Updated: Dec 28, 2022
Have you ever met one of these people who always seem perfectly composed and able to deal with whatever in a calm and comfortable manner?
I'm often in awe of someone like that. As much as I try not to be flustered by things going wrong or unexpected situations or not to be wound up or frustrated, it is a huge effort and I'm not always able to respond with my best foot forward. Like freezing on stage, the more you're aware of the situation, the harder it can be to work through it naturally.
How do these people do it? Are they born like that? Are their lives just a lot less stressful or disorganised? Do they have some kind of special training that the rest of us haven't cottoned onto yet?
The answer might be a bit of all of those, but none of them by accident. And the truth is that there are lots of tools even our most flustered and overworked self can pull out of the bag to be more calm and collected, or centred, when required.
I didn't realise it at the time, but the first occasion on which I recall deliberately centring was during my GCSE exams. Aged 16, I used to walk down a particular road in my home town and think, I'll still be walking down this road when I've completed the exams, it'll still be the same me and the same road. I made myself more aware of the physicality of my being in the context of my surroundings, focussing more on what's here and now rather than the exam and any perceived consequences of the mark I might achieve.
As humans, our brains are wired up to recall and analyse past situations so we can learn for and plan possible future situations. These abilities have defined our success as a species, strategising and managing social interactions on a much greater scale than any other creature.
They also pose a unique risk for our physical and psychological responses because we end up responding not only to what's directly in front of us (they have a knife! Run!) but also to what has happened before but may or may not be happening now (last time I was here was when that person had a knife, what if that happens now?!) and also what may or may not ever happen (I hear people round here may carry knives, what if someone has one?!).
In each one of these scenarios we respond with the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system: heightened senses, adrenaline, increased heart rate, shallow breathing.
The example of a knife is an immediate physical risk, but if you think about it, we put ourselves in this kind of may-never-happen (-again) state about all sorts of things that are a less immediate threat to life and limb. Exams, arguments, rejections, appraisals, dentist visits, bills...
Centring techniques help the nervous system to respond to what's actually going on now, rather than a perceived threat from the past or the future, by focusing the body, mind and energy in the here and now instead of potential futures. Sometimes we deploy them unconsciously, without having to think about what we're really doing, just as 16 year old me did during my GCSEs. Perhaps you can also recall a time when this "came naturally" to you? Even if you can't, there are plenty of wonderful ways to deliberately find, develop and use centring techniques.
On the yoga mat we use them all the time. For example, checking how your weight is distributed between your feet in mountain pose, or the position of your pelvis/tailbone in warrior II. Finding your balance point in tree pose, or simply noticing the weight of your body in relaxation.
In meditation, the focus on the breath is a very powerful centring technique. As we notice the breath, the physical body comes into focus with the sensation and movement of the breath. The mental and emotional states also come into focus with the pace and quality of the breath, but the breath itself draws us into the here and now as it is always taking place in the present moment.
The great thing about these techniques is that we can also take them off the yoga mat or meditation cushion and use them in everyday life wherever required. Notice how you're standing, notice your ribs expanding as you breathe in.
There are also more adventurous approaches to centring that require specific circumstances. For example, you might already be aware of the health benefits of cold exposure, but did you know it's also a centring technique?
When we're exposed to cold through cold showers, ice baths or (my preference) wild swimming, our brains and nervous systems only have one choice: to deal with what's in front of us. We stop worrying about what someone thinks of us after that drunken party or whether we'll get a pay raise depending on how our boss will score our next appraisal. For the moment, we are here and we are free (although we're also cold!).
The great news is that with regular practice, we can train our minds and nervous systems to be here more often (even without the cold, because let's face it, I don't often have the north sea handy when I begin to feel overwhelmed).
This is also true for the centring techniques that we practice during yoga class. The more we practice them on the mat, the more we naturally find them working IRL.
Coming back, then, to that perfectly composed person we all seem to know.
Do they unconsciously centre themselves whenever needed, or do they have a practice to train the nervous system back into responding to the present? If their lives seem a lot less stressful than ours, is it because they are able to worry less about the may-never-happen (-again) things in their heads by being here and now? Perhaps this is the case.
In all honesty, I think everyone gets flustered and overwhelmed from time to time. Having centring techniques in our toolkit can make a massive difference to anyone and everyone.
Practice your centring techniques on the yoga mat with me either in person in Leeds or online via a private yoga class. Regular classes in Alwoodley restart 12th January-Book any of these now on the Liquid Yoga website. Private online or in person classes which take place before the 11th January 2023 are eligible for the 20% Midwinter Offer discount!