You can be calm and happy in an imperfect world

Attention to mental health is not reserved for people with diagnosed conditions. Many “normal”’, functional working people are suffering from mental health issues but would never think of their angst in this way. For instance, some of us have very difficult jobs. Do you ever feel rinsed out and exhausted at work? It’s tempting to think, “Oh, that’s just the way it is”. The work situation around us has a profound effect on how we feel.

 

Or home life can be difficult for a host of reasons. And those reasons are completely true: if something really heartbreaking is playing out then there’s no escaping the magnitude of the events. Again, external circumstances weigh heavily. 

 

There are lots of other possible scenarios, other than home and work, where we can feel pretty bad most most of the time. But, we have resilience and we carry on. After all, what other option is there?

 

In truth, feeling bad for an extended period is the very definition of mental health issues. At these times, we have a mental health challenge even if we remain 100% functional in our lives. Without creating a scare, I feel we can call this out and understand it for what it is.

 

Yoga can’t make any of the problems go away. If a person faces an intractable problem, then that problem doesn’t vanish just because we bounce around the mat for an hour. But aspects of practice can shore up limited personal resources, and provide space to consider our current and best approach to staying well while dealing with whatever is going on.

Is this you?

The exact cause of protracted emotional strain is probably different for everyone. This blog is not about how to approach the external problem. It’s about how to help oneself to stay mentally well while that problem is ongoing.

 

Do any of these describe you, either now or at some point in the past?

 

  • Feeling trapped in some way.
  • Powerless.
  • Facing intractable issues.
  • Against impossible odds.
  • Ridiculous workloads.
  • Ready to throw it all in and walk away.
  • Feel a crushing weight immediately on entering the problem environment. 
  • Guilt or shame because you “should” appreciate what you’ve got.
  • Guilt or shame because loved ones might go without if you don’t just knuckle under and get on with it.

 

For many, these are familiar feelings. But let’s think for a moment about the above statements. They all share one attribute: they refer to an external force or situation that is imposing difficulty on us. It could be work; it could be a legal issue; it could be a council decision; it could be an unruly neighbour; it could be family problems. When we think thoughts such as those above, something external brings trouble to our lives and that disturbs our minds.

 

Jon Kabat-Zin’s famous Full Catastrophe Living speaks of his work with people who were very, very sick. The full catastrophe was playing out in their lives, and he sought to help if he could. Even though their illness was a factor of their own body-mind, it was external in the sense that its effects had a profound impact on their lives. Illness can take the role of an external agent impinging on emotional wellbeing.

Grin and bear it

Without any other assistance or intervention, this is the only course of action we might feel is available to us. Somehow, we must shoulder the burden and carry on. And this can work for a while – even a long while, especially with lower levels of emotional difficulty such as those attributable to a difficult work colleague. For quite some time, we can live with feeling a bit miserable, particularly if it’s limited to certain situations.

 

However, there are now two sources of strain: the original issue, and its effects on our emotional wellbeing. The outcome of course is stress – more stress than necessary, because some of it is triggered by our own decision to grin and bear it.

 

The mental recognition of a stressful situation leads to a cascade of chemistry in the body. These lead to the various physical effects that accompany the agitation we feel mentally.

There are two things to say about cortisol:

 

  1. It is catabolic. That means that it stimulates the breakdown of proteins in muscles into amino acids. These amino acids can then be converted into glucose or used for other metabolic processes. Read that again – stress eats one’s own muscles.
  2. Eventually, cortisol disrupts the response mechanism pictured above, causing a dysregulation that leads to increased inflammation. (Note that histamine can act to promote growth: it’s not simply an inflammatory response.)

 

It’s understandable – and in a way commendable – to shoulder the burden and soldier on. However, it can add to the problem overall.

Who’s in control?

We noted above the problems appear to be something outside of the self, something external, even if they relate to one’s own health. And many of them don’t have a solution. For instance, if money is tight (as it is for so many people) then money is tight. The amount of scope we have for cutting spending or increasing income is limited. It’s no wonder people try to just power through: there isn’t a change one can make “out there” to make the problem stop. Attention is focused outside, on the problematic circumstances. And since they don’t change much, feeling powerless is more or less inevitable. 

 

But you do have power – over your internal world, even if your external world has hard and immovable edges. There are ways to bring down the over-activation of the adrenal system and reduce the negative impact of how we feel about the problems we face. Problems don’t magically go away, but any accompanying degradation of health can be minimised or even avoided completely.

300 hour meditation course in Bristol

Inner smile practice

This is a very simple and very effective breathing practice. It’s a hard one to teach, because it’s so simple and its effects are so undeniable. “Surely it can’t be this simple to calm myself down?” – that’s the reaction I sometimes get.

 

Before I describe the practice, let’s try something. Sit quietly for a few moments, undisturbed, alone if possible. Is it ok to close your eyes? Do so if you can, otherwise drop your gaze but not your head. Neck and spine upright. 

 

Listen to yourself breathing for a few breaths. Then feel your breath happening in your body as the sound is being made.

 

Check in with how you are feeling. And then, for no reason whatsoever, smile and hold that smile. It’s a broad and muscular smile and while you hold that smile, check in with how you’re feeling. 

 

Your body will have bubbled up a feeling of happiness. It’s an artificial happiness as nothing has happened to make you smile. But it feels just like the real thing. Check that it’s there by dropping the smile and relaxing your face: your internal feeling will have returned to what it was at the start of the exercise.

The implications

  1. The feeling of happiness causes a smile, but this link works both ways. The smile and the feeling always happen together, no matter which comes first. We can generate the feeling of happiness whenever we want.
  2. You have some control over how your problems make you feel. You can decide to feel a different way at any point.

Isn’t that complete nonsense?

Surely this is rubbish…if there’s nothing to feel happy about, then I can’t entertain a happy feeling can I?

 

I would offer an example of how we feel when we read a book, or watch dramatic TV. As the scenes play out in the story, we experience a whole range of emotions – including happiness. We know that it’s a story: it never happened. When it comes to TV, we know that the people we see are actors. They may be standing in specially constructed sets, not even real places. We know that CGI is used to animate impossible things onto the image. It’s literally complete fiction, but we would enjoy it precisely because it triggers various emotions. 

 

Think about it. If it’s ok to laugh at a sitcom, it’s ok to smile to yourself.

The practice

 

  • Prepare a timer for 3 (or 5) minutes on your phone or other device but don’t start it yet. 
  • Take a moment to sit comfortably upright. Make any adjustments you need in order to be able to sit still for a few minutes.
  • Listen to yourself breathing for a few breaths. Then feel your breath happening in your body as the sound is being made.
  • Set your time running.
  • Is it ok to close your eyes? Do so if you can, otherwise drop your gaze but not your head. 
  • Check how you feel emotionally.
  • Smile broadly, registering the bubbling happy feeling that arises.
  • When you next breath in, imagine this feeling of happiness soaking into your whole head – almost as if you were washing your face with the feeling.
  • When your timer completes, relax your face and simply observe your breath for a few rounds.

 

Do you feel silly for doing that? Do you feel as though it should be more complex to get relief from emotional strain? These are normal reactions. Recall these thoughts later, watching TV. We live inside the lives of the characters while the show is on: we feel like we know them in some way. But the person we watch is not that character, and the character never lived anyway. Yet, it feels valid to watch the show and get to know the people it portrays.

Picture of a woman meditating in Bristol

Developing the practice

If you get along with this practice then there are two ways in which you can take it further.

 

  1. Drink in the feeling of the smile on the inhale (as stated above) and then imagine it is drawing down through your body on the exhale. Breathe in to wash your face in the feeling, breathe out to let it pour down through your body as water would pour down through a sponge.
  2. And/ or… gradually let the smile fade. It never completely disappears: keep noticing the feeling of happiness it generates. What is the minimum possible smile to have a noticeable feeling of warm happiness? This baseline happiness can be maintained by keeping the faint smile on the lips. This is the inner smile.

The role of Yoga

Remember, none of this will make problems magically disappear. But as we noted above, many modern problems don’t have a solution. The only thing we might be able to change quickly is how we feel while inevitable difficulties play out around us.

 

I’ve found the inner smile to be a potent way to disarm negativity very quickly and offer it here for you. However, there are many Yoga practices that will help generate equanimity. Yoga postures – such as practised in Yogafurie Hot Yoga classes – help us flex and stretch problems out of our heads for a while. But Yoga’s breath and meditation practices are the most powerful. The inner smile is just a very simple version of something that’s partly a breathing exercise, and partly a self-guided meditation.

 

Yoga was never aimed at changing the world outside the person. It has always been a practice of changing what’s inside. Thanks to Yoga practice, the person gets some space to let themselves be, in the midst of the life around them. Yoga teaches us that we can be, and that this being needs no authorisation from the outside to be at peace. 

 

Don’t read that the wrong way – at peace doesn’t mean inactive. Some situations demand dynamic action: the calm person will fare better than the agitated victim of circumstance – at least in the long term.


You can learn Yoga’s breathing techniques (pranayama) with Yogafurie in our 50-hour breathwork course. You can learn mindfulness, the basics of Buddhist meditation and Yoga Nidra with our 50-hour meditation course. You might already use the apps: honestly, I recommend learning to do it for yourself rather than relying on an app. Peace doesn’t have to be something you rent each month for the price of your app subscription: when you do it that way, it’s like giving the outside world the say over whether you feel good or not: “You can feel good…as long as you make the payments”. It’s beginning to sound like a mortgage!

Reflect and Reinvigorate Yoga

I haven’t got time to sit and breathe

This is a genuine issue for a lot of people. Life is already so hectic…where and when is the time to be found to work on oneself?

 

I remember hearing a story about a lumberjack who had a lot of wood to cut. His saw was blunt, and everything took lots of effort and longer than it needed to. But he would always say he didn’t have time to stop to sharpen the saw.

 

When we act in this way, we are again shouldering additional burden just to make things happen. That’s generous: the person who does that isn’t thinking of themselves. But that generosity costs one’s own body, and when one’s body finally rebels, everything is impacted.

For me personally – and this may not work for everyone – I found that I could get up and go to bed a little earlier each day. To start with, years ago, I just got up twenty minutes earlier. As I got more engrossed in practice, and felt how much it was helping me, I shifted my bed and rise times to enable more practice. That’s just my story, and it might not work for everyone – particularly if you have trouble sleeping. However you do it, once you start, you will notice benefits. If you can give yourself a tiny bit of attention and time, it will pay back.

If you'd like to learn more about Yogafurie and what we do, then get in touch


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