We live in uncertain times. Political, environmental and financial instability is rocking most of our worlds right now. If you’ve been feeling the tilt of the boat and the roll of the ocean beneath you, you’re not alone.
Joseph Campbell, in his study of storytelling, mythology and meaning-making of societies all around the globe and across the span of human history, identified what he called ‘the collective unconscious.’ This collective unconscious helps to explain the tropes, patterns and symbols that show up in narratives from disparate and unconnected cultures. And this collective unconscious is also what ties together the seemingly disconnected minds, hearts and psyches of the human race and helps us to understand why we feel things together and in unison.
The collective unconscious is unstable right now, and is being thrown around on a tide of fast-changing and disruptive ideologies. No-one quite knows what the order is, or which symbols and tropes can save us. A new system is trying to emerge out of the old one that’s breaking up, so it’s no wonder that it leaves huge numbers of us anxious, unsteady and uncertain of what’s coming next.
While we take charge of the shaping of a new world view and explore the opportunities presented by the death of the old, there are several essential grounding practices from the tradition of yoga that can assist in bringing our minds, hearts and bodies back to a place of rest, trust and safety. All of them are designed to soothe the nervous system, settle the heart and quiet the mind.
1. Belly Breath
HOW: Find a comfortable position, either lying flat on your back with your knees bent and feet planted, or sitting upright in a chair, feet flat on the ground.
Take your hands to your belly and breathe deep into the belly, as if inflating a balloon, inhaling for a steady count of 5. Hold for a beat at the top, then exhale for 5, breathing out from the belly first. Though you’re deepening and lengthening the breath, try to do so gently, without forcing.
WHEN: Try 3x/day for 20 rounds of breath. Great in the evening or for calming daytime anxiety. May make you a little dopey so not best practiced first thing in the morning!
BENEFITS: A grounding breath, belly breath brings you into your body, reduces blood pressure, lowers the harmful effects of cortisol (the stress hormone), strengthens the diaphragm, improves digestion and brings you back to centre.
2. Square Breath
HOW: Helps to focus the mind if you visualise the drawing of a square as you inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, inhale for 4, hold for 4 etc etc.
WHEN: Any time you seek balance and calm. Try 3x/day for 3 minutes.
BENEFITS: Calms a busy mind, balances left and right hemispheres of the brain and soothes the nervous system. Of all the practices I share with my private clients, this one never fails to create a shift. It’s easily remembered because of the visual tool and can be practiced anywhere — on your commute, in bed, waiting in line at the supermarket.
3. Viparita Karani, or Legs up the Wall
HOW: Pick an empty wall and come to sit, knees bent, with one side of your body against the wall and looking along it. Using the support of your hands, draw your legs up the wall and lay your back down flat on the floor. Scoot your bum as close to the wall as possible, keep the arms wide, or surrender them overhead, elbows bent. Close your eyes and hold for 10 mins.
Option: Add a folded blanket under the back of your head and neck for support (not shoulders) and another folded blanket/bolster under the hips for a gentle inversion. Add an eye pillow if you have one. You could open the legs to a wide ‘V’ or open the knees wide and join the soles of the feet together (badakonasana). Can also be practiced from your bed, provided the wall’s clear above your bedhead.
WHEN: After a long day, in place of a glass of wine.
BENEFITS: Lowers the heart rate, rests the heart and brain, relaxes the back, deepens and slows the breath which leads to a grounding of the body, a soothed nervous system, a reduction in stress, anxiety and insomnia. Drains the pooling of lymph fluids in the feet, stimulates and reverses circulation.
4. Balasana, or Child’s Pose
HOW: Sit on your shins, widen your knees to allow space for the belly to soften and touch your big toes together behind you. Walk the upper body forward to the floor and stretch forward through the arms, spreading the fingers wide. Release the forehead to the floor and take 5 deep breaths in through the nose, down into the lower back and out through the mouth. Stay for up to 3 minutes.
Option: Bring a bolster/cushion under the torso for a supported pose.
WHEN: Any time the neck and back need a stretch / at the end of a long day.
BENEFITS: Activates Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest function), stretches the spine, shoulders, hips, thighs and ankles, softens the front body while stretching the back body, aids digestion and of course, reduces stress and anxiety.
5. Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Fold
HOW: Stand with feet planted at hips’ width distance. Tuck the chin toward the chest and roll carefully down toward the floor.
Keep your weight even between fronts and backs of the feet and the knees soft. Take hold of the elbows and release the head completely, opening the back of the neck. You may want to sway gently from side to side. Hold for up to 2 minutes, then release into child’s pose, hips to heels.
Option: If your balance isn’t great, try this this standing with your bum against the wall for support.
WHEN: Any time the neck and back need to decompress. Particularly vital if you spend the day seated.
BENEFITS: Releases tension in the spine, neck and back; stretches the hamstrings, calves and glutes; calms the mind and soothes the nerves; reduces stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia and fatigue; stimulates digestion, liver and kidneys; strengthens thighs and knees.