Katy Pieters Haslar

Katy Pieters Haslar

You’ve completed four jigsaw puzzles. You’ve cleaned and organized your closet. Twice. The garden is weeded. The kitchen floor is spotless. Even the grout on your bathroom tile is scrubbed and soap-scum free. As the national quarantine continues due to the current global pandemic, many of us find ourselves asking, what do I do now? How can it be that several more weeks of lockdown stretch before us after the seemingly endless days we’ve put behind us – days filled with wandering room to room, mindless eating, and Netflix binging? When everything that can possibly be done on the outside has been done, it’s a great opportunity to turn those cleaning and organizing skills inward. There has never been a better time to cultivate a breathing and/or mediation practice for yourself.

Faced with an unprecedented situation, the gravity of which we’re still not entirely certain of, most of us are experiencing brand new thoughts, feelings and emotions. While mental health struggles are nothing new for Americans, the unique emotional landscape generated by a global pandemic and subsequent national lockdown is not familiar territory for any one of us. While keeping busy with household projects or hobbies can be productive, in times of distress, these tasks can easily be used as a distraction from the mental and emotional discomfort we’re experiencing. And just as there is no short cut to the end of a global crisis, or to the re-starting of our nation’s businesses, there is no fast and easy way to journey through the emotions we’re feeling.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

While not ideal by any means, this unexpected situation can be used to our individual advantage as a time to face our fears head-on and walk bravely into the inner workings of our mind and emotions. Exploring breathing and meditation practices can help you safely build a tolerance for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, allowing you to understand, accept, and live peacefully with your mind, regardless of what’s happening in the world around you.

If you’ve thought about trying breathwork or meditation in the past, but effectively put if off because it sounded complicated or tedious, you’re not alone. Just like starting an exercise program, beginning any sort of meditation practice can feel overwhelming, and maybe even impossible. But there are several gentle exercises you can experiment with first to help you ease into a regular practice, like slowly lowering yourself into a nice, hot bath. Explore a few of these options first. Then, when you find some relief in one of these beginners’ practices, you can challenge yourself to take on a more advanced practice.

Candle-gazing. Find a quiet, darkened place to be alone. Sit comfortably, placing a candle directly in front of you, or holding it in your lap. Some find a scented candle to be soothing, while others prefer unscented so as not to distract them. Find what works best for you. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Light the candle, then take 2-3 deep, cleansing breaths. Stare at the flame. Try to notice as many aspects of it as you can. What colors are in the flame? What does it smell like? Are you close enough to feel the heat? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? Allow yourself to watch the intricacies of the flame. Does it flicker and change shape, or does it remain steady? When you find yourself thinking thoughts about the day or worrying, gently return your attention to the flame and notice again any details about what you see, smell, hear or sense. After the 10 minutes is up, take note of anything you experienced during the exercise. Did your thoughts cease? Did your mind become overactive? Was this soothing? If not, note what was troublesome. You can use that information to find options that work better.

Breathwork. This is an incredibly powerful way to clear your mind and activate your body’s innate ability to produce calming neurotransmitters and hormones. Some people find that doing just 10 minutes or so of breathwork leading into meditation can produce a highly effective experience, but it can also be used alone for stress management, pain relief, or to mitigate anxiety and depression. There are several different methods – all of which are valuable practices. One very quick and simple method to try yourself is to lay on your bed. Relax into a comfortable “corpse” position, as they say in yoga. Close your eyes. Place your left hand on your belly and your right hand on your heart (or, if it’s more comfortable for you, feel free to reverse.) The breathing practice looks like this: with eyes closed and mouth open, you will take a “two-part” inhale. Take one breath into your belly, a second breath into your heart, (so, two inhales on the same in-breath), then release in an exhale through an open mouth. To guide your breath and make sure you’re breathing into your belly first, then your heart, use your hands to feel the inhales. Continue at a pace that keeps the breath moving somewhat quickly. Breath, breath, exhale. Breath, breath, exhale. This will often times produce a dizzy sensation or tingling throughout your body. This is totally normal. Notice the sensations and tell yourself you’re completely safe. You may also notice emotions coming to the surface. You might even laugh or cry. This is very good as it’s allowing your subconscious to bring up and clear stuck emotions. Set a timer and try this for 3-5 minutes, eventually working your way to 10 minutes. Here are a few other excellent resources for free breathwork practices: wimhofmethod.com, breathehealrepeat.com, somabreath.com. The trick is to try a couple of them until you find the one that works best for you! Be sure to take notes on your experience to help you build a unique practice perfect for you.

Follow the breath meditation. Find a quiet place and bring yourself into a comfortable seated position. If sitting is difficult, you can also lay in your corpse pose. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes. The practice is simple: just breathe in and out as you normally would, but track your breath either by saying to yourself, “In,” on the in breath, and, “Out,” on the out breath, or count the breaths by saying the number to yourself on the exhale. You can start over when you get to 10. Every time your mind strays with thoughts, bring your awareness back to the simplicity of breathing in, and breathing out. In, out. One, two. Repeat. After time is up, take note of your experience. If you found this exercise helpful, increase your time until you can sit with your breath for 15 minutes.

Mantra meditation. Find a quiet place and bring yourself into a comfortable seated position. If sitting is difficult, you can also lay in your corpse pose. Think of a short, simple mantra that you can focus on as you breathe in and out. Some people keep it simple and use, “Inhale, exhale,” as their mantra. Some prefer single syllables, such as, “So, hum, so, hum.” Still others like affirmations, such as, “I am light, I am love.” The easiest practice for beginners is to find a two-part mantra with a word, phrase or syllable for the inhale, and a word, phrase or syllable for the exhale. Play with words, affirmations, sounds or prayers out loud or in your head until you settle on the mantra that’s perfect for you. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes. Say the word or phrase to yourself in cadence with your inhales and exhales. If you’re comfortable, you can also experiment with saying the mantra aloud as you sit with your eyes closed.  Find a rhythm that feels natural to you. If your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the mantra. Focus only on the phrase.

A few important tips for beginners:

-Never reprimand yourself when your mind wanders, and it WILL wander. That’s why we call it a practice – you are training your brain to change its focus. The Buddhists call it the monkey mind for a reason! But like most animals, monkeys can be trained. Acknowledging your mind wandering and bringing it back is where the real work lies – that’s the practice right there in a nutshell.  

-Find the observer. As you sit and breathe, or repeat your mantra, find the part inside of you that’s observing the part of you breathing or chanting. Then, when a stray thought comes up, use that observer as the witness to the thought, rather than the person thinking the thought. The observer can allow the thought to pass by. Just as you would sit in a park and people watch, letting those you see continue on their path as you wait for the next person to pass by, so too can the observer watch the thoughts, then release them as they pass through your mind. It is not the observer’s job to judge, only to witness and allow.

-A great tool to use is called “mental noting.” Imagine yourself attaching a sticky note to a stray thought every time it occurs. So when you’re breathing, and then suddenly, you’re stricken with the burning question of whether or not you closed the garbage can lid after you cleaned up the dinner scraps, now wondering if your dogs are in the other room feasting on garbage, you can note that thought. Say to yourself, “worrying,” or, “fretting,” or see yourself sticking a note on the thought. Once the thought is acknowledged and categorized, you can send it on its way. Do this with every thought, as many times as you need to, as a way to bring your attention back to the observer.

-Unless a true emergency is occurring, anything and everything can wait until you’re done with your practice. Your thoughts are just distractions, designed by the monkey mind to trick you out of following through. Just as the mind does its job of keeping you distracted, your observer can do his or her job, acknowledge the thought, and continue the practice. Even if you just remembered that it’s time to change the laundry, you don’t have to stop your practice and do it now. Note the thought, acknowledge it, and then remind yourself that the task will be there when you’re done. If you’re worried that you’ll forget later, give yourself a strong affirmation, “I will deal with the laundry when I’m done,” and then keep going. That being said, it’s best to attend to anything that can be a distraction before you begin your practice. Use the restroom, let the dogs out, let the dogs in, tell your house mates that you need a few minutes to yourself. Set yourself up for success by taking care of tasks before beginning your practice.

-If doing breathwork for the first time, or after a long break, ALWAYS begin lying down until you get a feel for the practice. If you become comfortable with the sensations that deep breathing can invoke, you can eventually take your practice in a sitting position if you prefer. But when starting breathwork, it’s always best and safest to lay in a comfortable, supported position.

-If you’re using your phone for a timer, or for a guided meditation, try turning on Do Not Disturb in your settings. This way, you won’t be distracted by text messages or notifications.