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Yoga for Difficult Times: Part I

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 by Marianne Elliott

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As promised, I made a video today of a simple yoga practice for difficult time. Now, some of you might know of yoga only as those difficult looking bendy poses that people do on the cover of magazines like Yoga Journal. That is, indeed, yoga. But that’s not all there is to yoga.

Yoga is a beautiful, elegant, complex system of practices for well-being and – ultimately – enlightenment. It includes everything from simple breath practices and mantra to the practice of non-violence and yes, some powerful asana (postures) to bring strength, alignment and ease to our often neglected bodies and to restore union between our bodies and minds.

When I was facing the intense emotional and psychological after-effects of trauma in Afghanistan, I had the good fortune to meet a Sivananda yoga teacher who taught me two simple breathing practices (pranayama).

I credit one of them for saving my sanity, maybe even my life.

The practice is ‘Alternate Nostril Breathing’ and at the time that I learned this practice, and discovered it’s effect on me, I didn’t really understand how it worked at all. But I did notice its effect. Whenever I did the alternate nostril breathing I would feel calmer. My sense of panic would subside, my body would soften and relax and my mind would somehow find a space of ease in the midst of all the craziness of that time.

When I got home from Afghanistan I enrolled to study psychology, mostly because I wanted to better understand trauma and its effects. As part of those studies I did some research on the benefits of yoga for people experiencing any kind of anxiety disorder (including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). What I learned didn’t surprise me. In a number of clinical trials yoga had been shown to ease the symptoms of all these conditions.

Which particular yoga practice was most often found to be effective in managing stress and trauma?

Alternate Nostril Breathing.

This practice works on the nervous system, activating the para-sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for our relaxation response) and balancing the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the flight or fight response). Panic attacks, flash-backs, insomnia and depression can all be effects of sustained activation of the flight or fight response without actually being able to either flee or fight, so this simple practice has great benefits for those of us living with the chronic effects of stress or trauma.

And remember, your house need not have been flattened for you to be experiencing heightened flight or fight response. If you have lost your job, or had to take your children and flee to a safer city you are almost certainly experiencing high levels of stress.

Go easy on yourself, and perhaps give this simple practice a try.

Today I recorded a very simple yoga practice, including alternate nostril practice, for any of you who are feeling overwhelmed, overstretched or generally overwrought at the moment. This is a 20 minute practice for which you do not need to have a yoga mat or to be either fit or flexible.

I do most of the practice sitting cross-legged on the floor (propped up with cushions for my achy hip) but you can do it just as well sitting on a chair if that is more comfortable for you. If it’s possible for you to sit up tall in the chair, so that your spine is long and you are not resting your back on the back of the chair that is ideal, but if that’s not possible don’t give it another thought, simply do what is possible for you.

You can watch the video here, or use the link below to download it to your own computer and watch whenever and wherever it suits you.

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If you have any trouble with that video, you might like to watch this shorter video I made last year introducing just the Nadi Shodhana, or Alternate Nostril Breathing. Once you’ve watched it, you can download the short audio file below the video (the whole thing is less than five minutes) and listen to it whenever you like.

Just the audio file guidance for the practice – without the introduction/explanation:
Alternate Nostril Breathing

I’ll share more yoga for difficult times in the weeks and months to come.

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6 Responses to "Yoga for Difficult Times: Part I"

  1. Claire Williams says:

    Thanks Marianne! This was a lovely thing to find and practice with you from far away before bed tonight. Best to you always and to those who are healing their hearts, minds and bodies.

  2. Natalie says:

    I keep forgetting how powerful those very small, gentle ways of practicing are. This was such a great reminder. Thank you 🙂

  3. Ty Barbary says:

    Just now watching the video – did you know your Oms sound like a singing bowl? 😀 That is so awesome.

  4. Gizem says:

    Thank you very much for your time and sharing these with us is very much appreciated!

    with love

  5. […] learned that yoga can be simple; this post contains an awesome video introduction to a breathing method and simple yoga-osity. (I […]

  6. claire says:

    Thanks very much for this, Marianne!

    I’ve tried the alternate nostril breathing a couple of times and just gave the yoga for difficult times a try. Needed an easy going yoga today and it was just the thing.

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