By Melissa Lago
Experiencing calmness expands our choices regarding where to focus our attention. A significant benefit of yoga and mindful movement is their ability to soothe our sympathetic nervous system — the system that triggers our fight, flight, or freeze responses and induces stress. Simultaneously, these practices activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest and relaxation, fostering a sense of inner peace and overall well-being.
Given our instinctual drive for survival, it’s natural for us to default to a state of heightened alertness or negativity bias when overwhelmed or stressed. This bias is a protective mechanism meant to keep us safe. In such states, we tend to focus more on what’s going wrong in our bodies or lives — the imbalances and challenges — rather than recognizing what’s supportive or functioning well. Yoga and mindful practices help redirect this focus towards a more balanced and positive perspective.
Many of us have had the experience of noticing when our back is sore, and then barely noticing it once it’s healed. This can be true in our relationships too. We might find ourselves focusing on the one thing that we find annoying that our partner, friend or family member is doing rather than appreciating all the wonderful ways that they are showing up for us and our world.
We can increase our sense of well-being…
by training ourselves to place our attention on where we feel strong, steady, and grounded in our bodies and nourished in our lives and relationships. Movement practices can help us to strengthen our ability to choose where we place our attention. In our practice we can begin to notice where we feel tension and where we feel ease. As we do this we increase our window of tolerance, the state of being that allows us to respond, rather than react to our life circumstances.
Increasing our window of tolerance and learning to shift our attention between where we feel tension and ease can help us to feel more resourced and to transform our perspective both on and off of our yoga mat. In this way, we can experience greater inner peace and well-being.
A practice to increase our well-being through our attention
- We begin this practice by standing up with our feet rooted on the ground or sitting with an extended spine. Then we work to bring a non-judgmental awareness to observing what we are experiencing in our bodies.
- It can be soothing to place one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart. Then notice the rising and falling of the belly and chest.
- If it feels supportive you can integrate the practice of straw breathing to decrease anxiety. Inhale through the nose, and lengthen the exhale by imagining yourself blowing out through a straw. This breathing practice is done gently, and if it does not feel supportive, please have your breath come back to normal or simply deepen your inhales and exhales.
- Next, notice where you are feeling tension in your body and bring a hand to that area of your body or imagine the breath going there. Alternatively, place your hands on your upper legs to help ground yourself in the here and now.
- Notice where you are feeling strong, steady and grounded and bring your awareness there.
- Now shift your attention back and forth between where you feel tension and where you feel strong, steady and grounded.
- Last, shift your attention to your environment. Bring your awareness to three colors, the sounds around you, and the surfaces of your body making contact with the earth.
- Consider setting an intention around where to place your attention for your day or week.
May this practice strengthen your sense of well-being and inner peace!
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Melissa Lago MA, MDiv is an educator and yoga teacher. She was introduced to yoga as a child at home and at the Oak Grove School founded by Jiddu Krishnamurti. As a teenager, she dedicated herself to the practice. For five years she taught yoga, philosophy, world religions, and interdisciplinary studies at Holy Names University (HNU) in Oakland, CA. In 2018 she completed a Master of Divinity degree at Harvard where she worked to bring yoga, spiritual care and chaplaincy together. She enjoys teaching privately and for groups. In the fall she looks forward to joining the faculty at Naropa University as an adjunct instructor in the BA in Yoga Studies program. To learn more about her background, please visit her website at www.yogatransformsus.com.