I came across this quote a while back:
If you cannot find peace within yourself, you will never find it anywhere else.” -Marvin Gaye
It hit me like a lightning bolt. I have spent years, on and off, doing yoga and meditation and reading self-help books (or thinking about doing all those things) to calm my brain. To find inner peace. When I’m in a class or watching a yoga video – where I can focus on the teacher’s soothing voice – I can get pretty close to tuning out the world. Especially if it’s vinyasa (flow) yoga or power yoga where you are constantly moving between poses.
Usually the calm comes in the middle of the class.
At the beginning, I’m too focused on trying to get calm.
At the end, the calm quickly runs away as my brain returns before my body to “the real world”.
Confession time: I think too much.
And because of this, I’ve always struggled to use yoga and meditation to self-soothe in the moment. My brain just doesn’t want to stop. And the harder I try, the more it fights back. I have a hard time finding peace and calm when I most need them. Even after counting to 10 or taking deep breaths. And, I can’t exactly pop in a 30-minute video every time I get stressed out.
I remain uncomfortable in my own skin, I self-judge. The discomfort grows into frustration and the judging voices get louder. And, yes, I’ve tried to go to a happy place too. But, telephones and computers sprout fins and become fish in the deep blue seas that I am imagining myself swimming in. The warm wind whispers, “Mom! I can’t find my shoe!” I try to ignore it for what feels like an hour but, when I open my eyes, turns out they have only been closed for 30 seconds.
And then I started my 30 Day Yoga Challenge with Erin Motz through DoYouYoga.com (it’s free! and, unsolicited plug: Erin is fantastic! She is honest and funny and encouraging. I love following her on Facebook and even borrowed one of her posts as inspiration for the above photo.) Erin’s challenge is about growing your own home-based practice. On learning the skills to do the poses with confidence (and grace?) on your own.
On Day 7 and Day 9, Erin takes students through a beginner’s guide to balance poses. Particularly in the first video, the entire video is about getting into the pose, focusing on balance. And, for the first time in a long time, something clicked. (Not the pose, I held it for about 2 seconds before I had to decide to come out or face plant). But, a calming sensation. In trying to hold the balance, I had to concentrate. And that took brain power. Enough brain power that I was able to relax.
After doing Erin’s challenge, I am starting (baby steps!) to prioritize yoga for my mental health. I am still trying to put in a 20-30 minute video most days. But, when life becomes overwhelming for an instant, I have another tool to help me self-soothe.
Of course, I can’t do crow pose at the supermarket when my kids start racing their carts down the aisles or fighting over whose turn it is to pick out the ice cream. But I can shift my weight to one side and hold a modified tree pose while pretending to compare prices of mustards (this is France, remember, there are a GAZILLION jars of mustard on the shelf!).
And, the science backs it up. Last year, a systematic review was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research about the effects of yoga on mood and stress levels. The review only included previously published randomized control trials which scientists consider as the gold standard in determining the effectiveness of an intervention, in this case, doing yoga. The authors reported that a routine yoga practice may
- decrease blood pressure and heart rate
- positively influence the chemicals and hormones involved in our body’s fight-or-flight response (our sympathetic nervous system).
- help regulate our neuroendocine system (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis) which controls many of our body’s daily functions like digestion, immunity, mood and energy levels, and even sex drive.
Also this summer, a second group of authors published a review of MRI imaging studies looking at meditation. They could actually see changes in the brains of people who meditated! I’m not a neuroscientist so I don’t know my left precuneus from my middle frontal gyrus (I found these words in the article) so I’m going to trust the authors when they conclude that the MRIs showed that people who meditate had increased activity in the regions of their brains that control adaptive behavior, focused problem-solving, and homeostasis (balancing our body with external changes like temperature).
All of which goes to suggest that if I keep working to master these balance postures, I may have a fighting change at finding the inner balance that I’m looking for (and a pantry full of mustard).
Note: I originally published an earlier version of this post under the title, “Finding my inner balance… or trying to” on my Forever Toujours Aloe blog.