Life continually moves through contrasts – rise and fall, success and failure, loss and gain, acceptance and blame. In these moments it’s difficult, if not near-impossible, to keep a balanced heart and mind. In these moments, it’s challenging to simply observe what’s happening around us without getting caught up in what’s going on inside us, especially if we’ve witnessed an unjust act or we’re the recipient of one. When we get cut off in traffic, have our wallet stolen, find our car broken into or experience any sort of hurtful behavior directed toward us, our normal response is a knee-jerk emotional reaction: anger, frustration, jealously or irritability. And, while it might feel like the right thing in the moment, the anger or backlash of our hurt never really serves us – or anyone for that matter. Instead, our anger or upset only amplifies those very feelings, leaving us stuck in a cycle of suffering.
In the face of our suffering, life will demand that we don’t invest in our suffering. In our most difficult and challenging moments, we will be asked to soften. In times of uncertainty, life will ask us to trust wholeheartedly. In moments of chaos, we will need to find inner stillness.
Life continually moves through contrasts and if we wish to move beyond our suffering, there is no greater contrast than what is required of us. Equanimity is the simplest, yet most challenging task we will ever face in life.
Equanimity is defined as having a mental calmness, or an even mind, especially in challenging situations and the English word Equanimity actually translates to two separate Pali words, Upekkha and Tatramajjhattata. Upekkha, the more commonly known term, means to “look over” and it refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation – the ability to see without being caught up by what we see. It’s seeing through a lens of patience and understanding. On the flip side, tatramajjhattata speaks to a broader sense of being. The word Tatramajjhattata itself is made of 3 Pali words: Tatra meaning “there” or “all these things”; Majjha meaning “middle”; and Tata which means “to stand or pose”. Put together Tatramajjhattata means “to stand in the middle of all this”. As a form of equanimity, this “being the middle” refers to remaining centered in our body, mind and spirit no matter what is happening outside of us.
But being centered is the last thing we feel during life’s ups and downs. When the scale indicates that we’ve lost weight, or we land a princess parking spot or we learn we’re getting a bigger tax return, the last thing we are is equanimous – we’re outright hype. The same holds true at the opposing end of the spectrum. When someone cuts us off in traffic, or our favorite cardio class is sold out, or the scale has gone up, we’re just as reactive – everything from aggravated to disappointed to defeated.
The reality is life will always have ups and downs and if we allow ourselves to be swept up in the pendulum swings, we’ll constantly find ourselves at these super high-highs and these super low-lows, forever at the mercy of our circumstances. To be equanimous isn’t just about observing the bad and being at peace with what is. To be equanimous is to present with everything: the “good”, the “bad” and the in-between’s.
Recently, I’ve found myself very on edge, anything by centered and grounded. Worried about my classes, finances, long-term goals and next best steps, I’ve been entangled in my circumstances, up with the ups and low with the lows. Then on Sunday I reached my tipping point. I received something that was not mine to have and it sent me over the edge. I went from zero to sixty in a hot second. I was pissed, beyond pissed, and even more, I was so hyperaware that I was watching myself have the reaction, which, as it turns out, is even more frustrating.
Pissed Off Me was so incensed that she started to plot how she was going to “give it” to this person that hurt her and how she would teach them their lesson – my coach loves to call this trait of mine the Self-Righteous Preacher. My SRP is the voice that loves telling people what they are doing wrong and how they can do better. It’s a nasty little trait and one that I keep in check, until I get really pissed off.
Then, there’s Other Me. Other Me isn’t reacting. She’s the hyperaware one. Just watching. Observing. Don’t get me wrong, she’s feelin’ a certain way about this whole thing too, hurt mainly, but she’s just feeling it. She doesn’t know what to do with how she feels, but she knows it doesn’t involve whatever crazy idea my SRP is concocting. And so, Other Me is coaxing my SRP asking her if that’s really what she wants to do. Other Me is reminding her that there’s an energy to all actions, “Do we really want to contribute our hurt to their wrongs?”
In that moment, my SRP told Other Me to go “F” herself and that she didn’t understand how wrong and hurtful and inconsiderate this person’s actions were, that they needed to know they were wrong.
Suffice it to say, I alternated between reacting to my pain and feeling my pain, not wanting my pain and not really knowing what to do with my hurt. Far from equanimous, I was deeply in my struggle.
As I allow myself to “stand in the middle of all this”, the anger fades, my SRP backs down, and I start to just observe my hurt. I learn to explore my pain without reacting to the pain and in these moments, I see that the answer isn’t responding to hurt with more hurt. I’m learning that equanimity is a simple, yet difficult task, and one in which it’s really hard to stand in the middle all of the time. In one moment, I’ll find my equanimous mind, the one that can see this other person with compassion and how their hurt and scorn led them down this path. In these moments, I can see my pain as my own, but also not mine – I can see the pain as part of my experience without allowing it to shape my experience. In other moments, the pain is so excruciatingly part of me that it brings me to my knees and calls out my darkest parts.
Equanimity is not a destination but rather a continual process of coming back to this middle ground, one that we can always find if we remember to breathe.
In our moments of stress, we often lose sight of our breath, the single greatest tool we have to change our state of being. For thousands of years, the yogic practice of pranayama (Sanskrit for “extension of life force”) has been used as a method to reduce stress and heal the body and mind. When you focus on your breath, regulating your inhalations and exhalations, when you slow down the rate at which you breathe and do so consciously, you stimulate brain growth and promote cortisol thickness; improve your heart rate variability; reduce the risk of heart attacks; and lower your stress levels, alleviating anxiety and negative emotions.
This week, rather than acting on my reactions, I’m reminding myself to breathe through the uncertainty and the difficult situations and feelings. Below, you’ll find my go-to breathing practices for when I’m stressed – and ones I go to especially in these times when I’m seeking to cultivate more compassion and greater levels of equanimity. Try them out and let me know in the comments below what’s working for you.
May you find compassion around the areas of your reactivity
May you learn to stand in the middle of all this as you are
May you breathe through the unfolding of this moment into your next as is
Strengthening Equanimity Through Your Breath
Square breathing, because it’s a rhythmic breath, is extremely healing to your parasympathetic system. With this method of breathing, you are controlling your breath or pranayama so that your inhalations, exhalations and the suspension of your breath is at the same rate.
A square breath is typically done in ratios of 4 and it’s the easiest starting point – not to mention my go-to choice. To do a 4 Square Breath, inhale slowly through the nose for 4 counts; hold the inhalation at the top, allowing the ribs to expand for 4 counts; exhale slowly through the nose for 4 counts; and then hold the suspension of the breath for 4 counts. Do this for 1-5 minutes, or as long as you need. Usually within a few minutes, I feel calmer.
From 4 Square Breath, you can work to 8 and then 16. Breathing and holding the breath for these extended periods of time won’t only stretch the elasticity of your lungs, oxygenate your blood at greater levels and promote over all wellbeing – it will also stretch the response of your sympathetic system, your fight-or-flight response. When you hold your breath for an extended period of time, it triggers your fight-or-flight response and it’s the focus and commitment to the Square Breath that allows you to reprogram your nervous system to handle and manage stress.
Anapanasati is a Sanskrit word that means, “mindfulness of breathing” and Anapana Meditation is exactly that: the observance of your natural breath.
To practice Anapanasati
Find a comfort place to sit. If you need a block, bolster or wall so that you can reduce agitation and movement, feel free to grab it. Avoid laying down as the goal is to truly understand who you are and how you show up in challenges. The goal isn’t to become so comfortable that we fall asleep or lose sight of observing what is. The goal is to come into the observance of our natural breath as it is our natural breath that is present with us in our everyday lives. It is our natural breath that is our feedback tool and gauge for where we are uncentered.
Once you find a comfortable place to sit, allow yourself to sit up tall and invite your eyes to close. Begin to bring the awareness of your breath to the small space between your nose and upper lip. You might not notice your breath at first. Keep redirecting your attention there anyway and know that it takes a heightened focus to zoom in on this small space. When your mind wanders, kindly redirect it back to your breath and that small space between your nose and upper lip. When your body wants to move, simply breathe first, notice the urge, and see if you can breathe beyond the craving. It’s not to say you can’t move, just allow yourself to become more aware of your natural tendencies in moments of discomfort and what it is you truly need.
Yoga is a breathing practice first. The poses, or asanas, are secondary.
For me, getting onto my mat (especially on the days I don’t want to), I am reminded to breathe and be where I am. When I’m stressed, my breathing is erratic and my mind and energy are frantic, but the intentional breathing of my yoga practice pulls me back into the present.
I can’t tell you how many difficult feelings I’ve worked through on my mat or how much even flowing for 5 minutes has radically changed my day. My yoga is what keeps me grounded on a regular basis.
Ready to flow? Join me Wednesday mornings at 8am at LifeTime Fort Washington, or flow on your own at home using the following heart and hip opening sequence. Unroll your mat and press play. In less than 15 minutes, you’ll feel recharged and ready to tackle whatever comes at you.
Time: 12 minutes
Playlist: Yoga Flow
Let the poses give you a sense of accomplishment through how they feel, not how they look. Remember, yoga is a breathing practice first and everyone’s body is different.