Cultivating Inner Quiet: 10 ways to quiet your mind and relax your body

Our world is filled with noise. We are surrounded by outside sounds from television, radio, appliances, and all the conveniences of modern life; and we live with an ever increasing state of noise within arising from feelings of anxiety and depression, rushing through one responsibility to get to the next, the unchecked turnings of our minds, and physical tension. These 10 practices are easy and accessible ways to access more quiet space within and to reduce internal noise, quiet your mind and more affectively relax and rejuvenate your body.

1) Reduce External Noise

It’s a loud, loud, loud, loud world. Cellphones, iPods, radio, television, cars, the appliances in our home all contribute to the ever increasing external noise around us. One of the simplest ways to begin to cultivate internal quiet is to reduce the level of external noise. Turn off the car radio, even if it’s just for several minutes. Spend the first 10 to 20 minutes of your evening in quiet, without the radio or the television. Try completing a chore in quiet. As you practice this more often, you may begin to notice that the initial discomfort you experience in response to the silence around you shifts and dissolves, leaving you craving moments and spaces without all the external noise.

2) Listen

We each have two voices. One that bounces around between our ears, the voice of our minds; and one that arises from below as intuition. As we begin to cultivate quiet we can develop skills to distinguish between the two voices. Often times we get caught up in what the voice in our mind is saying as it turns things over and over in never ending fluctuation. That is the job of the mind. It’s role is to sort through our environment, experience, and perceptions. It catagorizes and “makes sense” of the input from our external world. It is not, however, our Self. The voice of our true, highest nature arises from the heart. It is this voice that is informing of our purpose and our most genuine, conscious action.

This step is also applicable in conversation. We often spend our listening time in conversation formulating our own thoughts and responses rather than truly listening to the person we are speaking with. Take time to really listen to the person speaking and not your own mental voice, the next time you are engaged in conversation. It is only from this place of steady listening that we can begin to formulate an honest and grounded response rather than an emotional, patterned reaction.

3) Speak Less

Speaking less is a simple way to cultivate inner quiet. This goes not only for your conversations with others, but also conversations with yourself (those chattering fluctuations mentioned above). Choose a manageable period of time, such as thirty minutes or an hour, and vow to speak only when spoken to. Have a mini silent retreat, even if it’s just one hour. When you return to the world of unbridled conversation, practice thinking twice and speaking once. It isn’t always possible to maintain a personal silent retreat in the midst of a busy work day, but noticing how often we speak when it really isn’t necessary is a good first step to noticing how not speaking can support a more peaceful state of mind and body.

4) Soften your tongue and eyes

Anytime that it occurs to you during the day, practice noticing tension in your tongue and jaw and the position of your head along the sagittal plane. That is, how forward your eyes are in your head. Think of softening and gently widening your tongue from it’s base in your throat to the tip and softening your eyes deeper into their sockets. This can be done anytime, anywhere: while driving or standing in line at the grocer, sitting at your desk, while filling your gas pump or during a telephone conversation. Softening these areas of your face cultivates quiet in your skull, which in turn can affect your mind and help to facilitate speaking less and active listening.

5) Practice Gratitude

Feelings of lack and desperation can wreak havoc on your sense of quietatude. Instead of taking stock of what isn’t, count the blessings of what is. You can’t focus on what is missing if you’re in a state of appreciation for what you have. Dissonance is created when our actions do not match our beliefs and when we perceive that our experience is lacking in some aspect. This increases the level of cellular tension within the body. Did you know your cells can be tense? They can. Just like the previous three steps this can be practiced anywhere, anytime. The benefits of practicing gratitude on stress level and general health and well being, are well documented and produce immediate results. Finding a source of gratitude in each and every manifestation brings the self to a state of fulfillment. To a wise man, enough is a feast.

6) Tune into your senses. One at a time.

Give your attention over to your sensory experience, focusing on one sense at a time. Eating is a good time to practice sight, smell and taste. Focus your awareness on the appearance of your meal. Take in the form and color. Notice how your body responds to the smells. Chew slowly and absorb all the flavors of each bite. To tune into your hearing turn off the tv and radio, eliminate intentional noise, and tune into the other, incidental noises in your environment. Can you hear the clock ticking or the birds outside? Don’t try to name what you perceive, just notice. When you get into bed at night notice the temperature of the sheets, the softness of the pillow, and how your body responds to reclining. Your mind will want to name things, that’s normal. Don’t get caught up in it, passively receive what you perceive.

7) Focus on one task at a time. Take your time.

We are a multi-tasking society. We rarely do only one thing. Whether we are watching TV while surfing the internet, listening to the radio while driving, or tweeting while doing potentially anything our attention is divided everywhere we go. Make it a point to give all of your attention over to one task. With this kind of focus, you can be productive and precise in your task while also cultivating quietitude.

8) Notice your thoughts. Notice your breathing.

When we are in a state of heightened anxiety, fear, or confusion our breath shortens and becomes more shallow. You don’t have to be in an uncomfortable state for your thoughts to affect the depth and quality of your breath. Sometimes simply thinking intensely about any subject can cause us to shorten or even hold our breath. Meditative sitting is perhaps the best way to begin to experience this relationship. Find a quiet place and take a seat that is comfortable. If you are not used to sitting cross legged on the floor then give yourself some support. Elevate your hips by sitting on a yoga block or a cushion. Support your back against a wall or if necessary sit in a chair with both feet touching the ground. This practice is most effective if you are in an upright position. Reclining is not encouraged. Once you’ve found your seat, close your eyes and observe your natural breath in and out of your nose. Assigning descriptive words to the quality of your breath isn’t necessary. Simply watch your breath as it enters and exits your body through your nose. Your minds natural state is one of thinking. Thoughts will arise from all corners of your mind. The objective is not to stop your thoughts, but to notice them and the space between them. When a thought arises, simply label it “thinking” and return to watching your breath. The more you practice this the easier it becomes. Understanding comes from participation. Proficiency is born of practice.

9) Notice how your thoughts affect your body.

This can be done as a part of the sitting practice, but can also be practiced anywhere, anytime. Our minds, bodies and spirits do not operate independently of each other. Each is connected to the other in both subtle and gross ways. This is most often experienced when we are sick or injured. When our body is not operating at it’s best, it can contribute to reduced self esteem and melancholy. Likewise, when we brood over an experience or circumstance our feelings of vitality and happiness are compromised. Our minds and thought patterns also have an affect on our physical bodies. Next time you have a negative thought, stop, pause and scan your body for tension or muscular tightening. Does an argument with a loved one create tension in your belly? Do feeling of depression or vulnerability lead to compression in the center of your chest? Do worries about work or frets over a decision create subtle tension in your solar plexus or wreak havoc on your digestion? Over time these slight compressions in our physical bodies create resistance to the flow of oxygen and prana (life force) contributing to reduced flexibility, mental blocks, false images of ourselves and physical illness. Getting in touch with how your body responds to your thoughts, can serve to break this chain and help us stay open, balanced and quiet in the midst of challenging circumstances and relationships.

10) Find what you love to do. Do that thing.

Whether it is making music or another form of art, preparing food, dancing, playing sport, performing, making discoveries, or any other activity; if you have not found that thing you love to do then let your first priority be to find it. Nothing compares to the blissful experience of engaging in something you love or sharing your unique skill or talent. Your most joyful activities are direct links to your inner most sense of quiet and ease, joy, love, and peace.

Some of the benefits I’ve noticed from these practices are: greater confidence and clarity in decision making, less anxiety and worry, fewer negative critiques of myself, better listening skills, calmer and more thoughtful responses to challenging experiences, more of an inclination to seek out quiet within and without. Give these steps a try and let me know how they work for you.

What I Love About Yoga and Why it’s the Best Thing You Could Ever Try

I fell in love with yoga in the Spring of 2009. I wish I could remember the exact day. A date of such significance deserves to be remembered, but alas it passed like any other day. My journey to yoga actually began years ago. When I think about it I’ve flirted with a curiosity for the practice for years. I remember trying it one summer during college. It wasn’t a class. It was a VCR tape (yeah I just dated myself) of who I now know to be Rodney Yee. It was awkward and I didn’t get the breath and I don’t think I attempted it more than once. I took a series of classes through a community recreation program in California with better results. Life was chaotic and after the series was over I didn’t keep it up, but I remember it felt good – much better than my first experience with the very skilled Mr. Yee. Have you seen that guy? That’s enough to intimidate anyone. Anyway, I recently purged some bookshelf items and discovered that I was the oblivious owner of no less than four yoga tapes of the VCR variety (not a Rodney Yee in the bunch), which should be some clue as to how long I’d had them. It seems as though Life has tried more than one attempt at getting my yogic attentions, but it wasn’t until that glorious day in 2009 that it succeeded.

I quit smoking in the Fall of 2007. The 20th of August to be exact. I gained close to 25 pounds in less than 6 months. I sort of just gave myself permission to consume anything and everything I wanted to eat or drink as compensation. I know it was my choices and nothing else that put me in that situation, and I promptly commenced to making the choice to lose it – fast. I hit the gym hard. I worked out with determination and focus and despite my sincerest attempts I didn’t lose any of it. For the first year, not a pound was shed. Half way through the second year I was three pounds lighter and riddled with minor pains from my shoulders to my feet. It seemed like each injury I healed led to another. I was feeling fat, discouraged and frustrated. It was recommended by a Acupressurist treating me for a hip ailment that I see a chiropractor. It turned out my alignment was pretty significantly twisted and this was likely the cause of my recurring injuries. I wasn’t about to see a chiropractor, but I thought I remembered hearing that yoga was good for correcting skeletal alignment issues so I resolved to add one day of yoga to my weekly exercise regime. Somewhere in the first six weeks of this plan I was feeling a strong urge to dump Gym (my self proclaimed boyfriend at the time) and spend all my spare time with my Om girl. I was thoroughly smitten.

Why did I fall so hard? It was challenging and it felt fucking great. I soon realized that I needed to find a way to practice more. The gym only offered so many classes in the evenings and on weekends and studio classes while relatively affordable were adding up quick. I turned to the only resource I could think of – the internet. With one google search for “free yoga classes” my life completely changed. Yoga Today became my best friend. For $10 a month I could practice yoga to my hearts content. And I did. Three, four, six days a week I hit my mat. It wasn’t long before I noticed other things starting to happen. I was craving different foods, examining my other life choices and asking, “Is this serving me?” Old habits that I no longer needed fell away and the pounds followed suit. I started to achieve things in my practice that I couldn’t come close to doing in the beginning. The first time I stood on my head was an ecstatic dream. One word kept resounding within my experience – teach. I loved this practice so much. I wanted to learn everything about it that I could, and I wanted other people to know what the experience could be.

I was asked recently if yoga is just exercise for me or more like a religion. I don’t know if I would say it’s a religion, although it is a deeply spiritual practice for me. It is without doubt far more than just exercise. One of the things that appeals to me most about the practice is that it gently fosters self examination. Religion to me was always about conforming to a set of rules and beliefs. Yoga is about delving into yourself and remembering through experience, on the mat and off, that we are all connected in something greater. I feel like I’ve become a better functioning, more understanding, happier person through this practice. Religion never did that for me despite a strong and persistent need to know God. I feel closer to the Divine force of Life through yoga than I ever did in church, confession or any other religious devotional practice. Don’t get me wrong Jesus and his teachings are righteous. Now I see him and his light as a manifestation and embodiment of something we are all connected to, all a representation of. Maybe I was supposed to get that from Sunday Mass, but it never quite sunk in for me. The thing about yoga is that you show up to the mat with your whole self – body, mind and soul – and if you are willing to observe that interplay you begin to see the world under completely different terms. You can be the world’s most devout Christian and yoga will help you grow to be even stronger in your faith because it encourages loving and honest self examination. It encourages that you first recognize the light of God (Creator, Grace, Supreme Consciousness – whatever you call it) inside of you. Then it asks you to recognize that same light in everyone and every being you encounter. There is something deeply beautiful and blissful for me in that recognition. I have to get on my mat to remember that. It’s fun to stand on my head, but really that’s just a perk and a fun and different perspective; but it’s far from the point of why I practice.

In a way I guess yoga is a sort of religious experience and practice for me. I’ve always been a seeker, and yoga satisfies more than anything. It answers my questions and begs a thousand more. I firmly believe that there is a yoga for every body – tall, short, thin, chubby, obese, flexible and stiff. The benefits of the physical practice alone are immeasurable. Our bodies are intricately interconnected machines and yoga works. It heals, strengthens, enlivens and rejuvenates our bodies and our minds. You don’t have to believe in the philosophy or even care what it says, the yoga works. The practice of getting on your mat and working through the postures alone will make you more aware of your self – body and mind. It calms the chatter in your head and opens your body in amazing ways. You don’t have to look ‘like the stick figure on the internet’ as one of my students would say. You just have to feel your body, where ever it is. A consistent yoga practice cultivates self awareness and most of all acceptance. Whether your awareness is of your body in space, your performance in a sport or playing music, being on whatever stage or doing whatever it is that makes you feel bliss and joy yoga will sharpen your focus; and if you have no idea what that blissful thing is yoga will help you find it. It’s a practice for becoming. We are all doing it all the time – becoming ourselves. Whether we are engaged with the process passively or with focused awareness that is the journey we are all taking.

Yoga is there to help you see yourself more clearly and as a result the path you are on is revealed with astounding clarity. If you want to be stronger, more flexible, more focused and calmer of mind I suggest you give yoga a try. If you want to discover your own innate source of happiness and joy and become more skillful in your relationships I suggest you try a bit of yoga. If you want to connect with your world and see your own divine nature, make the world a better place and feel more comfortable in any situation or circumstance then I highly recommend exploring the wide world of yoga. If you want to love yourself exactly where you are then get yourself to a mat pronto! A yoga teacher once said, “The word yoga is like the word cheese.” There is a flavor and consistency for everyone. You don’t have to be flexible, uber spiritual or look good in stretchy clothes to get something out of yoga. You only have to be willing to try something new and learn a little something about your Self.

Photo by: Gwendolyn Aucoin