Finding Stillness in our Stories

Practicing the Foundation Breath

Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.  Jorge Luis Borges

I have practiced hot yoga on the same mat in the same studio for nearly ten years. It’s a little frayed around its edges and is starting to lose some of its no-slip grip. I should have replaced it six months ago but I have to admit I am attached to this mat. We have been through a lot together. Attachments like these seem innocent enough, but there’s something else going on here and I feel I am finally getting to the bottom of it. Every time I roll out this mat and look down on its signs of wear, I tell myself a little story. It’s a story that celebrates my hard work and dedication to my practice through the years. It feels good to keep repeating this story, which is why the mat keeps living to see another day.  The problem is this story has very little to do with my yoga and a lot to do with keeping my ego happy. Without diving too far into the weeds, approval has always been important for me, even when I generate it on my own. This deeper stuff is great to shine some light upon, but will have to wait until a future post for closer examination. What is important here is my attachment and its happy little story 1) take my focus off what I am actually doing on the mat and 2) obscure the fact that I’d be safer on a new one.

When we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.

This is how our attachments work…under the radar, but still in plain sight. The new car, the coveted job title, the approval of those close to us (…or not so close). Our attachments play starring roles in all our favorite stories. Of course, the attachments themselves are not the problem…it’s how we cling to them and spin our stories around them that can get us into trouble. After all, I should have replaced my mat six months ago…I have just been getting in my own way. In many Yoga and Buddhist traditions, attachment is viewed as a major source of suffering in our lives. Non-attachment or non-possessiveness (aparigraha) is considered so important, it is held up as one of the five yamas, or ethical principles of yoga that help guide us through our daily interactions and activities. The logic here is straightforward: when we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.

And this is where our breath comes in. We hold on to our breath just like anything else we are afraid of losing. When we let go of our breath, we reset our nervous system and loosen the hold of even our strongest attachments and most compelling stories. The Foundation Breathing exercise presented below focuses on the exhalation and that sublime stillness before we take our next breath. Approach it with an open mind. With some practice you will likely find it, as I have, to be a powerful addition to your self-care toolkit.

Foundation Breath Basics

What

  • Our attachments (people-possessions-beliefs-expectations) can be a major source of pain and suffering
  • The Foundation Breath can pull us from repeating story loops and loosen the hold of our attachments
  • Research suggests that diaphragmatic (belly) breathing moderates clinging and controlling behavior by increasing our attention, improving our mood and reducing our stress levels (see references below).

How

  • Breathe in through the nose – Release the breath through the mouth – Pause – Repeat
  • Start with a 2-3 sec. inhalation-exhalation and 1 sec. pause and move up from there.
  • Breathing in through the nose conditions the air for absorption in the lungs.
  • Breathing out through the mouth (vocalization optional) focuses attention on the exhalation.

When

  • Slow down persistent worry over pending medical test results or financial strains.
  • Lessen chronic stress due to workload, a challenging boss or an upcoming performance review.  
  • Let go of the expectations related to your balance in tree pose or your strength in triangle. As one of my teachers puts it: “One percent of the pose done correctly provides 100% benefit.”

Learn More

  • Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.
  • Landau, M. (2018). This Breathing Exercise Can Calm You Down in a Few Minutes, Vice Media, Retrieved Feb25, 2020.
  • Ma, X., Yue, Z., Gong, Z, Zhang, H., Duan, N., Shi, Y. Wei, G. & Li, Y. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(72): 1-12.
  • Pattee, E.(2020). The Difference Between Worry, Stress and Anxiety, The New York Times, Retrieved Feb 29, 2020. 
  • Schmalzl, L., Powers, C., and Henje Blom, E. (2015). Neurophysiological and neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the effects of yoga-based practices: towards a comprehensive theoretical framework. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9:235.
  • Sullivan, M., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonz, S., Taylor, J. & Porges, S., 2018. Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(67), 1-15.

Catching Our Breath: Three Simple Conscious Breathing Exercises

Each of our breaths is an open window into the present moment.

Most of us tend to think of our breathing as an unconscious, involuntary process. But it is also one of the few automatic systems in our body that we can control. Research shows that when we pay attention to our breath, good things happen. Conscious breathing can help us reduce stress, increase attention and improve our mood (Heckenberg et al., 2018; Tang et al. 2015). It should come as no surprise that yoga, mindfulness and many mind-body exercises are built upon breath awareness. Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day. Each one of these breaths is an open window to the present moment, where we can check in on ourselves and practice a measure of well-deserved self-care. After all, we need to take care of ourselves just like we take care of our family, friends and co-workers.

The three exercises here can help you get started with everyday conscious breathing. Take a few moments after watching each video to become more comfortable with the breathing techniques. We hope that over time you will increasingly find the windows in your normal (and not so normal…) day, to catch your breath and feel calm focus in the present moment.


Building Breath Awareness

Before we expect any magical transformations from our breath, we have to first acknowledge it. Like anything else worth doing, conscious breathing takes practice.

Everyday Breath Awareness – Take a few moments to identify a few different qualities of your breath. They can be related to sound, movement, posture or any other quality of your inhalation or exhalation. Set a challenge for yourself to notice your breathing at five different moments during the day. It could be right after opening your eyes in the morning or before drifting off at night. A few breaths can break the tedium when you’re waiting in line and help to reset your posture when you’re sitting behind a desk all day.

Challenge yourself to notice your breath five times throughout the day.


Balancing the Breath

Now that you have learned how to pay closer attention to your breath, let’s explore how we can control the breath to help us manage our most challenging situations. Our breath is closely linked to balance in our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The inhalation is associated with the sympathetic, or action-oriented, side, while the exhalation is closely connected to the parasympathetic, or recovery side. Research has shown that breathing with inhalations and exhalations of equal duration (also called resonant or coherent breathing) can support a calm focused mindset (Streeter et al., 2017).

Building Resilience – Practice balancing your breath as you prepare for challenging situations that demand steady nerves and close attention. Over time, this exercise can help you to build resilience and bring your A-Game when you most need it!


Letting Go of the Breath

Now that you feel a little more at ease tuning into the breath and controlling it to build calm focus, you can try using the breath to relieve stress and find greater contentment. Deep breaths into the belly and their complete release send powerful messages to the brain’s alarm centers that everything is OK and there is no need for “fight or flight”. This means our bodies aren’t flooded with stress hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine that keep the cardio gas pedal pressed down and compromise our physical and cognitive functioning over time. Deep breaths in and out help us release muscular tension and quiet our most persistent worries anchored in the past or future.

Stress-Relieving Breath Tips

  • Start this exercise breathing in and out through the nose. The nasal passageways clean and warm the incoming air, while also controlling with more precision the volume of the breath. Imagine sipping through a straw rather than taking a big gulp.
  • Allow your belly to gently expand as you inhale and freely release as you exhale. This movement in the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). This gives your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) a well-deserved break.
  • After you feel comfortable breathing in and out through the nose, try exhaling through the mouth and prolong the exhalation to deepen the relaxation response.
  • Produce an audible sigh, “aaahhhhhh…”, during the exhalation to enhance your awareness of the breath and its stress-reducing benefits.

The breath is our lifetime companion and always there when we need to hit the pause button, reflect for a moment and then proceed. We hope you are able use these conscious breathing exercises to take better care of yourself and those around you. Feel free to share with us any insights you have on your breathing journey moving forward!

Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day.


References Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.

Heckenberg, R., Eddy, P., Kent, S. & Wright, B. (2018) Do workplace-based mindfulness meditation programs improve physiological indices of stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 114, 62-71.

Streeter, C. C., P. L. Gerbarg, T. H. Whitfield, L. Owen, J. Johnston, M. M. Silveri, M. Gensler, et al. 2017. “Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 23 (3): 201-207.

Tang, Y., Holzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16 (April 2015) 213-225.

How to Live a Longer, Healthier Life

Living to be over 100 isn’t uncommon at all in regions known as the blue zones. In these areas, life expectancy isn’t just higher; centenarians are generally also healthy in mind and body. Author Dan Buettner teamed up with a team from National Geographic to study these groups, and whittled their longevity down to 9 common denominators. We found their recipe for wellness extremely interesting and wanted to share it with you.

Prana Mudra – (Life Force Seal) for vitality!

As yoga and mindfulness teachers, our own blueprint for wellness always needs refining and fine-tuning. Whether we have time for a long yoga practice or a 5-minute mindfulness meditation, there is one daily constant, and that’s our high-energy dog, Lucy. She crosses a few things off the wellness list – she’s the reason we get up in the morning, she helps relieves stress (she loves snuggles,) and keeps us moving!

1. Move Naturally The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.

What do you do to move naturally and stay active? How can you bring more natural movement into your everyday routine?

Soaking up some joyful movement.

2. Purpose The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy A reason for being.” The word “ikigai” is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.

What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning, what makes your life worth living, or gives your life value? Would you like to find more meaning in your life?

Getting up and taking Lucy for a walk is a great motivator! When she’s happy, so are we.

3. Manage Your Stress / Down Shift Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.

What do you do to actively manage your stress? Can you add a few new stress-relieving habits like yoga or meditation to your list?

Brian in his Tree Pose, bare feet on yellow steps, arms uplifted.

4. 80% Rule “Hara hachi bu”  – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.

When do you eat your biggest meal? Do you continue to eat until you are past full? Can you be more mindful of your hunger levels at the next meal?

Giant sunflowers growing on a small South Philly side street.

5. Plant Slant Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month.  Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.

How often do you eat meat, and how big of a portion size do you put on your plate? Can you substitute beans at your next meal?

6. Wine @ 5 People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly.  Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.

Are you able to drink moderately? We cannot condone drinking, as many Americans have a problem relationship with alcohol, but if you are able to enjoy a glass of wine without any negative consequences, cheers!

Shakti Mudra (Power Seal) Shakti is in everything, she’s the innate creativity at the heart of all living things. Rosemary in our garden scents the scene.

7. Belong / Community All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community.  Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.

Have you found a community where you feel you belong? If you have, can you reach out to someone who seems like they might need help finding theirs? If you haven’t, make a list of possibilities.

8. Loved Ones First/Family Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).

Can you create more quality time with your family? Can you commit more fully to your life partner if you have one?

Brian, my life partner, and our little family member, Lucy.

9. Right Tribe / Social Life The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.

Can you set up a phone call or lunch date with a friend this week? Even casual social relationships are important when it comes to longevity. Who is on your best friend list?

Best wishes for health and vitality from Team Sun Wellness!

We are all our own best teachers, of course. What works for someone in Okinawa might not work for you. So listen to your own mind and body as you reach for new ways to be your best self. We continue to wish you health and well-being, and all the vitality you desire!

Resources: Blue Zones Website

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: BEN

“I always feel better after a yoga session than when I started.”

  • Name: Ben
  • Age: 77
  • Length of Practice: 18 months
  • Most Gratifying Pose: Warrior 1
  • Most Challenging Pose: Transition out of Down Dog
  • Pets: 1 Cat, Pumpkin (who invariably appears to encourage us during triangle pose!)
  • Favorite Excursion on Bike: FDR Park & the Philadelphia Navy Yard

Dedication

I count Ben among those students I most enjoy teaching. He never takes a pose off. His combination of enthusiasm and discipline allows us to explore the healing and revitalizing power of each posture. He epitomizes the ancient yogic principle of tapas, the inner fire that inspires us to “leave it all on the mat”

Life without tapas is like a heart without love.” – BKS Iyengar

Self-Acceptance

Ben’s consistency in no small part can be attributed to an understanding of his own thresholds and range of movement on any given day. He stays within himself and is comfortable making adjustments to account for “the usual suspects” in his knee and hip. He works with what he brings to the mat and his calm focus provides a solid foundation for building strength and flexibility. He offers this advice to students just starting their journeys on the yoga path, “You would be surprised at how beneficial practice can be if you give it a chance and stick with it.”

Presence

Ben enjoys regular time on the bike and tennis court and believes yoga facilitates his active lifestyle. I believe his mindset here is critical. Yoga is not an end into itself, but rather a gateway through which we can continue doing everything it is we love doing AND with greater awareness. Beyond building strength and flexibility, simply paying closer attention to our breathing can help us perform almost any physical activity more safely and efficiently. After all, we don’t stop breathing when we roll out of Savasana!

It has been an honor to join you on the path, Ben!

The Self-Care Mindset

Seated Meditation and Mindful Movement for All Levels

Wednesday October 2nd 6:00-7:00pm / Swarthmore Town Center / Fresh Air Fitness in Central Park ampitheater – Donation based


We invite you to “put on your own oxygen mask first!”

With the breath as the key to our self-care toolkit, we’ll be exploring simple tools to manage stress, become more present, and foster self-acceptance.

These include seated breath awareness and breath control exercises, breath-connected movement exercises, and a guided mindfulness meditation to finish it off.

Practicing these tools helps develop a mindset that encourages self-care. No experience in meditation or yoga needed. Bring a cushion to sit on, a blanket for your lap if we’re outside, and an open mind. All ages and levels of experience welcome.

Donation-based – pay what you can.

In case of inclement weather: inside Borough Hall

Special May Workshops!

We’re bringing you some special offerings in May and hope to see you come out for something a little different! All workshops meet on Saturdays at Wallingford Presbyterian Church, Fellowship Hall. Click on photos for more.

Mindfulness Meditation Workshop

Saturday May 4th: Drop into the freshness of the present moment! Learn a variety of meditation tools to relieve stress and find calm in your everyday routine. 9:30-10:30am / Wallingford Presbyterian Church

“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”

Pema Chödrön

At the heart of mindfulness is the call to become more present in each moment. In our mindfulness workshop, we’ll utilize techniques learned through Penn Medicine’s Penn Program for Mindfulness, as well as teachings from Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön. We’ll become more aware of breath, body, and patterns of thought through a variety of meditation exercises. Our goal is to fully experience each moment as it happens, and find peace and relaxation right in the middle of the most chaotic moment – so that we may better navigate the joys and challenges of being human on a daily basis.

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Bring your own coffee or tea and cushion or blanket to sit on if needed. Chairs will also be provided. All ages welcome, and no experience is needed! Leave feeling more awake and alive, more able to manage stress and whatever arises.

About the Instructor: Ann MacMullan Jeans is a certified yoga instructor (EYT-200) and teaches in the Philadelphia area with her company Team Sun Wellness. Ann believes in the healing power of yoga and meditation for everyone, no matter what age, level of fitness, or life circumstance. Ann has completed the foundational 8-week program at Penn Medicine’s Penn Program for Mindfulness, and regularly practices yoga and meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation Workshop

Saturday May 4th 9:30-10:30am Wallingford Presbyterian Church / Fellowship hall

$15.00

Full Flower Moon Workshop

SATURDAY MAY 18th: Combine yoga and floral design! Join us in celebrating the Full Flower Moon with a harmonizing yoga flow followed by DIY floral design 9:30-11am / Wallingford Presbyterian Church.

Start by getting grounded, breathing and moving to unlock your creativity during a gentle yoga sequence accessible for all levels. Then design your own hand bouquet to take home using locally sourced flowers and greens, with help from yoga teacher and floral designer, Ann MacMullan Jeans. No experience in yoga or floral design required! Bring your own mat or borrow one from Team Sun Wellness (supplies limited.) Class limit 25. $40 includes floral supplies to take home.

“Generosity is an activity that loosens us up. By offering whatever we can – a dollar, a flower, a word of encouragement – we are training in letting go.”

-Pema Chödrön

About the Instructor: In addition to teaching yoga and meditation classes as a certified yoga teacher (EYT-200) with her company Team Sun Wellness, Ann has a Certificate of Merit in Floral Design from Longwood Gardens and has worked as a floral designer for Merion Golf Club, Falls Flowers, and Egan Rittenhouse. She is passionate about the deep connection between people and plants, and delights in the abundance of Delaware County’s late spring blooms.

Full Flower Moon Yoga + Floral Design Workshop

Saturday, May 18th 9:30-11:00am includes floral supplies / Wallingford Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall

$40.00

Gentle Yoga – New Spring Session added on Thursdays

Did you miss registering for the WSCC class that meets on Tuesdays because it filled up too fast? Or are you signed up for Tuesdays and you want to practice Gentle Yoga with me twice a week? Or maybe you’re new to my classes and you’d like to try something different. Good news! I’m adding a second opportunity to practice Gentle Yoga during the spring session.

Gentle Yoga will meet for 8 weeks on Thursdays from 9:00am-10:00am in Fellowship Hall at Wallingford Presbyterian Church starting on March 7th. There are several ways you can sign up – get all 8 sessions for $80, get 4 sessions for $45, or drop in for one session for $15. You decide which Thursdays work for you. If you were in the Winter Gentle Session, and you would have attended our last date, the price is $70 (includes make up day.)

This venue is exceptional for its beautiful Fellowship Hall with hardwood floors and stained glass windows, and its feeling of sanctuary for all kinds. You’ll find an age range from twenties and thirties all the way into the eighties! “Gentle” refers to an attitude of taking exquisite care of ourselves in each moment throughout the class. 

We connect the breath with movement during accessible yoga sequences designed to create balance between mind, body, and spirit. We’ll explore a variety of reclining, seated and standing postures (asana) and the transitions between those poses, adapted to your level. In addition, we’ll learn more about the limbs of yoga beyond asana or the physical postures, such as meditation (dhyana) and breath-work (pranayama.) Props like blocks and straps are sometimes used to help safely attain or deepen a pose. Blocks and straps are provided. Class size limited to 35.

Thursdays: March 7th – April 25th 9:00 – 10:00am

Wallingford Presbyterian Church – Fellowship Hall
110 E Brookhaven Rd, Wallingford, PA 19086 

  • 1 Drop in Session = $15
  • 4 sessions = $45
  • 8 sessions = $70 for those in Winter Session
  • 8 sessions = $80

Payment Options:

  • Pay through PayPal or credit card (buttons below):
  • Send a check: Ann MacMullan / 1809 S. Bancroft St. Philadelphia, PA 19145
  • I also accept Venmo (User: @Ann-MacMullan)

8 Gentle Yoga Spring Thursdays

8 Tuesdays from 9-10am 3/5/19-4/25/19 Wallingford Presbyterian Church

$80.00

8 Gentle Yoga Spring Thursdays (includes Winter Session Make up Day)

8 Tuesdays for the price of 7 - I was in Winter Session and looking for make up date

$70.00

4 Gentle Yoga Spring Thursdays

4 Tuesdays from 9-10am 3/5/19-4/25/19 Wallingford Presbyterian Church

$45.00

1 Gentle Yoga Spring Thursday

1 Tuesday from 9-10am 3/5/19-4/25/19 Wallingford Presbyterian Church

$15.00

About the Instructor: Ann MacMullan Jeans, a native of Swarthmore, is a certified yoga instructor (EYT-200) and teaches in the Philadelphia area with her company Team Sun Wellness. Ann believes in the healing power of yoga and meditation for everyone, no matter what age, level of fitness, or life circumstance. For more information, email Ann at info@teamsunwellness.com.

“I have been a grateful student in Ann’s yoga classes for a couple of years. As an older yoga practitioner who has worked with other teachers in the past, I have especially appreciated her non-judgmental and very encouraging approach. Her classes offer increasing challenges for students to stretch their bodies and their repertoire of yoga poses, but always in a compassionate, supportive, and peaceful atmosphere. In addition, her subtle humor and intention to connect personally with her students makes practicing yoga just plain fun. As Ann expands her teaching opportunities, I hope to follow her for as long as I can move my body!” -Judy S.

Learning to Breathe

One of the most effective tools for managing stress is right under your nose! The breath is one of the few automatic functions we have control over; and the benefits of taming the breath are endless. A daily practice of focused deep breathing is one of the best tools for improving health and well-being and is available to us at all times. Harvard Medical School reports that focused, deep respiration can have many benefits, as listed below.

BENEFITS OF A Regular BREATHING PRACTICE:

  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • Relief from stress, anxiety and depression
  • Increased detoxification
  • Improved memory and focus
  • Heightened metabolism

Ready to get started learning a few simple breathing techniques?

Explore more on the blogpost: Three Everyday Conscious Breath Exercises

Feeling out of balance? Try Balancing the Breath! By bringing equilibrium to your in and out-breaths, you can regulate your own nervous system.

Explore more on the blogpost: Thoughts on Finding Balance.

Feel free to browse Breath for more info.

Check out our Video Library!