While the last twelve months may have been defined by less physical movement, with stay at home orders and living through a pandemic, it has been an extraordinary time of mental movement. From the moment we wake up we have thousands of bits of information being thrown at us from all sides. Whether knowingly, or unknowingly, we often begin our day in this chaotic mindset. This can lead to a lack of motivation, an increase in anxiety, and, put quite gently, a bad mood. Sound familiar? Me too.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I set a few non-negotiables for my mental health. One of them was starting my day off with a meditative movement practice to set the tone for my day. This daily practice helped me to surf the madness of 2020 and beyond, and keep my anxiety in check as much as possible. I want to share with you these tips and tricks to set the tone for your day too.
When we think of yoga and meditation often our first response is thinking of the postures. A downward dog, warrior posture, or pigeon pose. Those are some of the many tools of yoga. Catalysts for self-study. The O.G. definition we find in the Yoga Sutra 1.2 is that the practice of yoga is the suspension of the busyness of our mind. Sounds pretty good, yeah? But, how do we get there?
From the moment we wake up we have thousands of bits of information being thrown at us from all sides. Whether knowingly, or unknowingly, we often begin our day in this chaotic mindset. This can lead to a lack of motivation, an increase in anxiety, and, put quite gently, a bad mood. Sound familiar?
Often when we sit down to meditate or unroll our yoga mats, we find relative stillness in our bodies and are more aware of the movement in our minds. Once I had a student show up for meditation and five minutes into the sit her eyes popped open and she said, “Oh! I think I left a burner on in my kitchen!” and ran out of the room. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh—it is so hard to come out of the busyness in our minds. Particularly when there is SO much to think about (hello, 2020).
What has helped me so much is taking the focus off of having a “traditional” yoga/meditation practice and, rather, waking up and doing what feels good. Searching for movement and movement of breath to help me get into a flow state.
Getting into a flow state has been a topic that has been growing in popularity in the movement and mental health arena over the last few years in particular. It has been defined as a merging of action and awareness. Our mind can process 120 bits of information per second. That might seem like a lot, but decoding speech takes 60 bits/second. Moment to moment, how much more do you do besides decode speech? I think of my average pandemic night in the kitchen, podcast playing, reading a recipe online, chopping vegetables, and talking to my dog (that’s normal, right?!). That is most definitely not a flow state.
Achieving a flow state is when you take all 120 bits of that attention and give it fully to an action in the present moment. This can lead to a level of high gratification from the experience of complete focus. What comes to mind for you? For me, it’s the feeling after a really great yoga class or HIIT workout. Or the feeling at a concert when live music transports you out of time and place altogether.
Flow state is most likely to occur when performing a task for intrinsic purposes, or internal rewards. Intrinsic motivation was first found by scientists studying animal behavior. They noticed animals would engage in playful and curiosity-driven behaviors in the absence of reward. They found this natural motivation tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development. In this study, the animals were more interested in learning than achieving a goal.
At the University of California, scientists found intrinsic motivations and achieving a flow state helps your mental health during periods of anxious waiting. Um, HELLO?! That’s exactly what the last twelve months have been. They also found that a flow state and intrinsic motivation is a mood and motivation booster, and increases your ability to focus. I can’t tell you how many of my friends have said to me, I cannot focus, over the last year. Again, sound familiar? Let’s bring this baby full circle.
We have an extraordinary amount of information thrown at us, leading to heightening states of anxiety, depression, and an inability to focus. Setting the tone for your day is so important for your mental health. This doesn’t need to be an hour, it never has to look the same as the day before, and you don’t need to be searching for a result.
What has helped me so much is focusing on sensation to get into my body and, perhaps, achieve a flow state. That can look like sitting down for three minutes and breathing an equal count inhale to exhale. It can look like finding a tabletop position and moving your body in a playful, curious way, exploring sensation in the present moment. Taking thoughts out, and focusing completely on how this shape, these transitions, feel in your body. AKA, finding a flow state.
I’ve highlighted three movements below that you can do in the morning to set the tone for your day. You’re not aiming for a particular goal through these movements but allowing your mind to settle into sensation and then rest on your breath.
I’ve highlighted three movements below that you can do in the morning to set the tone for your day. You’re not aiming for a particular goal through these movements but allowing your mind to settle into sensation and then rest on your breath. Try them out, and let me know what you think!
Morning Movement 1 – Low Lunge
This is a form of dynamic stretching or oscillating movement. Find a low lunge with either foot forward, hands framing the foot. Soften through the hips, and lift up through the front of your chest.
Morning Movement 2 – Half Splits
From your low lunge pull your hips back toward a half split—not trying to straighten your front leg but rather lengthen the back of the leg. Continue shifting forward and backward, adding in breath, inhale to low lunge, and exhale to half splits. Floss out that whole leg! Do as many reps per leg as feels good.
Morning Movement 3 – Cow
Working your spine, find a tabletop position—hands under shoulders, knees under hips. From there, breathe in, drop your belly, lift your heart and tailbone and look forward or up—this is cow.
Morning Movement 4 – Cat
Exhaling, press the ground away, lift your spine up to the ceiling, tuck your chin toward your chest, and pull your tailbone toward the ground—this is cat! Go through those two movements a handful of times, focusing on the sensation of them.
Morning Movement 5 – Neck Strength
To cap it off we’ll work on neck strength, which is so important to keep neck mischief at bay with how much we’re on our computers, phones, and tablets now. Take your palm and place it on the side of your head. Put gentle pressure of your hand into your head, then a more firm pressure of your head into your hand. Hold for 5-10 slow breaths, then repeat on the other side. Then place either hand on top of your head, gently press down on the head, more firmly lift your head up into your hand. Again, hold for 5-10 breaths.
If you have time, cap it all off with 3-5 minutes of equal breathing, known as sama vritti breath in yoga. Breathe in for a count of seven, breathe out for a count of seven. Keep space between your back teeth, and have either closed or soft eyes. After all this, you’ll feel ready in mind and body to take on whatever your day has in store for you.
Nina Kolar is yoga teacher online and in Minneapolis. She teaches four live virtual classes a week out of her home studio, as well as runs an on demand yoga website. You can find out more info about her live and on demand classes here. If she’s not working or practicing yoga, she’s probably climbing and/or planning her next climbing trip. Her dog Radar is convinced she’s a human. You can find her on Instagram as @chrisninakolar, follow along for movement, Radar updates, and quality dad jokes.