Often in the yoga world, you'll hear directions like, "Let it go," "Relax," "Breathe into it." These all sound lovely, but when I'm in a wound-up state, they strike me as abstract, unattainable, and a tad annoying. Let what go, where? Relax? Thanks, I'll get right on that. And breathe into what?
But my Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training three years ago gave me a more specific process for actually doing these things: BRFWA -- Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow.
A clunky acronym on the tongue, but incredibly potent in life. Whenever I remember to use it, I'm supported in ramping down my anxiety a solid notch or three. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, what with my first child due to be born soon. A whole human is going to (in theory) exit a passage that seems, frankly, very small in relation to the little dude, who daily elicits comparisons to basketballs and watermelons.
As I read books like Mindful Birthing (a goodie), I've been thinking, "Oh, this is pretty much all BRFWA! I know how to do that!" Seems to me that BRFWA is not just good for labor pains (or rushes, as uber-midwife Ina May Gaskin calls them), but for any kind of pain at all -- from stubbing your toe to suffering through a migraine to living with arthritis.
BRFWA is a specific technology that addresses some of the crucial things that surface when we're in pain, whether it's acute or chronic: feelings and thoughts about the pain that make it hurt more. The main feeling is usually fear, which triggers a thought story such as, "Something bad is going to happen," or "I must be a bad person." These stories amp up the fear, giving more power and faux credibility to the thoughts, leading to a lousy downward spiral and space for the pain to expand and take root. BRFWA can help break this cycle.
When you notice you're in physical or emotional pain and are going through fear or "poor me" or sad feelings about it, stop what you're doing and go through the process -- it can take 30 seconds or 10 minutes. (But, of course, if you're in pain that needs medical attention, please BRFWA on the way to your doctor!)
The BRFWA Process
Breathe. Take a deep, full breath that inflates your tummy, and exhale nice and long until your lungs are empty. Repeat several times. You've now already interrupted a cycle. You're oxygenating your blood, awakening your parasympathetic nervous system, and reassuring your inner critic that everything is really okay. In this phase, you may actually feel the emotional or physical pain more acutely for a moment. Hang in there and keep breathing -- it's not actually getting worse, your attention is just being drawn into the throbbing present moment. Keep going.
Relax. Since this word can be so vague -- and thus not helpful -- I try to do some very specific things in this part of BRFWA. First, I do a body scan. What's really going on? Where? I release tension as I find it, and invite relaxation, which can feel like comfort -- a soft, cozy blanket being tucked all around you. There's usually some optional tension in my jaw to relax, my neck can sway side to side, and those shoulders that I'm wearing as earrings can begin to drop. I'm still breathing, so I can let the rhythm of my breath relax my belly. I can see if I'm unconsciously making fists and, if so, unfurl them. Release the butt clench. Wiggle the toes to ease the calves and feet. Again, the pain may seem more intense right now because you're not constricting it by holding your breath. But keep breathing and softening.
Feel. I do an emotional body scan at this point, usually a swing through the chakras. What does my root chakra feel like? Supported or wobbly? My hara, just below my belly button? My diaphragm? (This area is usually pretty packed with emotion when I'm fretting.) My heart center -- open, closed, numb, neutral? Throat feeling nice and clear or like you swallowed a plum pit? Third eye -- cloudy or seeing? Is your crown connecting you to source or feeling stuffy? Bring the breath and comfort to all of these spots, resisting the urge to judge, narrate, or go down winding thought roads. If you hit into some tough stuff, be gentle and don't dwell on it too much or attach a story or meaning to it. Simply breathe and witness the sensations. Notice if they change, or not.
Watch. Kripalu Yoga often speaks of the witness -- the part of you that's always watching from the director's chair of your consciousness. That witness knows you're reading right now, knows you're feeling, thinking, breathing, and being. It's utterly without judgment and is simply the vastness that is you, beyond all those thoughts and emotions that come with being human. Tune into it. Clamber up on that chair and sit there for a little while, observing without critiquing. I find this is often the point where I might crack up laughing, even in the midst of life's most excruciating dramas. Because it's possible to simultaneously see the bigger picture -- that you are an infinite being of grace and power connected to a vast universe of love -- and the smaller one. Sometimes this juxtaposition brings a knowing that invites a compassionate chuckle at the absurdities of being human. Let it come, and watch it, too.
Allow. Here's where you toss away the orange traffic cones that direct the flow of the "traffic" inside you. The more you give yourself permission to be what you are in this moment -- happy when you "should" be sad, envious when you "should" be grateful, a mess, joyful, anxious, tight, loose, whatever -- the more it will all pass through you, like a wave. And the bigger the space you create with that permission, the more easefully those waves will pass through and over you, without driving you into the sand quite so much. You might even imagine yourself becoming liquid, watery, permeable -- so that the waves move right through you. Pain is part of the vast ocean of being here. In your allowing -- in your softness, vulnerability, and acceptance -- no wave, however much pain it brings, is more powerful than you. The moment passes and you're back -- back to your breath, back to doing it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
About Valerie Reiss
Valerie is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more. She keeps a gratitude blog, wrote Yoga Journal's NYC blog, Samadhi and the City, and has blogged for Lime.com and others. As Holistic Living & Blogs Editor at Beliefnet.com she also co-wrote the popular Fresh Living blog. She was previously Articles Editor at Breathe, a yoga-inspired lifestyle magazine. A native New Yorker, Valerie has an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. from Beloit College. She's also working on a book about yoga, cancer, and some of life's other humbling hilarities.