu Yoga instructor and teacher trainer, who isn’t surprised by the study’s findings. “When I was a child I used to go to religious services with my grandmother,” says Randal. “This was her way of connecting with others. Whether it is to do yoga or meditate or walk or sit and share tea, getting together with others has a positive impact.”
I’ve been interviewing healers and spiritual teachers for a while now, and when I ask them how to live a healthier and happier life, many offer the same answer: meditate.
I hate that answer. When I was 19, I attended a 10-day meditation retreat that necessitated giving up my worldly possessions for the length of the stay, not talking, not making eye contact with anyone, and sitting in silence from 6:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night, with short breaks for meals and meditation lectures. By day two, I was like a prisoner of war planning the Great Escape. One morning after breakfast, when no one was looking, I fled the retreat in a frenzy; I just couldn’t sit in silence for 10 days and do nothing. OK, so maybe “fled” is somewhat of an exaggeration, but the bottom line is I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m just not a fan of meditation. An admirer, yes, but not a fan.
But according to Panache Desai, the spiritual teacher and inspirational visionary who chatted with me during our Kripalu Perspectives podcast, you don’t need to meditate to live a healthier and more joyful life—you just need to incorporate one of the essential elements of meditation into your day.
“Watch your breath,” says Desai, “the inhalation and the exhalation.”
Frank Jude Boccio, whose Zen dharma name is Poep Sa, is a yoga teacher and a teacher of Zen Buddhism ordained by Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim. He is also an interfaith minister and long-time student of Thich Nhat Hanh. Here he shares a few simple yet powerful ways to integrate mindfulness practices into your daily life—when driving, working, or even drinking your morning coffee.
In this edition of Ask the Expert, Cristie Newhart, yoga advisor for Kripalu’s Healthy Living programs, deconstructs two foundational postures—Triangle and Standing Forward Fold—and explains why meditation doesn’t just have to happen on the cushion.
When I practice Standing Forward Fold, I tend to hyperextend my legs. Any recommendations for practicing this pose safely?
There are many reasons why people hyperextend the knees, and most of the reasons are due to the relationship of hamstrings to the quads. It’s important to practice in such a way that the muscles around the knee protect and stabilize the knee. In most cases, it’s helpful to lift the quadriceps muscles in the front of the leg. Also, remember to lengthen the front of the body as you fold. The top of the pelvis tilts forward as you bend at the hip crease—think of the way an old-fashioned Rolodex flips forward. Don’t be overly concerned with your torso coming to your thighs—instead think in terms of spinal length. Be aware of the support of abdominal muscles below the navel. This support allows for greater flexibility in the lumbar spine. If your arms don’t reach the floor, try resting them on blocks rather than letting them dangle. Pressing the hands into a stable surface can help you find more length in the spine. Please do not be afraid to practice this posture with bent knees until you have strengthened your hamstrings.
I don’t have time to meditate for more than 5 or 10 minutes early in the morning. Is that enough?