Calm Your Monkey Mind

How to get centered fast when the world around you goes bananas.

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Admit it, there are times when you feel off-balance and frazzled. Maybe you’re running late for work, can’t find a parking space or just spilled a cup of coffee on your new skirt. Perhaps you just had an argument with your partner that left you flustered and overly emotional. Or maybe you’re stuck in traffic with a screaming baby in the backseat. Whatever the scenario, you feel like your world is spiraling out of control and need to pull yourself together—fast.

As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I’ve learned there’s no one formula for every person. But each one of us has the creativity and resourcefulness to come up with strategies to help calm themselves through life’s less-than-perfect moments. To get you started thinking about it, here are some simple strategies that can help most women quiet their monkey mind—the incessant chatter that goes on inside our heads—and regain clarity. Even when it seems like the universe is conspiring against us.

First, acknowledge what’s happening. When it feels like things are unraveling, remember that you don’t need to react right away or try to solve the problem immediately. Wait a few seconds and ask yourself, “What is it that’s happening right at this moment?” Realize that external stressors, such as a traffic jam or a delayed bus, may be completely out of your control. Reassure yourself that you are going to be OK.

Be still. Studies have shown that you can actually change your brain chemistry by practicing the art of sitting still. Stop what you are doing and focus on the sensations in your body. Pay attention to any physical symptoms you might be experiencing, such as increased heart rate, shaking, or tense muscles. Again, try not to put pressure on yourself to fix the situation right away.

Breathe. The most essential part of any meditation practice, breathing techniques are highly effective in calming your central nervous system. A great method is the nadi shodhana cleansing breath, which which purifies both your nadis, the channels through which your body’s various energies flow, and your chakras, the body’s special points of intensity. First, gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Open and exhale slowly through the right nostril; repeat up to eight times. Another breathing exercise, called the 4-7-8, requires you to deeply inhale through your nose for four seconds and hold the breath for seven seconds, then audibly exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds. You can repeat this sequence as many as four times, up to three times a day.

Circle back to the present. This is easier said than done, especially when life is full of deadlines and obligations. But it’s so worthwhile to try to experience each activity of the day—from getting dressed in the morning to having dinner with friends—with integrity and mindfulness. Do one thing at a time, and fully participate in what you are doing, whether you’re chopping carrots, changing a diaper or reading a magazine.

Self reflect. Once you’re feeling calmer, be honest with yourself about the role you played in creating the chaos. Take a good look at the various aspects of your life that might have contributed to the meltdown. Your emotional state, your spiritual outlook, your financial situation and relationships—they all shape your wellbeing in profound ways. Even ask yourself what foods you may have put into your body that might have affected your emotional and physical health. And ask yourself how you might do things differently next time.

Look at the big picture. While you want to accept responsibility, you also want to be compassionate with yourself. Realize that you are not responsible for other people’s reactions or emotions. At the same time, other people are not responsible for your negative emotions, even if their actions are causing your suffering. You can only tell them what you want or need from them, and it’s their choice whether or not to deliver. Learning to ask for things is perhaps one of the most important things you can do for  yourself, because not asking leads to resentment and stress. In looking at the big picture of your life, it’s also crucial to ask yourself what you value most. For me, I most value the connection with my friends and family, so in my life I make a conscious and ongoing effort to connect with the people I love. If you make an effort to fill your life with the people and things you’re most interested in and passionate about, overall you’ll find yourself less resentful, happier and more grounded. Even when you cannot find a parking space.

—Cheryl Kapchan is a San Francisco-based yoga practitioner and teacher, and mother of two.