Picture the scene: a packed commuter train with hundreds of people crammed in. I just about manage to squeeze into the carriage as the doors close. It’s Friday evening after a busy week at work. I contemplate 40 minutes of this hell, standing within inches of several, similarly tired commuters (and a yucca plant…don’t ask).
Wanting to do some writing on the commute home, I was disappointed to realise this wasn’t now going to happen. It would have been so easy to let this situation get the better of me, ruin my day and get the weekend off to a bad start.
So, what did I do to keep from being hijacked by negative emotions? On this occasion I decided to practise some key skills associated with developing presence.
Given my position in the carriage I found I had nothing to hold onto and was at risk of tumbling into other passengers as the train picked up speed. There was a very real need to become more centred. Being centred is a physiological state in which our centre of gravity is lowered and we become more ‘grounded’, or stable. We also become calmer which allows us to become more present.
Turning my attention away from my environment, I focused on my body. I made sure my weight was distributed equally between both my legs and that this weight was distributed equally across the front and back parts of my feet. My knees were slightly bent and my spine was in neutral. To get my spine in neutral I focused my attention on my core muscles, the muscles that wrap around my waist. I rotated my hips forward and back and then stopped, or ‘centred’, my hips in a neutral position that felt most natural. This position puts all my weight through the centre of my hips and down through my legs to the centre of my feet.
Next, I relaxed my shoulders by shrugging them up and then releasing them a few times. My arms were by my side, also relaxed. I made sure my head was level, with my chin tucked back a little to ensure the weight was over my spine. This relaxed the various muscles that are constantly working when our heads are held too far forward.
Finally, I concentrated on my breathing. I used my diaphragm to pull breath into my lungs and let my rib cage expand naturally and my stomach push outward. This is the opposite to pulling in breath by deliberately expanding the rib cage and pulling the stomach in.
Once my breathing had settled into a steady rhythm, I felt calm and relaxed. My centre of gravity was also lowered to somewhere near my naval, down from somewhere in my chest. I was physically more stable.
In the rush hour, on a packed commuter train, that was overly hot and stuffy, with at least another 30 minutes to go and no hand rails to hold onto, I was grounded, able to move with the train’s motion without fear of falling.
I was also able to be more present. I was able to ‘see’ more of what was happening in the carriage. I noticed for the first time that overground trains don’t seem to have anywhere near enough hand holds. I was people watching, wondering where people were going and what the weekend had in stall for them.
Another great by-product of presence is the tendency for useful subconscious thoughts to pop more easily into consciousness. During this trip I had a few insights into my week and some of the issues I faced. I also had the insight for this post.
I was actually enjoying myself.
Practising centering through body posture and breathing is useful in many situations, not just on packed trains. I use these techniques for public speaking, important meetings and whenever I’m feeling nervous. I also use the breathing technique on its own to help me get to sleep. It works a treat as it not only relaxes me, it also clears my mind of any other thoughts as I concentrate on my breathing.
By the way, when practising on trains or other public spaces, make the movements (especially of the hips) quite subtle. You don’t want to frighten anyone…