Mastering the Self through Ancient Wisdom

The epic poem, The Bhagavad Gita, symbolically details the battles that we wage in our minds, “For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy.”

We all harbor a desire to live fully, as our health, wealth, peace, and happiness depend on a healthy body and a healthy mind. Achieving a fully integrated relationship between body and mind, where both listen to each other with love, enables us to skillfully engage with the world.

The Quest for a Fulfilled Life

What are the necessary ingredients to live a fulfilled life? Countless paths lead to fulfillment, but today, our focus is on habits. Good and bad habits, to be precise. We need internal awareness of the causes and effects of our habits on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Through a yogic lens, we evaluate our samskaras—our imprints, habits, patterns, and conditioning—working to create an internal point of focus for refining the mind and achieving a clearer perception.

Neurologically, we tend to respond to situations in the same manner as we did yesterday, forming habit grooves in our brains. These default grooves or pathways keep us trapped in our own habits, patterns, and neural programming… repeating, repeating, repeating mindless, rote behavior. Soon, unconscious patterns can emerge that can keep us from living a full and well-balanced life. 

These repeating habits, responses, and behaviors elicit mental stress; which in turn, creates physical malaise. Even good or healthy habits can become stressful if adhered to rigidly or unconsciously. 

Master the Mind, Master the Self

Ancient Wisdom traditions recognize the importance of mastering the mind to master the self. Through body-mind practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, chi gong, pranayama (breathwork), yoga, and deep relaxation, practitioners utilize techniques that cultivate deep body awareness, relaxation, concentration, and meditation. These practices influence the flow of impulses through connective tissue, nerves, and glands. They slow respiration and metabolic rates placing the body in a tranquil and observant state, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Simultaneously, they create new neural pathways, rewiring the brain, and restoring balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. 

Finding Richness and Fullness in Life

Abundance and fulfillment in life are not based on our ability to travel or acquire material riches. Rather, they are cultivated by adopting fresh perspectives and altering the way we perceive the world. Simple changes, such as taking a different route to work, brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, or subtly modifying your daily routines and habits can aid in the formation of new habit grooves and deepen awareness and presence. 

Breath Retention and Nadi Shodana: Breath of Balance

 While small tasks like alternating the routes you take make headway in our journey to balance, profound changes in neuroplasticity come with conscious breathwork or any of the mind-body practices.

Stress can alter our breathing patterns, leading to shallow breaths and restricted access to the lower lobes of the lungs. The lower lungs are home to parasympathetic nerve receptor cells. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s relaxation responses. By breathing deep into the lowest parts of the lungs, we start to calm and quiet the body and mind. Shallow breathing can cause an over-oxygenated state, which can lead to anxiety. Studies have shown that breath lengthening and retention can bring carbon dioxide levels back to a balanced state, ultimately calming the body and mind. 

Breathing techniques, such as kumbhaka – breath retention, and Nadi Shodana, a form of alternate nostril breathing, offer a wide range of benefits including neuro-protective effects, increased self-awareness, reduced stress levels, and improved mental clarity. These practices have been used for centuries as valuable tools for achieving a balanced and healthy mind/body connection. They continue to be embraced for their transformative effects on well-being.

Kumbhaka – breath retention, may be practiced anywhere and at any time. Eventually, with practice, you will fall into a natural rhythm of kumbhaka. To begin, inhale to a count of five, hold to five, exhale five, and hold five. Repeat and lengthen the process if possible. Strive to specifically elongate the exhale, and the hold at the bottom of the exhale, to decrease anxiety and create a sense of calm. 

Nadhi Shodana will require you to alternate closing off each nostril, using the thumb and inner ring finger. Begin in a relaxed position and close off the right nostril as you inhale through the left, hold, close left nostril and exhale right, hold, inhale right nostril, hold, exhale left nostril, hold, inhale left, hold, and repeat for up to 3-5 minutes daily.  Nadhi Shodhana helps to balance both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, bringing balance, calming, and rejuvenating the nervous system. 

Mastering the self through ancient wisdom and practices lead to a more fulfilled and balanced life. By exploring how our samskaras, habits, effect the mind, and harnessing the power of mind body practices, we  embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-mastery that brings us closer to our aspirations of health, happiness, and inner peace. 

By Erin Kuehl

Since 2012, Erin has been the driving force behind Evolve Yoga and Wellness Center. The holistic healing hub in the heart of Historic 4th Street  integrates Yoga and mindfulness into transformative classes designed to nurture your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

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