Racing Thoughts? These 4 Breath Techniques Can Beat Monkey Mind
Take a moment to imagine one of those vintage windup monkeys: You know, the ones with the yellow-and-red-striped outfits, bulging eyes, and creepy smiles on their faces. Turn the key, let it go, and the monkey goes nuts, making screeching sounds with those brass cymbals.
Now, imagine that you're the windup monkey. Well, your body is. And your mind is the key, winding itself again and again with every experience, thought, and emotion. Each time you wind the key, the tension in the mind and the body builds. You can feel the resistance growing tighter and tighter—and you know there are only so many times you can keep turning the key until the spring snaps. So you wind it just enough, then let it go and watch the monkey do its thing.
Unfortunately, at times, when we're too wound up, we also screech, showing our teeth, and feel like we're banging our head against the wall. The term "monkey mind" has never felt so fitting, huh?
Why we could all use a "daily unwind" breath routine.
Needless to say, our minds are busy—maybe busier than ever, with technology keeping us plugged in to the office and at home 24/7. As obvious as it sounds, a "daily unwind"—a release of all the tension that builds up in our heads throughout the day—is a must. Just like you brush your teeth every day, think of it as a nonnegotiable. Taking a daily unwind can be as simple as tuning in to your breathing. Think of the breath as the "off switch" for the mind, shifting the nervous system from high alert to rest-and-rejuvenation mode.
Do a few neck and shoulder rolls, and then give one of these mind-clearing breath techniques a try:
1. Mind-shift breath.
This type of breath immediately clears the mind and re-energizes the nervous system. It calls on us to breathe in a little more air than we typically would. Inhale through your nose, pause when you reach lung capacity, and then take a couple of more tiny sips of air and hold for a moment. Release by exhaling fully through the nose. Repeat two to three times.
2. Active acceptance breath.
If you're feeling stressed about something going on at work or at home, chances are that negative energy is wasting a lot of your mental power. Fighting to keep something at bay takes far more energy than just letting it go. Think of your breath as a tool to help you open the dam and release that toxic negativity.
Whenever you're feeling the physical or emotional effects of stress—tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, racing thoughts—take a long, deep breath and hold for a moment. Then, exhale fully with the sound hmmmmm. Repeat three to five times, and follow it up with the mind-shift breath three to five times.
3. Flowing-water breath.
For this practice, sit comfortably near any body of flowing water. If you can get to an ocean or river, awesome! If not, an indoor fountain, or even a video of running water, would work too. The sights and sounds of flowing water can soothe the mind, connect us to nature, and flush out lingering pain. Just sit and gaze at the movement of the water, simultaneously listening to its sound. Give it time, and you might find that your mind begins to follow the flow of the water as your thoughts, emotions, and mental activity begins to drain out of you.
4. Looking-glass breath.
This relaxation exercise can be done anywhere. All you have to do is to look at something without really looking at it. Choose a point in front of you, then soften your focus like you're looking past or through an object. As you do, begin to notice your field of vision opening up as you become aware of other things in your environment—the sounds, smells, and physical sensations all around you. Do this for a couple of minutes, and then close your eyes and notice how your mind has slowed down.
I hope these exercises help you become more naturally and effortlessly present, mindful, calm, and alive. Monkey mind, be gone!
Rajshree Patel is a meditation expert, self-awareness coach, and author of The Power of Vital Force: Fuel Your Energy, Purpose, and Performance with Ancient Secrets of Breath and Meditation. Over 30 years, she has conducted 40,000 hours of coaching on the power of meditation, mindfulness, and breath work for organizations such as Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, Lyft, NBC Universal, LinkedIn, Gap, The World Bank, Shell Oil, Morgan Stanley, Harvard University, and MIT, among others. She has also started 600 meditation centers worldwide. Before Patel began her meditation and coaching career, she was a prosecutor, obtaining her jurist doctor of law degree from St. John's University School of Law. She is based in Los Angeles.