When you get really busy and stressed, what is the first thing you drop from your schedule? I’m guessing that for most of us the answer is self-care. We can’t stop working; making meals; paying our heat bills; and caring for our kids, gardens, homes and animal companions. So the most logical way to clear our schedules is to cancel those things we consider to be optional. Too often those “optional” activities are the very things that might give us an opportunity to relax and rejuvenate. But even when our schedules are tight, we don’t have to give up entirely on ourselves. We can practice mindful self-care throughout our day. We just have to reorient our thinking about self-care.
Drops in a Bucket
You’ve probably heard the expression “a drop in the bucket.” This phrase, of course, means that something is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But here’s another way of looking at the concept. If you add a drop to a bucket each day, it may take a long time, but eventually, the bucket will fill to the brim.
We can approach mindful self-care in the same way. A few minutes of self-care each day can make a big difference. I’ve practiced yoga and mindfulness since the 1980s. Over the years, I’ve discovered that practicing for even as little as five minutes a day cultivates the habit of practice more effectively than practicing for an hour once or twice a week.
We need consistency in order to form habits. For example, there are lots of things we do every day: brush our teeth, consume our morning coffee or tea, shower, etc. Each of these things takes only a few minutes, but each one of them bears fruit in our lives. Can we add a few minutes of mindful self-care to our daily routine?
Pranayama and Mindful Self-Care
In this post, I’d like to focus on the fourth of yoga’s eight limbs: pranayama (breathing practices). Pranayama sits at the junction between yoga’s more earthly limbs—yama (ethical precepts), niyama (personal practices) and asana (physical postures)—and the more meditative ones—pratyahara (refinement of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi. As such, the breath serves as a link between the physical and the mental/emotional/spiritual worlds.
Hatha Yoga is the combination of asana and pranayama. And it’s the linking of breath with movement that makes the practice so powerful.
We breathe all day long without having to tell our bodies to do so. But our breath is the one physiological function we can control directly. We can’t directly control our heartbeat, digestion, nervous system responses, etc. But by altering our breathing patterns, we can influence these functions.
Breathing and Stress
I discovered 15 years ago that, like my mother, I had developed high blood pressure at a fairly young age. In the early stages, I wanted to learn what actions I took during the day that influenced it. So I bought a monitor and checked my blood pressure several times a day. I found that if I took my blood pressure and it registered high, I could lower it significantly—by 10 to 20 points—by taking five minutes to breathe slowly, lengthening my exhalations.
This is because of a physiological phenomenon called sinus arrhythmia. When we inhale, our heartbeat speeds up; when we exhale, our heartbeat slows. So we can affect the heart’s rhythm simply by lengthening our exhalations. Breathing this way may not keep us from having to control our blood pressure and heart rate through other means. But it can provide at least a temporary respite from a racing heart and high blood pressure.
How to Practice Pranayama with Mindful Self-Care in Mind
Pranayama is powerful. There are many traditional yogic forms I would not describe in a blog. But the simple practice I’m sharing here should be safe for anyone. Just make sure to practice with ease and patience. Here are a few pointers:
- Take slow, deep breaths, but don’t try to take the deepest breath you’ve ever taken. If you feel stress at the top of your inhalation, you’re probably trying too hard. Keep your inhalations well within your comfort zone.
- Practice in a position where it’s easy to breathe deeply. I’ve found Constructive Rest Position to be the most efficacious pose for deep, relaxed breathing. If you choose to sit, make sure you sit on plenty of support so that your pelvis is tilting forward. This post on how to choose a meditation cushion gives good information on how to find the best sitting position.
- Start slow, with up to 5 breaths. If you feel good after this, add another breath the next day, and so on, up to 5 minutes.
A Bite-Sized Pranayama Practice for Mindful Self-Care
Here are three different methods of breathing that confer different benefits.
- Lie down on a Yoga Mat in Constructive Rest Position, or sit on a Meditation Cushion, folded Yoga Blankets or a chair.
- Take a few relaxed breaths to help you settle into your position. Make whatever adjustments—positional shifts or extra props—you feel will help you relax more easily. Then practice one of the following three practices, depending on what you feel your body and mind need right now.
- Equal Breathing: Take a slow, relaxed inhalation and count the length of it. Then exhale for the same count. For example, if your inhalation takes four counts, give your exhalation the same count. Equal breathing relaxes the central nervous system and improves focus and concentration.
- Long Exhalation: Take a slow, relaxed inhalation and count the length of it. Then exhale for twice the amount of time. For example, if your inhalation takes four counts, draw your exhalation out to eight counts. This breathing practice calms your nervous system, slows your heart rate and promotes relaxation.
- Long Inhalation: Take a slow, relaxed inhalation and count the length of it. Then exhale for half the amount of time. So if your inhalation takes four counts, exhale for two counts. This breathing practice can help lift your energy if you’re feeling tired and sluggish.
- After a few breaths, or about 60 seconds, let go of the practice and let your breathing return to normal. Stay where you are for a minute or so to allow yourself to absorb the practice.
Drops in the Bucket Matter
Look for times during your day when you can take a breathing break. You can take a minute to breathe while you’re sitting at your work desk—really. A minute of respite here and there may not seem like much, but over time, the benefits accrue. A drop or two each day does eventually add up to an overflowing bucket.
Practicing mindful self-care can keep us on track when we just can’t get to a yoga class, the gym, the hiking trail or the massage therapist. At those times it’s helpful to remember that we can call on a resource that’s always available: ourselves.