HAVE YOU EVER PLANNED the setting of a boundary down to the tiniest detail—how you’d leave a dinner date with that emotional-vampire friend at 8 p.m. on the dot, say “no” to the boss who asks you to do just one more thing, or finally make time to tap into your creative wisdom—only to find yourself veering off course yet again? Most people have: It’s part of our common humanity. But when we allow our boundaries to be undermined or overturned too often, our well-being suffers. We feel stressed, disconnected, even ill. The good news is that with practice, and using yoga and mindfulness as guides, we can learn to develop strong boundaries. What’s more, they can bring better health, emotional balance, creative fulfillment, stronger relationships, and an evolved sense of compassion.
Build boundaries from THE INSIDE OUT
As a psychologist and yoga teacher who helps people set healthy boundaries, I’ve learned that to have true staying power, boundaries need to happen from the innermost layer out. There are three components to this—and the yoga sequence that follows includes them all.
Step 1: Regulate your autonomic nervous system (ANS). When it’s on overdrive, everything seems to trigger a fight-or-flight response, making it difficult to tune into your body’s boundary-related red flags, such as physical discomfort when you’ve mistakenly said “yes”. Effective ways to calm your ANS include nasal breathing with a longer exhale (which slows the heart), restorative poses, and mindfulness.
Step 2: Cultivate embodiment. Once your ANS is settled, you can practice embodiment, or present-moment awareness that’s felt in the body. Emerging research in neuroscience shows that when we practice embodiment, we can turn down the volume on negative narratives and build a more solid sense of self. This body-based mindfulness helps us stay rooted in our own experience, know more quickly when a boundary has been violated, and feel strong enough to honor our truth. The best ways to create embodiment? Meditation that focuses on the body and mindful movement.
Step 3: Develop energy and awareness in your enteric nervous system (ENS). Think of your ENS as the epicenter of your inner boundaries— your “gut check”, literally. Practices that develop core strength, release tight connective tissue, and promote awareness of sensations (e.g., satiety and inflammation) help you connect with your gut intelligence. As you work through these elements, you’ll feel, and set, your boundaries with greater clarity. And other people in turn will read your inner strength and challenge you less strongly and less often.
1. Body and Mind Check-In
Tap into your bodily sensations and emotions to become aware of them and to better understand how the following yogic practices and the people you interact with will affect you. Lie on your back with your knees bent, one hand on your heart and one on your abdomen. Close your eyes and breathe slowly through your nose as you explore the following self-inquiry:
» Are you present in your body in this moment? Can you feel the sensations of your breath? The ease or discomfort in your muscles and tissues? (It’s OK if you can’t; asking is the first step.)
» Notice the depth of your breath. Rapid breathing can signal nervous system overdrive. Slower breathing indicates rest-and-digest mode, which is conducive to setting healthy boundaries.
» Notice the speed of your mind. Do your thoughts channel-surf? A speeding mind often means rising anxiety. » Note any tension in your abdomen, home to your ENS, or “belly brain”. Tension here can change your gut microbiome, increase anxiety, and make it hard to set boundaries.
»Then notice the level of energy in your body. This will help you recognize when you are depleted and need deeper self-care.
» Bring awareness to your emotions: Are sadness, anger, or anxiety present? If so, do they feel like yours, or do they come from someone with whom you’ve recently interacted?
When you’re done, slowly open your eyes.
2. Tabletop, with Knee Circles
This pose helps develop core awareness and strength—helpful for setting boundaries. Come to Tabletop, with your wrists under your shoulders, and knees under your hips. Put slightly more weight into your left knee, and bring the right knee an inch or so off the ground. Hover here for 3 breaths, drawing your lower abdominal muscles toward your heart. Then, keeping your hips as level as possible, use your core muscles to circle your right knee several times to the right, and then the left. After several circles in each direction, hover the knee one inch above the mat again for 3 breaths. Exhale to release; repeat on the left side.
3. Plank Pose, with a Block
This core-strengthening pose connects you with your center, which is where you’ll feel your limits and start to reset your boundaries. From Tabletop, walk your hands forward and come to Plank Pose on your knees. Exhale and draw your deep abdominal muscles up toward your heart to help engage Uddiyana Bandha, or an abdominal lift. You can add Mula Bandha—or a pelvic-floor lift—as well, if you practice it. If you can coordinate the breath and bandhas, practice straightening one leg into full Plank Pose, and then both legs. Stay in your version of Plank for 8–12 breaths. Then, place a block the long way between your upper thighs. Exhale, engage your bandhas, and squeeze the block. Repeat for another 8–12 breaths.
4. Core-Challenge Lunge
This pose strengthens your core and helps you feel grounded and centered. The freedom and deeper embodiment of this pose are an added bonus when you feel forced to calibrate your emotions to others’ expectations. Begin in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Hold this position and draw your right knee to your chest. On an exhalation, engage your bandhas and draw your shoulders forward over your wrists, with the knee moving toward your right elbow; you’re now in Hanging Plank (pictured). On your next exhale, place your right foot on the mat, halfway to your hands. Hold here for several breaths. Then balance your weight on the base of your left fingers (rather than your left wrist). Grab your right ankle with your right hand; inhale and lift your right foot an inch off the mat. Hover here for a few extra breaths, if you wish. Then exhale to engage your core again, and bring your right foot between your hands. On your next exhalation, return to Down Dog. Repeat on the left side.
5. Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side Angle Pose), with Cranial-Sacral Traction
This pose offers grounding and stability. The occipital traction stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from your brain to your abdomen and helps calm the nervous system. From a lunge, pivot and plant your back foot in a Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) stance. Rest your right forearm on your right thigh. Try to stack your left shoulder over your right shoulder, and gaze straight ahead. Bring your left hand to the ridge of your occiput (where your head meets your neck) and place your thumb and pointer finger on either side of the back of the head just under the occipital ridge. Isometrically draw your occiput and cranium away from your sacrum, just below your lumbar curve, and root down through your back heel. Engage the bandhas, if you practice them. Hold for 12–20 breaths. Exhale to return to Down Dog. Repeat on the left.
6. Cross-Legged Navasana (Boat Pose), on A Block
This pose combines a core body challenge, a drawing-in of energy toward your center, and balancing—all beneficial for developing internal awareness. Sit on a block with your knees bent. Place your hands around the tops of your shins. Pull your knees toward your chest, and your feet toward the block. Lift through your torso and the top of your head. You have the option to practice the bandhas on each exhale. If you can breathe deeply and engage your core, lift your heels off the mat. To add even more of a challenge, place your hands at your heart in Anjali Mudra. Keep your neck and face relaxed, and continue to draw your lower abdomen up toward your heart. Hold for 12–20 breaths.
7. Balasana (Child’s pose), with a block (A.K.A. The Energy Seal)
This variation of Child’s Pose is relaxing after activating the core body. It also stimulates the vagus nerve, calms your nervous system, and brings energy into the body. Come into Child’s Pose, with your forehead on a block. This stimulates your vagus nerve and signals your nervous system to relax. Bring your thumbs to the front edge of the block, palms facing down, with the rest of your fingers to the sides of the block. Pin your knees with your elbows. Feel your energy draw inward and replenish you. If your thoughts are active, lengthen your breath to further slow your heart and balance your nervous system. Stay here for 1–2 minutes, or longer if possible.
8. Quadratus Lumborum (QL) Release, with Therapy Balls
Therapeutic ball work (or self-bodywork) is a bridge to embodiment. It releases muscle and tissue tension, soothes the nervous system, and helps us better sense our physical boundaries. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Place a block under your head. Place two tennis or yoga-therapy balls on the right side of your body, between the bottom of your back ribs and the top of your hip. Breathe deeply. If you end up holding your breath or resisting the stimulation, it may be too much—pad the balls with socks or use a folded washcloth instead. Setting limits on the right level of stimulation for you directly relates to boundaries off the mat. Slowly tilt your body to the right. You can also gently draw your right knee toward your chest to intensify the sensation. Breathe for a couple minutes, moving gently in order to access different parts of your right QL, a deep core muscle. When your body feels satiated, remove the balls and rest. Feel the connective tissue on your right side “fluff” toward the mat. Repeat on the left; each side may need a different level of stimulation
9. Face-Down Savasana (Corpse Pose)
This pose helps release abdominal tension. Fold your blanket 3 times the long way so it forms a long and narrow fold, with some amount of thickness. Kneel on your mat. Wrap the blanket around your body like a cummerbund, with the rounded edge just beneath your lower rib band and the non-uniform edge just above your pubic bone. Place an extra mat or a folded or rolled blanket under your ankles to raise them off the mat. Lie face down and wrap the ends of the blanket across your back in an X shape. Place an eye pillow under your eyes or forehead, or make a pillow with your arms, and rest your head. You can also place your arms alongside your body.
10. Bolster Mountain, with an Embodied Self-Compassion Practice
Self-compassion has been shown to reduce stress hormones, anxiety, and depression, and to increase emotional resilience. Lie on your back with a bolster underneath your knees. Place at least one bolster on top of your body the long way. Wrap yourself and the bolsters in a blanket. Place an eye pillow over your eyes: This stimulates your oculo-cardiac reflex, which slows the heart and activates your parasympathetic system, or rest-and-digest response. Then, practice my embodied version of a self-compassion practice, derived from the work of Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin:
» If you are going through difficulty, acknowledge that this is a moment of suffering … only a moment.
» Remember that all beings have these moments of challenge or difficulty. Everyone has them; you are not alone.
» Inquire where in your body difficulty might be living in this moment: Which part or parts of your body house this suffering right now?
» If it’s accessible, bring your hands to that part or parts of your body. Direct the breath to where your hands are.
Story and sequence by Bo Forbes,PsyD photography by Matthew Nager
This article was first published in the print edition of Yoga Journal Singapore,
which is now Yogahood Online.