The Importance of Grounding

Whether or not they predict the weather, we can learn a lot from a marmot about responding to stress and anxiety. When a groundhog perceives danger, it gets uptight: it tenses and hoists itself up to get a clear lay of the land while its heart beats faster with adrenaline.

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Being uptight makes sense if you need to avoid danger

But when the threat passes, it grounds, settling back down on its haunches, relaxing its posture, softening its gaze, and calming its heartbeat. These outward behaviors are responses to the rodent’s autonomic nervous system, which revs it up in response to threats and relaxes it when it feels safe.

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Being grounded makes sense if you’re already safe

Humans have an autonomic nervous system as well.  Just like the groundhog, when we are feeling anxiety or stress we feel like we are being drawn tightly upward: our shoulders lift, our eyes widen, our jaws clench, and we breathe from the top of our chest.  Being uptight in response to danger evolved in our ancestors because, just like the groundhog, our they needed to be poised in a tense, hyper-responsive state when faced with danger so they could either defend themselves, run for cover, or remain coiled in hiding.

But being constantly tensed and alert uses a lot of energy and puts our body’s self-maintenance on hold, so, like the groundhog, we also evolved to settle down toward the ground when we feel the trouble has passed. Our shoulders loosen downward, our breath comes from deep in the belly, and, if we are really relaxed, we might even feel like our whole bodies release to the ground.  We yield to gravity rather than fighting it.  Feeling connected with the earth, our bodies can return to their everyday restorative functions, including resting, digesting, and procreating.

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Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party depicts people at ease, yielding to gravity.  Almost all the boaters have multiple points of contact with the ground and their eyes have soft gazes.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  While groundhogs, and other animals, are able to transition fluidly from a state of anxiety necessary to their immediate survival to a state of calm that is necessary for their long term health,  many humans are stuck in a low-grade uptight state and have trouble relaxing, largely because our threats are not predators that come and go, but long-term, low-grade fears and challenges. Anxiety and stress about our jobs, our families, our social systems, and the future is certainly legitimate, but the uptight state that anxiety creates in our bodies doesn’t help us address those challenges and actually causes physical problems if we remain in it for long periods of time.  Fortunately, there are techniques that helps us relax us down a bit when we are feeling uptight.

Grounding: Contact & Awareness

One of the basic ways to elicit a relaxation response is by doing what animals in nature do when a threat has passed, and let our weight and our awareness relax to the ground.  We call this grounding, in yoga, tai chi and other mindfulness traditions because it is consciously yielding to gravity rather than remaining uptight and fighting against it.  The recipe here is 1) stable contact with the ground and 2) resting the attention on places your body contacts the ground.  Here are some examples of grounding techniques:

  • Notice all of your points of contact with the ground.  That’s it.  If your mind wanders to other things, that’s OK.  Just bring the attention back to those points of contact.  You can do this almost anywhere and anytime, but some good times to practice are before bed, while standing in line, or while sitting in a waiting room.
  • Imagine that you have roots that grow down into the earth from whatever part of your body is exerting the most pressure on the ground: your feet (if standing), your sit bones (if you are sitting), or your heals, hips, shoulder blades and head (if you are lying down).  Imagine that they go down as deep as you are tall–feel like your roots are digging down into the ground.
  • Take a walk.  This can be outside or just inside your home.  Focus on how your feet feel as they make contact with the ground.  If your mind wanders, that’s fine, just come back to the feeling of the feet.

One final thing to note is that our body’s range from uptight to grounded is a dial rather than an on/off switch.  Often the practice of grounding lowers us down a few degrees, and with time, we can learn to establish a calmer baseline so that stress doesn’t elevate us as much, and we can remain more consistently grounded.  This can give us some control over our instinctual responses to stress, which helps us to be calm in our interactions with others and get the rest we need to maintain good health.

** Edit – I found this rather humorous description of a “Groundhog” pose online after a friend pointed out that it was a thing.  I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this, but I found it amusing, and I think you will too: http://www.prajnayoga.net/asana-anatomy-focus/groundhog-asana/

 

Feeling Mind / Thinking Mind

One of the particular strengths of yoga and tai chi is the way that each helps us to become more consciously connected to the feeling mind, the part of us that tells us how we are feeling and often prompts us to do something about it.  At its most basic, it tells us things like “drink some water, you’re thirsty” or “move that leg or it cramps up.”  It is the sensing and motivating part, the purpose behind action or non-action.

If the feeling mind is about our needs and desires, the thinking mind is about our decisions, abstract ideas, creativity, and reasoning.  It is the mind that makes plans, imagines, tells stories about the past and future, problem solves, and anticipates threats.  It makes the plan to drink water or stretch the leg.  It is the doing and creating part, taking action (or resisting action) in response to a purpose.

While the thinking mind and feeling mind are two sides of the same coin, we tend to privilege the thinking mind because we DO a lot in the modern world. Our schedules give us little time to pause and notice how we are feeling, what we need, and why we are doing what we are doing.  As a result of this neglect of the feeling mind, we sometimes reach a point of pain or injury, like getting a headache because we didn’t have enough water, or a leg cramp from sitting at a desk too long.  You can even imagine how the habitual neglect of the feeling mind could lead to chronic problems in the body, especially when coupled with stress from worrying about problems with the thinking mind.  Neglecting our deeper emotions can create even more serious issues.

Practicing yoga, tai chi, and other mindfulness exercises can potentially help address this imbalance.  Not only do they promote health, they also require an attention to the feeling mind in each posture or movement.  Through this attention, we, as practitioners, can become more conscious of our bodies in daily life, learning to better address imbalances before they become problems–or to mitigate problems if they arise.  We also learn to move the body in healthier ways and develop good enough posture to be still without creating undue stress on the body.  Thus, the feeling mind can become wise and instructive, ideally leading to better self-care.

Additionally, when we take good care of the body, it becomes a more stable, comfortable platform for developing the feeling mind in meditation. Through meditation, we can settle the thinking mind for a time and allow the feeling mind to potentially recognize deeper needs and desires for what they are and develop insight into their origins.  Ultimately, that insight can help us to recognize how the thinking mind should respond (or not respond) to our deeper feelings, which are less accessible than thirst or stiffness.  At that level, we can potentially see what actions are worth taking and when simply feeling without reacting can lead to better outcomes.

Pre-Finals Stress Relief!

Karissa Spiller, a resident assistant at UW-Platteville, invited me to teach a yoga and meditation class on December 13th.  It was a great time, and I was encouraged by how readily residents agreed to set aside the pressures of studying to take care of themselves.  So often in our daily lives we get “too busy” to sleep, eat, exercise, or spend time with family or friends.  We learn to ignore the wisdom of our bodies to get more done, not realizing that we are far more efficient, intelligent, creative, and effective when we are rested, calm, and healthy.  These students have a lot to teach us!

I write this conscious of the irony that I spent most of yesterday working on this website, frustrated, delaying my meals, hardly standing up to walk around, and certainly not taking the time to practice yoga or meditation.  While I got back on the horse this morning with my yoga routine and a short meditation, it’s a good reminder about two things in our yoga practice: 1) we generally need it most when we are least inclined to practice, and 2) we will inevitably fall out of practice from time-to-time,  perhaps especially when we need it.

These two points are intimately related because every time we “fail” to do something, including doing yoga, we can stand to learn something, and since we are mostly likely to fail at practicing yoga when we most need it, we are presented with the opportunity to learn every time we find ourselves overwhelmed, overworked, or over-stressed.  We either stay on our schedule and more fully appreciate how yoga supports us in difficult moments, or we fall out of our routine and more fully appreciate how the absence of yoga feels in our bodies and minds.

But perhaps the most important thing is to not chastise ourselves for not doing what we feel we should have.  While we are taught by our culture that punishment corrects behavior, in fact, research suggests that being hard on ourselves actually makes us less likely to be motivated to change and that practicing self-compassion is more likely to help us improve.  This reminds me of a meditation teacher I had who said that meditation is “the art of beginning again”; since we are imperfect and sometimes our schedules and life pressures don’t allow us to be our best selves, we are best served by an ability to accept our failure, learn from it, and start over fresh.  And do it again. And again.  And again.  Eventually we will develop a habit that helps us to change for the better, and when we inevitably fail, we’ll “fail better,” to quote Samuel Beckett, and become more skillful and compassionate with ourselves and others.