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  • Writer's picturePatty McDuffey

Winter! When the flakes fly and our Breath deepens

Some people come alive in winter. I am one of them. Others loathe the dark and cold. We are all different. Some have a constitutional make-up that really struggles in the winter months. Some have fond memories of winter life and activities. To me, there's nothing better than a day on the slopes, a pit-stop at a warming hut for a cup of hot chocolate, and an evening spent in front of the fireplace with hot cheeks and warm toes. I will drive to the ends of the earth to find it! But I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea. So the question I find myself asking is how do we strike a sense of ease and balance between externally-driven and internally-driven nourishment, particularly when we don't have access to our "preferred" ways of filling our cups?

Winter is the most Yin time of year. Everything consists of Yin and Yang. They are the basic constituents of life and they exist in relationship to one another. Yin is winter, quiet, cold, dark, female, night, receptivity, stillness. The height of yin energy is at the Winter Solstice. So by now, the seed of yang energy (the opposite of yin) is already starting to grow and will continue to grow until the Summer Solstice, when it reaches its peak. But for all intensive purposes, we are in the height of winter right now. For those of you that don't like winter, don't worry, lighter and warmer days are coming!

Even though it's the time for stillness and quiet nourishment, we still need to seek balance in our day-to-day lives and activities. This will look different to everyone and is based on our individual constitutions, what is going on in our lives, and where we live. But we can't just completely hibernate all winter or live on a ski slope until spring.

I've recently been reminded of 2 different types of mindfulness-based activities that equally contribute to an amazing feeling of connectedness and oneness. As a winter lover myself, and especially one living in Portland where we don't get much snow, it's not always easy for me to access my favorite snow-based activities that in essence, are very meditative and nourishing for me. So I need to get creative, explore, and learn to embrace other activities that bring me into harmony with my environment.

So I started to consider the idea of mindful experiences that occur through both our interactions with our environment as well as from a place of inner stillness, all through the lens of the breath and the various ways the breath manifests. The former, I'll call external nourishment. The latter, internal nourishment.

Through External Nourishment, I'm using my whole self to interact with something outside of myself. For example, I did a lot of down-hill skiing in the years after college. My friend and I would ski nearly every weekend. We would sit on the ski lift, sometimes in freezing, white-out conditions, neither one of us saying much, other than acknowledging how we felt "one with the mountain." It was a whole body experience - the cold, the lack of visibility, navigating slippery surfaces with boards on our feet, wind, other skiers and snowboarders, the rhythmic sound of the lift, etc. It was captivating. And for the time being, I would so strongly feel how connected I was to that mountain, it felt as if nothing else mattered. The entire environment would come together to create this incredibly harmonic experience. BUT...if this was the only type of nourishment I experienced, I would burn out or feel as if I could never experience that connection unless I was skiing. It feels comparable to continuously practicing Breath of Fire in yoga, which is a style of breath work that focuses on a series of rapid, forceful exhalations in an effort to connect you with your source energy. In yoga, it's only for a minute or so. If we practiced for too long, it would eventually become painful and impossible to continue. Too much external nourishment will eventually become depleting. So, we seek balance...

...Through Internal Nourishment, I find stillness through meditation that allows me to begin to naturally quiet my mind, observing my patterns of resistance or tendency towards distraction. Not judging anything or willing it away, but repeatedly coming back to my breath. Now, if I only sat on my meditation cushion, and never left my home, this might start to become unhealthily isolating, as if it were my drug of choice and I couldn't live when I wasn't in that state. This might be compared to hyperventilating, or constantly seeking to go inward, to bring more and more energy inward, without the equal and opposite exhale to balance out the rapid gasps for breath. This, too, would become uncomfortable. If I only stayed indoors to meditate, I would never learn to fully step into the gifts I have to offer others and myself or be able to receive the gifts others have to offer me out in the world. Not to mention I'd get really stiff! This would be too much yin energy, too much inner focus.

So let's put it all together. Let's find balance between external nourishment and internal nourishment. Let's elongate the inhale and elongate the exhale, really feeling its calming effect on the body and the nervous system. Part of the time, we practice mindfulness, joy, and love via the interaction of our 5 senses with the world around us. We can feel that we are not separate from our environment. We are one with it. Part of the time, we turn inward and remain still, meditating on our cushion, as we travel to the deep, inner landscapes of our beings to remember the peace, joy, calm, and connection that we naturally are. Being still with ourselves allows us the opportunity to quiet the mind for greater connection.

When we put these 2 together, it's as if we are a component of something much greater than ourselves. It's as if each one of us is a set of lungs, inhaling and exhaling, giving and receiving our way through life. Our breath connects us to the greater Universe, Source, God, or whatever you may call it. We ARE our breath, our inhales and our rich, inner explorations. We ARE our exhales, our connection to others, our environment and the world around us. Through our breath, we can feel the vibrations of those around us and the enormity of this living, breathing Universe that we are a part of.

It can be so easy to lose sight of this balance and simple connection within our news-saturated and technology-driven world. Our breath may start to shorten. We may over focus on internal nourishment, infrequently leaving our homes. More commonly, we may put too much emphasis on sources of external nourishment. (The external does seem to tend to be more fun.) The latter is more common in the summer months when yang is strongest, but it can occur at any time of year. No matter what, we always have the choice to come back to our breath, our deeper selves, and sense of balance. And winter is the best time to reflect on how to allow this balance to reclaim us, now and subsequently thoughout the year so that we diversify, becoming stronger and more flexible and resilient within our lives at any one moment. The more various experiences of connection we have, the more undeniable our level of connectedness becomes.

3 shifts you can make now to help find a greater sense of balance and connection:

1.Establish a 15-20 minute morning routine. Sit quietly, enjoy a nice cup of tea or coffee. Perhaps do some breath work, journaling, a guided meditation, or just sit in silence, resting, listening, observing. This will help set a calm and focused tone for your day. Do this BEFORE you check social media, your email, or the news. (You may, however, want to feed the cats first. Otherwise, they'll probably never let you be!). I've been doing this fairly consistently for a number of years. It's an absolute game-changer for my mental/emotional health not only on that day, but it has a cumulative effect as well.

*Check out the Insight Timer App for lots of guided meditation tracks, music, and talks on meditation and spirituality.

2. Identify 1 creative, healthy activity that's reasonably accessible on a regular basis that'll allow you to feel at one with your surroundings. Something where you lose track of time and your thoughts no longer run the show. A form of effortless joy! It may be dancing or playing an instrument, going for a jog, doing a puzzle, or painting. Get creative. Tap into your artistic side. It may be something you've never really embraced before, but that you've always been curious about. Choose something that engages your senses, which is how we connect with our environments, allowing us to feel alive and full of vitality. There is an inner artist in us all. Reclaim it! I'm working on this one as well, but for the moment, I'm trying on Spin classes!

3. Limit sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. These substances tend to either rev us up, keeping us predominately in our thinking or survival mind, and/or numb to our senses. Experiment with less and see how you feel.

I'd love to chat more with you about any or all of this. Please reach out and schedule a Discovery Call if you're interested in learning more about how you can benefit from acupuncture, Chinese herbal and dietary therapy, and hypnosis.

Happy Winter!

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