ENLIGHTEN UP! a blog
Self-awareness stories: lighting our way to clarity, contentment and resilience in a complicated world.
ENLIGHTEN UP! a blog
Self-awareness stories: lighting our way to clarity, contentment and resilience in a complicated world.
“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” — Albert Einstein
Change requires making a transformation in form, appearance, or character. Knowing how to transform our everyday energy states is key to developing balance and resilience.
For example, if we feel pooped, exhausted and drained, our supply of energy is deficient and we need to find a way to light our fire. If we feel wired, and fired up with a mind that’s racing a mile a minute on overload, our energy is excessive and we need to find a way to slow the burn.
In either case, our energy is out of whack and we need a life hack to get it back into balance so we can function efficiently. If our unbalanced state is temporary, we can use our self-awareness skills to shift our energy into a more optimal state that allows us to feel stable and embodied. It’s important to know the difference between temporary and chronic. Chronic fatigue, or its opposite, may require medical attention. What makes a temporary state varies from person to person. For me, temporary is two or three days depending on what’s going on in my life. More than that, I know something is really ‘off.’
We can start our self-awareness process by asking, “Why is this excess or deficiency manifesting at this time? Sometimes we’ll find an answer and sometimes we won’t but the important part of the process is our inquiry. Then we ask ourselves, “What can I do to deal with the imbalance?” The next step is self-discipline, to implement our chosen technique in a safe and helpful way.
Choosing and practicing specific techniques can help us light our fire or slow the burn.
Here are two from the yoga tradition.
1. Transforming an Energy Deficiency to Light Your Fire
According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly everyone is overtired or overworked from time to time. Unrelenting fatigue is a whole different matter. When fatigue lasts longer, is more profound, and isn't relieved by rest, it’s a sure sign that you need to see a medical professional.
Temporary fatigue, or lack of energy, usually has an identifiable cause and a likely remedy. I occasionally experience a couch potato, empty vessel, sloth-like, lack of energy. This state typically hits after an extended period of long to-do lists, lack of sleep, feeling blue, sad and down-in-the-dumps or overeating carbs – you know, bread, pasta, potato chips and sugar – the ultimate comfort foods.
To light your fire, think, “move, stimulate, and energize.” Here’s a combination breath and movement technique you may find helpful when you sense a lack of energy and need a boost.
It’s called, Breath of Joy. It’s typically done in a standing position but is easily modified for sitting in a chair. It’s from the Kripalu Yoga tradition and the instructions are from a Yoga International article by Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, founder of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, and a leader in the field of yoga and mental health.
Caution: This practice may not be appropriate for those with high blood pressure or who suffer from eye or head injuries.
The purpose of The Breath of Joy is to awaken the whole system, increasing oxygen levels in the bloodstream, temporarily stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, and focusing the mind. Here are Amy’s instructions:
Instructions: To practice Breath of Joy, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel, knees slightly bent.
1. Inhale one-third of your lung capacity and swing your arms up in front of your body, bringing them parallel to each other at shoulder level, with palms facing the ceiling.
2. Continue inhaling to two-thirds capacity and stretch your arms out to the side like wings to shoulder level.
3. Inhale to full capacity and swing your arms parallel and over your head, palms facing each other.
4. Open your mouth and exhale completely with an audible ‘Ha,’ bending the knees more deeply as you sink into a standing squat and swing your arms down and back behind you like a diver.
Repeat up to nine times. Don’t force or strain the body or breath; simply be absorbed by the peacefully stimulating rhythm. Return to standing. Close your eyes and experience the effects. Notice how quickly your heart beats; feel the sensations in your face and arms, and the tingling in the palms of your hands."
Chair Modification: For step 4, bend forward in the chair and swing your arms down and back behind your body.
2. Transforming an Energy Excess to Slow the Burn
This state may manifest in one of two ways:
To slow the burn, and reach a balanced energy state, think “cool, calm and relax.’ Here’s a technique you may find helpful when you sense an excess of energy.
Props: a sturdy chair, a pillow or folded blanket for the head, a timer and a music source (optional)
1. Select a carpeted area or use your yoga mat to practice this pose.
2. Set your timer for 10 – 15 minutes and start the music if you choose to use it.
3. Sit down close to the chair, swing the legs up and place your calves on the chair seat.
4. Adjust yourself so that your knees are over your hips.
5. Place the pillow or folded blanket under your head.
6. Close your eyes and breathe normally.
7. When the timer goes off, bend the knees halfway toward the chest and roll to the side, using your arms to sit up slowly.
Chair Modification: Sit with a comfortably straight spine with your chin parallel to the floor. Close your eyes, relax your hands on the legs, palms down. To come out, Stretch the arms and legs in any way that feels comfortable.
I began this article with a quote from a famous physicist because I am fascinated by the intersections between ancient wisdom traditions and modern science. I’ll end with this one:
“Energy is a bit like money: if you have a positive balance, you can distribute it in various ways, but according to the classical laws that were believed at the beginning of the century, you weren't allowed to be overdrawn.” — Stephen Hawking
“Energy doesn't communicate in English, French, Chinese or Swahili, but it does speak clearly.”
— Elaine Seiler
Breath and energy together form the second layer of self-awareness (bethgibbs.com/fivelayersofselfawareness). The oxygen we breathe nourishes the body and brain and sustains life. Our energy is that invisible life force that animates us at all levels, enabling us to think, create, move, work, love, and navigate all that life brings. Breath and energy are integrated and inseparable even though we separate them to define, discuss, measure, explain, sense, feel and explore.
Grasping the idea of your subtle energy and learning to sense it may feel a bit woo-woo but it is very real. Just like the energy that powers our electronic devices, turns on the lights and heats our homes, it’s energy that animates us. It is believed to surround, interpenetrate and expand beyond our physical body and interrelate with everything in our environment.
Eastern healthcare practitioners and philosophers tell us that the body-mind and its five layers are made of energy. They consider the study of subtle energy to be a complex and yet unexplored area that involves and impacts breath, the act of breathing, our overall health and our relationship to our world.
Science acknowledges that human energy fields exist. The ones that can be measured include the electromagnetic and bio-magnetic fields generated by all living cells, tissues, organs, and the body as a whole. For example science measures electrical brain activity with an EEG (electroencephalogram) and heart activity with an ECG (Electrocardiograph). Scientists also acknowledge that the subtle energy field exists but are not in agreement on what it is or how to measure it. Theoretical physicists believe that energy holds the universe and all solid matter together allowing us to function in a material world.
While Western science seeks ways to measure it, Eastern wisdom traditions provide self-awareness explorers with ways to grasp, understand and work with subtle energy. In India this energy is called Prana, but it’s known by other names in other places:
Subtle energy is said to enter the body as we breathe, and circulate around the body through energy channels analogous to blood vessels. The Chinese call these channels meridians. Yogis call them nadis. It is this energy that connects everything and everybody. How we understand and relate to that basic truth can have a transformative effect on how we live and interact with ourselves, with others and with our environment.
Direct experience of subtle energy remains a bit mysterious for most of us until practice or grace renders it noticeable. This may be because most of us can’t ‘see’ our energy, but it is a factor in every aspect of the human condition. We all have the ability to work with our energy and use it to change how we perceive our issues, actions, behavior and ultimately, ourselves. To begin working with your subtle energy, consider these suggestions:
Sensing Your Energy Levels
In her book, Charge and the Energy Body, Anodea Judith offers this exercise as a way to sense subtle energy in your body.
Sit comfortably with a straight spine. Extend your arms directly out in front of you, elbows straight, your hands several inches apart. Open and close your palms, rapidly moving from all the way open to completely closed. Repeat until your hands feel tired, about half a minute or so.
Then separate your hands about two feet, with your palms facing each other. Very slowly bring your palms toward each other, pausing when they are about six to eight inches apart. You should be able to feel a very subtle energy field between your hands and possibly some mild tingling or buzzing in the center of your hands.
If you don’t feel this energy right away, extend your arms again and open and close your hands a few more times. Make sure you are opening and closing them all the way in each direction, until your hands feel tired. With practice, you can learn to sense this subtle energy.
According to Judith, this exercise will work for about 90% of the people who try it. It definitely works for me!
Breath and Breathing
Not surprisingly, breath feels more ‘real’ than energy because it is firmly rooted in the five sense material world. We see pictures and diagrams of the respiratory system in anatomy books that list the parts involved in the process of breathing oxygen: nose, nasal cavities, mouth, throat, trachea, lungs and the muscles of respiration. These can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and listened to with our five senses and can be dissected and studied after death.
Scientific research and integrative health professionals support the idea that the proper flow of oxygen is necessary to maintain optimal physical health. In The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality Through Essential Breath Work, Donna Farhi says, “Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level, and your concentration.”
Fortunately we don’t have to think about each inhalation and exhalation we take. Our autonomic nervous system handles that function. It’s automatic and involuntary. However, with awareness and practice we can learn to consciously control and vary our breathing to change our physical, and mental states in several ways. By learning a variety of breathing exercises, we can:
These desirable outcomes are reason enough to take time to understand this aspect of our breath-energy layer and how to work with it. Our lungs can hold six liters of air, which equals approximately one and a half gallons. Sadly, most of us do not use the full capacity of our lungs. Here’s why we need to do that.
The brain is only 2% of the body’s weight, yet it needs 20% of our body’s available oxygen. The practice of deep breathing and fully oxygenating the blood is important to our overall well-being. Lack of oxygen weakens every body system and is a key factor in many diseases. It weakens the immune system, which can lead to viral infections, inflammation, heart disease, and premature aging.
Becoming aware of your breathing process and learning to breath deeply and efficiently is one of the most important practices you can incorporate into your daily life for optimal health. Here is an exercise for increasing your ability to breathe deeply and fill your lungs with those six liters of air.
The Full Deep Breath
Step 1: Abdominal (belly) breathing - Gently close your eyes and relax. Place your hands on your belly. Try to keep your chest still. Focus on your belly. When you exhale, push all the air out and press your hands a little deeper into your belly. Watch the inhalation as it fills the space, expands the belly and pushes your hands outward. Practice this for 1 – 2 minutes.
Step 2: Thoracic (chest) breathing - Now place your hands on your chest. Try to keep your belly still. Let your focus be on your chest. When you inhale feel your chest rise. When you exhale, empty the lungs fully, and feel your chest fall. Practice this for 1 – 2 minutes.
Step 3: Full deep breathing - This combines the above 2 steps. With your eyes closed, place
one hand on your chest and one on your belly. First inhale by filling the abdomen and keeping inhaling as you expand your ribcage and fill the chest. Then exhale first from the chest as it empties and falls and then continue your exhalation from the belly as it draws inwards. Practice this for 1 – 2 minutes.
Please note: All of the above steps should be done without strain. Go slow and easy. Initially your breathing may be jerky and uneven. If so, try to picture your breath as a slow motion wave rolling in and out of the body. It may take a few weeks of practice to get a real sense of how this feels in your body but your persistence will pay off.
Self-awareness Goal: Become aware of your breath and your energy will speak to you in a language you can hear and understand!
BETH GIBBS started her yoga practice in 1968, four months after her son was born and she’s been practicing ever since. She currently teaches all levels therapeutic yoga classes for adults, and specialty classes for seniors in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Beth is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is guest faculty at the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. She writes for the blogs, Yoga for Healthy Aging, and Accessible Yoga. Her master’s degree from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA is in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health.