When it rains, it can really pour. How we weather the storms of our lives—from sickness to relationship issues to losing loved ones—is the key to surviving and thriving, according to Pam Butler, yoga teacher, “bliss coach,” and author of the new book Return to Life: Finding Your Way Back to Balance and Bliss in a Stressed-Out World ($15.29, HayHouse.com).
Return to Life grew out of Butler’s own 15-plus year journey encompassing illness, divorce, the deaths of people close to her, near-deaths of others, and even a PTSD diagnosis. Hard times indeed, but early on, a string of such punches led to her take the first step in her healing journey.
Following her daughter’s traumatic birth (she wasn’t breathing in the birth canal), and the nearly concurrent death of her father, Butler found herself sinking into despair, and suffering from relentless anxiety, chronic stress, and the first episode of a recurring bout with depression.
‘I Chose Change’
“Slipping down that dark hole, I thought, ‘How am I going to get myself out of there,’” says Butler. “At that moment, I could continue to go down further, or work hard to bring myself back. I chose change,” she says.
Through a friend, Butler was referred to the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California, founded by wellness guru, Deepak Chopra, and was instantly uplifted by its tranquil environment.
“I had never experienced anything like that. To have people around you who are in balance and who [embody] peacefulness—you feel that energy right away. It invites you to take that deep breath and exhale into that peace,” says Butler, who meditated here for the first time.
With her Type A personality, Butler admits she never thought she would sit still for the practice, but, “Things had been so bad, I thought I had no other choice. The competitive side of me said, ‘OK, I’m coachable. Tell me what I need to do,'” she says.
After taking slow, deep breaths, “You realize, sitting comfortably in uncomfortableness isn’t so bad. It didn’t kill me to get uncomfortable in anxious feelings,” says Butler. “We can’t make our thoughts stop, but through meditation we can make them slow down.”
Over time, the cumulative practices of meditation, mindfulness, yoga, yogic breathing, gratitude, and serving others became Butler’s fix, she says. “Returning to life for me is a life of discipline, incorporating these practices. Today, I don’t find it to be work. It becomes like brushing your teeth. I’m responsible for the energy I’m carrying and sharing with others. Every day we have a new chance to rewrite our own stories. We deserve to live in bliss,” says Butler.
Here are Butler’s 12 steps to getting back on track after a rough patch, plus a few yoga and meditation practices.
12 Ways to Move Through Your Tough Stuff and ‘Return to Life’
For some people, an epiphany or dramatic moment may inspire a life change, but for Butler, “My daughter was my life vest at so many pivotal points. I kept her in the forefront of my mind, wanting to be a healthy, strong mother for her—a role model—and to teach her that life does get insurmountable, but we can choose how to respond,” she says.
Take baby steps.
Small choices were all Butler could manage during a state of feeling numb and powerless. “There wasn’t some big dramatic moment,” she says. “I chose to get out of bed. I chose to show up at the therapist’s office without the mask I usually wore and be completely honest with him. Sometimes, when life brings you to your knees, you simply need to concentrate on finding a way to walk before you run,” she advises.
See also When Yogis Need Help
This acronym/tool comes from Daniel Siegel, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. “Use it anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed,” says Butler. “S is for stop what you’re doing for a moment. T is for take three deep breaths. O is for observe what’s going on. Notice your breath, what’s going on inside of you. Don’t judge or dwell, just observe. P is for proceed with lovingkindness and compassion.”
Medication may not be the answer.
Having developed PTSD, Butler was prescribed medication, which, she says, “Ultimately left me feeling worse—numb. Mental illness is a disease like anything else. Sometimes you need pills to help balance chemistry, but they’re not a permanent solution,” she says.
Spend time in healing environments.
Healing places are popping up everywhere, from yoga and meditation studios to day spas. Grab a family member or friend and check them out. Walking outside and getting some sunshine is another way to connect with peacefulness, Butler says.
Commit to sit.
“There is no a-ha lightbulb moment. You can’t sit in meditation and expect the Dalai Lama to whisper something enlightening in your ear,” says Butler. Instead, she advises, “Set yourself up to win. Set aside five minutes on your timer or cell phone twice a day. Make that commitment. The only bad meditation is not doing it at all.”
Losses and failures are essential to personal growth and healing, says Butler. “Divorces happen, but they’re not who you are. Learning to embrace failure is liberating for me. I don’t get attached to my failures. I’m thankful for such experiences as opportunities for growth.”
Ignore your inner critic.
Talk to yourself as if you’re a child, or a good friend, suggests Butler. “Compassion, reframing our speech, and being positive are so important. Your inner critic doesn’t have to live inside you—you can kick it to the curb and never let it back in,” she says. For example, Butler initially told herself she was too old to become a yoga teacher, but at age 49, “I am so grateful that I’m beginning to heal my body and share the gifts of healing with others.”
“I spent so many years seeking external validation and looking for love in all the wrong places,” Butler says. “If you think that a car, house, money will make you happy, that’s a chase you’ll never win. Today, I don’t need anything outside of myself to complete me.”
Try a yoga boost.
“After my hysterectomy, yoga helped to balance my hormones and enabled me to heal faster,” says Butler. “Asana and breathing techniques are two of the most powerful things you can do to heal your body. Yoga soothes our sympathetic nervous system, reduces stress hormones, and raises the level of serotonin—our happy hormones.”
Start a gratitude jar.
When you’re really down, it’s hard to think positively, Butler says. “If you can name something you’re grateful for in the moment, it’s a powerful way to move from a lacking, negative mentality to a more positive mind space. Get a jar and jot down something you’re grateful for daily on paper and drop it in. By the end of the month, after reading through it all—wow—there’s a realization that life isn’t so bad. You can carry a renewed sense of blessing into your day,” she advises.
The more you’re of service, the less time you have to think about the negative things that can keep you depressed, Butler says. “Find something you’re passionate about—whether it’s working with babies, animals, feeding the homeless, or helping battered women. Get in touch with a local center or place where you can connect to such a cause and be of help. The biggest blessing is to be a blessing to someone else.”
1. Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Savasana is one of the most relaxing yoga poses of all, but it can also be one of the hardest for some people because it’s all about being quiet and still. When I have students do this pose in my classes, I often see them squirming about as they struggle to keep their bodies still. Just do the best you can. This pose is great for relaxing the whole body, lowering blood pressure, and fighting fatigue and headaches.
Lie on your back with your eyes closed.
Let your arms fall loosely at your sides with your palms facing upward.
Relax your legs, which should be about hip-width apart, and allow your feet to fall open.
Try to remain in this pose for five minutes. As you lie there, become mindful of your breath and allow your body to fall deeper into the floor with each exhale.
2. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karini)
Legs-Up-the-Wall is one of my favorite poses to do before going to bed. It’s also a great stretch for your legs and hips. As the name suggests, you can do this pose against a wall, but it also works in the middle of a room.
Start by lying flat on the floor. Then raise your legs straight up in the air, at a 90-degree angle from the floor. Be careful not to strain your lower back.
If you’re using a wall, your backside should be right up against it and your legs resting against the wall. If you’re not using a wall, just raise your feet in the air directly above your hips. Your feet can be flat or flexed, depending on what feels better to you.
You can rest your hands on your stomach, lay your arms by your sides, or extend them straight out from your body like airplane wings, whatever is most comfortable for you.
You have probably already tried meditation and maybe even made it into a daily practice. Before you sit down to meditate, you can deepen the experience by asking yourself a key question: “What am I grateful for today?” The answer can be anything, from the big things in life like my daughter or my home, to small things like a nice sunny day or the delicious meal I just ate. Sometimes I even tell myself I’m grateful for the meditation practice I’m about to engage in because of the peace and clarity it brings me. There are no right or wrong answers. Just ask yourself the question and see what comes to mind.
You can also pause and ask yourself “What am I grateful for?” throughout the day, anytime you want to change up a negative mind space. Sit quietly for a moment and then ask yourself the question. After you’ve answered it, notice whether focusing on the things you’re thankful for has put you in a more positive frame of mind. I find it works for me practically every time.
I learned this technique at a retreat given by life coach, author, and speaker Gabrielle Bernstein. She calls it her anxiety-buster exercise, and I’ve found that it works great for my anxiety. You can help manage your own anxiety by doing the following:
1. Stop whatever you’re doing and find a place where you can sit for a few moments without being disturbed.
2. Inhale through your nose for eight short, staccato breaths.
3. Blow out the breath in one forceful count through your mouth.
You will be able to hear your breaths as they go in and out—first the short, clipped inhales, one after the other, and then the big whoosh of air going out. Repeat this breathing technique until your anxiety starts to wane.
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