BY ALICE YORK
These are unprecedented and unsettling times. As we all take protective precautions for our physical health and safety, it’s important we don’t leave our emotional and mental well being untended.
While we do our best to stay positive and levelheaded throughout the uncertainty we face, fear can be pervasive. What we are tasked to do is face these feelings, acknowledge them, in order to move through them. Let yourself feel whatever it is that comes up and sit with it, unpacking these worries, helping to settle them. Remind yourself that nothing is permanent and though you might not be able to control the actions and outcomes of what surrounds you, you have the power, ability, and capability to shape your own reaction.
Here is a brief meditation to navigate these times, and work through what comes up:
Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Let your eyes close and deepen your breath. Start to focus on the breath and begin to even it out. It can help to add a count to the breath, taking 2, 3, or 4 counts for every inhale, and the same count for the exhale, both through the nose. In your mind say, “I feel ____ (name the emotion you are dealing with, i.e. fear, stress, etc.).” Every time you identify the emotion, imagine it in a balloon beside you that floats away, up into the air, releasing the feeling. Feel yourself getting lighter with every emotion, every balloon, you release. Once you have finished identifying and releasing these feelings, repeat the words “These feelings will pass.” Let those words echo in your mind like a mantra, imprinting them and breathing them into reality. Take a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth for an additional sense of release and to close to the meditation. Slowly open the eyes and bring small movements to the body.
Within this period of social distancing, we can find opportunity to settle into stillness. In Taoist thought, the idea of yin and yang is, well, the theory of everything. Everything contains yin and yang—these interconnected energies provide a lens through which the entire universe can be perceived and ultimately expressed. A harmonious universe is one in which yin and yang coexist in balance.
Yang refers to activity, effort, energy, restlessness. Yang is considered to be more masculine of the two, more dominant, more fiery. We exist in a caffeinated culture of multitasking where productivity reins supreme—America is decidedly and overtly yang. Its partner, yin, is associated with passivity, contemplation, and calm. Where yang can give way to ambition and aggression, yin is docile; it is softness personified. It is the divine feminine. Yang is our fight-or-flight setting while yin is our state of rest-and-digest. As we find ourselves confined to our homes, this is the silver lining: give yourself permission, at least for the present, to be present, to take it slow. This is a time for simply being, not doing. For finding the yin in our yang world.
The practice of yin yoga helps us to tap into this place of quiet, into our parasympathetic nervous system. It is designed, through holding poses and emphasizing slowness of movement, to help reduce stress and bring forward relaxation. All the while, it is working deep into the fascial tissues of the body, improving mobility, flexibility, circulation, and easing joint pain. A panacea for the temporarily housebound.
The following yin yoga poses are designed to help foster a sense of peace and maintain sanity while we are encouraged to shelter in place, and bring some light movement and comfort to our bodies.
Aim to hold all poses for at least 2 minutes. I recommend using a mat, but a carpet, towel, or blanket make great stand-ins. Yoga blocks, if you have them, are wonderful, but pillows are similarly helpful accessories to have here instead. It can be nice to dim the lights, play some relaxing music, and even light a candle to set the mood and add a sense of ritual and specialness to the time.
Begin in a position of active rest, lying on the back with the knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Walk the feet wide and knock the knees together. The hands can rest on the stomach. If this positioning of the legs is uncomfortable, let the legs extend out long on the ground. If lying on your back is inaccessible, come to rest on your side, making sure to spend equal time on either side. Let the eyes close. Start to slow down and connect to the breath. Set an intention to be still, to stay present, to be in the moment.
Let the knees point up towards the ceiling, walking the feet closer together, about hip distance apart. Hug the right knee into the chest, wrapping the hands around the right shin. The left knee can stay bent, with the left foot planted on the mat, or you can extend the left leg long, straight out on the mat. Release the right foot back to the ground. Extend both legs long and gently bounce the knees and then give the hips a little rock side-to-side. Repeat on the left side. Hold each side for at least 1 minute.
Make your way up to a seated position and come onto hands and knees. The tops of the feet should make contact with the ground. The wrists should be stacked under the shoulders and the knees under the hips. Inhale and lift your tail and lift your chin, coming into cow pose. Exhale, tucking your chin and tailbone, rounding your spine into cat. Continue through as many of these as you like, connecting your breath and movement together, your spine starting to move like a wave.
From tabletop, come on to the forearms. Start to walk your knees back until your legs are extended long behind you, coming down onto the stomach, until you find yourself in sphinx pose. Your palms are planted on the floor, your elbows are underneath the shoulders. Root down through the tops of the feet. Feel as though you are pulling back through the palms in order to open your chest. Keep the collarbones wide and the heads of the shoulders back. Take care not to pinch or crunch the back of the neck—let your gaze fall about 6-12” in front of the fingertips.
When you are ready, on your exhale, lower down, sending the elbows wide on the floor and stacking the hands to create a pillow for the forehead. Let the forehead rest on the tops of the hands and stay here. You may rock the hips side-to-side as a little release for the back.
Lift the chin slightly and place the palms on either side of the ribcage to push back up to table. Sit back onto the heels and slowly swing the legs around to come in front of the body on the floor. Bend both knees and plant the feet, rolling down onto the back. Bring the soles of the feet together, knees opened wide, into a butterfly pose. In Sansksrit this pose is called supta baddha konasana, or supine bound ankle pose. If you have blocks, you can place them under both knees for support; pillows would be a good alternative. Bring your arms out into a “T” or into a goal post or cactus position. This provides a gentle chest/shoulder opener as we open the hips.
Keeping the arms where they are, point the knees up towards the ceiling and walk the feet wide. Let the knees fall side-to-side, taking “windshield wipers” with the legs. Do this for about 10 seconds. Return the legs to neutral and extend them out long in front of you on the mat. Allow the arms to come to the sides, palms facing up. This pose is called savasana—it is the ultimate resting pose. Let your eyes close. Try to stay here for at least 5 minutes, ideally 10-15. While you’re here, cover yourself in a blanket if you’d like. An eye pillow can be a nice pampering touch. You can also place a long pillow or rolled up blanket beneath the knees to release the back. Stacking pillows or your blocks (or books!) and a blanket under the calves lifts the legs and also provides a nice circulatory boost along with a little ease for the back. If lying on the back is uncomfortable, rest on the side instead, again remembering to rest equally on both sides.
To come out, deepen the breath, feel the air travel throughout the entire body. Feel a sense of awakening. Wiggle fingers and toes. Slowly come onto one side. Just as slowly, come up to a seated position. Keeping the gaze soft or eyes closed, sit in meditation for just a few moments, noticing the breath. With that same slowness, blink the eyes open.
For those seeking more of a guided practice—and the community that comes with it—many studios and wonderful teachers in Chicago (and across the country) are offering digital classes during this time for lower rates and some at no cost. I recommend checking out your favorite studio’s website or Instagram account to learn more. Many are keeping the signup process the same but using platforms like Zoom, which many of you might be familiar with from corporate calls and virtual meetings, to deliver the classes live, right to your computer or phone. Because of the current protocol, studios have been forced to close their doors, putting their teachers out of work. This is a great way to keep studios from closing for good and ensure their teachers receive an income.
You can take class with me through the studio where I teach, Tiny Space to Breathe—we are offering meditation, yoga, and yin yoga Monday through Saturday for $7 and $9, respectively. I am also personally offering live streaming classes as private sessions or for families to take together at home. These can be customized to accommodate your needs and preferences. To arrange a session, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through my website: alicemerceryork.com.