Sleep is a Beautiful Thing

Sleep is like the secret sauce. It affects everything – mood, focus, mental clarity and your general sense of well-being. So why are so many of us not sleeping well?

For many, the culprit is the dreaded BUSY MIND! How do we fix that?

It might help to understand some brain science: when your mind is ruminating and trying to solve all your problems, it’s in an evaluative mode. Your mind is evaluating all of your problems and trying to find solutions. In this mode, you’re usually thinking about something in the future or the past. When you bring your attention to what’s happening in the present moment – like feeling sensations in your body or the movement of your breath – you’ve moved into the experiential mode of the brain. You become aware of sensory information that’s coming in at the present moment. All this is according to researcher, Kelly McGonigal, who studies the neuroscience behind ancient practices like yoga and meditation.

So when you’re in bed and you ‘wake up’ to the fact that you’ve been thinking (pun intended), turn your attention to feeling sensations like tension in your jaw or around your eyes. Feel your breath flowing in and out or just feel the shape of your body. Try moving your awareness sequentially through your body starting at your feet. Feel your toes, feet, ankles, lower legs, knees, etc., moving upward until you finish at the top of your head. Notice how these areas feel. This practice is anchoring your awareness in the present moment (experiential mode). Most people don’t get past their hips before they drift off. This sequential awareness practice is called a body scan.

Even if you wander back into the evaluative mode, remember we called that thinking, that’s okay. Just keep coming back to the experiential mode – keep feeling body sensations over and over.

Here’s a recording of a body scan for you to try.

If you’d like help with your sleep (and you live in the Philadelphia area), scroll to the bottom of this article.

If you haven’t heard by now, sleep has ssssoooooo many health benefits! It’s your biggest immune booster! The body restores itself when you sleep. Also, sleep can help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol levels, process stress hormones and reduce inflammation. Sufficient sleep supports mental clarity, improves memory, helps you process emotional stress and wards off Alzheimer’s disease! Clearly, it’s worth spending time to retrain your nervous system in order to get some good quality rest.

What’s that? Retrain your nervous system? Yes, many of us live with a ramped up nervous system that’s always on go go go! This is an aspect of the stress response (fight or flight) and it’s really hard to downshift from that. Most of us don’t know how.

Many people find a sleep hygiene practice helpful. This means setting the stage for sleep one hour before your target “lights out” time and doing relaxing things, like easy stretches, to send a signal to your body to prepare for sleep.

Sleep is a beautiful thing! What if you not only got better sleep, but also started working with your dreams! According to Andrew Holecek, author of Dream Yoga, you can work with dreams and states of consciousness as a way of creating greater inner peace and contentment. Who doesn’t want that?

Give more value to your sleep – it’s a precious and beautiful thing. Sweet dreams! 

Workshop: Sweet Sleep
A five-week course to improve your nightly rest.
Tuesdays, June 11th to July 9th
Philadelphia

 

 

Take Your Laughter More Seriously

Every day, in my yoga-for-cancer work, I’m with people who are trying to take care of their bodies, quiet their minds and find some peace. So I think a lot about what it means to be healthy and happy, hence these writings about the 5 best things to give yourself (a quiet mind, a peaceful heart, a happy body, laughter and good sleep).

This month I’m talking about the benefits of laughter.

Q: What did the duck say when she bought lipstick?
A: “Put it on my bill.”

Did you know that laughter:

  • reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin
  • increases endorphins which can reduce pain
  • strengthens your immune system
  • reduces tension by relaxing your body
  • increases blood flow and circulation (blood vessels expand when you laugh)

Laughter changes your mindset, shifting your perspective away from worry and fear, even if only for a little while. It connects you to others, thereby strengthening your relationships, easing your emotional load and promoting a sense of community.

You can intentionally cultivate more laughter in your life in several ways. You could set a goal of watching the 25 best movie comedies of all time or you could subscribe to a funny cat video YouTube channel (I’ve spent a little too much time researching this and can attest to its effectiveness).

You can also hang out with children and emulate their sense of play and wonder. Or spend time with your funniest friends, people who like to laugh and see the humor in everyday life.

Aside from intentional actions, you can also be mindful when laughter happens spontaneously. We’re hard wired for negative bias which means we spend more mental energy on what’s wrong than what’s right. You can re-wire your brain for happiness by noting when joy is happening ­– Oh, I’m laughing! This is a pleasant moment. Noting!

Another approach is to start shifting your mindset by just smiling more. Not fake smiling, real smiling. Notice the effects on yourself and others. Smiling moves you away from negative thoughts and stress and helps you cultivate more positive moments. And it releases the feel-good neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.

Try being playful. Don’t take yourself too seriously, laugh at your foibles. Shake up your sense of self, by letting your inner silliness have more air time. My close friends would tell you that I’m pretty good at this practice.

MouseEared Headshot

Join a laughter yoga club. Yes, it’s a real thing! They simulate laughter by working the diaphragm and soon they are really laughing.

Think of this pursuit of laughter and joy as a serious prescription for healing. Don’t laugh it off (pun intended) as silly and inconsequential – give it value. Healing is not just about your ailment going away, but about achieving a vibrant state of peace, contentment and joy. Take your laughter more seriously!

How’s Your Heart?

Back in December I wrote about gifts to give yourself and the first one was a peaceful heart. What were your thoughts on that? Did you pause and wonder what I was talking about?

I’m using the word ‘heart’ for convenience, but I don’t mean the organ that pumps your blood. I mean your emotions or even just the general feeling tone in your body. I’ll use the word ‘heart’ to represent all this.

The mind and body are deeply interconnected which means if you’re on a healing journey, it’s useful to develop your awareness of your emotions and how they impact you. In other words, notice how your heart reacts to things like conversations with other people or your own thoughts and memories.

For example, if you think of a painful memory, what goes on in your body? Maybe your chest tightens or your belly contracts? Or what if you’re in a conversation with a person who intimidates you? I usually feel like there’s a rock in my belly. Start tracking these sensations. How often does this happen in a normal day?

And what about the happy times? When something makes you laugh, do you notice your body? Do puppies, even the thought of puppies, make your heart all warm and fuzzy? How about baby penguins? This is important information even if it seems trivial. The path to a peaceful heart begins with awareness.

Researcher Kelly Turner, Ph.D. found that healing suppressed emotions was one of the nine key factors in radical remission of cancer. In fact, only two of the nine factors were actually physical. The rest were emotional and spiritual in nature. You can read about her findings in her book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds.

Even if you’re not ready to dive into your deepest, darkest memories, you can still pay attention to your heart messages now and start understanding your patterns. You can also cultivate more positive experiences through heart practices like gratitude and lovingkindness.

For a gratitude practice, think of something you’re grateful for–it can be big or small. Hold it in your awareness for a moment. Notice if you sense anything in your heart. I tend to experience this as a sense of opening or softening in my chest, but you may experience something else. Above all else, just experience your gratitude.

Similarly, with lovingkindness, think of someone you really like, it could even be your pet, and send them kind thoughts like, May you be well and happy. May you be healthy and strong. Use whatever words work for you. Again, notice what you feel in your chest area as you continue to send them these kind thoughts.

Then see if you can practice this kindness with everyone you encounter in your day, even the pesky people. You could be grateful that they are helping you to cultivate more patience and kindness.

So it’s a two-part process:
1. Develop emotional awareness
2. Create more positive heart experiences

Rinse and repeat.

These are steps to a peaceful heart. There are more to consider like compassion and forgiveness, but those can come later.

Ultimately aren’t we all looking for peace, happiness and contentment in our lives? And even if we just become 10% happier through our efforts, isn’t that a great accomplishment?

My religion is kindness – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

THIS is the Best Part!

I just returned from a short vacation. Before going, I created a mantra – “THIS is the best part!” What’s that about? Let me explain…

A mantra can be a word or phrase used for concentration in meditation or, in my case, this mantra was a statement repeated frequently to remind me of an intention. The intention was to not cling to the vacation. “Clinging” is a term used in Buddhism to describe our tendency to want the good stuff to last, to never end. Clinging leads to anxiety about the ending of this good stuff. I was concerned that the vacation was too short, just a long weekend, and that I would feel deprived for not having a more substantial  vacation. I wanted it to be great and to fulfill all of my vacation needs – to get enough rest, to explore new territories, to laugh/eat/dance with friends, to get absorbed in a book, to get a different perspective on my life – and all the other great things that come when you get away. I wanted it to be longer and I was clinging to it before it even started (thus, I was anxious). I wanted my mantra to help me recognize each moment for the beautiful thing that it was – and there were so many!

I was aware that this “clinging” was also about the end of summer. The end of the glorious weather that takes us outdoors; the end of playtime; the end of flowering gardens (though we still have some time with that); the end of barbecues and beach days. I love summer. I get depressed when it ends. This depression is really grief – the loss of the season. Grief only happens when we are not in this moment, not present with what’s right in front of us. I’ve been aware for a while that I cling to summer. I start clinging to it in May. So this mantra was to help me with that also – this is the best part! This one right here where I appreciating the moment!IMG_0123

And really, to keep it all in perspective, my end-of-summer depression ends around September 10th, and then I fall in love with Autumn – crisp air, colorful fall leaves, soups, sweaters and boots, pumpkin pie. What’s not to love?

I used my mantra well on my vacation and explained it to my friends so that when I said it out loud – over a fabulous tapas dinner, in a treehouse with a bunch of kids, enjoying affection from a big happy dog, playing “I spy” on the long drive – they would all smile knowingly. Yes, THIS IS the best part. Somehow naming all the great times helped me to realize how many wonderful moments there were, to acknowledge and appreciate each one fully and then to let it go. There are so many great moments in any given day. We just don’t usually acknowledge them because we’re often swept up in thinking about the future or past. And truly, this moment right here – the one where you’re reading this line – is the only one we have.

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Meditation and the Relaxation Response

Meditation is garnering impressive scientific backing as well as much media attention in recent years. I enjoy teaching meditation in my yoga classes and feel that it’s equally important to understand what is happening in the body when one meditates – the changes are so beneficial! Below is a synopsis of what I teach.

Meditation elicits the “relaxation response,” a term coined by researcher Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School in the early 70s, to describe a phenomenon in which the following physiological changes take place:

Heart rate lowers
Muscles tension is reduced
Brain waves slow down
Blood pressure decreases
Metabolism decreases
Chemicals associated with stress, cortisol and adrenalin, are reduced

Meditation calms the sympathetic nervous system and engages the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” process of the limbic brain. It sends adrenalin and cortisol through the body, which in turn sends blood to the extremities – arms and legs – leaving the organs at the core of the body functioning with less blood and interfering with their efficient functioning. In this situation the digestive and reproductive systems are suppressed and the immune system altered.

The parasympathetic nervous system tells the body that everything is okay, that it can relax. It returns the blood to the core organs so they can operate efficiently. If stress is prolonged and the body is continuously exposed to the stress hormones, one becomes at risk for heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression and memory impairment.

A simple meditation technique is to watch the breath. Settle into a comfortable position (not lying down – you might fall asleep!). Notice how the breath is moving in the body. Hold your attention on the most prominent sensation of the breath. If you like, you can use your inner voice to label the breath “in” and “out.” If the mind wanders, don’t worry, it’s natural. Just bring it back to the breath. Try doing this for 3-5 minutes. You can build up to a longer practice over time.

Know that the mind is a powerful tool. Use it to bring yourself into full, vibrant health.