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

5 Best Things to Give Yourself

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Here are the 5 best things to give yourself this holiday season!
(And they don’t cost a penny)

  1. A Peaceful Heart

Sounds kind of silly doesn’t it, giving yourself a peaceful heart? What is that anyway? With so much agitation in the world–whether its politics, wildfires, or your own personal storms–it’s so important to take care of your heart. Without this attention, you can become hardened, callous or reactive which could potentially add to the troubles.

  1. A Quiet Mind

Is your mind constantly chattering away? Maybe rehashing a conversation or wondering how to handle something that’s coming up? This is normal, but probably sometimes you’d like it to just stop.

When the mental chatter stops, you get to simply BE; to just sit in awareness of what’s going on around you and within you. It’s deceptively simple. And it can be so relaxing. Relaxing because your mind is not telling your body, You’ve got to do something!  You’re just being. How often do we let ourselves do that?

If you’d like help with this, see below.

  1. A Happy Body

What’s a happy body? It’s a body that can move with ease and has no, or only small, discomforts (those are normal). But how do we get that if we don’t already have it? Exercise is one way, but many people just don’t like exercising or haven’t found something that works for them.

I’d like to shift your perspective.

What if you just move your body in any easy way and really feel what’s happening. Your body needs movement, even simple movement. Circulation helps fuel the muscles, joints and organs with fresh nutrients and oxygen. And this circulation helps move stress hormones out of the blood stream.

Just move and breathe.

  1. Laughter

Did you know that laughter can reduce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin? And that it “releases endorphins that can relieve some physical pain.”[1] “Laughter also boosts the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T-cells, leading to a stronger immune system.”[2]

That’s cool.

What did the green grape say to the purple grape?

OMG!!!!!!! BREATHE!! BREEEEEATHE!!!!!

  1. Sleep

Sleep is like the secret sauce . . . it affects everything. Moods, focus, clarity and just your general sense of well-being. And did you know that sleep is the number one immune booster? Holy moly!

Maybe this holiday season you can catch up on some sleep. Indulge a bit. You might just fill your well of peace from a good night’s sleep!

I’ll talk more about these things in the new year. Meanwhile, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season! Be sure to give yourself some or all of these special gifts. I hope they fill you with joy and contentment.

If you would like to learn more about quieting the mind through meditation (which also helps with sleep!), join my 5-week meditation course, First Steps: Beginning Meditation.

(1) Dunbar, R. I. M.; Baron, R.; Frangou, A.; Pearce, E.; van Leeuwen, E. J. C.; Stow, J.; Partridge, G.; MacDonald, I.; Barra, V.; van Vugt, M. (2011). “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 279 (1731): 1161–1167. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1373ISSN 0962-8452.
(2) Smith Lee, B. (1990). Humor relations for nurse managers. Nursing Management, 21, 86.

 

 

Did You Reflect?

Here we are at the transition – summer into fall. How was your summer? Did you get some time away? Did you have time to reflect – time to step back and think about your life and work, your projects, relationships, or your health?

Meditating by waterfall

Jennifer Porter, of the Harvard Business Review says, “Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.”

This can be especially important for those in a healing process. Slowing down to reflect can allow you to hear messages the body is trying to send you. Or perhaps it allows you the space to understand an old emotional wound that hasn’t healed. It can help you hear your intuition.

If you didn’t get time to reflect this summer, you can still create that opportunity. Look for activities that calm you down and soothe your nervous system. Maybe it’s a walk in the woods, journaling, a hot bath or just sitting quietly with a cup of tea. If you can, take yourself to an environment outside your beaten path (think Korean bath house).

We’re coming into the homestretch of the year. Perhaps some reflection will help you clarify a goal or intention for this season. Would you like to use fall’s harvesting/back-to-school/focusing energy toward something in particular? Maybe learn something new, like meditation, or get to that back-burnered project? Or maybe just set an intention to cultivate more peace in your heart? Take time to reflect on your heart’s desire.

Be well and enjoy the last chirps of the cicadas and the waning warmth of summer!

Is Night Chatter Keeping You Up?        

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I recently heard someone describe the mental chatter that keeps you awake as “night chatter.” I think that’s a very appropriate term.

Many people talk to me about their struggles with sleep and most are complaining about night chatter – the mind that won’t turn off.

So, what to do?

My main suggestion is to use a concentration practice – give your mind a task. My favorite practice is breath counting. Count your exhalations up to 10 then backwards 10 to 1. Don’t change the breath in any way. Just feel its natural flow. Keep counting up to 10 and backwards 10 to 1.

Your mind will probably wander off at some point.That’s normal. When you notice that you’ve wandered off into ‘thinking’ just come back to counting your exhalations. You’ll probably do this several times so don’t judge yourself for wandering off. Again, it’s normal.

The mind is habituated to constantly thinking. It’s always commenting, analyzing and judging. Your mind is a highly specialized problem-solver and this evaluative mode of the brain is its default mode.

The problem is it doesn’t know how to turn off. Especially when you are trying to sleep. It’s ready to solve all the problems in the world!

Here’s how you turn it off – FEEL YOUR BODY. When you feel your body, you move into the experiential mode of the brain.

Really all you are doing is redirecting your awareness. Instead of letting the mind run willy-nilly into the land of thinking, turn your awareness toward feeling the body. Then give your mind a task that anchors you in the feeling mode. Like breath counting.

Sweet Dreams!

Guess What’s in Your Saliva!

Guess what’s in your saliva! A lot of good stuff, that’s what. And it turns out that when we do our breathing techniques in yoga class, we are stimulating saliva production.

We know this thanks to the research of Dr. Sundar Balasubramian.

Dr. Balasubramanian is a pioneer in the area of research combining Pranayama (yogic breathing) with salivary biomarkers. He discovered that Yogic breathing promotes salivary secretion and it contains factors that are important to our healthy living. The components stimulated in the saliva include:

  • nerve growth factor that helps our nerve cells (good for Alzheimer patients)
  • immunoglobulins that are important for keeping immune system strong
  • tumor suppressors that have the capacity to prevent cells from becoming cancerous
  • and factors that reduce stress and inflammation

These findings are first of its kind, and provide novel insights into bridging ancient wisdom of Yoga and modern biology.

Dr. Balasubramanian is a Cell Biology researcher and founder of PranaScience Institute. He is currently studying mechanisms involved in resistance to cancer therapy at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He is also a Yoga Biology researcher.

Dr. Balasubramania’s research work is mentioned in this New York Times article. You can also listen to him explain his work in this TED talk or go to his website.

And of course, with all this inspiration (Latin for breathing in!), we’ll be focusing on our breathing techniques in class this week!

(This post is adapted from Dr. Balasubramania’s website).

 

Why I’m Grateful for My Problems

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I’m grumbling about my challenges today: too many things to do, not enough time, not enough money, can’t make headway on my projects, gaining weight, menopause weirdness, sprained my ankle . . . but then I pause. I take a breath . . .

I’m actually grateful for my problems.

Yes, you read that right. I’m grateful for my problems. They are the byproducts of the world I’ve constructed for myself and they make me stronger; they’re tailored to me. And they could be much worse. Much, much worse.

And they have been much worse. No matter who you are, life will throw you a curve ball sooner or later. Your problems will get big. The scary kind. My worst one so far (and God, please, no more like this one) was watching my husband die from cancer. It’s hard to even type it. I was decimated, reduced to a puddle of flesh and tears, a non-functioning ball of emotion faintly resembling a person. My problems were big and unmanageable. How would I ever function in the world again when I certainly was not coming out from under my rock? How would I work like I used to? And since he was the breadwinner and I a scrappy artist, how would I pay the mortgage?

My family and sangha (a community of Buddhist meditators) carried me through that period. They cradled my messy, gloopy self, all spikes and meh. At some point, my yoga and meditation also began to hold me up and after a couple of years I started to look like a human again.

My point is, perspective helps. Telescope out and see the day’s problems and annoyances as they are – average adversities that make you stronger. Eat adversity for breakfast, someone said. It’s a motto I’m adopting. Gratitude helps. I’m grateful that these are my problems today. They are not fun, but they are manageable. And they could be much, much worse.

If you are having big problems right now, my heart goes out to you. I send you strength, patience and lovingkindness (a term used in Buddhist communities that means tenderness, kindness, affection, non-romantic love). I hope friends and loved ones surround you. May you have the wherewithal to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep taking big belly breaths.

And in your more lucid moments, may you see this period as a state of Grace. A kind of altered period where the heart is so open–perhaps because it’s been shattered (ugh)–that you cannot help but see your relationship to the Universe. Some may translate that as talking to God. Words fail here, but if you’re in it or have been in it, I think you know what I mean.

I send you Love and Strength.

And for the rest of us, let’s eat adversity for breakfast!

 

 

Can You Feel Your Feet? Thinking vs. Feeling

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Many people have difficulty quieting the mind when they settle into meditation or savasana, the resting period at the end of yoga class.

     What do you mean, “watch the breath?”

Really the intention is to feel the breath.

If you have a mind that is constantly in overdrive, try noticing the difference between feeling and thinking.

Feel your body. The mind is habituated to constantly thinking. It is always commenting, analyzing and judging. Your mind is a highly specialized problem-solver and this evaluative mode of the brain is its default mode.

The problem is it doesn’t know how to turn off. Especially when you are trying to sleep. It’s ready to solve all the problems in the world!

Here’s how you turn it off – FEEL YOUR BODY.

Really all you are doing is redirecting your awareness. Instead of letting the mind run willy-nilly into the land of thinking, turn your awareness toward feeling the body.

You can start with just feeling what you are in contact with – a chair, bed, or floor. Then you can move to more subtle sensations like your eyes or forehead and temples. Feel your feet, jaw or your shoulders. You could even focus on places of discomfort, but beware judgments and analyzing. Can you just feel this area with curiosity?

And then there’s the breath. The breath is always providing some sensations. You could hold your awareness on one of the sensations of breathing and stay there, getting into the finer details of those sensations. Can you feel the coolness of the inhalations in your nostrils? Or the warmth of the exhalations? Perhaps you can even feel your nostril hairs moving with the breath.

    What?! That’s crazy.

It’s true. You can if you just focus.

The next time you find yourself with an overly busy mind, try feeling your body. You may have to bring it back over and over – that pesky thinking mind is pretty strong – but every time you bring it back to the body you are strengthening your concentration muscle and that’s what you need to control those thoughts.

Be patient. Keep feeling.

For Those with Breathing Challenges

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If your lungs have been compromised by treatment or other conditions, here are a few ways I can work with you to improve your ability to breathe.

First, work with your diaphragm.
Your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle and the first area I check. What you want to notice is whether your belly expands when you inhale. If so, how far down does it expand? Is it easy to do that? If it doesn’t expand easily that tells you that there is tension in the diaphragm and you’ll want to work on releasing that. Take a minute or two to focus on your belly expanding downward and outward on your inhalations. Just relax on your exhalations. Take your time. Don’t rush to your next inhalation. Let your exhalations really complete themselves, allowing the next inhalation to happen when it its ready. The breath cycles will begin to elongate. It’s important to never strain with the breath. This is called belly breathing.

Notice if you have belly tension – if you are used to holding your belly in, you will probably have a challenging time with belly breathing. Let the abdominals soften and expand. If you are accustomed to engaging your core for support, that is great! But see if you can just do that on your exhales, or only as needed, and allow the belly to be soft for your inhalations.

Should you breath this way all the time? No. But you want to practice the belly breath often enough to allow you to unlock your diaphragm from any patterns of tension.

Next, work on lung capacity.
To look at how well your lungs fill up, you’ll use a three-part breath technique. It goes like this: as you inhale, expand the belly, then the middle ribs then the upper ribs, all in one big breath. As you exhale, reverse that order, releasing the upper ribs, middle ribs, then soften the belly. So you’re inhaling from the bottom up and exhaling from the top down. Perhaps you can use the image of a balloon inflating and deflating. You’re gently testing your lung capacity on the inhalation – remember not to strain – and again, let your exhalation fully complete itself. Give it all the time it wants. Note: your belly probably won’t expand as much as it did in the belly breathing technique. That is fine.

Many people have postural habits that prevent them from achieving their full lung capacity. For example, if your upper body has a tendency to round forward (stooped), you might find it challenging to move the breath into the upper lungs because the muscles around the shoulders and upper rib cage are not accustomed to holding the torso upright. The muscles have likely become short in the front and weak in the back. Thus the upper lobes of the lungs are compressed with diminished function. Here’s where practicing the postures and movements in yoga can really help. If you’re not sure what to do, just try squeezing your shoulder blades together and lifting your breastbone. Notice the width across the front of your chest.

If part of your lungs have been removed or damaged . . .
You’ll probably need to work with a yoga therapist, like me, to increase your breathing capacity. I have two main strategies for working with resected or damaged lungs. 1.) we work together to get the healthy parts of your lungs, including the back-side, operating at full efficiency. This means unlocking patterns of tension in the various breathing muscles and working toward the fullest range of expansion possible. 2.) For areas of damage, I coach you to gently explore the sensations at the edge of this area. In other words, don’t ignore it, but notice what that area of the lungs feels like when breathing. And yes, you CAN direct your breath into different areas of your lungs including one side more than the other. Once again, remember to never strain or push the breath. To re-pattern these muscles, it will need to feel comfortable and manageable.

Working with the breath is not a one-size-fits all program, but becoming familiar with your breathing patterns can be a great source of peace and grounding.

How is Yoga for Cancer Different Than Other Types of Yoga?

I’m often asked this question: “How is yoga for cancer patients different than other types of yoga? “ There are many ways we’ve adapted yoga to serve cancer patients.

Here are the main points . . .

Physical Ability. The first issue to address is the participant’s physical abilities and limitations. Through a pre-class interview via questionnaire, I will already know what form of cancer each person is dealing with. I’ll know whether there are metastasis to watch out for, surgery sites that are still healing, areas of tenderness from radiation, a general limited range of motion or any non-cancer related issues like back pain, arthritis or bad knees. I’ll also know if they are dealing with the side effects of treatment like joint pain, hormonal imbalances, fatigue, shortness of breath. All of this information helps me design the physical aspect of the class.

The movement and poses should meet the participants where they are. We start in a chair to make things easy. Once I understand their condition and get a sense of how they move, I can either take them into standing poses or onto the floor or we can just stay in the chairs.

Emotional and Mental State. The other main concern in these classes is stress and anxiety. Additionally, through that questionnaire, I’ll also know if they are dealing with high anxiety, depression, poor sleep, or if they have other coping mechanisms in place like family support, psychotherapy, meditation, church or friends. All this determines how I weave in things like breathing techniques for anxiety or meditation to get control of fears.

Adaptable. Also, we start each class with a check-in. I ask how each participant is doing that day and they let me know if something has flared up or if their anxiety is high – maybe they have an upcoming scan or other impending tests. This also informs how I structure the class. Some days we do a restorative class with lots of resting in supportive poses. Some days we are more active and we explore strength and balance in the body. Some days we talk more about the mind – how our thoughts ramp up our anxiety and how we can get control of them.

Relaxation. Finally, I make sure we end with a long savasana, the final resting period. The specific practice I do here is called yoga nidra and it allows the participant to drop into a deep state of relaxation while staying lucid enough to feel their body. In this state they may receive signals or information from their body or their deep self and at the very least, they have this sustained moment to rest in just being.

Classes stay small, under ten people, so that I can stay tuned in to everyone and their needs.

Educational. Where I can, I try to educate the participants on the physiological changes that these practices elicit – how these practices are supporting the immune system, supporting healing. This style of yoga can give a cancer patient their body back, help them take control, calm the anxiety, regain strength, flexibility and balance, deepen their awareness, and induce a much needed sense of peace.

 Headshot in blue, smilingMichelle Stortz, C-IAYT, RYT500, MFA
I have been specially trained to work with cancer patients. I am a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapist. If you are looking a yoga-for-cancer class, look for similar credentials.