Join Laura on the Inns of Aurora Facebook page each Thursday from April 9 through May 7, 2020 at 5:30 p.m. for a free Serenity Series designed to help you stay well during challenging times.
Just Roll Out Your Mat
Building a Wellness Practice Despite Adversity
BY LAURA COBURN, DIRECTOR OF SERENITY
When life becomes disordered, as it inevitably does (usually by our own personal crises, occasionally by global calamities), it can seem impossible to do the things we know we need to do in order to stay healthy. What little motivation we have for maintaining our practice can be eaten up by anxiety, fear, sadness, or anger. And, of course, these are the times when we most need the strength that our wellness practices bring us.
Many of us who work with wellness are familiar with these dilemmas: knowing that we need the most healing at the times when the practice seems most difficult—and, moreover, knowing that we have the necessary tools for self-care, but feeling too overwhelmed to use them.
Even experienced wellness teachers struggle with this; in fact, we probably struggle more, feeling as though we need to be wellness superstars 100% of the time, no matter the circumstances.
Recently, I’ve been struggling to get my bearings in a sea of change.
Even in everyday life, I have a propensity to expect a great deal from myself. I can be hard on myself when I don’t think I’m measuring up. You might think this need to achieve could be a driving force for motivation. Ironically, it can lead to inertia. As a yoga teacher and Ayurveda Health Counselor, I have the tools and the knowledge for navigating change, maintaining calm, staying present, and supporting health. And yet, these gifts can seem a bit elusive.
I know what to do. I know when to do it. And yet I’m stuck. I can’t seem to get out of my own way.
Yesterday, I was relaying this feeling to a friend, and in the telling came inspiration. As I thought back to my early days as a yoga student, I recalled a time when I resisted my practice. My wise teacher said, “just roll out your mat.” What a wonderfully simple thing. It’s akin to just putting one foot in front of the other—just taking the first step.
It’s easy in a time of pressure or stress to think that, if we can’t do it the way that we think it’s supposed to be done, there’s no point to doing it all. Taking even one step moves you in the direction of your intention. My teacher Judith Lasater would say, “move in the direction of.” I remember her saying once, “if you want to kick a five-soda-a-day habit, start by drinking four.”
So today I will move in the direction of. I will simply roll out my mat and start there.
FINDING YOUR PRACTICE IN TROUBLED TIMES
Beginning a wellness practice (or beginning again) can seem impossible when it feels like things are falling apart. And yet, with the proper approach, we can use the weight of these very heavy circumstances to strengthen ourselves. The principle is like exercising with physical weights: when you’re working with emotional weight, it’s important to go slowly and start by lifting a little at a time.
For example: if you haven’t been keeping up with a yoga practice, and you’re feeling overwhelmed, trying to do an entire Ashtanga Primary Series might be too much to lift at once. Start small.
Similarly, if you’ve never developed a wellness practice of your own, but—like many people—are being pushed toward self-healing by challenging circumstances, don’t feel like you need to emulate any of the serious practitioners on social media. Start small. Start where you are. Lift what you can.
“Rolling out your mat” is such a useful starting point because it’s an opening ritual. Setting up your mat prepares you for practice and separates your focused self-care routine from the mundane activities of the rest of the day. Your mat creates a space in your life for wellness. Your mat is a sanctuary. Even if you’re not able to go to your own spacious, light-filled studio—even if you’re just moving your coffee table out of the way to make space for practice—the boundaries of your mat give you a place to set aside your concerns about the wider world, and turn inward to focus on what you need.
If you don’t have a mat, you can adapt your practice to whatever you have available. Start with where you are and with what you have. Without a mat, “rolling out your mat” becomes more of a mental exercise in preparing a space, establishing boundaries, and entering a different frame of mind for self-care.
Even when all you have is your body and the space around it, you can still practice by bringing your attention to the most vital force of your health: your breathing.
STARTING WITH THE BREATH
In the tradition I have studied, yoga is an eight-limbed path. Asana—the postures—are just one limb. Pranayama is another limb in the system. This is the practice of working with the breath. This aspect of yoga is extremely useful in working with emotion, creating a rising emotional tide for the body and the mind.
Breathing deeply, smoothly, and evenly has many benefits. Taking deep, slow breaths calms the mind. Regular deep breathing strengthens the lungs. We breath to bring oxygen to our cells. Each inhalation brings needed nutrients to the cells; each exhale carries away unwanted and unneeded waste.
Focusing on the breath can be a meditation. Observe the breath coming and going. Observe where you feel it in the body. Explore how you experience it through your senses. Can you hear it? Can you see the rise and fall of the chest? The abdomen? Do you feel a sensation of cool in your nostrils on the inhale? Warmth on the exhale? What if you place your hands on your ribs? Can you imagine your ribs are like a bellows? Press gently in on the exhale, then feel the expansion as you draw breath inside you.
You can also try lying face down with your arms folded just beyond your shoulders. Rest your forehead on your stacked arms. Create space for your chest. In other words: don’t lie on your chest, but rather focus on the contact, with the flow being mostly in the abdomen. Notice your breath.
Sometimes, before we can be still and experience the breath, meditate, or appreciate the moment, we need do some movement. A walk outside is a great way to move some energy in the body and invite the flow of breath.
When we focus on the breath in a gentle and expansive way, it allows us the opportunity to slow it down, deepen it, and begin to experience its natural rhythm. When we can allow the breath to come and go without force—when we can allow it to be deep, smooth and even, without sound and without pause—we invite the body to ease into the parasympathetic nervous system. We create a place to rest and digest.
When we can interrupt the cycle of the stress response, we naturally give the body an opportunity to heal, and we also allow for digestion to occur. This is not to be confused with laying around after a big meal: this is the kind of digestion we want to elicit to cleanse and polish off that which is still lingering unprocessed in the mind and body.
Speaking of digestion—there are some simple things we can do to help our body out when it comes to taking in nutrients and then eliminating what is not needed. Think back to the beginning of this post. Remember the part about not lifting too much?
Similarly, we don’t want to overtax the digestive system by eating too much at once, or eating too late at night. We can help the body out by eating slowly and chewing thoroughly, as well as eating warm foods, cooked with love, with a variety
of herbs and spices for diverse flavor.
MOVE IN THE DIRECTION OF
There are so many ideas of how we can get started with a wellness practice. Start small. Pick just one for today. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself credit for any way in which you are helping yourself or others. Remember: no matter what has disrupted your practice or your life, your mat is always ready to be rolled out again. Start with that—as much as you can, whenever you can—and the rest will begin to feel easier.
As the Director of Serenity at the Inns of Aurora, Laura is dedicated to providing restorative and rejuvenating experiences through Ayurvedic consultations, yoga classes, and Serenity Sessions.
Laura is an Infinite Light yoga teacher in the Kripalu lineage and is a certified yoga teacher and teacher trainer with Yoga Alliance (E-RYT). A certified a Relax and Renew® teacher, Laura has studied with Judith Hanson Lasater and has assisted Judith with restorative yoga teacher training internationally.
In addition to extensive study with Kathryn Templeton, Laura is a member of National Ayurvedic Medical Association and the Himalayan Institute, where she earned her Ayurveda Health Counselor certification.
Laura is also a Reiki Master in the Dr. Mikao Usui lineage, trained by Sheila Applegate.