Never underestimate the power of the breath.
The breath is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of yoga practice, yet many of us tend to get lost in our thoughts or bring too much attention to the poses, making it easy to forget about the breath entirely.
Enter Holotropic Breathwork, a technique completely dedicated to the breath, was originally developed by Stanislav Grof in the 1970s. Through breath and music, the practice allows participants to tap into inner wisdom, without judgment from the conscious mind (or our egos).
Michael Stone, a certified facilitator of Holotropic Breathwork, created shortened version of the typically 12-hour holotropic breathwork sessions called Neurodynamic Breathwork, which is a 60-minute session designed to help participants reap the benefits of the breathwork in an accessible way. Watch here as Stone leads Yoga Journal contributor Sky Cowans through Holotropic Breathwork for the first time.
See also The Science of Breathing
About the Author
Sky Cowans is a video creator on a mission to educate and empower her audience to live their healthiest, happiest lives. On her YouTube channel Sky Life, Cowans explores everything from ancient practices to emerging health trends, breaks down the science and research behind them, and documents her experience trying it all.
6 Breath Practices for a Stressful Day at Work
Try these pranayama techniques at your desk to feel centered and calm when your job gets hectic.
Work is often a huge source of stress in our lives. Whether you’re trying to meet unrealistic deadlines, manage a high workload, or handle a conflict with a boss or co-worker, it can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking.
When things start to feel out of control at work, one of the simplest things you can do to calm your nervous system and improve your state of mind is to take a few moments to shift your focus to your breath. Better yet, take five for pranayama, or breathwork, right at your desk. Pranayama, which means controlling your breath and its energies, can be a powerful reset for your body and mind.
See also 30 Yoga Sequences to Reduce Stress
Research suggests that a regular pranayama practice can improve brain health and attention, which means you’ll be better able to tackle the tasks and challenges ahead.
Typically, your breath will become more shallow and rapid when you’re feeling stressed. So, it’s best to use the pranayama techniques that slow down your breath in order to quiet your mind, improve concentration, and ease anxiety, stress, or agitation.
See also Yoga for Stress and Burnout
To help you manage the daily grind, here are six breathing practices to try at the office when you’re having a rough day.
These pranayama exercises are not just limited to work-related stress, but also are applicable to other areas where stress might come up in your life. So, practice as little or as often as you like. The time you take to focus on your breath also gives you the space to gain clarity and return to a more neutral state of well-being.
Here’s What Happened When I Tried Mantra Meditation During The Hardest Month of My Life
Hint: It helped. A lot.
If someone would’ve told me back in December that the first month of 2019 would be the hardest of my life, I probably would’ve thought twice before signing up for Yoga Journal’s 30-day meditation challenge. Because let’s be honest: Meditation is the exact opposite of running away from your problems. Instead, it inspires you to sit your butt down right in the middle of those problems and face your resulting emotions head on.
In January, all I wanted to do was run away from my ongoing relationship problems, self smack-talk, and most significantly, the immense sadness from the death of my beloved aunt.
See also YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
Yet even though there were many days that stared at my cushion with pure, unadulterated resentment, or put off my practice until the end of the day, I can honestly say that the practice completely transformed how I handled some of the most challenging times I’ve ever faced. It not only gave me the space to confront my feelings, but it also helped me learn how to take care of myself along the way.
Introducing Myself to Mantra Meditation
I’ve been consistently meditating for a little over a year now, practicing everything from guided 10-minute meditations on the Calm app to classes at MNDFL meditation studio in New York City. However, I would say my relationship with meditation didn’t become a real commitment until I got a meditation cushion for my apartment about five months ago. It’s dramatically changed my practice, which used to happen in my bed. (You can imagine how that went on the days I was tired.)
Even though I had heard positive things about mantra meditation—a practice where you silently repeat a mantra, which you either choose for yourself or is given to you during an initiation—I was pretty intimidated by it. However, when I spoke with Alan Finger, meditation teacher and author of Tantra of the Yoga Sutras: Essential Wisdom for Living with Awareness and Grace, he told me that mantra, just like asana or pranayama, is simply a tool used to alter the consciousness. “When practicing with a mantra, it’s important to say the mantra aloud first, so that you can feel the sound vibrations in the body,” he told me.
See also Tempted to Skip Savasana? 10 Top Yoga Teachers Explain Why It’s the Most Important Pose
As a somewhat experienced meditator, mantra meditation was still very new to me. I didn’t really have a plan to choose a mantra, but after practicing alongside Hilary Jackendoff in a guided meditation video, she helped me discover “So Hum,” which means “I am that.” Finger mentioned that different mantras can be used for different feelings, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and more, but this mantra felt pretty versatile, so I stuck with it.
Jackendoff taught us to meditate with the mantra, using the breath. On every inhalation, I would silently say the word “So.” On every exhalation, I would silently say the word “Hum.” I’m used to meditating with my breath, so this seemed doable.
Week 1: When Sh!t Hits the Fan, It’s Time to Sit
Disclaimer: I didn’t meditate at all the first two days of January. I also didn’t work out or eat healthy (some of the habits I stick with regularly). I was feeling really down on myself, because January is supposed to be a time to start new habits, eat clean, and get fit—and I felt like I blew it already. It sounds ridiculous, but that is my thought process sometimes. When my good habits don’t happen, I tend to beat myself up.
Then, as I was working at my laptop on the third day of January, I had a thought and told myself: You can sit here, work, and feel miserable—or you can take a 20-minute break, step away from your laptop, and meditate.
See also Get Your Sit Together: 7 Best Meditation Cushions to Support Your Practice
It took everything in me to walk upstairs and grab my cushion, but I was desperate to feel better, so that’s exactly what I did.
Week 2: When “I am that” becomes “I am love”
After my first week of mantra meditation, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Suddenly, my goals for the new year weren’t tied to perfecting myself through diet and exercise, but instead, doing something every day that made me feel loved—and meditation became that thing. I switched my mantra. Instead of silently repeating So Hum, I started repeating “I am” on every inhalation and “love” on every exhalation. I found myself looking forward to making a cup of tea, plopping down on my cushion, and sitting for 20 to 30 minutes every day.
Having a week of solid practice under my belt really helped me for what was to come. Because my theme for 2019 is self-love, I became hyper aware of my relationships—with myself and with others. My boyfriend and I got into an argument in the beginning of the month and I wasn’t able to let it go. Every time we tried to talk about it, we couldn’t come to a fair conclusion.
See also 5 Poses to Help You Reconnect With Your Partner After a Miscommunication
During the second week of my meditation, the lingering argument kept coming up in my meditation. I would sit on the cushion, silently repeat my mantra, and cry. How could I practice “I am love” if I didn’t feel loved? How could I love him if I kept beating myself up?
So, what did I do? I continued to sit, to cry, and to come back to my breath. Giving myself that space during meditation allowed me to tap into what I was really feeling. It also gave me the space to go to my boyfriend later that week with a calm heart. Instead of arguing, we were able to have a productive conversation. I truly believe that if I didn’t give myself that space, we would still be arguing today about the same thing.
Weeks 3 and 4: Sitting with Sadness
For the past eight months, my beloved aunt had been living with metastatic breast cancer—the terminal kind. On January 21, she passed away.
A few days before her death, I my mom called me to let me know it was time to come home. I took a bus from New York City to Maryland on the morning of January 21 and repeated my mantra for about 25 minutes. An hour into my journey, my brother texted me to tell me that my aunt had passed away.
See also Spiritual Leader Ram Dass on Zen and the Art of Dying
In the days following my aunt’s death, I felt so much hurt I didn’t even realize was possible. Every time I came to my meditation cushion, I would cry, breathe, and simply sit in a feeling of numbness. The cushion gave me space—to feel sad, to mourn, to feel angry, and sometimes, to do nothing. Every time I came back to my mantra—“I am love”—I remembered that my aunt wouldn’t want me to live in grief and sadness. It was inevitable to feel these emotions, sure. But I realized the only way these feelings would pass is if I really felt them.
The difference I noticed thanks to my new mantra meditation practice happened when I wasn’t on my cushion. Every single day after my aunt passed, I would ask myself how I could bring a little more love into my day. Some days that meant resting and watching movies with my mom. Other days that meant working out, going for a long walk, or spending time with friends.
Moving Forward with Mantra
Now that it’s February, I still hold my mantra in my heart. I still ask myself every day, “How can you bring more love into your day?” or “What will make you feel more loved?” I think I will continue to keep my mantra in my practice until something else seems like a better fit. Just as Finger told me, there’s a mantra for everything—and I look forward to discovering more mantras as my life’s journey, and all its ups and downs, unfolds.
See also Why Does Meditation Make You Feel So Rested?
How a Daily Chakra Meditation Unlocked More Time and Space in My Life
One yogi never had enough hours in the day to tend to it all, much less herself. Here’s how this regular Tantric practice inspired a change.
As a yogi, I’ve grasped the concept of abundance—intellectually. But as someone easily whacked out of balance by overbearing personalities or overwhelming workloads, I’ve never been entirely convinced that the universe could accommodate both my needs and virtually anything else at hand. Things get crowded quickly. My chest tightens and hip flexors grip; I ditch plans to practice yoga, stop making nourishing meals, and skip dates to connect with dear friends—or, most importantly, myself.
It may all go back to growing up in a Greek household, which involved what I’ll generously call a spirited communication style. Somehow, stillness and peace were elusive in a two-story home with big bedrooms and a finished basement. And this perceived lack of space spilled into an underlying, unchecked zero-sum mentality that has shaped my perspective ever since.
In early college, roommates and I lamented the supposed dearth of eligible partners in the dating scene. When peers sustained relationships, I’d shake my head and say, “they’re stealing from the sex pot,” as though, like a soup special on a cold day, our campus could just run out of love.
Last year, a yoga teacher and I showed up for a filming project and both felt under the weather. By mid-afternoon, I’d recovered; “I used up all the good vibes when you needed it most!” I joked. She (kindly) reminded me that there is an infinite source of healing for all.
This isn’t exactly what I thought I’d confront as I embarked on YJ’s month-long challenge to practice a chakra meditation every day. Finding calm? Sure. Less stress? Looked forward to that. Spiritual ecstasy? If I’m lucky, great—but not a must. Instead, it was time to take a look at my internal space-time continuum.
See also YJ’s March Meditation Challenge Will Help You Stick to a Steady Practice
Balancing the Chakras
The 31-day challenge began without ceremony on New Year’s Day in Brussels, where my partner and I were visiting family. I sat in the unmade guest bed, welcomed a purring Chartreux voluntarily curled up in my lap, and fired up a 20-minute guided chakra meditation from legendary Tantra teacher Sally Kempton.
New to chakras? Here’s a quick primer: Chakras are whirling forces of subtle energy associated with different aspects of the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. There are 7 (of many more) chakras primarily taught in yoga, and this is what they stand for:
- Muladhara (Root): Earth, security, home, finances
- Svadhisthana (Sacral): Water, creativity, sexuality
- Manipura (Solar Plexus): Fire, sense of self
- Anahata (Heart): Air, love
- Visuddha (Throat): Space, communication from the heart’s truth
- Ajna (Third Eye): Light, intuition
- Sahasrara (Crown): Bliss, divine connection
(You can get sucked into learning more about the chakras here.)
They are strung along the sushumna nadi, a central channel of life force that runs from the base of the spine through the crown of the head. The idea is that balancing the chakras—by focusing breath, mantras (sounds), yantras (shapes), imagery, and colors in their respective locations along this totem—allows you to access this sacred streak of energy.
When I asked Sally about what happens when (and if) you open the central channel, she dangled a taste of nonduality. In Tantra, reality is a universe in which everyone is one with the divine. “You can become aware that your body is a formless, vast undulating center full of light and bliss,” she said. “It’s a fairly dramatic experience.”
It all sounds esoteric, so I wouldn’t expect everyone to embrace it. But I’d microdosed on chakra practices for over 15 years, so I was ready to dive in. When I was 20, I found a random chakra book in my East Village sublet and journaled a root chakra affirmation that resonated: “I am safe, I trust in the natural flow of life, I take my natural place in the world content in the knowledge that all I need will come to me in the right time and place.” Years later, within the context of a vigorous flow, Seane Corn presented the chakras as a psychological roadmap for growth.
Then I met Tantra and Kriya masters Alan and Sarah Finger, who truly brought the chakras to light and offered concrete techniques to harmonize them. They also answered a good question: How do you actually locate a chakra? For me, bija (seed) mantras were the entry point; if I focused enough, repeating the staccato sounds (such as lam for the root chakra) help me trace a pulse in a specific location (pelvic floor).
Even so, beaming awareness and imagery to ambiguous areas in my body required concentration and good faith. As a result, the neurotic part of my brain didn’t focus on the usual storylines: deadlines, challenges, or omg how much time is left in this meditation?! I was lulled by the mantras’ vibrations, and all the visualizations inspired my imagination—a boon for anyone who spends too much time in Type-A territory.
There was a misstep when I first imagined elements—earth, water, fire, space, light, bliss—associated with each chakra. Before Brussels, I’d traveled to Rome, so my mind conjured scenes from the Colosseum: snarled roots in its underbelly; water rising in the amphitheater… I quickly decided not to instill scenes from such an infamous space.
Instead I coaxed meaningful imagery: Strong roots holding up the mermaid-like mahogany trees I’d seen on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula; emerald lakes tucked into rarely trekked valleys of the Sierra Nevada that I’d swam in; the pulse of my apartment stove’s burner enacting a flame in my belly; a tiny flame on a stick of palo santo in my heart center. A Magritte sky in my throat, leading to a golden hour light spilling in from my third eye and crown.
Watch also: What, Exactly, Are the Chakras? Alan Finger Explains
How the Chakras Created Space in My Body, Mind… and Life
Right away things shifted. I was still on holiday when my coworkers began trickling back into the office. Although I still checked my email—it may take a year of meditation to bust that habit—I didn’t feel my heart pound as they came in. I felt freedom as I visited museums, enjoyed the art nouveau architecture, and connected with family.
Instead of seeking the usual alone time when I returned to New York, I invited good friends over for dinner and king cake. Once I resumed the grind, that vacation halo lasted longer than usual. Each meditation felt like it was literally emptying me of clutter and fog, leaving me with clarity.
The real test came later in the month, when my schedule packed up. I prepared for an upcoming filming in another state. I assisted a week-long yoga training that lasted from early morning until evening, and then came home to complete the day’s work. Oh, and a friend from California came to stay with me.
Even for someone who doesn’t easily get overwhelmed, a lot was going on. And it would have been my default to shut out my friend, worry my way through the training, or just operate from the adrenaline.
There’s a pop culture adage that we all have the same amount of time in a day as Beyoncé. Maybe her secret is chakra meditations, because as I found space in my practice, my life opened up. I didn’t have to turn anything down, yet I didn’t feel resentful saying yes. All that inward focus cultivated a strong sense of embodiment. I could be present without losing my wits (or myself) in the process.
When the subway literally broke one morning before training, I didn’t agonize that I’d be late. I calmly walked 20 minutes to the nearest bus route, emailed my teacher, and meditated. (I showed up on time anyway.)
See also This is the Reason I Take the Subway 45 Minutes Uptown to Work Out – Even Though There’s a Gym On My Block
During the training, I knocked over a tripod and it came crashing down during a calming restorative practice. I froze with horror; attempting to melt into my mat was futile. Shit happens, and I was grateful for a makeshift chakra meditation in that moment to move past embarrassment.
I felt peace in this chaotic schedule and could summon an abundance of presence, making deep connections with students at the training, laughing with my good friend at midnight, being kinder to my partner, and, most importantly, tending to myself.
It may sound odd that I “allowed” myself these basic needs and simple pleasures, but it’s true: In the past, the weight of a to-do list or a lot of social obligations meant I didn’t have room for myself. I may not have experienced the splendor of the infinite universe (yet!), but this meditation expanded time and space so I could register the divine moments every day.
I started my days with a cup of coffee on the sofa and read instead of clacking away at emails. I prepared an egg and avocado breakfast. I stole moments to enjoy the way the low winter sun lit the pastel buildings in Soho.
See also This is Your Brain on Meditation
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