Visits from Eagle

Eagles have been showing up a lot this week. First, a private yoga student shared a story about having seen two bald eagles circling her parents’ grave while she and her siblings went to do some cleanup there. “Overhead was a pair of bald eagles just circling around each other!!!” she shared in an email. “I was mesmerized and definitely took it as a sign that my parents were right there with us.  The two of them with their white tails against the blue sky was amazing.  We watched as they circled again and again,” she wrote. She took the time to look up the symbolism of the eagle for her journal.

What does an eagle symbolize for us? It symbolizes rebirth and renewed life. It is the spirit’s message and our connection with divinity. It’s particularly characteristic of new beginnings, resilience, and stamina for those who have been experiencing difficult passages in life.

-worldbirds.org

This speaks to the inspiring history of the bald eagle’s comeback from near extinction in America. When America adopted the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles. By 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles remaining, the species was in danger of extinction. Loss of habitat, shooting, and DDT poisoning contributed to the near demise of our national symbol. Following enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Service listed the species in 1978 as endangered throughout the lower 48 states (except in MI, MN, OR, WA, and WI where it was designated as threatened.) In 2006, the Service estimated that there are at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. Bald eagles have staged a remarkable population rebound and have recovered to the point that they no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. (Bald Eagle Fact Sheet – US Fish and Wildlife Service.)

If you see a bald eagle in person – be grateful for the US Fish and Wildlife Service

I had already been flirting with the idea of ending our six-week series with the peak pose of Eagle, or Garudasana, and then the email from Deb sealed the deal. (Even though Garudasana refers to the mythical creature Garuda, and not the eagle in nature, it’s still inspiring!) Eagle Pose is a challenging balance pose where the legs and arms are wrapped around each other, and we use a lot of core strength and stamina to stay upright, to fly right. I’ve always loved Eagle Pose, but wanted to adapt this difficult balance pose for my Gentle Yoga class so that all my students could enjoy its complexity. So, rather than twisting the leg around the back of the calf, I offered students the option of crossing the knee over and stepping on a block outside the standing leg’s foot. And of course, instead of the full eagle arm, since many of us don’t have the range of motion in our shoulders, there was the option of a bear hug with the elbows stacked instead.

Remember when doing Eagle Pose: whichever leg is on top – the opposite arm is on top!

After our class featuring Eagle Pose, I went for a hike in our local “woods” at FDR Park in South Philly. Off the beaten track there is a marvelous space that was a golf course, that has been recently opened for public use; and this has become my daily sanctuary. On this particular day, it had just snowed, so everything was blanketed in a fresh clean white. With the snow comes stillness and quiet, and after the wonderful feeling of connectedness from our yoga class, I was feeling happy and joyful as I walked, and able to take in the surroundings with full gratitude. I felt a larger sense of connection to the universe, too, and I believe I may have even sent a little prayer up for some kind of sign that the universe could feel me back. I decided to follow some snowshoe, fox and bunny tracks into a tangle of woods near a creak where I don’t normally venture. As I stopped by the creek to take a few breaths, I looked up to see…yes, a bald eagle overhead! This was the sign I was looking for: You are on the right path. Keep trekking. Keep the faith. The divine spirit is in you, and around you. My heart felt so full, and I even cried some tears of gladness for the eagle’s visit. Kree!

Bald Eagle at FDR Park

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite poems of all time, by poet Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She believes that “Everything is a living being, even time, even words.”

Eagle Poem, by Joy Harjo

  • To pray you open your whole self
  • To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
  • To one whole voice that is you.
  • And know there is more
  • That you can’t see, can’t hear;
  • Can’t know except in moments
  • Steadily growing, and in languages
  • That aren’t always sound but other
  • Circles of motion.
  • Like eagle that Sunday morning
  • Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
  • In wind, swept our hearts clean
  • With sacred wings.
  • We see you, see ourselves and know
  • That we must take the utmost care
  • And kindness in all things.
  • Breathe in, knowing we are made of
  • All this, and breathe, knowing
  • We are truly blessed because we
  • Were born, and die soon within a
  • True circle of motion,
  • Like eagle rounding out the morning
  • Inside us.
  • We pray that it will be done
  • In beauty.
  • In beauty.

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.