courtesy Maureen ConnollyAs a mother of three boys and an editorial director at an online digital health company, keeping 24 balls in the air at once—and secretly reveling in it—is my modus operandi. My multitasking ways made me feel needed, accomplished, and alive.
But then a summer course catalog from The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, arrived at my office offering a three-day workshop on “Learning to Pause.” The Berkshire Mountains are beautiful and I was totally on board with having locally sourced, organic meals prepared daily by someone other than me. However, it was the quote included the course descriptor that got me to register:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. —Viktor Frankl
I arrived just in time to take part in the Friday evening kick-off session. As I entered the cathedral-style room with the 20-foot ceilings, rows, and rows of yoga mats, and 70 strangers, did I think that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea after all? For a fleeting moment, I did. Did I spend the weekend making mental to-do lists or wanting to leave instead of pausing? No. And here’s the best part: In the weeks that have followed, I’ve been able to tap into the incredible transformative power that can come with pausing.
First order of business was to learn why I, like so many others, feel driven to fire on all cylinders most of the time. The big-deal reason is that our culture associates accomplishing stuff with self-worth. But the issue with doing a lot is that “we train our brain to live in that state,” explained our workshop leader Jillian Pransky, an internationally known yoga teacher and author of Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart (Rodale Books, October 2017). “Essentially, the more we do, the more we want to do.” So why is this a bad thing? Pransky says that even if the constant doing derives pleasure, scientific studies show that when we live in a state of fight-or-flight, our cortisol and adrenaline levels stay at unhealthy highs, immunity is lowered, and the body’s cell repair and elimination are challenged (i.e., you can no longer count on a morning poop, or you have sudden urges to hit the bathroom).
When you practice pausing long enough to become present—you may have heard of mindfulness—you become aware of how your body and your mind are actually feeling, she says, adding “that simple act alone is enough to move you toward feeling safe and more relaxed.” In my case, getting grounded helped me to start making better choices in my life that ultimately serve me and my loved ones better.
The art of practicing a pause
Depending on your preference, Pransky says to imagine either an elevator or a sand timer. Sitting in a comfortable position (though this can be done anywhere), start at the top of your head. On the next three breaths, gently lengthen your exhales as you lower the elevator or sand to your shoulders. Then go from your shoulders down to the belly, and from your belly down to your seat and legs. “Sit for 5 to 10 breaths, placing your hands on your belly for the last few breaths. Notice your body and release any tension into the ground.” Here’s how breathwork can lead to a more positive life.
Putting the pause into practice
Here’s how pausing is working for me:
1. Pausing makes me a better mom. When my teenage boys start bickering (long car rides are still the perfect breeding ground for sibling discontent), my go-to has always been to step in right away and try to de-escalate the situation. Hearing my kids argue, loudly, makes me uncomfortable. When things got heated in the back of the minivan on a recent drive to the Jersey shore, I took a deep breath and had the insight to simply stay out of it. Guess what? They actually worked things through, agreeing, in this instance, to disagree.
2. I’m a better boss. Part of my daily responsibilities is offering feedback on just about everything we feature on our digital health properties. I also make a ton of decisions on any given day. I’ve noticed that the single simple act of pausing before I respond to an email or weigh in on marketing copy or a social media campaign is helping me to respond with much more thoughtful, smarter feedback. A win-win for everyone. (Here are 10 proven ways to make better decisions every day.)
3. My body is changing. The Learning to Pause course incorporated yoga and music meditations that allowed us to zero in on where our bodies hold tension. (This is what happens to your body when you start doing yoga.) Turns out I store a lot of tension in my upper body and shoulders. When I got back to the real world and headed to the YMCA for my daily 30-minute run on the treadmill, I noticed that thanks to my new practice of grounding, my hips were moving more when I ran. When you move your hips more naturally, your waist gets a better workout too. Waist whittling works for me.
4. I think before I splurge. Browsing clothing racks at good vintage shops or discount stores is how I acquire most of my wardrobe—except when I find myself in a more swanky boutique and spot the “perfect” pair of must-have boots, jeans, bag, etc. But my must-have-now mindset has taken a back seat to how-much-do-I really-want-or-need-this item? Enlisting the pause means I give myself the gift of a five-second timeout to remind myself of my goals. Would the money I’m about to lay out for these killer boots be better spent saving for that family trip to Ireland I’ve been dreaming about? Suddenly, it’s much easier to leave those boots right there on the shelf.
5. I’ve dialed back mindless eating. I grew up in a household where we said a prayer before each meal, but I got away from this practice as a young adult. While at Kripalu, I found myself pausing to observe the healthy food I’d piled on my plate, silently thanking the people who grew, shipped, and prepared it. And because I started off with a pause, I actually took my time eating, attempting to notice each forkful. This felt really good for my head and my stomach. Back in the real world, I haven’t been pausing with gratitude before each meal. But I’m finding that my long-held habit of mindlessly munching on chips following a stressful day in the office is a bit easier to control. I now stop and ask myself “Is this what I really want?” If the answer is yes, then I go for it. But more often these days, the pause gives me a chance to hear “no.”