My mother used to do this thing when I was upset. She'd wiggle her fingers in my face and say, "Re-laaaaaaaaax. Re-laaaaaaaaax." I HATED it! It had the opposite effect and just enraged me more. One time it infuriated me so much that I kicked a radiator with my bare foot -- thinking, "That'll show her" -- and broke a toe.
In those moments, I obviously did need to relax, but I couldn't choose to. My mind was too chaotic and overrun by emotion to slow down enough to focus on relaxing. And those wiggly fingers were soooooo annoying.
My mom had such wonderful instincts as a parent and raised me with so much compassion, with such great values, and with infinite grace. Misfires were extremely unusual, but this was one of them in my opinion.
Why did "re-laaaaaaax" drive me up-the-wall, over-the-deep-end, and into a radiator?
Because it was a command, a command that negated my feelings. Instead, my mom could have let me say my piece and listened and been a little stealthier at getting me to calm down. She could have slowed her own breathing down, monitored her internal experience, rather than trying to dictate mine.
When you're with someone who's upset, a great gift and a healing is to focus on your own mental state and shift yourself into a relaxed place. If you're stable enough and strong enough in your calm, you influence the upset person surreptitiously. You can set the tone and even the rhythm of breath for the both of you.
I learned this technique in a children's yoga training with yoga teacher and special needs educator Allison Morgan. Allison told us a story about being called into a classroom to evaluate whether a girl (let's call her Jane) with problematic and disruptive behavior could stay in a mainstream classroom. She'd been hearing about Jane for weeks. Jane's teachers were so upset about this "uncontrollable" child. The principal was getting complaints from the parents of other children in the classroom. There was a lot of anxiety around Jane. On the morning that Allison went into the classroom to evaluate Jane, she talked to herself and silently to Jane. She slowed her own breathing down. Allison sat behind Jane as she breathed long and deep and projected thoughts like: "It's okay, Jane. Just be yourself. All you have to do is be yourself. It's okay."
And what happened? Jane worked at her desk quietly and did not cause any disruptions. She had never behaved like that before.
Allison explained that this was because of a phenomenon called entrainment, when one's internal rhythm syncs up with an external rhythm. The strength of Allison's focus and intention and the power of her breath calmed Jane down without her even knowing it.
What does this mean? It means we can do so much with our breath.
One day, a woman came to yoga and was clearly stressed. She peered into the studio from the foyer, saw everyone settling in on their mats, and said, "I really shouldn't go in there. I shouldn't be anywhere near here. I'm a ball of anxiety."
"That's what we are here for," I said. "This is exactly where you should be."
I didn't just mean that the teachers are here for her to help her calm down her nervous system and access her breath. I meant all of us, all of the students. After over an hour together, we rub off on each other. Our breaths can sync up. Those who can access a deep breath do, and they do it for all of us.
Off the mat, though, you have to be a little slick about it. If my daughter is having a moment and I shift into an obvious, conscious deep breath-- letting my torso expand and audibly inhaling and exhaling, she's onto me and she's not having it. "Don't do that yoga [expletive deleted] with me!" A big, deep breath can be the equivalent of the wiggly fingers. I have to do it quietly and imperceptibly. There's an art to it because I can't be so calm that I appear blank, either. My daughter wants to feel heard (as I did, as we all do) and know that her anger or agitation matters. I need to outwardly reflect active listening and inwardly calm myself. (P.S. I don't mean to suggest that I always make the right, artful choice. If only... )
I think about the potential of this, such a simple technique, and I get really inspired...
A young woman has just been let go from her job and is hyperventilating in the lobby of the office building. You ask if she's alright, listen to her intently, and most importantly, inwardly focus on slowing down your own breathing. A young boy is frantic at the playground unable to find his favorite toy truck. You ask if you can help, listen to him intently, and most importantly, inwardly focus on slowing down your own breathing. Your spouse, your child, your sister, your brother,
your mother, your father is angry about a perceived injustice. Very angry. You let him or her know that you understand; you listen intently, and most importantly, you inwardly focus on slowing down your own breathing.
We can do this everywhere we go -- schools, offices, restaurants, subways, etc. Imagine. We can breathe deeply for each other. When we breathe long and deep, we are helping to heal the world. (As long as we're slick.)
Cate discovered Kundalini Yoga by accident over 20 years ago and was surprised and thrilled by how engaged, energized, and inspired it made her feel. She's been practicing ever since. In 2008, Cate completed her Level 1 (200 hr) teacher training with Hari Kaur Khalsa of Hari NYC. In 2012, she broadened her knowledge with a very special Holistic Hatha Yoga training (300 hr) with Amy Witmyer of Sacred Space. Kundalini Yoga is her home, her go-to sanctuary, her point of peace and insight. She believes that it is a wonderful tool for busy times and busy minds. Join Cate on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings for Kundalini Yoga & Meditation.
Co-owners and Instructors of Montclair Kundalini Yoga, Cate Baily and Savitri Narayan Kaur. See their bios here.